Ruined Art

In personal messages and comments with several of you, I’ve mentioned my recent penchant for deliberately ruining a drawing or painting I’ve been working on. I promised a post on the topic today.

I did write the post one day last week, but I didn’t like it. It was a long, rambling rant about many things, mostly a litany of complaints. After re-reading it a time or two — and cringing as I read — I tossed the post into the trash and tried again.

My second “sabotage” post took a slightly softer tone, yet in the end, it too went on and on, detailing lots of little frustrations I’ve felt recently. I’d slipped into another of those “art funks”, you see. I wasn’t happy with anything I did. And this time, instead of taking responsibility for my own bad art, I was blaming others. After re-reading that second post and realizing how unfair I was being, I quickly tossed it into the trash as well.

And here I am again — for the third time now — writing a post about the art I’ve ruined, trying to explain, and trying to understand for myself, what drove me to deliberately ruin several projects.

First, here’s a look at one of those “ruined” pieces. I refer to it as the sad, overgrown dahlia. Does it look anything like a dahlia? Well, at the start, yes, it did resemble a dahlia. I was actually rather pleased with how this floral study began.

At some point, though, I became frustrated. I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. I tried fixing the flower — using different colors, adding a bit of colored pencil. This study, by the way, is done in oil pastels, a medium I’ve used before but am not very comfortable with.

Of course, the more I fiddled, the worse my drawing got and the more frustration I felt. It’s still hard for me to describe all those feelings that came over me. Mostly, I think it’s a sense of disappointment and that dreadful feeling that I should be doing better.

This most recent “art funk” — as I call these episodes — hit me by surprise. Lately I’ve felt good about my art. Very good. I’d started feeling a bit of confidence, as well as a sense of competence. I began to see myself as a capable artist, someone who had a basic knowledge of the principles of art, the elements of design and composition, the techniques of drawing and painting.

And then drawing a simple dahlia threw me into a tailspin. It was good, but not good enough. I didn’t want to look at it. I didn’t want to see it ever again. And so I turned it into a drawing that was so bad I could justify throwing it away.

Later that afternoon during a Sketchbook Revival 2022 workshop, I had a similar experience. The workshop was on visual journaling, and I started off all right, then I took a wrong turn, didn’t like what I was creating, so… guess what! I deliberately ruined the page. It’s still in my SR 2022 sketchbook, but I won’t show it to you. It’s so awful and so ugly that I never want to see it again.

For the next few days, I repeated this same process. Starting off on a project, liking what I was doing, and then feeling disappointed. Instead of setting it aside and saying “I’ll do better next time,” I chose to destroy what I’d done. I wanted to put an end to it, to get it out of my sight!

It wasn’t until I did those little “doodle birds” — and liked the results — that I was able to start pulling myself back out of this art funk.

Now, I have an issue I need to face. I seem to be dividing all my art into two groups. Either I like it, or it needs to be trashed. If it doesn’t make me happy, I don’t want to see it. Art is supposed to make us smile, right? Well, right now, anything that doesn’t put a smile on my face is apt to be deliberately ruined just so I can have the pleasure of throwing it out.

Folks, I guess that’s one method for clearing out a lot of clutter around my studio! Only joking, of course. Throwing out my art is not an answer to what ails me. We should never throw our art away. Every time I look around the studio, I see little works of art that I cherish — and I remember that when I completed them, I didn’t like them at all.

No, the day will never come when I look at my sad, overgrown dahlia and love what I see, but all my disappointments and mediocre drawings serve a purpose. They help me see where I’m going wrong, what improvements I need to make, what additional skills I should be working on. If I refuse to see those mistakes, I’ll never really get better!

Understanding this serious level of sabotage is important. It’s good to feel competent, but competency doesn’t mean that every drawing or painting I create will be successful. I have to accept that fact. Art should make me smile, but that’s not always going to happen, and when it doesn’t happen, I need to pay attention. Instead of throwing out art I don’t like, I need to look closely at it and figure out why I don’t like it, why I have this awful urge to destroy it.

I know we learn more from failures than from our successes, and it’s time for me to take that lesson to heart again and — for the moment, at least — to learn to live with art I don’t love, to accept art I don’t even like.

We talk so much about raising the bar, about setting higher and higher standards for ourselves. That’s not working for me and my art. I’m lowering my bar again. I’m lowering my standards. Way low. As low as I can go!

As I was working on a little sketch yesterday, I thought back to my earliest days of drawing. I was delighted with evrery line I put on the page. Just making marks that resembled ANYTHING made me happy. I want to get back to that place again. I want to be happy with whatever I create… even sad, overgrown dahlias.

28 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this just like you said 🙂I think I’ll put it in my faves as so many touchpoints.
    I ruined a Waratah painting. Thankfully I had gotten into the habit of photographing my work as I go. I remember when I ruined it. I tried to wipe off the bad bits until nothing worthwhile was left. So when people admire that awesome Waratah picture do I tell them the truth or just say it’s sold.

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  2. Like literature, visual art doesn’t have to make us smile. I’m reading Les Miserables now, and I’m not smiling much, but wow! I’m thinking, feeling, discovering… Not all of the novel is completely successful, but that sort of doesn’t matter. Reading is an experience. As a writer, you know it’s important to be free to write stuff that will never make it into what we publish, share, or decide to incorporate into a piece. As writers, we need that freedom to experiment, learn, and discover. Our writing doesn’t have to always make us smile. If we’re lucky, it resonates with something inside of us. And if we miss the mark, that’s OK, and we learned something in the process. Creating visual art is much the same. Don’t lose sight of the value of the process as you chase a pleasing product, and don’t judge your value as an artist while you engage in process.

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    1. Oh, yes! I’m trying to focus more on the process. That’s where the pleasure is, I think. With writing, as an example, I might write something that’s emotional difficult, not the sort of thing that would make anyone “smile”… yet there’s satisfaction in the process, a sense of doing what has to be done in the context of a story, as an example. I suppose I understand the process more “naturally” as a writer. With visual art, the process is still more tied in with “making something I like”. So that’s what I’m working on now… learning to appreciate the process regardless of the specific outcome I achieve. Thanks for the reminder! 🙂

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      1. I was thinking, too, that it took two previous drafts to uncover the draft that you eventually posted! So, definitely, those discarded drafts were not wasted, since they brought you to amazing insights! I’ve also been thinking about an article I read about perfectionism, which offered the reframing thought of allowing ourselves to enjoy the pleasure of simply “doing things,” rather than the constant pressure of always having to “do things well.” (But, of course, having seen so many of your beautiful works of art, I know you’ll often do it well! It’s just nice to sometimes remove the pressure so we can enjoy the pleasure.)

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      2. One of the Sketchbook Revival videos in this year’s workshop focused on exactly that — not even thinking about “creating” something but just enjoying the processes involved in putting down paint, making marks, and playing. That was really the underlying “theme” for this year’s program. I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has needed to hear that message! 🙂

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  3. I hope you get back that place again soon, unfortunately we can often be our own harshest critics, but art is an outlet, a release to be enjoyed, no pressure, so do enjoy!! 🤗

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  4. I relate so much to this, but usually I don’t throw it away. I save it and rework it later. I like the challenge of taking something I don’t like and seeing if I can make it beautiful. I love layers, and perhaps it becomes part of a background and something new emerges.

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    1. I spoke of tossing things into the trash, and I have done that in the past. With my dahlia and the other things I’ve ruined recently, I haven’t physically discarded them. They’re still there in my sketchbooks. I think of them as “mentally” trashed, but at some point I might try to re-do them in some way. You’re right… that’s a very important part of making art. I like doing that with some of my old oil paintings. I can “tweak” those and/or paint over places. I find that more difficult to do with drawings.

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    1. Interesting point of view! Thanks for sharing. For me, it’s more that the “process” of creating art should make me smile… or at least be enjoyable. 🙂 Sometimes I struggle.

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  5. I like your Dahlia! What I have to do a lot is ask myself this question, “why am I doing this?” What are your motives for making art? What I have found for myself is to please myself first. If you are pleased with what you make chances others will be too…it’s between you and your creation. Kind of like it is with God and each of us.

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    1. Yes, that’s an excellent question. Mostly I’m “doing art” so that I’ll get better at “doing art”… so, yes, I need to dig deeper and get more in touch with my creative desires.

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    1. Yep, I think you nailed it. It should have been simple. I expected more or maybe I wanted more from myself. I couldn’t let it stay simple. I kept fussing with it, trying to make it into something it was never meant to be, and finally I was so frustrated I had to completely ruin it — just to make myself feel better in some perverse way. Learning to really keep things simple is a very important lesson I’m working on now. 🙂

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      1. I guess I didn’t like the story my dahlia might tell. It would have been one of frustration and fussiness. So, I chose to silence it. Shame on me! It was one more lesson in learning about finding self-expression through art.

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