Creative Inferno

Spring cleaning

Spring cleaning

The Penguin, the Joker, and the Riddler use their creativity to wreak havoc on Gotham City, while Batman and Robin used their own creative powers to prevent mayhem. Is there a Ying and Yang to creativity?

It’s exciting to throw another log into the fire, but how do you feel about burning something you created? Even failed attempts have some value as lessons learned, or to help spur new ideas? It takes effort to physically clean out the attic and how many poor examples do we keep?

Pablo Picasso said “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” In our creative process, do we have to burn to make room for something new? Children rotate the wheels on their Echer Sketch to erase their drawings, just as they topple their towers of blocks, dismantle their jigsaw puzzles, and continuously remold their play-doh.  For us, if the vase flies off the potter’s wheel it’s clearly mud, but most of the time, it’s more difficult to decide when to destroy what we have created. “To build may have to be slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day,” describes Winston Churchill.

After artists becomes famous, every scrap they leave behind gets served as a gourmet meal. Famous or not, who wants their legacy to be a stew of leftovers?

Choosing paintings to frame and hang on our walls is admitting them into our daily consciousness – more difficult is taking them out. Removing them is something I call “deframing” since it’s both defaming and deleting. How do you choose what to frame, what to haul to the attic? Or what to toss on the coals? 



  1. Marianne says:

    Very interesting post David. This reminds me of the sand mandala I observed being created at the NC museum of art by a group of Buddhist monks. It took many hours for them to painstakingly place each grain of colored sand to form the intricate design. After the mandala was finished, the final part of the ritual was to destroy it by sweeping up the sand in a specific way and depositing it in the museum lake to return it to nature. I do find it difficult at times to purge items from my collection of sketches and other creations.

  2. Thanks for sharing that story Marianne!

    I think the longer we have something we create, the more we attribute meaning,get attached and the harder it is for us to destroy. When we make something out of sand, our intent is for it to be temporary and we don’t get too used to it.

    I like the monks idea to destroy as part of a ritual and of course everything returns to nature eventually. – David

  3. I frequently destroy my (non-digital)artwork. Not necessarily because it’s bad, either, but just because after I’ve created it it’s kind of lost its spark for me. When I tell people this, particularly people who like my work, they are in uproar, as if to say ‘how dare you, I might have liked that’, but I have to keep doing this to keep my own interest in what I do, fresh.

    I used to destroy whole portfolios of my work in the days when I’d have exhibitions (I’ve not had a show for years), as, after a show I’d feel drained and want to leave it alone for a while, do something different, not art. I always returned to it, though, and when I did, I started again from scratch!

    That said, I’ve stuff from my student days still!
    Val recently posted..Do the funky duck – and a gift for youMy Profile

  4. Hi Val,
    Thanks for your comments – you bring up so many interesting points.

    One in particular is the uproar you create when people hear that you have destroyed some of your work. Some viewers may feel that creations of art truly belong to society. We are granted exclusive rights to our works through copyright for a period of time in return for allowing them to eventually go into the public domain.A theoretical question is: Do we have the right to destroy our work before it reaches public domain? I’m sure there is a legal answer but not sure if their is an easy philosophical answer. I like your “Funky Duck” image and hope you keep it!

    A was talking with another reader of this post the other night and she said that “we destroy a beautiful piece of property to build a beautiful house. – This surly sparks an uproar in people.


    • “We are granted exclusive rights to our works through copyright for a period of time in return for allowing them to eventually go into the public domain”

      I have never thought about things in terms of my being given rights to my own work as I believe I do have those rights. Copyright is a very artificial concept in the legal sense.

      In part, as soon as something we create leaves our own environment (ie, goes from our own sight of it to others’ sight of it) it is regarded as shared. I don’t necessarily hold to that. Here’s my take on it: if I create something, it’s mine. It I give it to someone else or sell it to them, it’s theirs. If I die, then it’s no longer mine as I don’t exist anymore, but it might belong to my next of kin. Or if I were well-known, the copyright might belong to an organisation.

      On the other hand, once it’s on the internet, it’s damn difficult to keep ‘hold’ of anything and one takes that risk.

      I had stuff in Redbubble and another online art site for a while. When I put stuff there, I refused to put a copyright notice across each work because if someone’s determined to have it, they will, and it’s easy enough (though time consuming if the image it’s over is very complex) to remove a ‘watermark’ in a normal graphics software program.

      “A theoretical question is: Do we have the right to destroy our work before it reaches public domain? I’m sure there is a legal answer but not sure if their is an easy philosophical answer.”

      Yes, we have the right to destroy our work, providing we’ve not gifted, given or sold it to someone else. I have done it and I shall continue to do it.

      For instance, Funky Duck… it’s there for others to have, and they’re welcome to it. But one day I might remove it from my blog completely. That is not destroying the copies that other people have, just mine.
      Val recently posted..Me- Unfit for purposeMy Profile

      • Thanks again Val – Digital artwork has its own properties and poses issues never before faced. They take up less physical space and since storage is relatively inexpensive, at least in the short term, it’s generally less of a problem to keep them around than say a 20 foot bronze sculpture. Its even possible to keep multiple versions of work in progress. A clean slate can be obtained by the open new file command. Still not easy to decide what to keep.

  5. Marianne says:

    This is such an interesting discussion. I agree with Val’s way of thinking that as long as my creation is in my posession and hasn’t been sold or given to someone else, then it is mine to keep or toss. I have hundreds sketches from attending life drawing sessions for years that I have always just held onto out of habit. As I’m now trying to eliminate clutter from my home, I will soon need to go through these sketches and pull out those which I really want to keep and purge the rest. I admit, this has been a hard thing for me to do in the past, but now I feel less tied to them. I do however cherish a lot of my early work from college art classes because I still remember the joy of first trying out the different medias and seeing my final creations in clay, ceramics, etc. I guess it is harder to destroy old works tied to my youth.

  6. I agree lots of interesting ideas and Marianne I appreciate your contributions. People have been discussing this off-line with me too. One person talked about sorting through photos that he had double or triple prints of and decided even thought he had copies safely attached in albums, he found it difficult to get rid of some of the extras.

    At the end of a figure painting class, I’ve seen people causally tear up and throw away their paintings as easily as walking out of the studio. I think even if the artwork is not very good, they can be learned from and I’ve painted things and did not like how it came out – only to change my mind a week later.

    You’r right that looking at things we created in the past, helps to trigger memories – sometimes we don’t want to get rid of the trigger and risk losing the memory. It seems easier to throw away old calculus and chemistry notebooks – perhaps because they contain problems with known solutions that most anyone can repeat – our creations are more a part of us.

  7. I don’t cope well with change, and that leads to a lot of compromises. Like right now, i’m still using Windows XP. I’m aware that Windows 7 is better in almost every way, but the OS i have now does enough for me to feel satisfied. Should i delete it and install the new version? Definitely, but the prospect of rebuilding can sometimes make the decision to destroy harder.
    Richard recently posted..Troubleshooting Your Paint Zoom SprayerMy Profile

  8. I like the way you discuss this David! And i also like “Choosing paintings to frame and hang on our walls is admitting them into our daily consciousness”. I believe that choosing painting will reflect in your personality and attitude.

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  10. Your post and other people’s comments sparked lots of thoughts. I agree with Val and Marianne that we are free to destroy our own work provided it still belongs to us. Marianne’s comment made me realise that some of the sculptures I am keeping in the loft are there because they hold memories, not because I am particularly proud, or fond of them. Made during my Uni days, they are tied to that time and I am now ready to let go of them.

    I have destroyed work in the past and will do so again, though it is usually as soon as I have created it or even before I have finished it that I tear a piece up. Why, then, am I horrified when my art students rip up a drawing in front of my eyes? Is that because I feel I have failed as a teacher or because I fear that they cannot see the beauty in what they have created?

    Sometimes, in destroying a piece I will use elements of it to create something new. A piece I do not like as-is, I will sometimes scan, then print onto a small postcard and stitch into it. If I am not keen on a painting on paper, I might cut it up and use the pieces in something new… as a background or starting point or elements of a collage.