What to do with Old Artwork? – Life of an Artist Blog #11

old artwork

The more art you do, the more old artwork there will be…

What to do with all this old artwork? This is the question I face time and time again, especially as I don’t have a house of my own and tend to travel around a lot. Most of the old artwork I accumulate isn’t so much finished paintings or canvases either, no, I have a lot more problems with old sketchbooks in particular.

If you’re an artist you might be all to familiar with this issue. It’s crazy because they don’t really teach you at uni what to do with old artwork either. They sure do encourage you to fill sketchbook after sketchbook of explorations, studies, brainstorms and ideas, but kind of keep you in the lurch of what to do with it all along the way.

It’s not just art, it’s memories…

I recently made a trip up to Wellington, where my partner and I used to live for three years. He was an art student back then, churning out work and through him I had found my passion for painting again, so as you can imagine we made a heap of art together.

When we left to move to the South Island we couldn’t take much with us, so we left a whole bunch of stuff in his parents ‘woodshed’, which we had the monstrous task of sorting through on our recent visit back. It is always such a crazy trip down memory lane, sorting through boxes and boxes of old sketchbooks, as for me a lot my sketchbooks serve as visual diaries. Everywhere I go I take a little A5 sketchbook with me and draw the places I visit, people I meet and ideas that come to me along the way. So flipping through them all with the knowledge that I have to throw most of them away is a huge lesson in detachment, to put it nicely. In all honesty, though, it is quite traumatising. No surprise my memory is terrible, I don’t have much anchorage to my past.

old artwork
Old artwork

So what’s the solution?

Here’s a method I’ve found that kind of works (it’s not perfect)

  • 1. Go through the mountains of artwork page by page and photograph anything that stands out
  • 2. Rip out any really good work, that you could imagine would look good framed and put it to one side
  • 3. Put the rest in the recycling bin, once removing the metal spine.

The Art and Trauma of Detachment

The only way I have found to deal with all this old artwork is to throw it in the recycling! That’s the sad but honest truth, but in a way it’s quite liberating to learn how to detach yourself from old artwork. Otherwise you just tend to lug it around with you like a dead weight.
My partner has really helped me with this process, as he is naturally a very detached person and just keeps reminding me that I can always do it again but probably better. I take pictures of the ones that speak to me as it’s good to have a record of your journey. I found it amazing to see how my skills have improved as an artist since then. The work was at least 7 years old, which makes it a bit easier to view it more critically.
The ones I still really liked I put in a folder to keep, for when I’m dead and famous 😉

There’s an interesting inner turmoil during this process, as it is hard to, on the one hand, chuck your art in the bin and on the other try to sell it as a unique one of a kind masterpiece, but most of what goes in the bin is the studies and process to get to the masterpiece.

After my last big move I was so traumatised from wasting so much paper that I firstly didn’t draw for a good month and then decided to invest in a tablet to use for concepts and idea development. It’s kind of been working, but nothing can replace good old pen on paper. Other ideas I’ve had is approaching libraries to see if they would be keen to dedicate a section for artist sketchbooks, or get a super durable, waterproof container and bury my work for people to find in a few hundred years or so. Haha!

old artwork

What do you do???

I’d love to open up the conversation as I often wonder how other artists tackle this problem.
If you have other solutions I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Much love and inspiration
from Natalie

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