Collective Wisdom | What to do With Older, Unsold Artwork

I’m not sure why, but I’ve recently received a lot of questions from artists wondering what to do with older unsold artwork.  Storing old artwork can become a huge challenge, especially for artists who have built up hundreds works over the years. Studio space is at a premium, and every square inch that is taken up in storage, is a square inch that’s not available as work space. I have a number of different suggestions of possible approaches to dealing with older work, their benefits and challenges, and then I would like to encourage you to share your experience with older work. Together, hopefully we can find the perfect solution to the older work challenge!

Idea #1 – Rotate Older Work Into Your Current Inventory

Sometimes older work didn’t sell, not because there was something wrong with it, but because it simply didn’t wasn’t in the right place at the right time to get a buyer. I’ve sold many works that were created years prior to the sale. For artists whose work is consistent over the years in terms of style, technique and quality, recirculating art can be a viable option. The older work can be shown in galleries or at shows or art festivals, and, as long as the work doesn’t have a date on it, no one may even realize the work is older.

The work might need to be touched up, and it may need a new frame, but refreshing your older work in this way allows you to leverage your existing work to bulk up your inventory.

The Problems with This Approach

If your work has changed significantly since the older work was created, it may not be possible to show it with your newer work. In this case, introducing older work may make your body of work feel inconsistent, or it may call into question the quality of your newer work.

Many artists pass through significant changes in style and format, and for those artists, it’s not feasible to reintroduce the older work.

You would also want to avoid sending a piece to a gallery that has already had the work, unless they expressly requested the piece back (unlikely), or unless the work was significantly modified.

Idea #2 – Repurpose the Materials to Create New Art

I’ve known of many artists who take old canvases and paint an entirely new painting over the top of an older work. Some of these pieces are totally new compositions, while some are significant modifications of the older imagery. I’ve seen abstract artists who will let glimpses of the old work show through as texture in the new piece. I’ve also known of sculptors who have melted down an old piece to cast a new work (not recommended in most cases).

The Problems with This Approach

Not all art materials lend themselves to being reused, and sometimes the effort it takes to prepare used materials isn’t worth the effort.

Idea #3 – Offer the Art for Sale at Dramatically Reduced Prices on Your Website or at Shows

Some artists will offer older work in a “bargain bin” at their open studio event, or at a show. The price may be significantly reduced in order to help the work sell more quickly. I’ve heard of artists offering older work at 50%-70% off the original retail price.

The Problems with This Approach

Deep discount sales of this kind present several problems. First, the old work can be a distraction from your new work. The pricing of the older work can also be a distraction. The bargain art may make your regularly priced work seem expensive and prevent sales – not the desired outcome at all!

Idea #4 – Hold a Studio Sale

Another idea is to hold a kind of art yard-sale at your studio. The sale may target existing customers, or it may be an opportunity for friends and neighbors to acquire your art at prices more suited to their income.

The Problems with This Approach

If you target existing customers you risk training them that they shouldn’t buy your current work, but should instead wait for your work to age and for the price to decrease.

Even if you aren’t targeting existing customers, this approach may not work well. Your neighbors may feel that even at a greatly reduced price, the work is still too expensive, or they may feel they don’t want to spend their hard-earned money on your rejects.

Idea # 5 – Donate the Work to Charity

Some charities hold art-related auctions or sales. Your donations give them a potential source of fund-raising.

The Problems with This Approach

Charity fundraisers can actually be a good source to build relationships with influential people in your community. A silent auction bidder may eventually turn into a collector. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to put your best artistic foot forward instead of presenting older work.

Another problem with this approach is that most events will only be interested in taking a piece or two per event, not a good way to dispose of a large body of unsold work.

Finally, the other huge disappointment in donating work to charity is that you can’t deduct the value of the artwork from your tax bill. You can only deduct the value of the materials, but most of you are already taking a deduction for those materials, so the net effect is that you get no deduction for the donation. This is inexcusable, and the congress should definitely amend the law to allow artists to take more of a deduction for donations, but until that happens, you are going to be donating out the goodness of your heart.

Idea #6 – Give the Work to Family Members or Friends

Many of your family members or friends would love to have a piece of your work, and they’re unlikely to look a gift painting in the mouth . . .

The Problems with This Approach

If you are particularly prolific, you may eventually overwhelm friends and family with too much art.

Idea #7 – Bonfire

I remember an experience early in my career when I was working in a large gallery. An artist was in town from out of state and brought in several new pieces. The owner of the gallery indicated that it would be a good idea for the artist to remove several older works from inventory.

The young artist agreed, and pleasantly removed the older pieces, work on masonite panels, from their frames. One by one, he snapped the paintings in half over his knee, destroying them. My co-workers and I were mystified, perhaps even horrified, at the destruction, but the artist felt that if the work hadn’t sold, it must not be any good.

In the end, I suppose that if you feel your studio space is worth more than the work, or that it would take to much effort to dispose of the work in any other way, destruction is certainly an option.

The Problems with This Approach

It seems like a travesty that the destroyed work will never be enjoyed.

Bigger Issues

If all, or most of your work is piling up in your studio, you don’t have a storage problem, you have a marketing problem! If you are producing work far faster than it sells, it’s time for you to shift your energy away from production and towards marketing. It’s time to find gallery representation, or to participate in more shows and develop a collector list.

What Have You Done With Older Work?

Share your thoughts and experiences about what to do with older work, or ask questions about the topic in the comments below. Your input is invaluable – thanks!

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

53 Comments

  1. I once filled a large rolling garbage bin with old plein air work. Hundreds. I made a request for a special pickup though the waste service. I saw the driver at the street going through the bin, obviously interested in what made it so heavy…I have no idea if they made it to the landfill. I haven’t seen them on 1st dibs yet!

    Now, I toss bad work, repurpose panes as I do. And I am hoping to leave a body of good work for my descendants to share, or sell posthumously, if my galleries will cooperate after I fill in the date right of the dash…….

  2. As a painter of abstract art some of my best new works are old work painted over and Jason is so correct – parts of the original canvas gives the new canvas more depth and texture and parts of the old canvas can be an integral part of the new painting.

  3. I have used almost all of those tactics to deal with older unsold artwork. I love the idea of tossing them into a bonfire, which I haven’t done yet. I have stabbed them, and ripped them of their stretchers and tossed them in the trash. I have painted over some, with varying degrees of success. And I have had studio clearance sale. I think each piece will determine how it’s dealt with. One thing about destroying a piece, I think it shocks collectors into purchasing a piece they have “thought about”.

  4. Re older inventory, I have given to family and friends, held speial studio sales and donated art. I have also loanded out several large paintings on a temporary basis. And I am probably going to have a special studio sale of small watercolors (framed) and some 3D items this fall/winter season as it works well for me in my winter studio. No plans for a bonfire!

  5. Great topic! Being a jewelry artist, repurposing is easy for me. I disassemble unsold pieces and reset the gemstones in new work.

  6. This is definitely an issue. I’ve had to rent a storage unit to store my unsold artwork. I do show my older work occasionally, and I don’t date my work so I can do this. But sales are just really slow. I haven’t had much luck getting gallery representation, although I send out lots and lots of requests. People tell me they love my work, but that pastels just don’t sell. I was in a fabulous gallery in a great art town and sold a lot of work with them, but then the owner retired and closed the gallery. Framed work is especially space-consuming, so I’ve started bagging my unframed work and showing it in a rack when that’s allowed (which isn’t very often). I do show regularly, but I also paint a lot. Can’t wait to see the “magic” solution!

    1. I have two substantial bodies of work. One I do very well with but still have bon fired some of these but now I wait longer unless they do not make the grade. The pastels – they are good – but you are right they do not sell nearly as well. Partly because of the reflection on the glass so I have to use museum glass which in turn causes the price of framing to go way up and then you sit on it. I do not want want to calculate the thousands of dollars in custom sized frames. If you figure this out let me know. I have done one marketing thing lately which sold two in one video. I hung them and then showed a video of the pieces and two people called me on those. Just a new thought.

  7. Jason, I have done two of your suggestions. One, I have prepared the panel with the appropriate ground and repainted over an older piece. Two, I have given my relatives who couldn’t afford to buy a piece some of the older work that isn’t so old I wouldn’t want anyone to see it! I also have kept some pieces from my earlier years and it’s nice to see how much I’ve improved or I love it and decided to keep for my collection.
    Thanks for your daily emails!!

  8. Yes, I have a marketing problem. I have resorted to destroying some pieces, those I do not particularly like, while others are now rolled up in a corner collecting dust. I am reusing the stretchers for new work.

  9. What do you do with pieces after an artist dies? My mother was a very good and VERY prolific artist in several mediums. I have become the family “curator” meaning that I have most of the remaining artwork in my guest room closet! What to do?

    1. My parents were both prolific painters in their later years. After they both passed within a few months of each other in 2016 I was left with a ton of their paintings–more than I could ever use and also much of it was not my own taste in art. What I didn’t decide to keep, and what I haven’t given away to friends and relatives, I have been selling on Facebook marketplace at very reasonable prices. To date I have sold several thousand dollars worth of their paintings and people are beyond thrilled to get original art.

  10. I told my wife, that when I die she can deal with my art anyway she chooses, from giving it to family and friends to having a sale, to donating it to galleries or charities. Until then I like to live with the fantasy that it will continue to increase in value.

  11. Because I am 99.999% sure that I have not and will not produce anything that would in any way reshape any art concept, I have requested that at my death, anyone, beginning with family, then friends, then any other acquaintances who would like to have a piece of my work may take a piece of their choice. After that, I would like to have everything that is left burned. This rather harsh preference on my part was triggered when I heard an acquaintance lament that they had received all of the paintings done by a parent after that artist had passed on. I was horrified at the possibility that my work might cause anyone that sort of grief. Years later I learned that the problem had been solved in that family by a sibling who did value the artist’s work and had taken it from the unwilling first heir.

    I have enjoyed great satisfaction in creating forms which I like with color and shapes. Very little gives me greater joy than making my art. If it brings anyone else joy also, that is wonderful to me! And that is enough.

  12. I seem to have best success with #2 – painting over and usually allowing some of the original art to show through. As my style as morphed, I know that my older work has good bones, and sometimes it just needs an update!

  13. I agree that is it just a an imbalance in production/marketing. Artists generally excel at production (aka being an artist) and are not always great at marketing. Good topic!

  14. I recently donated 76 paintings to our local Salvation Army. The leader of the local organization and several employees came to my house to get them. They were delighted and used them to decorate specific rooms at the Salvation Army facility, plus they had an auction with the remainder to use the money as a scholarship fund.

    Also took about a dozen to a Boys and Girls Club, plus many art books and magazines for them to use and enjoy. They were thrilled. And it was a joy for me to do this.

    I have a passion to paint, but very little desire to market. I do attempt to market online wherever possible, but when my inventory becomes overwhelming it impedes my desire to paint. So I think of creative ways to dispense of the bulk of my inventory at that time.

    This plan works well for me. I’ve also given paintings to several people who work at the bank I use, plus I’ve given paintings to the employees at the allergy doctor’s office where I get a weekly allergy shot. They were very happy to receive them. And this made me happy too. Now I can once again paint to my heart’s content!

    1. I love that Idea! I did that for Penny Lane and the girls got to pick out the ones they wanted. They went so fast and were so loved.

  15. Over the years I’ve made a variety of different types of work. When I decided to focus on just one series and put all my efforts there, I rented an empty store and staged a retrospective. I threw a big opening and closing reception — with live music, good food, and a mixologist who made special art-themed cocktails. I marketed the heck out of show and got a fantastic turnout and good press. I had the opportunity to talk with a lot of collectors and get them excited about my new direction, and I cleared out a lot of old work that just didn’t fit into my life any more. Added benefit — it was a lot of fun for everyone involved.

    1. Oh, Alison, I recognized your name because I have admired your work for decades! I have yet to be able to afford one and especially not a custom created Sea Core. Please keep my contact info and let me know if you ever have another of these events as I would love to attend and perhaps might even be able to afford one of your magnificent pieces!

  16. I have found that all of these approaches are valuable. After a 45 year career as a fairly prolific artist, works can accumulate. I like to keep some older works as signpost of my artistic journey, some paintings are still “current”, just haven’t found the right home, and the vast majority of older works are re-worked or repainted.

    When I used to teach watercolor workshops I would devote a day to the reimagining of “failed” watercolors. We would use mixed water media (gouache, watercolor pencil and acrylic) to create new compositions. No need to waste that nice 300lb sheet of w/c paper! With acrylic paintings it’s even easier. I also try to utilize something out of paintings I end up destroying. With works on paper they can become sources of material for collage or mixed media work.

  17. This is a great question that I’ve been curious about. Recently (during COVID time) I’ve started painting into old paintings — my thought process is … I’ve grown as an artist since I initially painted them and I’m liking the ‘combined’ look by creating more depth in the work ; I’m not wasting a good canvas; I feel free to experiment; and most of all … I’m having a blast doing it!

  18. older work has value as a visual means of progression of ability and style thus a few pieces should be saved. For myself if a work has not met standard and will not after repainting i take a knife to it and move on. Have destroyed hundreds of works over the years and i learned from each of them, that was their value. Sometimes the issue is one of marketing not marketability. I once had a small work continually hang around and not sell so i raised the price from 1000 to 5000 for a show in a new environment. it sold immediately and had clients arguing over it. had it not it would have been chopped without hesitation.

  19. As I read through the comments and see a couple indicating they would leave the works to their heirs, I am reminded to Ted DeGrazia’s destruction of a huge number of his works by throwing them down an abandoned mine shaft and dynamiting it shut. This was to keep his heirs from having to pay exorbitant inheritance tax on the work. Sad that we can’t donate work to charities and write off their market value, but then we can’t honestly leave them to our heirs without a tax burden. I’d guess most of us aren’t famous enough to worry about the latter.

  20. Also might consider donating the work to public arenas and let them decide where and when to exhibit in their public spaces (or other). For example, I’ve donated framed artwork that feature historic buildings, or other sites to the venue itself. Many of these public sites need art featuring the site itself, and will gladly include an artist’s label or contact information along with the art. Especially not-for-profit organizations.

    1. I still have a fair number of pieces lying around unsold. When I first began painting, I would have a bonfire. Just an angry frustrated bonfire. If it’s a smaller size I will often give it to a charity for auction. But there are still too many and my storage is limited.

  21. Some very good thoughts, Jason. Traditional galleries such as yours are not an expanding retail category. Galleries were disappearing before the pandemic and that is not only in the valley but throughout North America.

    Pop-Ups for contemporary art and some traditional art seemed to be the next wave and will continue in the future. Art fairs and festivals will resume sometime in the future as will tourism. Individual artists have access to the same tools as galleries and the younger generation of artists know how to access and use them.

    I see Open Studio Tours as the most efficient and profitable way of moving work. My last two Open Studio tours sold a lot of pieces and last year, I had several people who “dug” around for hidden treasures. There were boxes of cast resin and wood. Some small welded pieces, some broken sculpture as well as some of my wife’s older pastel work. We sold a lot of work. A bargain, Yes.

    I do not want to be the largest collector of my work. In the end, for many “artists” unfortunately, work may not be enjoyed by heirs and friends and destined to be in the prestigious and convenient Goodwill gallery.

  22. Sometimes I crop an oldie, keeping the good part and burning the dud part. I do this with my birch panels (at the table saw) and with my canvases, which I either restretch or mount on new panels.

    The result is an enchanting smaller painting with a new focus. Sometimes it needs a little help with some paint strategically placed. Usually it sells quickly, but some, even after a chance at a new life, still do not sell and they finally get consigned into the fire.

  23. One acrylic of Toroweap Overlook hung in the classroom next to our studios/gallery. In a burst of energy, I moved the piece out onto my easel and left. It sold within an hour. So sometimes, by shifting art around, new eyes, new perspectives create buyers.

  24. if I am on a run with making art I cannot stop that just because i have stacks of unsold art. Marketing is an issue. i read so much about how to market that I get fatigued with the idea. Since my older art is so different from my current art…that is the by product of never stopping making art,… I am currently repurposing alot. . My next step is the bonfire.I intend to move in the next year and there is no way I am carrying it all with me. My family members have all they can hang. So this is now just left over from the past. My impetus was removing framed work on paper…the frames are not the style I want anymore so I donated the frames and designated much of the old work for redos or the burn pile. Next up is the work on boards. I will probably sand them down and repurpose. If there was a magic solution…I want to hear it!!!

  25. Fortunately, I work in fiber, so it’s easy to recycle. I’ve taken quite a few wall hangings that I no longer liked, or were unfinished (and I didn’t feel like finishing them) and turned them into artistic tote bags. Often a “practical” piece like a tote bag will sell where something for the wall will not — and I’ve sold quite a few! I can also make dust rags, dog beds, storage bags, drop cloths . . . .

  26. Two things from today’s blog instalment.
    I’ve been refitting my small in-home studio from weaving and fiber back to painting and drawing. As luck would have it, tucked way back in the dark crannies were 2 portfolios (those big black monsters from pre-digital days). What a trip down memory lane but more important were all the drawings and some mono-prints that pre-figured some of my work today.
    So, my idea is to set up a kind of “Back Room” on my website. Just put then work there with no prices just a note saying something like “Watch for Auction Details.”
    I can track hits and work accordingly.
    Thing two. I Am Marketing Challenged. There, I said it.
    Jason, your course was a great eye-opener and I’m headed back into some of the sessions for review and a refreshing kick in the rear.

  27. Since I only put aside my illustration career in 2017 in order to paint nonstop, and my pieces take some time, I am not too overburdened with too much inventory–yet. But I am getting there. I now paint in my home studio, and use my larger out-of-the-house studio as my own gallery and place to show my art to collectors and the public. But it is just about at max capacity. My work has changed, but I also like my older work and would never destroy it. I’ve donated some to fundraising auctions. But I also think that somewhere out there exist the right buyers. I just need to find them. Like some of you, I allow myself to think that the work is greatly underpriced and will be more valuable eventually. Wishful thinking, I know, but that is what many of us artists do: indulge in wishful, positive thinking. I was also left with many paintings from my parents who were prolific painters in their later years. Very recently I have found Facebook Marketplace a great way to sell their paintings at reasonable prices and people are thrilled to get original art to hang on their walls.

  28. There is a great documentary on Amazon about an artist whose career began with a bang but did not turn out as he had hoped. He has many, many unsold works. The name of the film is “Paint What You Like.” At the end when his son asks what he should do with all the remaining art, the father says something to the effect of, “Keep what you like and sell the rest, even for pennies on the dollar. Just get it out into the world.” I’m hoping that my own unsold works will just be “out in the world” somewhere eventually.

  29. When you think about the number of paintings produced every year, it’s astounding. In addition to the gallery-worthy pieces discussed above, there is the worldwide “daily painting” movement. The Daily Paintworks website (only one of many) shows an average of 200 new paintings every day for sale – that’s 73,000 a year. Very few actually sell.

    Or if 20,000 people (a conservative estimate) create a small painting 4 days a week, that’s over 4 MILLION a year. Or if those 20,000 artists work more diligently and produce a larger painting every two weeks, that’s still over a half million per year.

    Given that even the serious collectors only buy a few paintings a year, and very few people buy even one piece of original art in their lifetime, it’s no surprise that we all have lots of unsold paintings.

  30. Because I have storage room, I hold onto them and sell them. This year I have sold close to $4,000 in older paintings, some of them 11 years old, the most recent being 5 years old. They weren’t bad pieces, they just hadn’t found their buyers yet. Right now, someone is considering a painting of mine that’s 11 years old. Rarely do my collectors ask the age of a piece. They just like what they like. People who only recently started collecting wouldn’t have been my customers when a painting was created. But now, they are. And there it is, waiting for them.

  31. My work is in photography and digital art, so I have a number of large prints–some on aluminum dibond, some on canvas, some framed. One thing I have thought about doing, but have not yet done, is to offer unsold pieces to fellow artists to see if they have interest in somehow collaborating with me, using my work as a base. Of course there would need to be some arrangement, formal or informal, as to credit and/or sales of derivative works. But it might be interesting if nothing else to see what others come up with based on my work.

  32. If the charity is one that I would support and donate money to anyway, I do donate a painting or two for fundraising auctions, but like Jason said, I choose good works, and am not expecting a tax write off. I have some paintings from previous styles which I feel are good but wouldn’t work to sell now, and I am planning to donate them to Habitat for Humanity, if they will take them. I feel that those folks who put their own sweat equity into building an affordable house should have some nice artwork for their walls.

  33. So far, I’m selling enough work that this hasn’t become a problem. Yet anyway, I do create art a little faster than I sell it, so it does slowly pile up. I just think of it as having enough art around to do a gallery show if the occasion arises.

  34. I give a lot of art away—if someone I know says they like it, I say, “you want it? here” and I take it off the wall. Those are the pieces I don’t care about, not my best (in my opinion). I donate several pieces a year for fundraisers to nonprofits. I don’t have sales, but if someone walks in my studio, I can sell at a good price, below a show price (not in a gallery at the moment), and I sell work of all ages there and on Instagram. Annually I go through the last year’s, unframed work (I’m a pastel artist). I cull the stuff that I know I will never frame, and throw it away; occasionally I can wash off the surface. This year I did a self-portrait from torn-up pastel paintings, and I liked it so much I think that’s what I will do every year. By the way, the same people I have given paintings to have also bought paintings.

  35. I have tried several of these ideas with mostly success but none – except real marketing has proved a real solution. Fortunately I can repurpose paintings and drawings by remaking them as part of my non-profit enterprise.
    Currently having gone through a major move in which I really examined my stock of work, I have decided to re stretch much of it and work back into them, without changing the essential content. I think this gives me a wide variety of reworking, from minimal to intensive where necessary.
    The idea of inserting older paintings into my current portfolio is one of the most helpful to me. I do have a couple in there now but may revisit some much older work and add it.
    Fortunately I seem to have evolved pretty consistently, just become less abstract.
    One reason to take Jason’s great course is to attempt to reduce the burden on our son, (I’m 74 now) when I die, of piles of unsold work with no outlet in place. I think this is the best approach for me, especially as many pieces are large (4x5feet and up) with smaller work on paper. While I was winnowing my work down before our move I asked myself the questions – did I want my name on it, did it need help or was it beyond help, why did I still have it?

  36. I take old paintings off the frame, glue down the edge and make front door entrance welcome mats. They also can be used as a drip mat in shower rooms. I also cut them up and make purses and shopping bags. Better than destroying them. I also slice the canvas up into book mark sizes and stamp them with my name and phone number and give them away at my shows.

    1. Brilliant, and brave, Adriana! Your work is fabulous, and I hope people appreciate your enormous creativity with your paintings. (Those must be seriously expensive mats and bags. . . wow.)

  37. I’ve painted over to create another work. I’ve also cropped and had them restretched to a smaller size, to fit in our car, and the composition still worked. If it didn’t, I’d work on it a bit to get it there. These are all great suggestions!

  38. As a jewelry artist I can sometimes rework a piece or completely disassemble it and use at least some of the parts in other work. This approach doesn’t usually work with my enameled pieces so with those I would need to consider some of your suggestions, such as a special sale.

  39. Over my 50+ years as a full time professional artist, I have sold well over 3,000 original paintings in the mediums of oils and gouache. My gouache paintings are done on 4 Ply Rising Museum board and are only 1/4 of an inch thick, shrunk wrapped. Hundreds of them do not take up much room. My oils are painted on 1/8 or 1/4 inch hardboard for larger works. Again, they do not take up anywhere near the room that stretched canvases would. I have donated many thousands of dollars worth of paintings to charitable organizations for their fund raising auctions. Happily many of the auctions I have attended brought in bids almost double my retail prices! When I moved from Vermont to California in 2002 I literally had a bonfire that lasted two full days, burning all my student work from four years at the Art Institute Of Boston. I still have much work in my re-do bins and boxes that I think I can bring up to my current standards. Time is running out as I’m 71 years old. So much yet to paint…. so little time.

  40. My idea is create an art trader web site where artists can post the work they haven’t sold and trade for works from other artists. Maybe we could enjoy something from a different style other than our own. Just an idea at this point.

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