Should Art Students Be Allowed to Ditch Projects?

As artists, we’ve all worked halfway through something and then, for a host of different reasons, ditched it. Perhaps it wasn’t coming out as we had expected or perhaps working through the project gave us a better idea. Whatever the reason, abandoning projects is part of being an artist. Leonardo da Vinci is almost as famous for his work as he is for not completing his work. Even his most famous work, the Mona Lisa, was left incomplete. Leonardo is quoted as saying, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Abandonment might be part of the art-making process for the artist, but what about for the art student?

We hear so much about ‘grit’ in education today. It’s defined as a measure of conscientiousness and perseverance. While it is important to encourage students to have a certain stick-to-itness, should they, in turn, know when to cut their losses? How does a student learn when to push through because the work is salvageable or know when to abandon a project?

Push Through it!

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More often than not, students will want to give up on a project when they reach a certain point and the work isn’t meeting their expectations. This often comes with inexperience. To the student, it looks like the piece is failing, but the experienced teacher can see that the work has potential. Many times, when the teacher encourages the student to push through, the piece comes out better than expected.

Ditch It!

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From another point of view, abandoning an artwork takes grit. It takes courage to abandon, restart or go in an entirely new direction. I recently experienced a student display this type of courage. She had been working on a portrait for over a week, but she wasn’t satisfied with it. At first, she tried small changes to the eyes, lips and nose, but it didn’t help. Finally she grabbed a large brush and painted over the entire face, erasing everything she had done. She then started over.  It took a lot of courage to wipe that painting clean instead of doing the safe thing and half-heartedly finishing a work in which she didn’t believe.

Let Students Decide

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Art students are no different than experienced artists when it comes to the ill feelings brought on by being forced to work on something that’s not going anywhere. The experienced artist has the advantaged of knowing for certain when it’s time to abandon an artwork. We can guide the art student through this process of understanding by asking why they don’t like it, and offering possible solutions. In the end, we should leave the decision of whether to push on, restart or abandon completely up to the student.
As teachers, we tend to want to see our students complete every project we assign. It stands to reason that when assessing an incomplete project, a grade for incomplete work should follow suit. Still, we might consider rethinking our grading practices and instead give full credit to unfinished work as we come to understand that sometimes our students’ failures become their best learning experiences.

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What methods have you used to encourage a student to press on?

Have you ever agreed with a student that their project needed to be ditched? Do you have any success stories that arose from a student abandoning a project?


Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Ian Sands

Ian Sands, a high school art educator, is a former AOEU Writer. He is a co-author of The Open Art Room and believes art teachers shouldn’t make art—they should make artists.

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