Cut Your Losses: When Art Projects Flop

We’ve all been there with our own personal projects a time or two: that moment when you say, “I give up!” But, what do you do when that moment comes with 30 students looking at you? Do you power through at all costs? Do you cut your losses and toss the remains of an unfinished project? Can the feelings of failure and disappointment really become a worthwhile learning opportunity?


I recently had quite a lesson fiasco of my own that ended marvelously well without a finished product to show for it. Since then I have done a lot of thinking about why it all turned out so positively for both me and my students. This lesson involved creating 14 large-scale animal marionettes. I was working with a visiting artist on a tight time frame, the students were struggling with making two-dimensional cardboard into articulated three-dimensional creatures. It was a nightmare, I was going insane, my students were frustrated and disenchanted, and I chose to quit. But, I felt the need to make the flop into a meaningful learning experience for everybody. How?

To begin with, you must be ok with things not finishing as planned. There comes a point when you will need to weigh your own personal need to see something through against the value in the learning experience for your students. Be ok with throwing in the towel and own it.

Here is the turning point, though, when the failure becomes a learning opportunity: you must share it with your students, I mean all of it. Sit down, get on their level, and tell them exactly what’s up. If the lesson failed because of your mistake (I’ve created a few kiln bombs in may career too!) be prepared to fess up. Talk to your students like peers, let them know that it is all a part of the artistic process, then get their input. Ask your students what they think should happen next, and really listen to them.

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If you decide the lesson must end, take some time to reflect as a teacher and a class. Sometimes we teach beyond the brush and get to some life lessons in the art room, and this one can be a doozy! Don’t miss the opportunity to connect with your classes on this level. Are you ready for an advanced move? Share it with your school. Rather than post your perfectly finished work, put up a gallery of follies. Line the hallway with photos of your failed work along with short student writings about the lessons learned from a failed project. It may be the most important lesson you never planned on teaching.

How have you dealt with lessons gone awry?

What is your threshold for walking away from a project?

Sarah Dougherty

My name is Sarah Dougherty, and I teach elementary art in a large urban district in central Iowa. I love working with our diverse population of K-5 students to bring art to their homes, communities, and everyday lives.


  • artprojectgirl

    I’ve definitely scaled back since my early days because of this very thing. I did the same thing as you, let them know why it flopped and moved on. Now I still love to teach clay and it is really successful, BUT my students do not understand the concept of time. It takes me a whole month to get back their clay works! I have no plan time and I have to be present when the kiln is on. With breaks/snow days, it ends up being at least two weeks from drying to firing and out of the kiln and on their desks. I had a mom come in the next week expecting to paint her pottery and getting disappointed that it wasn’t ready yet! Doing large scale projects with 600 kids and little plan time gets tricky. I think no matter what, waiting or a project flopping, teaches them to appreciate finished products.

  • Mrs. Erb

    That is what I do. When I know a project is “flopping” the kids are usually relieved that they are not finishing it…it flops because they don’t like it. We talk about it, we move on, and if they want to work on it independently, they have the option.

  • Taho

    One of our watercolor wet-on-wet lessons was going poorly. When my students came back to class the next day, I offered them each a gift: a zentangle bookmark. They were fascinated by the “awesome colors and stuff” and even more so when I told them is was my flopped watercolor painting. I posted a “before slicing” flopped picture of the project to get their feedback and understanding on why this work was a flop. Once it was clear that this project wasn’t going to progress positively, we shared ideas of what else could be done with the piece: backgrounds for ATCs, tesserae for a mosaic, stuffing for a clay armature, and bookmarks. They each did their thing with their flopped watercolors and enjoyed the re-purposing project. The ultimate decision was to call realizations like these “Happy Accidents.” One student said, “The worst that will happen is we’ll mess it up again.”

    • What an amazing story! Thank you for sharing. Your model was the perfect example they needed to understand the positives in the situation!

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