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?


Ian Sands

This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • BossySnowAngel

    I have sometimes allowed students to start over. I give my students the option to start over and have an extended due date one time per semester. Sadly, I have kids who begin again on every project. At some point they have to move past starting and learn to develop their ideas from what they have already produced.

  • Great article – I totally agree about the grading changes – and I do at times allow my students to re-start, but with one condition: they must explain what is not working and brainstorm ideas to create an artwork that does. When we do this, I have found, they sometimes come up with ways to use what they had already started.

  • anna nichols

    Hi, Ian!
    I agree that many times, “The road to success is paved with failure.”

    However, in my middle school classes, where 60% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, I am committed to teaching the kids to persevere in the face of difficulty. This is a valuable life skill they do not always get “home training” in. They won’t always like how every project turns out, but I do require them to finish what they start. Your story of the girl who painted over the portrait to start again is a wonderful example of “grit,” she didn’t give up on her project, she just went in another direction.

    Most of the time, my students who turn in unfinished work did not complete it for the simple reason that they didn’t put forth enough effort. I allow their grades to reflect this. There are many, many reasons why a student would want to “ditch” a project. I do not allow mine to do this simply because I want them to practice the same kind of stamina your portrait artist displayed. Hard work is hard work and we need to finish what we start! Would you pay someone to paint half of your car, or half of your house?

    Thank you for a thought provoking article!

    Mrs. Anna Nichols; B.F.A., M.ed.

    Visual Art Instructor, grades 6, 7, 8
    founder, editor,
    Alabama Art Education Association Mentoring Co-Chair

  • Dawn Kruger

    When asked “Can I start over?” with elementary, my first instinct it to look at the clock and assess whether a project can be finished in the time available. But sometimes an unfinished project that is engaging is more valuable than pushing through on something they aren’t enthused with. False starts and dead ends are not a waste of time; they are part of the process. And recognizing when one needs to a fresh start is a skill we all need.

  • Ginger Smith Bate

    Let them start over. I start over. If I am painting, and I know that what I have done can’t be fixed, I start over.

  • mickey

    oh yeah – 1st we’ll look at it together. Then we’ll try to problem solve different ways to ‘fix’ it. If the student is still unhappy, I will have them put the project away for a couple days up to a week. Then we take it out again, and look at it “with fresh eyes’. If the student is really unhappy and just cannot seem to be able to wrap their heads around finishing it, we move on. They paint over it, let me have it for re-purposing if possible or it gets recycled.

    Many times the ‘fresh eyes’ approach works. The student will take it out the next week, and say – Wow, I didn’t think it was that good. and want to get back to work on it.

    Now this is for mostly my advanced students. My younger students, or students who are learning a new technique or medium, I work with them, and have them finish – I remind them, that they are learning something new, and until it is done, it doesn’t look correct or ‘real’ or whatever. Almost every time, the student finishes and is amazed that, yeah, it just doesn’t actually look ‘right’ until all the shading, etc is done. This is definitely the case for my beginning drawing classes.

  • iansands

    It’s always so interesting to read all the different perspectives. Thanks all the thought provoking comments!

    • anna nichols

      The power of synergy, according to Steven Covey (author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), is when people share ideas they can all bring “right” answers to the table and they find much more innovative and powerful solutions to problems together than when working alone. I may not always agree with you, but I value your ideas very much!
      Mrs. Anna Nichols
      Visual Art Teacher, grades 6, 7, 8
      founder, editor,
      Alabama Art Education Association, Mentoring Co-Chair

  • ElizTownsend

    It depends on how much time a student has all ready invested in a project, and whether a time crunch is an issue–like we’re at the last couple weeks of the quarter and can the student begin and finish a new project. I agree, hanging in there and trying to problem-solve can be good, but I have also let students start over if time permits and it isn’t going to be an extravagant waste of materials.

  • Sharon Verhoff

    I think sometimes when we get the urge to start over it means we have not done adequate preparatory work. Thumbnails, value studies, color roughs, etc, are all part of the process. Skip these steps, and basically the final piece looks and feels like a “first try.”

  • Lisa

    I deal with it on a case by case basis.

  • Merrill Moser

    I’ve experienced a similar situation recently with a self-portrait assignment that several students abandoned. Thanks for the helpful article and comments.