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How Long Did That Take You?


There is generally one of two reasons artists are asked this question.

The first is really an expression of awe at the high level of detail and the accuracy of proportions, perspective, and colours. The viewer is thinking "I couldn't do this in a hundred years", and is seriously interested in being astonished by the artist's answer.

However, often the question is asked when the implied question really is: "how could you possibly justify such an outrageous price for something that looks like you whipped it together in an hour or less?" Abstract artists and impressionists probably get this form of the question more frequently than realist painters.

For the artist, there is no clear or easy answer to the question that doesn't require a long story, so my purpose today is to give you some insights into that long story.

If I were to add up the hours I actually spend at the easel applying paint to the canvas, it would probably be fair to say a typical painting takes me about a week, or 30 - 40 hours. It's hard to estimate, because I have a full-time day job and do my painting on weekends, evenings when I have the energy, and sometimes while I'm home for lunch for half an hour or so. A month or more can pass between start and finish.

But that can be a small part of the total process. For me, the painting itself is the relatively easy part. The much more important and more challenging part is finding and capturing the image that will make a good painting. Even when I walk over to the market to pick up some oranges, my eyes are constantly scanning my surroundings looking for those great scenes, and if I don't have my camera with me, I make a mental note of the location and circumstances and will go back, repeatedly if necessary, with my camera to try to capture that image. I make note of places I think might be interesting in other lighting conditions at other times of the day, and check them out when I can. When I first discovered the view of Mount Arrowsmith from the top of Little Mountain, I thought it would be an excellent vantage point to capture the light of the rising sun hitting the snow on the flanks of Arrowsmith. I watched the weather reports carefully, and when it looked promising, I got up at 4 am one morning in order to get myself to the top of Little Mountain before sunrise to capture the magic moment. Thin cloud cover moved in to filter out any sunlight and I got nothing. How do I factor that into the question about how long a certain painting took to paint?

When I go away on "vacation", my primary purpose these days is to look for new subject matter for painting - I'm actually working while everyone else is relaxing in beach chairs with their cervesas. On our first trip to La Paz, the colours and pattern of the shallow water below our 5th floor balcony caught my attention immediately, as did the frigate birds that cruised by all day. I envisaged a painting combining the two elements ("El Mogote"). Getting several photographs of the water was easy - not so much for the Magnificent Frigatebirds. I spent a good part of three whole days perched at the railing of our balcony, camera ready, patiently waiting for these incredibly beautiful flying creatures to pass by close enough and at the appropriate level for the painting I had in mind. Of the many, many pictures I took, I selected two, but the birds were small and fuzzy, good enough for the general outline and proportions, but useless for detail. When I drew them out I had to refer to a couple of bird books to determine the details of their beaks, eyes, and wing feather patterns. How long did that painting take? Do I count the annoying security line-ups at the L.A. airport on the way to Mexico, the three days on the balcony, the research for details, the trek to the art supply store for the right size and shape of canvas? Where do you start the clock? Where do you stop?

So the next time you are tempted to ask an artist how long it took him to finish that painting, resist the temptation, because you are not going to get a complete answer unless both of you have a lot of time to discuss that long story.

By the way, for those of you wondering when I'm going to post my next painting, patience. I've been extremely busy doing so many other art-related things that require my attention and keep me from the easel (including trips to Palm Desert and Mexico), but I do have one painting virtually finished except for some very minor shading, another half done, and a third all drawn out and ready for the first stroke of the brush.

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