How long does it take to make a painting?

Friday, May 22, 2015


“Thoughts run wild (like white horses)’ 150 x 210 cm, oil on Belgian linen, 2011-2015

How long does it take to make an artwork? People are understandably curious… It especially seems to apply to painting, and even more so to figurative painting.

I guess there’s a certain manual labour aspect involved that we are all intrigued by. Any work, not just art work, that looks like it involves a lot of labour and painstaking effort grabs our attention. We love to think that someone was totally crazy to devote so many hours to making something that we consider to be particularly useless, or way beyond our own desire to achieve.

We all have our own mental categories of what is or isn’t a waste of time. For me, waste-of-time activities would be things like making model ships or airplanes, or matchstick sky scrapers… However it only takes a slight twist of imagination to put myself into other people’s shoes. If I needed an intricate prop to use in one of my paintings, even if it were a large galleon made of matchsticks, the end purpose would be enough to spur me into action, no matter how much I hated ships, the idea of ships, making ships or working with matchsticks.

(As you may be able to tell, I hate boats and boating – blame this on traumatic childhood ‘holidays’ spent on my father’s sailing boat. It was a matter of constantly choosing between  two evils. For example, try choosing between vomiting over the side rails and getting covered with cold saltwater waves versus feeling equally sick from the nauseating diesel fumes down below; or between getting devoured by swarms of mosquitoes on a hot summer night at port versus melting inside a thick sleeping bag…. Anyway enough of this aside.)

I am sure you have read reports explaining the therapeutic and relaxing benefits of repetitive activities like knitting. Don’t you sometimes crave doing something that’s purely repetitious, just for the sheer pleasure of escaping into it? For me it induces a meditative, circular state of mind. In theory at least.

However, for the record, let me say that painting does not induce a meditative state as often as you would expect. Not for me anyway. It’s mostly hard work and high concentration. Even when you’re ‘in the flow’ it’s pretty intense. It’s a bit like being a child or hobby golfer compared with deciding to go ‘pro’. As a ‘pro’ the stakes are higher and you become results-oriented. Once you start trying hard, it’s a downhill slide. So the idea is to mentally combine the two – like playing for your country in the Ryder Cup whilst pretending you’re just a hack weekend golfer doing a round with some mates. Not easy.

I recently read about an experiment where students were given the task of making a clay pot. They were put into two groups. The first group was asked to make as many pots as they could within the allotted time. Their aim was quantity. The second group was asked to come up with just one pot within the same amount of time, but their aim was quality, to achieve just one fabulous pot. At the end of the exercise the results were compared. The students who were focused on making quantity also ended up with the best quality piece. Simply by making so many examples they had learned from their mistakes and, without trying, had fine tuned their work over the given time. The second group seeking perfection got held up in discussions and mind exercises and their pot wasn’t great. Which reminds me of an old Estonian proverb which says ‘To learn to do the work, do the work’. If you have perfectionist tendencies, like me, it’s a lesson we keep resisting.


So, how long does it take to make a painting? The reason I started off with this question is because the painting above has taken me four years to complete. It wasn’t four years of working on it every day, but four years of thinking about it a lot of the time and doing plenty of subliminal mental problem solving. The work started off with high hopes, but after a few months I ran out of solutions and was ready to give up. It seemed there were too many issues that I couldn’t resolve. I ripped it off the stretcher and was about to throw it into the bin, but my logical mind stopped me from going quite this far, so it was rolled up and thrown on top of a tall cupboard, out of sight but not quite out of mind.

After a year or so I decided to start a new version of this painting, put a brand new white canvas on the old stretcher and re-drew the image. I was then ready to throw out the first version but decided that there was nothing to lose so I would staple it to the wall for one final attack. To my amazement the multiple issues were resolved fairly quickly and the painting was completed. It took a few sessions, but I couldn’t believe it. I left it on the wall for a few more months afterwards just in case some new faults suddenly appeared, but I couldn’t see any more to do. It’s obvious now, but only once the personal investment and performance anxiety had disappeared did it suddenly come together.

So how long does it take to make a painting? The answer is, the harder you try, the longer it takes.

It’s easy to do a post-event analysis, but how to stop yourself ‘trying’ so hard is another question. Trying (which translates into judging) seems to be the enemy of achievement. I have no decent solution to offer, unlike the innumerable online life and business coaches offering their services, who each claim to have found the various solutions. I can only talk about the problems. And a slightly growing self awareness.

PS To answer the ‘how long’ question properly – in theory one of my paintings takes around a month to make, but then each work gets put into hibernation so that it can be looked at again later with fresh eyes and adjustments made. So I guess the answer is a month minimum. But it could easily be two or more.


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