How Long Did It Take You To Paint That?

February 22, 2018

Wonder - Mountain Lion Kittens is a watercolor painting by Rebecca Latham.

by Rebecca Latham, artist

I am asked this question rather often:

How long do you work on a painting?  How long did it take you to paint that?

I stop and think.

I try to give an abbreviated answer, saying it can be a few days or months depending on how complex, and cooperative, a painting is.  ..but really it’s a guess.

Morning's Light - Barn Owl is a watercolor painting by Rebecca LathamSometimes I can recall starting the painting, sometimes not. Sometimes the painting was a struggle the whole way through, like attempting to tame a snarling wild animal (which occasionally are released to find their own way in the wild, ie, in the recycle bin).  Some seem to have a permanent home in the back of my closet.  Others are a breeze and almost paint themselves.

One of my teachers answered rather perfectly:

“People often ask how long it takes me to do a painting. The answer is, I don’t know. I work on five to fifteen at once. I like them when I first start them, then they always get worse so I start a new one to cheer me up. By the time the fifth one looks really awful to me, the first one doesn’t look quite as bad, and a new idea about it may have come along so I can work on it for a while. One took me about six years off and on!”

That is precisely how it is.  ..with the addition of having the vision of a painting that just pops in your head and you know it must be painted before you lose it.  So you start another before it escapes.

I confess, I have paintings in my studio that I started years and years ago.  As I write this in my studio, I have stacks and piles of them sitting around me, propped on easels or leaning on shelves.  Some of them sit together in little bins or my vertical art storage system.

Unlike my teacher, I have around 125 of them the last time I bothered to count.  ..all sizes and shapes with many nearly done.  Some are sitting with their frames, some not.  ..but I am not quite happy with them.

They need a little fussing to correct a twig, rocks, feathers, or the eye on the left looks a little odd for some reason.  They might need a glaze, or two, and perhaps a corner needs finished off.  So they sit.  Staring at me.

In the past, I have tried other methods of working.  I would make one piece, maybe two, and work exclusively on those pieces.  Forcing myself.  ..or, rather, restraining myself.  I was not allowed to start another unless it was an emergency (like a gallery calling with a request that they need a painting of a red fox pronto).

I found that working one or two at a time made me work more slowly, and less creatively, oddly enough.  Though it was much easier to keep track of in-progress shots that I snapped of them as I worked, the actual paintings seemed to drag on as did the inspiration for them.

So, after a year or so of working in a more targeted manner, deciding that unfortunately this way of working just wasn’t for me, I switched back to my original methods of chaos and tried to find a rhythm in having so many balls in the air at one time.

Though I occasionally lose a random moose or songbird in the mass of arranged paintings, (sometimes causing frustration and sometimes leading to a pleasant surprise several months later when it resurfaces), I have accepted this way of working as what seems to fit my wiring.

It doesn’t, however, lend itself well to simple answers to “how long did that take you?” questions.

You can see the beautiful art by clicking Rebecca Latham

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