13 November 2014

How Long Did It Take To Paint That

A common question many painters get asked is "how long did it take you to paint that?". It's a question many artists hate. Why? Because the answer isn't straightforward. 

There are times when a painting will literally fall off the paintbrush onto the canvas, as if someone else's hand is in control. A painting may be done in just a few hours or it could be days. But we are talking actual painting time here, not the many other aspects that go into creating a painting. 

For that we need to talk about the years spent learning and practicing our craft. The heartache and frustration of many failed paintings building up our experience. We need to talk about how long it took to plant the seed of inspiration for any particular piece and the life lived that goes into that. There may be hours or days spent doodling and sketching, writing notes, and planning out that painting. 

I've heard many artists jokingly answer that question with "a lifetime", and in many respects that is true. But let's take a look at the lifecycle of one of my recent paintings "Unifying The Spirit". 

I had the seed of imagination for this painting planted a year or more ago. I wanted a Native American dancer that could portray the strength and pride of spirit which is expressed through their dance, but I didn't want a literal interpretation of that through a detailed painting. I wanted it to be slightly abstracted requiring the viewer to sense the story more than see it. 

I had thought on how to accomplish this on and off for quite some time. I had taken some photographs at a local pow wow, but none of the images were quite what I was after and I didn't want to portray any particular person. However I was able to study the images for colour notes and movement. I did several sketches for composition. But still the idea just sat there. 

Finally, something told me it was time to execute the painting. I never really know what it is that makes the time right. Maybe it's something I've seen, or a new skill I've acquired, or just the universe saying "now". So I grabbed my sketches and notes, and a reference photograph for the colour notes and went to the canvas. I did a quick underpainting to loosely represent gesture and composition, and then stepped away for a few hours to let it dry a bit. 


I thought I was off to a good start. I could clearly see my intentions in the under paintings and was excited by the direction this painting was going to go, so dug into the actual painting starting with the darks, background, and thin colour notes. I stepped back and realized it was all wrong. I'd just spent two or three hours and flopped. It happens. So I scrubbed out several areas and stopped for the night. Although I stopped painting, the creation process continued into the evening with looking at images I'd taken along the way and analyzing what went wrong and what I'd have to do the next morning to bring it back to where I wanted it.


I kind of liked the scrubbed out version and did for a brief moment consider leaving it there. If I had been using unmounted linen I probably would have left it and just cropped off the bottom and left side a bit. But I was working on a panel so no cropping was possible.  I went at the painting again spending several hours at it. It just wasn't working. I'd paint an area, stand back and realize it was all wrong, so scrape it out and try again. I must have done the face a half dozen times before ending up with something I was satisfied with. First it was too much detail, then not enough. Back and forth I went. 


Sometimes when a painting isn't working it becomes hard to distance yourself and judge it objectively. I'd spent about 4 hours painting time total on day two. When I finally called it a day I thought maybe it could stand, but there was something still nagging away at me. It failed to convey my intentions but I was struggling to figure out what was wrong and how I could fix it. I contemplated scraping it out again but decided to let it sit a day or two and see if I could figure out a direction. 

During that time I was still painting in my mind. I was going over what I'd done, my notes, and thinking about my intent and why this was failing. I can say now that there isn't a strong focal point. The eye wants to jump to the bright background colours or travel up a line from the left arm through the right feather on the headdress out of the picture. There's no sense of the strong spirit or mystery I wanted to represent. 


When I went back to the canvas I greyed down the background, strengthened the left arm, and abstracted the headdress. In total I'd probably spent 8 to 10 hours with the paintbrush in my hand, but many more hours in planning and thinking. I really struggled with this painting which made it take a lot longer. I'm still not 100% sure of it. I can see the struggle I had on the canvas, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. It could speak as a metaphor for the struggle Native American people have had to retain their identity, culture, and spirit. 

For now the painting will sit out of sight so I can distance myself from it. I'll re-evaluate it in a week or two after it's dried a bit. Then I'll decide if it's a keeper or not. If it's a keeper I'll photograph it and post it online. If not, you'll never see it again, and my idea will be rehashed adding to the time it will take to paint my original vision.