Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Dreaded Question

I was delivering a painting to a gallery on Maui the first time it happened to me. I was standing there, holding my painting, waiting for the gallery owner to get off the phone. A man walked in. He saw the painting, and I could tell by the look on his face that he liked it. He asked me if I was the artist and I said yes. AND THEN HE ASKED THE DREADED QUESTION. The question feared by all painters. "How long did it take you to paint that?" Since it was the first time I had ever been asked that question, I was completely unprepared.  I am pretty sure my mouth dropped open and stayed that way for a minute or two. "Uhhhmmm,...well, I don't really know." Was my reluctant answer. Did he want me to build value in the painting and tell him it took months? Did he expect me to produce a time sheet of hours logged on that one specific painting? Or did he want me to say it took only a few hours, proving my mastery? I am pretty sure the desired answer is different depending on who asks the question.
This is the painting I was delivering the day of the QUESTION.

"How long did it take you to paint that?" Let me tell you something my friends. That is a loaded question. And one that is virtually impossible to answer. I am an artist. I work for myself and I work at home. That means I don't clock in. I don't arrive at a certain time, have a set period of time for lunch and coffee breaks, and then leave at five. Now those of you with jobs where you have a set schedule probably think that I have it easy. You think I am lucky. (well, yes, I am lucky.) But what you may not realize is that I don't always get paid for a full day's worth of work. Sometimes I don't get paid for a week of work, or even a month of work. Some artists work for YEARS without selling anything. Artists only get paid if we manage to paint something that someone can't live without.

I may paint for 8 hours or 10, go in to the kitchen to make food, and go back into the studio to paint while dinner is cooking. I may put pajamas on, brush my teeth and discover there's more I have to do to this one part of the painting before I go to bed and end up working for another two or three hours. Sometimes, I have been known to clean up from a day of work, go out for dinner with friends, come home, visit a painting, and end up working on it late into the night. I have even been known to photograph my work in progress to print out and study when I am not in the studio. If I am painting and things aren't going well, sometimes I go outside and stare at the ground or watch ants before I am able to resume working. I will employ anything and everything I can to help me find a resolution.

So when I figure out how long one painting took, do I include all the other paintings I painted before it? Because they are the reason that painting looks the way it looks. Do I count the time I spent staring at the painting, trying to figure out what was wrong with it? Do I count the hours I spent looking at other artist's work, going to school and studying art? Those hours are part of what went into that painting. Do I include the hours spent drawing and sketching in preparation for painting? Or maybe I am to set a stopwatch, start painting, and stop it every time I stop to squeeze out another color, wash my brush, scratch the dog behind the ear....????? I don't think so.

I have now learned to dodge the dreaded question with evasive answers like "I am lucky enough not to have to keep track of my time." Or "I work on more than one painting at a time, so it's really hard to say." And sometimes I do say "I have been painting for fifteen years, so this painting took fifteen years and a week to paint." An answer for the unanswerable question.

Here are some studies I have been working on lately:
"Free." 8 1/4 x 5 1/2 inches. Acrylic, collage and ink on paper.  ©2012 Karine Swenson

"Sketch #1" Acrylic and marker on paper. 12 x 9 inches. ©2012 Karine Swenson

And please don't ask me how long they took. Thanks.

I will announce the winner for my drawing tomorrow, stay tuned!


Paula said...

I have a suggestion ... to the question how long did that take ... well let's see 4 years of college 20 years of hard work as a painter ... plus the inner strength to stick with the project ... that's about it !

pRiyA said...

Thank you for putting in words what has always been gnawing at me! Especially that bit about artists having it easy.

Annie said...

For me the answer would be about 40 years :-). No one has ever asked me this silly question. Some of my paintings take months and I have been known to do one in a couple hours, it is never the same.

Cynthia Schelzig said...

What fabulous paintings! I love what you had to say true, so true....

Karine Swenson said...

Hello All,

Paula, you are right! That's pretty much what I say now.

I don't wish to imply that I think this question is a silly question. It is not a silly question. I want people to engage with the work, and with what I do as an artist. If that means we start with a question that is hard to answer, then so be it. This is merely the long answer, rather than the abbreviated one I usually give.

Nicole Hyde said...

Oooh, nice painting and love the small mixed media drawings/paintings (never know what to really call them).

Susan said...

beautiful painting. I would have told him, that I do not clock my hours but when my soul says it is done it is done. Soul or heart.

ArtPropelled said...

This is a question that stumps me too. Besides the actual carving that I do there are also many hours pondering and sketching out ideas. No piece is ever the same even if it looks as though the same amount of work goes into it.

Darcy Roy said...

I loose track of time (while painting) and days, sometimes weeks go by. Did I eat, sleep? I must say it is all I want to think about at times.
We should all be ready and open for questions about our process. Others who do not have this need to create are usually curious about those of us who are made into near hermits by the work.
"Years of daily drawing practice and study" is my answer.
Just saying, this has been my experience.
Great topic.

Lucy Chen said...

Very well said, and beautiful flower painting!