“How long will this painting take? And how do I know when I’m done?”
These are two questions that artists are faced with all the time. The answers are very important for planning purposes, for figuring out the price of a painting and to maintain one’s sanity. (One might think that after 22 years in the business I would be better at giving my wife, Jen, an accurate answer to these questions!)
But here’s my problem with answering the question, “How long will this painting take?”
To start with, I have a range of styles that I enjoy painting, from impressionistic to fairly realistic. Mix in the fact that no two paintings are of the same subject, and can range from postcard-sized to mural and already you have enough variables to create a brain teaser in a Probability and Statistics class!
My most recent portrait is a perfect example of what I am talking about. My first ballpark estimate was that it might take from a month to a month and a half, based on size and subject matter. I’ve had sizeable portraits take me as little as several weeks, so I figured I’d allowed myself plenty of time to complete this challenging project.
Here is where I screwed up on my rough estimate, however: As I began painting, I realized that a bookcase in the background of the painting should be a significant part of the painting and not just background. That meant that the tiny, little books should now have legible titles, which meant that I had to break out the tiniest of brushes. Each book required multiple applications of paint, each of which needed to dry in between coats. The edges had to be blended for realism. A final little shine on a few book covers added a third coat.
Once I started painting a tiny portrait of Pavarotti on his biography, I knew I was in trouble—and so was my schedule.
The next misjudgment I made was in regards to the Oriental rug! I was hoping I could keep it more on the impressionistic side, but once I had made the books in the background more realistic, I couldn’t put something in the foreground more out of focus. I became determined to give an accurate depiction of the pattern, and take my word for it, it was like putting a puzzle together with paint. I was just glad that it wasn’t a more intricate Persian motif!
So that—for me—is why it’s hard to answer that first question. Every painting is different, and requires different time commitments. Most artists will probably agree.
As for the second question, “How do I know when I’m done?” well, that is even less scientific.
Being way off schedule leads to feelings of anxiety. So I remind myself that all jobs have their complications and frustrations and that I am lucky to be doing what I love to do. As a result, I never send a painting out the door before I put on that last brushstroke, and I’m satisfied.
So what determines the last brushstroke?
For me, it is when I’ve scrutinized every inch of the canvas with my brush in hand, but can’t bring myself to apply another dab of paint on any spot on the canvas.
A fear of messing it up comes over me and I tell myself “Bill—put down that brush!”