Vomit & Insomnia vs. Measured Progress

Vomit & Insomnia vs. Measured Progress
or: How Long it Takes to Paint a Painting
July 2019  

When asked how long a painting took, Whistler said, “It has taken me a lifetime to get to where I can even begin to do this.” An artist’s website suggests, “…I paint a painting many times in my head before painting. Sometimes I do small studies of the painting. So much of the painting is done prior to painting, the painting process could go on for months or weeks.” (Note: “Paint/painting” used seven times in her comment. In other words--just PAINT!)

Van Gogh painted for roughly only ten years and most of his works were from the last years of his life in which he finished over two thousand paintings. Simple mathematics suggest he did “The Starry Night” in one or two days.

Picasso had a professional career of approximately seventy years, with an estimated 50,ooo completed works. That’s about two pieces per day, every day, including weekends. Almost all of his paintings were completed super fast, averaging three per day when he was in painting mode. On the other end of the scale you have artists like Frida Kahlo who only painted two-hundred.

So, the real question is, does speed matter?

Stephanie Huye is a thoughtful, precise oil painter. She enjoys finding, losing, and refinding her path. A single canvas can take months until she feels it is finished.

“I start with sketch work until I achieve a pleasing composition. Next, using charcoal, I work the sketch onto the canvas. This has to be done precisely and correctly. Another thing to keep in mind is that narratives and color palettes aren’t something to rush! I will not touch the brush to the canvas until the colors I’m mixing are right. Sometimes they have to be reworked and perfected. Each forward-backward-forward step takes time, and you can’t hurry the paint. Sometimes it takes hours or days for areas of oil to dry before I can apply the next layer. Narratives can also be tricky, as they sometimes require you to change things up from the original direction. Another consideration to factor in is the size of your artwork. Prep, color mixing, then cleanup also eat into your actual painting time.”

“Size matters, of course. But what dictates when a painting is done, is what the canvas says. The narrative leads me, and I follow. The end,” says Alaine.

DiBenedetto (once called, “a definite, defiant painter” by one of her college professors) spends little time on pre-sketches and less time on clean up. Her brushes sit in jars of oily turpentine goop until their next use, and haven’t been cleaned in years. Bits of napkin are pinned to the wall, which one presumes are some sort of sketch or interpretative marks she uses for certain paintings.  

“I use my insomnia as processing time, I vomit the basic sketch onto the canvas, then paint. I sign it. It’s done. And I never touch it again.” A sixty-inch painting under the right conditions is completed in a few days to a week.  

Huye & DiBenedetto agree with Whistler—each and every painting is the sum total of the artist’s history. Add up every apple drawn in kindergarten, and every hour of class taken until a Fine Arts degree is earned. Add in the thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of hours spent honing your craft, plus a bajillion hours of thinking, planning, envisioning, and revising that painting, and the bottom-line answer to, “How long does an oil painting take?” H-D Art says, “It’s done when it’s done. Time matters not.”

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Stephanie Huye