Introduction to Art/Finer points for Contemporary Fine Artists

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How Long Did It Take You to Paint That?

A couple stops to admire a painting. Watch their expressions. They smile, they nod, they speak in low tones to each other. Sometimes they point to certain parts of the painting, their hands moving as though they are creating the composition themselves, as if they have a brush in their hands, making the strokes that create the elements in the painting.

They glance at you. You smile; they smile. One of them nods his head toward the painting and says "How long did it take you to paint that?"

You've heard it countless times. It's usually the first question people ask. Even other artists will ask that question, but for professional reasons. It's also a very hard question to answer frankly. After all, you wonder, shall I make an estimate of the actual number of hours I manipulated the paint onto that canvas--or shall I detail the real time it took to get that painting done? The difference may be between eight hours or thousands of hours. It's your call.

You can impress the dickens out of the couple by saying the work took eight hours (or three, or twenty--whatever). They will respond with admiration. They will ask the price and mentally figure out how many dollars an hour you are getting (although they won't consider the cost of the materials) and decide if they want to pay what you are asking for those hours of creation. They consider what it is worth to them. But what if you tell them what really went into making that work of art?

Contemplate this. When you work for a company you are paid a salary or by the hour. If you have a degree or certification for the job you do, or several years' experience in that type of work, your wages are set accordingly. Included in the paid hours of work are the time you spend figuring out how to best do the job, gaining experience with the equipment you use, making purchase orders for needed supplies, traveling to other work sites, learning from trade magazine articles, attending meetings or conventions regarding your work, such trivial things as cleaning and rearranging your desk, etc. Ideally you are paid for all work-related activities. In addition, you'll have health and perhaps life insurance, and even paid time off. You may receive other perks such as bonuses and business discounts.

Now regard the real time you spend making your art. You may have additional activities to add to the following list.

Years of study and experience

Ongoing education attending seminars, classes, meetings with other artists to learn from their experience

Purchase and independent study of art books and magazines

Through trial and error, learning which materials work best for you

Time spent earning the dollars to buy these materials

Time spent shopping for these products--when and where to get them, hopefully when they are on sale

Putting on mileage to take photos if you are interested in landscapes, or taking photos of other subjects

Maintaining a physical photo file or organizing a computer file, and perhaps taking the time and expense to learn photo editing on your computer

Making mental notes about compositions and then creating sketches and full studies of works of art before you ever make the actual artwork

Arranging all the brushes, paints, canvas, or other materials you use; you must also maintain them to keep them in working order

Building or renting a studio or creating and maintaining a space in your home

The time spent doing the actual work of art


Besides all this and more, you don't receive paid time off, insurance, or the other perks of working with a company. Consider that if you worked for a company, you would be paid for all these activities in addition to the actual eight hours, or three, or twenty, that you put into the piece of art itself. Thus, that hourly "wage" you charge for your objet d'art is usually far underestimated. In fact, all the above activities except doing the artwork itself are more or less "in kind." And this is as it should be for all non-professional artists, creating art because they love to do it and because it gives them the greatest satisfaction. They don't consider these things as if they were employees or artists competing in the world of professionals. They don't even consider them in the pursuit of the personal gratification resulting from creating something beautiful from their own efforts. These activities enhance artists' joy in creation.

So the next time someone asks you "How long did it take you to paint that?" you have a choice. You can go through the above extensive list, or, with your smile of complete contentment, you can give them the honest and succinct tally of the hours you indulged yourself with the materials of your bliss.

Dolores Marusarz