Deep Thought Thursday: How long did it take you to make that?

Artists love to hate this question they hear from buyers and customers. And, yet, you continue to hear it over and over again. What's your best response to this . . .

How long did it take you to make that?

For the best response today, I'm giving away a CD of the "Best Of" my podcasts for artist motivation. That's right, it's a contest–with a prize and everything! Here are the rules:

  • You may enter as often as you like unless you're being a nuisance and not contributing anything of worth.
  • I have all power over deciding which is the best response. Some responses may be similar, in which case I'll have to look at the nuances and get really picky. If I can't decide, I'll let Tofu, my cat, pick the winner–unless I decide to go a different route or Tofu is otherwise occupied.
  • Responses will be considered until midnight ET on Tuesday, March 24.
  • The winner will be announced in a new post next week whenever I get my act together and get it up here.

The contest is now closed, but you're free to continue to post your thoughts.

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86 comments to Deep Thought Thursday: How long did it take you to make that?

  • I plan out my year in advance so I can order supplies all at the same time to economize…For example, this year I planned to do three paintings total…So, then I set my schedule to paint one painting every 4 months, come rain or shine or sleet or snow…When an interested potential collector asks me ” How long do you take to make that? ” I have a precise answer…( number of months in the year 12, divided by number of works planned-3 for 2009, equals 4 months…)
    Whether I spend the first 3-1/2 months playing with grasshoppers & the last two weeks fervently painting, or go to France for 4 months & paint a quickie in a night, I still say 4 months…Sometimes I paint very fast & then sit on my thumbs for the duration of my planned time…But I give each work the full time I have allotted, even just for consideration & correction & this year, they all get 4 months of thinking…
    The time I spend doing nothing counts just as much as the time I spend doing…So- months
    divided by works planned or accomplished equals sane answer…
    p.s. Dear Tofu, Our two bengal cats B’Elanna & Jadzia say hi…(who said I’m trying to sway the judge?)

  • My response usually goes like this:

    That is a good question, one of my paintings can take from as little as 1 day to a few years. The inspiration process can be so unpredictable that I might start a painting today and put it aside for months before working on it again, because the inspiration has to be just right.

    I work on many pieces simultaneously, so it is difficult to tell exactly how much time any particular painting took.

    Sometimes I am working on the piece, in my mind trying to figure out the best way to move forward with it, which is a process that can take a while.

    Regardless of how long it takes, I want to make sure that when you place it on your wall, it carries the emotional and inspirational strength that I envisioned originally.

    I hope my patience paid off, enjoy!

  • My average per picture is about 40 hours. I work on my art in the evenings and weekends and keep a note of the hours I spend on a piece. Some take longer some shorter but it averages out at 40 hours. I try and complete one piece a month.

    *Ed P

  • “How long did it take to paint that?” is a question I fequently get. It also comes in the form of “Did you just start that?” (when painting from life) I usually tell people it takes between 45 minutes to a week to paint it. But it took 25 years to get to get here. I want people to see the value of the paintings that came before this one, not just the configured “hourly rate” it took to paint the current one.

  • I think the best answer is similar to Karen’s above :’2 hours to do, twenty years to learn how’

  • How long did it take me to make this? Well, let’s see, I’m 30 years old… so yes, about 30 years!

    Everything informs my work. It’s taken a lifetimes worth of exploring, looking at, studying and practicing my art to get to the point where I am today.

  • This piece of art was 44 years, 11 months and 14 days in the making. I’ll be 45 on April 2 of this year.

    Tomorrow, it will get more expensive as it will be older and I will be one more day closer to dying.

  • I have no idea, ever. Time ceases to exist when I paint.

  • Jul

    There are some great answers here inspiring to work on my own response. I usually say something along the lines of:

    I don’t track the time I spend actively working on a given piece, but it can be anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. Usually over a month passes from start to finish, and I work on several paintings simultaneously.

  • Mary Lawler

    All my life.

  • The answer could be one of three:
    1. Hours spent physically applying paint to the painting.
    2. The days (or weeks or months) between starting and finishing the piece.
    3. Your lifetime of experience.

    I tend to go with the middle answer because that includes the all-important mulling time when the painting sits in the corner awaiting my next flash of insight. Also it’s pleasingly vague and prevents an hourly wage calculation.

    Personally I avoid the “it took a lifetime to get to this point” answer because I think it’s a little smart-alecky. I also don’t like to merely count “brush hours” because that gets into the hourly-wage issue and that’s beside the point.

  • I think I would say:

    “I’m not sure how long I thought about it. Painted. Thought about it. Painted. Over and over again.

    Does it matter?”

  • i like to keep it short to progress the conversation past this rather uncomfortable question for me, i simply respond..

    ” you know I don’t quite recall, but usually I spend as much time as I need to on each painting, so generally, as long as it takes’. and then i ask what it is they like most about the painting.

  • I must get asked this question from five to twenty times per day. I’m a chainsaw carver working in a busy tourist area. I can carve a marketable piece in as little as ten minutes, or work a piece for two weeks if the mood or the money is right.

    Since I make my living with my art, how long it takes to do a piece is sometimes an economic decision. People don’t want to know that that $300.00 carving only took me an hour. That carving could be made better but it will sell at 300, but not 600.

    In my case the work is not so much finished as it is abandon. I think this is true of most art work, though, perhaps for a multitude of different reasons.

    So when people ask, “How long did it take you to do that piece,” I lie. You wouldn’t want me to hurt their feelings, would you?

    Art Hilger

  • By the way, if Tofu the Cat makes the finale decision, is this a cow chip bingo kinda thing, or has Tofu purr-fected other skills of selection?

    Now if Tofu picks me, I want him to know that I really like cats.

    If he doesn’t pick me, I want him to know that I just can’t finish one in one sitting.

  • I’m not the first one to say this, but I too usually respond with some version of, “it has taken me my whole life.” I say this with a smile, though, because I don’t want the person to feel I’m dismissing their question. It is a reasonable and concrete thing for people to want to know, and for a lot of people, asking that initial question is a hurdle which I respect. So I tend to go on and describe a little of my process–that I work on many paintings at once, that some come together quickly and others require weeks of struggle, etc. perhaps add a bit about my education or whatever seems appropriate. Basically, I try to treat this question is a door that opens between myself and the other person.

  • My first response to this question is to think to myself, “How long is a piece of string?” But I hardly EVER voice it, as it can sound sarcastic. (Which, gee, it is!)

    But, because I respect the questioner and want to continue the dialogue, what I usually mention is Hard Time and Soft Time.

    Hard Time is the hands-on doing and it means manipulating and actively engaging myself with the creative and technical problems I have chosen to present to myself with the work at hand. It is usually what the questioner wants to hear about.

    Soft Time is the time spent “receiving.”
    This is the lifetime of learning, the pondering, the waiting (for clarity, inspiration, for the clay to dry, the kiln to fire…)It is usually the part that the questioner has not conceived of clearly, and quite often leads to the rest of the conversation.

  • When people ask me that question, I know it is either a price or a value question, based on dollars-per-hour, which is how most people work.

    I used to have snappy responses, which were satisfying, but not business-friendly. So now I ask a question back, to start a conversation–“Just this piece, or all the research and practice pieces, too?” Most people don’t think of artists doing research, and they will ask about that.

    Or, “Do I get to include the classes in this technique, too?” HOW it’s said–cheerfully and with a bit of curiosity, makes all the difference.

  • “It took just enough time to be the perfect piece for your collection!”

  • I must say that I haven’t been asked that question in awhile. But, if I were asked that today I would say…

    “I never wear a watch or keep a clock (or calendar, as the case may be) nearby when I work on my art. I don’t want to rush the process or stretch it out unnecessarily based on an arbitrary timeframe.”

    The last painting I sold was finished a year and a half after the first brush stroke, but the concept and planning began a year before that. Actual time spent in “labor” might be less than a month though. I just can’t be sure. Some of my monotypes take less than 20 minutes.

    (I guess I’ll throw this in, too) My cats, Garfield and Pinky, say Hi! Don’t ask what the golden retriever said. ;D

  • Oh. I forgot the old standby answer…
    “Why do you ask?”

  • Until it is done and not a second more.

  • My current answer is: “29 years and 72 hours”, (for the number of years I have been painting and the number of hours it takes me to actually paint a canvas) and, when people look puzzled, I add: “It took me 29 years of practice to be able to paint this in only a few hours”.



  • I really do not get asked this very much …
    however a good reply is:

    Longer than it takes a surgeon to remove something from your body.

    Longer than it takes a mechanic to fix your car.

    The good news is that art lasts forever and it is never a replacement or a “fix”. Oh, and if you choose well it will always fit you.

  • I think people ask this question because 1) they don’t know how to open a conversation about the artwork, and 2) time is an amount/value with which most people can measure.
    I combine alot of the responses above in a friendly and respectful way in hopes of teaching them about the process of creating art.
    Then I ask them, “Was it enough?”

  • “A long time.”

  • I usually say “Each piece varies…. It could be a day or two for smaller pieces, or it could take several years.” I can elaborate on why it might take longer… that the entire process begins with inspiration and conceptualization, and includes a photographic process before I even begin to paint; that I may be working on a series, and go back and forth between paintings over a period of time; that sometimes I need to wait until the painting tells me what to do next – which can lead into an interesting discussion about the creative process, and emphasizes that this is not a factory process. I don’t have an assembly line, and I don’t punch a timeclock. I am not making widgets here….

  • I usually measure the time by the musicals I listen to when I paint.. unfortunately people look at you strangely when you say about 1 and half times through Passing Strange…

    if there is a story or something I like to add it in, tell them why a piece took a certain length of time, what might have happened during creation or what I was thinking about. I try to sway them away from the numbers themselves and more into the story of the piece.

  • Elizabeth St. Hilaire Nelson

    Alyson, my response usually goes like this:” I have to take into account every bit of time spent creating the art, right from the get-go. First I spent a significant amount of time looking through reference photos, then I combine multiple photos and/or manipulate said photos in PhotoShop on the computer to adjust the composition, colors, and point of focus, until I get it just right. Then I use my new reference photo to sketch on wood panel. I go to Home Depot to purchase the wood panel and ALWAYS spend at least a half hour roaming around trying to find someone to cut it down for me! So that also gets factored in. After I sketch onto the wood panel, I do an acrylic underpainting, which I allow to dry overnight. Once the painting is dry, I start gluing the collage materials over the top. Typically I do not complete any collage in one session, I work at night and early in the morning between my kids, my husband, my day job and running a household of four. After multiple sessions, and when the collage is to my liking, I let that glue dry for at least 24-hours. Then I apply two coats of UV varnish, allowing drying time between coats, usually another day. The next step is framing. I spend time to pick out frame moulding that I feel compliments the work. When the frame moulding order comes in, I staple the work into the frame, paper the back, apply the hardware and set the piece aside. The final step of the process, getting the collage in front of the buyer, is a lot of art marketing, newsletter writing, blogging, website updating, struggling and re-struggling with my artists statement, entering of juried shows, invitationals, contacting galleries, emails, missed phone calls, phone calls, packaging, shipping and driving it around town and out of town to hang it in shows and galleries. Where it’s finally available for purchase.”

  • All great answers, and I’ve tried many of them over the years. The client can be satisfied or not. Lately I’ve been asking (with NO sarcasm) “how long do you think it took?” Their answer lets me know how to proceed dealing with them. Do they need to learn how to talk about art, are they really curious, do they want to know more about the process, are they concerned about getting a good deal, etc, etc, etc,

  • My Mom, who did Sumi-e and oriental watercolors, would always answer matter-of-factly, “about an hour and 45 years”. I get the same question about my jewelry, and carefully explain that “it’s difficult to say because I work on several pieces at once, but usually a piece of this scope takes about __ weeks to complete”.

    I LOVE some of these other responses! They have taught me a lot! My favorites are the ones that attempt to educate the public about the amount of time it takes to “cogitate” on a piece… and the best, I think, are the responses that lead a customer to close on a piece. The most satisfying ones, of course, are the “sassy” ones that are a little confrontational : “does it matter?” or “why do you ask?” … But the most accurate answer of all, I think, is “long enough to create the effect I was after”.

    I agree that some people ask the question in an effort to pin you down to an hourly wage consideration, but I think that most people just wanna have some reality on the process that goes into making a piece, so as exasperating as it might be to answer such a meaningless question, the best answer will always put the customer at ease about spending their money with you!

  • I want to share this story with you all about this subject. I first wrote this on
    Oct 1 2006.
    While we sit and agonize sometimes days or weeks over a painting, some don’t need to do that. Last night we were at the huge GALA for the Miami Childrens Museum that we attend every year. The highest paying bid at last years event was a piece of art from Purvis Young who is well known in the art world.
    He is very old now and not doing well health wise. I saw him standing against the wall all by himself and no one was paying attention to him. I went over and asked, Are you Purvis Young? He said yes and I started talking to him. He is very sick now and had a bit of a hard time focusing on me at first but then as I warmed up he paid better attention and I asked if he wanted a cold drink and my Michael brought him an iced cold Coke to the rescue.

    I pointed to a large maybe 40×50 he had there on display.This one was just up for display and sells for around $100,000 according to Purvis’ artist rep who was there also.

    This painting will be Vanity Fair next month I think with an article about him. (the entire time we talked, the television cameras were on us, I leaned in close so he could hear me and it looked pretty interesting to outsiders, I think). I asked him…How LONG did it take you to paint that one?
    He whispered to me….”Well, I hate to tell people about that…cause that one took me maybe a half hour”
    I laughed and put my finger to my lips and said SSSSSHhhhhhh…..only tell other ARTISTS that, never tell the public!
    He smiled and nodded his head with a small shrug.

    Interesting evening.


  • Actually, I usually end up telling them the actual time frame, at least with my woven chains. This always surprises them, because they think it takes me longer than what I’ve said. This of course makes me feel like I shouldn’t burst their bubble! Bruce Baker suggests not taking the “It’s taken me a lifetime to paint this” approach, but I’m not sure where the happy medium is.

  • 15 minutes. Which is the same answer I give my kids when we are on a trip and they ask, “How much longerrrrrrrr?” (you have to read that with a little bit of whine in your voice.)

  • I tell people that it took 37 years (since I decided to become an artist at 5 yrs old & all of the hard work, practice & training I’ve done since then.)

  • I am not looking for any kind of prize or attention. I just want the opportunity to express my true feelings and experience. Your post question got my attention for a simple reason. It takes me a LONG time to do my work. I work and work and work. This is probably why I have chosen to make my money via an art day job. If I price my work according to the amount of time it takes to create, I would never sell anything.
    I envy artists who can create their art in minutes or hours. For me, I take months and years. I only wish I could paint fast. I can’t. I do what I do. It takes me a long time. I guess I am a slow painter. To get paid by the hour would price me out of the art selling arena. This is why I keep a day job. It is far less stressful. Also, it allows me the freedom to create in a way that is far less worrisome. To answer the question I have to say, it took me a LONG time to paint that.
    Sheree Rensel

  • ADDENDUM to my comment: After posting my comment, I happened to find this video. This artist’s art media process is not similar to my own. However, his creative process is very familiar to me. I watched this video and understood his fervor. As artists, we can get into an investigative mode. We get an idea, we research, and begin the creative process. If you watch this video, you will understand why some artists have a problem making the money the desire. Just watch how this artist spends so much time and effort into capturing this one image/artifact. I relate to this. I spend hours thinking, researching, and then thinking again. Then, I make the work. This is really not economically feasible according to societal standards. However, some of us still bath in this arena.
    Just watch:

  • Web designers have something called the designers holy triangle. You can find out more about it here. It goes Good – Fast – Cheap the client gets the choice but they can only choose two. I think there should be something similiar for artist. So maybe we could come up with a holy triangle for artist that deals with this issue. The faster an artist gets at producing good work the more it should cost.

    The answer for most artist who are beginning their career to the potential collector “If I charged hourly for the time it took to create it most people could not afford it.” Then an artist with an advanced career can say “The faster I get the more expensive my art”, and no one will care.

  • OMG… so many of us answer the same way… I typically answer that it took me 46 years to paint it… but a new one I use is ” I really can’t say .. I Zone right out listening to my Ipod while I paint & Voila like magic it was done!…you see, when I zone out I am one with the Universe thus there is no concept of time while I’m there.” So then I turn around ask them, “When you Zone Out … how long are you there…. and what do You have to Show for it?”



  • I’m glad you asked. It took a lifetime to acquire the skills. Leonardo da Vinci said, and I agree with him, “Art is never finished only abandoned.” I look upon all art a a gift to the future. A legacy that will endure long past our lifetimes. As such, I don’t track how much time I put into creating a piece. Rather, I let each one signal me when it is ready to be released to the world.

  • I actually give a very honest and straight forward answer based on the records I keep for each piece.

    For example:
    “It took 500 hours plus 21 years of experience.”

    Another example:
    “It takes about five hours to make one cup. The first cup took 75 hours. After I figured out how to make two cups, I decided to make 200 cups. It took 3 years to make the series of 200 cups plus another year to make the video.”

    I don’t know how to lie or exaggerate. The truth is usually impressive enough on its own.


  • QuinnCreative replied with a far superior answer to my standard response to the question.
    Reading through all of the answers and noting my response to each as if I were the customer was enlightening.
    Some (which I also have used) hit me the wrong way. Now I wonder, how many sales did I lose because of that response, even thou I said it with a smile and elaborated.
    Quinn, I will be using my variation of your response in the future. Thanks for sharing.

  • I forgot to mention that Quinn’s response follows the old salesman’s addage….”telling ain’t selling, asking is”. By asking a question, getting a response, you are moving one more step closer to the close.

  • Jens Peter Nielsen

    I use to tell the story of the emperor of China. It goes something like this:

    The emperor of China once decided, that he would like to have a nice picture of a horse to hang on the wall.
    He therefore sent a messenger to the far corner af the country where the artist lived to order such a painting.
    “No problem” the artist said, “I will begin working on that right away”. The messenger went home, satisfied with the work he had done.
    Now, a month went away, and another one, and after three months the emperor got a bit impatient and sent the messenger once again to the artist to inquire as how the work progressed.
    “Very well” the artist said,”I work all day long to accomplish the wish of the emperor. I’m not all finished though”. The messenger went home, and after another six months the same scene went on.
    Another year passed and the emperor almost forgot about the hole thing, untill he suddenly remembered, called for his messenger and sent him away with the strict order, not to come back without the painting.
    This time, when he reached the home of the artist, he found him sitting on the veranda just watching the beatyfull sunset while enjoying a glass of wine.
    “The painting..” the messenger started, “..Oh yes, sure”, the artist followed and went to the house to fetch a very nice piece of empty paper, a brush and the ink. Now he dipped the brush only once in the ink, and in one movement he created the most beatyfull image of a horse.
    The other one, though touched by the strenght of the image, never the less got somewhat offended and accused the artist to make a fool of the emperor, letting him wait for months and years for the painting although it was realy made just in a moment of time.
    “Dear friend”, the artist said, I’ve been working hard all the time”. They went into the house and here appeared piles on piles of studies, and sketches of horses, details of horses and written notes on horses. Every room in the house was loaded with it.
    Well, the emperor got his picture and was happy. It was said that the piece expressed the very soul of a horse.

  • I usually just say 44 years ( or whatever age I happen to be when asked).

    This brings to mind a story, I believe it was about Isaac Stern the virtuoso violinist. A woman breathlessly approached him following one of his performances telling him that she would give anything to be able to play like he did.
    He smiled and looked at her and said “I did”.

  • Yesterday I gave the ultra short answer: My whole life. Today, I’m thinking that the question of how long did it take you to make that painting, goes to a much deeper question.

    We all know that to be an M.D., a lot of schooling and practice is involved. It’s standardized. We know there is a difference in the amount and kind of training to become a G.P. and a surgeon, etc.

    What does it take to be called an artist? There is no standardized way of determining this. Anyone can call themselves an artist. And who’s to say who is and who isn’t.

    In addition, we live in a society where artists aren’t understood or particularly revered for the most part. Art education is not a standard offering in schools. So we have lots of people out there who say they are artists and lots of people who have no clue what that means, or how to make an educated judgment about what they are seeing.

    The question of how long did it take you may be the only way a viewer can verbalize the broader questions above. Of course, when you see your doctor, and he/she spends 5 minutes with you and charges $150, you don’t question it because you are aware that it was 5 minutes plus many years of training and experience. When a person sees a piece of art, there isn’t a standard frame of reference.

    I think we owe it to our viewers to try to step beyond being annoyed by the question to each of us coming up with a way of educating the public about the process of making our art. If every artist had a good, thoughtful and educational answer to that question, and helped to demystify what their art is about, it might help to reduce the chasm between the artist and the public.

    I think it was Alyson who recommended the book BRAG! The Art of Tooting Your Horn Without Blowing It by Peggy Klaus. I’m reading it now. I recommend it. I’m going to use the information in it to work on my personal answer to the question of how long did it take me to make this painting? because I think it’s a really important question.

  • My answer to this question:

    I price my work relative to what it costs me to create it and present it to the public for sale. I do not time study my work but do use a pricing formula based on materials consumed. I offer work for sale to generate funds for more lumber which I can use to create more pieces.