Monday, March 26, 2012

How long does it take to create a painting?

People often ask me how much time it takes for me to create a painting. Below, you will see the work process for the following three pieces with the time spent estimated for each step.

"Moonlight Wild" Transparent watercolor on 140 lb. paper. 22x30

"Unbroken" Transparent watercolor on 140 lb. paper. 22x30

"Free Soul" Transparent Watercolor on 140 lb. paper. 22x30

Step 1: Thumbnails
This client wanted a painting that had to do with horses. There were no reference photos or firm requests, which gave me a lot of freedom in the creative process. The first thing I do is to draw lots of little boxes and brainstorm different compositions and subjects. I might draw hundreds of these to develop ideas. This stage usually takes 1 or 2 hours.

Step Two: Pick out favorite thumbnails and develop
Now that I have my ideas on paper, I am going to choose three or four of my favorite thumbnails to explore more fully. These are still just rough sketches, but I am taking a bit more time to carefully lay out components. This part takes... oh, an hour or so, mostly because I spend a lot of time moving the shapes around and playing with different scenarios.

Step three: Research
I have solidified which ideas I want to work with, but now I need to study the subject. I need to see horses and I need to understand how they move. I take my phone out to a nearby pasture to snap some photos. This takes me an hour or so. Next, I will check out some books from the library on horses and spend some time reading looking at tons of pictures. This phase might take 4 or 5 hours. So, for research, maybe 6 hours total.

This horse wanted to eat my phone. Well, it is an Apple...

Step three: Figure out aspect ratio and develop sketches
Now I have researched my subject and I am ready to do finished sketches of the ideas that I chose. The first thing I have to do is... math. Yeah. Thanks, high school algebra! I DID use you in the "real world!" I figure out what size to cut my sketch paper in order to enlarge it to 22x30 later on without distorting the image. Next, I spend lots of time making sure the sketches are EXACTLY as I want them to appear when I transfer them to the watercolor paper. This took about 4 hours. This is longer than normal because I did three sketches instead of just one. I couldn't decide, which is nice for my client, because that means she has some purchase options.

Step Four: Head to Staples
This is the part where I spend time wishing that I had a copy center in my home. I do have to wait four hours for Staples to enlarge my sketches to the size of my paper because they were really busy, but I am not counting that in my project time. Two trips to the store and back plus standing in line amount to about an hour.

Step Five: Transfer the design to the paper
I tape Saral graphite transfer sheets together and lay them over my paper, which is pinned to the drafting board so that it doesn't slide. I then tape the copy of my sketch over the graphite paper and transfer the design. This part takes about an hour for the three paintings.

Step Six: Mix up the paint and set up materials
This part takes longer than you might think. I stir each of the 4 colors for 5-10 minutes to get it totally mixed up. Sometimes I play Words With Friends or browse Facebook as I stir, because this isn't really my favorite part. I suppose I could find some sort of meditative calm in it, but, nah.

So now I will lay out 5 or 6 towels in my pouring area and prop up a sheet of Gator board on an old shoe to make an incline. I will set up the drying area with towels, foamcore boards and yoga bolsters. I clean out my pipettes and fill my spray bottle. Next, I fill a jar with soapy water and then two more jars of clean water and move it all to the masking area. I'm going to estimate an hour to get everything set up.

Step Seven: Apply drawing gum
I look for the parts I want to leave white and I mask out those areas with drawing gum. For all three paintings, this takes about an hour.

Step Eight: Pour paint
This is the most fun part. I wet the paper and pipe the color on. I move the paper around to guide the color and then I let it run off of the edge. I spend some time wicking up the puddles with torn paper towels so that I don't get blooms. It takes me about 45 minutes to pour all three paintings, wick up the paint puddles and get them to the drying station.

Step nine: Repeat the drawing gum and pouring process
After waiting 8-9 hours for the paper to dry (unless I get impatient and take a hair dryer to it), I apply drawing gum again, pour paint again, apply more drawing gum, pour paint... For this painting, I used 4 pours, so I repeated this process three more times. This adds up to about 5 hours, give or take.

first pour
second pour
final pour
Step ten: Remove the drawing gum
I use a rubber cement pick up to remove the drawing gum from the painting. This takes 10-15 minutes depending on how much masking was there. We will say 30 minutes for all three paintings.

You can see the drawing gum peeling up to reveal the painting underneath.
Occasionally, I get a little help from my assistant with this step. Hey, even the great masters had helpers, right?

Step 11: Add details
Now I will use a scrubber and Mr. Clean eraser to soften lines and apply direct painting to add details if needed. This generally takes 2-3 hours per painting. On these, this step was about 7 hours total for all three paintings. Now they are finished!

The final verdict:
The complete project took roughly 30 hours. That is 17 hours per painting, which seems at first like it doesn't add up, but that's because I have to take into account that even if I am only painting one piece, things like brainstorming, research and running to the copy shop still take the same amount of time.

Questions? Comments? Tell me what you think. Also, be sure to connect with me on Facebook and Twitter. See more work on my website at


  1. Simon really wants to see you pour a painting now! This is very cool. :-D (I wanna see too.)

    1. You can come watch any time. :) Also, in August when my exhibit opens at the Atrium Gallery of Huntsville Madison Public Library, I will have a demonstration night where everyone can come watch pouring.

  2. Very cool I can never get watercolors to do what I want