"How long did it take you to paint that?"

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People often ask me, “How long did it take you to paint that?” I have a variety of answers to this common question, some of which I've gleaned from other artists' musings on the subject.

I usually say something like “Oh, I work on it on and off for a week or two—maybe 8-10 hours total” though I don't keep track of or even think about how long I'm taking to paint something. The problem with this answer is that, to them, it might sound like I'm not working very hard or long on artwork that is priced in the thousands. I would like to say that it's taken me thirty years of working to get good enough to paint it in a short amount of time, which would be true! Years of experience means less time “fixing” things in the painting, plus knowing how to begin or lay the groundwork for future stages.

It is also true that I spend an equal amount of time not painting, but planning the composition and subject and then thinking about how I'm going to paint it and what colors to emphasize. I think it is of utmost importance to know what the painting is about. Whether working from life or photo references, it is connecting strongly with something about what you're looking at that is the essence of the painting, and this strong connection will carry you through to the end. You are painting your response to what inspired you to paint. For me, it can be something as small, subtle or vague as a suggestion of a light effect I can emphasize in the painting. Once I've started, I spend a lot of time just looking at it and thinking about how I'm going to proceed. I guess this counts as painting time too.

I am not offended when asked this question, but I do try to take the time to educate people on the process if they're interested enough to ask it!

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Painting in Progress

Here are the stages of a typical painting of mine while in progress.  My favorite way to begin is to tone the canvas with thinned paint and, using a rag, wipe away the light areas to create the drawing. This also establishes the values and light effect I want right from the start. When dry, I add some lines and dashes of color to get started. I like to work from the background forward, pretty much alla prima. 

Anatomy of a Corporate Art Project....

...or how a broken lawn mower led to a lucrative commission!

 

Chapter One: Inspiration

Our riding lawn mower was broken and repair took awhile. Spring had sprung, and some tiny little weeds shot up tall in our front yard. One afternoon, I realized how lovely the delicate little sunlit lavender blooms looked against the shadowed azaleas in the afternoon light. I ran for my camera and later cropped the photos into a composition that appealed to me. At the time I had been wanting to paint something with a more contemporary flavor for my gallery in Atlanta.  The result was "Yard," a 40x30 oil, pictured.

Yard.jpg

A little while later, I painted a 36x48 diptych version on two vertical gallery-wrapped canvasses, changing the flowers to red.

Chapter Two: You Never Know Who's Looking at Your Website

One day I received an email from an agent for a regional corporate art consulting firm. They were interested in my providing a price quote for a large version of the diptych I had painted, "Leaves of Grass." The consulting firm had a large hospital expansion project in Jacksonville, FL and was interested in two 48x60s. I gave them my price plus the cost of shipping/delivering. Not long after, I got the contract! There was a bit of a rush to get the paperwork going so I could be paid a deposit and get started.  At the time, I was in a gallery in Jacksonville and wanted to combine a gallery delivery trip with hand delivering the finished project paintings to the art consultants, who were going to be in Jacksonville installing some of the artwork in a few months. But the agent was in California, I was in Georgia and the art consultants were in Tennessee, which was no problem except for having to buy and install the right software so I could e-sign the contract, etc. That took time, and then I had to figure out how to use the software and sign my name, initial pages, etc.  Did I mention I was in a hurry?  Oh dear....

me with original Leaves of Grass diptych

me with original Leaves of Grass diptych

Chapter Three: A Big Giant Mistake

 

I got the contract emailed, the art consultants paid me to get started, and I began happily painting away. No, it's never that simple, is it? My car at the time could only accommodate ONE 48x60 canvas at a time, so my husband, who has an extra large truck bed, had to drive me to the art supply store to buy the two canvasses. I really enjoyed the initial stage of painting. As you can see in the photo below, my favorite method to work involves toning the canvas and then wiping away the light areas with rags. This places all the shapes, establishes the value range and light source and creates interesting, exciting little marks and suggestions of foliage. After this initial stage, it's as if everything is in there and I just have to pull it out.

After many hours, starting with the background and working forward into the hundreds or thousands of blades of grass, it was check in time. Per our contract, I was to send a photo of the project at the halfway point. Imagine my absolute horror when I received the following email from the art consultant: "Rani, it looks beautiful, but you do realize it's supposed to be horizontal?" What? Let me read that again! And slowly it dawned on me: I had just assumed that, since they had based this commission on my vertically-oriented diptych, this would just be a larger version of it. I had not read the fine print in the contract due to being in such a hurry to get it signed and returned, and it clearly stated two horizontal 48x60s.  

project in progress. Notice the VERTICAL orientation!

project in progress. Notice the VERTICAL orientation!

Well with no time to waste, I grieved for about a minute and then moved my Big Giant Mistake Diptych to an unused bedroom with the other unsold 48x60s (yes, there are others!). Had to go buy two new canvasses.  But wait! My local store only has two, and one of them is damaged! Had to hunt some down online...I live in a rural area and had I not been able to find two that large, I would have had to get them in Atlanta with another day used up. My sweet husband and his big truck drove me down to a store in Albany Georgia which had what I needed. I painted my hands off: it was difficult having to paint individual blades of grass several feet tall on such a large painting. I painted the edge of a metal yardstick and pressed it onto the painting to make the stems of the weeds straight...and there was twice as much grass to paint now because of the horizontal orientation. But I finished in time! We drove down to the new, vast hospital complex and met up with the art consultants who were on their last day of hanging the artwork. Though a diptych, the two paintings were going to be hung in their own niches separated by a section of wall. It was very gratifying to be present while they were hung and the art glowed coming down the hallway. It was a successful project, not my first, but my largest, and I'm looking forward to more. I have proposals in place with the same hospital's new cancer center and with the same consulting firm for a hospital elsewhere in Florida. We shall see.

But what happened to the Mistake Diptych? Some paintings have tortured lives. After making myself finish the vertical version, I consigned it to a gallery in Jacksonville who was excited to offer it to a big client of theirs, the Mayo Clinic. Unfortunately, after thirty years in business, the gallery suddenly closed and declared bankruptcy. I was lucky to get most of my paintings back and did retrieve the diptych, but one of my paintings was unaccounted for and I was never paid, as were many of the artists at that gallery who lost numerous works.  "Leaves of Grass III" was featured at my recent show at Lagerquist Gallery in Atlanta, and I've got my fingers crossed that it will find a home!

The moral of this story:  Always read the fine print.

installation view, "Leaves of Grass II" at Baptist South Medical Center, Jacksonville, Florida

installation view, "Leaves of Grass II" at Baptist South Medical Center, Jacksonville, Florida