What not to ask an artist (and how not to answer)

A common question I get from people who are looking at my art is “how long did it take to do that?” I’ve always hated that question.

For one thing, I’m not usually looking at a clock when I’m creating something, so I usually don’t know the honest answer. But for another thing, I always have a feeling that telling you how many hours, weeks, or months I spent actually drawing or painting the thing won’t accurately reflect the energy I put into creating it. It won’t reflect the time I spent thinking about my art, the time I spent preparing to create a particular piece, it won’t reflect the many times I tried and failed to create art over the years.

I also get the feeling that if I say a short amount of time then you’re going to resent me for not taking longer. That if I say a long amount of time, you’re going to marvel at the amount of time I’ve wasted. You could be annoyed that I’m expecting to be paid for something I can do relatively quickly, you could think I’m a fool for devoting a large chunk of my life to creating something that you don’t think measures up.

There’s no good answer to the question.

On the other hand, I’ve learned to appreciate that people who ask the question are taking an interest in my work. They want to know more. Or, at minimum, they’re trying to have a conversation about something they don’t really understand. Looking at another artist’s work, it would never occur to me to wonder how long it took to create it, because it’s truly not relevant to the effect of the piece. But if a patron doesn’t feel the emotional impact of the art, then they can’t be blamed for only viewing the piece as a result of talent and/or hard work, something that would commonly be expressed in number of hours, week, or months spent completing the task. Of if they are having an emotional reaction to the work, but don’t know how to respond verbally, then they should not be made to feel excluded from the process. The artist shouldn’t close the door.

So I’ve resisted the temptation to respond to the question in a snide or disrespectful way. How long did it take me to draw this portrait? About 30 years. Because that’s the amount of experience I bring to the task. It’s how long it took me to acquire the knowledge and the skills that led me to create this minor drawing that you’re looking at today.

But I also won’t apologize for being good at what I do. If it only took me an hour to create this drawing, and you have a preconceived notion that it must have taken me a week or a month, well, then I’m going to mislead you. I’m not going to minimize my efforts by clocking them in at precisely 58 minutes and 37 seconds. If you ask, I’ll probably tell you that I spend a lot of time creating art and certain aspects of it take longer than others.

I’m going to be vague. Or I’ll just lie.

How long did it take me to do this? You can’t even imagine.