This is a question that annoys artists, either because they fear that if they say they finished a painting in a day, the questioner will think that it is easy work, or if the artist says it took them several years, they will appear incompetent.
When recently asked this, I asked the questioner, “Do you mean how long did it take me to do the painting, or how long did it take me to execute the painting? ” More and more lately, I find that the real work of the painting takes place for months and even years in my head. By the time I apply paint to canvas, I am executing something that I have already been painting in my head for a long time.
I found a similar description of VanGogh’s process in the recent biography of him by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. The entire description is too long to quote here, but can be found on pages 616 – 619 of the book. Here are some of the salient points:
Just as his campaigns of persuasion unfolded over many letters, and his letters sometimes went through multiple drafts, his paintings often gestated for weeks or months or even years before brush touched canvas. The image of a vase of sunflowers had been in his head since at least a year earlier when he saw a bouquet of flowers in the window of a Paris restaurant near Theo’s gallery. At the time, he had painted a series of individual blossoms, arranged in a morbid narrative and depicted in the descriptive, backward-looking draftsman’s style of The Hague. In the year since, however, Vincent had discovered the new testament of Cloisonnism*, and the image of sunflowers in his head took new form and new color.
. . . he had prepared for his series of sunflowers with hours of careful calculation: calculations of everything from the size and orientation of each canvas to its exact color scheme and the amount of paint it would consume, color by color. Only through this kind of elaborate advance planning, with his mind “strained to the utmost “could he hope to produce” a quick succession of canvases quickly executed.”
*Cloisonnism is a style of post-Impressionist painting with bold and flat forms separated by dark contours. The term was coined by critic Edouard Dujardin on the occasion of the Salon des Indépendants, in March 1888. Artists Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, Paul Gauguin, Paul Sérusier, and others started painting in this style in the late 19th century. The name evokes the technique of cloisonné, where wires (cloisons or “compartments”) are soldered to the body of the piece, filled with powdered glass, and then fired. Many of the same painters also described their works as Synthetism, a closely related movement. [Wikipedia]