• Karen Thomas

"How long did that take you?"

Of all the questions I'm asked at shows, this is the one that crops up most often. If you think about it, it's a very natural and obvious one to ask ... how to take an interest without straying too far into the rather scary (for the uninitiated) territory of artistic inspiration, where an answer could have you trapped on the spot for a few hours if you're unlucky!

However, it's not an easy one to answer. It's often a running joke between exhibitors at art fairs, collecting and inventing glib answers to this question that seek to divert the questioner. I've used several myself in my time, and often smile as I hear fellow artists reply to this one. "All my life" is a popular one. "About 30 years practice" is another. "Copying is quick, but coming up with something original takes ages" comes closer to it.

What's the issue? Most artists and artisans struggle to put a time on their work. Watercolour artists feel particularly vulnerable when faced with this question, partly because the best watercolour is the one that remains fresh ... not 'overworked'. Inevitably, fresh equals swift and decisive. How much time does it take to achieve swift and decisive? Enough of you have seen me at shows to know that I often demonstrate one painting in the morning and another in the afternoon. That sounds very fast to some people. But these are often quite familiar subjects. When they're not familiar subjects, one of three things are likely to have happened ...

1. I may have been 'sitting' on a painting I want to create for ages. This happened recently when I met and photographed a very friendly urban fox in the evening, strolling around after dinner in Chertsey when I was exhibiting at RHS Wisley. I didn't get a chance to paint him straight away, but was dying for an opportunity, and painted him while on my stand at Devon County Show. I'd been working out how I'd tackle him in paint all the time I was driving too and fro for these events.

Urban Gent
Urban Gent

2. I may have woken up at 3am with a composition, clear-as-crystal in my head, for a particular painting. This happens often! In these cases, inspiration has snuck in and my subconscious will have been churning away for days. When this happens, I seize the next available opportunity to get what's in my head down on paper. But it already feels familiar.

3. I'm presented with the 'perfect' image to paint. By perfect, I mean one that speaks to me. Stirs my emotions. Excites my vision. This happened recently when I was approached with a commission request by a fellow exhibitor at Devon County Show. I was entranced with the photograph she gave me, and locking eyes with it I immediately knew just how I'd alter the composition, approach the subject, and what atmosphere I wanted to create with it. I couldn't resist creating it there and then.


Examples 1 and 2 above clearly demonstrate the hours of behind-the-scenes thinking time, above and beyond what visitors saw when they stood and watched swift brushstrokes. Also above and beyond the hundreds of hours spent accumulating 'brush hours' and confidence with my chosen medium. Example 3 ... well, it's why I paint so much. All the practice, experience, training observation skills coming together in one glorious afternoon when I could revel in my ability to bring this scene to fruition, making the recipient very happy indeed and more than a little bit surprised!

I think artists are more hung up on equating time with value than most people! Rather than giving evasive answers to hide our finely-honed skills, I like to think of it another way. Think of the rugby fly-half (Jonny Wilkinson in my day) whose hours upon hours of obsessive kicking results in an unbelievable success rate. Think of the top Chinese calligraphers, whose single strokes can convey so much. Roger Federer with his reaction time of 0.62 seconds to return on a serve. How long did that take them?

As always, thanks for reading :)