Painting and Time

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Painting is quite old and hard to fool. –Tad Spurgeon

In Living Craft, Spurgeon calls out time as the first "material" used to make paintings. He speaks of "extra-logical," emotional time, time experienced by the mind of the painter, rather than purely physical time measured by clocks. His remarks frame an invitation to contemplate how one experiences time in the studio and what time means to painters (and, by extension, viewers).

There is no question that paintings take time to make, sometimes a lot of time… from minutes to hundreds or thousands of hours.1 Much contemporary activity seems to be oriented around saving time, but a single painting can take the kind of time jobs take, or marriages, or kids2. To me, this slowness is part of painting's appeal, one of the reasons that it remains relevant today (as an antidote, at least). Becoming a painter has meant, for me, learning how (and why) to spend that kind of time at the easel… on many paintings at once, switching them as drying times and inspiration require, or on just one at a time.

Paintings connect the present moment of painting (or viewing) with various points in the past and future. This moment, this tip of this brush containing this much of this color and this consistency of paint with this precise location on this surface, and this breath, this experience of the image reaching the eye and brain, all relate to:

Every moment of painting is in dialogue with all these other moments and time scales. This conversation of material and mind is far greater than any one person, but it is available while you work, or look, right now.

:Ὁ βίος βραχύς,

ἡ δὲ τέχνη μακρή,

ὁ δὲ καιρὸς ὀξύς,

ἡ δὲ πεῖρα σφαλερή,

ἡ δὲ κρίσις χαλεπή.

Vita brevis, ars longa, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile.

(Life is short, and art long, opportunity fleeting, experimentation perilous, and judgment difficult.3)


They also take time to get to, and to digest once you get a chance to see them.


For an example, see Ivan Albright's painting, That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door), which took ten years to complete.