How Long Does it Take to Create a Masterpiece?

Problem: Great artists often devalue their own work by not taking the initiative to educate their audience about what it really takes to create it.

Solution: Think of each piece you create as the embodiment of an entire career, not just a moment in time or a commodity to be consumed.


My girlfriend, Jessie, used to be a prolific painter, and nearly every day was filled with some kind of art making. Now, she owns a bakery in Portland and paints cupcakes instead of canvases, but for a long time we went to the local art shows  around town to see what her friends and mentors were up to.

If you’ve ever been to any kind of show where the artist is around to talk about her work, you’ll almost always overhear someone asking, “So, how long did it take you to make that?”

Usually, it’s an innocent question and the person asking is just curious how long it takes a professional to create something they can’t imagine creating themselves. Sometimes, though, the question isn’t so innocent. Sometimes it’s a criticism of an artist’s work. It’s meant as an underhanded way to say, “That’s so simple. I could have made that myself in an hour.” Rude, no doubt, but people do ask.

Far more interesting than the question, though, is the answer. An artist who’s unsure of himself and his work might answer something like, “Oh, it took me about 2 hours, and I used 2 tubes of paint. I screwed up once, so I had to buy a new canvas. It cost about $20.”

On the other hand, the artist that’s confident in his work recognizes the question and simply answers, “My whole life.”

I do a lot of interviews these days (mostly because I say yes to anyone who asks), and once in awhile the question will pop up: “How long did it take you to come up with the idea for”

When the question comes, I have two answers. One answer is, “Oh, about ten minutes.” The other is, “My whole life.” Both are honest, but which one actually tells the whole story?

And what about every other artist who has to face this question when asked about their latest masterpiece? It may have taken them only five minutes to create, but does that really convey the whole story behind the work? Does that really inform anyone?

How long does it take to have a baby? A few hours or nine months? Longer?

The fact of the matter is that it doesn’t really make any difference how long it takes to create something. The only important factor is how much influence it has over people once it’s created. Many of the most world-changing ideas are incredibly simple. Does that make them less valuable? And if they’re so simple, why did they take millions of years of evolution to come to fruition?

Why can someone like Banksy make millions of dollars from what’s essentially graffiti? Why could Jackson Pollock splatter paint on a canvas and make a living? Did they just get lucky? Are they genius marketers? Or, does something about their creations speak very deeply to people because they embody a lifetime of work boiled down to one simple idea? They didn’t get there overnight—they did it through a lifetime of dedicated work.

And what about you? What’s your masterpiece and how long did it take you to create it? Think carefully about your answer.


To learn more about creating great art and making a living doing it, read Mark McGuinness’s writings over at Lateral Action. Image by: Justinsanity