How long does it take you to finish a piece?

Posted on Sep 10, 2016

Another artist posed the question:

How long does it take you to finish a piece? Do you plan your drawings before hand?

Here’s my response:

I use to track my time (though there are other options).


I have noticed 3 or 4 tier levels:

  1. DAY (1-10 hours) : Simple work, like a character headshot (note: I don’t do portraits, but I would assume that those take much longer) Though, I’ve seen just absolutely amazing work by Artgerm (Stanley Lau) and Aaron Blaise that only took them a couple hours or so (I cry just thinking about it!), and concept artists tend to have to work very, very fast too. Lee White references this and other timing in the first part of his “How to Make Money in Illustration” series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
  2. HALF-WEEK (15-20 hours) : Just slightly more complex than above.
  3. WEEK-ish (30-50 hours) : One or two characters with a relatively basic background (by “basic”, I don’t mean a gradient. I mean that there are background elements but not as involved as #4)
  4. 2-WEEKS-Beyond (60-80+) : These could have just 1 character with an elaborate background or 3+ characters with a basic-to-heavy background. The more complex each character & the background, the more time it will take.

(Note: This is per the current highly-rendered-and-textured style I’ve been doing, not my line art, vector art, or other simpler styles. Also, this is where I am roughly at right now, as it seems that I can now do work in half the time as to what it use to take, and the work is even of higher quality than before.)

These numbers are a little deceptive though. They can be just in-development drawing & rendering time; not included in the timing would be research, brainstorming, studies, etc.

As Simona discussed, the front work is really quite important.

For instance, gathering ample visual & educational reference on the elements of the piece is of immense help in designing/rendering and bringing narrative & emotional richness to the work. That research covers everything from a wide range of several photos of the particular element in different angles, lighting, texture details, etc. to use as reference to a range of illustrations done by others of that particular element seeing how they handled it to education about that element’s background or way of “operation”, etc. (i.e. the history, science, culture, etc. around that element)

Undoubtedly, this alone could take “endless hours” if you allowed it to. And similarly, doing character/element sketches from different structures, angles, poses, etc. along with value studies, color studies, etc. can add in more “endless hours.”

If you don’t have deadlines, have flexible ones or simply a lot of time allocated to a piece, then you can allow yourself to take as long as you feel you need “right now”. Get a feel for how long it takes to do each portion (research, studies/prep, “final” drawing, rendering, and don’t forget about all the admin stuff: phone/emails/meetings, quoting & invoicing, formatting files, file-folder maintenance, etc.). This will allow you to reverse-engineer the time you have for each portion for when you do have a deadline, because if it takes you a long time to render, you may have to cut down on the amount of studies you really want to do even though it may not be ideal.

Also, per my little note just below the tier-breakdown: How long it takes to paint a piece is quite dependent upon the style you pursue. I’m sure a Dutch/Flemish layered oil painting technique takes insane amounts of time while a highly painterly digital art piece can be pretty quick or a whimsical line-art with simple watercolor wash can be even quicker. Plus, how long it takes can change as you grow more experienced and/or learn new time-saving techniques.

Thank you for this topic! I’m always evaluating my time too!

See more articles at and see the work of Scott Monaco at