A Sandwich That Would Kill You: The Reason Paintings Are So Expensive

This is a painting. For a perspective on how large it is, I have helpfully placed a humble peanut butter sandwich next to it. The bread is slightly larger than standard, but it will suffice for our analogy. I will eat that sandwich for lunch later unless I forget where I put it. That is not a logical location for a sandwich. In fact, I should probably move that sandwich before I proceed with this explanation of the costs involved in making a large oil painting.

Presumably most people who will read this have at some point spread butter onto toast or made a peanut butter sandwich. You have some idea of how much butter or peanut butter it takes to cover a piece of bread.

For the purpose of this analogy, let us say that this tube of paint in my hand is approximately the size of a stick of butter. (This stick of butter will poison you if you eat it. Don’t eat it.)

I use a lot of Williamsburg Cobalt Blue. A tube this size costs around $90. The cheapest tube of paint this size in brands I use costs about $20. (Prices fluctuate with sales and tax rates. Other paints might be cheaper, but they are lower quality and less stable.)

Imagine the size of the pat of butter you use to cover a piece of bread, even if it is melted down to the thinnest possible film. I do that sometimes with poppy oil, which costs about $20 for a Coke can’s volume. I add other media to the paint as well, but let’s keep this simple.

Even if I use the thinnest layer possible, look at that painting. Imagine how many pieces of bread it would take to cover that thing!

When I do use incredibly thin paint, I use layers and layers of it to create effects that cannot be achieved by mixing these colors directly together. I’m using this painting as an illustration of that because you can more clearly see the distinct layers.

I started by painting the entire surface that orangey-yellow color, then painted each layer around that. The warmest parts look closest to you, but are actually the bottom layer. This takes forever! (I’m not complaining, just explaining. I enjoy painting these intricate, detailed compositions. It is very challenging.) Sometimes I’ll work on a large painting for two months for 3-4 hours a day.

Not only does it require a lot of time and patience, but it also means I need a bunch of teeny, tiny brushes.

Look at those teeny things! Aren’t they cute? I kill them with awful frequency. Even if I take really good care of them and spend a lot of care priming and sanding my canvases to make sure they are as smooth as possible, the abrasion of the bristles against the surface makes them frayed and no longer capable of creating crisp, precise lines. The one on the left is made by Escoda, my preferred brand, but each of them costs around $13, depending on size and sales. Bigger brushes cost more. I think the most expensive brush I have right now was around $80. I have a ton of brushes of various sizes, materials, and level of quality.

The painting pictured with the toast has about $60 worth of canvas and $40 worth of primer on it. The cost of the wooden frame on the back varies. For the sake of argument, let’s say that stretcher cost $100. It takes about a day’s work to make such a thing if I were to do so myself. I don’t have access to a wood shop right now, so I sometimes buy them from graduating MFA students.

If we ignore the cost of labor and the time it takes to stretch canvas over the frame, prime it three or four times, and sand it between each coat, I’ve invested $200 in this thing before I even put a drop of paint on it. That doesn’t include the cost of renting studio space or transporting materials.

I’ve explained that it takes a whole lot of butter/paint to cover a surface of this size. Multiply that by a whole bunch for some of my paintings, which have paint about 1/2 inch thick in places!

Now that you know what goes into making a big oil painting, maybe it is less baffling why art is expensive.

I’m going to go eat that sandwich now. I hope you have a great day!

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