If your horizons are going cuckoo, if things don’t form up as well as they used to, or you’re having trouble finding your colours, it may mean the advance of painterly senility. Not fully reserved for the elderly, this can also come about at any age by doing too much, too little, not looking, not caring, or not being in touch with your muse.
While beginning artists may do poor work because of undeveloped skills, mature artists may do poor work because they are losing facilities. Somewhere in between there’s a period of proficiency and relative fulfillment. Most artists agree that this middle period should be dragged out as long as possible. At the same time, most of us have observed aged artists who are sharp and proficient right up to the last ambulance. Genes play a part, but it’s mostly about attitude and lifestyle.
Success in hanging onto your artistic chops may be hard to measure, but a related faculty, the maintenance of memory, is well-documented. Researchers at the Harvard Medical School have some suggestions for you:
Keep learning. Keep challenging and exercising the brain in order to stimulate communication between the brain cells. It’s important to keep learning new skills.
Don’t smoke. Smoking harms the brain as well as the lungs and heart. Smokers perform worse than non-smokers in studies of memory and thinking skills.
Be sociable. Close ties with others can improve mental performance. Social relationships provide support during unpleasant times.
Exercise. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Getting your juices flowing gets your creative juices flowing too.
Eat your vegetables. Researchers find that veggies are vital to brain function. Even better than fruit. It’s the vitamin E in the greens, and the oil in the dressing.
Manage stress. Stress distracts from learning, memory, thinking, and creativity. With stress, brain chemistry changes and your hippocampus can become damaged. There’s nothing worse than a damaged hippocampus, I always say.
PS: “I do not wish to become senile before I’ve finished what I’ve undertaken.” (Paul Gauguin)
Esoterica: Many creators have given thought to art and aging. Some have concluded that art itself extends life. “With age, art and life become one.” (Georges Braque) “Great work can come at any stage.” (Will Barnet) “None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” (Henry David Thoreau) “I cannot die until I have made the most of my talent.” (Kathe Kollwitz) “With creative work, you don’t have age or time.” (Louise Nevelson) “How much music can I make with the time I have left?” (Itzhak Perlman)
“For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
The excitement of art
by Kate Hoekstra
Sounds like we all have a touch of the poet John Keats‘ lament, “When I have fears that I may cease to be, before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain.” But isn’t that the excitement of art? To know that there is more than one can ever consume in a lifetime.
Feeling young again!
by Steve Randall, Sioux Falls, SD, USA
In 1968 I was a US Army combat artist in Vietnam. I didn’t pick up a brush again until three years ago when my wife enrolled me in a landscape painting class as a birthday present. Now I can’t wait to get out painting (no studio in this house) and I’ve been taking life drawing classes at a local college so that I can work more figures into my paintings. Painting en plein air is a real workout, but I feel so young again!
Art skills not lost
by Susan McCrae, Brampton, ON, Canada
Neurologist and researcher in Alzheimer’s and dementia, Luis Fornazzari, tells me of patients he has observed who have lost their short-term memory, most of their communications skills and other cognitive bits, but have still retained the ability to paint a portrait, play complex classical piano pieces or perform other feats of art. It seems that art, in addition to sometimes extending and stimulating the retention of cognitive skills, may be what remains after most of those abilities are gone.
Age not an issue
by Bernard Victor, London, UK
Age does not seem to make a lot of difference to the active artist. The life group I belong to is run by Reg Eldridge who is over 85 and painting as well as ever and selling more than he did when younger, and he smokes like a trooper. We also had a lady who exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2005, her first time since she exhibited after graduating from Glasgow College of Art in 1939. She said she would like to get in again before she died, which she did, but unfortunately she died suddenly last year. It seems that painting is one faculty that does not desert you.
(RG note) Thanks, Bernard. It may not be the distance; it may be the pace. Significant painters, such as Canada’s A. Y. Jackson, have stated that there may be only 4500 (other numbers have been noted) paintings to be had in a lifetime. Indeed, many successful, prolific artists are seen to be prematurely vacant, formless and sloppy.
Draw the ‘lazy 8’
by Janet Lee Sellers, Monument, CO, USA
Keeping oneself physically and mentally engaged keeps one young. Our mind hasn’t got a clue how old it is, and our minds and bodies show only wear and tear or good upkeep. A superb and simple exercise to clear the mind and balance the body is to simply draw the figure ‘8’ on its side (called a lazy 8), huge, large or small for both eyes to track together following the hand. Do it in the air or on a page, with or without a tool, standing (best) or sitting… Crossing the midline of the body in the rounded 8 that way offers amazing results… the brain and body get a tune up together, in seconds. Try it and let me know how it works for you.
Children teach and motivate
by Dorenda Watson, Columbus, OH, USA
I have found that working with children (teaching occasional art classes with local groups for 26 years now) keeps my art fresh, keeps me motivated and keeps me young at heart. I learn to see art through the eyes of the children and they teach me so much! They are also VERY honest in critiques! In addition, I have the greatest satisfaction knowing that I am passing down my skills to be expanded on as my art teachers did with me — progression — it’s a great thing! I think one of the worst things an artist can do is stagnate into a certain style or genre for life. It’s all about growth, and the growth of the artist should never stop.
New perspective with glasses
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA
Having had 20/20 vision until two years ago, the necessity of wearing glasses for drawing now has been very disorienting, so it has definitely affected the amount of energy required to complete my work. As far as painting is concerned, odd, but it could be a benefit because I’m accustomed to squinting anyway during various stages of progress. Look, Monet gradually lost his sight toward the end of his life, developing a loose style that many Artists now aspire to achieve, and from the Art Historic point of view this contributed to a breakthrough. Last year while drawing a series of animal portraits, when I returned to work after giving the ol’ peepers a break, I found this reminder to try and keep the humor, try to “see” beyond; there’s a whole new perspective from this side of the glasses.
Keep moving, keep learning
by Susan Jenkins, Cambria, CA, USA
I started painting professionally at forty after raising my family and becoming single. Started from scratch. Having been a self-supporting painter for 25 years (I am 64), I have found more than anything else I got bored with certain aspects of my work. I was a very successful realist painter and one day just could not do it any more. I should say I wouldn’t do it any more. That was about 13 years ago. I found that I was doing realism because I was making a living at it, not for the love of it! It was starting to show. Then went to impressionism, had a blast, worked hard to learn it, sold well and went on to abstract and since I am self-supporting I now am back to realism (ha, ha) but with a looser style and occasionally wild and fun stuff. I also teach and travel to give workshops. The key is to keep moving! Keep learning! Also, eat a lot of veggies for a high energy level and learn how to manage stress.
Struggles of earlier greats
by Bill Skuce, Sooke, BC, Canada
As pain creeps into my hands, I recall Renoir and reading of his hands and fingers being so crippled with arthritis he could hardly hold a brush, and Michelangelo, who began the end wall of the Sistine Chapel after he turned 60 and in his late ’80s lamented, “I have only just begun to understand my craft.” I think of the many painters whose eyesight failed them miserably and some, like Matisse and Georgia O’Keeffe who dealt with it in different ways… Georgia delayed the onset of failing eyesight by assiduously doing eye exercises. Matisse, though blind, coped by cutting his created shapes out of coloured paper.
I’ve noticed that a number of distinguished artists, as they move into the latter stages of their career, becomes somewhat more crude and unfinished looking while gaining in expressive power. As examples, the work of John Constable and Michelangelo’s sculpture. A sense of urgency?
Update and maintain the muse
by Chantell Van Erbe, NJ, USA
Art shall forever transcend its creator. In due course, the big studio in the sky beckons. With this knowledge brings a looming pursuit to make a mark, expressing as many ideas onto canvas as humanly possible. Vitality should be a priority. With good mental and physical health, this goal can be achieved.
In a sense, artists are creative shadow boxers, chiefly contending against themselves. One can easily fall prey to mental stagnation if their standard of living is not kept current. Computers need constant updating and so do we. It’s all about maintaining the muse. Visit contemporary as well as traditional art shows and museums. Isolation and resistance to present information is a recipe for mental decline. Always be willing to try something new like that exotic restaurant downtown or the latest mathematical and word games. Omega oils found in fish and nuts are an excellent way to keep the mind on point. And it is advantageous to have friends in different age brackets.
Among the various benefits of having a career in art, comes professional longevity. Age discrimination is not much of an issue either. One can freely paint and exhibit with pride until his or her golden years, without any concerns of feeling obsolete. Harvey Dinnerstein is the perfect example. His style, color palette and creative approach have only strengthened with age.
The brain will adapt
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada
I have observed quite a few artists, mostly elderly, who have gone through a major stress and disruption in their lives, such as the loss of a spouse, serious illness or injury, including deteriorating eyesight or loss of hand mobility. After some absence from painting, most experienced some sort of decline in ability, but those that worked through it and kept on painting, did find that the spark and the competence returned. This is true even for those artists in their nineties. The lesson I guess is not to give up, keep painting and the brain will adapt to whatever new conditions it has to work with. And the process of painting itself helps to relieve the stress, even if the paintings we do when the stress is most intense or the disability most severe, end up in the bonfire. Painting is a healing experience, and guides us back to wholeness in its own way and in is own time. A comforting thought indeed.
Active, not old
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
>I live in a country where people start practicing to be old the tenth year out of university. Sure enough they are OLD by 45 or 50. At 69 I still work fifty hour weeks: full time teaching English plus a university level history course and get 15 plus hours a week in the studio, do eight to ten art fairs per year and I have learned two more languages since I was 50. I go running twice a week in winter and 40 mile/day bike rides in summer. I am quite addicted to stress. Two liters of red wine per week and a young wife also help. I do not understand ‘retirement.’ Brain seems to work fine except I have to make more lists of routine things I need to do. Ideas keep rolling but so does the calendar. Blood sitting in the ass is a long way from the brain.
Art gives hope and comfort
by Lynda Lehmann, NY, USA
Though doing art will not likely keep me sane, smart, or prolong my life, it’s the only pursuit I can think of that keeps me immersed in joyful productivity. It’s so engaging and exciting (most of the time…) that I forget the myriad problems that rankle me, including the horrors of the human condition that we see so much of everyday. The older I get and the more vulnerable I feel, the more art is my solace and my cushion. And it’s perfectly joined to and compatible with my love of nature. Without these two companion interests, I think I would lose courage. The world becomes fresh and hopeful and new, when we create.
Steadiness with age
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I am grateful for the experiences that have brought me to this age. Though the essence of who I am has always been there for me, even in youth, I didn’t have the steadiness that I have now. Confusion in the form of doubts and fears was more the norm. Now they appear to me as ghosts when I feel weak and am not taking initiative or responsibility for my life. Doubts when faced honestly are excuses. Fears are a lack of trust. With more experience in living on this planet, doubts, fears and uncertainty have less influence on my well being and how I step into the world. Being an artist is a career, but its richness and power comes because it is inextricably who I am and how I am. It allows for perpetual intrigue, curiosity and enthusiasm for the wonders of life. As long as I am breathing I must be creative, and if I fail to honor my creativity, I will surely stop breathing!
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Valerie Norberry of Kalamazoo, MI, USA who wrote, “Also, take a couple laps around your easel every 45 minutes or so! Especially after age 60: Exercise Reduces Dementia Risk, Miia Kivipelto, MD, PhD, Karolinska Institute’s Aging Research Center Special from Bottom Line/Health.”
And also Kathy Zerler of St. Joseph, MI, USA who wrote: “We are not old until we’ve lost all our marvels.”
And also Jane Champagne of Southhampton, ON, Canada who wrote, “I spoke to my hippocampus after reading today’s letter and it allowed as how it had been damaged by four surgeries in three months – and could recover after the fifth and sixth in April. I was relieved because I thought I had totally lost the muse, but thanks to your letter, I know why. Seriously, though, the surgeries were to remove cancer of the nose and most of the nose with it, no doubt acquired from too much painting outdoors without a hat before I knew better. A warning to plein air artists everywhere.”
And also Cathy Sutton of Winnipeg, MB, Canada who wrote, “I enjoy your letters immensely. I’m a Realtor by profession and use a BlackBerry for email when I’m away from home. Some of my clients think I am strange beyond belief when I tell them I am reading an email about art while they look at a house!”
And also Dave Brown who wrote, “One of the most influential books I’ve read is Colin Wilson’s The Philosopher’s Stone in which he makes the case for artistic insight — that ‘aha’ moment — being the trigger to longevity.”
And also Julie Hutchingson who wrote, “My family is currently going through a detox process for lead which I passed to my children at birth. We are addressing our own health as a number one priority. And I can see change in all of us. The sooner you take care of yourself as a whole body, the more your spirit can make a print on the world.” (Safe Start Instructor)
And also Bev Barrett of Cape Town, South Africa who wrote, “I love the no-nonsense, non-commercial aspect of your letter and group, as it’s very rare among all the blah blah. Living in a far distant rural farming area of the Western Cape in South Africa, I am pretty much isolated. No workshops and inspiration from other artists.”
And also Sasha Lyn who wrote, “I’d add one more thing to your list: Get regular eye checks. As a nurse, I have repeatedly heard that following cataract surgery, a lot more blue suddenly becomes visible again. And women who have been wearing way too much orange-toned blush start using more appropriate color and amounts of color. (For some of us, a cheek or eyes are just another form of canvas.)”
And also Tom Disch who wrote, “I think keeping active in one’s art does have preserving power. Witness the number of very long-lived conductors. Painters also are long-lived and keep on going like Energizer bunnies, some of them. Titian! Picasso! O’Keeffe! I think any painter knows why: Painting just plain makes you feel good.”
And also Cathy Fink of Nemaiah Valley, BC, Canada who wrote, “I have no age when I walk into my studio. Age gets left behind out there, along with the dirty dishes and the dust balls. With every year I spend creating, age becomes less important, whether it be my age or anyone else’s. It’s a fringe benefit of the creative life.”