Last Tuesday Michael Epp of Bowen Island, BC, Canada wrote, “I was intrigued by what you see as Norman Rockwell’s decline with age. Do you think artists must inevitably suffer a waning of their powers as they grow older? I would like to think that, unlike athletes, for example, we can just keep getting better and better.”
Thanks, Michael. The Canadian painter A.Y. Jackson called it “painterly senility.” He thought it had something to do with the number of paintings painted. “Every painter has 2,500 paintings in him,” he said, “no more, no less.”
When I heard that statement (in a radio interview in 1974) I was already up to 7,000. I briefly figured I was prematurely on my way to the old painters’ home, but I was wrong, and so was he.
True, when an artist reaches a critical volume of work, a sort of jaded blindness can easily set in. It’s a failure of sight and it’s sometimes difficult to spot. Curiously, the artist doesn’t see as well what he saw so well when he was beyond amateur and nearing peak power. A few of the typically overlooked failures include crooked or sloppy horizon lines, poor tone values, amorphous forms, impatient, unresolved passages or the hasty skimming over of areas that were once well understood but now either lack challenge or are bedeviled by repetition or boredom.
To beat the problem, artists need to put two main concepts into play. First is increased vigilance — the artist needs to rethink all passages and try to reassess them “baby eyes new.” Second is the refurbishing of youthful confidence. These two apps in tandem, like the combination of exercise and puzzle games for elderly folks, go a long way toward staving off creative vacuity and process bewilderment. It works. Delusion or not, many older artists tell me they now take a longer time to do their work, but by all accounts their work looks just as fresh.
More than anything, creative aging means keeping the mind alive to possibilities. In the art business, one never stops learning. Apart from the intervention of something truly disruptive like Alzheimer’s, staying vital in your work is a matter of attitude. Rockwell’s “tightening up” at the end was minor. Emphysema killed him at 84 — the legacy of a lifetime of smoking.
PS: “Time growing old teaches all things.” (Aeschylus)
Esoterica: Oscar Wilde said, “The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything.” In coping with aging, artists do well to think about Oscar’s idea. When growing old, we need to know that we still know everything. We need to rekindle our suspicions of the shibboleths we have glossed over and taken for granted. And we need to stop believing in all forms of nonsense, particularly the idea that we are “losing it.” Aging is an adventure that requires the application of new and previously untested skills. “Come grow old with me,” said Robert Browning, “The best is yet to be.”
Inspiration from Monet
by Collette Fergus, Waikato, New Zealand
I’d like to think that artists only improve with age and of course the experience they gain along the way, it doesn’t require youthful muscle strength like it does for physical type jobs or the stamina required to work all hours etc, etc. However, the points you mention like the deterioration of our senses are something I guess we have to deal with. I do take inspiration from Monet, however, who was almost blind when creating some of his fabulous masterpieces.
Out of bed and into art
by Brian Crawford Young, Forres, Scotland
My understanding is that Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997), the New York abstract expressionist, carried on painting even when he had advanced Alzheimer’s and could no longer even recognise his wife. Perhaps it has something to do with muscle memory? Or maybe the fact that since his bed was right there in the studio he could just tumble out of it and start painting. At any rate, maybe it’s easier for expressive and expressionist painters to carry on as before although, as I’m always saying, spontaneity takes a lot of practice.
(RG note) Thanks, Brian. Tip: Tumbling out of bed directly into painting is a time-honoured ploy for creative continuity, although I do not recommend not recognizing your wife on the way out. I did it once and found the results unsatisfactory. Before I do anything I always bring her a coffee and the newspaper. Thus I can squeeze paint with a clear conscience which I think in itself makes me less confused and helps dodge the slippery slope into painterly senility. I could be wrong.
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The joy of learning
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I plan to paint until I die. I’m soon to be 62. I am just beginning to learn some new things about painting, after being a painter for over 40 years. It seems that we must mature for awhile to lose the false hubris of youth and begin to be comfortable in our place as a painter. I only hope that I will be around long enough to learn some more. I see too many established painters who have put themselves into a rut, using the same palette, brushwork, subject for so long that it is rote. Learning at my stage of career is the key to youth and vitality in my work and in my personal life. I look forward to the next challenges.
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Aged master painters
by Cyril Satorsky
The question of whether creativity slows down or diminishes as we grow older is surely different for different people, and all people are different. Clearly we tend to slow down physically as we age but think of the marvelous work done by great artists in their later years. Rembrandt’s self-portraits, the one’s done in his old age, are possibly the finest portraits ever painted. Titian still painted well past eighty, Picasso slogged away when close to ninety. I think of him as the masterly raging bull of twentieth century art, an inspiration to us all.
Let’s salute Renoir with hands crippled by arthritis painting masterpieces from his wheelchair. The fabulous Matisse bedridden but doing breathtaking rapturous cut-outs in coloured paper that sing. Just these few show that as they aged their work increased in power of spirit and virtuosity.
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Challenge equals growth
by Catherine Stock, France
My godfather, the prominent South African artist Revel Fox, once told me that I was lucky to be an artist as it was one of the very few vocations where one could flourish creatively as one matured.
When I was an art director in children’s book publishing, I once asked Maurice Sendak if he ever suffered from artist’s block. “ALL the time!” he answered immediately and emphatically. I think there is a message there. If one is constantly challenged, one grows. If one becomes complacent, one stultifies. I think Woody Allen put it something like this: “Relationships are like sharks. If they stop moving forward, they drown.’
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Volume down, quality up
by Samere Tansley, Kingston, Jamaica
At 67 I definitely seem to be slowing down, but I’m just as fired up! I’ve been working professionally and living off my work for over 35 years, and theoretically working 7 days a week. It appears I hit my peak when I was 40. In 1984 I did 44 paintings — now I’m lucky if I complete 12. I work very hard and I think my work is getting better. It’s definitely more ‘finished’ but as for 2500 in a life? Not when it’s detailed realism!
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Aging and loss of sight
by William Scott Wallace, Cincinnati, OH, USA
My father passed away at 93 and, while not an artist, he loved looking at paintings and reading. Before he died, I took him to the Blind Association in Cincinnati, Ohio, where we live. They took an old scrapbook of his young days and blew up all of the photos until he could tell what they were (he suffered macular degeneration). After identifying all of the photos, giving us a wonderful legacy of what the pictures were, we wandered about, discovering some beautiful oil paintings. They were done by painters Ruth Pearlman and another local artist, both of whom were now losing sight to the same condition that afflicted my father. Some of the volunteers at the Blind Center told us that the painters were first somewhat depressed about their slow loss of clear eye sight, yet reflected upon how they still might paint, and they developed a unique and new style for both that featured a wonderful sense of composition, very bold, and use of colour to the extent they could still make the shades out. They received many compliments on their new style.
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Skill of older artists
by Caroline Simmill, Morayshire, Scotland
The art clubs and artists here in the highlands of Scotland are a talented group of creative people who make fresh and interesting art, whatever their age. Our art galleries accept the paintings of those who are in their retirement years. Becoming retired means this is the time for them to start or continue an artistic journey that will enrich their days. I have looked with interest at the paintings of those in their autumn and winter years and often find them full of life, skill and beauty. I was invited to a couple of art clubs recently to work with them on a ‘painting misty trees’ workshop. A few of the retired artists were much older, yet when it came to everyone painting their version of misty trees together, I can honestly say their work was as fresh, skilled and beautiful as the younger members’ work. Had all the works of the class been put before me without my knowledge of who had painted them, I would not have known who were the older artists. This is why art is so wonderful. It is something you can embrace fully at any age — what you need is the desire and the light from within to make it happen.
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Old masters who died young
by Al Phillips, AL, USA
In Hereward Lester Cooke’s book, Painting Lessons from the Great Masters, in the Introduction pages 15 and 16, under the paragraph, “The Age Factor,” he writes:
“The term ‘old masters’ conjures up an image of bearded figures as remote as the founding fathers. And yet many of the old masters were not old. Raphael died when he was 37; Gericault when he was 33; Watteau when he was 37; Giorgione when he was about 33; van Dyck when he was 42. Others, by contrast, lived to a ripe old age, like Titian who died at 99.
“An interesting point emerges from the study of the lives of the masters: the peak of an artist’s careerthat period when all his energies and talents are brought to a sharp focus and his creative abilities are fully realizedcan occur at any time. It can come between the age of 25 and 60, and usually does not last for more than a few years. In other words, if all the works of an artist were lost except those of his peak years, his standing in the history of art would not, in most cases, change significantly. With Rembrandt the peak came late; with Degas in middle age; with George Bellows it was early.
“This point is very important because painters, who do not achieve success in their youth, often give up. The history of art proves that these young painters are wrong to be discouraged so early. A painter may have to search for many years before he finds the right combination of style, theme, and motivation which will realize his potentialities.”
By the way, if my memory serves, Norman Rockwell suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in his later years, which could account, at least partially account, for his waning creative capability.
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New adventures heighten creativity
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
Our eyesight goes, we tremble more, we become less certain and fall back on old formulae, we lose our sensitivity to colour, we spend more time blathering to clients and generally waste more time, but foremost is that many of us lose the will for the struggle to reach an almost impossible goal. To maintain my fighting spirit I like to be with younger artists; I try to see the world through their eyes. I find the freshness of their hopes and goals in taking on the art world inspiring. As an art student interested in painting wildlife I visited many of the old coons in the trade in Netherlands, England, France, Scotland and Sweden. They told me about the ups and downs of the trade, especially in the popularity of their work. None spoke of lapses in creativity, but I got a good look at their work, and was often allowed to delve in their sketchbooks, leafing through their lives — always a humbling and touching experience. I also discovered that in old age many had passed the high of their capacities and were softly falling away. Why? Perhaps there’s a danger when you do endless variations of what you’ve done before, your attention slackens. For the outside world it is easy then to compare what was and what is, and see the difference. Those that fared better in spite of flagging stamina were those that consciously incorporated new adventures with a certain regularity in their working lives. A change of technique, of format, of subject matter, at times going back to basics: to drawing, to sketching new subject matter in the field to refresh their learning capacity.
I also discovered by the way that of these old blokes the best balanced were those who had a wife (since all were men) who supported them unfailingly, reducing the burdens of daily life. Looking back I think the burdens we are given or take on have increased since 1970. I see it among colleagues who used to have time to go out on regular painting sprees, and nowadays simply don’t have the time. Painting with others heightens our senses, makes us sharper, perhaps more so than merely showing with artist friends in an exhibition. It heightens the sense of adventure and exploration. Lose that and creativity is bound to lapse.
Headlights in Blue, 2012
oil painting 24 x 24 inches
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 Bill Winkley of Eugene, OR, USA, who wrote, “Like Madonna and other successful entertainers, we just need to keep reinventing ourselves.”
And also Elizabeth Padgett who wrote, “Keeping on painting keeps your mind working!”
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