The aging artist

22

Dear Artist,

Older artists don’t necessarily lose their chops. New studies seem to show that the aging process actually improves certain abilities. At McMaster University in Canada, researchers found that elderly people are better able to grasp “the big picture” than younger people. As the big picture is a desirable element in all pictures, this insight has implications for artists both young and old.

Will-Barnet_self-portrait

“Self-portrait”
painting by
Will Barnet (1911-2012)

The study tested young and elderly volunteers. In a series of computer-generated images, the appearance of a set of bars changed while they watched. The bars first appeared small, then larger, in low-contrast and high-contrast. Each volunteer was asked to determine the direction in which the bars moved. Researchers monitored the time it took for them to decide. Younger volunteers took less time when the bars were small, or when the bars were low in contrast. The elderly did better when the bars were large and high in contrast.

 

will-barnet_three-generations

“Three Generations”
painting by Will Barnet

Researcher Patrick Bennett noted, “The results show the odd case in which older people have better vision than younger people.” He concludes that when the young brain sees big, high-contrast objects, it effectively tunes out the rest of the picture. It does so through nerve pathways that help inhibit other signals. Older brains do not inhibit information in the same way. The result is that the older brain requires less time to discriminate certain patterns — and actually performs the task better. Very interesting.

“As we get older, it becomes harder to concentrate on one thing and ignore everything else,” says Bennett. “It takes more effort to tune out distractions. Although it’s not clear if those factors are all linked, performance changes in elderly people may be due to the brain cells’ ability to affect other brain cells. Some brain cells enhance brain signals while others inhibit them.” It seems that older people may be better able to “improvise” and use alternate brain cell areas. Are greater mental freedom and holistic integration part of the payoff?

I’ve often heard older artists say, “Things that used to give me trouble don’t any more, and things that didn’t give me trouble, do now.” I’ve always attributed this remark to learning and practice. Now we might assume this is just part of the aging process. “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.”

Will-Barnet_Madam-Butterfly

“Madame Butterfly”
painting by Will Barnet

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “Age gives you the freedom to do some things you’ve never done before. Great work can come at any stage of your life.” (Will Barnet) “With age, art and life become one.” (Georges Braque)

Esoterica: At the same time, aging is loaded with pitfalls that can erode the valuable innocence and quick grasp of youth. Practically every older artist has noticed that trodden (neural) paths get re-trodden out of convenience and habit. A growing need for order and sense of propriety can take precedence over blind flair. Conditions like homeostatic design tendency and timid brush need to be battled daily. Aging artists (and the young grown old) often need to apply a “vacuum cleaner of the head.” If ever one of these instruments comes on the market, please let us know.

This letter was originally published as “The aging artist” on February 11, 2005.

will-barnet_the-blue-robe_1962

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“As we advance in life it becomes more and more difficult, but in fighting the difficulties the inmost strength of the heart is developed.” (Vincent van Gogh)

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22 Comments

  1. You’d think with age things like drawing skills ,compositional skills, even conceptual skills would get easier but in my experience they do not. They in fact become more difficult. One expects more. Experience is a good teacher but one must never loose one’s objectivity. With objectivity comes self critique.
    Also I would urge younger artists to consider what is to be done with their “inventory” as you get to the other side of your career. What do you do with these hundreds of images you have produced in your hopeful years? Some lucky connected individuals may find institutions or collectors to keep the body of work but some less fortunate find only long term storage facilities.

  2. ‘Aging artists (and the young grown old) often need to apply a “vacuum cleaner of the head.” If ever one of these instruments comes on the market, please let us know.’

    Yes, please let me know. The trouble starts when it seems like you’ve seen it all and done it all. Nothing new to discover, just recycling previous discoveries. The vacuum cleaner might suck all that out and I could start over. When I get old, that is. But wait … the vacuum sounds like dementia. Must be another way.

    “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Samuel Beckett

  3. Some of us were ancient when we were very young- the price one pays for having had more than one lifetime. In my 30s- as I watched hundreds of friends pass over- I never thought I’d make it to 2018- the year I turn 65. But without health insurance- age becomes impossible- even when the work is flowing out at record speed. Where to put it all? Last year my daily reality got way more expensive- yet at the end of the year I was able to expand for 3 months and get some large work done. Unfortunately- the contraction in January proved utterly depressing. And I need a dentist which I can’t afford. So- one more day? Who knows- because I don’t.

    • The reality of health insurance is certainly an ugly visual. Cant we get a large group of artists together (real artists) and get our own group policy at a reasonable cost? Wouldn’t that be a hoot.
      I know so many talented people who have the same issue of no health insurance. Just a thought. Cheers.

  4. ACTUALLY, VISION IS THE KEY WORD….WITH AGE THE EYES OF AN ARTIST LOSE THEIR ACUITY, YET WE SEE PAINTINGS OF THE OLD MASTERS, AND FIND THEY IMPROVED THEIR MASTERY AFTER HAVING CATARACTS AND MACULAR DEGENERATION ….OF COURSE HOLDING A BRUSH WITH HANDS THAT HAVE BECOME ARTHRITIC WAS THE NEXT BIGGEST PROBLEM, AND SOME OF THEM HAD BRUSHES TIED OR TAPED TO THEIR FINGERS….PERSONALLY, AS AN ACTIVE LANDSCAPE, AND NOW PORTRAIT PAINTER, AT AGE 91, WITH SERIOUS MACULAR DEGENERATION, CATARACTS, AND ARTHRITIC FINGERS, MY FELLOW COLLEAGUE ARTISTS TELL ME I’M PAINTING THE BEST I HAVE EVER PAINTED….GO FIGURE.

  5. I will turn 80 this February 18 with Yoko Ono. I paint in watercolor every day. Appointed Chairperson 50th Anniversary Alumni Assoc Class of 1965,/65-CCC Calif College ofArts , Oakland/San Francisco Ca – Nov, 2017
    Invited guest speaker Meyer Library Nov 13, 2016 at the event. Oakland CAmpus

    2017 Listed Lifetime Achievement AWard , Listed Who’s Who in America 2016, 15, 14, 13.

    • HARRY, YOU TOO ARE A SENIOR CITIZEN THAT LIKES PAINTING WOMEN, AND I GOOGLED YOU AND FIND YOUR WORK FASCINATING………………

    • Happy 80th to you, Harry! I create graphite drawings Marilyn Monroe, other celebs, and just turned 62. It’s invigorating to know you paint daily. How inspiring you are for artists to keep on pursuing our passion no matter our age. You’ve made it, and I’m honored to have (informally met you). I also wondered about Yoko Ono, so many greats are missing in today’s world. We need great mentors, and leaders and you Harry, have made it in the art world!

  6. I always find these letters very encouraging.
    Now that I am older as well, it is great to hear some things do improve! I may see better now because I have
    lived a longer time…or maybe it is one of the benefits of aging.

    Finding that my ability to recognize faces I have seen has improved…am a bit quicker at gesture sketches, etc.
    Still, a long way to go. When visiting an art gallery, it’s terrific to look at the work of master painters
    and feel refreshed and renewed and challenged by their legacies.

    Nancy

  7. Artist Laura Coombs Hills was born in Newburyport, MA in 1859. In her early career, she did commercial illustration and extraordinary portrait miniatures. She studied at the Art Students League, exhibited with the Copley Society, Pan-American Exposition 1901 Silver Medal, St. Louis Exposition 1904 Gold Medal, Art Institute of Chicago. She was a member of the National Academy of Design, founding member Guild of Boston Artists.

    In the early 1920’s as demand for her portrait miniatures lessened and her eyesight lost some of its acuity, she turned to floral still lifes in pastel and spent the remainder of her career with successful annual solo shows. The MFA in Boston purchased two of these wonderful pieces and their poster of the “Yellow Dahlias” inspires me in my studio every day. Her last exhibit was of 31 floral pastels at the Guild of Boston Artists, in 1947. Do the math– she was 88 years old. She always supported herself with her work. Sara, it would be lovely to see a few of her pieces gracing these letters some day!

    My notes were taken from information in the booklet “Laura Coombs Hills, A Retrospective”, by the Historical Society of Old Newburyport.

  8. I am 58 and I find as I have grown older my brushwork has become freer and my use of color brighter. I see contrast much better and am not so fiddlely with details. All in all, I think I’ve become a better artist. Age indeed has it’s drawbacks with bad days, arthritis, depression, you name it but it also has its advantages. I look forward to the years to come because it will be filled with experiences that I hope will inspire me.

  9. my last experiment brought me to pebeo products, staimed-glass paints with many versatile textures
    i have done and sold many of my abstracts expressionist.
    i haven’t done amy painting for a while
    I worked on a painting today and for some reason, my way of composing has totally changed..
    More freedom. Less stress, pure pleasure amd beauty…67 years old and passionate for my art

  10. My journey as an artist has evolved into a freedom of expression. Life long learning has been part of my growth as a painter. After working for 42 years, I’m finally there with time, money to support my habit of purchasing art supplies and enjoying the process of painting . My work has become more experimental and diverse in the use of materials. I don’t stick to one medium or subject matter too long. Throughout my life I’ve had three main bodies of work. I get up early each day to do my art ….. I did it for my job for years so why couldn’t I keep going. Time is running out so I’ll keep running my race.
    Great article, Sarah!

  11. With a stock pile of paintings around my home, I don’t feel encouraged to paint, but I do. Just recently did a stippling and a watercolor for a show at my local library to pay tribute to Mico Kaufman who died at 93 in 2016. He was an amazing sculpture, medalist and artists. They can be seen on my website. At 71, soon to reach 72 in March, I continue to use the talents God gave me. As long as I have a desire, I will create art. I am still learning and still amazed at what happens when water and paint meet and mix. Life has become a challenge physically and mentally as I age, but being able to get into my right mind and be released for a few moments, from the things that pull me down, is a joy and blessing. Keep creating!

  12. Edward Walsh on

    It seems to me that the older one gets the more we realize how much we can improve. The process of learning is with everthing in life when you think you have a grasp on it then you should begin to resign to eventaul death because resignation remains in the losing of thought. When the legendary Pablo Casals reached his 95th year, a reporter asked, “Mr Casals, you are ninety-five and the greatest cellist who ever lived. Why do you still practice 6 hours a day? And Mr Cassals answered, “Because I think I’m making progress.” God gives you the match but it is what you do with it using your hands not with what you speculate that makes a difference.

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