The aging artist


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.

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. 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.”

Best regards,


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.


Seeing himself paint
by Julian Merrow-Smith, Porte Gerin, France


“Reflection self”
oil on linen
by Julian Merrow-Smith

Regarding conditions like “homeostatic design tendency” and “timid brush,” I was recently standing in front of several superb Matisses in the collection at the Pompidou Centre in Paris with a fellow English painter Clive Blackmore. I asked Clive whether he had ever seen the film of Matisse painting, to which he replied that he had an old BBC video recording of Matisse painting in which the aging Matisse was horrified to discover the indecisiveness of his brushstrokes. Contrary to his sense of his own mark-making he watched himself (on film) repeatedly make dry runs, drawing in air the mark he was eventually to make. I have to say at the time that was something of a relief.



Time to begin
by Bobbe Bergen Dennis, Boulder, CO, USA


“Nude At Piano”
oil painting
by Bobbe Bergen Dennis

What a can of worms you opened with your comments on “the aging artist!” Perusing the art magazines gives me an uncomfortable feeling since most recent articles feature the young and very young artists. I feel thrown aside since I am over the half-century mark, yet consider myself an emerging artist. Some days I wonder if my efforts are worth the canvas I use. However, I continue to apply paint to canvas believing that my art can contribute some inspiration and pleasure to my audience. I often recall a comment made by Claude Monet at the age of 85. He said that he had finally come to the point where he could “begin to paint.”



Age no barrier
by Bernard, London, England

I belong to a life-painting group organized by Reg Eldridge who is 85 and painting and selling as well as ever. Another friend Bernard Myers, who has had 4 strokes, is 80 in April, still painting and has a show at the New Grafton Gallery in London, UK. If anything he is more adventurous than when he was younger. It seems age is no barrier.


How old are you anyway?
by Cathie Harrison

I think of myself as a young artist even though I have a few decades behind me. As a mother I spent so many years trying to steal a moment of time to even think about art-making, much less doing any art-making. Then a wonderful thing happened, my whole life fell apart and my coping strategy was to return to art school at the age of 48. I was literally in classes with people who could have been my children. But I learned that old brains can function beautifully when stimulated. I could almost feel the physical changes in my brain. I had the sheer pleasure of learning for learning’s sake without worrying about all the stuff young people have to face. One day when I was fretting over ordering a “serious easel” my teacher said to me: “How old are you anyway?” That direct comment made me stop in my tracks and realize that I did not have endless time. Now is the time.


Sees bigger picture
by Kay Cox, Seabrook, TX, USA

As one of those aged artists (I’m 67), I do find I see more of the “bigger picture” and am not sure it has anything to do with my perception of what I actually see (although that has improved with cataract surgery). I find myself frequently in classes with students young enough to be my grandkids and my work is growing and expanding beyond my wildest dreams. I attribute my seeing the ‘bigger picture’ as to having experienced so much more, living through a lifetime of change, joys and grief and a long relationship with the incredible planet I occupy along with a multitude of amazing and diverse folk. I have more to say in my work with much more freedom to say it. I love the courage and freedom that comes with being a crazy old lady… no holds, no barriers, no fear. We need never retire.


Soul never ages
by Alev Oguz, Istanbul, Turkey


oil on canvas
60 x 20 cm
by Alev Oguz

I used to dance when I was very young. I still dance, however with smaller steps rather than big moves. Physically it is not possible to jump that high. However, when I close my eyes while listening to music, I can jump over the moon or dance like a dervish. My soul dances without my feet. I am the music. My feelings haven’t changed a bit, if not become more intense. The soul never ages.






Study the big ones
by Hilde Friese, Stone Mountain, GA, USA

As an older artist and yet a very new one, I am glad to hear that we’ve learned something in our life. Most importantly, every artist expresses out of him/herself. The richness of lifelong experiences therefore has to show up in what we do. A year ago I was in a poetry workshop led by a very sage professor. The youngest person in the workshop was 17 and wanted to know how to go about writing better poetry. The answer was: study the Big Ones that have gone before you! I think the same is true for all art. With that foundation, new and fresh ideas usually put forth true masterpieces from young and old.


Value of wisdom
by Kathy Arnason, Willow Island, Canada

I pondered your writing on aging and decided the only thing missing was “wisdom.” Society has always linked aging with elders and wisdom and seeing the big picture. Our life experiences and our understanding of them become our interpretation. I read recently that we are loosing the skill of being interpretive readers and in general our ability to interpret our lives in relationship to what we are viewing and experiencing. This has nothing to do with one’s ability to view something and comprehend its meaning but has everything to do with how we interpret it in relationship to what it means to us as individuals. In this vast changing world of technology the old saying “stop and smell the roses ” holds even more meaning. If we are to nurture creativity in our youth, we must in our wisdom nurture their ability to interpret. In our wisdom let us not forget, it is the pause that creates the music.


Try something completely different
by Heidi Smith, Spruce Grove, AB, Canada

I haven’t found “the” vacuum cleaner, but can come up with a pretty good alternative. Why not try something completely different from what you normally like to do. One thing that most people feel uncomfortable with is change (the only constant thing there is in life), and as we get older we seem to like change even less. Entrenchment stifles art. I am somewhat of an impressionist — loose strokes for lightness and ease, mainly in acrylics. I have enrolled in the Fine Arts Certificate Program at University of Alberta Extension, where I have just completed a very frustrating, wonderful, informative, intense course in oils, copying the masters from a very knowledgeable young artist (I’m an aging artist). This change literally sucked out the energy in me (like a vacuum cleaner), but I came away with so much more, which I can now apply to my own art with refreshing new life.


New gray matter
by Delores Hamilton, Cary, NC, USA

I figure that if the longevity of my parents is a guide for how long I’ll live, I’ll actually be a working artist longer than I was a teacher and then a technical writer at a computer company. I have worried from time to time if my mind will let me keep creating. Fortunately, almost all of my work is innovative, so I am creating with “new” gray matter, in that sense. As you may detect from my sign-off quote, I also use your quotations page, changing the quotation each week.

“I work in bursts of energy… like mad fires let loose into nervous breakdowns. And it affected everyone in my life. Perhaps it was God’s design to give me a wife who was trained as a psychiatric nurse.” (Alfredo Liongoren)

(RG note) Thanks, Delores. We receive more and more letters from artists who include wonderful quotes that seem strangely familiar. Then we realize where they came from. It’s my sincere wish that you will get value from The Resource of Art Quotations.


What else do we need?
by Barbara Boldt, Fort Langley, BC, Canada


oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches
by Barbara Boldt

I turn 75 in July, and I do not have time to think about numbers. I have to make a living. Age has given me a serenity, and an understanding of who I am and what my limits are. It has helped me to believe in myself and the direction my art has taken. It has validated the preference I have for certain subject matter and the style of my painting. I have come to understand why my realistic style of portraying the things I see is right for me. I do not need to compete with anybody else. I do not have to concern myself with whether my works “say something” other than what they show. Nature is my teacher, my master, and my inspiration. Do we need anything else?


Right time for school
by Janet Vanderhoof, Morgan Hill, CA, USA


“9/11 Cowboy”
original painting
by Janet Vanderhoof

Finally at age 40 I decided to go back to college and study art. I found that I was the oldest in the class. My teacher saw talent in me. I found that my mind was more focused and less distracted than the other students, as well as I took it much more seriously then they did. I was willing to put that extra time in the project and also I noticed I wasn’t as afraid to get to the point with the teachers, since they were the same age as me and we were talking at the same level. I also didn’t have the grace of the extra time that the others did and I wanted to take art lessons from the best and learn as much as I could in as short a time as possible. My ability grew quickly because my goals, based on time and success, were clear to me. Ironically, I believe if I allowed myself to major in art at a younger age, I probably would have been discouraged and maybe would have given up.


We are still learning
by Mona Youssef, Ottawa, ON, Canada


“Purple Iris”
oil on canvas, 8 x 10 inches
by Mona Youssef

The more active that one is while aging, the more intelligence improves and the brain stays fit. Older people may suffer sometimes from “information overload” as a result of neuron loss that affects their short-term memories. However, once new material has been learned, older people can remember as well as their younger colleagues. Acquiring new information activates long-term memories. Says one retiree who started his own company at the age of 65: “God has given us certain talents and he gave them to us to use.” A number of well-known artists and business professionals have done their best work after the age of 60.


The pianist Vladimir Horowitz was not pleased with his performance at the age of 78. He retired and started to work on his performance at the age of 81 and made a triumphant return to the concert stage. Georgia O’Keeffe took up pottery in her late eighties when her eyesight became too weak for painting.

At age 80, the Spanish painter Goya drew a picture of a very old man with the inscription “I am still learning.” We all are still learning about the wonder of creation.



Thinking replaced by reacting
by Kirk Wassell, Chino Hills, CA, USA

I am currently co-authoring a book about learning, and find some interesting comments regarding age versus youth and the idea that as we age we may obtain the ability to focus upon the larger picture more easily. In our book which specifically addresses learning in individual sports, we have given great thought to the other side of the learning experience, which can sometimes be forced upon us, instead of presented in a way that stimulates and nurtures our experience of what we do. Often times it appears that thinking is not really practiced. Sometimes thinking is replaced by reacting. My fondest memories of school come from teachers who stimulated my thinking, not forced me to think. Although I have only written on this subject as an older adult, in a sense these big picture ideas have always been with me. This in no way refutes your thoughts about older adults having the potential to more clearly see the big picture. I have experienced, through my numerous years in the business world, that it was often demonstrated that too few younger colleagues were ever able to functionally see the big picture.


The trouble with axioms
by Charles Nunnelly, Oro Valley, AZ, USA

The art I practice is words with meaning. While I believe axioms may have some value, I really equate them with optimists that never graduated from kindergarten. They are useful in beginning a thought perhaps, but never for finishing it. Plato did not write in axioms and the axiom of Socrates in his questioning was “I don’t know.” To distill ideas in such a fashion only invites more distillation and a feeling of comprehending complex ideas when it simply remains a simple thought not yet fleshed out to an idea.

Optimism and pessimism are very complex attitudes that worm and wriggle this way and that as the occasion demands. Thank goodness they do, or our ignorance would overwhelm us. I feel confident Spinoza was optimistic enough to believe he could complete his work. I feel confident he was pessimistic enough to know it was not finished with an axiom.


See more, know more
by Bryan Dunleavy, Southampton, UK


watercolour abstract
by Bryan Dunleavy

For the most part artists just carry on. The work becomes more obsessive and part of the daily routine. There are those who seek a Japanese-like perfection in what they do, or those, like Picasso, who stick to the same themes but continually renew themselves in different media or techniques. As I grow older I see more, understand more, know more, but am constantly up against the problem that this old engine is not able to work as hard as it used to.




Focus comes from experience
by Karen Gillis Taylor, Niwot, CO, USA


“Trees and River”
pastel, 16 x 20 inches
by Karen Gillis Taylor

When I was a younger artist, ideas came to me in rapid fire, almost in overabundance. I had to sift through what seemed like all equally great things to try. Now that I’m older, I still get a lot of new ideas but am able to temper them. I can be more patient, and wait to see which ideas stick around and should be taken seriously. After years of “weeding out” ideas, it seems like I’m learning to better recognize the things that are worth exploring. There is a focus that comes from experience, maybe because I’ve tried so many things in art, and learned what did not work and what did. It is nice to know that, for an artist, there is a good side to getting older.




Become comfortable first
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA


acrylic on watercolour paper
by Gene Black

I have noticed that many artists start painting after age 40. My belief is that most “self-taught” i.e. did not go to art school) artists find their voice in painting once they have become comfortable with their lives. I believe that once I had become established, I was able to slow down and look at my world in greater depth. I am voracious in reading about new/different methods and trying them. Everyday I see something else that inspires me. When I was younger I was “too busy” to really see. I finally have come to understand the sentiment in Our Town by Thornton Wilder: Emily asks the Stage Manager if anyone ever realized life while they live it, every minute, and he says, “No. The saints and the poets, maybe they do some.” We must include artists in this, as they are poets with a brush.





Little Tribune Bay

acrylic painting
by Shawn A. Jackson, Richmond, BC, Canada


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