Women in art


Dear Artist,

From time to time I do workshops and demonstrations for art clubs in my community. At the beginning I generally ask some questions: “How many paint in oils, how many in watercolor, how many in acrylic?” Here I look clearly into the faces of those who have given up an evening to try to pick up a new technique or two. Generally, eight out of ten will be women. Often these women will be in the process of switching gears from previous identities as wives or mothers. Some will have taken up painting the way others take up golf or bridge.


1936 oil painting
by Emily Carr (1871-1945)

In popularity, painting is only slightly behind photography and slightly ahead of goldfish. Those artists who regularly teach adult classes and do workshops know that it’s a growth industry. When I look into those shining faces I realize I’m witness to a phenomenon that has not existed to such a degree in previous times. It’s estimated there are now 7 million women painters in the world. I’m not going to go into the sociometric causes — but it has to be observed that these are people who want to learn and grow, share community, and gain satisfaction and even passion from something that is more than a hobby. Outrageously challenging, art is also a tender and gentle activity that fits our times. Further, it’s not at all surprising to me that excellent artists are rising from among these legions.


“Guyasdoms d’ Sonoqua”
oil on canvas by Emily Carr

Women now get going at any age. They can and do open their own doors. The expression of creativity is not the rare commodity it once was, nor is it the sinecure of men.

Best regards,


PS: “Women can also be creative in total isolation. I know excellent women artists who do original work without any response to speak of. Maybe they are used to lack of feedback. Maybe they are tougher.” (Elaine de Kooning)

PPS: “True strength is delicate.” (Louise Nevelson)

Esoterica: Emily Carr (1871-1945) was an average watercolour dabbler when, at age 58, she suddenly started painting big oils in what she called the “marvellous modern manner.” She found for herself a unique voice, reinvented Canada’s western forests, and monumentalized forever it’s totem heritage.

This letter was originally published as “Women in Art” on February 6, 2001.


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“When you really think about your hand you begin to realize its connection, to sense the hum of your own being passing through it. When we look at a piece of the universe we should feel the same.” (Emily Carr)



  1. OH, Sara, your Dad was way ahead of our times! “Strength is delicate,” from Louise Nevelson struck a deep chord in my heart. I met Nevelson in Berkeley in the 1970s and was fascinated by her work. Throughout my life, that delicate touch allows me to move mountains, or refrigerators, or stoves. And allowing creative energy to flow into art builds soul strength.

  2. I first discovered Emily Carr when we moved to this little city, Little Falls, in the middle of New York in 1958. Some woman i n Schenectady read her stories from the “Book of Small” on air every week on radio Station WGY. It was years later when I discovered that she was a painter and looked up books on her art. Made a special trip to Canada to see her work. I had by then read her autobiography and “The Book of Small” for myself. She was a pioneer and a brave woman who painted with little or no encouragement. She has been an inspiration to me. Donna Veeder

    • I discovered Emily Carr on a trip to Canada in 2001 and thought how wonderful her paintings are. I was blown away by the ones in the gallery in Vancouver.
      I read about her life which was kind of sad, but at least she had her art which keeps a lot of people going even when they are alone and they lose themselves in the fantastic process of painting.

  3. We cook, we clean, we raise children and husbands. When we begin to paint, everything falls away. A mirror calls us to pause and look into our aging eyes and wish we had help. Now, we can no longer do all of it as well as before. Its OK. We have a new lover. The time has come when the gift of sharing our truth is our only need. When we can let go of any fear by walking and working confidently. With keen expectation we listen carefully knowing the light ahead is a bright one. We now see and hear clearly the next exciting step. Turn away from past dreams, discover the future dream that is you.

    • I can’t tell you how timely this is for me, both Robert’s wonderful article and your beautifully expressed comment, Sharon. I had put my art away a few years ago, thinking it might be permanently. These past few days, I’ve been clearing out unused materials, paring down & wondering if I should finally just let it all go. You’ve helped me decide to keep what really sparks for me and begin again. Thank you.

      • Like you Karen, I find this letter to be timely. Although I have been painting in watercolour for many years, I am considering to go further and share the experience with others. Having enjoyed Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way twenty years ago, I’m happy to have just discovered – another serendipity moment – a wonderful tool that will help me to do just that: “It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, discovering Creativity an Meaning at Midlife and Beyond”. I look forward to “begin again” …

  4. Thank you, Sara, for continuing to share your father’s wisdom, insight and advice. This posting resonated deeply with me as I facilitate a Women’s Creativity Circle for elders. Some new to creative endeavors and some returning after a professional life and seeking to reconnect with their art-making or some just wanting to connect with like-minded spirits. It affirmed my commitment to share the joy and challenges of the creative process.

  5. Although Robert wrote this piece fifteen years ago the numbers probably are much higher today. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Myself, being a male, find that we are in the minority most of the time especially in art workshops, drawing and painting classrooms, art guilds, art associations, etc. A few years ago I decided to join a rather new art endeavor called urban sketchers. The Urban Sketcher movement has taken off world-wide and it is gaining more people daily. What started as a small local group is now numbered over 500. The percentage of women in this art form is in the 70 to 80% range. Again, men, are in the minority. There is no question that women have made large strides in numbers and quality of work in all forms of art. I have tried to unravel this strange conundrum. I think I’ve found the answer……men are usually the bread-winners in society and today being a starving artist is not a very good environment to raise a family. With all this said, men have duty to provide for their family and few can do it with art. Sure they can teach art, put on workshops, sell art, etc but few can do it successfully. Hats off to all you beautiful ladies out there….keep up the outstanding work and keep all those art suppliers in business.

    • I agree with the high percentage of women to men given here that are in nearly all current art endeavors. I actually think that the 7 million that Robert had heard 15 years ago was way too low even then. On the other hand, this old guy in his ninth decade thinks the number, whatever it is makes little difference. If the majority of men don’t find both the joy and struggle of art, that’s their lose.


      • I have tried to get my 83 year old father to pick up his paint and brushes that he left behind when family and career stifled him in his early 20’s. With the loss of my mother, the only creativity daily is figuring out what next to eat. A woman who did everything for him is now gone. He gave me the spark of creativity and love of painting when I was a child. Now I wish to give that wonderful gift back.

    • Hi Rene,
      Yes, it has been the traditional role for men to provide. I am a professional artist and I have a successful career with my artwork. One time a male artist, a friend said to me,”I wish I was a woman artist so I could have a husband to support me.” I said, “And I want a wife to support me, feed me, clean, run the house,drive the kids to school and activities,help coach with soccer,trips to the hospital,doctor,keep up the mailing list and mail and address the invitations to exhibits. I did provide much of the financial support while the kids were growing up, 5 of them, provide college educations. All of this was possible because of my earnings, plus enabled my husband to put a good deal of his earnings aside for our future. I am not complaining, my husband helped me also, just stating how things are. People often discount the role of the wife in these working marriages.

    • Men are no longer the “bread winners” in society. A high percentage of the providers for families are single mothers with no man in the picture. Women are finally breaking the barriers of male dominated work forces and realizing that they are entitled to encourage their creative juices just as men have without subjugation. Women who are married and who have an art career are also the manager of the household and raiser of the children. They do not have a “wife” to take care of all those things as a male artist would have in the past.
      The many women who come to art late in life have done all that as well as providing for their families. They crave an outlet for their creativity which was put on hold while they held down full time jobs AND took care of household duties. Art groups give them that as well as joyful enjoyment of adult friends which they didn’t have time for previously.
      Congrats to all those women who get out there and take advantage of the opportunities art offers!

    • Glad to hear from another Urban Sketcher! And while I agree with you about USK which is a great way to put art in our daily lives and meet lots of great folks who also care about art I must disagree with men not getting involved because they are breadwinners. At our sketching session this week 8 women and one man showed up. NONE of these women are dependent on a male for their bread. All have or have had lucrative careers and always paid their own way!! I have been single for most of my life and have been financially independent since I was 18. One reason we see so many women in workshops in classes is that they have worked hard at careers all their lives and now have their own disposable income to spend on classes and supplies. Why so many more women than men value art and art making is a mystery to me. I am sure there are several reasons but maybe partly because we are biologically programmed to create and even when our procreative years are over we are drawn to create art. And because we are our own breadwinners we can. Why so few men are interested in studying art is also a mystery. I know the ones who do (like Rene) are way more interesting as people than the ones who don’t and I value my male artist friends. I have noticed in photos of USK groups in Europe and Asia there seem to be many more male sketchers than in the US. I think art is valued more there than in the US. I am an administrator for our regional USK group and strongly encourage everyone to check out urban sketching as a past time and part of their art life. It is a great way to work on your art, meet other like minded folks and it is free! Thanks, Rene – happy sketching!!

  6. There are a few men pastel artists , and we teach our pastels in workshops and get converts to our pastels . I am doing a workshop at Lunenburg Art Gallery in September . cheers

  7. Thanksomuch for this powerful entry. He mentions Emily Carr and so many other of the leading women artists and I just noticed a common thread…… they did BIG pictures. We seem to hear more about women in arts whose works make a big splash one way or another. There is a clash between women who make a quiet later in life hobby or career of it and those who took their college in it and work at it full time, but only sometimes, and lots of dancing on the bridge between the two. fun As for “…. tender and gentle activity that fits our times. ” I love RGennnnnn because he loved us and saw us so ideally, though we might as often be choking over a hotflash over light and airy flick of the brush.



  8. Once upon a time nearly all art was created by and for male dominated schools, leagues and of course religions. Women were denied access to the inner sanctum of creation unless they agreed to pose for the men. Muses-YES, Artists-NO. Time has shifted….we’ve now become our own creative muse! What fun!

  9. Women have been the art makers since the dawn of time. This is not something new. I rather object to the slightly patronizing tone of this article, while I do understand Robert was a man of his time. Theories posit that it was women who painted the caves, and did the art making in the fertile crescent. It is not something new.

  10. Oh- for the day when gender will be meaningless. Oh for the day when pursuing art as a career/profession/vocation is simply recognized as viable by everyone. Oh for the day when art as hobby dies a fast and painless death. Oh for the day when we no longer judge the validity of something based on what genitalia we sport between our legs- or by who stays home and raises children. Oh for the day when we purse our art with a fierce dedication to excellence- a passion for uniqueness- and the seriousness it takes to make it to the top- because we want to get there by using our creativity. Any who judge our dysfunctional patriarchy for where we are- without first turning the lens on themselves- male and/or female- miss the point that you all could have changed it at any point in the past- and you didn’t.

    • Patricia Wafer on

      I think gender difference does matter. None of us would be here without it. Maybe there are more females in art classes and workshops because they are much less concerned with making it “to the top”. Competition is much less of a big deal for us and I think that is vital for all our survival and our art. Oh, for the day when women stopped being blamed for not taking down the patriarchs who control all the wealth and the structures and weapons that defend it.

      • Well- you just proved my point. In a world where gender makes no difference- anybody can be and/or do anything. If you still apply a gender lens to any/everything- then you’ll frame everything by what you think your gender can or cannot do. One day it will make no difference. It still does.
        Your “much less concerned” perspective guarantees that art will remain a hobby- because you just don’t have to make it a profession- or even think about making it to the top of your profession- LIKE ALL MEN WHO PURSUE IT DO. Again- my male gender comes into play- but your female gender lets you stay at home and pursue your hobby.
        Competition- cooperation? Competition- cooperation? Until all women everywhere are fully willing to enter the competition of life- and art- they’ll just sit back and let someone else do that competition stuff. Except- THE OLYMPICS. And their/your art will never amount to anything but pretty pictures- because they’re/you’re not WILLING to let someone judge it. In your world we all stop competing- and I’ll tell you- 2 or 3 generations into that world and we’ll all be blond and blase and boring and dead. But we’ll all have hundreds of trophies for doing nothing. Females- who somehow think that competition doesn’t facilitate the human being and the human spirit rising up and being the very best that it can be- miss the point entirely about why competition AND cooperation ARE BOTH NECESSARY. Take away the competition aspect- and you are dead in the water- going nowhere. But hey! That’s exactly where you want to be.
        And you just don’t get it. YOU (as a female) are utterly responsible for the evils in this world- by your decision to stay at home and raise children and do nothing and not enter politics and not become CEOs and everything else you’ve avoided- and actually go out into the world and act to change things- because NOBODY is forcing you to take that path. So you are EQUALLY responsible FOR EVERYTHING that has happened thus far. Except you just want to blame that on all the men so you don’t have to feel responsible. So just sit there. Please.
        And I’d tell you to (____) but that would be rude.

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