What Happens to an Aging Artist’s Eyes?

Frances x 3 by Sargy Mann.
Frances x 3 by Sargy Mann, oil painting.

After a minor vision scare, we are reminded of the fragility of the eye–these complex organs which allow us to experience all the visual beauties of the world. And, we are reminded, once again, never to take our precious vision for granted. But, like the rest of the body, the eye ages with time.

If we remain free of injury or disease, our eyes may only experience slight changes as we age, but even these small changes may affect our abilities as artists to judge subtleties of color, light and dark.

An Artist’s Vision, Literally

Doctors Michael Marmor and James Rabin write about the aging eye of the artist in their book, The Artist’s Eyes, originally published in 2009. Their extensive credentials and lifelong interest in art give them a unique ability to analyze the effects of vision changes on some of the most famous artists throughout history.

About the aging eye, they write:  “The eye makes fewer tears; the cornea may lose some clarity; the pupil stays smaller in both light and dark; the lens becomes thicker, denser, more yellow and less elastic; and the retina loses a small percentage of its nerve cells every year  . . .  as does the brain. Thus the elderly eye receives slightly less light transmits images of slightly less clarity and color spectrum, and there are fewer retinal cells to pick up the images and code them properly for the brain.”

These conditions tend to lead to less contrast discrimination and more difficulty seeing in low lighting conditions. Under low light, blues and greens can become more difficult to distinguish.

Interestingly, however, under good lighting, even a small amount of yellowing of our lenses may not affect our ability to compare colors, because “our discrimination of colors is based more on the relative amounts of red, green and blue than on absolute wavelength.”

It is amazing how well the eyes perform the complex tasks of relaying visual information to our brains over our lifetimes. They are, after all, organs exposed to extensive sunlight and high oxygen, unlike our internal organs.

Monets Glasses
Monet’s Glasses The two different lenses in Monet’s eyeglasses (the right lens is significantly thicker) were to compensate for a cataract that had been previously removed. The thinner and hazy left lens blurred images so that they would not interfere with the vision of the artist’s right eye after the surgery, according to The Artist’s Eyes, Vision and the History of Art by Michael F. Marmor and James G. Ravin.

Although it may be important to be aware of the visual changes of the aging eye, we agree wholeheartedly with the doctors, who state:  “For most aging artists, these mild visual effects will be less critical than nonvisual effects of age, such as maturation of style and technique, the evolution of art historically, economic pressure to continue or discontinue a mode of painting, and technologic advances in paints and other equipment.”

For inspiration on an artist who continued his work after losing his eyesight, be sure to watch the short video about oil painting artist Sargy Mann (1937 – 2015) below.

And, if you are intrigued to learn more, check out the longer video below for more about this amazing artist who handled his disability with great grace. We are confident you will find it worth your while!

This video on Sargy Mann from Peter Mann Pictures first appeared on Vimeo.

Join us on The Artist’s Road for more enlightening articles, interviews with top artists, step-by-step painting demonstrations and discounts in the unique Artist’s Road Store.

–John and Ann


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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

One thought on “What Happens to an Aging Artist’s Eyes?

  1. John and Ann—

    Why didn’t you suggest something sensible—like after age 40 every artist should have a yearly eye exam, And that the exam should be by an ophthalmologist.

    There is an encouraging point that you’ve over looked. It appears a good number of artists lost their sight at a very early age and have continued painting for the rest of their lives. It’s a nice way to loosen up.