Art For Thought: An Artist’s Lifespan

11 Sep 2012

"It's really hard for young artists. You're an adult at 18, but for a painter it takes longer. You really don't get it together until 35 or 45."

La Blanchisseuse by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1884-1888, oil on canvas.
La Blanchisseuse by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,
1884-1888, oil on canvas.
Some research and reading I've been doing in the last month on historical artists has got me thinking about an artist's lifespan, both in terms of their actual years on earth and in the progression of their ability and output over the course of their career. Unlike professional athletes, dancers, or to some extent singers, painters do not have an expiration date on their talent. They can essentially develop their eye, understanding, and ability their whole life, and many would even say that a lifetime is not long enough to master the craft.

It's interesting to look at some of the great artists in history and notice the variation in their respective timelines. There were many who died prematurely--Caravaggio at 39, Van Gogh at 37, and Toulouse-Lautrec at 37 to name a few--but because of the prolificness and sense of urgency that accompanied their life and work, they left behind an oeuvre that outlived them in recognition and relevance. In terms of those who lived long lives, there were artists who produced seminal work consistently over the course of their careers--such as Michelangelo who died at 89, Picasso who died at 92, and Wyeth who died at 92--and then others whose most influential or memorable paintings were created toward the end of their life, such as Rembrandt, Goya, or Homer.

Artists' legacies are determined in retrospect, while looking at the context of what came before them, what was happening in their own time, and how they affected what came after them. And in terms of progression, some would say that an early rise and peak is better than a slow rise and fall. An artist like Èdouard Vuillard, for example--who came to prominence during the birth of the Modernist movement--has been said to have reached his zenith at 30 and lived too long. This is said because he started out experimental but ended more traditional and realistic, which was the complete opposite of what was happening in the avant-garde scene around him. By the end of his life, he was seen as regressive, but it is now clear that he was actually ahead of his time.

For many painters finding a signature voice, style, and subject matter takes a lifetime, and they don't usually start feeling comfortable in their own skin until mid-life. In New York magazine's "How To Make It in the Art World" issue, artist Alex Katz states, "It's really hard for young artists. You're an adult at 18, but for a painter it takes longer. You really don't get it together until 35 or 45."

What do you think? Does artistic maturity take a lifetime to develop? Is it better to gradually progress toward the best work of your life or to peak young? Leave a comment and let us know.

--Allison


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Comments

lfarist wrote
on 11 Sep 2012 4:51 PM

That's only if you have the time/energy/money to accomplish the craft. For me it will take a lifetime to develop. In some ways that's ok.....you don't want a good meal over to quickly. I enjoy the challenge, I enjoy seeing the progress. If it was over too quickly what's the point of doing it?

on 13 Sep 2012 1:44 AM

<i>"...painters do not have an expiration date..."</i>

It's never too late to learn to paint, though you may wish you'd started earlier...!

on 13 Sep 2012 7:44 AM

I have to say...those that have a "peak moment" in their young art life, may be experiencing a fortunate happenstance. As an artist can't help but grow and change throughout life. One's ability absolutely improves, and I would like to think as I age I'm becoming more open to other artistic genre's.  I consider myself a "realistic" painter but recently enrolled in an illustrative arts class and have found great satisfaction in the positive-negative simplicity.  Again, just  a reminder that when we stop learning.....we die.

KatPaints wrote
on 13 Sep 2012 6:27 PM

If you've ever taken a Yoga class, frequently the instructor makes a comment that what happens on your mat is a reflection of life. Do you give up when the pose is difficult? What are you saying inside your head during the pose? Are you singing, complaining? Are you tweaking you positioning in order to build your strength and get it correct? I have always thought of the canvas as an analogy to life.

Our intentions, health, skills, attitude, and other factors are reflected onto the canvas. What was fun and non-judgmental as a six year old, may become more of a challenge of skill as an eleven-year-old. What is expressive as a sixteen-year-old may become more of a profitable skill as a twenty-five year old.

We have a lifelong dance with a brush on our canvas; frequently no one is aware of these subtle internal shifts except for ourselves. We may even stop painting for a particular time and then pick up again decades later.

Yes, many say I wish I started earlier. Everyone has something that they wish that they did differently. The only thing we know we need to do is to keep on keeping on - and not to wait. Our fingers may get arthritic. Our vision may go. We may have a stroke that will effect our balance, vision, and movement. Our color sense could change. When you play that weighing game -- you know the one "I have no time to paint after work, or I need to do this instead." ask yourself what is really important. Then go to the easel.

on 15 Sep 2012 5:35 AM

I am 76 years old, an avid painter, sketcher, and never never will learn it all.  Art is like breathing....you have to KEEP doing it and hope you just might reach that pinnacle....www.marleysrainbowartstudio.com  

ATabor wrote
on 15 Sep 2012 5:44 AM

I am almost 70 and just now starting to feel comfortable with myself.  becoming an individual and finding the courage to separate from the "pack" in my art.  The last couple of years have been amazing as I wander off making new discoveries and learning new things of my own.  Can't wait to see what the future holds.  

on 15 Sep 2012 8:16 AM

Age can be a factor but many very young artists actually do have it together...and..some aging artists may finally get it together...

Gihan Zohdy wrote
on 15 Sep 2012 8:52 AM

Yes, I do believe that a visual artist's life is enriched by experience, one has a lot more to say, experience that has been processed and assessed, perhaps in mid life one has a lot more to express artisticaly.

Gihan zohdy

splashblue wrote
on 15 Sep 2012 10:05 AM

Focus.

Focus is necessary for creating great art. In your youth that focus is hard to come by. There are so many wonderful, exciting and new experiences just waiting to pull you in their direction. That's not always a bad thing and will add to the artist's "well".

As we mature, many of us have distilled down to what really brings us satisfaction and that unique gift or vision we can offer to the world. Unlike professional athletes, we don't peak at 30. The best is still out ahead of us.

royprinz wrote
on 15 Sep 2012 11:25 AM

Creative expression is an act that reveals who we are.  The more a person has lived (evolution through diverse experiences) the greater the potential for a range and power of expression.  What every artist does is a definitive choice of what they feel or believe to be true.  Painting is the expression of one's philosophy.

mgbattman wrote
on 15 Sep 2012 1:47 PM

What does it matter??? If too much time is spent evaluating where you are in the sense of an entire career you will feel alternately depressed and happy with the

position. Roll up your sleeves and enjoy every minute of what you're doing or

get a job.

Time alone will ultimately evaluate.

cmagellen wrote
on 15 Sep 2012 3:59 PM

Having started painting at a late age, some of us will have to paint enough in our remaining years to make up for a lifetime of painting. I do think it is possible, so long as we push ourselves to get there in a shorter amount of time.

Drkalles wrote
on 15 Sep 2012 4:19 PM

I never drawing much of anything my whole live. Then one year ago (about 4 months before I turned 60) I started doing charcoal dog portraits.  This morning I hung my first show and have seven commissions waiting to be finished. I am self taught and I'm as shocked and amazed as anyone I can do this. I don't know if it's because or inspite of my age.....

sandranestle wrote
on 15 Sep 2012 4:56 PM

Art does not have a chronological component.  We are all given a gift to create.  It is the judgmental world that has this time concept and imposes that onto the artists.  Most artists learn to ignore time as much as it is possible.  So if you are talking about skill sets, then age is important.  However, if you are talking about the ability to tap into your own unique vision, this happens at every age.  

sandranestle wrote
on 15 Sep 2012 4:57 PM

Art does not have a chronological component.  We are all given a gift to create.  It is the judgmental world that has this time concept and imposes that onto the artists.  Most artists learn to ignore time as much as it is possible.  So if you are talking about skill sets, then age is important.  However, if you are talking about the ability to tap into your own unique vision, this happens at every age.  

sandranestle wrote
on 15 Sep 2012 4:57 PM

Art does not have a chronological component.  We are all given a gift to create.  It is the judgmental world that has this time concept and imposes that onto the artists.  Most artists learn to ignore time as much as it is possible.  So if you are talking about skill sets, then age is important.  However, if you are talking about the ability to tap into your own unique vision, this happens at every age.  

newcraft wrote
on 15 Sep 2012 8:36 PM

I also like Drkalles started at around 59 years old.  I started painting abstracts in acrylic. I also started drawing.  I never drew or thought I was able to draw a thing.  After buying tons of paint, I think I really prefer drawing.  I have used a few mediums though, pastels, water color, charcoal, colored pencils and oil pastels.  I wasn't as impressed with the oil pastels as I though I would be.  I digress, anyway I love the whole craft, and many times wish I had started earlier. Yet I will as most of you have stated just keep creating.  I tried to contact Drkalles while reading this article, because of our common age and when we both started the craft.  If you read this Drkalles and want to communicate my e-mail is lovepainting @verizon.net

danamjohnson wrote
on 16 Sep 2012 7:33 AM

I've seen wonderful art created by people of all ages.  I think how "good" an artist is depends upon his or her own personal journey.  We all have different demands, resources, inspirations, and stuff going on in our lives.  Consistently making art will lead to improvement almost automatically, but there is an element of magic, too.  Sometimes you just make something awesome because you're having a good day.

Cavrunin wrote
on 16 Sep 2012 12:57 PM

There's an argument for either side of your question, but as an artist who didn't get really serious about art until her fifty's,  I definitely think it takes a lifetime of experience and study to develop your art.  I feel I've just scratched the surface.

It's never too late to be an artist!

Blessings,

Char Avrunin

megan2 wrote
on 16 Sep 2012 2:55 PM

I feel artists get better only if they don't let what others think about their art affect their output. As an artist, I have to ask myself who I am working for. I choose to work for myself and my creator. What I think is good and what others think of my work are two different things and will change from generation to generation. Because I have no control of what others think, I only worry about self-improvement within.

Hokusai said it best:

“From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I'll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self 'The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”

― Hokusai Katsushika

KathMK wrote
on 17 Sep 2012 5:46 PM

This article was such an inspiration to me in the midst juggling elementary students, my kids in college and middle school, my husband, and having Dad in a nursing home. With so much creative energy poured into my students and family my art has been on the back burner for a long time. This let's me know I still have time.

But seeing my Dad losing his sight and hands too shaky to sketch, I know I can't keep waiting for time to create. I must make time.

Aelf wrote
on 19 Sep 2012 4:44 AM

I'm over 70 and started painting when I was 20. After a few minor successes, I gave it up. Paying bills, working and such became my focus. Later in life I took up writing fiction, again with some success. A few stories were published but I still hadn't connected with that live wire of desire that could carry me over the hurdles of learning and creating art. Then, not long ago I stumbled onto digital art. I've been a geek forever, I build my own pc's and love working with software. Suddenly the connection to that live wire has been made. It matters not that I have to start nearly from scratch to re-hone my drawing skills. It's sheer pleasure. My canvas, pencils pens and brushes reside in my pc. My interface is a Wacom tablet and the fire or creation has been re-ignited. Too old???Never.

Aelf wrote
on 19 Sep 2012 4:44 AM

I'm over 70 and started painting when I was 20. After a few minor successes, I gave it up. Paying bills, working and such became my focus. Later in life I took up writing fiction, again with some success. A few stories were published but I still hadn't connected with that live wire of desire that could carry me over the hurdles of learning and creating art. Then, not long ago I stumbled onto digital art. I've been a geek forever, I build my own pc's and love working with software. Suddenly the connection to that live wire has been made. It matters not that I have to start nearly from scratch to re-hone my drawing skills. It's sheer pleasure. My canvas, pencils pens and brushes reside in my pc. My interface is a Wacom tablet and the fire or creation has been re-ignited. Too old???Never.

nabil wrote
on 19 Sep 2012 5:15 AM

art is a language,it improves with use and age until you die or have alziehmer's

on 19 Sep 2012 8:32 AM

I was researching this artist this week: Katsushika Hokusai

October 31, 1760 – May 10, 1849). He was a Japanese artist. He made some facinating statements about age and the artist that challenged me as I enter the last quarter of my expected life span with questions of my own place and purpose as an artist. I have been teaching drawing and painting and illustration for 28 years. I love what I do. I am very passionate about drawing and painting. I do realize our culture values youthfulness more than age. There is the pressure to "retire" and golf and travel to death. I want to live with purpose and Lord willing paint to my death. Some times I think I love painting too much. Anyway hear Mr. Hokusai's passionate words!

“From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.” He apparently exclaimed on his deathbed, "If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter."

Myron Sahlberg, a passionate painter

itsdeecee wrote
on 25 Sep 2012 4:27 PM

i;m late starting with drawing/painting and already feel frustrated by how little i know and how much there is to learn and do...i feel an urgency having begun so late....geez if it takes 20 years to "feel it in your skin" i may be in trouble... but then i  always said i wanted to be another grandma moses :-).

on 21 Nov 2012 11:50 AM

The enigmatic pursuit of perfection through painting can nurture intellectual discipline and emotional stamina that may result in artistic maturity. While the level of that maturity depends upon the painter's innate capability, it also is a life long process.

Patricia Hynes