In retirement, after a rich and rewarding career in the natural sciences, I have taken up oil painting with a passion. I always hankered to express myself visually and felt cheated that I couldn’t do art at school because of timetable clashes with science subjects. I wasn’t raised in an artistic environment, but my immigrant parents worked hard to give my sister and me a good education. So, with this as my background, am I too old to take on a second career as a painter? I hope not, and think the following personal attributes will help me (and others) on the journey of a mature emerging artist.
Starting later in life, I have the time, financial stability, connections and freedom to be as creative as I want to be. I reflect on the ways I constantly created beauty and aesthetics around my home and in my garden and realise I had actually been doing ‘installation art’ when I worked on exhibitions in museums and botanic gardens. As a high school science teacher, I regularly drew diagrams for students and studied their faces for signs of understanding of difficult concepts. I think this is why I am now drawn to portraiture. I love analysing faces … and learning. Over the years I have also learnt diligence, perseverance, time management and how to cope with failure – all useful skills for my art practice.
For me, there are two fundamental aspects to creating art: mastering technique and having something meaningful to convey. This is where youth and maturity differ. We learn most easily when we are young. For instance, learning a sport, languages or musical instruments are child’s play when we’re young but get harder and harder as we age.
I compensate for not having started art earlier by appreciating that maturity and a totally different career path have given me a wealth of experiences, knowledge and memories from which to draw inspiration. I’m bursting with ideas for meaningful paintings and have even gathered loads of resources for themed exhibitions I’d like to put on one day. I resist the temptation to work on these until I master enough technical skills to be able to express myself competently.
To this end, while still working I attended drawing classes in the evenings and occasional week-long workshops to learn the basics. I opened my mind to the different approaches of tutors and visited art galleries regularly. I read art books voraciously, took copious notes and supplemented practice with theory. I dabbled with different media to see which I enjoyed the most, and listened to podcasts to ‘think like an artist.’ I struggled, I progressed, I plateaued and occasionally I produced something half-decent.
All this helped me determine that I wanted to excel in this field and have my art taken seriously. A good many people become recreational artists in retirement, but I knew I wanted more.
Several years on I find that making and studying art have completely replaced my professional passions, and I set my sights higher and higher as the challenges keep coming. Hard work and regular practice have become part of my everyday life. This is the only way I believe I will develop my knowledge of design and composition, improve drawing prowess, deepen understanding of value and colour, and expand my ability to ‘see like an artist.’
Serious artists have told me their art is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. When novices say to me, ‘I can’t draw,’ I simply reply ‘Do you draw?’, and they invariably say ‘No.’ Why do we assume artists have innate talent that spontaneously manifests itself whereas no-one expects a pianist or an athlete to excel without massive amounts of training?
Janelle Hatherly, Contemplating Mary, 48 in x 72 in, oil on canvas
It is good to stay young at heart, and I believe fortune favours the bold. Around the time I retired, I was invited by a good friend and colleague to paint portraits of twelve Principals of a University residential college, mainly nuns who had passed. I wholeheartedly and naively embraced this challenge though with what I currently know, I would now seriously balk at this seemingly impossible task.
Still, I learnt lots by researching, composing, painting and framing these twelve 24’’ x 30’’ portraits on canvas. It also taught me the value of having a major project to focus on. In between major projects, I experiment. I love the freedom of trying out new techniques, doing landscapes and still life, and drawing and painting from life. And with all the resources available online, there’s never been a better time to be a mature student!