Becoming an Artist Late in Life

Hey Grandma Moses, scoot over sweetie

Susan Brassfield Cogan
Nov 12 · 5 min read

I always harbored a dream of being an artist.

I’m a writer and I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but I wanted to be an artist too. Words flow out easily for me. I have written a dozen books, hundreds of blog posts, and possibly a million emails. Fine artists live their lives like that. They filled dozens of sketchbooks. They painted hundreds of paintings. They probably doodled a million little images in the margins of books, on bar napkins and grocery lists.

Every time I see a piece of art that makes me catch my breath I feel a pang of longing. I wish I could do that. In the past, I couldn’t hear my older self shouting down through the years: “What in the hell is stopping you?”

For much of my adult life, I would draw something and it would be horrible, so I’d scratch it out or throw it away … and go write about it in my journal.

If you want to do it, then do it. If there is a price — in this case, embarrassment over lousy art — then decide if the price is something you can pay. If you decide the price is too high, then acknowledge that. If you can’t bear the humiliation, set it aside for now. You most likely won’t die tomorrow, you can revisit the project when you feel tougher.

If you keep itching ….

And yet it did not.

For some reason, it got sharper and more focused.

Dark at the end of the tunnel

You don’t know if you will live beyond tomorrow, you most likely will, but you don’t know.

So fork all that, as they say, in “The Good Place.” You can’t see even a moment into the future. And right there is a pencil and a piece of paper waiting for you to make some art.

If you decide to pay that price and crank out heaps of really lousy work, there is something you should know.

It’s hard for most people to wrap their minds around. It’s intellectual and hypothetical and therefore doesn’t feel true. But the truth is, if you produce a ton of ugly art, you will not get worse as time goes by.

And here is the how-to

Erase a lot

Use a reference

An older, highly skilled artist can see things far more accurately than a teenager. They also remember shapes and shadows better than a teenager.

Non-artists don’t see or remember that way. Our brain fills in details that aren’t really there. That’s on purpose. You don’t need to see the world in HD. You have other things to think about. You’re going to be very surprised at what your dog looks like in your memory.

Find the right reference

The reason I suggest redrawing clip art is that it has already “seen” for you. Someone has already looked at the major shapes and abstracted them for you, flattening and simplifying. Right now you need to focus on reproducing a simple shape from observation.


It’s repeated patterns — sometimes detailed, intricate and elegant. Sometimes just spider webs and hashtags, lines, circles, and squares.

It’s as relaxing and meditative as the name implies.

Messy or neat, Zentangle delivers a lot of benefits to a frustrated artist. You can produce a charming work of art without a shred of talent, skill or training.

All while getting a shoulder massage for your brain.

And over time your art doesn’t get worse. You learn how to control a pen or pencil and put it where you want it. You pick up shading, hatching, saving whites. You pick up value and texture.

And then move on

But eventually, I turned to “real” representational art. I knew I wanted to be able to draw the faces of people I loved. I had some little stories I wanted to illustrate. And animals! I want to draw animals and birds! Cats, lions! Labrador retrievers! Crows, owls, and sparrows!

This means for a while — maybe a long while — there will be a lot of ugly lions and crows drawn in the cheapest available sketchbook, in the bottom of the box.

And I can already tell they aren’t getting worse.

If you enjoyed this story, please show your appreciation by visiting: or and if you’d like a look at my clumsy, amateurish art, I’m on Instagram @MrsCogan

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

Susan Brassfield Cogan

Written by

Author, CTI Life Coach, Buddhist, Left Wing Polemicist. I write about a lot of different things:

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

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