10 Famous Artists Who Found Success After 30

Read this to quell your quarter-life crisis.

Old man blowing out a cake with 30 candles; his dentures fell out.
Image by Nate Miller

There’s a famous quote from the 80’s classic ‘Back To The Future’ that I’m always reminded of: the character Doc Brown says, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

Sure it’s a bit cheesy (it was the ’80s after all) and the film is about a freaking time machine made from a car called the DeLorean, but the principle still stands.

You might say to me: “Yeah, but it’s easier said than done. I’m almost 30! If I haven’t made it by 30 it’s just not in the cards. Forget painting, I should stick to accounting.”

Well well well, if that’s how you feel you’ve fallen right into my trap! I have here, for your consideration, 10 artists who didn’t make it until after they turned 30.

Why 30? Because you people in your 20’s have an irrational fear of turning 30. For some reason, you think you have to have your life completely figured out by then or you’re doomed. News flash: you don’t and you aren’t!

Now read this list and become the artist you were meant to be.

1. Bob Ross

Everybody loves Bob Ross but not everybody knows his story.

His show, ‘The Joy of Painting,’ is adored by millions across the world and he’s regarded as the “world’s greatest art teacher.”

But Bob Ross didn’t get into painting right after school. He actually went into the Air Force, where his career lasted more than 20 years and he rose to the rank of Master Sergeant!

He retired from the Air Force at the age of 41, swearing he would never raise his voice or be as “tough” and “mean” as they required him to be ever again. That’s how he adopted his trademark soft voice and slow pace of speech. He was just tired of being an asshole!

After the Air Force, Ross followed his passion for art and put all of his energy into learning and improving.

Eventually, he was asked to present ‘The Joy of Painting,’ the TV show he’s most known for, where he taught people different painting techniques. The show ran for 11 years from 1983–1994.

Bob Ross became a late-blooming icon for happy little artists across the world.

2. Jackson Pollock

Quite possibly the father figure of the abstract expressionism movement, Jackson Pollock didn’t have the greatest start in life.

He moved around the US constantly as a child and was expelled from 3 different schools when he was a teenager. Yikes.

He also developed a dependency on alcohol and was diagnosed with alcoholism, for which he had to attend psychotherapy.

It was only after he visited an experimental art workshop in New York City, that he began to develop his artistic talent.

In 1943, at the age of 31, he signed his first art contract with Peggy Guggenheim, the famed art collector and founder of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a modern art museum in Venice, Italy.

Jackson Pollock shows a little spilled paint may be all you need.

3. Andy Warhol

Similar to how Jackson Pollock is considered the father figure of the abstract expressionism movement, Andy Warhol is regarded as one of the key figures in the pop art movement.

Warhol had always done art from the moment he left school, but it was his shift from commercial art, to vibrant pop art that gives him a spot on this list.

For his first major exhibition in 1962, Warhol painted his famous cans of Campbell’s soup; he was 34 at the time.

From that moment on, Warhol’s popularity grew exponentially, turning him into one of the most iconic artists of that time.

You’ve still got time to make it pop like Andy.

4. Carmen Herrera

Carmen Herrera is an abstract and minimalist painter who still makes art at the brisk young age of 105. She credits her ability to keep going to the “beauty of the straight line.”

That’s not surprising considering how influential studying architecture in her youth has been to her artwork over the years.

Herrera’s first major show happened late in life when she was already 69 and she waited even longer than that for her first solo exhibition, which came when she was 89.

However, the show that really cemented her success didn’t happen until she was a whopping 101 years old, when her artwork was displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in a retrospective exhibition titled ‘Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight.’

So take a note from Carmen: you’re never too old. You’ve got your whole life to work on what you love.

5. Katsushika Hokusai

The Japanese artist known as Hokusai lived for 88 years and focused his entire life on improving his craft.

It should come as no surprise then, that his woodblock print series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,’ which he produced in his 70’s, pretty much ensured his international fame. The most famous print of the thirty-six is ‘The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.’

The man’s whole life is a testament to the power of committing to your craft.

In fact, according to his wiki, when Hokusai was on his deathbed, he said “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”

Take these lessons from Hokusai the lifelong practitioner: you will always be a student, and if all else fails make a listicle art series.

6. Wassily Kandinsky

This guy is hailed as the pioneer of abstract art, so you can pretty much thank Wassily Kandinsky for any painting you don’t understand.

The kicker? You guessed it, he didn’t start painting until he was 30. Kandinsky gave up a bright career teaching law and economics to enroll in the Munich Academy and learn more about art. Then he became a pioneer.

Wassily’s breakthrough painting titled ‘The Blue Rider’ was painted when he was 37. In the years that followed, his art became progressively more abstract and he truly cemented his legacy as a trailblazer.

Just goes to show you don’t need to follow the same path as everyone else to be successful. Thanks, Kandinsky.

7. Betty Tompkins

Known for being a pioneer of feminist art, Betty Tompkins’ work features monochromatic close-up images of straight and gay intimate acts on extremely large canvases. Her oldest series of work is called ‘Fuck Paintings.’

Tompkins’ pornographic art has shocked galleries and French customs officials alike. The latter of which called her paintings obscene and unfit for public exhibition, seizing them for a year in 1973, ultimately draining her financially and emotionally.

It wasn’t until 2002, at the age of 57, that Tompkins started getting serious recognition.

That’s when famed art critic Jerry Saltz shared one of her pieces from ‘Fuck Paintings’ with Michell Algus, who offered her a solo exhibition in his New York gallery. Tompkins has been getting it on ever since.

The takeaway: sometimes you gotta be explicit to get what you want.

8. Edward Hopper

While American realist painter Edward Hopper studied art from his youth, becoming widely known for his oil paintings of modern American life, it actually took him many years to get there.

Hopper didn’t sell his first painting until he was 31, and his first solo show didn’t happen until he was 42. His most well-known painting, ‘Nighthawks,’ wasn’t painted until he was already 60 years old.

Maybe if Hopper wasn’t one of the most misanthropic and depressed people on the planet he would have been a little more prolific and achieved greater heights sooner? It’s hard to say.

Hopper proves you can go at your own pace. Just keep hopping along.

9. Louise Bourgeois

Nicknamed ‘Spiderwoman,’ for the prevalence of spiders in her work, Louise Bourgeois’ most famous sculpture is a 35-foot tall spider titled ‘Maman.’ A sculpture that’s been on display all around the world.

Can you guess how old Bourgeois was when she sculpted it?

87 years old.

It’s said that you couldn’t pin her down to any particular artistic movement if you tried, despite her work exhibiting with abstract expressionists, and having similarities with surrealism and feminist art. She was known to draw heavily from her personal life for inspiration.

Bourgeois had her first solo show at 33, but didn’t become the center of attention until a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art when she was 70 years old.

The gap between those two events can be explained. First, it has historically been harder for women to gain recognition in art than men. She also took a hiatus from making work. Not to mention she just wasn’t the flavor of the moment for a while. Trends, psh.

Louise Bourgeois made art all the way through the week before her death, at 98 years old.

Age, gender, and going her own way never stopped Bourgeois, so don’t let it stop you.

10. Lubaina Himid CBE

Both an artist and a curator, Lubaina Himid started making her own way in the art world by curating exhibitions of work by black women artists when she was 29. Her artwork mainly focuses on themes of cultural history and reclaiming identity.

Curating has been a key to her work as a cultural activist, and in the UK she was one of the first artists involved in the Black Art Movement.

In 2010, at the age of 56, Himid was recognized by the Order of the British Empire, which is an order of chivalry that rewards contributions to the arts and sciences (and more). She was appointed MBE for services to black women’s art.

In 2017, Himid won the Turner Prize for British visual artists. A year later she was appointed CBE by the Order of the British Empire for services to art. She was 64 years old at the time.

According to The Guardian, Lubaina Himid believes her work never got press because it was too complex and layered. Her work also involved difficult and painful issues people might not have been ready to talk about.

Himid’s story shows your work is absolutely necessary, even if people aren’t ready for it yet, because one day they will be. And until that day comes you can make your own way.

This awe-inspiring list shows it’s not only possible to become the amazing artist you’ve always dreamed of after you turn 30, but it happens more often than you might think. It’s closer to the rule than the exception.

So it doesn’t matter if you’re at a crossroads in your life, you think it’s too late, or the world just isn’t ready for you yet. These influential artists are a clear sign that you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it.

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Artist and blogger. I help people bring more art into the world: natedoesart.com

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