How do I become an Artist? Is it too late?
October 3, 2021 8:14 PM   Subscribe

Hi everyone. I’m 37 years old and I’m wondering if it is too late to become an artist. I went to art college but got into graphic design. Now that I’m older, I regret not exploring drawing and painting more. I realize now that I need something more full filling in my life and design does not cut it anymore. Is it too late for me? Where do I start? How do I find my own voice, my own self expression?
posted by red47Apple to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Short answer: hell to the no, it's never too late.

Longer answer, do you mean as a career? Answer is still no, but this would affect what advice I offer someone.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 8:35 PM on October 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

>Is it too late for me?

Are you dead? If so, then yes, it's too late. Otherwise no.

>How do I find my own voice, my own self expression?

My experience has been that everybody has their own voice and their own self expression, they just don't recognize them, because they think there's something special they'd have to do to get those things. I subscribe to the notion that if you do some art, that's your own voice and your own self expression. It may become stronger and clearer and more you, the more you do it, but you don't need any special certifications or permissions or anybody's signature or anything like that. I would say just start up a regular practice of doing whatever seems likeliest, and follow your nose.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 8:38 PM on October 3, 2021 [12 favorites]

Is it too late for me?

posted by Erinaceus europaeus at 8:41 PM on October 3, 2021 [5 favorites]

It is never too late. You're only 37, it's not too late for you to do anything you want to do.

How do I find my own voice, my own self expression?

You listen for it. Everywhere, at all times. Art is about reflecting experiences you've had back out to the wider world. Did you go to a cool concert one time? Paint about how it made you feel! Write about your favorite song! There's a billion ways to get into art, and none of them are invalid.

To start - what interests you? Do art about that. What kind of art should you do? I don't know! That's half the fun - finding out what you like and are good at. Nobody can tell you that, it has to come from you. The most important thing to remember: there's no wrong answer. Just start...arting. At first, it will feel very awkward and uncomfortable - that's the point. You're building up your art muscles, as it were. Keep building, don't worry about the output, just find your groove and ride it.

If you want to try something, try it. There's no rules, nobody's judging you, and it's not a competition. Good luck and have fun!
posted by pdb at 8:53 PM on October 3, 2021 [8 favorites]

It might be too late for someone in the US tomake a living just by selling art, but that applies to any age human. If you make art you're an artist and vice versa, separate from "I get paid to make this art".

Stop spending time thinking about whether you could or should, or shopping for the right paints, or asking anyone for permission, and go spend an hour on making an artwork.
posted by enfa at 9:00 PM on October 3, 2021 [8 favorites]

Art is a great pathway for constructing meaning and digesting and expressing feelings, thoughts and aesthetic choices. One tangible way to get started is learning some information about art materials that will help you achieve the kind of works you want. The Artist's Manual by Angela Gair, Chronicle Books publisher, is about twenty five dollars, and has lots of great pictures of techniques and simple explanations of working with all kinds of painting and drawing materials.

I bet your background in design will be a nice support for transitioning to fine art.
posted by effluvia at 9:13 PM on October 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

You can work as a graphic designer, and still be an artist outside of your work - drawing, painting, or even assembling multi-media pieces or sculpting. I'm a computer "dinosaur" - I worked in mainframe computers for four decades, but I still make some art from time to time. I try to do mine digitally, using a 2-in-1 laptop (can be folded into a tablet) and painting software because it lets me undo mistakes - but it's still art.
posted by TimHare at 9:13 PM on October 3, 2021

I’m linking to a friend’s blog both: 1. because she moved from corporate work to art some years ago (although after finding her voice and way into galleries) and 2. Because her story emphasizes that the process partly started out of necessity. You’ll find your voice by making art, being displeased and working on whatever you want to change about it. Just do it, and give yourself time.
posted by meinvt at 9:26 PM on October 3, 2021 [7 favorites]

Art is about asking questions and communicating answers.

You’ve already set yourself an excellent brief -

Is it too late for me? Where do I start?

How would you show those questions in a visual form? You already have problem solving design skills, you just need to explore a new language to tell those stories in.

Every language begins by starting with the fundamentals.

Grab a pencil, grab some paper, draw. Draw anything. Then reflect. Then draw again.
posted by brilliantmistake at 11:57 PM on October 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

One of my friends did this. She is very succesfull
posted by mumimor at 11:59 PM on October 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Check out Lisa Congdon and her path.
posted by socky_puppy at 12:26 AM on October 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

1) Start doing it. Just do. Whatever great idea you have BEGIN.
2) strangely, large pieces often are easier to sell so if you are nervous because your dreams are big, just Go For It
3) find like-minded artists locally, do art openings, just jump in and do the things you feel wildly unprepared for

Unless you are already exceptionally good at photographing art and social media, don’t focus on selling online. It’s highly competitive and saturated unless you happen to make something niche that captures the zeitgeist. It is far from the only path to success and will eat all your time with no creative rewards.

Think of Grandma Moses and know that it’s never too late.
posted by Bottlecap at 12:48 AM on October 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

1.) No I don't think it is. Although I'm also in a similar situation (38 over here!) and I totally understand your fears.

2.) Go buy yourself a copy of this book, stat.

3.) You're welcome.
posted by ChickenBear at 1:29 AM on October 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

1. No, you are absolutely not too old.
2. What do you mean by 'art'? That is, what is 'art' for you? Sol Lewitt? Amy Sillman? Dan Walsh? Julie Mehretu? Thomas Kinkade? (I'm sticking with painting here) George Condo? Richard Prince?

This second question is, from my point of view, the real question: Do you have a clear concept of what you want to make? Are you making art that's about you? or about your relationship to past art? (Vivian Maier - her work was absolutely contemporaneous with her peers, though 'outside' of the 'loop' (which for photographers in the 50-60's was tiny)) If it's the latter then your way forward should be pretty straightforward, "I think Amy Sillman's take on painting could be elaborated on thusly -" or, "Guston's cartoons could be re-configured to reflect our time and they would look like this"

That is all a pretty 'normal,' commercial, art-world take. Those who get into that position/galleries the rewards are pretty large (viz., Kahinde Wiley) - though to do so it really helps if you either live in NYC (or LA) and/or went to Yale MFA or CalArts (reductive but the point - these galleries draw overwhelmingly from particular pools of talent: the unspoken 'academy' - stands.)

That's not the only art-world though, nor the only viable or necessarily most important one. It is a structure though, which has its own up-side (getting paid. eventually.) But if you just want to get your freak on, then do that. A friend of ours is very chatty and a good printmaker. They were teaching for a while, but otherwise totally stalled, then Insta came along and they do a whole ...'thing'... where they talk about their life, their garden, baking ... I don't understand, at all, but people dig it our friend digs it and they sell _all_ the work they can produce. Go figure. Most importantly their work gets out to appreciative customers.

So, there's lots of venues to get your work out there.

The doing of it? That's on you. You just have to do it, whatever it is. It's Beckett, "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Be honest with yourself, emotionally honest and open in your work.

Oh, and maybe give Jerry Saltz's book _How To Be an Artist_ a look. He's a really good art critic (his wife is maybe a better art critic), and has good insights about being an artist. He's on instagram and often worth following/reading.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:42 AM on October 4, 2021

If you can find a way, I strongly recommend having a watch of Grayson's Art Club. It was shown in the UK during lockdown but is both of its time and timeless. Artist Grayson Perry and his wife Philippa, in their studio, making art and chatting about it, with a theme each week on which members of the public submit work. He picks some of his favourite submitted pieces, talks thoughtfully about them, Zooms with the makers (who are all just 'ordinary' people who make art as part of their life alongside work, families, etc). And a few telly celeb guests who also make art alongside whatever their 'real' job is.

It doesn't sound that exciting written down, but it was a thing of absolute joy and wonder. It'll also lovingly disabuse you of the idea that Becoming An Artist is some kind of distant, momentous threshold. Pick up some materials, make some art, and you're an artist.

Of course, there's another definition of artist, and maybe that's what you mean - one who gets paid for it, and whose work is recognised and acclaimed. Or at least one who is making serious efforts to develop and refine their art over time. If that's what you want to do, that's cool, the starting point is the same - get some materials and start making art. Keep making art. Find out what you love. Make some terrible art, maybe something good will crop up at some point. Don't give up the day job (yet). Keep going. Make more. Once it's become part of your life, I guess start taking a course/s or some instruction to give some structure to your growth and to make you keep making art (or start with the course, if that makes you feel like you've got 'permission' to start making art). See how far you go.

Some other useful things on developing a creative life:
The Helsinki Bus Station Theory (article)
Ira Glass on The Taste Gap (short article)
Big Magic by Liz Gilbert (book). She also has a podcast on the topic, Magic Lessons. A lot of it is about people who've become creatively stuck, or who want to start but can't seem to get moving. They're all people with jobs and families and lives that they're slotting in alongside their creative lives.
posted by penguin pie at 3:58 AM on October 4, 2021 [14 favorites]

You might like the book Old in Art School by Nell Painter. She went to art school after retiring from her position as a professor at Princeton, so she was a lot older than you are.

I would also recommend the book Art and Fear.

And no, you aren't too old.
posted by FencingGal at 6:03 AM on October 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

Lisa Congdon (linked above) has a book literally entitled Finding Your Creative Voice that talks about all of the elements that go into developing your own distintive style. Austin Kleon's book Steal Like an Artist talks about how to synthesize inspiration and ideas from art you already love into a style that is all your own.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:04 AM on October 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

You ARE an artist. Right now. There is nothing you have to do to become one. However, there are several things you may want to consider. Do you want to show in galleries? My suggestion is, start looking at art in galleries and see if you can find one that fits with your personal vision, or style. If you don't have a portfolio, start one. Also, once you find a gallery, find out how they want submissions, in the covid world they may want digital submissions. Are you outgoing, an introvert, a combination? Most galleries will expect you to be present during openings or closings to talk up your work, there's nothing like the personal touch. Good luck my artist friend!
posted by evilDoug at 6:36 AM on October 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

1. Make art
2. Show People
3. Get them to pay you for it.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:02 AM on October 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

My wife has been working on her art over the past two years and the amount of growth and drive I've seen combined with talent and curiosity has me so excited for her to pursue it full time (which she's doing now). She's 30. It wouldn't be any different if she were 37.

And like evilDoug said, you are an artist right now. There's no qualification you require to be one except a want to make art and learn and make more art.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 7:16 AM on October 4, 2021

As with any other learned skill, the length of time to competency is tied to how often you practice and how much time you spend learning new skills/techniques. Some people have natural aptitudes and can pick up the skills a bit faster, but a dedicated person with no natural talent will quickly surpass someone who does but isn't putting in much effort.

For basic drawing skills, I would say a year of daily or near daily practice with a well thought out curriculum (books or online tutorials count too, not just formal classes) will give you enough visible improvement to be able to say you've 'learned to draw', although this is obviously a never-ending, ongoing process as you continue to develop your skills.

Learning to draw is a pretty essential first step to any other medium, including sculpture. Even abstract art uses those skills. Learning to paint, in sense of laying in shadows / color blocks and refining into realism with no underlying pencil sketch, is a related but essentially different skill.

So it depends on what you are most drawn to creating, and what medium you find the most appealing. If you're not planning to turn this into a side hustle (and honestly there is no reason if your goal is simply to make art), dont worry about finding a 'style'. Distinctive styles help when you're marketing your work to buyers and galleries. It does not neccesarily equal a fulfilling experience of creating art, and can end up creating a reluctance to experiment and innovate.

I am an artist myself who makes a small income from it, which is not my main gig and is barely a side hustle (I think I've made $2000 so far this year?).

I would not say I have a super distinct overall style per se, but there are themes and motifs in my work that relate to one another sufficiently to give at least mild coherence to my portfolio. I generally do 4 to 6 pieces that are very stylistically and thematically similar for each collection I produce.

I work in a wide variety of mediums, from oil to watercolor and even graphite. I do digital art on commission for a carefully selected clientele. I make pottery and crafty-type things also. It all feels like it comes from the same creative impulse. I sell some of it, and some of it is just for me.

You dont have to create the world's most cohesive art style to be a 'real artist', and you certainly dont have to sell any of your work. You just have to love creating. So don't limit yourself, make all the art all the time, and remember that since it's YOU making the art, all your work will eventually have a distinct vibe that is yours. It can hardly be otherwise.
posted by ananci at 8:04 AM on October 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

I've made various forms of art, broadly speaking, for much of my life, including short films and music. But I only started making art intended to be shown in a gallery setting when I turned 40. That was 10 years ago. You really can start any time.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:00 AM on October 4, 2021

Dude, I only discovered writing in my 50's. After a long time of trying to be a writer, I just calmed down and wrote for myself. Wow! I'm actually proud of the stories I've written, the characters I've brought to life. What are you waiting for? You have worlds to create.
posted by SPrintF at 9:25 AM on October 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

You might also like reading Winston Churchill’s Painting as a Pastime— he took up painting to help him cope with career stresses and depression at around your age and kept up with it as he got old. It was one of his greatest joys.

Adding to the chorus— it’s never too late!! Jump in, the water’s fine.
posted by actionpact at 9:47 AM on October 4, 2021

A one-time coworker of mine took up painting a few years ago. He’s now doing well in juried competitions and his work that he has been posting on (the possibly late, unlamented) Facebook has all sorts of people clamouring to buy his paintings. He’ll turn 57 this fall.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:12 PM on October 4, 2021

Just as a data point: I only learned to draw at age 43. Now people pay me for it. It's cartooning, but still ...
posted by lpsguy at 12:13 PM on October 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

With regards to finding your voice. Find pieces that do something cool, have some technique, some element you find really compelling, and then try to do the same thing. Find youtube videos, books, whatever that explain the technique and figure out how to the same. That's another tool in your toolbox. Don't worry about being "derivative." Sure, you may share a tool, a technique with another artist ( and honestly, not quite even then, you'll always end up doing even the same thing slightly differently ) but your particular toolbox is going to be unique to you, and it won't be mistaken for anyone else.

So yeah, find pieces that make you say "I wish I could do that," break it down into techniques you can practice, research, find tutorials, and work out how to do yourself. And then you have the "I can do that know." And that's a very great feeling. And then there is always, always more to learn.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:15 PM on October 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

No it's not too late. Just start drawing. Art started by people just doing it.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:19 PM on October 5, 2021

Good for you, for following your dreams and desires! You probably haven't even hit the likely halfway point of your life, so if you think about it, you have as much time ahead of you as you've already lived (at least!). It was with this thought in mind that I enrolled in a scientific illustration program at the age of 45 or so. I was, and still am, a graphic designer for my day job, but I've gone from learning about natural illustration to doing all kinds of drawing and painting. I sell my work pretty regularly and have started a little side hustle doing prints and showing my original work in small shows. I'm in my mid-50s now and getting better all the time, I'm happy to say. You absolutely can do the same thing! Art is like any other skill; you can learn it and get better by practicing it regularly.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 3:27 PM on October 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

You probably haven't even hit the likely halfway point of your life, so if you think about it, you have as much time ahead of you as you've already lived (at least!).

And you’ve had an even smaller proportion of your adult life! You’ve still got the majority left so you’re quite early on, especially since art is something you can continue past conventional retirement age. You’re definitely not “too late”.
posted by fabius at 4:57 AM on October 6, 2021

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