senior learning to paint

Mature Art Student

Mature Art Students - Yes you can!

I have taught drawing and painting to many retirees in their 60s, 70s, and 80s and, without exception, it was a very positive experience for them. There are some challenges for mature art students that I will address here but I’ll tell how to take advantage of your time making sure that you get rewarded for your efforts.

It is never too late to learn!

My mature students often start by saying that they have no talents and are not sure if they can learn at their age. Often, this fear stems from not having been in a learning environment for a long time. It may take a little longer to learn new skills or theory but the capacity to improve remains relatively unchanged as we get older (see graph below).

This study from The European Review of Aging and Physical Activity shows that after 6 practice sessions (top graph), there was an improvement in physical motor skills across all age groups. 

Motor skills by age 

Although the speed of skill acquisitions drops slightly as we get older, it can be more than compensated by having more time to practice and fewer distractions. In my experience, mature students generally advance as fast as younger students. More importantly, finding joy in the learning process is far more rewarding than attaining any goal. 

I often hear older adults “I have no talent” or “I can’t even draw a straight line”, the question of talent is a subject on its own but suffice it to say that talent has more to do with skills acquired over time than with any natural abilities.

It's all about intensity

Yayoi Kusama the polka dot princess

If age is not the first determinant in skill acquisition, what is?  Intensity!

Taking a once a week course is a start and may be enough for hobbyists who want to enjoy an afternoon out and benefit from the experience of a teacher. However, if someone wants to feel a sense of progression in any art, more practice at home is essential. Think about musicians, sports professionals, great artists, what do they all have in common? Daily practice.

Practice every day?

For physiological reasons, we need concentration and repetition in our practice to consolidate new skills. It has to do with the myelination of our neurons. These fat layers surround and protect our neurons but they have to be put in layers in a process that happens over time. That is why there are no overnight geniuses! Skills are earned over time, the journey can and should be enjoyable!

This is where mature art students have their biggest advantage. After retirement, with independent children away from home, there is a lot more flexibility with time. So arranging short art sessions daily can be more easily achieved.

Every day really?

It may be harder if you are an oil painter, having to get your materials ready by itself can take the same time as a short sketching session. But, you can still look at your work, see what has to be fixed, do some research, look and analyze the works of master painters, etc. For other mediums, like photography, it is very easy to make it a daily habit. Try 20 or 30 minutes, mornings are often the best time because there are fewer chances of being distracted. For many older adults, this is where the mind is most rested.

I see more change in the development of students who work from home 3 times or more every week and the most with students who practice daily. Try to target something in that range and you will see results. 

The benefits of daily practice

  1. Like brushing your teeth, a daily activity is much easier to keep that an irregular one
  2. You keep the connection with your work open. You may even find yourself looking at the world around you differently and dreaming about your pieces, this is your brain doing wiring work!
  3. You will develop trust in yourself and lose the fear of the white page or canvas.
  4. You will remember more easily what you learn. 
  5. Your new skills will become more intuitive.

Mature art student tips

older artist learning to paint

Chose a flexible program

We can’t count on being in top shape every day, especially as we get older and winter conditions can be more challenging for people with reduced mobility. Some teachers will allow you to skip classes or you can find a teacher online who will help you in the comfort of your home. 

When I built ARTZOK, I had all of my students in mind but also mature students or students with reduced mobility everywhere who could benefit from a professional support from their home. We’ve made it very simple and affordable to get regular help from top art teachers.

Try new technologies

From online help to YouTube demonstrations, there are many ways to find information and get help. Most new technologies are built to be used without instructions, you just have to try it and follow your intuition. Your smartphone or tablet are packed full of technologies that you can use. Most mobile devices have surprisingly good cameras that you can use with filters and image editing apps. There is a lot you can do even before you pick up a pencil or brush.

Consider online lessons

A weekly art class at a local community center or art school can be a good way to find a supportive and stimulating environment but consider online support. Online lessons and tutoring can be very effective at helping you move along. Often, all you need is your mobile device to connect with a qualified teacher. For some, it is the only way to get support.

84 years old draws his first portrait

A student that I will always remember received a gift certificate from his children for a drawing course with me. He was 84 years old at the time and had never drawn anything but always wished he had a chance. He thought it was too late but since he did not want to disappoint his children he decided to try. He wanted to draw the portrait of his granddaughter as his first drawing…

Normally I help my students progress from simple forms (spheres, cubes…) to more complex structures. Portraits come after mastering simpler projects but I only had 10 3-hours sessions with this student and he wanted to do a portrait. Did he do it? YES, and it was pretty good!

Even with a difficult subject like a portrait, if we simplify the general form and move in a structured step by step process, we can get to a good likeness. For this older adult beginner, it took about 30 hours. In the end, my 84 years old student couldn’t believe that he had drawn this portrait, even if I did not touch his drawing a single time. All that was required, was time, consistent effort and a teacher to point the way. He was very proud to give his portrait to his grand-daughter as a present!

It is not about your age

winston churchill painting

Don’t let being a mature art student define you. You have many advantages, from more flexibility with your time to having more perspective with life.

There is a general fear that with age, our abilities to learn decline just like our physical abilities. This is only true if we let them! If you start doing weight lifting, we will soon be able to measure your progress and the rate of progress interestingly does not vary much with age. The same applies to learning a new art medium, your rate of progress will be much more a factor of the time and regularity of your practice than anything else.

Another of my students started painting lessons with me a few years after suffering a massive stroke which left her paralyzed on one side and with speech and cognitive abilities impaired. As I looked at the series of paintings that she did in my studio, the progress between each was striking, perhaps more than any other student that I ever taught to.

It’s all about the journey, not the destination (or your age!)
Of course, you have heard this cliché before, but once you reach a certain age, it becomes more relevant. You don’t have to prove anything anymore, you don’t have to be under pressure, you don’t need to meet objectives or deadlines. It’s time to enjoy what art has brought to countless generations before, the joy of creating something new, of expressing yourself, of being in the moment, of finding beauty where you did not know it existed before.

painting by Jos van Riswick

The perils of the Carder Method

What is the Carder Method?

Originally, Mark Carder sold a DVD course entitled the “Carder Method for Painting in Oil”. While the course is still available on Amazon, Mark offers most of the principles and methods free from his YouTube channel and website

Mark shows how to control everything from the light, the studio wall color, the tools and the paint to get extreme accuracy in drawing, in paint mixing and application. When followed, this method will allow even beginners to do very realistic paintings but beware, it can halt your artistic development.

Starting from nothing

"A little learning is a dangerous thing" Alexander Pope (1688 - 1744)"

Image result for frog drawing

15 years ago, my daughter asked me draw her a frog, I couldn’t. I decided to take a drawing course to learn the basics of drawing. I was hooked!

The next 10 years became a full-time pursuit of knowledge about drawing, painting, and portraiture. I took countless classes with master artists, read a full library or art books, watched over 500 hours of demo videos… you get the idea! 

Eventually, I became a commissioned portrait artist and a drawing and painting teacher.

 Along with this journey, I encountered the Carder method which has been both a great learning tool and a major pitfall. This article aims to help you avoid these perils while getting the best of what Mark Carder or any controlled approach can teach you.

First, the good!

proportional divider

Mark Carder tells you how to faithfully transcribe on paper or canvas a still life setup or a picture using a proportional divider.

Once the drawing is nailed, he teaches you how to mix color accurately by checking your paint either with a color checker or directly on a laminated photo reference.

This can save you years of learning how to draw, how to control your paint by trials an errors and guarantee very accurate results fast. 


Now the bad!

The results you get from using the Carder Method are so good that you become very reluctant to go back to the long and arduous tasks of sketching, doing color studies, painting in layers, etc. It can quickly become your artistic golden handcuffs. Mark Carder himself tells his listeners that this method should be used for 10-20 paintings only. It is, however, hard to leave the safety of this method and very tempting to come back to the guarantee of a perfectly accurate drawing that never needs refining or to the ease of a perfect color mix on every brush stroke. 


So, what's the problem?

The main problem is that you become a photocopier, you replace artistic discoveries with technical an repetitive gestures. It becomes very hard to see individual differences between works by different artists using this method – they look pretty much all done by the same hand. The worst pitfall, at least for me… it killed the joy of painting that I had prior to using these techniques. 

Before I learned the Carder Method

Thank you Waterhouse 12x16

This portrait of my son was done using looser brush strokes. Instead than concentrating on exact colors, I looked for a mood and the feeling the light hitting the skin. I had to correct my drawing throughout the painting process which was frustrating at times but the result, with all of its imperfections, is closer to the reality I perceived. 

After I Learned the Carder Method

NY couple

These three figures from a commissioned portrait were easier and faster to do than the portrait of my son. This is partly because I had gained more experience but also because I hardly ever had to repaint anything since I checked my colors at pretty much every brushstroke. The client was happy with the result but the artist was not. I felt like a robot repeating the same mechanical gestures toward a very predictable outcome.

What to do?

OK, the Carder method will give you results but can we still use it without falling into its trappings?

YES… but be careful, the temptation to return to the safety of this method will be stronger for some people.

I teach drawing and painting to people of all ages and I use some of Carder’s techniques to help my student take some measurements, become aware of color differences etc. BUT I give them as much theory as they can take so they understand how light reacts a certain way and what they can do with it. I also encourage them to do these things:


  • Draw first, then measure. This way you get a feedback and learn where you tend to diverge from reality. You eventually develop a sense of relative proportions and line directions and quality. Too much upfront measurement makes you a slave to your proportional divider or whatever tool you use for taking measures. 
  • Check your color only sporadically. Checking your color at every brushstroke like I did for a while will guarantee perfect photorealism but will not teach you anything. Color-check your lightest light, darkest dark and perhaps a few of your mid-tones then compare your masses relative to one another, get a feeling of how values and colors relate to each other.
  • Try other approaches. Do monochrome studies, sketch with short pose live model, do wipe-outs (massing of tones), use only big brushes for a while, try laying transparent colors (glazes) over a grisaille, experiment and discover what brings you joy. 
  • Find your way. Art is not about copying nature, it is about communicating something, beauty, emotions, a message. How can you best communicate what you have to say? 

Final word

The academic art training of the past centuries was able to produce our greatest artists but those who stood out are the same who stepped away from their academic training and comfort zone to experiment and find their own voices. Similarly, the Carder method gives the tools to create convincing realistic art but only those who can move on and find their own path will get the satisfaction of creating truly original art.

I have the utmost respect for Mark Carder, I watched all of his DVDs and most of his YouTube videos. I used his tools and followed closely his techniques and methods for several years. Perhaps this was my biggest error and the reason I am writing the article, it was too much of a good thing. Taken in moderation however in a much larger and diverse learning strategy, the Carder method can be a useful tool on your way to becoming the best artist you can be!

Consider having a teacher that can provide timely support online. This is a service that I offer on ARTZOK, it has proven to be very effective at helping students and even professional artists get the feedback they need to keep progressing with their art.