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Monday, December 7, 2020

You’re Never Too Old for Art

Chavez demonstrates for students in the Lake Tahoe area at a workshop sponsored by the Lake Tahoe Pastel Society in California

The experience of one Colorado artist shows that older adults are flocking to art classes for fun and fulfillment.

On a recent fall morning in a booming suburb located on an old settler’s trail between Pike’s Peak to the south and Denver to the north, acclaimed artist Lorenzo Chavez was outdoors, painting a demo for the scant handful of students that COVID-19 regulations would allow in his class. In spite of their masks and wide-brimmed hats to block the intense sun a mile above sea level, a lot of gray hair and wrinkles were visible in the group. 

Older Students are the Norm

“The vast majority of my students are retired,” Chavez says of his plein air, or outdoor, landscape classes that are offered through a collaboration between the local Parker Arts Center and the Art Students League of Denver. “Most of them are 60 to 70 years old. A big segment have dabbled in art in their younger years.”

Chavez began his teaching career decades ago in his early 30s. Even then, he recalls, “most of my students were older than me.” An internationally acclaimed painter of western landscapes, Chavez has an affable demeanor and admirable patience, qualities that, along with his expertise, fill his classes as soon as they open. He chats with students as they arrive, and assists with concerns over everything from how to set up pastel colors (cool colors on one side, warm on the other) to the best sources for paper and frames. 

His acolytes are from all levels and walks of life — doctors, scientists, receptionists, attorneys, the unemployed and a state senator have all come under his guidance. Once, Chavez even taught actor Gene Hackman, who had studied art before getting into acting. Hackman continued a life-long passion for painting, one that he could indulge more as he got older. 

A local artist invited Chavez to teach a class on her property in Durango, Colorado.

Which Medium Should I Pick?

Every method of painting has its adherents, and it can be confusing trying to pick one to start with. Of course, if the only instructor in your neck of the woods works in watercolor, the choice may be made for you. But if you’ve got choices, here’s a quick rundown on some pros and cons:

Acrylic paint dries fast and washes clean with water. It’s generally cheaper than oil paint, and works well with a variety of inexpensive canvases.
Pastels are about $1 to $6 apiece for the quality “soft” pieces you’ll want to buy from an art store. You can save money by purchasing them in a set. No brushes needed, but you’ll use special, textured paper that grabs and holds the color. Wear disposable gloves or wash hands with soap and water for cleanup.
Oil paint takes days to dry and can get expensive, but it’s the classic medium for gallery art. Start with just a few good brushes and moderately priced boards or canvas. Cleanup requires turpenoid, or essential oils that have come back into vogue. 

Water-soluble oils take the hassle out of cleanup: just use soap and water.
Watercolor paints run about $9 to $25 a tube, but a beginner can buy a much cheaper set of pan paints and get started. A wide array of effects are possible, since this medium is made for transparency, and is often splashed, salted and overlapped for effect.

Beginners should buy the least amount of tools needed to get started. Get advice from your instructor, or from online sources. A couple of quality brushes are better than ten bad ones. Use turpenoid or other solvents only in ventilated areas. Chelsea Classical Studio offers lavender and orange essential oil solvents as replacements through retailers such as Jerry’s Artarama Art Supplies and Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff. Finally, pigment is evolving away from potentially toxic cadmiums. Although they should be quite safe if used with care, it’s easy to find cadmium-free alternatives these days. 

Just Do It

Whoever they may be, Chavez takes his students as they come. Some are already accomplished, and others are just beginning, but you can’t tell which is which by their age. “I hear a lot of, ‘Oh, I wish I’d started 20 years ago!’” Chavez says with a smile. “But you start when you start.”

Recently, Chavez got a call from a prominent local businessman who is an octogenarian. He’d “never painted in his life” but he wanted to complete a work in oils. Would Chavez come to his office and help mentor him? After getting the required materials together, Chavez drove out to meet his newest student. What was his reason for wanting to start painting now, Chavez asked the man. “I want to do this to show my grandkids that it’s never too late to do something new,” he replied. 

Chavez has made a name for himself through many years in the field. In the 80s, he began land-scape painting in oils, capturing the red cliffs and hardy junipers of his native Southwest. He switched to using pastels sometime around 1990 to distinguish himself from the herd, since there weren’t a lot of artists using them at the time. “I created my own tools,” he says. “It was an adventure into the unknown.” Then he picked up oil again after a move to misty Oregon. “Rainy days didn’t lend themselves to painting with pastels, so I switched back to oils,” he recalls. Besides, oils “opened a new door that was exciting.” 

Where to Find Classes

Chavez has taught all across the country, and he’s brimming with suggestions about where to find classes locally. Here are his suggestions:

  • Local art center
  • Local community center
  • Local art schools
  • Art societies, such as those for watercolor or oil painting
  • Local galleries may offer a workshop
  • Private local studio
  • Local art museum may sponsor an artist workshop
  • Online demo lectures
  • Online critique service

A workshop schedule and online services for Chavez can be found online.  YouTube offers innumerable free demonstrations.

The owner of an art store in Santa Fe, New Mexico invited Chavez to teach a workshop.

You Could Be Famous! (Probably Not)

Recently, Chavez ran across an old Life magazine from the 60s. On the cover was Grandma Moses, celebrating her 100th birthday. She became famous for her paintings in spite of never having touched a brush until she was 70. Moses picked up painting for fun, as a hobby. Her works are now coveted museum pieces, and in 2006 her piece entitled “Sugaring Off” sold for $1.2 million. 

Life magazine cover featuring the indelible Grandma Moses at age 100.

Former U.S. president George W. Bush began painting in 2012, at the age of 63. He set up an art studio in a former home office, a room his wife, Laura, began referring to as his “man cave.” At first, the paintings had random subjects, such as Bush’s toes sticking out over the edge of the bathtub and random dogs. But fast-forward four years later, and Bush was turning out sophisticated portraits of world leaders (the 24 portraits hang in his presidential library) and war veterans (which he promoted with a tour). Dallas artist Gail Norfleet has tutored Bush from the beginning, remarking that he wasn’t her most talented student, but he was the most persistent.

Most of us will never tour with a show of our works, and the greatest praise our art ever receives may come from adoring grandchildren with a mermaid or Spiderman painting done by Grandma or Grandpa taped to their bedroom wall. But who cares? Start when you’re old, not in spite of your age, but because of it. It’s never too late to learn something new. 

Click below for the other articles in the December 2020 Senior Spirit


All photos featuring Lorenzo Chavez are the property of the artist and used with his permission.

Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors