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8 Tips to Become a Painter at Any Age

Practical advice for getting started from a happy late-in-life painter


Part of the Artful Aging Special Report

When my son went to college — the same year I turned 50 — I accidentally unlocked a passion for painting.

My friend, Mary, invited a group of women to her home for a painting party. Not considering myself artistic, I hesitated before accepting the invitation. It once took me six months to choose a paint color for my kitchen.

Fortified with wine and the foregone conclusion that I lacked artistic ability, I approached the task with no expectations and total abandonment. Some of the women hovered over their canvases, delicately moving their brushes in tiny precise strokes, striving to match the instructor’s picture of a doorway and a wheelbarrow overflowing with flowers. They were anxious, as if this were a test.

I didn’t fret about how my painting might compare to the others or if I was doing it the “right” way. Mixing the colors on a paper plate, I boldly loaded the brush and covered the white canvas with thick blobs of acrylic paint. Three hours later, the party was over. And I was filled with an exhilaration I hadn’t experienced in perhaps decades.

Who knew you can become a painter even if you can’t draw? My enthusiastic teacher embraced beginners. Her mantra: “Be brave.”

In one evening, I rediscovered how to play.

The next morning, I rushed to the craft store to buy a beginner’s set of acrylic paints, canvases and a pallet. A table covered with an old shower curtain on my screen porch became an impromptu studio. Looking at the backyard for inspiration, I painted pine trees, clouds and flowers. Oblivious to the time, I didn’t even stop for lunch.

I was in the zone, or a state of consciousness positive psychologists call “flow” — the total absorption into an activity taking all of one’s concentration. The brain can only process so much information, so there is a sense that time ceases, bodily discomforts are ignored and there’s no room in the mind for random negative thoughts.

The more I painted, the more I wanted to learn. I borrowed a stack of books from the library, but what I needed was a teacher. So I signed up for a weekly painting class.

Who knew you can become a painter even if you can’t draw? My enthusiastic teacher embraced beginners. Her mantra: “Be brave.” She believed art is experimentation. When she critiqued a student’s efforts, she always found something to praise — the delicate line of a leaf or the hint of purple in a cloud. She taught us to step away — literally — from the painting and look for what was working. Her technique squelched my inner critic.

Whether you are seeking the occasional evening of entertainment or wish to seriously study art, nurture an interest in painting by trying one or more of these eight tips:

1. Join an Organized Group

Many communities have an art association you can become part of, usually a nonprofit that supports area artists. Mine is the St. Tammany Art Association, with some 800 members who participate in gallery showings, classes and cultural programs like day trips to the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Another resource is your community recreational center, which might offer leisure programs.

If you are looking to meet locals who share your love of art, contact your city, county or state division of the arts to see what might be available.

2. Go Back to School Inexpensively

Check with local colleges about leisure course offerings you could take. Typically, these no-credit enrichment classes are available at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college class.

3. Scout the Art Stores

Craft and art supply stores frequently host painting demonstrations or lessons. Talk to the store manager and ask for a calendar of events.

4. Visit Museums, Botanical Gardens and Galleries

Review the websites of museums, botanical gardens and art galleries to learn about special programs for aspiring artists. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, for instance, conducts adult art classes that relate to the museum’s collection, architecture or special exhibits. The Chicago Botanic Garden offers painting, watercolor and color theory classes with a botanical theme. The Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis allows “Open Studio” participants to bring their sketch pads and pencils for one hour every Friday while an art instructor is on hand to answer questions and help advance their skills.

5. Hire a Pro

Many artists supplement their income by teaching private or group lessons. Ask the local art association for a list of instructors. If your community doesn’t have a formal arts organization, call the high school and speak to an art teacher about getting taught.

If you can’t find an art class that meets your needs, create one. I recruited five friends who wanted to take acrylic painting lessons. We hired a professional artist to teach us in my home. To find an artist, attend art markets, art festivals and gallery showings and look for paintings by artists in your area. When you see work you like, ask the artist if she is interested in teaching. Keep the commitment short — three or four weeks; not every artist is good at teaching.

6. Paint-N-Sip

One of the country’s booming franchises is the paint-n-sip business and it’s a fun way to get started. Painting with a Twist, begun by two entrepreneurial moms from Louisiana, is one of the most successful, with 278 studios in 33 states. They orchestrate parties where friends gather for a few hours sipping an adult beverage and painting. The copyrighted artwork is designed to be finished within two or three hours. Instructors provide entertainment and step-by-step directions. This isn’t intended to be a formal art lesson, it’s a fun outing. Party guests pay $40 and leave with their own creation.

7. Search Online

Lots of inspiration and even lessons can be found by using the Internet. From YouTube videos of “How to Paint a Sunflower” (there are dozens; we’ve included one below that we like) to the Artists Network University, with professionally produced courses for those who want to do fine art for fun, you’ll find tons of free and affordably priced resources.

8. Create a Painting Club

Like a book club, friends can form a painting group. For five years, Linda Pippins, in the New Orleans area, has belonged to one that meets once a month to watercolor and lunch. When painting, the members offer gentle critiques of each other’s work. Two of the women have even sold some of their pieces. “You just put everything out of your mind and let go of the stress when you are concentrating on colors, shapes and composition,” said Pippins. Laughing, she added, “It’s our therapy.”

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