Monday Morning Art School: Aging the model

Aging is highly individual but it follows certain predictable paths. Here are some hints to drawing plausible older people.
The Ancient of Days, William Blake, 1794. Relief etching with watercolor. The figure is a curious pastiche of an older face and a young body. Courtesy British Museum

Last week, I shared a drawing of my model in which I managed to make her look fifteen years old.

No two people age the same way. That’s especially true in our modern world, where aging gracefully is a sign of affluence. Many of us have had discreet work ‘done’—including me—and we live less-taxing lives than our ancestors. We keep our hair and brows more stylishly than our forebearers. Most of us retain our teeth; in the US, we keep them whitened. On the other hand, more of us are plagued by obesity, which ages our faces.
Our experiences leave their mark. The weather-beaten lobsterman and an office-worker will age quite differently. The northeastern US is kind to skin, because it’s humid and cool, whereas the sun of the southwest is harsh.
Portrait of the Artist’s Mother at the Age of 63. Albrecht Dürer, courtesy Kupferstichkabinett. In one sense, this is an example of how dramatically aging has changed, but if you get past the toothlessness, the changes happen the same way today. Note the cording of her neck and the receding temple.
The human face can be ennobled by ascetism or coarsened by consumption, depending on how we’ve lived. Smokers develop a system of wrinkles because nicotine causes narrowing of the blood vessels in the epidermis.  And then there’s the thing none of us can do anything about: our genes.
Our culture venerates the 25-year-old face, but our faces settle into maturity once we pass thirty. By our fifties, those changes are accelerating rapidly, as our face assumes its elderly shape.
There are more telling signs of aging in the face than wrinkles. The eye socket becomes deeper, leading to pouching under the eyes. Closely related to this, the temples deepen and cheekbones become more evident. As if to compensate for this increased definition above the cheekbones, the lower parts of our faces sag. The flesh of our cheeks droops. Creases form along our noses and mouths.
A very unflattering selfie taken this morning showing the recession at the temples and delineation of the cheekbones. When I was younger, my face was nearly a perfect oval, but I’ve managed to get it all stretched out by now. (The bags under my eyes are just tiredness.)

Our noses and earlobes grow all our lives. The tip of the nose may turn downward in a person lucky enough to achieve extreme old age. The soft tissue below our jaw starts to sag. The cords of ours neck become more visible after age 60.

At around age 40, a series of furrows appear on our faces. They can be vertical between the brows and along the mouth, but are often horizontal. Most of us don’t get every possible wrinkle, but merely the ones to which we’re predisposed. Wrinkles are not lines or cracks, but folds of skin. Lines are a poor way of representing them.
Head of an Old Man, 1521, Albrecht Dürer, courtesy of the Albertina. Wrinkles are folds, not crevasses. 
Our skin becomes less luminous in middle age, but often in extreme old age it regains the translucence of childhood.
One of the most telling signs of age is the thickness of our hair. In both genders, hairlines recede and our hair thins. Again, this is an area of aging where much work is done to conceal changes but it would be odd to see a glorious mane of hair on an elderly person.

Old love

Pines in fog by Cecilia Chang.

Pines in fog, by Cecilia Chang.
Perched on the back of her painting kit, feet propped on a pine snag, Cecilia Chang sat eating a sandwich. “I bet I’m the oldest student you’ve ever had,” she said.
I thought about it. “I bet you’re probably right,” I answered.
Cecilia is 72. Her husband, Tamin, is also with us. He is 75. Both are retired research scientists from Rochester, NY. Whether exercising your brain makes you age more slowly, I cannot say, but they are both exceptionally strong and limber. It has been impossible for me to stop them from climbing up and down the steep rocks on the Schoodic Peninsula. I’ve been worried.
Mark Island Overlook, by Lynne Vokatis.

Mark Island Overlook, by Lynne Vokatis.
Finally, I resorted to out-and-out lying. “I don’t mean to insult you, Grandfather,” I told Tamin, “but you cannot go down on those rocks in open-toed sandals. They are very dangerous. You will fall between the rocks and drown and I will never be allowed to teach in a National Park again.”
“We must respect Teacher and do as she says,” said Cecilia, equally straight-faced. Tamin, being a very courtly gentleman, acquiesced.
Pines in fog, by Corinne Kelly Avery.

Pines in fog, by Corinne Kelly Avery.
I’ve been contemplating the miracle of long marriages recently. Occasionally I’ll see an older couple together, walking with obvious solicitude toward each other. That devotion and mutual support seems to me to be as precious as a newborn baby. Young love is, in a way, simple. It’s out of our control. Old love is a different kind of simple. The raw edges have been scraped away, leaving only the essence of affection. It’s a pity that so few people these days make it that far.
Cecilia took up painting when she retired. “I walk every day,” she told me. “Maybe if I painted every day, I’d be a better artist. But exercise is the reason I look 27 instead of 72.”
Winter Harbor lighthouse on Mark Island, by Lynne Vokatis.

Winter Harbor lighthouse on Mark Island, by Lynne Vokatis.
Some years I have more enrollees than I can handle. This year we have a very small group. I take a long view about these things. Instead of struggling to fix the problem, I wait to see why it happened. (That’s one of the joys of self-employment.) One of the reasons, I now know, is that I’ve gotten to know the participants this year in a way that’s not usually possible.
The amazingly youthful Cecilia Chang attributes her good looks to daily exercise. That's Corinne Kelly Avery at the right.

The amazingly youthful Cecilia Chang attributes her good looks to daily exercise. That’s Corinne Kelly Avery at the right.
As we took our break, Cecilia started talking about her childhood in Taiwan. She told us how she visited a cathedral and felt a great sense of peace. The Holy Spirit drew her back, over and over, even when her father forbade her to be baptized.
There was someone in our group who needed to hear that powerful testimony, and some of us who were meant to be witnesses to the event. From the time I put together this year’s workshop last fall, heavenly wheels have turned within wheels. They brought this particular group of people together for a few galvanizing minutes on the rocks above Frenchman Bay.
My wee little rock demo took on a life of its own.

My wee little rock demo took on a life of its own.
Dinner was on the deck of the Schoodic Institute Commons. I was fidgeting because I needed another 2000 steps to stay on track to defeat my son-in-law in this week’s Fitbit challenge. The youngsters in our group wanted to check messages or go shower. Only Cecilia and Tamin were willing to walk with me. We set off down a trail that dropped back down to Frenchman Bay. A pale peach sun hung low in a milky sky above the gentle lapping of the waves.
Now, seriously, how can you not be in awe of this life?

Be reasonable

Sugaring Off, Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses, 1944. In some of her winter scenes, she achieves a Bruegelesque quality, perhaps in part because of the flat lighting.
I was outlining my next six months’ schedule to my friend Berna, and she asked, “And you are painting when?” It’s a thought that’s occurred to me more than once this year.
I took a workshop on the business of art. The instructor told us we should be spending half our time marketing. I think it’s more accurate to say that I spend a third of my time marketing, a third painting, and a third on overhead. After all, I’m not wealthy enough to pay someone else to do my bookkeeping, and management takes time. 
Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses with two of her children. After working as a farmhand and maid, she married at age 27 and gave birth to ten children, five of whom survived past infancy. Oddly enough, she didn’t have time to paint at this stage in her life.
Even if I could magically stretch out the work week to be 120 hours long, I wouldn’t have the energy for it. Fifty may be the new forty, but my joints haven’t gotten the message.
A sixty-something recently asked me how to start an art career. She’s been a wife, a mother, and a musician, and she recently earned her BFA. I’m the last person to rain on someone else’s dreams, but she’s going to be competing against youngsters with limitless energy. To succeed, she’s going to need to husband her resources.
Hoosick Falls, New York, in Winter, Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses, 1944. She was 84 when she painted this.
Yesterday I had three jobs blocked out: to wrap five bundles of stretcher bars, to deal with a small pile of paperwork for my trip to Maine next week, and to paint. The stretcher bars stretched out into early afternoon, and the ‘small’ pile of paperwork morphed into a bigger mess. I looked at the clock and it was 5 PM and I’d never lifted a brush.
Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses.
Oh, well. I suppose it’s better to be overly ambitious than to be too easily pleased.

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