Painting after retirement

What’s the good of self-discipline if you can’t even figure out a plan? And the plan itself requires time, attention and work.

Morning at Spruce Head, 8×10 oil on canvas, $522 unframed. This was a class demo on color management, and I wish you could see all the color swirling through it, but my camera insists on flattening it out.

“I just cannot seem to create structure in my life now that it really is up to me and not something imposed by work or child-rearing,” wrote a student. “A—is doing great on her own. She’s launched into adulthood and all that entails. Bittersweet. And now for me to create my next chapter. Yikes.”

I’ve floundered several times in my life. When I transitioned to painting full time, I had no idea how to create artwork that wasn’t paired with words. I illustrated two books before realizing that children’s literature wasn’t my métier.

Many people grapple with issues of organization after retirement. Some fail. My father had passionate avocations, including painting. All his life, he managed to squeeze them into his free time. But upon retirement, he simple wasn’t able to organize himself. He found himself rooted to the spot, getting progressively more depressed and less productive.

Rosy sky at Owls Head, 8×16, oil on linenboard, $722 unframed.

I plan—like Wayne Thiebaud and Lois Dodd—to work into my dotage. That makes me singularly unqualified to give advice about retirement to anyone.

But making a good retirement seems—to me—to be much like self-employment. Obviously, you don’t need to work 80 hours a week, but you do need to create order, process and clarity in your day-to-day existence.

I’ve been self-employed since I was thirty. I vividly remember that feeling of shock when I sat down to my spiffy, brand-new computer (that I’d borrowed to buy) and realized that I had to go get customers, estimate the jobs and do the work, all on my own. I was terrified at the prospect of making sales calls. Knowing how to do the work is the first prerequisite to self-employment, but hardly the most important thing. The entrepreneurial spirit is more important and more elusive.

Skylarking II, oil on linen,18 x 24 inches, $1,855 unframed. 

I’m the grandchild of the Great Depression. I came of age during double-digit unemployment in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. I have all the traits of a successful wage slave—keep your head down, show up on time, do your work responsibly, don’t call in sick, don’t quit one job until you have another. None of them prepared me for self-employment.

A strong work ethic is a start, but deep passion is more important. Art is as much a calling as it is a job. That’s the only thing that takes you through the lean years.

As a one-man shop, I constantly struggle with questions of organization. I find a to-do list helps, but at this point in the summer, I’m hopelessly muddled and behind. I cannot work without structure, so I make structure a priority. But what’s the good of self-discipline if you can’t even figure out a plan? My mistake when I started out was not realizing that the plan itself required time, attention and work. I got it in the end, but more thought at the beginning would have saved me a lot of flailing around.

A certain amount of cheerful competitiveness helps. It keeps your eyes focused on what the people around you are doing, which helps you see the path to excellence for yourself. That requires the courage to assess yourself squarely against others. You can either be envious and bitter that they’re ‘better’ than you, or you can learn from them. The choice is yours, but to me it’s a no-brainer.