by Lon Levin
When are you too old to become an artist?
I always envisioned myself with white hair and a beard wearing drawstring pants and sandals wandering through my studio filled with large paintings sipping on some nice wine. A true Impressionist’s fantasy.
I had trained to become an illustrator. I graduated from Art Center in the late 1970’s and couldn’t find enough work to continue down that path. I thought I may not be good enough so I turned to art direction which I thought suited me better.
I was right. Yet, after twenty-three years of successfully working in the entertainment industry as a senior art director, and art department head, incredibly, I still had the desire to be an illustrator. So, I prepared myself and my finances to depart Warner Bros when my pension became activated. However, the WB had other ideas. My department was disbanded a few months before that was set to happen. I was out of a job before I wanted to be and my pension was gone.
I soon found out that I was an older artist amongst younger upcoming and established pros. “Am I wasting my time?” I thought. “Maybe I should find another position in the industry.” “Maybe I blew it!” No, I was determined to find out if I had the chops to be a working illustrator. I chose to focus on the children’s book area because I love children’s books. I had a lot of experience with children’s products and TV shows, surely that should count for something.
I invested in myself and traveled to trade shows in New York, Chicago, Washington, and Bologna. I aggressively made connections and, in some cases, friends. After a few months I landed projects. The pay was low or non-existent, but it gave me a chance to work on projects and spread my artistic wings.
I soon found out that there were a few qualities you need to possess in order to start an art career in midlife. First off, you need to have some degree of talent and vision. That means you need to be brutally honest with yourself. If you don’t feel you can judge yourself, then ask art teachers or art directors. If you don’t know any, contact those whose work you admire. I find most pros will talk with you via social media.
Next, know the area of the market you’re interested in well. If it’s children’s books, then read as many books as you can, classics and contemporary. Study what the subject matter is and the art styles that are being used now. While classic older books may be great, they may be seriously outdated in style and substance. Identify the publishers who commission work like yours.
Be patient. It takes a while to establish yourself, find your own style and voice, and to be consistently great at what you do.
You’ll never know when success might happen, if at all, so you must be passionate. The true test of that is: would you keep creating if you never made any money or never got recognized for your work?
If this article challenges you, then forge ahead regardless of how old you are. The fact is your experiences as a mature artist have enriched your perspective, your discipline, your skills, and your knowledge, and in the end that is all that matters. So I encourage you… go for it!
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Lon Levin holds two degrees from UCLA in Painting and Art Center in Advertising/Illustration. In his 23 years as Creative Director Lon oversaw more than 500 Film & TV campaigns. He has illustrated numerous children’s books. He wrote, illustrated and photographed Treehouses, published by Globe Pequot Press. He is also the Publisher of The Illustrators Journal online interview magazine.
Author photo and illustrations provided by Lon Levin.