Taking a drawing workshop in her 40’s convinced Carol to get serious about her first love, painting.
Tell me a little about you, your family, your life, education, and work experience before your Next Act?
I am Scottish, born in Glasgow. I left school at 17 and worked in retail, then did some modeling for a few years after getting married. My husband of 31 years, Ronnie, works for an international company, which has allowed us to live overseas for close to 20 years (Prague, Tokyo, Scotland, Holland, France) until our recent move to California. Our three children are now in their late teens or early twenties.
When did you start to think about charting a new direction for yourself in midlife?
I was more of a creative person during school, more interested in my art and fashion classes than in academic subjects, although I also loved reading. I was always a doodler as a kid. Growing up in Glasgow, we had simple ways of keeping occupied indoors. Mum always bought us coloring pencils and magazines, and games like Spirograph. I did not work as hard as I could have in school but, thinking back, I would not change a thing. My life journey worked out perfectly for me.
When my youngest son started at school all day (in Tokyo, where we lived at the time), I started thinking about what to do with my newfound free time. I was never one for “doing lunch” every day; people get bored and end up bitching half the time, not what I wanted to fill my head with. I needed projects. I had enjoyed making elaborate stage set paintings and posters for plays and events at my children’s school and realized I found it easy to come up with fun ideas.
So, at age 43, I signed up for a 5-day Betty Edwards workshop, “Drawing on the right side of the brain,” and it changed the way I looked at everyday life: at light and shadows, proportions, colors, nature, and especially negative space.
Coming out of this workshop, I devoted a very small corner in our Tokyo home to a studio space and started painting every day. I also started taking art classes in every city we moved to, including 4 years of life drawing in France and now classes in Newport Beach. Each class has offered a little nugget to nudge me along.
What is your Next Act? Tell us about what you are doing…
I paint. I am not sure why I chose painting. It was a natural progression from drawing and color theory classes. The more I have progressed, the more I am at peace with it. I prefer oil paint due to its thickness and the mystery of what I can make it do with many layers. I like bold painting and oil paints allow me to be both bold and fine in the details. I have tried other media such as charcoal, acrylic, photography, sculpting, even jewelry design, but I always come back to painting.
I started selling my art when friends visited our home and admired my work. I received my first commission from a friend in Tokyo in 2005, at the age of 44. I was flattered to be asked. It was a painting of her, which she hangs up in whichever country she moves to.
It feels really lovely to know that people have my artwork hanging in their homes in different parts of the world.
I had my first exhibit with a friend in France, at her home, and got great feedback. I created a flyer, which we emailed to friends and they forwarded to other friends. We made it an open day with snacks and refreshments so it was a social get together with no pressure to buy, which I think was a big draw. Thirty women came. I showed 20 of my best pieces and sold 11 of them. It was flattering to know my hard work, subject choices, and style were appreciated.
It feels really lovely to know that people have my artwork hanging in their homes in different parts of the world. I paint what I want so each piece is special. It really is hard to let go of my art; I like to keep track of who has which piece. I do have some pieces I cannot part with, especially family pet portraits.
What challenges did you encounter?
I suppose I was a bit intimidated by other artists. I lacked some confidence, not knowing where I could take my art. Being creative can bring out insecurities about what you can or can’t do and it’s hard not to wonder what others will think of it. Still, I never thought about giving up. I knew early on that I had a knack for creativity and I never looked back.
What/who kept you going?
I realized that most people lack confidence somewhere in their lives. Confidence comes from within and we can decide whether to have it or not. I decided early on that we all have to start our creative process somewhere and I knew I had far to go to get to a level of comfort in what I created. It’s important to listen to your inner voice – if you do, it will keep you straight.
My family and friends have been so supportive; they are the ones who give me the confidence to keep going. My mum used to remind me from a very young age, even into my 20’s and beyond, that I was good at art. My number one fan is my husband: He talks about my work to everyone he meets! It is so funny, when I am introduced to a colleague of his for the first time, they usually tell me how much Ronnie loves my work.
It’s important to listen to your inner voice – if you do, it will keep you straight.
My best critics are my children, who are also very proud of their mum. I can usually tell by their faces, even if they say nothing, whether they like my latest work or not. I know if they like it, they will say “Ooh I like that.” They appreciate work more if it comes from my imagination. I don’t mind my family giving me feedback but they get a better response from me if I have asked for their opinions, as the painting may still be in progress.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
Follow your inner voice. Take time for yourself, time to learn. I believe things happen at the right time but you have to allow yourself to try many new things and to be patient. Never be afraid to try and don’t give up. You can create your own magic.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
Find a good art class in your community and take it. Don’t worry about what others might think. I decided in the early stages I was painting for me and for my family, which helped me let go of my anxiety.
Learn the guidelines about painting. Go to art galleries and look at famous works as close as you can. Look at the colors, the brush strokes, the composition. Look for errors. Doing this helped me realize that even famous artists got proportions wrong and it’s OK, as long as the finished work makes sense. Fill your mind with images, videos, art books, and talk to artist friends.
Never be afraid to try and don’t give up. You can create your own magic.
Find a famous artist’s work you like and try to reproduce it. It helps you really look at what is happening. The first one I painted was a Van Gogh, Vincent’s Chair with His Pipe. When you study another artist’s work, you have to really look at what is going on. It may be very subtle, so when you try to compare it with your own and you just can’t figure out the difference, you have to let go of the left, logical, side of your brain. It took me a while to figure out how the chair leg in Van Gogh’s painting was angled against equally angled tiled floor.
Paint anything and everything for the practice. Using acrylic on board, you can paint the same board over and over; just cover it with white gesso and you have a clean slate. It is normal to create work that does not really inspire you but you have to paint just to practice. Sometimes it is good to just walk to the easel and put paint on a brush and play around. Every piece of art for me is a blank until I get an urge to do something. But even when I may be doing nothing physically, mentally my brain is swirling with images until I settle on something I know I’ll get into.
Be very patient and listen to your inner voice. With oil painting, I take my time. I have to let each layer dry before I add a glaze in order to avoid colors going muddy. This suits my style as I love working in layers. It is magic for me to see subjects come alive. I try to paint a bit each day but I also spend a lot of time figuring out my next piece. I have started a few and stopped soon after only because I was not really enjoying it or feeling any inspiration from it. It is a good way to learn. I sometimes start a piece and leave it aside until the right moment comes to go back to it. It never fails to amaze me how time flies when I am working: Hours can go by in a flash.
I would suggest that buying cheap acrylics, brushes and canvas are fine if you are a complete beginner, but move on to higher quality products if you intend to display your work. Canvas boards are pretty good but I love working with linen canvas. Make sure the canvas is tight and sounds like a drum before you buy it.
It never fails to amaze me how time flies when I am working: Hours can go by in a flash.
Find other friends who want to paint with you. I have always found the art community, in every place I’ve lived, to be extremely helpful and supportive. Everyone shares tips and ideas. I think other creative people have similar personalities; we think a little bit differently and have the same sense of humor. I like edgy attitudes and strong, assertive, honest friends.
Any form of creativity is hard to make a good living from; it depends on what one’s idea of a good living is. Not to say one should not try to be creative, but it is a very hard choice of career. I am fortunate that I was able to take all my courses as a stay at home mum and that I can paint for pleasure, not money. I think the art world still has a bit of snobbery, plus they want a lot of money for paintings. Artists I know who sell work through a gallery only get a percentage of the cost.
If you do sell your work, set a price you are comfortable with. You can’t ask a lot as a beginner but, as you become more confident, then you must never undersell yourself. Commissions are a pretty good signal of what people are willing to pay for your work. My pieces start at $500.
What resources do you recommend?
Watch documentaries of famous artists on YouTube, like this favorite of Francis Bacon
If you live in Orange County, CA:
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another Next Act in your future?
Right now I am very happy painting. I would like to try Interior Design but we’ll see if the opportunity presents itself. We move around a lot so it makes it hard to commit.
Contact Carol Greenwood via her website