Growing old artistically

The creation of art requires a complex interplay between brain and body. Indeed, the appearance of a finished piece is intimately linked to both the subjective experiences and mental processes of the artist. Scientists are beginning to appreciate how art can be used to study changes in body and mind as individuals age. This research is opening new doors in both our understanding of the ageing process and the way we diagnose and treat age-related disorders.

The ageing body:

Arguably a painter’s most important tool is vision. Unfortunately, it is commonplace for vision to deteriorate with advancing age. This deterioration can lead to a decrease in colour and contrast discrimination, increased glare and a decreased field of view. Perceptual changes such as these will all affect the way an artist perceives the world, an effect which can be observed through changes in their artistic style and composition. Take Monet for example. As he grew older, Monet developed severe cataracts in both eyes. By the age of 65 this disorder was already affecting his visual acuity and colour vision. He could no longer perceive a vivid colour pallete, instead seeing the world as desaturated and yellow. This change was reflected in his art. Monet painted a series of canvases depicting water lilies in the gardens of his home town, Giverny. The changes in his visual perception can be seen in the two images below showing the same scene painted prior to and following development of cataracts.

Monet: Lilys at Giverny before cataracts
Monet: Lilys at Giverny before cataracts
Same scent after development of cataracts
Same scene after development of cataracts

The ageing eye also often suffers from changes in its optical media – the fluid filling the eye ball, hardening and yellowing of its lens and a decrease in pupil size. These changes all reduce the amount of light which eventually reaches the retina at the back of the eye. Indeed, it is estimated that by age 60 the retina will be receiving only one third of the light a 20 year-old eye would have received. Overall, these changes reduce an individual’s ability to distinguish fine detail and cause a shift in colour vision towards the red end of the visual spectrum. An example of this can be seen in the later work of artists such as Rembrandt. Notice the lack of detail and shift to a yellowed pallete in his later works.

Rembrandt early self portrait
Later work

Another disorder of the ageing body which has a notable affect on artistic output is arthritis. This reduces dexterity and movement, leading to less detailed work often with larger brush strokes.

The ageing brain:

The separate elements of an artistic composition are as broad and variable as the artist’s own mind. Scientists have found that certain artistic styles can be linked to different regions of the brain. And that damage to these regions can dramatically change an artist’s style. An example of such change can be seen in ageing individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s sufferers experience a loss of visuospatial skills, due to degeneration of their posterior parietal and temporal cortices*. This means that sufferers’ artwork becomes progressively more abstract and less spatially precise. However, at least in the disease’s earlier stages, this does not necessarily diminish the artistic appeal of their work. Although pieces may lose spatial precision this is often replaced with an appealing sense of colour and form. For example, work by the artist Carolus Horn can be seen to alter significantly as his Alzheimer’s progressed, becoming more two-dimensional and less detailed. However, alongside these changes his work also became more vibrant and developed a simplistic charm.

Carolus Horn: Prior to disease onset
Post Alzheimer’s

Unfortunately as the disease progresses further the sufferers’ artistic deficits become more acute, until finally images bear no resemblance to their intended subject.

Interestingly, in certain forms of dementia (especially frontotemporal dementia (FTD) with degeneration of the left anterior temporal lobe) some individuals develop artistic talents which were not present before disease onset. Many of these patients develop a compulsive need to paint, repeating the same picture many times. These compulsions may explain how patients can become relatively accomplished in a short space of time.

The study of changing artistic style in patients with degenerative dementias is giving scientists a valuable insight into how their brains function. Indeed, this area of research may one day open up a range of novel diagnostics and therapeutic interventions.

However, perhaps the most poignant observation made in recent years is the effect art can have on the lives of patients and their families. Some families have found that art represents a way to communicate with loved ones who have long since lost the ability to communicate verbally. Sufferers also benefit from focusing on their artistic strengths. This gives patients a feeling of accomplishment they previously lacked and, in some cases, can provide temporary relief from their symptoms. Art seems to have the ability to improve the quality of life for dementia sufferers and their families, whilst also offering an amazing insight into the working of their minds. Therefore, it’s great to see new research focusing on this area and organisations such as the Hilgos foundation emerging, who offer grants for art students working with Alzheimer’s patients.

Post by: Sarah Fox

* Posterior parietal regions are important for perception of space and appreciation of movement in space and time, while temporal areas are required for perception of form and depth.

3 thoughts on “Growing old artistically”

  1. This link was sent to me and it’s fascinating stuff, a great article!
    People who are interested in this might also be interested in a seminar held by Rare Dementia Support, looking at creativity in posterior cortical atrophy, a syndrome where vision is the primary symptom of dementia

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