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What Happens to an Aging Artist’s Eyes?

After a minor vision scare, we are reminded of the fragility of the eye – these complex organs that allow us to experience all the visual beauties of the world. And, we are reminded once again, never to take our precious vision for granted. But, like the rest of the body, the eye ages with time. If we remain free of injury or disease, our eyes may only experience slight changes as we age, but even these small changes may affect our abilities as oil painting artists to judge subtleties of color, light and dark.

About the aging eye, they write:  “The eye makes fewer tears; the cornea may lose some clarity; the pupil stays smaller in both light and dark; the lens becomes thicker, denser, more yellow, and less elastic; and the retina loses a small percentage of its nerve cells every year . . . as does the brain. Thus, the elderly eye receives slightly less light transmits images of slightly less clarity and color spectrum, and there are fewer retinal cells to pick up the images and code them properly for the brain.”

These conditions tend to lead to less contrast discrimination and more difficulty seeing in low lighting conditions. Under low light, blues and greens can become more difficult to distinguish. Interestingly, however, under good lighting, even a small amount of yellowing of our lenses may not affect our ability to compare colors, because “our discrimination of colors is based more on the relative amounts of red, green and blue than on absolute wavelength.”

It is amazing how well the eyes perform the complex tasks of relaying visual information to our brains over our lifetimes. They are, after all, organs that are exposed to extensive sunlight and high oxygen, unlike our internal organs.

Although it may be important to be aware of the visual changes of the aging eye, we agree whole heartedly with the doctors, who state:  “For most aging artists, these mild visual effects will be less critical than non-visual effects of age, such as maturation of style and technique, the evolution of art historically, economic pressure to continue or discontinue a mode of painting, and technologic advances in paints and other equipment.”