Contrary to the common belief that genius emerges in the young, it’s been found that major creative breakthroughs tend to happen in our late 30s. But new talents can emerge at any point in life.
Helen Downie, a London-based artist, discovered painting at 48—and, without any formal training, rose to international fame in under two years.
After a battle with cancer and a detox from alcohol and drugs, she picked up the painting brush in 2013 almost by accident, sketching with a friend.
By painting, Downie has reconnected with a long-lost sensation of happiness, which she links to herself, as a child, drawing. “It was the same feeling as when I was seven, I totally recognized that,” she told Quartz.
She began populating her Instagram account, Unskilled Worker, with her paintings, mostly big-eyed, small-size portraits made with experimental techniques and mixed media on paper.
Just over two years after her first post (of a painting she later destroyed) she has 207,000 followers, including Nick Knight, the fashion photographer who invited her to do a residency for his site, SHOWStudio, and Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci, who effectively launched Downie to international success, inviting her to illustrate Gucci Fall 2015 collection for the show No Longer/Not Yet at the Minsheng Art Museum of Shanghai in Oct 2015.
“I’ve always loved fashion but I have never seen myself as a fashion illustrator,” Downie told Quartz, “because [my paintings] are portraits.” And yet fashion plays a big role in her paintings. Whether portraying the models of big fashion houses or regular people, clothes and fabrics are central—the representation of colors, patterns, and textures is an mark of Downie’s style.
Downie generally completes one painting a day. “I can’t sleep very well until they’re done,” she told Quartz.
At 50, Downie sees her newfound passion as the proof that life keeps happening at any age, and says doesn’t really think about the time she might have lost. “When I started painting, I felt very angry,” she told Quartz, “I felt I would never catch up.”
It’s wasn’t true. “The more I paint, the better they get,” she says.
Below are some of Downie’s paintings, including a selection from her Shanghai exhibition with Gucci: