What Happens to an Aging Artist’s Eyes?

Published: Tuesday 01 August, 2017
After a minor vision scare, we are reminded of the fragility of the eye–these complex organs which 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 artists to judge subtleties of color, light and dark.
Doctors Michael Marmor and James Rabin write about the aging eye of the artist in their book, The Artist’s Eyes, originally published in 2009. Their extensive credentials and lifelong interest in art give them a unique ability to analyze the effects of vision changes on some of the most famous artists throughout history.
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 exposed to extensive sunlight and high oxygen, unlike our internal organs.