Painting Chinese: A Lifelong Teacher Gains the Wisdom of Youth (Book Review)

For those of us in the worlds of creativity and aging, there is nothing better than the story of someone who discovers a new, artistic side to themselves in their later years. So often, it seems we think of creative pursuits – painting, drawing, playing piano, dancing – as something you have to start when you’re young, when you really have time to develop your talent. Perhaps it’s true that you should start young if you intend to become a world-class concert pianist, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy learning and exploring your creative side throughout your lifetime.

Painting Chinese: A Lifelong Teacher Gains the Wisdom of Youth

In Herbert Kohl’s lovely little book Painting Chinese: A Lifelong Teacher Gains The Wisdom Of Youth, we get a glimpse of one man’s creative journey begun in his seventies. In fact, the subtitle says it all. This is the story of an accomplished, educated, innovative man who learned and grew immensely by starting at the beginning in learning a new skill.


Click photo to purchase from Amazon

Herb Kohl has always been a teacher, educating young people from grade school through college. By the time he embarked on the adventure described in this book, Kohl was finishing a significant part of his career – as creator and director of a teacher education program at the University of San Francisco – on less-than-positive terms. As so many retirees have experienced, Kohl felt that he was being pushed out the door when he still had a lot to give.

Under tremendous stress while closing his program and figuring out what to do next, Kohl took to wandering the neighborhoods near the university, looking for something to do next. He happened upon the Joseph Fine Arts School, where the proprietor and his wife taught traditional Chinese art. He spent a semester taking private drawing lessons with Joseph, then signed up for a beginning landscape painting class. On his first day of class, Kohl discovered – much to his surprise – that his classmates were all children between the ages of four and seven.

Thus Kohl embarked on a journey of becoming a student again rather than a teacher. In fact, Kohl was learning according to a tradition that seemed counter to the educational philosophies he had embraced throughout a lifetime: rather than painting creatively from experience, Kohl learned by copying others’ paintings. This method helped in building a discipline that allowed for an unexpected feeling of freedom or flow as he painted. By the time this book was published, Kohl was still taking Chinese painting classes, as he had for the prior three years.

I admire Herbert Kohl for trying something new.

I admire Herbert Kohl for trying something new and for keeping with it when it wasn’t quite what he imagined what it would be. I also appreciate Kohl’s openness in sharing the challenges he had during this new endeavor:

Kohl didn’t quite get the results he liked when he started wielding his brush. Still, he included prints of his work in this book, even of some of his earliest paintings.

Kohl struggled to be a student and not fall into the comfortable role of teaching and encouraging his fellow students. Still, he allowed himself to be a student and to be mentored by Joseph.

Kohl was in the midst of a spiritual and existential crisis when he began Chinese painting, with the changes in his work and the realization that he was closer to the end of his life than the beginning. Instead of collapsing into a depression, though, Kohl started painting, finding a new spiritual awakening because of it.

Have you been considering a new creative endeavor?

Maybe you’re uncomfortable with the way life is going right now, or maybe you just feel stuck. Either way, a new creative venture may be the way to shake things up and find a new way to care for your self. And if you’re looking for inspiration or encouragement on the journey, Painting Chinese is a great place to start.


Kansas City people: Did you know we offer music lessons for people who want to do some musical exploration? Click here for more information and to set up your first lesson.

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