Margaret Hunter always drew as a child. "It was real talent at school," she says. But the idea of a girl going to art school cut little ice 30 years ago in Irvine, a small town on Scotland's west coast. So she got married, had two children, ran a small business selling leather goods, and contented herself with evening art classes.

The turning point came in 1981 when, at the age of 33, she separated from her husband and enrolled on a four-year degree course at the Glasgow School of Art.

The lifestyle of the art student - and particularly the social life - is indeed geared to the young and unencumbered.

Life was a struggle for a single mother of early teenagers, receiving no financial help from her ex-husband, commuting to Glasgow each morning and racing home before college closed to spend the evening with her children. But the struggle only made Hunter more determined; acutely aware that she had fewer qualifications than her younger contemporaries, she threw herself into her work and gained the highest academic mark of the year.

"If you are older you are very much more motivated. You realise this is a second chance in life," she explains.

"Friends of mine have said that they wished they had been older when they were art students, because they wasted so much time."

On graduation, Hunter felt the need for more intensive study before launching into her career; she had by chance discovered the work of Georg Baselitz, one of Germany's leading post-war artists, and, fully aware of his reputation as a recluse, made an approach to him. Her delight at being offered the chance to study under Baselitz in Berlin if she could secure funding was short-lived. Here, for the first time, Hunter really felt the weight of age-based prejudice; she was told she was too old at 37 to qualify for a grant or a scholarship.

"I was so angry about it at the time," she recalls. "It had already been difficult enough for me; why should I be penalised further because of my age?"

Hunter trumped the doubters by winning cash prizes from the Glasgow School of Art and American Express and, leaving the children behind in Irvine, set off for a year in Berlin. She arrived there in 1985, a time of heady political turbulence and artistic opportunity during the last hurrah of the divided city. Hunter's work, which she was able to show in regular open exhibitions, changed rapidly as she began to lay the foundations of a successful career.

Ten years later, after numerous exhibitions in Scotland and England, Hunter is still based in Berlin and sells most of her work in Germany. It is a measure of her acceptance by her adopted city that when the Berlin authorities asked 60 of the city's artists to decorate the 1.5 kilometre stretch of the wall that has been preserved for posterity, she was among them.

Hunter has always been acutely aware of the difficulties faced by the late-starter, but she insists that tenacity is the key. When she arrived in Germany she could not speak the language, but she turned this to her artistic advantage; forced into an intensely visual world, she watched more carefully than ever before and drew consistently because it was her only means of expression. And when she started showing her work, she says, she was much more business-like than her more youthful colleagues: "Younger artists can be cut to the quick when a gallery rejects them. I have thicker skin."

Likewise, her experience in book-keeping means she is more efficient than most of her peers at getting her work seen - and more confident that she is not being ripped off by galleries.

Hunter insists this is not a petty matter: she needs a clear head to paint well, and financial problems would be a hindrance.

Neither is she concerned that she never had the opportunity to play the fashionable young artist - although Hunter is certainly amused that people who know her only through her highly energetic work assume she is much younger than her years. "I just don't look like an artist," she says. "You can see the disappointment when people first see me and I look like a hausfrau, which is the most insulting thing you can ever say about a German woman. I like it in a way."

As each artist brings their own experience to bear on their work, so the recurring themes of Hunter's paintings and sculpture are the balancing of conflicting demands, the bringing together of the separate. It is no accident, she believes, that her work has a particular resonance for women of her age and experience who are striving for the same balance in their lives - and that they are her biggest market.

As she puts it: "All my handicaps have ended up as advantages."