Delicate mentoring


Dear Artist,

Several recent emails have talked about mentoring. There are different approaches and I’ve tried a few of them. They range from “Show me, ’cause I’m going to be tough on you” to “Whatever you do is good, dear. Go for it.” After an analysis of someone’s work, degree of dedication and work habits, a wise mentor can simply opt to share technical knowledge. A loose time frame is handy. I’ve heard myself say, “Do a hundred small sketches and give me a call in a month.” Sometimes you never hear from them again.

Generally speaking, technical help works better than the woo-woo stuff. It’s been my experience that artist wannabes who inhale all the motivational books make little or no progress. In the mentoring game, practicalities win.

At the same time, a mentor needs to figure out how to stimulate creative curiosity. Fact is, mentees can be difficult, even self-sabotaging. Some respond badly to tail-wagging, others can’t get enough of it and become dependent. Abandonment of purpose happens with both approaches. For some mentees, a vacuum of attention after initial bombardment helps them to focus and carry the ball. Tough love balances raw empathy. Of all ploys, the mentor must encourage the mentee to state goals and aspirations. But mentors also must be aware that if goals are too closely set, the outcome is more likely to disappoint. Mentees have the right to change their minds.

Perhaps most important is to imply love. This means knowing that whatever a mentee may try, when done with love, can have levels of accomplishment and success. Historically, great mentors show love by example — love of process, love of possibilities. The effective mentor shows, not tells. It starts with the respect of individual vision — a solitude of equals. Simple, sincere praise, repeated, can cause a mentee to blossom. It’s quite magical. I call it “The Kiss of the Art Vampire.”

Still, it’s a delicate business and mustn’t leave lesions. Mentees can be hurt or impeded by inappropriate mentorship. Mentoring needs to be understood as a shared experience with payoffs for both parties. Drifting apart is part of the game. It’s important for the mentee, independent of influence, to name and claim his winnings. Generosity of spirit arises from a full and independent ego. That’s how mentees become mentors.

Best regards,


PS: “Art’s golden thread of mentors stretches not just into the ancient past, but also far into the future.” (Paul Soderberg)

Esoterica: “Mentee mentality” implies a period of rapid, wide-ranging absorption. We live in a time of second opinions. Art books — historical, biographical, instructional — have never been better. By typing “Cezanne” into “Google images” we can instantly see hundreds. While purposeful direction is valuable, artists, true citizens of the world, also need to avoid the cognitive hazard called “confirmation bias,” the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.


Driving the passion
by David Lussier, Woodstock, CT, USA


“Red Lobster”
oil on canvas, 8 x 10 inches
by David Lussier

A mentee needs to be able to accept criticism, think on their own, and have passion. Passion probably plays the most important role. Painters that have been my mentors have been willing to share their knowledge and passion for their craft which constantly had me wanting more. It’s the spark that ignites the soul. The more seriously I delved into landscape painting and in finding my own way, the more passionate I became. A good mentor can help drive that passion and fuel the fire. Watching a mentor paint is also a most valuable tool. Thinking about processes leads to one’s own application. It’s important for the mentor to allow the mentee into his head during his demo process. A lot can be discussed later. For me, concepts and ideas were shaped on the drive home from the painting location. I had never realized how good a classroom the interior of a car could be.


Fire in the belly
by Graham Smith, Wongamine, Australia


Derwent drawing pencils on paper
18 x 13.5 inches
by Graham Smith

A fire in the belly has to be there in the first place. A good mentor will know how to help translate passion into rewarding activity. Take away the passion and you have the student sitting glumly at the keyboard waiting for the rap over the knuckles. Mentors are everywhere! We need to be open to the possibility that we can learn from the most unexpected sources. I know it sounds “wah wah” but there is also truth in the adage that we attract that which we seek. The trick is to nurture the passion and the fire in the belly so that we can recognize the opportunities and are ready to take advantage of them.




Dread of work
by Karen Quinton, Toronto, ON, Canada

As a piano teacher who mentors and also has been mentored, I find that many pupils — especially older ones — expect to emote without being competent, or having really gotten to know the music they are trying to play. The first steps are logical, and seemingly cold… “get it under your belt… know what is going on… practice slowly what your fingers have to do in terms of the composer’s instructions.” If you have the basic technical ability to perform it — assuming many more previous hours and hours of work — you can express yourself to your heart’s content. It is a joyful task to see this progress, if one encourages oneself every step of the way. These days, it seems, people have a natural dread of work in all walks of life.


Some get it, some don’t
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Weddington, NC, USA


“The Spirit of Black Beaver”
oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches
by Mary Susan Vaughn

From personal experience as a mentor, I’ve had every type of mentee: dependent, self-sabotaging, needy, and confident. I’ve even given a sketch book to a few and told them to fill it up and bring it back when they are finished. The ones that I have seen showed much improvement from the first page to the last. For those that know nothing, I start with a straight line and gradually work my way to circles and other shapes and relative positions. Then I work my way to understanding color and values. Some get it, some don’t.




Fly on the wall
by David C. Benjamin, MT, USA


original drawing
by David C. Benjamin

I have read and reread Mark Weber’s Brushwork Essentials and it helped. However, I am still starving for the privilege of looking over the shoulder of an accomplished artist as they work and occasionally asking a question or two — the proverbial fly on the wall. Maybe someday that will happen. So I will carry on by myself and use others’ finished work to examine their techniques and select those I wish to use and experiment with. I am not afraid of making mistakes.



Learning from past mistakes
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Crescent Beach”
oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches
by Eleanor Blair

In my early years of teaching, I thought it was my job to make sure each student completed a decent painting and I tenderly guided their every brush stroke to that end. Now I feel that I did those students a disservice — giving them formulas and shortcuts without insisting that they take the time to learn the hard stuff. Now I occasionally teach a workshop at the Harn, and I’m a very demanding teacher. I used to function as a floatation device for my students. They’d get on my back, and I’d carry them to shore. These days, my students are dropped into the sea, and I stand at the water’s edge and yell, “Swim this way!”


Spiritual mentor
by Pat Denino, Westerville, OH, USA


original artwork
by Pat Denino

At the beginning of my fiber art journey, I became acquainted with a powerful voice on a quilt art list, and wrote to that voice, expressing admiration. That voice was Bruce Wilcox, a contributor of your letters. To my delight and surprise, Bruce agreed to “mentor” me, with one stipulation: he would not help me become a better fiber artist. Instead, we quickly plunged into conversations regarding the spiritual. His art is a visual manifestation of his spirituality, and creating that art is his sacred work. I learned to walk my own path into my own spirituality, discover my own connections to truth, and create from that place. Peeling away layers, finding my own connections, and feeling the strength from knowing my self made the technical work something I could deal with on my own. I didn’t need anybody’s applause, real or contrived. I’ve learned a lot from Bruce, and most of that is less about “art” and more about “creation,” which isn’t limited by brushes, fibers, words, lenses, etc. Finding that “inner creator” has brought depth not only to my art, but to my life. I couldn’t ask for a better mentor.


Staying honest and open
by Linda Muttitt, Fort Langley, BC, Canada


original artwork
by Linda Muttitt

Art is one of those fields that requires exposure of self and expression of personal feeling. This puts any artist into a very vulnerable state. It’s like opening your mouth wide and letting your voice sing out when you’re not so sure you have a good one. It can be both freeing and frightening. When I teach, there is also the challenge of balancing how excited I am about one individual’s work as opposed to someone else’s. It’s so difficult to restrain spontaneous shouts of “WOW” when you see someone’s gift being expressed brilliantly. In fact, many times I don’t. Just can’t help responding to what I see. Overall, though, I try to stay honest and open, allow the student to talk about their work before I dive in with my stuff, inform about techniques that might be worth trying, and give gentle encouragement to work within a process, rather than focus on the product. Difficult for any artist!


Cross cultural mentoring
by Kate Rowan, Shenzhen, China

I am a studio artist of some 10 years and now a full time art teacher. The woman teaching the majority of my students, high school AP, is from Holland. She is traditionally trained and believes strictly in the school of master the masters. The effect on my students, when they come to my art class, is devastating. My students have no ability to approach a blank canvas and no ability to vocalize their ideas. It nearly breaks my heart when I have one of them crying about a “poor” painting, or one of them tortured to make it look exactly like something else — when it is only a practice canvas. As seniors in high school they have never touched oils… is this normal? In an international school setting we also have various sociological aspects to our art group. I’m American born but have lived in China for six years. My students come from India, Taiwan and Korea this term. It’s fascinating to see everyone’s version of art and interests. Culturally we have such different eyes.


Mentoring online
by Gerrit Verstraete, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada


original figure drawing
24 x 34 inches
by Gerrit Verstraete

Mentoring is in danger of becoming a lost art in today’s “self-help, self-taught” creative environment. I spent four years at Art College and the best instructors were mentors — those who cared more about the person than just the best results. But it’s hard to mentor individuals “en masse,” because the profit margins are too slim. Mentoring is a time intensive undertaking, one person at a time. However, I am pleased to say that my online program of mentoring, through the Drawing Society of Canada’s educational initiative called the Canadian Academy of Drawing is working very well. Students follow the acclaimed Drawing Course by Charles Bargue, first published in Paris in 1860. Students live in Scotland, England, Italy, Canada and the USA. Each student receives personal critique plus I spend considerable time building a relationship with my students which, despite the Internet’s limitations, amounts to a successful way of mentoring students through the learning process of classical figure drawing.

(RG note) Gerrit Verstraete is the founder of the Drawing Society of Canada.


Door openers
by Sandy McMullen, Toronto, ON, Canada


“Sky Dancing”
acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches
by Sandy McMullen

The mentor needs to be clear about their motivation for taking on such a role. If they see some potential in someone and want to be of assistance, the person being mentored needs to be the focus of attention. In other words it can’t be about the ego of the mentor and their need to be the expert. Rather the focus needs to be on the development of the other and what they need. I call these kind of people “door openers” and I have been fortunate to find some wonderful door openers as teachers. The second thought follows the first and has to do with genuine curiosity. Before giving technical advice or any other type of advice, engaging in a conversation about the work and what the person was trying to do open the door to greater learning. This surely involves the mentor asking more questions than giving opinions. The important thing about the questions is the intent. They need to be honest and from a place of interest and curiosity, not just another way of telling or making the person wrong. It’s like the fishing and teaching them to fish story. We have all needed to learn how to see. The thing I know for sure is that as both a coach and as a painter the best thing I can do is get the little voice in my head that demands attention out of my own way.


Keeping it professional
by Frank Armistead, Regina, SK, Canada

I’ve just retired from 37 years of active ministry as a youth worker, seminarian, and ordained Lutheran pastor. Through those years, I have usually had a good mentor. I have also been a mentor. Mentorships that weren’t working were quickly dropped. Essential elements in a mentor include a shared passion and knowledge for common work; an ability to listen creatively rather than dialogue; absolute confidentiality; and the ability to select a central aspect to which they might offer suggestions the mentee might consider. Mentors often become friends, but it is important to learn to focus on a mentoring session as a professional relationship. In the last eight years, as I’ve returned to doing artwork, mentors have been teachers and fellow students. The most helpful study what I have done, listen to what I want the work to be or do, and then offer considered technical advice. They may refer me toward other artists or do a brief demonstration. They may point out things that work or that they like and vs. they do not judge, they just guide. As in all professional relationships, the most important element is mutual respect.


Mentoring martial arts
by Fabián Fucci, Buenos Aires, Argentina


original illustration
by Fabián Fucci

I am a II dan now in Tae Kwon-Do. This means I’ve been through 10 color belt and 2 black belt degrees, passing a severe exam before accessing the next level. It’s 4 years now of this training, and mentoring in this martial arts has proved to be one of the best I’ve seen, even better than those you can get in formal studies at the University. As you say, love is the top ingredient of this mentoring. Obedience in this martial art is implied not by a punishment-and-reward system, but through a subtle appraisal of the quality achieved in everyday classes, as students are asked to give their all. A physical, voluntary exhaustion before an appraisal is what gives this appraisal its true value. Of course, the augmented, shining, god-like image of the instructor plays a fundamental role in this process of identification. Our dedicated instructor knows what we as his students have come looking for, and he pushes into us what we need to get that. You need a simultaneous play of severity and love. A few of the students will run away in the first months, but those who stay — you can see them progressing through the years, not only as martial artists, but as better individuals.


How to find a mentor
by Susan Henry, Raleigh, NC, USA

In the past few weeks I have seriously started to think about all of the benefits of a mentor/student relationship. In your opinion, what is the best way to find the right mentor? Should I approach an artist whose work I admire? I realize that just admiring another artist’s work would not necessarily qualify them as the best mentor for me. How does someone who is seeking such a relationship go about finding the right person?

(RG note) Thanks, Susan. A number asked this question. A ploy is to enter an environment where authoritative mentors may hang out. Clubs, associations and academies often have professionals who take joy in sharing. I once knew a shy guy whose life changed when he became bass drum in an “all girls marching band.” Looking around as he marched, he soon found what he needed. While admiration of style and a like-minded attitude may be valuable, someone who plays the piccolo may just be the one. That being said, many successful artists with mentor possibilities are also independent individualists. You may have to knock on some studio doors.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Delicate mentoring



From: Glenn Payan — Dec 06, 2007

I’m an artist now, but as a former teacher for 22 years, I found myself nodding in agreement with much of this letter. Some applies to the actual teacher/student relationship, but where I really feel Robert hit the nail on the head was when I considered mentor/mentee relationship thoughts in the light of the many times I took on a student teacher. For the most part, these young university students/”teachers in training”, were in their “final practicums”, the 10 week program where they took over most of the curriculum/teaching/marking. If they passed the program, they were a teacher. As a teaching mentor, it goes without saying: You have to know the process and all it means to be a mentor. Some teachers don’t, and when the “teacher in training” walks into their classroom, some teachers go so far as to simply walk out — happy to spend the next 10 weeks drinking coffee in the staffroom. But it remains true: the mentor must be committed to the process. In education, people are watching the “teacher in training” as well as the teacher: the school principal, faculty staff at the university, 30 pairs of very observant eyes in desks, not to mention their parents who are perhaps scrutinizing things a little more closely because they want the best for their little Johnny or Jane. Even beyond this, as a mentor, I often found the “teacher in training” was still learning how to be a mentee. It’s quite possible that it is something they’ve never, consciously, been. (This could be a whole topic on its own) For me, some of these eager university students were heavenly: carefully watching me teach, observing my interactions with students, drinking in my words, analyzing, asking questions, reflecting, applying what they learned to their own teaching, failing, crying, picking themselves back up, following the plan, eating/sleeping and living the program, arriving early, leaving late, working lunches, doing all the extras like lunch hour games, basketball teams, clubs, offering extra help to students and, above all, developing a rapport with the students. These were the ones that passed, those who will be the mentors of the future. Others…well, not so much. One took his lunch hours to smoke in his car. Some were headstrong and felt they “knew it all” already. One “teacher in training” was an older gentleman who had been raised in an culture/environment that seemed to regard children as “lower life forms”, especially the girls. He just could not get past talking down to the kids and dismissing their needs as unimportant. He’s not a teacher, and to this day I don’t think he understands why. Yep, goals for the mentee are important, as is empathy and giving them praise. Demonstrating love, as mentioned, is key: love for the process, the successes, the class as a whole. For me, when it came down to it, I wanted to see enthusiastic relationship. Relationship with me, with the students, with the other teachers, with the administration. I also wanted to see a relationship with the process of teaching and all it means to be a teacher. I wanted to see that growth had occurred and that growth would continue to occur. I wanted to see vision. I wanted to see that “go for it” attitude. And once it was all over, every time, I’d reflect and know that I had learned so much as well. And in considering taking on a mentee artist, I can’t help but feel there’s a lot of cross over. best, Glenn Payan

From: Brad Greek — Dec 07, 2007

Well said Glenn, I know there is alot involved in mentoring others, young kids are the best! They seem to appreciate your every word without questioning it. I’ve only volunteered to teach a few times and realized very quickly of the pressures of being a mentor. I don’t believe I would ever become a teacher for pay. It is probably due to lack of confidence and experience. I’d rather just create and people can watch if they like.

From: Marsha Savage — Dec 07, 2007

This letter came at a pretty opportune time — as I have been talking to several friends and students about mentoring. I have quite a number of students that have been with me for several years. I even had one student just this Monday tell me she plans to take the next class session but wishes to do her thing, if I don’t mind, but what she wants is for me to “mentor” her. How funny that she used those exact words. I have been looking for a different format of teaching for these students and this is a perfect discussion to help me formulate what I want to do. All that was said above is so helpful. Also, the statements about listening are so true. My way of teaching most times involved asking questions, not telling them what to do. I want them to go in their own directions, but with help when they need it. They are beginning to understand that if I give suggestions, it then becomes partly my vision. Techinques are sometimes helpful, and will be inserted when needed, but thoughtful discussion about what the student is trying to do is what is most needed by many of the students. Besides discussions, and demonstrations, exercises to help them step out of their comfort zone is what we have been doing lately. It seems to keep them thinking instead of just applying paint or pastel in my manner. I think mentoring is asking the right questions to get the student / mentee to come up with ideas and solutions on their own. Thank you Robert and — also Glenn, you said it so well.

From: Rick Rotante — Dec 07, 2007

Being a mentor is an ambiguous following to say the least. My mentors were people who took an interest in a snotty nose, arrogant kid and saw something worthy to cultivate. I’m talking not about art in particular but life in general. You can train to be a teacher but mentoring happens. It happens unexpectedly and on a one to one basis and is ongoing for years. Mentoring can’t be taught. You are or you are not. I’ve been fortunate to have several (life) mentors. These relationships were not sought out nor were they asked for. They happened. Now true, those that chose to be mentor to me did it deliberately while I had no idea they had made me their center of focus. At the time I didn’t see them as mentors, just nice (older) people who took an interest in what I was doing. They didn’t overtly “teach” me anything. They were there to steer me, answer my questions, cause me to question and show me alternatives. Of course, in retrospect, I now see that without their mentoring my life would be very different today in all respects. Looking back now I see the wisdom and guidance they unselfishly gave me and I’m eternally indebted to them. Some of who have passed on. I now want to pay it forward but I’m doing it with different people and in small increments. I don’t formally teach. I’m not a teacher yet as an adult we are all teachers. I teach by doing and trying to live my life honestly and truthfully. I deal with most everyone equally. I try at least. With painting in particular, when a young painter or an experienced painter for that matter questions my painting method, I try and explain and in the process teach without teaching. Those who teach in a formal school setting must have it the hardest because as a teacher the “system” sets you up to be a mentor to all the students but this is a incorrect. One who is a teacher is not necessarily a mentor. The Chinese have a saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. The student settles on the mentor, not the other way around.

From: Ron Rumak — Dec 07, 2007

For thirty-six years I have “mentored” young people in art and in life. My classroom and all my activities in it were governed by the following words: Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths Enrought with gold and silver light The blue and the dim and the dark cloths Of night and light and the half-light, I would spread the clothes under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. Take heart you would-be mentors. A gentler direction may also be found in a passage by Robert Graves: To walk on hills is to employ legs As porters of the head and heart Jointly adventuring to perhaps true equanimity.

From: Sheelagh Anderson, Edmonton, Alberta — Dec 08, 2007

As a retiree, I am blessed with the opportunity to enjoy art classes through our Seniors’ Centre. As a more mature pupil, I would like to stress that we would like our mentors to show how to draw/paint “out of the box” and to take risks when trying to put our feelings onto canvas. We don’t necessarily want to paint using the same methods and techniques of our mentors. We would like guidance, with insight, as to how to bring our works alive, using the abilities and methods of translation that we may have or that may need refining. I am enjoying so much this new method of self-expression.

From: Sonja Billard — Dec 09, 2007

A genuine belief in the mentee or student if you will, truth, sincerity and a deep willingness to share what you know while allowing the mentee to develop and make messes, really to play. I have had some wonderful mentors who believed in me when at times I didn’t quite believe in myself. The mentor asking questions is right on as it prompts the student or mentee to sometimes dig deep to find an answer. My mentors have encouraged, have my deep respect and are my lifelong friends.

From: Liz Reday — Dec 10, 2007

Wow, this is so far away from where my head has been at that I feel I’m from another planet. Lately I haven’t been involved with any classes or groups and have really been following my own muse to places most folks don’t ever go. Not a mentor or a mentee, for once in my life I’ve tried to focus on where I want to go as an artist and really doing it. Which means I get up in the morning, fill up the car with paint, and drive down to the bad part of town and paint paintings of other people’s graffitti and train tracks and overpasses and the river in the smog. I have the attention of the construction workers and they come and see what I’m doing and I paint their tractors and half-built construction projects, which look really cool. I haven’t shown these painting to many folks and have no idea if anyone is even interested, but for once, the work itself is exciting enough to me to keep me motivated and wanting to get out there and paint this dirty city most days. It’s almost like painting has finally become and end to itself creating its own momentum. It’s fine to be a teacher or a student, but the end result is surely that we make art, and that’s a solo endeavor in the end. Keep painting.






Canoes at Chute Lake

oil painting on canvas, 30 x 36 inches
by Laurel Cormack, Penticton, BC, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Hy Varon of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “Allowing someone to find their own way has the effect of opening a deep interest in learning what they need to learn. Guiding someone to make their own discoveries brings people to the love of the craft.”

And also Gail Harper of Sayville, NY, USA who wrote, “Mentoring is a privilege and should be handled with care. The mentee’s sacred individuality must not be lost. And when the joy of the process is lost… enthusiasm wanes as does the motivation for both parties.”

And also Metta Myers of Alexandria, VA, USA who wrote, “I am mentoring a singer from Ireland. Siobhan and I have had some difficulties, but it is working. Our partnership is so rewarding. She is about to take wings and I’m so proud! Plus I get to go back and paint! I am creating the CD booklet and cover to her forthcoming Folk Album.”

And also Tomm Fennell of Blairstown, NJ, USA who wrote, “I think of myself as an artist who uses words instead of brushes. My canvas is the mind of the person I am communicating with. If I’m successful I affect not just that person, but also the whole universe.”

And also Donna Clark of UK who wrote, “The mentor must step carefully so as not to step on toes, and inspire the mentee to go beyond the comfort zone without scaring them away.”

And also Keith Cameron of Sierra Madre, CA, USA who wrote, “All of us have someone who truly loved us enough to give us the better part of the bones. Why now does our great societal blast horn not speak of these people on a regular basis? Why is there not a Peace curriculum, or a balance of power curriculum? Why not an art curriculum that focuses on the societal benefits of work instead of the dysfunction of elite and quirky individuals?”




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