Do I need a mentor?


Dear Artist,

Mentors come in two kinds: those who advise you about your work and those who will use their influence to advocate for you as sponsors. Like most meaningful relationships, both grow organically, one perhaps into the next, and the benefits are meant for both parties. Rather than “Get a mentor and you will excel,” think, “Excel and you will get a mentor.”


The New York Foundation for the Arts Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program pairs artists from all disciplines with artist mentors.

In Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 leadership manifesto, Lean In, she advises would-be mentees to look for solutions to specific problems rather than give vague help or hand holding. Do not, says Sandberg, seek out a mentor with the idea that you will be whisked away on a white horse to live happily ever after. Your mentor is not your rainmaker — that person is you.

For artists, progressing can be slow, and it can feel like a solo project. This lone road is crucial to discovery and skill building. But along the path, there may be someone sparked by your potential. This happens when you’re talented, discovering, using time and feedback productively, and if you’re both feeling it. Here are a few ideas:


Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat formed a mentor/mentee relationship doing collaborative work in the early 1980s.
Photo by Michael Halsband /Landov, 1985

What do you want to do?

What do you want to get out of a mentor?

What do you have to offer, as a mentee?

Mentors may already be in your circle — perhaps in a different age group, gender or discipline.

Study them and tailor your inquiries to capture their attention.

Before you ask, can you find the answer on your own?

Can you be specific, focused and gracious? Avoid the risk of dependency and permission granting. “Artists lead, hacks ask for a show of hands,” said Michael Fassbender, while playing Steve Jobs in the movie by that name.


Detail of a study for “Mary Cassatt at the Louvre,” charcoal and pastel on gray wove paper
by Edgar Degas, 1880

“A mentee who is positive and prepared can be a bright spot in a day,” says Sandberg. Will you give your mentor the gift of information, fulfillment, new perspective, inspiration and pride? You need only say “Thank you” by following up with your results — so you both may flourish.



PS: “I mentor when I see something and say, ‘I want to see that grow.’” (Oprah Winfrey)

“All advice is autobiographical.” (Author unknown)


“The Long Gloves” 1889
pastel by Mary Cassatt,
mentee of Edgar Degas

Esoterica: You may be mentoring someone without knowing it. The best connections happen organically, with a mutual desire to grow. People unite when they share common interests but improve most when coming from differing perspectives. Whether you’re mentoring or being mentored, try scheduling one hour per month to have a conversation. If you’re a mentee, supplement with periodic training like a workshop, plein air excursion or an artist’s talk. Growing outward and inward requires placing ourselves in the path of insight. A breakthrough is when this insight is followed by immediate and decisive action. “Asking for input is not a sign of weakness but often the first step in finding a path forward.” (Sheryl Sandberg)




  1. More excellent advise and food for thought. I have had what someone I consider an excellent mentor for several years now. Sometimes I find I need to take a break so I don’t get confused with who they are and who I am so I can develop more fully into my own style. I think I will be taking a look at Sheryl Sandberg’s book now. Love the all of the images here, and thank you again.

  2. Brilliant Sara! Even when those seeking hand-holding are led to understand growth may most occur treading their own path- dramatic results can take place.

    In today’s era, instant gratification is rampant, it’s so important to understand that journey is well worthwhile.

    Encouraged by mentors, or having a mentor may be a mutually beneficial creative spark.
    Which animation company says.. we collaborate in conference rooms then happily go back to our respective corners in order for genius to thrive. (?)

  3. Thank you Sara. Right on time as usual. As I complete my courses at EC I am looking to 2016 and wondering how to connect with people who will help me to continue to grow in my creative journey. I am still thinking about that so your thoughts are going to go around in my brain all day as I head downstairs to paint….

    PS… I hope your gallery show is a great success. I wish I could be in New York to see it . Hopefully I will be able to get to the next one….

  4. There is a place for a mentor/mentee relationship – and frankly, there is a definite place for hand-holding. Hand-holding has gotten a bad rap, mostly by those who do not know how to lead or teach. But for the well -initiated, growth is a process, with a start and no end, and, if an artist is lucky or even just persistent, the leadership relationship grows and both prosper. Don’t bad mouth hand-holding when that is necessary. Even a baby has tentative first steps, and will actually leap to a loved one’s extended hands! The belief that there will be fruit in the effort is fully the genesis of trying, then doing, then knowing and confidence.

  5. Dear Sara,

    Your father was the most wonderful mentor to thousands of us, just simply by the grace of his genuine interest in the art community, and by his generous sharing. There were very few words that he said about my art, but the impact he made was enormous. I hope that we, who received this gift from him , will be able to pass it on to others.

  6. Dear Sara,

    The Mentor Catalyst Effect

    There were several people who, unbeknownst to them, were my mentors. Nonetheless, I was shocked when an older friend of mine told me I was her mentor. The weight of responsibility in that sentence threw me into a frenzy trying to flashback to anything I should not have done as she watched me without my knowledge. I didn’t understand. We were both living an intense life of high reality with two of our children having servere disabilities; we were both trying to cling to what was left of our careers – mine was in education, hers in health; and we were just managing, by the thinnest skin of our teeth, to keep our nose above water. How could I possibly be a role model-mentor to anyone?

    After the wake-up call to this mentor-mentee relationship, a sort of chain reaction began to happen . First, in the self- reflection process, I realized I needed to restore balance in my life and that meant going to my core. I started my own art making, produced over 100 paintings, held a debut exhibition of them in an airplane hangar, and sold three quarters of the work in four hours. Second, acknowledging the role of mentor caused an unexpected calm which allowed me to be someone else’s mentor and at the same time gain a personal, deeper learning. And, most recently, I found that when you need one, a ‘mentor’ will, show up. A woman has offered to be one of the three ‘referees’ I need in order to gain entrance into a program of study into which I am intent on gaining acceptance. While there, I will be seeking a champion to show me the ropes of how I can also get into at least one art course so that I can maintain that piece of myself that needs to be expressed through visually creating.

    Sara, your Dad, Robert Genn, was the first artist to ever see photos of my first ten works of art. I told him my goal was to do 100 .paintings. He viewed the photos, looked up and said, “Good. Come back and show me what your art looks like after your first 100 works.” Robert’s words set up an open-ended invitation to a personal road of discovery that I continue to travel upon today.

    • Thanks for the article and comments I loved the idea of having a mentor and acknowledge now
      that i do mentor a few artists, I do feel some of the young people are ahead of me in term of technology it’s great that each generation has some knowledge that they can both give and
      receive. I would love to find a mentor so I hope one shows up

    • Hello Cindy, I found your story powerful and wise, and your way of using language expressive and compelling. Thank you, Liz

  7. Great article Sara! I had a terrific mentor for my pastel artwork. He was distinguished pastel artist Reif Erickson who died in June of this year. Reif was both a friend and mentor who could look at your work and tell you what it needed without crushing your feelings. He would always point out the good work and explai. How you could
    me it better with more mid tone values or hazing the background to add the feeling of distance. Many mourned his passing because he was also an excellent teacher. I learned so much from him on color and values.

  8. Age has nothing to do with mentoring or menteeeeeing.
    It’s a function and engagement, though , classically, the mentor is elder and the mentee younger.
    It works – do it


  9. Thanks for a great and timely article! I had to hire mentors as part of an MFA program that I am enrolled in at the young age of 56. I have three and they are all completely different! It is exciting to work with other artists and to get feedback in this way! I am learning so much!


  10. Sheila Warhaft on

    I would very much like a mentor. I’ve taken classes and had couple of teachers whom I hoped might want to mentor me.
    I’m a beginner and I don’t know if I have talent. My happiest times are spent drawing or painting. But by myself, I can’t work. Also I’m not sure of myself and would probably be too needy to attract someone. Another sad thing is that art classes have become too expensive for me since I retired. What can I do?

    • For many low cost and free art activities in your area I suggest you Google “painting clubs, (your city).” You’ll find a network of artists who like the comradary of creating with others.

    • Sarah: For many low cost and free art activities in your area I suggest you Google “painting clubs, (your city).” You’ll find a network of artists who like the comradary of creating with others.

  11. Ahh Sara… Such a good POV and 100% on target – for me! Thanks for the insight and opening a ‘mind’ door for. Good mentor ship!

  12. Great article Sara and it appears to have hit the mark with a number of people. We can’t do it alone and so many try to. A fresh perspective gives insight to our art that we don’t see ourselves. All the best for your show.

  13. Polonca Kocjančič on

    Marvellous reading! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on mentors and mentees, Sara. This year I am experiencing a wonderful mentor/mentee relationship, and it is so meaningful. Such relations make me say: if someone had told me a year ago that by now I would conquer … (whatever-the-task), I would not believe them. :)
    Keep writing!

  14. I believe mrtones should be willing to discuss politics with their mentees, and that such conversations can have positive effects. A mentor should of course be careful to honor and respect that the parents or guardians of mentees may have political views which differ from their own, but this need not prevent productive and powerful discussions. Discussions between mrtones and mentees can contribute to the cultivation of children as educated citizens, and as Jefferson said, An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people. For instance, mrtones can help young people understand how people with different perspectives take different positions on important issues. Very young children can both identify with and understand at a fundamental level similarities between debates that presidential candidates have and disagreements they themselves might have on the playground. In work with young people investigating disputed historical events in the course of developing short historical documentaries and web pages, my colleagues and I have found that middle school and high school students can understand that different people can reach honest disagreements about what the “true story” is. This is an important prerequisite to understanding how different world views and “selecting preferred facts” leads to the kind of “spin” we see every day in U. S. politics. We want to educate future voters to be critical consumers of spin, and participate thoughtfully and respectfully in debates about politics themselves. Students who have the experience of participating in civil and respectful debates according to their own ideas lay the groundwork for participating more productively in our democracy than many adults today. Therefore, I encourage mrtones to model civil discourse about politics in discussions with your mentees. And if you have any branches of initiatives like Kids Voting USA in your area, consider encouraging your mentees to check them out.

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Painting is my passion and joy.  My process is intuitive, though informed by good composition and design principles.  I paint what I remember, or think about, or feel, or just what comes off my hands to the brush to the canvas.  Texture and color are of primary importance to me.  I typically choose my support, texture it, select my palette, and go.  There is nothing more satisfying to me than watching paint run and move.  I love the surprises. I experiment and learn constantly.  It is a remarkable journey.  One I am pleased to share with you.


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