The etiquette of mentoring

Dear Artist, Yesterday, Judy Singer of Toronto, Ontario, wrote, “I’ve been an artist for 36 years and taught at York University for 30 years. I now give workshops in my studio. I’m often asked for advice about how to get a gallery, pricing, my opinion of their work, etc. Yesterday, an artist wanted to know how the gallery system works, how to show and sell. The images he sent were totally amateurish and lacking in skill. He told me that he has not taken any lessons (that’s obvious!) and he is worried that lessons would get in the way. He is in his 40’s and has another profession. I am at a loss as to what to say to him. Who am I to rain on his parade? What would you do?” Thanks, Judy. Everyone deserves to fly. On the one hand you don’t want to interfere with people’s freedoms or ambitions; on the other hand, you somehow have to tell them to fly to their room. The question comes up so frequently that I’ve often wished for a small pamphlet or tract I could silently hand out. Once, while having a bad hair day, I said, “I don’t want to upset you, but in my opinion, and it’s only an opinion, your work is so bad you might consider chartered accountancy.” Bad as the work was, the baddest of all was how I felt after saying it. Then, numbers of neophyte artists are running off to (often expensive) art-marketing workshops and business seminars. It’s like eye surgeons taking courses in bedside manners before they know anything about cataracts. I generally tell people that if their art is professional enough, marketing will not really be a problem. I’m not being smug here, but that’s been my system. I spend practically no time marketing or even thinking about it. Here’s what you need to do: Direct people to above-average arts organizations, clubs or guilds. Recommend ones with quality membership, professional standards, juried shows and community clout. You can often get people to join by emphasizing the fun of it all. Search diligently within their work to find even the merest possibilities. Give praise to potential. I’ve found the following sentence useful for all artists — good, bad and indifferent: “The real joy of art is in the making. Go to your room for a year and actively follow your nose. I’m interested in your growth, so please keep me informed.” Best regards, Robert PS: “There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them.” (Louis Armstrong) Esoterica: To add further mystery to the whole ball of wax — some art schools stagger with the blind leading the blind. In a way, your friend is right. Lessons can and do get in the way. Poisonous pedagogy has sent more talent into the purgatory of accountancy than this world dreams of. Your friend must come to know that his best teacher is himself, and perennial studenthood, with the help of books and passions, bring true creative happiness and often success. Artists of character know all this. That’s how they fly.   Trust yourself by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA  

original sketch
by Bobbo Goldberg

I believe that every life (not just a human life) is a very particular and detailed journey of growth. A wise elder once said, “When I interfere with people’s growth, I not only knock them off their path, I knock myself off mine.” How would I dare to prescribe anything to another person, whether about their creativity, their politics, their sexual preferences or how they relate consciously (or don’t) to their own voyage? Your message, which encourages the questioner to trust inner guidance and get back to work on their own path, their own terms, is as good as any I’ve ever heard. Indeed, bad tutelage can corrupt confidence. Even good tutelage, too heavily wrought, must necessarily emphasize technique over individual expression… and that can be a path-mangler. Another person once told me that Buddhists don’t proselytize. A good Buddhist, encountering a Hindu, will encourage him to be the best Hindu he can be. When we deal with the ineffable, like a person’s budding creativity, what better message can we offer than “trust yourself and get back to work?”   How to help them? by Denise Bezanson, Vancouver, BC, Canada   As an art consultant I get constant emails from these amateur artists that are trying to have their work displayed, and the work is so amateurish it’s scary. Especially bad are the “nouveau artistes” that have no schooling and do not understand how art evolved through the centuries, who the great masters are, etc. etc. I had one lady say “maybe she was a diamond in the rough.” I viewed her work, it was a complete waste of my time, it was so elementary, the brush strokes were rudimentary. It is so hard to tell people to their face they should take up accounting or knitting instead of painting. Maybe the right thing to say is, “How about taking classes?” I even see people Giclee their work and it is of such student quality that one wonders where they will sell it. I could go on with more horror stories, but you get the gist. I feel your pain, and I know how awful it is to destroy someone’s dream. I am not able to be critical, I don’t want to dash dreams. I often say, “I’m not looking for more artists,” it’s an easy out, but really no help to the person in question. There are 4 comments for How to help them? by Denise Bezanson
From: L.Lemay — Feb 02, 2010

Miss Bezancon, please read the rest of the comments. They show empathy and encouragement. However bad a painting is it comes from the heart. And that is fragile. Maybe the thing for you to say is “I am not qualified to judge you style a painting”.

From: Anna — Feb 02, 2010

Yes L. Lemay, but if a person approaches an art consultant it is a little different than getting unwanted critiques from every which place. She is not here to bolster the fragile egos of the general populous, she is doing her job. You go to art groups, friends and family if you want unfettered “empathy and encouragement” no matter how amatuerish you are. You approach professionals for “a tactfully put but truthful response”. This lady seems to have her heart in the right place. It is not always in an artists best interests to be surrounded by cheerleaders.

From: Anonymous — Feb 02, 2010

Hi Denise, I have met you few years ago. A mutual friend from PMC introduced us. It’s good to know that you are still in art business and I am doing well too…especially good to know nowadays when many art galleries in Vancouver are going down the drain.

From: Judy Lalingo — Feb 03, 2010

I, too, must take exception to L. Lemay’s comment, & defend the art consultant. It’s one thing for fragile egos to pursue their art with passion & gusto, but it’s quite another to expect empathy & encouragement when taking that pursuit to the professional level. Ms. Bezanson certainly IS qualified to judge work for her market. Ironically, Art is ultimately about certain Truths, & yet, when good criticism hits a truth, we get all defensive, & the truth is lost…

  Study broadens painters’ minds by Shirley Peters, Putney, NSW, Australia  

“It’s not rocket science, this change thing”
oil painting
by Shirley Peters

There are two major things to learn about painting. One is how to paint, and the other is what to paint. The first one is the easiest, how to paint. It can be self taught, albeit using books for color theory and composition. The second is the hardest, what to paint. I see so many amateurish big-eyed girls, big flat flowers and splashes of color at our local art shows. Often the technique of applying the paint is working, but the drawing or subject matter screams ‘self taught.’ A good painting teacher will expose students to old masters, all the ‘isms,’ all the post moderns, and every new artist that comes to the nearby city Museum. They will be discussed, critiqued and, eventually, understood. This study will broaden the painter’s mind. It will make a girl’s portrait or a flower or an abstract look meaningful and complete.   Encouragement at all costs by Dena Crain, Kenya  

“Lilac and Clover”
quilt by Dena Crain

As a design teacher, I face this dilemma every day: how to tell a student that what they did as a first and often only attempt is no good, without destroying the student’s chances of ever moving forward. It requires the ability to see something positive in every attempt, to praise the minute, and to encourage at all costs. Creative egos are so vulnerable, so fragile, that even an off-hand remark from a family member can be devastating. I like to watch Len Goodman on “Strictly Come Dancing” as he critiques a performance. He always finds something to praise first, then says what needs to be said in such a way that the performers walk away hearing only the praise. He does this by offering a suggestion for future development without ever having to tell them that what they just did was awful. He’s a gentleman! Later, when they’ve calmed down and had time to reflect, the dancers may realize that he was also very critical of the job, but he took nothing from them in the process of analyzing and critiquing their work.   Problems with accountancy? by Peter Land, CPA, Lebanon, NH, USA  

“Above Como”
watercolour painting
by Peter Land, CPA

I very much enjoy your emails, your books and most of all, your paintings. I actually do know why practitioners of your profession seem to have a problem with practitioners of mine. A couple of years ago I took a 2 day seminar with Tom Lynch. He was quite vocal about his feelings about accountants and I debated handing him one of my business cards at the end but decided not to embarrass him. Balancing the left and right brain is really the solution, don’t you think? And no, I don’t plan to give up my day job even if it IS tax season here in the US! (RG note) Thanks, Peter. One of my best friends is an accountant. To his perennial annoyance I keep using chartered accountants as stand-ins for everyone other than artists. I could just as easily use engineers or proctologists, although for some reason I find the practice of those professions less dull. It’s my problem, not yours. I’m seeking help. Tom’s going too.   Don’t stifle creativity by Kaye Guerin, Tucson, AZ, USA   Having seen legions of substandard art, I have thought about the problem often. I think that no mentor can see how another person’s vision will evolve over time, nor where their passion will carry them. I also think that calling someone else’s creativity a gimmick stifles creativity, and encourages sameness. It’s a very interesting problem. All I know, after 30 or more years of being an artist is that I’m exploring new ideas and concepts, new materials and ways of using them. I am bored to tears by paintings carefully copied from photos. Am I wrong? There are 3 comments for Don’t stifle creativity by Kaye Guerin
From: Virginia Wieringa — Feb 02, 2010

Sounds about right to me, Kaye.

From: Darla — Feb 02, 2010

What’s the point of meticulously copying a photo except to show how good you are at copying? The original photo’s already said it all. It might be a good exercise of your skills, though life drawing’s better. If you’re painting from a photo, use it as a starting point, not a finish line.

From: Anna — Feb 03, 2010

Yes I also agree, but must admit that before I started painting I admired the photolike paintings most (for the mere fact I did not believe I could ever accomplish such mastery of technique myself). Then early on in my career a teacher said to me “I prefer work where you see an artists own (individual) take on the subject , not a faithful copy of a photo”. It was a lightbulb moment for me and changed my views completely.

  Keep the list short by Patrick Davis, Calgary, AB, Canada   During my time as an English teacher, I developed the following procedure for helping a student with his/her work. After looking at the writing carefully, I would first offer one thing I liked about the piece… or sometimes even two. Then I would suggest just one thing they could do to strengthen the writing. Most of us would be deterred by a massive list of things that need improvement, but we can handle one quite easily. I am sure this strategy can also be applied to art critiques. There are 4 comments for Keep the list short by Patrick Davis
From: Anonymous — Feb 02, 2010

Love your method Patrick. Easy to deal with and simple to remember. I plan on applying it. Thank you.

From: Paul deMarrais — Feb 02, 2010

I think this is a great guideline to consider, Patrick. I plan on testing it out myself. thanks!

From: Anonymous — Feb 02, 2010

Reminds me of the self-critique session in the best art class I ever took. The instructor asked us to share the thing we liked best and the thing we liked least (or that most needed to be changed) about our work. This was a gentle way to open the conversation to both praise and room from improvement.

From: Terry Waldron — Feb 02, 2010

Oh, Patrick, you are a born teacher! As a newly retired high school art and English teacher, I applaud you and your understanding of how people learn. It does work for art, too! By the way, I always wrote these comments on each of the students’ papers so they could see them again when thinking both about revision and their new work. You know, the amazing thing is that I still run into adults who were in my classes and tell me that they saved these papers, but not so much to help them write better. They say they were so proud that they had done something well and it was acknowledged that they had hung it on the wall or kept them in their drawer! The power of honest praise is magic! Then a person can take in suggestions for betterment. It’s just human nature, I guess. Bravo, Patrick!

  It’s only a creative outlet by Kathleen Cundith, Pleasant Hill, CA, USA   Your response to Judy Singer is right on. Reputable art clubs (associations) with local juried shows help new artists get a perspective on their work, particularly if the work is “graded” in a way that lets the artist know how their work stacked up to others submitted. I know, that is how I realized how much more painting I needed to do, and that I would not set the world on fire, just my family and friends! And we all know that family and friends want nothing more than to make you feed good. I still enjoy the process and continue to paint, but know my limitations. In our community we have a wonderful teacher who has been a juror, award winner, book writer, etc., and who critiques paintings done outside the class. We thrive on her demonstrations, and on her ability to point out where we can improve. Painting in a class is much too intimidating, although I have done that also. In fact, in one workshop a well known instructor said of one of my paintings “do that one 6 more times, and you have an award winner.” That kept me going for years!!! LOL. There is a place for those of us who just enjoy a creative outlet, just not in a gallery. The problem arises with what to do with all those paintings! There is 1 comment for It’s only a creative outlet by Kathleen Cundith
From: Anonymous — Feb 03, 2010

Cut your pictures, as appropriate, into as many greeting cards as you can tastefully make from the larger painting. People seem to really appreciate the original work of art — and your work is being put to use

  Just have fun by Joan Polishook, New York City, New York  

“Dyberry winter”
oil painting
by Joan Polishook

I guess that I have been doing right by the many artists and would-be artists that pose similar questions as you write about, to me….How to improve, where to show, what price, etc??? As founder and leader of a plein air group my professional advice is always requested, and believe me I don’t have all the answers, but always try to select the best of the poorest work for praise and something to build upon, advise sharing time and learning from other artists, read books, attend art shows and exhibits, visit the galleries in as many different areas as possible. Joining art organizations and participating in their events, workshops, demos and classes is invaluable. Lastly, just loosen up and create in your desired environment with materials that you feel comfortable in using. Remember too, that every painting is not a masterpiece, but perhaps, a step toward that goal… let go of the fears of not producing something wonderful or of making mistakes. You can always paint over a canvas or throw away a piece of paper and start over. Most of all, have fun with what you are doing.   The power of pride by Pam Craig, Memphis, TN, USA  

original painting
by Pam Craig

I think most of the time, the artist who is asking for an opinion doesn’t really want to hear what I think. It reminds me when you meet someone you know on the street and they say, “HI, How are you?” The response should be, “I am fine,” because they don’t expect any more detail than that. Anyway, I did come up with another phrase; when I am asked what I think about someone’s work, and this phrase helps me stay positive and encouraging, keeps them happy and keeps me from possibly hurting someone’s feelings. I say, “You must be very proud of yourself for what you accomplished in this work.” It is simple and it turns the judgment back on them and they usually expound on why they are proud and no one gets hurt. If they are serious and pursue the critique I could take the opportunity to go into further detail, first listing the positive and working to giving my opinion into the areas that I feel may need work and finally we get to a point where we actively discuss the piece, the pricing, the points of how to have the work noticed and afterwards I feel we both can walk away feeling “proud” over the potential and possibilities.   Just paint a ripper by Robert Wade, Australia  

“Carmel Glow, California”
original painting
by Robert Wade

After your letter I had a laugh to myself as I read an email from a former student: “Could you suggest a weekly routine for me. Just feel I need to be more structured & disciplined so that I am achieving. Any advice would be appreciated. My sales have dropped to ZILCH! (Barry) I responded: In the current world financial situation sales are dreadful no matter who you are, 2009 was my worst year ever! Next step for you is to become twice as hard on yourself, be a much sterner self-critic, reject at least 50% of what you do. Your Solo show would have been so much better from every aspect had you reduced the total by at least half. I had my first solo show at age 52 when I knew that every painting of the 40 was as good as I could paint. I knew that I had almost that number in reserve but they had been rejected by me because they were only about 98% good. Tough! but it pays off. Everything we do is not good enough to put up for sale. The buying public also know “just good” from “best” and they want top stuff for their money, deservedly so too. Aim at producing a ripper every two weeks, you may have to paint SIX to get ONE but that’s how it has to be. There is 1 comment for Just paint a ripper by Robert Wade
From: Tatjana — Feb 02, 2010

Excellent advice! The enemy is the little voice saying – you can get away with it. The goal is to shut down that voice.

  A quality art education by Caraleen Baker, London, ON, Canada   Art is a process and for so many people it is a healing process. I see it happening so often. I truly try to help all my students in their process, teach them new techniques and try to push them a little further. And as far as art instruction in concerned, we can never have enough. I have learned so much over the years from other teachers as well as other students. We learn from each other, but ultimately we all know there is significant value to quality art education. It is a prerequisite to a good painting but not necessarily a license to produce one.   Become Irresistible by Kitty Wallis, Portland, OR, USA  

“New work”
pastel painting
by Kitty Wallis

My marketing strategy is simple: Become Irresistible. When a beginner asks me how they can sell their work, I tell them they have asked the last question in the series of questions they need to ask. 1. Am I good enough to be in a gallery? Yes or No. 2. How do I get good enough? Paint every day. Make it your top priority. 3. How do I know when I’m ready? Learn to critique your work. 4. What galleries do I go to? Those who show work in your genre and style and maturity. 5. How do I market my work? See above :) There is a lot of homework to do. Gallery directors have become insular because so few artists do their homework. Artists besiege them in droves with inappropriate presentations, showing no understanding of the gallery business or that particular gallery’s interests. I try to tell the truth without couching it in confusing, misleading words, such as the ‘oreo’ technique. The gallery world is not a support community. I applaud the artist’s effort without lying by omission. To me art is a sacred activity that illuminates the human experience, and truth is the only thing that serves. There are 3 comments for Become Irresistible by Kitty Wallis
From: Liz Schamehorn, Canada — Feb 02, 2010

I LOVE this painting! It’s because of the abstracted landscape, the unabashed colour, and especially because you’ve use the pastel sticks like pastel sticks, letting us see the marks they make.

From: Sharon Cory — Feb 02, 2010

Good comments, Kitty..especially concerning getting into galleries and how artists need to better understand how the system works.

From: Anonymous — Feb 02, 2010

Why can’t the “system” provide clear deadlines of how it works? For any other job there are clear requirements. I think that galleries are slacking with that and setting themselves up for what thet get.

  [fbcomments url=””]    woa  

Prairie path at Sundown

oil painting by William Marvin

  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 Susan Pharaoh of Darlingford, MB, Canada, who wrote, “My instructors have been so supportive, I’ve never felt that they judged me when they looked at my beginning efforts. If they had been critical, I think I would have given up and been the poorer for not having had a chance to express myself.” And also Lauren Everett Finn of Oxford, MS, USA, who wrote, “I beg to differ with one point, though. You say, “I spend practically no time marketing or even thinking about it”… not so… You market each and every Tuesday and Friday. That’s why I bought your books and wish I could buy a painting.” And also Jeanne Aisthorpe-Smith of Wolfville, NS, Canada, who wrote, “I was reminded of a quotation a friend gave me… “Don’t bother trying to explain something. For some people it’s like trying to teach pigs to sing… It frustrates you and annoys the pig.”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The etiquette of mentoring

From: Susan Holland — Jan 28, 2010

Trying to teach people who already know everything is a maddening exercise in futility. Even having someone like that in the midst of a group of artists reaching for excellence and growth is deadening. I had a woman who came to a workshop for which we had hired a model for a morning and afternoon. The woman was intending to paint a clown from a photo during that time in the workshop. “Oh, I always paint clowns,” she said. “It’s my thing.” Because there were five or six earnest people wanting to see that model and work hard, I asked the woman to take her project elsewhere to work on it, since our purpose was to share the model’s services, and she would not be needing to study the model. It was a tense moment, but a good thing to do right away. The tension passed, the group thanked me, and we had a good session. With people starting out it seems good to say “I’d like to see…” and then tell them what you would wish for in their work. “…a simpler composition with fewer forms and distractions…” or, “…a more careful observation of the shapes of negative spaces..” Then it may follow that they will want to know what you mean by “negative spaces,” for instance, and even if they don’t ask right then, the question will stay in their mind and make them wonder until they finally ask/find out eventually. I know that I, myself, am not ready to learn until I realize that there’s something I don’t understand. Then I’m motivated and very grateful for answers from a mentor.

From: Consuelo — Jan 29, 2010

Being brutally frank has it’s advantages and it’s shortcomings. Take Simon Cowell’s approach, he gets to the point so as not to waste anyone’s time including his own. The downside is that he’s hated by many for being truthfully candid. Life ain’t fair.

From: Cora — Jan 29, 2010

Susan, I cant imagine anyone paying money to sit in a workshop to paint a clown instead of the art form in front of them. There are those who just like to have their egos stroked and manage to disappear on their own if the instructor is firm but not oppressive. I have been to workshops and appreciate when the instructor says it like it is but in a positive manner, ie maybe you might try it this way. After all I am paying to have an instructor tell me how to do things better. Now as to Simon Cowell, he does go a little over the top as far as comments are. I am glad when there are those that beat the odds and put him to shame. You don’t need to break the back of a horse to have it broken.

From: Denyse — Jan 29, 2010

Robert, I got a smirk out of your not being smug ” I generally tell people that if their art is professional enough, marketing will not really be a problem. I’m not being smug here, but that’s been my system. I spend practically no time marketing or even thinking about it.” That may be fine for you — you have agents, and work in a myriad of galleries, etc., etc., and you’re established, and you have collectors and alllllllll that good stuff. However, someone could be phenomenally talented, but how will they be financially successful if their work is never seen?? Marketing can be 90% of it! You could have someone trying to sell their paintings on a busy street corner or a flea market in an economically depressed area. Their work is fantastic but they won’t have sales. Now put that work in a frame and hang it in a gallery where there are similar calibre artists, or perhaps a known clientele for that style of work — you’ll get results!

From: Rene Wojcik — Jan 29, 2010

It takes a lot of courage to tell someone that their work is not very good. Myself I have not done it. But one word of advice to ask the would be artist is this…have you put in 10,000 hours on your craft? Have you earned the right to display or sell your work?

From: Brian — Jan 29, 2010

In New York, the world capitol of art marketing, with enough write-ups, buzz and pundit acclaim, it is possible to sell turds. Question is, does the world need more turds?

From: Monika K Smith — Jan 29, 2010

North America has made art easy; there are huge numbers of courses, colleges and communities to be involved in. On the one hand, there are people who seriously want to do art whether they have talent, experience, galleries or not, and those who want validation, support, warm fuzzies and the occasional praise who may be talented but don’t want to break their comfort zone. An art career isn’t for everyone. I don’t envy the instructors; at the community course level, their jobs depend on being supportive. At the college level, instructors don’t have to be nice, and really challenge people. People can be very hurt if they hear negative comments. But, a good critique can be very refreshing and offer new insights; it’s no guarantee that your work will sell better. Sometimes you really wonder if ‘difficult’ art is not difficult, just, ##$@&! But, the movers and shakers of the art world, and very wealthy people buy it. It creates a legitimacy you can’t ignore. But, isn’t it grand that there are people who just push on, regardless. Great art movements have happened with this attitude. Cheers, Monika

From: Dwight Williams — Jan 29, 2010

I like the 10,000 hour comment. I usually say 1000 paintings. Maybe the best workshops are those conducted by dedicated people in good art organizations rather than a true academic setting. Saying that lessons might get in the way is like saying “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.” I have always thought one of the great advantages of education is that you learn how much you DON’T know. Then you can really keep at it.

From: Betsy — Jan 29, 2010

Re how to guide those who are blind to the distinction between Art and Art Therapy: Making art with others – in a classroom – will set the beginner on a path to understand aesthetics and self. There are great art teachers hidden away in local community colleges and rec centers.

From: Madge Phillips — Jan 29, 2010

Recently while dropping off three paintings for a juried show, I looked around the room and knew that nothing I saw would be in the show. I was wrong. One of my pictures was in the show, and not, I think, the best. To me many of the pictures in the show seemed like desperate attempts at originality. There were photos, but not paintings, with strongly realistic bents, and pictures that appeared to be done in imitation of Grandma Moses. There were (almost) empty paint buckets stuck to the wall in ranks and files. There were amorphous lumps of ceramic with splashes of brown slip, appearing very much like the purging of a plastic molding machine. My farm on an autumn hillside seemed extremely prosaic, despite the decent quality of the work. The wilder the medium or theme, it seemed, the less traditional qualities were in evidence. My work would have to be compared to other work in the genre, perhaps the California plein air painters of 80 years ago, or the Pennsylvania impressionists. In that case I might just have crested the other side of amateurish. But I found it impossible to “rank” my stuff with the works accepted by the jurors. There was nothing like it on the walls. I would have liked to have a review by one of the jurors (though I suspect that’s rarely done, voluntarily), but how would I be able to determine the value of the review that was given by someone with an eye for a geometric installation of dirty paint buckets? My guess is that unless someone is right down your stylistic line, or well educated in it, opinions should be given slight- not none, but slight- regard. On the other hand, it never hurts to listen when someone tells you to look at this or that artist, or to review a very specific aspect of your work. Being made aware of problems of composition, contrast, color, perspective, etc., is a less than brutal and very helpful bit of cold water in the face. Helping someone know more about what they are doing is a wonderful gift, both to give and receive. But it’s a tricky affair in either case.

From: Darla — Jan 30, 2010

One thing that is not taught any longer, is how to give criticism without offending the other person. You can almost always find something good in someone’s work, even if you just say, “you must have enjoyed working on that, tell me more about it.” Then a teacher can go on to show where the work followed good design principles, and where it could be improved, and how. Most people in a class really do want to learn how to express their basic reason for doing that picture better. If they don’t, then they need a social group rather than an art class. Three things to ask about your art — “what are you saying”, “does it make the point” and “is the point worth hearing?”. I’m sure most of the artists in the art show that the last writer described didn’t consider those questions.

From: Natalie Fleming [] — Jan 30, 2010

I was once in a class of fairly experienced painters. there was one woman, a nun, in the class whose painting on a religious subject was so bad that I wondered what the instructor would say to her when he came around for a critique. First he spent some time studying her painting, looking at first for a few feet away and then up close. Then he found one little spot where the paint from one object was smeared a little into the adjacent one. He said,” That little spot is beautiful, the way the two colors are blended together. How did you do that?” “Oh, she said. ” That was just an accident. My brush slipped.” He told her that she should do that on purpose throughout the painting. Believe it or not, after the twenty lessons of the course, her paintings were very good and no longer stuck out like a sore thumb among the others.

From: Lisa Montagne — Jan 30, 2010

I am a college English professor and a professional writer who often has the same problem as you do when people ask you about marketing their art. In fact, I have a student waiting on a reply about how to get something published. I had her as a student, and I know her writing is nowhere near professional quality. Even professionals have difficulties getting work published today–and at all times in history. So, I found your advice very helpful. Thanks! I enjoy your newsletters. I’m an amateur painter who just does it for fun — I’ve sold a few pieces over the years, but I’m not about to quit my day job!

From: Monstec — Jan 31, 2010

Art varies in level of creativity. At any given time one cannot presume how mundane it would have been for a beginner to display his creativity without any aspect of artistry at all.

From: Tom Lockhart — Feb 01, 2010

In a round about way Judy Singer’s letter is akin to my letter back in April 2009. Even though she was facing a bit different circumstance, she is up against a growing trend of, “everyone wants to be an artist, who cares if I can’t paint or draw, the public won’t know the difference”. I’m not suggesting that you become and academically trained artist. But to be self critical of your work and see if it’s worthy of display, requires study and understanding. Why is it, that even though people want the personal joy of painting and sculpting, they all want to get on the band wagon and sell their Sunday paintings. Would we allow this in the medical field? Would we trust someone who is reasonably good with money to be our banker? Or how about a car buff who just picked this up as a hobby to be our mechanic and work on our cars? More than likely NOT, Then why can’t we have the same respect for art? This reminds me of American Idol. The people who think they can sing are overwhelming. Even the one’s who have been trained, have been rejected. So it is more than what you think or what your friends and family think, it is what the experts and your mentors think that help to propel you onward. if they are worthy, they will help you grow. But forget this political correctness. Not everyone is an artist. The statement: beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the over done cliché of keep it child like, is what drives this.

From: Erica Hollander — Feb 01, 2010

Your post on the fine art of mentoring left some important ideas unsaid, I think, as a result of years of teaching. One is that the motivated apprentice will generally welcome honest feedback offered in a spirit of generosity. That, however, does not mean that cruel or crude commentary will be either helpful or appreciated. In consequence, a second key notion is that often we well-defended beings cannot or will not take in what is hurtful. Therefore, third, sometimes the true artistry in teaching lies in finding a way to say what is true and perceptive but not unkind. In fact, it usually involves more effort to offer useful suggestions than simple dismissals. When I ask my students to provide one another with critiques, I do so in part because it aids them in absorbing the principles I want to get across. I warn them at the same time that the easiest and most facile critical response is negative, because errors are like thorns– they irritate. A fine critic can suggest what would improve the work, on the other hand, and those ideas just might provide the student with new perspectives or avenues worth exploring.

From: Dorenda Crager Watson — Feb 01, 2010

Mentoring is a delicate and possibly life-changing dilemma. We, as teachers and artists in the business of art, are morally obligated to guide, but not falsely praise, those with ambitions (and the heart) to pursue a career in the art field (or at least I feel that way.) I agree that to be kind and let another’s path present itself to them is the best way to approach this situation. If it meant to be, it will…and if not, they will find another creative road. It is also the responsibility of the student to make sure that they do not blindly follow the teachings of the teacher. This becomes the “blind leading the blind” as you said…or as I call it, the “art-god and the groupies syndrome.” Students should question and challenge their instructors frequently and without fear of retribution, as this is essential to the growth of both the student and the mentor and should be welcomed by both.

From: Sharon Cory — Feb 01, 2010

I deal with this 20-30 times a week… that’s a lot for one little gallery and over 3 years it’s left me with a permanent heartache, recalling how many people I’ve tried to discourage from going further. I find myself cringing when I suspect someone’s making conversation for the purpose of finding out how to get their work on display. I remember being there years ago. The ones who have done well strode in with confidence, presented their body of work with pride, and jumped in with both feet, unafraid of selling nothing. They just wanted people to see what they were up to.

From: Irene Taylor — Feb 01, 2010

Why do so many people think there’s nothing to doing art , anyone can be an artist-just go ahead and believe in yourself. Perhaps it’s because from our earliest years we have been making scratches of some sort or another. These are appropriate for where we are in our age and development. Obviously as one grows and other interests fill our hearts and minds we pursue them , hopefully with much diligence. How many years does it take to become a competent doctor, teacher, etc.? What ever happened to art as craft , one that takes years to refine? Is there something intuitive in learning to play the piano or to sing in an opera? Is the student really the ultimate authority? Talk about the blind leading the blind! Sounds like a “cope out” to me. It takes time, money, energy, and often sacrifice , not an easy road by any stretch of the imagination to learn to paint. In spite of obvious gifts and God given talents a promising musician wishing to perform trains under the best teachers possible so that they learn their craft properly. Why must we be afraid of training as if it somehow interferes with our creativity, when in fact once trained, the artist is released to interpret and create expressively and more often than not beautifully. The side benefit of all that excellent training is the ability to pass our learning on to the next generation.

From: Christine Pensa — Feb 01, 2010

About 5 years ago a woman artist approached me at a small group show I was in. She told me in a very blunt way my work was folkart and in her opinion – badly done. She said I needed training. She then said she was a teacher. After recovering from the shock – I looked carefully at her comments. I decided she did have a point and that I could use more training – but not from someone like her. I enrolled in an oil techniques course and had the time of my life. Those hurtful comments encouraged me to find nurturing teachers and continue to explore my own joy of creating – through the right teachers, books I read on my own, and by painting, painting, painting.

From: Rich Mason — Feb 01, 2010

I think the entire discussion comes back to “we are our best critics”. But only if we are honest with our selves. I know when my work is not up to par. All your suggestions are right on. I joined two art groups, both have juried shows and professional artists as members. Even though I’ve been working in the art field since I’ve been 15 years old, 55 years about, I consider myself an amature as far as painting. Most of my time has been spent doing behind the scene work, framing, ceramics (as a business) sign making etc… I’ve been painting for about 5 years now. I’m a member of the painting forum where I’ve learned a lot. Marion Body Evans is a great teacher and her critiques always lead to improvement on my part. But the key is before corrective criticism will help the person has to be receptive and have an open mind. As always you nailed it with your comments.

From: Ralph Giannattasio — Feb 01, 2010

I believe that poor to average artists are encouraged by some of the work they see hanging in juried exhibitions. They will look at a particular painting and think, for instance, “Hey, I’ve done stuff as good as, if not better than, that.” By the way, I am in that “poor to average” category so I know from where I speak. Isn’t it natural, by the way, to look at artwork and secretly gauge your own work against what you see hanging before you? At the root of the issue which Judy Singer presents is that NOT only is her student a poor to average painter but they have not yet learned how to critique not only the work of others but their own. How often have we heard people say, for example, “Picasso?? My grandchild could do that!!” In other words her student is not only a poor painter but a poor art critic as well, probably worse!! Wyndmoor, PA

From: Pierre Vachon — Feb 01, 2010

My art teacher does much as you recommend – gives some praise and a lot of encouragement to continue, but never ever suggests I try and sell stuff right away. My most memorable experience is of a lady in business to whom I brought a watercolour for framing. Her comment was as follows: “We want to be frugal here”.

From: Kathi Hobbs — Feb 01, 2010

I have been teaching adult private classes for 35 years. I recently reduced to 7 classes a week. Obviously there is a vast range of creative effort….but what it comes down to, for me, is ” if you had fun (and your worries subsided) the painting was a success!”

From: David Wright — Feb 01, 2010

This is a good one. How many times have I been in the same situation.

From: Trish Booth Pieterse — Feb 01, 2010

It doesn’t help to encourage bad artists to show. To create, maybe, but do not give false hope. It is also our job as teachers to indicate a change of career if necessary. We don’t need more dashed hopes or bad art. Simon on American Idol is a bitch, but though he hurts feelings he may save lives….from following the wrong path.

From: Anonymous — Feb 01, 2010

I am a gallery owner. In the past two years I have taken on three new artists. Two I went after myself and the other walked in here, laid his card on my desk and walked out. No conversation. We have sold over $500.000 of his work so far. Most artists who come in to inquire and chat have not had enough mentoring, in other words, they’re raw. I am looking for two things mainly. Do I like their work? and are they doing well somewhere else?.

From: Walt Kozier — Feb 01, 2010

This is such a disturbing area. I spent a great deal of my life in the advertising business and categorized people for marketing purposes.This has to be done in this area to achieve specific results. Having a long list of schools,galleries awards,,and instructions from known artists does not give anyone the authority to say anyone’s work is good bad or indifferent in a negative way. I’ve been painting for over 60 years. I didn’t know I had to meet any requirements but my own. I was taught many years by Jacques Maroger and the greatest lesson I learned from him was to paint for myself,not on what the system says you have to follow. It would be interesting to receive some comments on Grandma Moses’ technique.

From: Anonymous artist — Feb 01, 2010

Dear gallery owner. Thanks for being frank. However, people like you (who require that the artist is doing well elsewhere) only capitalize on the hard work and risk-taking done by some wonderful other gallery owner who gave the first chance to the fellow who now made you $250,000. Other than your frankness, you mean nothing to the art community. Artists are seeking that first brave person who will give them chance and mentoring. I have found one. In the first year we made $7000, second year about the same, and third (2009) year $18,000. I am painting more and better and just this January we had $5,000 sales. It’s slow but going up as my client base is building up. People like you will catch up when I get on your high $$$ radar and will reap the monetary award then, not having contributed anything to me getting up to that point. But my first gallery will have reaped much more by then – they gained a life long friend and nurtured my career as did I support their gallery, and them as wonderful people in many ways. Despite justifying your business model, you should know that $500,000-making artists don’t grow on trees. Who do you suppose should provide the mentoring you talk about – being the mentoring on which you will eventually make your money? Shouldn’t that be you? Or do you prefer that other artists and galleries give their time and energy – as they actually will from their pure goodness of heart and love for art. What do you contribute? Are you the same as a second hand car dealer? There is nothing wrong with car dealers, but should they be setting standards in art business? Why don’t you step up to the plate, set aside few hours per month and provide that mentoring you talk about? In case you are doing that, I apologize, you pressed a red button with me – I am sick and tired of galleries who embellish their “community work” and “willingness to talk with artists” on their web sites but when you contact them, they treat you as dirt.

From: Pamela Bleakney — Feb 01, 2010

We all have to start at the beginning. I would have looked at the photos and judging by where the artist was in their art journey said something about how far they have come already and recommending more instruction and many more hours of exploring painting by himself. Because, while instruction is great, true artwork has to come from within. Then told him to come back yearly. If he is persistent and sets his goals he will get there.

From: Anonymous — Feb 01, 2010

Dear anonymous artist. You don’t need mentoring from the likes of me. We gallery owners are not in the business of teaching people how to paint. Poor quality artists are thick on the vine. The best artists work with seasoned professionals and test their nascent professionalism in minor markets, then are accepted into the better volume galleries when they are ready.

From: Anonymous artist — Feb 01, 2010

My point exactly – good business for you!

From: Leah — Feb 01, 2010

I read this on a gallery web site “Please don’t hesitate to contact or visit the gallery. Art lovers, artists, and collectors – all are welcome.” I am very naïve because I sent my portfolio to this gallery. I phoned to follow up a week later first thing in the morning, and introduced myself as an artist. The gallery owner cut me in mid sentence and asked “what on earth we could have to talk about”. I said I mailed portfolio. She said she didn’t receive any portfolios. I said, surely I mailed it. She said she is looking around and oh, yes, there is something. I asked what will happen, she said she is a busy person and I shouldn’t be phoning her during business hours, if she has time she will open the package – end of conversation. The portfolio arrived few months later in my SASE, the cover letter still under the first page. I just checked her web page, and it still says “all are welcome”. I wonder what happens to those who are not welcome? Artists beware, grow a thick skin when you approach galleries, some are unnecessarily rude but that’s not your fault. If you don’t do anything unreasonable, the gallery should treat you with respect, if they don’t it’s their fault. It takes the same time to say things rudely or politely so there is no excuse for being rude.

From: Bob White — Feb 01, 2010

LOL “Poor quality artists are thick on the vine” …What do you think happens if you don’t water the vine? Where does the good stuff come from?

From: James Bright — Feb 01, 2010

Yes it is a difficult place for a student learner to be in…getting comments from their teacher…however…there is also the reverse…when a teacher fails to live up to their intended or advertised statements of what will be covered in the class or classes. Often I find the worst offenders are classes that promise too much and often deliver too little. This usually is attributed to very little screening of applicants and the resulting class having to cater to the lowest level of student…taking away time from those who need some coaching as to refinement and additional exercise to go further…and the direction needed. The cost is too much for no established levels to be in place for those classes where all is welcome…these I avoid now…Often I am only looking for someone who can mentor and help refine the students direction .. As I do not want to become a copy of my instructor However sales do help encourage more work… So I honestly feel that as you mentioned in your article…that sometimes the best teacher is just doing the work and lots of it…to get a handle and feel of what the materials will do, how things work and what doesn’t work…and how colour works and doesn’t work….Sometimes we need to do lots of muddy lifeless paintings before we get comfortable and knowledgeable with colour and allowing it to be colour…Even if you have a degree in art…many students take many additional years learning how to really paint… you only get a taste and a test in school….good going….and last but not least…getting out to see art…sometimes…and finding an image that you really like and learning more about it and studying it and drawing it and maybe even trying to use its properties, colour, tone…etc…and to work it into one of your own images.

From: tatjana — Feb 01, 2010

Galleries get a lot of heat from the artists, but really, they are just minding their own business. We are in a snowball effect of the availability to enter the fringes of art profession through myriad of workshops and other learning tools. Anyone can jump in, and lot of people get good enough to get high hopes. This is reminiscent of the sub-prime housing mortgages situation in the states. Self-sufficient on-line galleries appeared to be the solution but I think that they generally lack quality control. We are so lucky that there are many artists willing to share advice via this web site, at least we know that our troubles are not unique!

From: John Ferrie — Feb 01, 2010

Dear Robert, The thing about art, as opposed to auditioning for American Idol, is its about expressing yourself, not necessarily entertaining people. I look at a lot of art and often think “Have you considered Golf?” Rather than laying back on my laurels and being relieved the work is not as good as mine and therefore not a competition, I always steer an artists work towards their strengths. Doing what I call “A Seagull Critique” (That’s flying over and doing you know what on someone’s work) is just being arrogant and doesn’t help anyone. Look, Life is a competition and someone is always going to be better. But to help someone out is far more productive. “It is not what you gather, but what you scatter that measures the life you have lived” John Ferrie

From: Colleen Anderson — Feb 01, 2010

A (teacher) friend once told me, “Teaching is the fine art of caressing with one hand and slapping with the other.” It is a mentor’s responsibility to encourage AND instruct, taking into account many variables: the student’s level of skill, the student’s ambitions, the student’s mental and emotional fortitude. Mentoring is holy work, and even the best mentors are rarely acknowledged; students might not even know how much their mentors have influenced them until long afterwards, if ever. Thanks for these conversations.

From: Joanna — Feb 01, 2010

For John Ferrie, do you know the origin of that quotation? (“It is not what you gather, but what you scatter that measures the life you have lived.”) I really like that. I also appreciated Colleen Anderson’s comments about mentors and mentoring, and the mentor’s responsibility to encourage AND instruct. It truly is a responsibility, and a job not to be taken lightly. A teacher/mentor is often highly regarded by her students, and as a result, the teacher’s comments about a student’s work carries a lot of weight. Realizing the perceived value of her comments, a great teacher must be very thoughtful, and cognizant of the lasting effects of HOW she encourages, instructs, and corrects each student.

From: Jackie Knott — Feb 02, 2010

Another gentle beginning to critique is asking the artist what issues they had with the work; value, draftsmanship, light, texture … let the artist tell you their problem areas. They know. I can look at everything I’ve painted and tell you where I fell short. When they own up to the portion that disappointed them you can offer suggestions on improvement.

From: Carol B. — Feb 02, 2010

One of the most useful times in our art class (beside watching our teacher’s wonderful demos) is when we each get a chance to put up our work for critiquing. But it is always important to remind ourselves that one persons attempt at creativity is not to be taken too lightly and care should be taken not to try to fit everyone into the same mold…especially when newer artists are trying to find their way…care in looking before speaking is a good thing.

From: anon — Feb 02, 2010

I don’t care for galleries telling me what I should do, but I would like them to tell me what they want.

From: Gordon S. — Feb 02, 2010

MS Singer, I am presuming at art school, your students would clearly understand the student/teacher contract at the outset and that the person in question was unwilling to become a student. I appreciate your dilemma. But, as a responsible adult, consulting an art teacher with 30 years experience I personally would expect a frank, professional opinion given with deliberation and compassion but full honesty. How to solve the dilemma? Step #1: Cease referring to those of us who are actually dabblers, beginners, wannabes, hobbyists or students as ‘artists’. I believe we should all reserve the term ‘artist’ for accomplished painters (etc.) who have at least put in enough of the 10,000 hours towards mastery to show they have the talent, vision and technical excellence to have earned the title. Right now the word seems meaningless … in so many of these discussions it sounds like one is an artist because one touches a loaded brush to canvas once or twice a month/year. Many club and guild painters have done more than that but are still not yet deserving of the title. Some will never merit the title. To be called an artist should mean something special. In trades and art an apprentice at one time became a journeyman only after completing a masterwork. Step 2: There is nothing wrong with telling someone they must put in a lot more time to become really accomplished. Any number of biographies will tell how much work real artists have done before they got results. A teacher can still be encouraging further pursuit and practice but I think it is cruel to let someone walk away from seeking your professional opinion with a false impression of where they stand in the real world of art. Note: If you find a truly gifted ‘primitive or folk artist’ then don’t advise education but anyone lacking that special vision and naturally unique flair really ought to be told that instruction is advisable and why … also that thousands of hours work are a necessity in any case. Step #3: If not sure about the sample works, call in a second opinion but in the case you outlined that would not seem necessary. Step#4: Never do a consultation like you described without charging for your time as a professional and making it clear in advance that you will assess work according to your decades of experience, practice and training. Step #5: Warn them that your assessment may not be what they would like to hear, that if work is not up to sufficient standards you will say so. Yes, warn them that you will be totally frank and allow them bow out gracefully. Step #6: Don’t worry unduly about hurt feelings. If a considered professional opinion, given in a kind way with encouragement for the positives and sound advice about the negatives, is ill received … then you are not talking to self actualizing adult but to an over inflated ego or someone who is unrealistic about their talent (and possibly much else in their life). A dose of reality is not out of line but if it is not accepted because it doesn’t fit the fantasy, that is for a psychologist to sort out not an art teacher. Don’t lose sleep over a bad reaction if your approach is kind but firmly realistic. If you sense in advance that the enquirer is trouble, refuse to assess. Step #7: As Robert says, you may qualify your assessment as an opinion … a professional one bought and paid for by the seeker of their own volition … but still an opinion. If you, as a teacher, are sincere you should certainly be able to expect sincerity from the would be ‘artist’ even if they are disappointed. Step #8: You could also stick to advice on specifics like how to prepare a portfolio, or deal with galleries etc. and never give assessments on anyone’s ‘art’. Just send them off to a gallery or five and let them draw their own conclusions.

From: Judy Lalingo — Feb 03, 2010

Reading over most of the comments about galleries, professionalism, & of course, Art Business, one of my mentors, George McLean, comes to mind. His comment was, “if you want to paint, then paint. If you want to make money, then take up plumbing.” George has a way of always hitting the mark. Think I’ll go paint.

From: anon — Feb 03, 2010

Good for all of us that Bob Genn didn’t take plumbing

From: Bill W. — Feb 03, 2010

I think that the discussion on galleries opens up valid questions, but it is futile. According to what is going on in our area, galleries haven’t got the clue what they are looking for…except for clients that may wonder in. If your dealer manages not to discourage sales, you are doing well. Other than that, they just happen to be there, and paying all the bills to keep the gallery afloat. From what I have seen, they try to guess what will sell and what not, and in 99% cases they are wrong. When some stuff starts selling and some doesn’t they are surprised as the next guy. So, count on your luck and many trials and errors until you establish a sales channel. It’s a tough business.

From: Rick Rotante — Feb 08, 2010

I am not nor will I ever be an astronaut and I can count on one hand a number of other professions I will never be a member. I don’t have the aptitude for any of them and the sense to know better. Why then do some have to be told they will never be artists? Where is it written that because you purchase a paint kit and read an art book that you deserve to be an artist? I had a new student who came to my class and arrogantly thought he would sit in and show me how easy painting was and that he would put in maybe two sessions and have this nailed. I gave him a simple white vase to paint, paint and brushes and told him to give it his best shot. With a smirk on his face he started and quickly found himself drowning up to his smug eyebrows. I gave him some instruction on how better to accomplish his task and he proceeded again thinking now he’s got it. After two hour all he created was a mess of brown mud and nothing remotely resembling the subject. I sat next to him and in twenty minutes painted the vase down to the hot spot. The shocked look on his face after the demo was priceless. At the end of the session, he was leaving and I asked if he would be back tomorrow. He didn’t even turn around to look at me and said “Oh, sure!” He never came back. I have other students who may never be great or sell, much less be in a gallery, but I don’t discourage them from doing something that brings them pleasure. They try and do well even thought I know it isn’t, nor ever will be high art, but I try and give them tools to create whatever subject it is they want to paint. With technique and method they do work that pleases them. That’s all a teacher should do. And who knows that one of them someday will not have an epiphany and be the artist they wanted to be. Many are not cut out for this. Many know it and still want to paint — for themselves. Let it be. For those of us who put in the yards of canvas and years of work and study, may you have better luck.


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