Individual mentoring

Dear Artist, On Saturday I visited privately with 24 painters. My friend Sinisa Mirkov controlled the timing of the 15-minute sessions. I looked at originals, jpegs, slides and prints. For eight hours I felt like a doctor with a sore foot in one office and a facial tic waiting in the next. Billed as “one-on-one mentoring,” I promised everything from “phone the Guggenheim” to “don’t give up your day job.” All the artists were asked to give me an idea where they wanted to go with their art.

Kris Preslan, Lake Oswego, Oregon brought remarkable watercolours.

Like a lot of painters, I’m totally curious about creative drives and motivations. The variety of approaches was the first thing I noticed. Some apologized for their presumption in applying for the mentoring and mentioned their supposed unworthiness; others came on like gangbusters with lofty plans and plenty of creative evidence to back themselves up. A couple of artists didn’t seem to want my opinion; others craved any sort of guidance. Some were looking for some quick-acting pill to fix them up. Bombasts and masochists aside, a nice two-way flow of rationalization and recommendation prevailed. I think I was able to give a bit of help for future direction, copacetic workshop instructors, commercial considerations, etc. As usual, I found myself admonishing small painters to paint bigger, big painters to paint smaller, tight painters to paint looser and loose painters to tighten up.

Wendy Bradshaw works in tar from the Yucatan (Chapopote).

The world of art is fully loaded with rugged individualists, so it was not a case of one size fits all. Thriving artists tend to be self-driven and alive with their dreams. Needless to say, this sort of focus can easily be mistaken for egocentrism or even peripheral blindness. Fact is, in our game, focused folks are the most effective and most likely to succeed. Meeting with someone who wanted to push me around, I knew I was in good company. It seems to me the real value of this sort of encounter is the repartee. Conversations, especially brief, cut-to-the-chase ones, can refocus and re-inspire. If done carefully, strength and power are rebuilt. Further, it’s simply a joy to know we are not alone.

Chris Riley of Spruce Grove, Alberta turned on by the FCA workshop.

Best regards, Robert PS: “The true spirit of conversation consists in building on another’s observation, not overturning it.” (Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton) Esoterica: Sinisa and I thought about videotaping the encounters, but there were issues of confidentiality. Private and candid truthfulness on both sides is of real value when assessing potential. Further, I prefaced every session with the understanding that I was only giving an opinion. Like any decent GP, I encouraged all to seek others. I pointed out that opinion is one of the world’s cheapest commodities, freely scattered like the autumn mushrooms in the forests of this beautiful island. These folks were already attending a week-long workshop with top-notch artists and instructors. Zombified at the end of the day, I now have a greater respect for physicians: their brevity, their empathy, and their schedules. The doctor is in. Next!   A day of mentoring

Jan Chalupnicek of Calgary, Alberta and his new and old styles.


Michael Jell is switching from wildlife to landscape.


Sharron Campbell brought in some marvelous life drawings.


Adrienne Moore had many styles and interests.

          Support group by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA  

“A World Gone Mad”
watercolour painting
by Nina Allen Freeman

Honest feedback from someone you trust is so important for the artist who truly wants to grow in his/her profession. I belong to a group of artists who meet monthly to do this for each other. These critiques have helped me a lot. I was recently asked to do a critique at our art league meeting and while doing it was wondering about the motivation for some of the artists bringing their work to the critique. Some clearly wanted help, some may have wanted congratulations from the others and some were surprised there were flaws in their painting. It is a hard job to give someone a sensitive but honest critique.     There are 3 comments for Support group by Nina Allen Freeman
From: Rene’ — Sep 24, 2010

Great piece, Nina!

From: Stacy — Sep 24, 2010

What thoughtful contrasts!

From: Anonymous — Sep 24, 2010

I was one of those at that meeting. I knew my pictures had flaws and I appreciated the feedback and made improvements. Thanks.

  Problems with the support group by Angel Lampman, Paris, France   In the tradition of the Academies there was very little in the way of support groups. There was however, the tradition of competition. Competition is the true builder and energizer of creative growth and effective careers. Sitting around massaging one another is the wrong way to go. Every artist, painter, musician or writer deserves to choose well and get an expert, a success, a master, and yes, sit at his or her feet for a while — but only a while. All else leads to the endless and depressing perpetration of mediocrity. There is 1 comment for Problems with the support group by Angel Lampman
From: Jan — Sep 24, 2010

I agree with you, Angel, in that competition encourages one to keep trying harder or to maintain consistently high standards when creating art. While I’ve never thought of myself as being ‘competitive’ like an athlete, I challenge myself to do better work or try new approaches, and do feel a jolt of adrenaline when my work is accepted in a juried show selected by a juror I respect and admire. That being said, I have learned some tips and techniques from master artists working in my medium, watercolor, and appreciate their input as I travel this journey of creative exploration.

  Long distance mentoring by Sharon Terrizz, Kerikeri, Northland, NZ  

“Little Wriggler”
by Sharon Terrizz

It’s amazing how often you seem to strike a chord in your articles and quotes; it keeps me on the straight and narrow and focused on what I love to do. My favorites are saved for inspiration or rejuvenation when I’m feeling a bit worn down. In the last two years I have switched my primary medium from painting to clay, but your letters still relate to what I’m doing!       There is 1 comment for Long distance mentoring by Sharon Terrizz
From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Sep 28, 2010

I’m entranced by your “Little Wriggler” sculpture, Sharon. Wonderful contrast of textures, and an absolutely lovely capture of an infant about to burst his coddling! I can feel it in my arms. Hope I get a chance someday to see some of your work in person.

  Business mentor best for balance by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA  

“Early Fall Oaks and Palms”
acrylic painting, 30 x 30 inches
by Linda Blondheim

The best thing I ever did was to get myself a mentor who is in the business world, not an artist. She listens to my ideas, goals, and implementation of plans. She advises me away from the precipice of stupid ideas and toward successful ones. Because she is in the corporate world, she has a different slant on things than I do as an artist. One of the mistakes a lot of artists make is to spend all of their time interacting with artists or those in the arts community. I learn far more from my relationships with non artists, because they live in a different world than I do.     Long term mentor by Emily Van Cleve, NM, USA  

“Familiar, Yet Elusive”
acrylic painting, 20 x 24 inches
by Emily Van Cleve

During a four year period I was the mentee in a one-to-one mentoring relationship. My mentor was available whenever I felt I needed to see her, which turned out to be about once every two months. These very special 60 to 90 minute sessions were “art-changing” experiences that I will always deeply value.       Nary a smile from the men by Jan Ross, Kennesaw, GA, USA  

“Pul-i-Khumri Worker”
watercolour painting
by Jan Ross

Thanks to you and your ‘patients’ for sharing the beautiful work! It’s obvious these artists have the talent and skill to create wonderful works of art and found your input enlightening. However, I have a question for you, why are the ladies smiling, while the men look like they’ve been prodded with a poker? While it doesn’t always seem so, painting is FUN… we need to remind folks of that. (RG note) Thanks, Jan. I always carry a poker. I hate to see women cry. We left out two or three pictures of the women who did.       Satisfy the self by Selwyn Owen, Toronto, ON, Canada  

“Windy day”
original painting
by Selwyn Owen

Opinions? Criticism? Mentoring? The most productive and honest response is first from the painter to the work itself, and second whether the work stands the test of time. Being honest with oneself about a work is the test. Satisfy yourself and support the decisions.     There are 2 comments for Satisfy the self by Selwyn Owen
From: LD Tennessee — Sep 24, 2010

Hmmmm,I disagree a bit here. I find it very difficult to evaluate my own work. Obviously, if I have done it, my opinions and responses are probably going to be “honest” but maybe not true reality. Surely you have looked at others’ works and wondered what ever gave them the idea that they were an artist…lol; The question in my mind is usually related to wondering what others “honestly” think of it…

From: Judy Silver — Sep 25, 2010

I am my own worst critic, much harder on myself than others are of me. I belong to a group of artists who critique each others work with honesty and wisdom but I often cannot see what they like in certain paintings of mine or understand why they don’t appreciate the pieces I love. I usually go with my gut but I’ve sold paintings that they convinced me were worthy and come home with those I love. It is a tough balance and one I’m always trying to figure out. Do we look at our own work with different eyes?

  Welcoming the assignment by Dorenda Watson, Columbus, OH, USA  

oil painting, 6 x 6 inches
by Dorenda Watson

Mentoring is a fantastic way to create a dialog and camaraderie among artists. One must be incredibly careful and cautious of your own motivations when mentoring others. I have watched a plethora of excellent and well-meaning teachers crash and burn by giving their heart and souls to others in the name of “education.” They teach and become frustrated when the student doesn’t listen or learn. This does not make them a bad teacher necessarily… nor the student a bad pupil. It is simply a matter of the motivation behind the teaching and the willingness of the student to learn. You must go into mentoring with the intention of telling your experiences and knowledge without expectations that anyone will take your advice at all… if someone does, then it is a gift of respect that you (as the teacher) should cherish forever. I believe that when I am confronted with a student that disagrees or challenges my perspective, it is merely a lesson I have to learn or a growth spurt that I must face to become a better artist and instructor. This has always been the case and I welcome the assignment.   Dead artists speak loudest by Beth Deuble, San Diego, CA, USA  

“Chicago No. 3”
by Beth Deuble

Dead artists have been the most influential mentors for me. Fellow artists as mentors have been far and few between and I have experienced artists who have a jaundiced eye when looking at other artists work and thus their comments are not helpful. Comparison, of course, is inevitable — but what is there to really be jealous of? Friends say they like or love my work — but none have ever bought anything. Perhaps they were just being kind in their comments, or perhaps like many people, they think art should be free, like something they see in a museum or on the wall at the office. No, I have found that dead artists are most alive for me. I just finished reading the biography of British artist, Vanessa Bell. It was the right person at the right time for me to read to really get a sense of living and breathing everyday as an artist. She had formal training under John Singer Sargent yet her work is very different from his style. She painted primarily in the post-Impressionist style and was a brilliant colorist. She painted all her life; painted what she knew, her family, friends, her homes, especially Charleston, plus abroad in France and Italy, and lived an authentic life. Her life was not easy though. It was peppered with great tragedy and loss. Yet, I see and sense she enjoyed great fulfillment. This artist suffered from her own inner doubts about her work and this was in part due to the fact that she was living with the artist, Duncan Grant, and was constantly being compared to him. Their work is similar as they traveled together and often chose the same subject matter. But they were different and not just in subtle ways. I have studied her sister Virginia Woolf for over twenty years and own many books by her and books on what is called, Bloomsbury art. I would encourage anyone who wants to know what an artist’s life can be and in reality was, to read about Vanessa Bell. The message I found was so simple — be true to oneself. There are 2 comments for Dead artists speak loudest by Beth Deuble
From: julie — Sep 24, 2010

I enjoyed your viewpoint very much, Beth. Would you let me know the title of the book, please? I went to art school in England and remember some of the comments made about her work and the Bloomsbury Group.

From: Paddy — Sep 25, 2010

My art history teacher encourages his students to value dead, as well as living, artists as mentors and to always keep painting.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Individual mentoring

From: lianne gulka — Sep 20, 2010

I feel very privileged to have been one of the lucky 24 “mentees.” Your guidance was very inspiring and I am so excited to apply your suggestions and get back to “my room and paint!” thanks so much Lianne Gulka Lianne

From: Kris Preslan — Sep 20, 2010

I was also one of the 24…..Bob, you made my day, week, month, etc. I was very honored and humbled to mentored by one of the greats of this era. Kris Preslan

From: g gordon — Sep 21, 2010

i only wish i had a good teacher and or mentor. I have been teaching myself watercolor for 3 years-hundreds of failed paintings but the occasional success keeps me going. I have not found any really good watercolor teachers in Calgary. Lots of oil-sometime I think i love the wrong medium.

From: Sherri — Sep 21, 2010

Wow, all very lucky folks!! I’ve always wished for a mentor, but never found the right person. I guess, being on the shy side, I find it hard to ask. When I went to college and minored in art, the atmosphere was one of “do your own thing”. Formal instruction was frowned upon, and thought to be inhibiting the creative soul. Well, I wish I’d had a little formal training, if for nothing else than to answer questions on technique. I’m now in my 50s, and struggling with color theory. What a pain!! And, the local colleges are all hit with cutbacks, so getting in a class is iffy, at best. Ah well!

From: Dorenda Crager Watson — Sep 22, 2010
From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Sep 22, 2010

I welcome some comments to my work and some suggestions on how to improve them. My pet peeve are comments or suggestions that push a certain style as the only one that is right and unsolicited comments defining my style as this or that, “Oh,you are into primitive art but it doesn’t look like art”.

From: Sylvie Milman — Sep 22, 2010

Did you know you just trained people to be critics? ;) Thank you so much for sharing. I am smiling now but really if I had to “see the doctor” it might not be that funny!

From: Malcolm Lowe — Sep 23, 2010

At last! an example of mentoring in the art scene. I am new(ish) to watercolour painting, having started painting as a hobby only two years ago. I have read some ‘how to’ books, watched videos by professional artists and attended classes and workshops. When I ask for an objective critique of my work, I have more often than not, been given advice on how to transform my painting and style to that of the professional. I work in a profession that encourages mentoring [or coaching]and find it difficult to understand why I have been unable to locate such a system for my watercolour journey. I have found only one person who responded somewhat positively when I asked him the question of mentoring. He has been an art teacher as a profession before becoming a professional artist so I believe he understands what I was asking. I believe a mentor would help me find answers to such questions as: ‘how can I improve this …’ or ‘I can see what is wrong here and this is my solution, what do you think?’ I trust that those you mentored have benefited from the experience and they will continue to seek an on-going mentoring relationship. Regards Malcolm Lowe

From: Darla — Sep 23, 2010
From: Gavin Logan — Sep 23, 2010

Guidance by example is the key. If the mentor is himself successful and respected as well by his peers, he may just have a few keys to unlocking best in you. Most mentees want validation, and knowing that someone “higher up” is pitching for you is very valuable. At some point the mentor can be shucked, and the butterfly emerges.

From: Crispin Wells — Sep 23, 2010

The best mentors, as Robert has pointed out in other places, are books. Back in the age of mentoring and apprenticeship, great explanatory art books were not available. The advantage of the book is that they can be ingested at the speed of the reader, sorted by priorities, and acted on only when ready and appropriate.

From: Alice — Sep 23, 2010
From: Hilo Nakamura — Sep 23, 2010

Yes, there is in the nature of humanity that they must get together to solve problems. Perhaps art is one of those areas where the “second opinion” is to be distrusted, or at least taken with a grain of salt. If individualism is king, then people must perfect the art of seeking their own counsel.

From: Dianne — Sep 23, 2010

Thank you Robert, this helps me to become a better mentor.

From: Allan Hardy — Sep 23, 2010

Those students who take over mentoring sessions with talk, lecturing and their own plans, not listening to advice, are mentor wannabees themselves. There is a weakness (or a beauty) in human nature that those who teach are precisely those who do not want to learn. They are already self-satisfied.

From: Don Getz, AWS — Sep 23, 2010

Over this past weekend, September 19th, I coordinated the annual fine automotive art exhibit at the GLENMOOR GATHERING in Canton, Ohio… a concours now in its 17th year, and one of the stronger ones in the east. As coordinator, I am ‘juryfree’. One of my close associates had his metal sculpture at the event and he is capable of really creative works. He asked my opinion of a new work which he felt was possibly THE show winner; my answer quickly, was that it was an abortion. That put him on his heels, but I explained that, when I tell him that he has a ‘knockout’ piece, I mean it – NO smoke, just the frank truthfulness… and that’s what I delivered. He’s still not sure of my comment. No, he did not take any of the three awards for the ten invited artists….

From: Arnie T. — Sep 23, 2010

One must be careful when you say rude things, Don, because even the big tough famous boys and girls have feelings. We all make failures. In one jury free environment I was told “Your work is terrific, but this is maybe not one of your very best.” That was bad enough for me at the time.

From: Brian, Upstate NY — Sep 23, 2010

As artists I think when you put your work out there you need to put your big boy pants on and have that thick skin and accept that some people will be harsh and critical of you and you just have to take from it what is important and let the rest slide off your back.,

From: Bobbo Goldberg — Sep 23, 2010

It is indeed possible to be honest without being tactless. Tony Robbins I think it was, who said “The quality of your communication is the quality of the response you get.” Surely there are more amiable ways to establish credibility than with a remark that is not only emotionally aggressive but culturally loaded. Give me empathy, anytime. I am a very honest person, but I’m also a believer in consideration and care of another’s feelings. YMMV. Buddha said, “Before you speak, ask yourself three questions: Is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.” Kindness need not equal deception.

From: Anita Beaty — Sep 24, 2010

Just found you by way of my friend and fellow artist, Nancy Dusenberry. What a delight. I want to sit with a cup of coffee, nothing else to do but read every word and follow every link! Anita Beaty, Atlanta, Georgia

From: — Sep 24, 2010

there is one certain thing in life: When all electric devices (computers, cells, etc) fail or go dormant, you have paper & media material (pencil, ink, paints, et al) & your brain the most important with hand (or foot toes) to draw what goes through your brain & makes you think.

From: Alma Sanbern — Sep 24, 2010

I am sitting here staggered by Don Getz’s reply to his friend. As an art instructor (and perpetual student) I feel it is my duty to present the truth, yes, but in a form that it can be accepted and understood. When confronted with a piece that doesn’t make sense to me I have learned to ask questions for deeper understanding. Confess that I don’t “get it” and ask for the artist’s intent. This way I can learn something and perhaps offer the advice that will help my friend or student arrive at his/her destination.

From: Sarah — Sep 24, 2010
From: Janet Badger — Sep 24, 2010

The feedback I dread getting from my husband is this simple phrase: “Not your best work.”

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Sep 25, 2010

This gave me a good laugh! The only way anybody grows emotionally it to have their emotions disrupted. If a mentor is just nice- so what. Politeness is over rated. Thick skin? If you’re going to a mentor you better be prepared to hear the TRUTH- not just what you WANT to hear. Yes- it may not be YOUR truth- but why- then- did you ask in the first place? Life is not fair. Nobody will ever like everything you’ve created. Some of your ‘not your best work’ may outlive us all. Having your emotional body disrupted by a mentor’s opinion is an opportunity to continue to grow up. So if you can’t handle all kinds of opinions about your work and your self- then don’t bother asking us mentors in the first place! Entering juried shows is a great way to get a handle on how you are doing- but even then- it’s just a juror’s opinion. And some days that isn’t worth all that much. I mentor people from time to time- but I mentor not how they are ‘painting’ (or whatever) but how they are creating- and living. Live it UP. Let yourself always be growing UP.

From: Janet Badger — Sep 25, 2010

Fortunately the “NYBW’s” are outnumbered by the “Awesomes!” Either way, it’s still just one person’s opinion. The truth about feedback is…you have always to consider the source. There is no pure and totally unprejudiced judgment “out there.” So you take what you get with a grain of salt. And keep moving.

From: Brian, Upstate NY — Sep 25, 2010

@Janet B. very true, someone might tell you that your work is utterly contrived and quite possibly the biggest waste of time they have ever suffered through. You could go home and cry about it and give up OR you could take that very harsh criticism, review your work and think about it objectively. I would rather someone be that blunt about it then to tell me soft things that take my feelings into account, I’m pretty leathery so I don’t need that, I need truth! But as you said, everything with a grain of salt!

From: Susan Gutshall — Oct 08, 2010

I got a real kick out of this letter because I do this every day with my middle school students….. funny how these traits are seen in young pre-teens, too, and the advise is often the same!! I’m going to share this with my classes…. It should spark some interesting conversation for a Friday!! Thanks.

From: Rick Rotante — Oct 14, 2010

As I’ve said many time before and once or twice on this site – “beware of experts”. We all need guidance or at the very least encouragement from time to time especially when sales are slim. But too many artists seek approval or acceptance from many of the wrong sources. We listen to fellow artists, family, friends, gallery owners and the public at large. All these sources have alter agenda’s. Or know little about what you know in your heart on what you do and what you create. Now I’m not saying shut out all valid critique when offered. But be wary of unrequested criticism. It’s only someone’s opinion, not a fact or even based on personal experience or expertise. Look to the masters first, then look into your heart and be honest. If you feel it’s good, that’s all the criticism you need. Trust those you feel know something about you and art in general. Then make your own choices. In the end you will be happier than listening to someone “being honest and telling you what they think”.

From: Rick Rotante — Oct 27, 2010

Being a teacher I hear many say one has to be honest and truthful when you critique a students work or else you are cheating them. There are several issues at work here that I’d like to clarify since criticism has become synonymous with tearing down and seeing only what’s wrong. The dictionary defines critique as ” or analyze critically..” Nowhere does it say tear down or review only what is wrong. “Review and analyze” If you teach, your primary job is to give students the tools to paint on their own ultimately. To be able to review and analyze, or in fact to “critique” themselves. For me, finding what works and what can be improved is critique. Showing a way to accomplish one’s objective or get the results one’s looking for is critique. Showing new artists what it is to look for when trying to paint. My job isn’t to tell them what’s wrong but why something works or doesn’t work. In all forms of art there are fundamental “rules”. These rules are not hard and fast but it’s better to relate them than have the student reinvent the wheel. Of course, as we learn and gain confidence we bend or even break these rules as it should be. But the rules are a starting point. Critiquing a work is showing the student where it can be stronger or how the point being made can be better executed. Critiquing is not imposing your ideas but cultivating the ideas for the work at hand. The new student is unaware of what to look for to accomplish this task. The work for the teacher is to listen and guide and show a method or methods for the student to make their own choices in achieving their own results. When I teach I’m not giving opinions on painting, I’m giving good solid, time tested principles. When many critique today they only give opinions. In my world opinions are like thumbs, everyone has one.

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oil painting by Bernard Poulin, Ottawa, ON, 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 Jane Walker of Canterbury, Kent, England who wrote, “The point about not being alone is critical. By definition we work alone but we still need colleagueship and peer group feedback.” And also Brad Greek of Mary Esther, FL, USA, who wrote, “I love to get feedback, good and bad. Beginners are sensitive, so you have to be selective. True is the statement that it is just one’s opinion. Being focused and committed is the key.”    

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