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How artist mentors help guide your career, and where to find one

Portrait of Symposia author Vishal Sheth
Vishal Sheth

Mar 26, 2022

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 min read

the value of mentors for visual artists
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Parent, teacher, friend, spouse: we spend a lifetime refining how we play these roles, and there are books, courses, and the wisdom of the ages to help us play them better. But what is a mentor, and why does an aspiring artist need one?

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Why artists need mentors

Having a mentor, or multiple mentors, is often a good idea. Mentors provide you with unique insight and knowledge that you can't find in a book. They may give you a wealth of information and perspective on your career as an emerging artist that may help you avoid the learning curve.

What's the meaning of mentorship?

A mentor is someone further along the journey to mastery of their art form which is willing to guide us by teaching, encouraging, and setting a good example. They provide access to knowledge, networks, and support we might not otherwise have. They help us avoid dead ends and wrong turns.

In the best cases, a mentor-mentee relationship is reciprocal, with both parties growing from the experience. The mentor learns about teaching and how to be more effective; the mentee learns about the art form, work ethic, resilience—the whole nine yards.

No one masters an art form in a vacuum. We all need feedback and guidance as we learn and grow.

Offers encouragement during times of difficulties

The mentor you choose should love having a mentee share their knowledge with you. They should exude enthusiasm in the field and promote continued growth. They should also have a communication style that motivates change. This is especially important because a mentor must be able to provide honest feedback and criticism.

working relationship with a street artist working on a still life at a business

Mentors offer critical feedback about your artwork

Mentors can provide vital feedback about your artwork, which can help refine your artistic vision. Mentors can help you learn how to apply criticism and improve your work.

Expands your network and introduces you to new opportunities

Mentors can teach you more than just the new skills for your art practice; they can also teach soft skills like getting your name out, networking, pricing your work, and dealing with accounting and taxes. The attitudes you pick up from simply being around your mentor are invaluable, and you can't learn them from books.

Mentors help you stay on track with your artistic goals

Mentors can be an excellent resource for helping you stay on track with your creative pursuits. They can provide guidance and support as you work to achieve your goals. Having someone to measure your progress against can be beneficial in keeping you motivated and focused on your goals.

Mentors are for any stage of your art career

Mentorship isn't just for beginners, either. Even established artists can benefit from having a mentor. As our careers progress, we face different challenges and need different types of support.

Informs you on how to capitalize on strengths

Mentors can play a significant role in an artist's career by informing them how to capitalize on their strengths. They can help artists assess their skill set and develop a plan to improve weaknesses while furthering strengths.

Next generation artists talking about a illustration for a love story

A mentor prevents you from pursuing bad ideas

Mentors can help an artist avoid pursuing bad ideas. They can provide the artist with critical feedback and guidance, steering them away from a destructive career path and teaching them how to focus on their strengths.

Consider the value of multiple viewpoints

You're likely to have more than one mentor in your career, and you might have many at once. Multiple viewpoints may provide you with a more diverse view of your work.

Also, consider a non artistic mentor who is not well acquainted with the art world. Many individuals have made a lot of money but haven't done anything worthwhile, and they'd feel better about themselves if they gave back.

Do I need a mentor?

All of this may sound like too much trouble. Why not just learn on your own? The knowledge and techniques of any art have been refined over hundreds, if not thousands of years, passed on from master to student, with each student hoping to push the field a bit further.

The desire to learn everything on your own may seem noble, but it often comes from fear of asking for help.

Speeds up the learning process in the art world

The most important thing an artist mentor can do for you is to cut down the time it takes to reach competence and mastery.

The most productive and satisfying years of your art career are when you've mastered your craft, typically your mid-to-later years. You'll have many more of those years, and fewer struggling, starving years if you discover excellent mentors early on.

Furthermore, it could take you a lifetime to catch up to the present state of knowledge if you manage it. If you want to reach mastery and create something new and enduring, then you need to learn the most effective existing techniques and attitudes as quickly as possible.

Being part of a community

A great way to interact with an artist mentor is to connect with people who are as interested in their career path as you are. Art can sometimes get lonely at times. Working in close collaboration can provide social support and comfort for a talented person.

A further advantage is they can provide empathy and understanding since they likely had similarly challenging and successful art career experiences.

Networking and learning about other successful artists

Artist mentors can assist you in learning about other artists by introducing you to their network of connections. This is an invaluable resource, as connections with other artists are a surefire way to open up new doors and opportunities for you as an artist.

Furthermore, your mentor can provide you with guidance and advice on how to best approach and collaborate with other successful artists based on their own experience. This will save you a great deal of time and energy in the long run, as you won't have to trial-and-error your way through the process.

Executive director of a mentorship sharing advice about painting

What Forms Mentorship Can Take?

There are many different forms that mentorship can take. It can be as simple as meeting with someone once a month to talk about your work or as involved as working with them regularly to help you grow as an artist. Here are just a few ways an artist mentor can help you:

  1. Learning from someone who has already been successful in your field
  2. Getting advice on how to navigate the art world and find success
  3. Receiving feedback on your work that can help you improve
  4. Gaining insight into the creative process
  5. Developing a professional network of contacts
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Having a mentor is one of the most important things an artist can do to accelerate their growth and success. A mentor can provide you with invaluable knowledge and insight to reduce the learning curve associated with becoming a professional artist.

How to find a professional artist mentor

Not too dissimilar from the corporate world, in the art world, the mentor-mentee relationship often develops spontaneously when someone more experienced takes someone less experienced under their wing. They may not call it or even think of it as a mentor relationship.

Other times, management imposes the connection from above when mentors are assigned to new employees. But as an artist working independently, you'll need to search for an artist mentor proactively.

Make a list of anyone you think might make a good mentor or whom you could ask to recommend a mentor. Include friends and acquaintances, teachers, and artists you admire. Once you've got a list, think about who to contact first. Ideally, you should start with someone with whom you already have a relationship. Then you can propose a mentoring relationship sooner.

Here are a few exercises to get you started in your search

  1. Write down five potential mentors. You can find potential mentors by looking in creative communities in your local area.
  2. Write down goals you want to achieve with your mentor's guidance. How often are you planning to meet with your mentor?
  3. Are they in a position you seek to achieve?
  4. Do you have an existing relationship with them?
  5. Are they able to make a long-term commitment to the relationship? Do they live close to you, and can they communicate regularly? Are they able to be critically honest about your work and progress?

Now imagine the demands on this person's time. Think about their career responsibilities, their family duties, their ambitions. Mentoring you will compete with all of that, so you need to provide something in return.

If you're lucky, you may need to bring nothing more than your eagerness to learn to the relationship. Many people who are well-established in their careers want to pass on their insights and will happily mentor you for free, especially if they see you as talented and serious about your pursuits.

But if you don't know such a kind soul yet, you will need to make yourself valuable to your potential artist mentor. You may have some skills they don't have, like working with spreadsheets or creating a webpage.

Or you can offer to do some of the menial tasks that take up their time, like cleaning the workshop or grading papers. If you can afford it and the money isn't insignificant to them, you can offer to pay them to meet regularly and mentor you, but remember a real mentor is never in it for personal economic gain.

Artist getting the sense of how to be inspired by a teacher

What are the qualities of a good artist mentor?

A good artist mentor is someone who supports you and is an advocate for your work. You should find someone who can give you tough love and honest feedback. They should have the capacity to understand your particular job; they should understand who you are as an artist.

Qualities that are red flags

You don't want to work with someone who enables a defeatist mentality and bad behavior. It's not a bright idea to collaborate with someone who may indulge you or serve as an enabler, encouraging you to make unwise decisions or have illogical ideas about the art world.

Where to start

If you don't already have a relationship with your desired mentor, develop one. Go to events they're attending and talk to them about their work. Get their attention by commenting on their posts or promoting them on social media.

Then ask for something small: some advice or a brief meeting. Mentoring is a big commitment to ask of a stranger, so get to know them and let them get to know you first. Once they see your value and seriousness, ask them if they'll offer you a mentorship.

This is a long-term commitment to whom you decide to approach as a mentor, so having a good fit is extremely important.

Where to look for artist mentors

  • Ask around your artist friend groups. Chances are, you know someone who knows a professional artist mentor.
  • Attend artist workshops and events Attending artist workshops and events is a great way to meet professional artists and learn from their experiences.
  • Reach out to art schools Many art schools offer mentor programs that connect students with professional artists.

When you have a meeting with a potential mentor

  • Clearly state your ultimate goal for the connection. What do you want to learn?  How can they help you improve your skills?
  • Ask about their teaching approach and what type of feedback they typically give.
  • Make it clear that you see this connection as long-term and that you will put in the effort to make measurable progress.
  • Demonstrate a willingness to communicate a reasonable timetable that considers the mentor's schedule.

Make the most of your mentor relationship

The benefit of your relationship with your mentor comes not just from the knowledge they share but from the emotions between you. Ideally, you respect and admire your mentor, and your mentor feels proud of and nurturing towards you.

You feel accountable to your mentor; you don't want to disappoint them. If you have this relationship, you will unconsciously absorb your mentor's discipline, good habits, and pride in their work.

Be willing to listen and learn.

Don't go into the relationship expecting your mentor to do all the teaching. Make an effort to soak up as much information as possible and be open to constructive criticism.

Be prepared to put in the work.

A good mentor-artist relationship is collaborative, so be prepared to do your share of the work. If you're unwilling to put in the effort, the relationship won't be very productive. Showing up to your mentor's studio ready to learn, taking their critiques to heart, and being respectful are all critical ingredients for a successful mentorship.

One of the best ways to learn is by doing. While studying under an artist mentor, you can expect to be doing a lot of hands-on work. This may include mixing colors, drafting sketches, and creating finished pieces. Your mentor will help you develop your skills and give you feedback along the way.

Remember that it's a two-way street.

Just as your mentor teaches you, you also have something to offer them. Be willing to share any knowledge or insights you have, and try to think of ways you can help your mentor out.

You can help your mentor out by sharing any knowledge or insights you have. If you know of any opportunities or resources they may be interested in, such as upcoming art shows you heard about or new galleries that have opened up, be sure to let them know. You can also think of ways to help them out in their professional lives.

Keep a mentor relationship strong after your apprenticeship

There are a few ways that an artist can maintain a mentor relationship going after their apprenticeship.

  1. Stay in touch Make sure you stay in touch with your mentor, even after the formal mentorship has ended. You can do this by sending them emails, dropping by their studio, or attending art shows together.
  2. Share your wins Your mentor will want to see your progress, so make sure you share your work with them. You can send them images of your work or, even better, bring them examples in person. This will help them give you feedback and advice.
  3. Thank them Please make sure you thank your mentor for all their help and support. A simple gesture like sending them a card or writing a thank-you note can go a long way.

It is essential to keep that relationship going throughout your career, even after you both feel like your time together has come to a close. Most mentorships are long-term relationships.

What if I can't find a mentor?

If you can't find someone to offer a mentorship right away, don't despair. Remember that experienced artists are busy, and no one owes you their time. One day you'll be a master with lots of wisdom but little time to pass it on.

Keep improving your skills and build your own experience, get involved in your art community, and develop relationships with artists who are further along than you.

arts professional who is inspired after being successful with her life

Final thoughts on mentors for artists

A good mentorship will feel like your mentor is like a big brother or sister willing to show you the ropes. You should feel that they want you to succeed in their given field and your own life. It's an ongoing relationship, so you gain more insights as your mentor grows and gains more knowledge.

  1. Having a mentor is always advised and will help you achieve new things you may not have been able to before.
  2. Many renowned artists would be happy to mentor you. At the same time, only a small number of individuals seek a mentor—take a chance on what they can offer you.
  3. You should feel that your mentor wants you to succeed in their field and your own life.
  4. Mentoring is a two-way street--you'll learn from each other.
  5. It's essential to keep the relationship strong, even after you've moved into a new phase in your career.
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