Five years ago, researchers at Gallup took a close look at the link between education and professional success. By studying various polls of students, teachers, parents, business leaders, and more, they found that the type of institution where people got their educations–whether it was public or private, for instance–didn’t make a difference in whether people achieved success in the long run. 

What did make a significant difference, however, was whether or not people had had a mentor while in school. Pupils who had studied with a professor who took an individual interest in their growth and aspirations–and who they were as people–proved more likely to thrive at work years down the line. 

In recent years, businesses have taken note–and launched projects to encourage mentoring between senior and junior employees. These days, 71% of Fortune 500 companies provide mentorship programs, often with positive results. 

Artists are more than three times as likely as the average worker to be self-employed, and for that reason, we sometimes think of creative professionals as individuals rather than members of a team. But a closer look reveals that in art, as in business, collaboration, teamwork, and mentorship can be the key to success in a competitive climate. 

We spoke with contemporary artists about the people who influenced the course of their lives and careers, and we also took a peek through the annals of art history for a couple of classic examples of mentor-mentee relationships. Here are just eight reasons all artists, regardless of their level of experience, can benefit from having a mentor. 

Their Refinement of the Decline by Michael Kerbow
Their Refinement of the Decline by Michael Kerbow

They can inspire you to pursue your calling. 

“I had a wonderful teacher in college, whom I believe was instrumental in my pursuing a career as a fine artist,” painter Michael Kerbow remembers. “Although I had always enjoyed creating art as a child, it wasn’t until I met Professor Weinman that I considered making art for a living. 

“Not only did she help nurture my artistic skills by inspiring me to pursue more ambitious art projects, but she also introduced me to the work of many contemporary artists who were making powerful work.

“If it weren’t for her, I doubt I would have chosen to move to New York City to obtain my MFA in painting. This experience later exposed me to the bigger art world and laid the foundation for my budding art career.” 

Bond #35 by Anna Reivilä
Bond #35 by Anna Reivilä

They can guide you when you’re stuck. 

When she was in art school, Anna Reivilä didn’t fit neatly into any boxes. She was a photographer, but she was also an installation artist–though it took her time and the help of a mentor, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, to realize it. 

“At university, installation work and photography were really pushed as two separate streams, and we were made to choose one over the other,” she remembers. “At the time, I felt that my work process was really jammed. 

“But then Arno told me to take a step back and look into land art. I shifted my focus and started to do installations in nature. By recording the process, photography became part of the piece.

“Arno’s mentoring was a breakthrough in my work. I was really struggling until he told me to go back to installations and to think about the photograph as a documentation. I having a mentor is always helpful—perhaps especially if you are struggling with your work.” 

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Mary Cassatt and her sister, Lydia, 1879–80. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund, 1919.
Edgar Degas, Portrait of Mary Cassatt and her sister, Lydia, 1879–80. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund, 1919.

They can push you out of your comfort zone.

While mentors can help artists discover their passions, they can also direct them down paths they normally might not have considered. 

In 1877, for instance, when a 33-year-old Mary Cassatt encountered the work of Edgar Degas, his guidance reshaped the course of her career. While once she had focused on traditional, academic painting, her exchanges with Degas pushed her to explore impressionism. 

The influence ultimately went both ways, as Cassatt also challenged Degas to experiment with techniques outside of his traditional wheelhouse. 

They can provide honest feedback.

Great mentors inspire us to pursue our dreams, but they’re also there to give candid and helpful criticisms. While friends and clients can be biased in their interpretations of your work, a mentor can help you look at everything from a fresh (and objective) perspective. They have the ability to challenge you–without competing with you or putting you down. 

The Foragers Return With New Perspectives by Angela Ho
The Foragers Return With New Perspectives by Angela Ho

They can help you navigate the art business. 

Artist Angela Ho initially met her mentor Berit Kruger Johnson through a friend. “Berit was this incredibly sophisticated and talented Norwegian illustrator/artist making beautiful gouache paintings,” Ho remembers. “I admired her work and also came to learn that she was a kind and decent human being too. We’d occasionally meet up for coffee or to check out an exhibition to talk about illustration and art.

“We discussed how to handle clients, and we talked about navigating the illustration and art worlds. I had so many questions and was so insecure. I wondered about every step I took. Even writing a simple email to a client took me forever back then. But Berit pushed me to try and get an illustration agent, and we flew up to Sydney to meet with one up there who took me on.

“Now that I’m in Hong Kong, we have long Skype conversations and still talk a lot about our work, but it’s evolved. Now it’s more about art and the art world and not about illustration anymore. I’m still developing my thoughts about how to handle my artwork and exhibitions, so it’s good to have someone I respect and trust to speak with openly.” 

Egon Schiele, Self-portrait,1914. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982
Egon Schiele, Self-portrait,1914. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982

They can make connections and raise your profile. 

Around the turn of the 20th century, Austrian painter Egon Schiele actively sought out the guidance of Gustav Klimt, who was nearly thirty years his senior. In turn, Klimt championed the younger artist’s work; in addition to securing him a major exhibition, he introduced him to the works of preeminent artists and connected him to affluent art collectors. In 1917, they even joined forces to create an exhibition venue of their own. 

While critics and gallerists can help open doors and provide opportunities, it’s often older or more experienced artists who hold the keys to the kingdom. That much hasn’t changed in the last century. 

They can help you set goals and hold you accountable. 

Outside of art school and commissions from clients, it can be hard to stay on top of personal work. Setting regular meetings with our mentors can be the incentive we need to get things done. A capable mentor will know what goals and deadlines are realistic, and they’ll be able to use their own experiences to help with any obstacles that might come your way. 

Heart by Anna Xenz
Heart by Anna Xenz

They can provide encouragement and support. 

“My mentor is my friend, Alexander Tsypkin, one of today’s most popular Russian authors,” illustrator Anna Xenz tells us. “I’ve illustrated his last two books. A mentor is not necessarily a person who’ll teach you professional skills and techniques. A mentor could be the person who tells you, ‘Hey, you’ve got a gift. Go ahead. Do it.’ It could be a person teaches you perseverance and encourages you to attain your goals and realize your ambitions.” 

Did you know? Connecting with other creatives on Skillshare is a great way to build your network and get productive feedback.

Header/Thumbnail credit: Olimpia Zagnoli for her Skillshare Original, Graphic Illustration: Boldly Design with Color and Shape

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