Are you Looking For Art Instructor or Art Mentor? (And What’s the Difference?)

By Niki Hilsabeck in Misc > Art Opinion

When you choose an art class, or a workshop, do you try to look for an instructor or a mentor? What I’ve learned from my own experience is that there’s a big difference between the two, and you may prefer one or the other depending on where you are in your art career.

The difference between instructors and mentors

The way I see it, instructors are talented artists and teachers. They are capable of demonstrating techniques, critiquing artwork, and leading you from one level of proficiency to the next.

Mentors are all of that, too—but they also help you determine what it is that you want from your art, and work with you to plan the next steps of your creative journey.

In my opinion, nearly all artists will benefit greatly from a mentor during the earliest stages of their journey. This is a time full of limitless exploration. A mentor will guide you in the direction that you want to go stylistically and creatively, and help you avoid pitfalls along the way.

As you become more experienced, however, there will be times when you want to broaden your skills, explore different media, or find new inspiration without any sort of larger directional change in your art. If you’re just looking to master a skill that has you flummoxed or to inject a little creative energy into your work, you will probably benefit greatly just from a little time with a new instructor.

Finding a good art instructor or mentor

Once you’ve decided what it is you’re looking for in your teacher-pupil relationship, it’s time to choose a class. If you’re looking for an instructor, focus on a course that offers a specific set of skills (such as mixing color, or capturing the planes of the face) rather than an open-ended course.

Take a look at the instructor’s style if possible—are there techniques evident in the instructor’s work that you’d like to learn? Perhaps you’d like to paint realistic reflections. Seek out an instructor whose technique you admire, and get enrolled in a course that addresses the technique you’re hoping to master.

If you’re in need of a new mentor, however, you’ll want to do your search a little differently. Seek out instructors who teach classes that explore creative processes and styles in addition to specific techniques.

For example, you may want to go deeper into your current style or medium. Make sure to find a teacher whose style you admire and who offers courses that allow you to work in the medium of your choice. Also, take a look at the instructor’s online portfolio or professional website. I’ve personally found that art teachers who had the most to offer in terms of mentoring were those who continued to push themselves to create new art in their own careers.

Seeing “mentor” potential in your instructors

Once you’ve begun taking classes with your chosen instructor, it’ll likely be clear whether or not there’s “mentor” potential. How do you feel about the instructor’s teaching style? Does the teacher appear to enjoy working with you? Does the instructor recognize and respect your style of painting, or do you feel pressured to adapt to the instructor’s style? Do you go home from classes feeling energized and ready to try out new ideas and skills, or are you ready to leave when the end of each class period comes?

Most importantly, would you take another course with the instructor, or do you feel that you’ve gotten what you needed for the present time and are now ready to move on?

Like friendships and other close relationships, the best mentor-student relationships often happen naturally, and can be a bit of a surprise. Whenever you take a new art course, keep an open mind regarding the instructor. If you feel that you respect the instructor as an artist, but ultimately have different philosophies, simply keep your relationship teacher-pupil and focus on developing the technical skills that the instructor has to offer. There’s no need for anything more.

If however you find yourself looking forward to your classes and wanting to learn more from a particular instructor, you might have just found yourself a new mentor—continue to build that relationship, and see where it goes!


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