Mentorship

“Silence”
Oil on Panel
18×24″
2008

I’ve mentioned in passing here that I’ve spent the last six months participating in a mentorship program with artist Jay Moore, and I’ve had a bunch of you ask me to share more information about what I’ve been doing, so here it is. Bear with me if this gets really long – I might ramble (not like that’s anything new), because what I’ve been doing is important enough to me that I’ve devoted half a year to it, so I might have a lot to say!

Why I Needed This

I’ve had the occasional friend or family member (and even a couple of artist acquaintances) look at me like I was kind of crazy when I said I was doing this mentorship, so let me start by saying this:

As a professional artist, I’m acutely aware of my shortcomings.

Yes, I have the occasional day where I’ve sold a few paintings or been accepted to a big show, when everything is great and I get this feeling that I’m a decent painter. But most of the time, I’m aware that I have a long way to go to become a great artist, and I know that my pursuit of excellence is one that will be with me my entire life. I think that the death of many artists is complacency, and that those who have long and successful careers as artists always seem to me to have a willingness and desire to seek out learning experiences, no matter their level of competency.

I have a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering (which was no easy feat), but my art education has consisted of four 2-3 day workshops and a couple of figure drawing and painting classes. I’m painfully aware that I am lacking in the art education department, no matter how many books I may have read or paintings I have examined. Seeking out learning opportunities is important for me, because I don’t want this to hold me back in my career.

About a year and a half ago, I was just getting the wheels moving on my career as an artist after officially taking the leap when I had Aspen. I felt like I was floundering a bit and seriously needing some guidance from someone who had been where I was. I didn’t want to sign up for another workshop, because I wasn’t interested in learning another artist’s technique, and what I needed was more than I could learn in a week. I wanted to find someone who would mentor me on a more long term basis so we could see what I was learning and build on it, and also cover some more business related topics. I wanted to improve my painting skills, and get some input on some of the new decisions I was having to make about where to go with my art business.

Who I’ve Been Studying With

I had taken a couple of short workshops with Jay Moore way back when I was just starting to paint. Actually, I took my first workshop ever with him – I had never painted a landscape, and was totally out of my element, but I came away from that first outdoor painting workshop convinced that I was going to drop portrait painting and paint landscapes from that point on. I remembered that at the time he had talked about a six month mentorship program he was doing with more serious artists, which seemed sort of perfect for where I was at last year.

Now here’s the thing – not all artists are good teachers. And I wanted to make sure I was studying with someone who could TEACH, not just paint well. Because I had studied with Jay before, I already knew that he could teach well, and I knew that his teaching method would be good for the level I was at. If you haven’t had a chance to take a workshop with Jay, he’s got some great videos out that teach some of his big ideas about seeing the landscape. He’s not the kind of guy who picks up your paint brush and shows you how to paint a tree, or a rock, or water – he’s more focused on the fundamentals of what makes a good painting than teaching technique, and to me that’s a good thing at this point. I don’t want to learn some other artist’s technique, and have everyone say, “Man, Stacey really paints like _____” – I want to learn how to paint like ME, but make my paintings as good as possible!

So, I called him up and asked if I could do the mentorship. Turned out that he had a five year waiting list for the one-on-one mentorship, and was tossing around the idea of doing the mentorship with a group this year and video-taping the sessions to make an in-depth teaching series. I said “Sign me up!”, and then waited (not so patiently!) for a year until we started.

What It’s All About

The six month long mentorship started in July, with a group of artists of different levels meeting every two weeks for a lecture/critique session. In between each session, we have assignments designed to improve skills in different areas, and it’s been fun to do the program as a group and see how each person has different strengths and weaknesses, and learn from each other’s critiques.

The lectures have been videotaped during every session, and Jay is working to put them together with demos of the assignments to make a series of DVDs that will be available for sale toward the end of the summer in 2009. He’s spent 15 years of his career putting together the material for this mentorship, and has put a lot of thought and effort into the concepts that make up the curriculum. Now that I’ve gone through it, I can say it’s been immensely valuable and that I’m glad that he’s been willing to put forth all this effort and share so much of what he knows. I think that a lot of the material we covered is unique for a painting class, yet valuable for any artist. As soon as the videos are released, you all can bet that I’ll be reminding you they’re available, because I know they’ll be really good!

So, every other Monday night, I drive down to Denver, go to class, and drive back the next morning (thanks to a supportive husband who has no problem playing Mr. Mom when I’m gone). And when I get back, I spend the next two weeks juggling my assignments (often 10-20 hours worth of work) with my other painting commitments (galleries, shows) and trying to be a good mom. It hasn’t been easy to get everything done, considering I only have two full days a week to paint and do the rest in the evenings or when Aspen is napping. It was especially rough in August and September when I did the RMPAP plein air show and had to prepare for a three-person show in October. Luckily, things have slowed a bit since then, and I’ve been able to focus more on the mentorship, and a bit less on the studio painting.

The lectures and assignments have run the gamut of topics, from painting and drawing to advertising and dealing with galleries and collectors. I’ve learned a lot about my shortcomings as an artist, and I feel like I have a lot of ideas and knowledge now that are going to help me throughout my career. Some of the specific assignments are things I know I’ll repeat in the future to brush up on certain skills, and a lot of them have helped me come to some important conclusions about my goals and what decisions I need to make to go where I want to go. I’m a little bit stubborn, so I know that a lot of the lessons I’ve learned in the past six months won’t sink in for a while. The cool thing about that is knowing that even when the mentorship is over next month, I won’t stop learning, and I’ll have the tools I need to critique my own work and learn for years to come.

Doing the mentorship has pushed me to do some things that are outside of my comfort zone, which I’m convinced is making me a better painter. I’ve been doing more plein air painting, doing paintings of subject matter and/or compositions that I wouldn’t have considered before, and working on skills that I might not have thought were important. I’m becoming more conscious of things that didn’t even cross my radar screen as being important in a painting before, that seem to have a huge impact for me now. In the end, I haven’t seen my style shift, but I’ve seen my skills improve, and I think I’m going to be a lot more effective at really saying what I want to say with my paintings once all these lessons have some time to sink into my thick skull.

More than anything, I think it’s been helpful to have someone critique my work on a regular basis. Jay doesn’t let things slide, and he can spot a shortcut or laziness from a mile away, so we don’t get away with a lot – I always come away from our Monday night sessions with my head full of new ideas and things to be conscious of. And sometimes what I think is my best work is met with the most criticism, which has actually been great because I haven’t gotten a critique yet that I didn’t agree with once I thought about it. Of course, now my standards are higher, and I find myself groaning when I look at paintings that I thought were good just a few months ago (the cringe factor, magnified)!

The mentorship is over in a few weeks, and I’m kind of sad because it was such a good learning experience, but kind of happy that I’ll have more time to start applying some of what I learned to my studio painting. As it comes to a close, I’m totally glad I’m made the time to do it – it’s been really valuable. As the economy has screeched to a halt over the past few months, it’s become clear to me that we artists need to focus on quality now more than ever, and I think that this has come along at just the right time for me. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in a program like this, and thankful to have found someone so generous with their knowledge to help me on my way (thanks Jay!!!).

What Have I Gotten Myself Into?

“Rainy Day Aspens”
Oil on Panel
24×36″
2008

I know I say this a lot, but things have been crazy busy lately. When things are busy, it’s always a good thing from a business standpoint, so I can’t complain, but it’s leaving me with very little free time!

It’s tourist season in the Colorado Rockies, which is prime selling time for the galleries in mountain resort towns, meaning that I feel the need to keep them all stocked as well as I can for the next couple of months. That means no finished paintings sitting in the studio gathering dust. It also means I’m framing and sending things out the door a few days after I finish them. Which means a bit of added stress and a lot of me running around acting frazzled all the time… Making a living as an artist can be hard work!

In addition, I’m doing a mentorship program with painter Jay Moore for the next six months, which means I’m driving down to Denver every other Monday, and doing lots of homework in the two week periods in between. There are seven other artists in the program, and I can already tell it’s going to be a HUGE learning opportunity for me, so I’m totally excited. I’m also a tad bit overwhelmed trying to figure out how the heck I’m going to find time to do everything.

I usually have two full days to paint while Aspen is in daycare, plus another half or full day that she spends playing with Grandma. I do a lot of my business stuff/framing/painting prep during her naptimes on other days and after she goes to bed every night so that I can spend her awake hours with her. Now I’m going to be using a lot of that time doing work for the mentorship. I think I’m going to be cutting out all of my wasted TV/reading/relaxing time for the next few months…

I’m also trying to figure out some new framing options. I usually use ready-made frames, but I’m getting to a point where they’re a bit cheap for my price level, and other artists at my level are using custom frames. It’s presentation issue, and I love the quality of a good custom frame, but I’m a procrastinator at heart, and tend to order frames at the last minute, making ordering custom difficult since the wait is often close to four weeks. I’m starting to realize that I need to bite the bullet and start to build a bit of an inventory of standard size custom frames, so that I have them when I need them. I’m crazy cheap, so shelling out the bucks for a bunch of frames is a stretch for me, but I’ve got to do it at this point.

So, I’m a little bit overwhelmed right now, but also excited because I feel like the next few months will be a good push to take my work to a new level. It’ll be a lot of work, but it’ll be worth it in the end, and luckily I happen to love my job so it should be fun along the way.

In other news, Aspen has learned the word “paint” and likes to come out to my studio and paint on my paintings (of course, I only let her do this in the beginning stages). Every time she walks by the door, she says, “Mommy paint!” – cute, no?