Get Thee a Mentor: Why Mentorship Matters to Creatives

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“Marianne, honey, you have to get lower.”

The instructor is hovering, shaking her head. She thinks I can do better, which is nice, I suppose.

I don’t think my legs have ever hurt so much. I’m halfway through a weighted Pilates class, and am clearly the wounded animal at the back of the pack. There is a woman to my left who I have decided to nickname Abs. Abs is having no problem whatsoever. This must be a typical morning for Abs. I, on the other hand, am shaking my head with disbelief whenever the instructor (who is Toronto glamourous, instructing with exquisitely coiffed hair) demonstrates the next exercise. She executes each movement with grace and fluidity, despite the numerous Tiffany bracelets that adorn her wrists.

I am a hippo compared to these people.

“Show ‘em how they do it in North Bay!” My mentor shouts encouragingly. He’s in the corner, with strap-on ankle weights for the extra challenge. He looks like he’s having a wonderful time, smiling and joking around.

If I was thinking straight, I would’ve said, I just want to say for the record, my performance in this class is not representative of the population of North Bay. We are a strong, noble, rugged people.

Instead, I say, “Gwwwwwwuuuuuuuuh.”

Welcome to what I have decided to call Art Bootcamp – 2016.


If I could give one piece of advice to any budding artist, regardless of what form that art takes, it would be to go out and find a professional mentor. Find a person whose work you admire, contact them, ask questions, and learn. Doing this is what led me to Mississauga two weeks ago, where I studied one-on-one with one of my favourite working artists, Olaf Schneider. You can see his work at

I first noticed Olaf’s work on the walls of the Wolf’s Den hostel on the edge of Algonquin Park. In April 2015, I took a solo trip to Algonquin, and stayed in the hostel while I wandered the trails that were just starting to emerge from beneath the infamously massive Muskoka snowdrifts. On the walls of the hostel I noticed a painting that was simply signed “Olaf”. It was ridiculously beautiful, and I stared at it for a good fifteen minutes, because sometimes it looked like a photograph, but then it was back to being a painting again. Just insane.

Long story short, but using the magic of Facebook, I managed to track Olaf down, and asked his permission to become his Facebook friend so that I could see updated works as he posted them. He generously agreed, and after a few more chats, we arranged for a weeklong workshop at his home studio in Mississauga. Below are a few of my favourite pieces that he’s created.

"Remember When" (36" x 60") by Olaf Schneider

“Remember When” (36″ x 60″) Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

"Breath" (40" x 60") Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

“Breath” (40″ x 60″) Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

"July" (30" x 40") Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

“July” (30″ x 40″) Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

Seriously, isn’t he insanely good?!

In one week, I learned more about painting than I possibly could have with years of self-taught trial and error. I learned how to stretch canvases onto custom-built frames, prime them, and lay down the image onto the canvas. I learned colour theory, different techniques, and used new tools. I saw the difference a proper easel can make, learned how to look at print outs of images and interpret colour into the piece itself. I could examine pieces close up, and learned how to harmonize pieces through careful touches here and there, that allowed the eyes to do some of the work of blending, and walking that line between literal photorealism and individual interpretation of a subject. I emerged with a wish list a mile long, and a commitment to shift the majority of my practice into oil painting.

The primary difference for me between acrylic and oil is the ability to blend, and the amount of stress that this reduces. In acrylics, you’re racing against the clock. Even with mediums added to your paint to slow the drying time, a skin starts to form on your paints after only five minutes of being on the canvas. Disturb that skin and you get accidental lumps. It’s like what happens when you heat up milk without stirring, and you get a skin on top that affixes itself to your stirring spoon, and is slimy and gross. However, acrylics are easy to clean up, odourless, and are more affordable than oils (even Golden, the crème de la crème of acrylics, are cheaper than oil), making them very accessible and easy to use.

With oils, your paints are workable for days; I even have to add a speeding agent to them to ensure that they would be mostly dry after sitting overnight in front of a fan. When I sit down to paint in oil, I can get up and walk away for several hours before returning, and it’s not a big deal at all. The paints that were put onto my taboret (which is a fancy palette setup) remained moist for almost the entire time that I was there. Sure, there are exceptional acrylic artists who have figured out how to work through the time limitations, but oils immediately eliminated many of my weaknesses in acrylics, allowing me to rocket ahead and learn buckets of new knowledge.

The major drawback with oils is that they stink. After a week in the studio I’d grown immune to it, but I remained sensitive to the odours of liquin (the drying agent) and turpenoid (the brush cleaner). Olaf has methods for containing the smells of both, but it’s not something I could do from the comfort of my two bedroom apartment; when I continue with oils this summer, I’m going to need to find a well-ventilated studio space. Fortunately I live in North Bay, so while studios may not be abundant, they are much more affordable than Toronto.

This is not to say I don’t love acrylic, or that one medium is better than the other. This is simply a matter of personal preference; ultimately, I think oils align better with my passion for Canadian landscapes. I’m not throwing acrylics under the bus, and I’m looking forward to continuing my work with them, but I am very excited for new possibilities with oil.

"In the Glowing" (11" x 14") Oil on Panel, by Marianne Vander Dussen. My first oil painting!

“In the Glowing” (11″ x 14″) Oil on Panel, by Marianne Vander Dussen. My first oil painting!

The workshop started between 8:30-9am every morning. Typically, it went until 5-6pm. We took an hour break every day to go exercise, a practice he maintains as part of his workday and wanted to include as part of the experience, demonstrating how he remains focused and energized. But aside from food breaks and gym breaks, it was constant. It was intense, and towards the end I was starting to crumble a bit, from being so overwhelmed with new information. But by Friday, I was holding a beautiful still life that I had painted, and was about 25% of the way through a lovely 22” x 35” painting of my parents’ farm, on a canvas that I had stretched myself, based on a photograph that I took a couple of years ago.

And that is how I wound up sweating in a beautiful Pilates studio surrounded by sculpted bodies that had no problem with the bazillion burpees expected by our fabulous instructor. Daily exercise is not a luxury; it’s a necessity for creative people. My productivity increased, my focus improved, and it got me out of the house, away from the canvas, so that I could be more present when I returned. But for someone not used to the rigours of long hours in the studio combined with challenging classes on a daily basis, I was absolutely exhausted by the end of the week.

Will I continue this kind of intensive exercise on my own once I resume painting? Absolutely. I’ll need to work up to it a little more, rather than jumping straight into the deep end, but now that I’ve lived the lifestyle, I understand its value. Same with shutting off distractions in the studio; friends can wait, social media can wait, everything else can wait. If I’m getting distracted, either determine a way to eliminate the distraction, or head to the gym and return after I’ve burned some of my nervous energy. Simple and effective.

The learning was challenging, but I loved it. I was pushed, guided, and helped towards unlocking new abilities and ways to read images. It was singlehandedly the best thing I’ve ever done for myself as an artist. I came back buzzing with energy, anxious to be in front of a canvas again. Unfortunately, the time has come to go into seclusion mode and hunker down on my thesis. I am getting closer and closer to finishing and am frankly desperate for it to be over with. The faster I get it done, the faster I can make use of all my new skills in oil painting.

Speaking of, the thesis is calling. Back to work.

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