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What Would You Pay DaVinci to Be Your Mentor?

Learn to dissect your favorite creative’s work and be your own guide.

Key points

  • Whatever art form you enjoy, seek out the masters and examine their work for what it can teach you.
  • Any art product can be analyzed. Try choosing three common elements to start (e.g., composition, color, form).
  • Turn the lens of analysis on your own work. Take a step back and see your work with your art-master's eye.

Let’s get present. Be in the moment.

What creative work do you totally love right now?

Think of work in your field of focus, your art form.

I’m in love with the styles of fashion designer Gary Graham. You might not be familiar with him, but he was a runner-up in season 2 of Making the Cut, an upscale version of Project Runway.

Mr. Graham’s designs fascinate me because they are versatile, elegant, modest, and highly creative. When my husband and I recently traveled to the Catskill area of New York in July, the primary reason for this destination was to visit Graham’s studio in the little hamlet of Franklin.

The studio is not typically open to the public, but through a series of emails, I requested a private appointment. The experience of viewing Graham’s designs, seeing first-hand the intricate construction, trying on a few of the garments, and purchasing a denim dress will remain a highlight of my summer. A true delight.

Yesterday, Graham shared a short video of Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts wearing the designer’s Amanda dress on his Instagram page. The video also displayed lots of still shots of women of various sizes and shapes wearing the same dress. As a sewist myself, his post inspired me to elevate my next project.

Sometimes, we admire an artist because we cannot imagine how they do their art.

Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House, Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park — How did they do that?

Sometimes, we admire an artist because we can model their style, their medium, and the gestalt of their work.

Try this:

  • Whatever your medium, I challenge you to find a work of an artist/creative/maker that you admire and model just one of their works.

  • A “work” is a product—for example, a song, a painting, a garden, a dessert.
  • Dig into that work.
  • What do you love about it?
  • What connects with you?
  • Take it apart.

Imagine a beautifully tailored coat. Grab your virtual seam ripper and have a look inside. Look at the interfacing, the grading on the armscye. Pull off that sleeve.

  • Model it.
  • Replicate it.
  • Make it your own.
  • Learn from it.
  • Teach yourself.

Take a paragraph from a favorite short story, novel, play, or poem. Write what you’re currently working on using elements from that story.

  • Model the style.
  • Play with the vocabulary, structure, and syntax.
  • Look at a favorite painting. Turn the concepts toward your work. For this activity, embrace the style of the original artist. Abandon your critic.

My favorite short story is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” I’ve read the story hundreds of times with students in class. Rarely do young people understand the story’s subject or theme without taking the time to dig into the text. The dialogue tags often mislead the reader as to what character speaks the lines. Colors and numbers represent far more than surface descriptions.

A couple of years ago, I challenged myself to model Hemingway’s style and continued the story of the American and Jig in a sequel. The intention was not to imagine the story’s conclusion but to explore the author’s terse style and symbolism—elements that my short stories often lack.

This exercise intends not to copy a work of art but to use the work as a teaching element.

If I could sit by Hemingway’s side as he crafted this brief tale, what might he advise to a mentee? What lessons could he teach? What nuggets could I learn and use in my writing?

In visiting GaryGraham422, I learned about shape, design, proportion, fiber mixing, layering, finishing, accessory, and color palette.

Whom do you admire as a master in your artform? Dissect their work.

Taste. Test. Try.

Take the time to dive in deep.

Da Vinci is long gone, but his work continues to inspire. Regardless of your dreams and goals, regardless of what teachers have said in the past, and regardless of critiques and reviews, you have the power to learn from any creative product.