The Unlikely Mentor: An Artist Reveals His ‘Secret’ Teacher

Mentors and teachers. Two important types of people for anyone, not just artists. But for artists, there is a special need for them. We are a strange breed sometimes; it’s nice to know we aren’t alone. Plus, oftentimes, all it takes is just the right push to send a budding young artist on a path of creativity and self-discovery.

How did I find my most influential mentor? Thankfully, they can be discovered everywhere… including some unlikely places.

The Start of My “Secret” Education

I had quite a few teachers who helped me become the artist I am today. My encouraging (if somewhat baffled) parents, various school art teachers, and several how-to drawing books. And then, the unlikely teacher: PBS. The American Public Broadcasting Service had plenty of art instruction programs available when I was growing up. And this is where my story starts.

Back in 1985, I was ten years old. While flipping though the channels on television, I came across this strange program featuring an oddly dressed man drawing space aliens and robots on a huge wall mural. I was curious. The TV guide said the show was called The Secret City. I took note of the time and tuned in the next day to see the whole show.

I was hooked.

The show featured artist “Commander” Mark Kistler in a science-fiction themed set that appears painfully ’80s looking back from today, but I remember it being pretty cool to my 10-year-old self. Every day he covered a basic drawing concept such as foreshortening, shading, or perspective. I owe my ease in dealing with foreshortened objects to this show.

Soon, I was drawing my own versions of moonbots, furbles, and uni-bears, futuristic cites and aliens zipping around in flying saucers. Not only were we, the viewers, encouraged to follow along with Mark, we were also encouraged to draw at least 20-30 minutes every day on our own. Mark introduced me to charcoal pencils, crosshatch shading, and perspective drawing.

One of my few surviving drawings from that era. At least one I am willing to show.
One of my few surviving drawings from that era. At least, one I am willing to show.

When I returned to school, I set the VCR to record the The Secret City. Every day I came home for lunch, grabbed my sandwich, and watched the next show. Sometimes I followed along; other times I tried to absorb the magic I saw onscreen. Mark had an infectious enthusiasm for drawing, and I was just the right age for the show’s sci-fi format. It was perfect timing.

Why This Was Important

After watching The Secret City, drawing went from a hobby to something vital to me as a person. Art became something I could be passionate about. My drawing skills improved greatly; I still rely on lessons I learned in that show. In fact, the iconic pedestal drawn often in the show still appears in my aimless doodles.

My meeting notes are usually littered with such doodles.

Today, Mark Kistler is still teaching kids to draw, and you can find excerpts and even whole episodes of The Secret City on YouTube (check one out below!). The quality isn’t always great, but the drawings hold up. I encourage everyone to check them out. They’re great fun!

If you’re on the hunt for a mentor or teacher, there are plenty of people out there posting art-related tutorials or videos. YouTube and Vimeo are good places to look, and Twitter and DeviantArt are full of artists who like to share advice. And the Threadless forums are a good place to start as well! For me, nothing quite compares – or has impacted me more – than drawing along with Commander Mark.

Nice to know I can still draw 'toons like that.
Nice to know I can still draw ‘toons like that.

Have you met a mentor who really inspired you, or participated in a program only to find your creativity take off? Leave a comment and let us know your own mentor stories!

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Steven Downie

Steven Downie has been a Graphic Designer and Illustrator for almost 20 years. When not blogging, he can be found cycling, jogging, spending time with his young family, and speaking about himself in the third person.