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Painting a Gentle Giant

Humpback whale and calf in The Broken Group Islands – Patrick LaMontagne

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enamored with humpback whales, and I have no idea why this particular species of baleen whale holds my love and interest over any other marine mammal.  My wife and I saw these two (and a few more) on a tour of the Broken Group Islands out of Ucluelet on Vancouver Island this past summer, and although we only saw backs and tails, it was a thrilling experience.

A longtime dream I’ve had is to be in the water with one of these massive creatures.  Now before you think me a little nuts, I’m not oblivious to the danger.  I know that an animal can be as gentle as a kitten, but when it’s the size of a semi truck, you don’t want to be under it when it rolls over.  Despite that, the desire is very strong and I intend to make it happen.  I want to get my diving certification in the next year or two, and to swim with humpbacks in the next five.  It’s an expensive trip, but it’s one worth saving for.

From time to time over the years, I’ve had very vivid dreams featuring different animals.  One in particular, was the spark for my Animal Totem series.  Humpbacks have shown up a few times, most recently last week and it prompted me to start searching for reference.  When I found the right image (and there was no doubt, once I saw it), I started looking for the photographer who took it.

As I’ve mentioned before about photo reference, no photos are ever part of my paintings, but I still need to have great shots to work from in order to get the level of detail that I paint.  I can’t tell you from memory what the hair on a moose looks like as it transitions over the nose, or how a bighorn sheep’s horns curl around in relation to his other features.  So, I rely on the work of wildlife photographers to provide me with the reference I need.

Some photographer friends, of which I thankfully have many, have been very generous in allowing me the use of their work.  For others, I have traded my services as an illustrator for their own projects, or paid them outright for the license to use certain photos.   A few have asked for canvas prints of the finished painting in payment.  I’ve been agreeable to all of these terms, and grateful for their willingness to help me do what I love to do.

From time to time, a wildlife photographer will tell me they aren’t interested or their price will be too high for my budget.  In those cases, I’m usually disappointed, but I thank them for their time and look for other reference.  Even though my finished paintings look very little like the photos I use for reference, so many photographers have had their work stolen online and they’re extra cautious about allowing their work to be used.  It’s unfortunate, but a reality of the business, and as these photos are the product of their time and effort, they have every right to say No,  just as I’ve declined certain uses of my own work.  So I try to be hopeful but not too optimistic when I approach a photographer with whom I have no connection.

When I found the right humpback image, I was pleased.  All that was left was to get permission and the high resolution photo, and that’s how I found Scott Portelli.  Scott is a wildlife photographer out of Sydney,  Australia, and he specializes in taking photos of Humpback Whales.  Each year, for the past decade, he has taken small groups of people to Tonga to swim with these gentle giants.  From August to October, Humpbacks mate and give birth in these warm waters.  Scott is an active supporter of whale conservation and vocal opponent of the practice of whaling that sadly, still goes on today.

Having made ‘the ask,’  I set about to work on other things, as you never know how long the response will take.  Scott replied quickly, was very kind and we soon came to an agreement for the use of the photo.  Yesterday, I received the high-res image and I am very happy.  It’s a beautiful reference to work from, and I now have no doubt that I’ll be able to paint the image I’ve been imagining.  There are a few animals I’ve been waiting to paint until I had just the right reference, and this is one of them.  Thanks, Scott.

While I won’t post the image I’m using, please do look at Scott’s wonderful photos of these and other beautiful animals.  You can find his website and links to his Flickr account at

What I find especially thrilling is that this search led me not only to the photo, but to the means to fulfill my dream.  When I am ready to swim with Humpback Whales, I will know who to contact.  If you’d like to find out more about Scott’s excursions and tours to the beautiful waters around Tonga, you can find that information at

Somebody recently made a comment online that my specialty was obviously painting fur.  While it’s great to have that skill recognized, as it took me a long time to develop the techniques, I have no desire to be a one-trick-pony and only be able to paint furry animals, despite how much I enjoy it.  This whale will be a personal challenge as there’s not one hair to be painted in the whole image, but I think I’m up to it.  And I’m excited to get started.

3 thoughts on “Painting a Gentle Giant

  1. Your photorealistic style of animal paintings has often fascinated me, especially when you add a bit of personality to the subject. You’re a very talented artist!
    I also enjoy your sense of humor & look forward to your daily cartoon for my morning ‘light relief’.
    As I can’t draw a straight line, and have to fullfill my artistic bent with photography, I have the greatest admiration of an artist such as yourself.

    best wishes…..& go with your dream

    PS My son is a certified ‘Rescue Diver’ who has spent some time with whales among other sea creatures. His main memories seem to be of the ‘sounds’ that they make, especially with their young & at mating times.

    1. Thanks very much, Derek. But I feel the same way about photography. I don’t have the patience nor passion to develop the skill to become good at that art form, and have a lot of respect for those who do. Put 50 people in front of the same scene, you’ll get 50 photos and only one (maybe two) of them will be really good. That’s as much art as anything I do.

  2. Congrats on being one step closer to your dreams. And what a fantastic experience it will be.


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