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Back to Bears

I rarely visit the Calgary Zoo to drop off prints and stickers without making time to take pictures, and many of those photos eventually inspire paintings.

Skoki is a resident grizzly bear born in 1987 near Lake Louise.

Over several years, while he was young, Bear #16, as he was initially known, learned to associate people with an easy meal, an education he received from careless campers and tourists. When he tried to be a regular bear, eating grass and foraging for natural food, photo seekers harassed and pushed him to the point of bluff charges. Eventually, he lost his fear of people and hung around the Lake Louise townsite.

He had become a spoiled bear. Several relocation attempts failed, which is hardly a surprise for anyone who lives here. Relocation is often a last-ditch effort to avoid euthanizing a problem bear.

That closeup bear photo people are so desperate to take on the highway shoulder might go viral and deliver social media likes and shares, but it often ends badly for the bear. Nobody shares that photo on Facebook or Instagram.

It’s ironic that people object to animals in captivity, but we can’t seem to get it through our heads to respect them in the wild, allowing them space to live in their natural habitats.
Parks Canada officials would have euthanized Bear #16 in 1996, but the Calgary Zoo had an opening, and he has lived there ever since. In the wild, a male grizzly doesn’t live far past his 20s. Skoki is now 37 years old. He is an old bear and looks it, but despite obvious age-related deficiencies, he’s healthy.

Whenever I find Skoki active and playful, I take time for photos. Despite his relocation from the wild into captivity, he has been a wonderful ambassador bear, and his story helps to educate people about the wild world on our doorstep.

Skoki inspired my recent Spa Day piece, though I used several bears for the reference. One day, I found him sitting in one of his ponds, playfully eating what looked like a lettuce leaf. I noticed the ripples and reflections and wondered how I’d paint him. I didn’t get the reference I wanted that day, but the idea stayed with me.
One day in June last year, after dropping off prints, I found Skoki active again. I followed him around his large enclosure until he did something I’d never seen before. He walked the length of a log until he came to a larger log that crossed it. He straddled the one on which he’d been walking and put his paws up on the crossed log. He looked like he’d just bellied up to the bar and was waiting for service.

He sat there a long while, and I took so many photos of him looking this way and that, laying his head down on the log, sniffing the air, pawing left and right, that I came home with dozens of suitable reference photos. From this experience, I came up with the idea of painting several bears sitting beside each other at a log, as if they were indeed meeting up for an afternoon happy hour in the forest.
This painting has been rattling around in my noggin for quite a while, and I’ve drawn several sketches, including the ones in this post. All the reference I’m using for this work in progress is Skoki, but I’ll make the five bears different heights, weights and colour variations so they don’t all look like the same bear. Other photo references will help me do that, and I’m planning more sketches like these to explore my options.

I won’t make it an actual bar with drinks or food in front of them. I’ve no desire to paint a bear variation of Dogs Playing Poker. Even though my paintings aren’t true to life, and I paint whimsical expressions, I don’t want to start creating wildlife in human settings. There are exceptions, of course, where I’ve put a Santa hat on a bear, and I will paint some more Christmas-themed images like that strictly for commercial and licensing opportunities.
I started one of these Skoki sketches a little while ago and figured I’d try a full pose of how he sat that day. Before I knew it, I had drawn more detail and realized the image below was becoming its own painting.Because I don’t paint a lot of backgrounds in my work, I’ll often begin some paintings in grayscale so I can get the light, shadows and contrast right. Later, I can add colour using various techniques I’ve discovered in over twenty years of digital painting.

So, instead of one log bear painting in progress, I’ve got two. And all these sketches and bear paintings will contribute to the bear book.

If my skills match my vision for the  five bears piece, it will be one of the images I’ll include for my next round of puzzles later this year.

I’m working on more paintings right now than I ever have at one time, so next week, I’ll have another painting-in-progress to write about and some new  images to share.


6 thoughts on “Back to Bears

  1. These sketches made my day!!! Thanks for sharing your drawing experience with Skoki. Each different expression reminded me of a member of my family. So much fun.

    1. Thanks, Christina! While I have had people say one or two of my paintings have reminded them of family, this is by far the most at one time. I envy that you come from a family of bears. 🙂

  2. Skoki and I enjoyed your blog and liked your idea of several bears relaxing for a forest “happy hour”.

    I’ve moved some of the gang around and Skoki currently can look over my shoulder to read my emails. He is also very good at keyboarding, Whim tells me, despite the long claws.

    We’re all looking forward to a “five bears painting” or sketch. Eugie (Genial Bear) hopes he’ll be included.

    Have a lovely day.

    1. Thanks Barb and Gang! Glad you’re enjoying your own Skoki. 🙂

  3. Fabulous post, Patrick! Thank you for your excellent perspective on wild creatures being disrespected to their detriment! Hard to connect the dots sometimes in our all too disconnected urban lives, by times…

    It made me think about the horrors of glue traps for rodents. Our local wildlife rehab this week was tasked with trying to peel a song bird off one of these cruel objects without doing more harm, as, of course, these traps often catch other critters it was not intended for! Heartbreaking! A while further back, they had the insane challenge of rescuing a bat’s super fragile wing from one of those…UGH!!

    Fantastic cartoons, as always! Love your mind…and your art ?.

    1. Thank you, Anna! We are certainly shortsighted when it comes to our impact on the world around us, and dismiss the notion as quick as we can to distance ourselves from accountability for it. Our greatest skill seems to be how well we make excuses.

      Thanks about the toons! 🙂

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