Art for a living is a lot more than the general assumption that I’m just drawing and colouring all day. Like any business, there is a balance between creating or producing something and selling or marketing that something.
After Expo cleaned me out of stock, an excellent problem to have, I had to re-order prints and the packaging that goes with it. In addition, I needed to fill orders for my retail clients and have stock to sell at an upcoming market and on my online store.
Even though I work with excellent vendors who deliver outstanding service, we’re all familiar with the supply chain challenges that still create delays. But over the past couple of weeks, all orders have finally arrived. I’ve spent many hours signing and packaging each print and the past week delivering them. Now I’m preparing for this Saturday’s Mountain Made Market at the Canmore Civic Centre.
Last week, I drove to Innisfail to Discovery Wildlife Park for the first time this year to deliver the largest print order they’ve ever placed and their first order of my high-quality vinyl stickers.
I had recently updated their park map and flyer for them, and It’s already printed and available for guests. In addition to financial contributions, there are always other ways to help your favourite causes and organizations, especially if you have the marketable skills they need.
Of course, there’s no point driving those couple of hours without taking reference photos and spending time with the staff and animals. Timing and luck delivered a beautiful warm day.
At Expo this year, my friend Kayla, a zookeeper at the Calgary Zoo, said that she wanted to come up and see Discovery Wildlife Park and meet their head keeper, Serena. So I told her I’d be going up soon, and we timed it for her days off. I arranged it with Serena to make sure it was convenient, gave Kayla directions, and met there on Thursday morning.
Here’s Serena on Thursday, feeding last year’s fast growing rescue cubs, Bos and Piper.
The Calgary Zoo and Discovery Wildlife Park have a great relationship. Staff from one will often visit the other, participate in educational and training days, and learn from each other’s procedures and policies.
So, I was happy to introduce Serena and Kayla and connect them for what ended up being a partial professional development day. Of course, I was delighted to tag along and eavesdrop while snapping photos.
We got to meet their new wolf pups, though only the keepers who feed them are allowed to touch them. The vet has prohibited any other contact until the pups have their vaccinations next month. But I got plenty of photos, and there will most definitely be a painting coming this year.
On Monday, I was again on the road to deliver another print order to the Calgary Zoo. In the almost ten years they’ve been selling my prints, this was their largest order, a good sign for what we’re all hoping is an economic recovery year.
I had a good visit catching up with their retail manager, Kathryn, and spent some time meeting the new staff, talking about my work, and answering their questions. Since they’re the ones presenting my art to the public and I frequently talk to people who have seen and bought my work there, I’m happy to give the staff any help they need.
Of course, no trip to the zoo would be complete without wandering and taking photos and I was granted yet another beautiful day for it.
No matter how well I plan, some animals prove to be elusive when it comes to reference photos. From poor lighting, posing, vantage point, or timing, it can be frustrating when I can’t get the photos I want. I keep trying, however, as eventually fortune does smile, and it’s always unexpected.
After years of failure, I might have finally got the reference I needed to paint an African porcupine. They had just been given food for which they had to work a little, which is a form of enrichment. The lighting was good, I could get down to eye level, and the little critter kept looking right at me. I was shooting through glass, but if there isn’t much glare and I can cup my hand around the lens hood, that often works just fine. I must have taken 300 shots. I discarded most of them on the first pass, but there are painting reference potentials in those I kept.
From the two visits, I got good reference for wolf pups, a lion, a grizzly, and that African porcupine.
Once this Saturday’s market is behind me, I’ll have a lot more time to devote to painting, and I expect to share a new one with you, already half done, by the end of next week. I have plenty of recent reference stored up and am anxious to work from them.
Just in time for this Saturday’s market, my order from Pacific Music & Art arrived on my doorstep on Monday. I’m grateful to Mike for such a quick turnaround to restock me with magnets, coasters and aluminum art for this weekend’s market. But the best surprise in the box was my first order of the 2023 “Wild Animals” calendar! That’s one of my favourite paintings on the cover, Grizzly on Grass.
The shipment arrived while I was at the zoo, so I sent a text to our next-door neighbours asking them to grab it for me off the step for the third time in recent weeks. For a guy who is home most of the time, all my recent orders have arrived while I’ve been away. My neighbours got the first calendar as a Thank-You, but you can get yours at The Mountain Made Market this weekend at the Canmore Civic Centre.
Next week, I will have the calendars available in the online store; I need to work on the calculations to keep the shipping costs as low as possible. I will let you know when you can order them.
Today is World Press Freedom Day. As part of the observance of this reminder of the importance of journalistic freedom around the world, World Press Freedom Canada holds an International Editorial Cartoon Competition.
Taken from their site, “(the competition) receives hundreds of entries every year, often from countries where press freedom is not a reality but a distant dream.”
Even though I’ve been a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist for more than 20 years, drawing more than 325 cartoons a year, I don’t often enter competitions. Although my newspaper clients will often enter their editorial pages, or my local paper, The Rocky Mountain Outlook, will submit cartoons on my behalf. So, my cartoons have won, placed or have been an ingredient of several Canadian Community Newspapers Association awards over the years.
I don’t enter the annual National Newspaper Awards, as I am a freelance cartoonist, and consideration for those awards requires sponsorship from a daily newspaper. While several dailies run my cartoons each week, I’m not in any of their employ. So that technicality means I can’t submit for the NNAs.
But then the following call for entries arrived in February for the 22nd Annual World Press Freedom cartoon competition.
_____ Silence is Golden Cancel culture has become a source of our newest cultural cleavage.
Whether it be on social media or at live events, ‘cancelling’ someone has become a modern-day version of excommunication and is being used as a weapon by political partisans both left and right to discourage civil discourse and media freedom.
In opposing systemic racism, misogyny and xenophobia, progressives feel the need to resort to extreme tactics in an attempt to be heard.
Fearing that history is being re-written, traditionalists, for their part, use cancel culture to silence critics and whitewash history’s wrongs. _____
It reminded me of a cartoon I had drawn featuring a statue of Canada’s first Prime Minister. So, I formatted it according to the criteria and submitted it. With entries from all over the world, I surrendered any expectations and didn’t give it any further thought.
Then a couple of weeks ago, I was informed that I was a finalist. But I didn’t know if that meant I was in consideration for the top three or the additional ten that traditionally receive honourable mention. So once again, I set aside any high expectations.
I was pleasantly surprised today to find out that my cartoon received second place in the competition, between the winner, Marilena Nardi of Italy and Toso Borkovic of Serbia in third.
I enjoyed drawing this cartoon, though I learned long ago that what I think is clever and what other people like can be very different things. It’s a running gag between my wife and me that if I think a cartoon is particularly good, it won’t get printed anywhere. But if I send out one that meets the strict quality control metric of “good enough to meet my daily deadline,” that’s the one that gets printed and complimented the most.
I’m grateful to be counted in the top three and for the prize that comes with it, especially considering the many talented and skilled cartoonists worldwide whose work is no doubt worthy of the same recognition.
But I won’t let it go to my head. After all, the cartoon I sent this morning was about our wacky Canadian weather. So, what do I know?
I’ve had some great Calgary Expo experiences over the years, but this one is certainly at the top. I didn’t realize how much I missed people, especially these people. When I mentioned that to my buddy Darrel in a recent text, he replied, “you’re alone too much.”
No argument there. It’s not good for the psyche, as many of us have discovered these past two years.
From the first afternoon on Thursday to the last on Sunday, reconnecting with familiar faces, repeat customers and introducing my work to new people was terrific. I had forgotten how much fun it was, and I get a kick out of the reactions when some people see my work for the first time.
As I’ve written before, it is human nature to smile in response to a smile, so when people run into a couple of walls and tables full of smiling animals, those people smile, laugh, and say things like “ohmygawd, they’re so cuuuuuuuuute!”
I heard that a lot this weekend. It was like a drug.
The compliments are nice, and I say Thank You. Of course, the sales are important, that’s why I’m there. But making people smile, seeing them light up at the unusual nature of my work, I wish I could bottle that. It would come in handy on far too many days when I am working alone in my office, convinced the world has gone to hell in a handcart.
There have been a lot of those days recently for all of us.
I went into this event with realistic expectations. I wasn’t sure if people would buy much or what the mood would be, but it surprised me that it felt like a regular Expo. People were happy to be out and having a good time, and it was very busy, which I’ll admit was a little uncomfortable at times, considering what we’ve all been through.
I had a fantastic location, and because I was next to a pillar, with no booth beside me, I could stretch out a little, which made the layout even better. I had good neighbours, which always makes the show better, but I don’t remember ever having bad ones at this event. Best of all, not a political or contentious discussion or experience all weekend long, which was incredibly refreshing.
I’m bad with names, but I’m excellent with faces, likely a consequence of this visual profession. I recognized a lot of former customers two and three years later, which surprised many of them.
2019 had been my best year, but I exceeded that year’s sales on every day except for Sunday, and that one was close. But for the whole show, this is now my best year, and I’m thrilled.
Talking with people in person, seeing their reactions, and what they buy gives me a better idea of which paintings are popular. I brought a lot of the Smiling Tiger and Otter, but they sold out. That’s always welcome, of course, but not a surprise.
Of the newer paintings, I can now consider Winter Wolf, Sea Turtle and Grizzly on Grass to be bestsellers. Though I brought plenty with me, I also sold out of those at the show, and I’ll know to bring more next time. I still have some of each here at home, but I can only carry so many.
Here are a few stand-out highlights.
Need a Break?
A big THANK YOU to two couples who were incredibly generous. They’re some of my biggest collectors and supporters for several years now, both at this show and throughout the year, and I enjoy visiting with them. They each had four-day passes, so I saw them all weekend long.
While I thought that having my booth next to the bathrooms would be convenient, the map didn’t specify that both of those bathrooms were for women. The men’s bathrooms were both five aisles away in opposite directions. Who designed this place?!
So Will and Jaime volunteered to watch my booth a few times during the weekend, they brought me soft drinks from their hotel one day, and Will even tried to act like a carnival barker to boost sales, which was damn funny.
Sheldon and Tracy are the folks I spent the afternoon with at the zoo and wrote about in a recent post. They watched my booth a few times, chatted with me when it was slow, and stopped by often to check if I needed anything. At one point, Sheldon flipped through my bin of prints and said he felt like he was going through hockey cards. “got it, got it, got it, need it, got it, got it,…”
These customers have become friends, and I was grateful for their kind consideration and help.
I could recite a list of names of all of the people I’ve come to know at this event over the years, but I would likely forget and offend somebody. So, if some of you are reading this, hopefully I let you know in person how much I enjoyed seeing you again.
Have You Got an Elephant Yet?
Remember the guy who comes back every year and asks if I have an elephant painting? You can read about that in a previous post. I was worried he might not be there this year, but Aric was my first customer on Thursday! He asked the question, and I was able to answer, “Why yes! Yes, I do!” and showed him the elephant hanging behind me.
That was the perfect start to the event because not only did he love the painting, he bought the 12”X16” metal print for his wife’s birthday. He assured me I could talk about it here, and I wouldn’t likely ruin the surprise. I had brought two of those metal prints with me this weekend, just in case he bought one, so I’d still have another for the wall.
What a Wookiee!
Before I became a full-time artist in 2006, my last job was as an Admin Assistant for a physiotherapist here in Canmore. These days, Ascent Physical Therapy is bigger and in a new location, with multiple therapists and clinicians. At the time, however, it was a small clinic, just two of us working there with an occasional massage therapist using one of the rooms.
I often describe Shane as the ‘best last boss to have.’ He knew that I wanted to work for myself and was very supportive. When I realized I couldn’t take my business to the next level without leaving, I gave him plenty of notice, but he suggested I job share with somebody else so that I could go part-time to make it easier and train the new person at the same time. That worked great for several months, but eventually, I gave notice again, as did the other part-timer who found a full-time job elsewhere. Shane hired somebody to replace us, and she stayed with him for several years. It was about as smooth and painless a transition as we could have wanted.
Several years ago, Shane created this Chewbacca costume from scratch. It is truly a masterpiece and looks movie-quality. It has an electronic voice box for the growls, stilts for the height and is a highlight of the show for many people, especially kids. Every year, he comes to Expo with this outfit and has even added a C3PO backpiece from the Empire Strikes Back.
Now he’s part of the charitable fan organization, the 501st Legion, and Shane makes a circuit several times during the show with security escorts so that people can take pictures with him. He walked by my booth multiple times but obviously couldn’t stay long as he was mobbed for photos. However, Shane returned one morning without the costume to visit, and it’s always great to see him there.
There Once Was a Bear and a Rat.
Finally, I’d like to share a couple of gifts I received that I’m happy to display in my office.
At the 2019 show, Matthew Overbeck came by the booth and asked if we could collaborate on an art project. He wanted to create some 3D printed lamps and use a couple of my paintings for the lampshade panels. Matthew and his wife Maria have bought my prints before, so it wasn’t a cold call.
I thought it would be a fun project and agreed to let him use my work. He kept me up to date with progress shots and said he would give me a lamp when finished. I was looking forward to it, but the pandemic suddenly arrived, and everybody’s plans slid into the ditch.
I’ve thought about Matthew and this project a few times over the past two years, but I didn’t want to reach out to him about it. When we’re all struggling, the last thing I wanted to do was pressure him to complete his art project or imply that I was waiting for a lamp.
I was thrilled when he showed up at my booth on Thursday and revealed the finished piece. It looks even better than I expected and features two of my favourite paintings. This will be a fond keepsake and Expo memory, as will the second smaller bonus rat lamp he gave me.
While he said he’s not in a super creative mode right now, I know that the right inspiration can turn that around on a dime.
So, feel free to reach out to Matthew if this work is of interest to you. He’s a talented artist working in a unique medium, and I wish him nothing but success with these pieces. I’m pleased that my work could be a small part of it.
To wrap up this wrap-up, I’ve come away from Expo inspired to create more work, which is no small thing. As a result, I have rebooked a corner booth for next year. While I would love the same location, I know that’s not always feasible with changing floor plans, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
To all of you who came to see me and add my artwork to your homes, please accept my sincere thanks for supporting not only this painter of whimsical wildlife but local art in general. It means a lot to all who make our living creating stuff.
And finally, to all of you who signed up for A Wilder View at the Calgary Expo, I know I already sent you a welcome message a couple of days ago, but thanks again for being here. I will do my best to make it worth your while.
The reason I’m sharing info about my Calgary Expo preparation is two-fold. First, I find the behind-the-scenes of other people’s professions interesting, so maybe some of you will, too. But more importantly, when I first began doing this show, I had generous help from practiced vendors, so if my experience can help somebody else, I’m happy to share it.
In my last post about the Expo, I talked about the costs of a booth at this show. You can read it here.
While later than I’m used to, and after an initial mistake on their part, I have my booth assignment for this year’s event. I’m pleased with the location. Booth #603 is on a main thoroughfare at the front of the show, between two sets of main doors and next to the bathrooms, which means I can expect a lot of traffic.
In addition to this floor plan, there is a second building for Artist Alley which looks to have a couple hundred more vendor tables.
Last time, I had an open concept booth. I would greet people, welcome them into the booth, then step aside so they could flip through the print bins, look at the table displays and browse the pieces on the grid walls.
I’ve changed things up this year, primarily because of the pandemic. While many of us are excited to be out and about again, it’s been a rough two years. There might be no more mask mandates or vaccine requirements in Alberta, but I’m still seeing plenty of masks in the grocery stores and people keeping their distance. Each of us has our own comfort level.
Masks have always been common at this event, but only because many arrive in various levels of costume. It’s also one of the most accepting and tolerant events you’ll ever find, where people of all walks of life can be themselves. Because of this live-and-let-live atmosphere, I don’t anticipate anyone coming to this event intent on a political disagreement over face masks. I plan to wear one, but I won’t be making an issue of it.
At the Mountain Made Markets here in the fall, people seemed more comfortable at my booth with a table between us. I know that I was. So, I’ve redesigned my booth to allow me some personal space while still offering plenty of access for people to peruse the prints and other items.
I store my extra stock under two skirted tables and on a shelving unit in a hidden corner. That’s not a lot of real estate. Last year, I had to wait or politely ask somebody to move so that I could retrieve that stock and replenish the tables. It wasn’t easy when it was busy. This time, I can do it from behind the table without disturbing anyone looking through the prints.
I’ve often done partial setups of the booth in my garage to work out any display and layout issues. This year, I made a scale layout in Photoshop instead. It took a lot less time and allowed me to shuffle the pieces without having to physically move tables and grid wall. I know my equipment well and no longer need to set it up in advance.
Because I’ve painted over 100 of my whimsical wildlife pieces, and so many of the early ones are still popular, it’s tough to know which to keep in stock and which to retire.
Writers often get too attached to characters or scenes and fail to see how eliminating them will strengthen the overall story. More experienced writers know that you need to ‘kill your darlings.’
It’s the same with retiring paintings. I’ve spent many hours on each one, and I get attached to them. Eventually, I must accept that some paintings don’t resonate with my audience or those who do like a piece have already bought it. As I’m painting new ones all the time, I need to make room for them. I have only a few prints left of my first Grizzly painting. It has been a consistent seller for years and continues to do well in licensing. But I’m always painting more grizzlies. So it’s tough to admit that it’s time to retire the painting that started it all.
Remember that expense and inventory Excel spreadsheet I wrote about in the last post? That also tells me how much of each print, magnet, coaster, aluminum, calendar, canvas, and other items I’ve sold at previous Expos.
A detailed sales report from 2019 helped me order for 2022.
I’ve currently got prints in stock for 43 paintings. Just five of each adds up to over 200 prints if you think about it. It’s a rare year I don’t sell at least one of every print, but to bring 20 of each would not only be overkill, but I don’t have the room in the car or the booth. Some years, I’ll sell in the double digits of a few proven pieces. But what’s popular one year might be crickets the next. For several years, my Otter has been a consistent bestseller, thriving on every retail item on which it appears. Yet, at Expo 2019, I sold only two prints of that one. But I sold nine Ostrich. Go figure.
A challenge for this year is that I’ve painted more than two dozen new pieces since the last Expo. So I had to decide what to bring based on subscriber feedback, online sales, orders from retailers and best guess.
In addition to print inventory, I had to decide which coasters, magnets and 8X10 aluminum pieces to order from Pacific Music & Art. I based that on the last Expo and the Mountain Made Markets I did here in Canmore before Christmas.
Canvas prints have a heftier price tag, so while they sell at Expo, I don’t move a lot of them. But they look great displayed on the grid wall, and it’s these well-lit pieces that bring people into the booth.
Since I’ve already got a bunch of canvas, I chose to top up those display walls with metal prints, as they’re impressive, and I’ve had positive feedback on them. So, I’ll have an equal number of those, including three large 18″ X24″ pieces.
The nice thing about all this stock is that it doesn’t expire or go bad, and I have other regular customers for this inventory. The prints are sold to the Calgary and Toronto Zoos, Discovery Wildlife Park and in my online store. The stickers are now sold in retail stores, and I’m actively looking for more of those clients. I’ll also have another booth at the May 21st Mountain Made Market at the Canmore Civic Centre.
Ordering this stuff is still a significant financial commitment and a calculated risk. But, unfortunately, it’s the nature of self-employment, and life in general for that matter. All you can do is base decisions on available evidence, weigh the odds, take a leap, and hope for the best in our current uncertain economic climate.
My next post will be the wrap-up after the event when I let you know if the show measured up to expectations or hopefully exceeded them.
The Calgary Expo is a monster event, beginning on a Thursday afternoon and ending Sunday evening. Pre-pandemic, close to 100,000 people came and went through the doors for four days. It was once the 6th biggest Comic-Con in North America, still growing before the world swerved drunkenly into traffic.
Attendees include comic, toy, art, and pop culture collectors. Movie and television fans pay additional fees to line up for signatures, photo ops, panel discussions and talks from invited celebrities. Calgary attracts some very big names, which draws in more people.
One year, the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation attended, resulting in absolute chaos. The Fire Marshal eventually shut it down with so many people inside that you couldn’t move. Thankfully I wasn’t a vendor that year. Organizers rewrote their rule book the following year.
In 2014, the cast of Aliens was a big draw, resulting in one of my favourite memories, when the late Bill Paxton ended the show by intentionally overacting his most famous movie lines on the intercom. Exhausted vendors suddenly woke up from packing our booths, cheering and applauding the gesture.
Cosplayers spend countless hours creating incredible outfits, from elaborate body paint to 3D printed helmets and armour of pop culture, movie, TV, animation and comic book characters. For example, my former employer spent weeks creating the most realistic Chewbacca costume you’ll ever see, complete with stilt extensions and an electronic voice box. He was a big hit at the show.
Truly an all-ages, family-friendly event, it has consistently been one of the most positive experiences I’ve had each year. The people-watching alone is worth attending, and the whole event has a circus feel.
In fact, they even have a signature parade in downtown Calgary called POW! Parade of Wonders on the Friday (although Expo is open Thursday evening) to kick it off. I’ve never seen it live because I’m always prepping my booth for the day. But it sure looks like people are having fun. This was from 2019.
Retailers include comic book stores, T-shirt vendors, book publishers, and every kind of nerdy pop culture collectible under the sun. Then there is the art. There’s so much quality art that it would take more time than I’ve got to catalogue it all.
Artist Alley is a section unto itself, with more affordable booths for creatives to sell their prints and other items. Many are hobbyists building an audience, though some have built a large fan base and do quite well.
The large halls of the main building are divided into 10 x 10 booths, with some larger companies occupying several. Naturally, these Retailer booths cost more, but increased space and traffic translates to more sales.
Having worked my way up from my first booth, more of a table really, in the now-retired Small Press section, I’ve been in the Retailer section for several years. In my last year in 2019, I had a corner booth on a main thoroughfare, a prime location that I had earned through seniority. I have no idea where I’ll be this year as the floor plan is likely to change and they haven’t released any information yet.
No matter how many times I prepare for this event, it’s a logistical gauntlet. For best pricing, booths are usually booked a year in advance on the last day of the previous Expo. I booked my 2020 booth in April of 2019, so they’ve had my money for three years. Even though they responsibly offered refunds several times during the pandemic, I wanted to keep my booking and priority.
The booth space shown here was bigger than I was used to as the vendor next to me no-showed. So I was able to spread out a little bit, as did the guy on the other side. It’s usually more compact.
Neighbouring vendors form temporary communities at these shows. We watch each other’s booths for bathroom breaks, might do a coffee run if one of us is going, and we talk during set-up and slow periods. I hear a common question: “How did you do today?”
A frequently heard answer, especially from people who don’t do this for a living, is, “I’ve covered my booth costs.”
If that’s your only goal, and you’re doing this for fun or a side hustle, that’s important. The booth fee is usually the most significant expense, but it’s certainly not the only one.
My corner booth costs $1228.50. Despite overall bright lighting in this venue, having my lights on my artwork and banners makes it pop and attracts more attention. So, I rent power for my booth, another $134. Parking for the five days (including Wednesday set-up day) is $65, and my car stays in that lot from Thursday to Sunday.
If I were doing regular shows, I’d get a blanket policy through my insurance provider to cover all of them. All it takes is one person to bump the wrong thing and fall in your booth, or if something from your display falls into an aisle and somebody trips over it, the vendor could be liable. Of course, nobody thinks it will happen to them, but it’s not worth the risk in our litigious society. So, I get vendor insurance for this show through the venue, which costs $64.
Canmore is only an hour away from downtown Calgary when there’s no traffic, but getting in and out of the grounds with everybody else adds a lot of time. I wouldn’t get home until 10 PM at the earliest Friday night and would have to leave by 7 AM the following day to make it back. Add in the potential for a spring snowstorm, which has happened more than once on this weekend, and commuting would be a gamble.
So from Thursday to Sunday, I stay in a hotel. It’s six or seven blocks away from the venue, and I walk back and forth each day. That’s $470 all in, with the Expo rate.
I don’t have a big appetite these days, and I stay away from the high-fat food trucks. Instead, I eat breakfast at the hotel, pick up a healthy lunch at Sunterra market on the way to the grounds each morning, bring trail mix snacks, fruit and cheese from home, and then grab a late takeout light dinner on the walk home to eat in my room. I used to attend the odd networking event at this show, organized by Calgary artist collectives. They were fun, but I prefer winding down in a quiet hotel room. These are long, loud days with many people, and that always takes it out of me.
My food expense for the weekend is usually around $100.
In the late 90s, I worked at a hotel in Banff. For a couple of those years, I was an accounting clerk. Later, I worked as an office admin for a physiotherapist here in Canmore. Through these jobs, I became proficient with Microsoft Excel.
Shonna is an Excel wizard and loves putting data into a spreadsheet. It might sound boring, but it’s a great skill. We each keep our own finances, but there are no mysteries in our household budget for the joint expenses. She’ll spend hours tweaking those numbers to make sure everything gets paid, money is set aside for savings, and ensure that we still get to live a life.
So for Expo a few years ago, we sat down and built a spreadsheet to find out exactly how much it cost to do the show.
My booth might cost $1228.50, but before I sell anything, the initial costs add up to almost twice that, and I haven’t even mentioned creating a booth and filling it with stock.
The most considerable expense of building a booth is in the first year. I didn’t make any money the first two years I did this show, and the second year I barely broke even. I’ll buy one or two new display items to improve things each year, but if you take care of your equipment, almost all of it is reusable.
Here is a list of some of the display materials and equipment. Grid walls, corner braces, wall coverings, hangers, lights, lightbulbs, power bars, banner stands, banners, two folding tables, tablecloths, table riser, magnet boards, coaster/sticker display risers, print display bins, print storage bins, storage rack, canvas/metal cases, floor mats, office supplies, toolbox/tools, cargo dolly, business card holders, display easels, and a bunch of other minor stuff.
In the beginning, this whole show was cash transactions. The rule was to bring lots of small bills for your float. Very few sales are cash these days, and everybody wants to use TAP. My handheld terminal costs $20/month to rent, but it’s well worth it. But like any other retailer in the world, the banks and credit card companies take a small percentage of every transaction.
That’s to build a temporary store for those four days. Then, after that, I need to have items to sell.
Before I sell a print, I pay a printer to produce it, order a backer board to protect and make it presentable, order art bio labels for the backer board, and a cellophane sleeve. Every print comes with an initial cost. It’s the same for the large metal prints, canvas and stickers. For the coasters, magnets, calendars, small aluminum prints and anything else I get from Pacific Music & Art, I buy those from Mike. I get them at less than wholesale because he doesn’t have to pay me a royalty on products I buy for myself.
Every item breaks down on that Excel spreadsheet. From what it cost to buy it to what I sold it for, and in the final column is the profit from that one item. I track everything I sell during the show, writing each transaction in a notebook. Then, I enter it into a spreadsheet on my iPad in my hotel room at the end of each day. Finally, I enter each day into the more extensive spreadsheet at the show’s end.
From the total profit of each item sold, I deduct the hotel, parking, electrical, insurance, and food costs. Only then do I know if I made any money.
That explains the hard costs, but what about my time?
Coming up with an hourly wage for self-employment is almost like mixing math and philosophy. Building my art skills took decades; painting each piece took many hours, and the whole collection of whimsical wildlife paintings has taken 13 years so far. There wouldn’t be any prints, coasters, magnets, calendars, and other items to sell without all of that. So, how could I come up with a value for that time?
I recently spent an hour redesigning my booth in Photoshop, creating scale pieces of the different items and moving them around for greater efficiency. Does that count against time spent?
What about the intangible benefits from the show that can’t be quantified?
Each year, I meet new people and introduce them to my work. If they don’t buy something the first year, they might buy something next time. I’ll get new subscribers to A Wilder View, so maybe they will buy something later or share my work with their friends. I reconnect with people who already like my work and come back to see me year after year.
How do I enter those benefits on an Excel spreadsheet? The simple answer is I can’t, but they’re still valuable.
But for the costs that can be recorded, it’s essential to know what you’re getting out of it and to be honest with yourself if it’s worth doing.
This show has been financially well worth my time and effort for years. But, I’ll admit that significant changes to the show before 2019 had me rethinking whether I would do it again. When the ‘little Expo that could’ sold to the multi-national Fan Expo, now a subsidiary of Informa, it lost the local community feel and it has become a colder corporate event. As a vendor, I used to feel like a valuable participant, friendly with the organizers and happy to see them each year during setup. Now, I just feel like a number on a sheet, easily replaced.
But that turned out to be my most profitable year, and I was pleased with the return on my investment. While I’ve lost any connection with the organization, I still had a great time with my customers and fellow vendors. So, I booked again, unaware that the next two years would change everything for everybody.
I have no idea what to expect this year. As I post this, there’s still no floor plan published, I don’t know my booth number or move-in details. Eight days out, that’s concerning as far as confidence in the overall organization. It could be a great show, with record attendance and people buying a lot of my art. Or it could be quiet, folks reluctant to gather in groups, still financially shell-shocked from the last two years, and just browsing. It will likely be somewhere in between, but that’s still a big range.
I won’t know until Monday, April 25th when I run the numbers.
Though tired, I’d gone to bed with a lot on my mind and couldn’t sleep, an ongoing problem over the past two years for obvious reasons. My worrying usually revolves around black-and-white, all-or-nothing, perfectionist ruminating, catastrophizing, and other cognitive biases that frequently plague overthinkers like myself.
Logically I know that every setback is just a setback, but my subconscious mind turns it into the end of all things, despite any evidence to the contrary.
I’m not going down this road again, simply explaining that a familiar dark cloud was hanging over my head when I got up at my usual 5AM.
I spent the next few hours drawing and sending an editorial cartoon before prepping my camera gear for a trip to the Calgary Zoo. I didn’t much feel like taking photos, but with a welcome print order to deliver, I’d be there already.
Although zoo attendance continues to pick up since the removal of restrictions, I happened to choose a quiet day.
From a business perspective, I want the zoo to be busy. But I’ll admit that I prefer it quiet when I’m taking pictures. I don’t have the patience for screaming children running around my feet and bumping into me while trying to hold the camera steady.
Sorry, I’m not a fan of kids. Bring on the cancel culture.
When I arrived at the Gift Shop, I asked if Kathryn, the Retail Manager was in, fully expecting them to say she wasn’t. Unfortunately, my visits earlier in the week often conflict with her days off, so most of our communication is via email. I think the last time I saw her in person might have been in 2019.
It’s a shame because Kathryn has been buying and selling my work for the past ten years. I enjoy seeing her, she always has good advice to share, and I learn a lot from her marketing experience.
So, it was a pleasant surprise to catch up in person, and we had a productive meeting. We talked about the year ahead, which paintings I’m going to retire and which ones I might consider painting soon. The first batch of stickers I had delivered a couple of months ago have almost sold out, so upon returning home, I packed up another order and dropped them in the mail yesterday.
Kathryn mentioned that Mike from Pacific Music & Art would be there the following day, so I texted him, kidding him that he was avoiding me. He said he’d be in Canmore later in the week, and he took me to lunch Thursday.
Pacific is my favourite license because I’m regularly involved in setting up my work for the various retail items, and I’m kept in the loop on upcoming plans, which is uncommon with licensing agreements. Mike’s also fun to work with, even though he regularly takes jabs at my being the stereotypical temperamental artist.
In the words of Tony Stark at the end of Iron Man 2…“Agreed.”
I left my meeting with Kathryn in better spirits. I had another large sticker order, some positive feedback and information to consider, and an upcoming meeting with Mike to look forward to.
And the zoo was still quiet.
I spent a couple of hours taking photos, but nothing was grabbing me. I’m writing this after I’ve gone through all the shots, and while I got a few I might paint from, most were unremarkable. Some days you feast, others you go hungry. But there are worse ways to spend a cool spring day than walking around with a camera.
Eventually reaching the end of the zoo, I started back the way I came and soon recognized a familiar face, my zookeeper friend, Kayla. We had a good catchup a couple of months ago at the zoo when I delivered a canvas she ordered. I didn’t want to interrupt her work again, so I hadn’t told her I was coming. I figured if I ran into her, great. If not, I’d see her at The Calgary Expo in a couple of weeks.
Kayla and I met years ago after I painted my Smiling Tiger. She had walked by my Expo booth and asked me if the painting was based on a real animal. I told her it was and that I had taken the reference at the zoo. She said the tiger’s name was Katya, that she looked after her all the time and recognized her in the painting.
Considering my style is whimsical, and I take significant liberties in exaggerating the expressions, it was an incredible compliment that she could recognize the tiger she knew in my painting.
Since then, I’ve seen Kayla at Expo and on multiple visits to the zoo. Along with the Smiling Tiger, she has bought other pieces, and I’ve learned a lot about the different animals she cares for. As Serena at Discovery Wildlife Park and Colin at the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre can undoubtedly attest, if you spend your life looking after animals, I’m going to annoy you with questions.
Now, running into Kathryn and Kayla at the zoo is not much of a coincidence. They both work there. And Kathryn telling me that Mike was coming in this week is also not too unexpected since he has family in Calgary and is out in Canmore three or four times a year to see clients. So we usually meet up if our schedules allow.
But the most bizarre turn of events happened after I let Kayla go back to work. I walked twenty feet to the red panda exhibit and started taking pictures.
Then I heard my name.
Although they follow A Wilder View, and we exchange emails occasionally, I only ever see Sheldon and Tracy at the Calgary Expo, so it took a couple of seconds for it to click.
They’re two of my favourite people to show up at my booth, not just because they’ve been great supporters of my work for several years. Here’s their collection.
I was already looking forward to seeing them in a couple of weeks, but to run into them at the zoo, on a quiet random weekday in a city of 1.3 million people, was truly strange. I don’t know how long we stood there catching up, but it was getting a little chilly, so we walked around the zoo together. I realized that what had started as a bad day had suddenly become a very good one.
It was a real treat to spend the better part of the afternoon wandering the zoo with them. I always want to, but it’s hard to visit with people at Expo while looking after others who want to talk about and buy my work. So to have that time to walk and talk with no other obligation or timeline was a privilege, and I was delighted to send them a Thank-You email when I got home. It really made my day.
One of the best parts of making art for a living, art that makes people happy, is that I’ve been able to build relationships over the years. And while I’m grateful that Tracy and Sheldon, and so many others have liked my work enough to buy it, it’s a lot more than that.
I don’t get that connection with people with the other half of my business. In fact, editorial cartooning is more likely to foster and reinforce division in our culture. But that’s a post for another time.
To all of you who’ve found some joy in my funny-looking animals, whether you’ve bought any or not, it is sincerely my pleasure, and I don’t take your support for granted.
Shonna and my close friends would likely agree that I’ve become a cynical grumpy old man before my time because I take a lot of the stuff going on in the world far too personally. It bothers me a great deal how people talk to each other, leading with outrage at the expense of empathy.
I’m a heart on my sleeve guy, so letting things go is not one of my strengths.
But if there is an antidote to this poison, personally and professionally, I find it in these paintings and how they make some people happier, if only for a short time. Meeting some of these people and hanging out with them once in a while has been an unexpected bonus.
Here’s the fourth burrowing owl in the series, which will be part of a larger piece featuring multiple owls in different poses. I don’t know how many owls yet, and I only have a rough vision of it.
Though I’ve only been to the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale a couple of times, spending two days on each visit, I’ve also seen them on several occasions here in Canmore.
Before the pandemic, The Town of Canmore used to host a WILD event at the Civic Centre. It featured everything from hikes, art activities, educational talks about the environment, etc. Colin Weir and his daughter Amy would bring their ambassador birds to the event, featuring four different owl species and a golden eagle named Sarah.
It allowed the public to get up close and personal with these owls, learn about the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation’s great work and raise funds for the non-profit organization.
I’ve taken thousands of photos of these birds over the years, and even though I’ve only kept the best of these shots, I still have hundreds in my well-organized archive. Every time I go through these photos looking for my next painting, I often think it a waste to have so much reference that I’ve yet to use.
While most of my whimsical wildlife paintings are single animals in a portrait-type pose, I enjoy the challenge of putting multiple animals in a composition and creating a scene.
There’s the Two Wolves painting where it looks like they’re sharing an inside joke. Another is the three cougar cubs laughing together in Snow Day. One of my favourites and still a very popular painting is One in Every Family, a scene I painted in 2014 featuring four great horned owls. Part of the reason I love that painting is the story behind it. That painting won the Best of Show award at Photoshop World that year, but the prize for that win was my Canon 5D Mark III camera that has become like an old friend. I baby that thing because it has helped me take the reference that allowed me to paint my best work in the years since.
That owl piece began as a practice experiment. I took several photos of the family up at Grassi Lakes over multiple days, and the experience was more about seeing these wonderful birds in the wild than creating a painting.
I did some individual sketch paintings from better shots than I expected to get. Eventually, I put those rough paintings together and invested the time to render the finished piece above.
Having painted more than 100 production pieces since 2009, I’ll often go through my photo archive and have difficulty deciding what to paint next. Lion? I’ve painted a few of those. Wolf? Several of those. Eagle? Raven? Black Bear? Many of each.
I could quite happily paint Berkley the brown bear repeatedly for a year, and I have more than enough references. But a variety of popular animals is more desirable, to find something new that will be appealing to me and be of interest to my customers and licensing clients.
There’s the difference between art for a hobby and art for a living.
So, when I repeatedly came across dozens of burrowing owl photos, many of which are the same owl, this little fella named Basil, I wondered what I could do with them. And that’s how I ended up creating a folder called Next Level Projects. About a year ago, I spent a whole weekend going through my photos looking for animals for which I had plenty of reference; that would also look good in a painting featuring a group of them.
The first is going to feature these burrowing owls. I’ll paint several of them individually, like the one at the top of this post. Then, when I have enough, I’ll move them around on a larger digital canvas, come up with a scene, and spend time painting over them, ensuring the light matches up and they look like they belong together.
From a business perspective, each one of the owls will lend itself to an individual painting on different items. For example, Pacific Music & Art could have a set of six burrowing owl coasters, all of which are also part of the same painting in a print. It would work for stickers and magnets as well. But the larger painting, featuring all of them, would work well on a coffee mug, as it’s a longer horizontal layout.
Because I’ve been painting these animals for thirteen years, many in the same popular format of the headshot composition, the routine has started to creep in, and it’s a little concerning. I’m not tired of this work; I still enjoy it immensely. But as the recent commission piece taught me, and the latest elephant painting, it needs to continue to be challenging, or I’ll get bored of my work.
Paintings featuring multiple animals feels like the next step, and I’m focusing on creating more of those this year.
I’ve long wanted to do a painting featuring several meerkats. There’s one I keep coming back to with multiple ring-tailed lemurs, too. I’ve already got titles for both and a lot of reference. And I have so many baby pictures of Berkley and the new cubs at Discovery Wildlife Park that I’ve long wanted to put multiple brown bear cubs in one painting.
I’ll still paint the single animal pieces because I have several in mind as well, but these multiple-animal pieces will present an ongoing challenge to keep me excited about painting.
So instead of sharing as many finished paintings with you this year, I’ll likely be sharing pieces of finished paintings and the stories behind these next-level projects.
In the meantime, I’m always open to suggestions. So, if there’s an animal you’d like to see me paint, let me know in the comments. There is always the chance you’ll come up with something I haven’t considered. Or if you’d just like to tell me which one of my many paintings is your personal favourite(s), that helps me decide on future paintings, too.
Last month, I finished what could easily be called my favourite commission piece to date. For those who’ve hired me for commissions in the past, don’t take that personally. I’ve enjoyed almost all the pet portraits I’ve painted. But this last one represented some notable artistic growth, which has become a rare thing.
When I first started drawing and painting, it was easy to take large leaps. Looking back on my earlier work, I can see considerable improvement over time as short as six months. Because I wasn’t very good at it, was hungry for new skills, and had no shortage of exceptional artists to learn from, I couldn’t help but get better if I kept putting in the hours.
Over time, however, my skills became more and more refined, as any creative should expect, and my work, especially in my style, reached a plateau. I had found the look that identifies my art, something most artists chase. People who know my work can easily spot it, even if they don’t see my name, just as I can spot the work of artists I follow.
I’m still always seeking to get better, but any improvement is often most noticeable to me. I get better at light and shadow, the way fur and hair flows, subtle shaping of features to reinforce the balance between whimsy and realism without straying too far into that phenomenon known as the uncanny valley.
People often say that my work looks “cartoony, but real.”
I’ve heard it said so often that I’ll occasionally use it myself when somebody tries to describe it but can’t find the right words.
I’m always trying to push the realism, mostly to challenge myself, without going so far that it becomes creepy and unappealing.
So, it isn’t just about painting better hair, fur, skin textures and personality in my funny-looking animals, but knowing when to stop. I suspect I’ll find that out the hard way one day and need to dial it back. I’m confident that Shonna will let me know.
This recent commission taught me I (thankfully) still have plenty of room for improvement. As I wrote about in that post, the client requested a full-body action pose because that’s how she wanted to remember her dog, Santé.
She didn’t insist on it, but it was her preference. And the last thing I want is for a client to be mostly happy with a finished painting but still think, “it’s good, but not what I really wanted.”
It was something I wanted to try but was afraid of because I didn’t think I was good enough to pull it off.
In every painting, there are peaks and valleys. The spark of the idea, taking and choosing reference photos, and imagining different options are always high points. But once the first brush strokes hit the digital canvas, so begins a slow decline. I find that the first half of a painting is simply putting in the hours, and there isn’t a lot of enjoyment there.
But somewhere in the middle, the fun starts when it starts to reveal what it might become. Sometimes it peaks again and then crashes when something doesn’t work, which can take hours to repair. The more time it takes to get through that valley, the more I think the whole piece sucks, I’ve lost it, and there’s no saving it.
But a brush stroke here, some light and shadow there, I solve the issue and again find the joy in it.
The best part of any painting is the last two hours. I have a playlist on Spotify reserved just for this period in a painting. It’s called ‘Pick Me Up,’ With that playing in the earbuds, drinking hot black coffee, often in the early morning hours, I’ll finish the piece and feel good about it.
That euphoria lasts a few hours, but I’m heading back down to the next valley by that evening, wondering what to paint next. Or I’ve shifted back into editorial cartoon mode and following the news, which can be like dark clouds ruining a sunny day.
Of course, there are other peaks for most paintings. The feedback I get from readers and subscribers is gratifying; those who follow my work and are kind enough to post a comment or send an email telling me how much they like the new piece. And if a new painting isn’t one they especially like, they’re usually kind enough to keep that to themselves.
I’m under no illusion that every painting is a winner.
Another peak is the first time I get a print because it never feels real or complete until I see it in real life. Most of the time, it’s when the first poster print proof arrives from Art Ink Print. Proofing with that company has become just a formality. I know how to prepare an image for their press, and they know what my work is supposed to look like, so I can’t remember the last time I had to reproof an image because the first one didn’t look right, but it’s been several years.
When the 18”x24” matte aluminum print of the latest commission arrived, it was a very good day. I checked it for flaws and couldn’t find any. However, I discovered that while the white background was smooth, the painted area was slightly raised with a noticeable texture. This was an unexpected but welcome happy accident that added even more to the print.
And there is the valley of apprehension of packaging and shipping the piece, waiting for it to arrive, or driving to deliver the work to the client. Finally, after more than two months of back and forth, sourcing the photos, discussing the approach, many hours of painting, sending periodic progress updates, her financial investment in the piece, it all comes down to the delivery and reveal.
Suzanne had already seen the image via email, but as I said, it’s not quite real until you see it in print.
Thankfully, she was pleased with it. We had earlier discussed some of her other artwork, and she generously showed me other pieces in her collection, including the first piece she bought of mine online from Wayfair. While I’ve had this license for some time, I’ve never actually seen one of the canvases in person, and I was pleased with the quality.
It’s always flattering to see my work in somebody’s home, especially a canvas of one of my personal favourites, my Berkley painting called “Peanuts.”
Even before I got home to Canmore, Suzanne had hung the print and sent me photos she generously allowed me to share.
As much as I love meeting clients in person, especially one who was such a pleasure to work with, and while delivering the painting is the pinnacle of all those peaks and valleys, there was an unexpected bonus to the day that can’t be minimized.
I got to meet Suzanne’s new little wonder, River, a black lab puppy, who is in that lovable, awkward, too small for her big paws stage.
From the dark valley of having to say goodbye to her best friend, Suzanne now gets the peak experience of providing a home to a new dog and introducing her to adventures around every corner.
After more than two years of procrastinating, I finally finished this painting of an African elephant.
At the beginning of 2020, our friend Serena, her husband, and their son went on a long-awaited safari to Africa. Little did they know that it would be only a couple of months later that recreational travel would be all but cancelled for more than a year.
Serena takes almost no time off. As the head zookeeper at Discovery Wildlife Park, often raising and caring for orphaned baby bears, cougars, lions, and other rescues, her work requires many long days, seven days each week. So, this safari trip was many years in the planning for her family.
Before she left, she asked me if I wanted any reference pictures. Even though Serena is an excellent photographer, I said there was no way I would impose on her family trip with a laundry list of animal photos.
There are very few elephants in captivity anymore in the western world. Because of their intelligence, family dynamic, social structure, and other requirements zoos can’t meet, elephants don’t do well in isolation, so most reputable zoos don’t keep them anymore, a policy I fully support. Instead, many former zoo elephants have been surrendered to sanctuaries to live out their lives in a herd and in peace.
As it’s unlikely I’ll be going on safari anytime soon, there’s very little chance I’ll be able to take my own elephant reference photos soon.
Since Serena pressed me on it, I confessed that I really needed that specific reference. I told her I’d take whatever she gave me, but she asked for my ideal photo, just in case she had the opportunity.
In a perfect world, I wanted a ¾ view; trunk held up to reveal an open mouth, all so that I had the best chance of painting a happy smiling face. Serena sent me dozens of photos when she returned, including exactly what I asked for. I was grateful, filed the photos, backed them up online and on portable hard drives, and spent two years painting other animals.
This happens a lot. On rare occasions, I’ll paint from reference right away, but most of the time, that animal gets added to the list, and I wait until the time feels right. I’ll admit that sometimes, however, it’s more about imposter syndrome.
I knew that the details in the skin texture would be complicated, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to paint what I saw in my head. This is familiar ground. Regardless of how many years I’ve been doing this, the thousands of editorial cartoons I’ve drawn and more than a hundred whimsical wildlife and commission pieces, I still get nervous before every painting. It just never goes away.
Eventually, I push through it, and about halfway through a piece, I realize I’m enjoying myself.
There are two reasons I finally got off my ass to paint this elephant. First, Mike from Pacific Music & Art is putting together my 2023 calendar, and in the most supportive and encouraging way, he pushed me to get the elephant done. While I’m paraphrasing, he said something like, “stop talking about it, and just paint it, already.”
Secondly, the full-size four-day Calgary Expo will return at the end of next month. I’ve had my booth booked and purchased for three years. While I’ve painted many new pieces since the last Expo, I want that elephant in my booth.
Every year, the same guy asks if I’ve painted the elephant, and I sheepishly tell him, “Not yet, but maybe next year.”
I don’t know if he’ll be at Expo this year. I don’t know if he’ll even like the elephant I’ve painted. But if he asks if I’ve got one, I can finally say, “Yes!”
While it took many hours to get the skin texture and anatomy right, it turns out that it wasn’t especially difficult. I just had to put my ass in the chair, paint a lot of brushstrokes, and enjoy the ride. When I completed it, I was happy with the result.
Right up until I sent it to Serena.
I’ve painted several of the Discovery Wildlife Park critters over the years, so I often give Serena an early look at those, a sneak peek for allowing me so much access to the animals in her care. Since she provided the reference, I extended the same courtesy for this one.
When I sent the finished painting in a text yesterday morning, she said, “I love that you did the injured one.”
Say what now?!
I called her for clarification.
As the reference she took was at an African reserve and sanctuary, Serena pointed out that this particular elephant, the one I used for my primary reference, had the end of his trunk amputated from an injury and that it was shorter than regular length.
She thought she had told me that, and I conceded that she very well might have, but it was two years ago, and it didn’t make it into my long-term memory files. So, I honestly thought it was simply the reference angle that didn’t show the tip of the trunk, and I was okay with it. I didn’t know that the elephant itself had that part of the trunk removed. And for some reason, I just didn’t see it.
So, as much as she liked the injured elephant because she looks after orphans and rescues, I explained that I had to paint a fully intact animal for a production piece, even in my whimsical style. So, I looked through the other elephant pictures she sent, found some ‘end of trunk’ reference, and got to work repairing the mistake.
I sent a couple of changes to Serena, and she helped me get it right. She felt bad for having to tell me about it after I’d finished the painting, but I told her better than after I had bought dozens of prints, and coasters, trivets, magnets, and other licensed merchandise had gone into production.
Correcting the mistake added more than an hour of extra painting to the piece, but I’m much happier with the finished result.
Late last year, one of my subscribers inquired about a commission of her dog, Santé. Sadly, Suzanne lost her much-loved pup to osteosarcoma at the end of November, and she wanted a painting to remember her.
The initial back and forth conversation is an essential part of every commission. It allows me to get to know both the person and the subject, and it helps me decide if I’m the right artist for the job, especially for a memorial piece.
While I can paint both in portrait style and my signature whimsical style, I’ll admit to preferring the latter, but most people who hire me for memorials choose the portrait style.
Suzanne, however, wanted to remember Santé at her best, and as she’s followed my work for some time, she requested the whimsical style.
Initially, Suzanne sent me a photo of Santé running through the water with a stick in her mouth and asked if I could paint her like that. I was reluctant for a couple of reasons.
My style is about the face and expression, best revealed by a large headshot painting, like much of my work.
Also, I haven’t painted many full-body action poses, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. Fear of failure is a powerful demotivator.
As part of her grieving process, Suzanne wrote a long essay about her life with her dog and shared that with me so I could get to know her as well. So I made a cup of tea one afternoon and sat down in the kitchen to read it.
I don’t mind admitting that it got me right in the heartstrings, and I had to wipe away tears. But, sad ending aside, it was a good story, and Suzanne is an excellent writer.
She is an outdoor enthusiast, frequently mountain biking and hiking, with Santé by her side. After reading about Santé’s adventurous nature, her boundless energy and obsessive love of sticks, I couldn’t imagine painting her any other way. That dog lived her best life.
Suzanne provided plenty of photos, but the first was the best, Santé running in the water with a stick in her mouth.
But I don’t just want to copy an image, especially in the whimsical style. I want to make it my own. So, I exaggerated her expression and gave her a big grin. You can’t see Santé’s teeth in the reference photo, so I found additional reference for that, as it helped a lot with the smile around that stick. I also exaggerated the size of the stick and changed its shape for a better overall composition.
The water spray from her feet was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in any painting I’ve done to date. It took many hours to get it right, not to mention all the tiny droplets to add action to the scene.
Instead of filling the entire background, I created a graphic shape of the water and painted Santé so that she was running out of it, adding to the illusion of action.
This painting took a long time, but it was well worth the effort. Not only did it stretch my skills, but necessity forced me to learn a few new techniques to bring this to life. It was overcoming the challenge that made the final piece so satisfying.
I’m a frequent proponent of printing my work on canvas. It brings out the textures and richness in many paintings, especially the detail I paint in my work. But I gave Suzanne another option, and after providing her with more information, she’s chosen an 18″ X 24″ matte aluminum. Given the dynamic nature of this painting, I think it was the best choice, and I’m looking forward to seeing it once it arrives.
When I shared the final image with her Saturday morning, less than an hour after I finished it, Suzanne told me that it was the 11th anniversary of the day she brought Santé home at eight weeks old and shared a pic with me. That puppy didn’t yet know she had won the lottery and was about to have a grand adventure.
Of the painting, Suzanne wrote, “I love it. It’s perfect. You added the whimsy and didn’t lose an ounce of “her” in the process. Thank you so much for making the effort to know her to paint her.”
Please visit this page if you’d like to know more about my pet portrait commissions.