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A Smiling Lion

To see all the little painted hairs I suggest watching this full-screen. Here’s the narrative from the video…

On a recent Saturday morning, I woke with no idea what to paint, which meant going through my photo archives, looking for reference.

None of the photos spoke to me and I began to feel uneasy.

A brown bear? No I’ve done a lot of those and just finished one. I’ve painted plenty of bears. An owl or an eagle? Painted lots of those, too.

On it went. Having painted more than 80 production pieces, plus commissions and portraits of people, finding something new is a challenge. I wanted to choose an animal I’d enjoy painting but would also appeal to others.

Was it just a bad morning or worse —the beginning of a rut?

The peanut gallery of internal critics, those loudmouths in the cheap seats, they love this stuff. Whenever self-doubt finds a foothold, that chorus of cretins is ready to attack.

“You had a good run. Time to go get a real job. You weren’t that good at this stuff, anyway. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

I tend to overthink these things.  Lately, I’ve been focused a lot on trying to figure out what my audience wants to see, the people who already follow me and support my work.

What I forget, however, is I didn’t know what they wanted to see in the first place. I painted funny looking animals and the people who liked them hung around for more. The more I painted what I wanted; the more people showed up. I don’t recall taking a poll asking if I was painting too many bears.

As I looked through hundreds of reference photos, I tried to ignore those inner voices telling me why each was not good enough, that I’m not good enough. They can’t be silenced, but they don’t deserve the spotlight or center stage.

A favorite line from the movie, Dr. Strange goes, “we never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them.”

In my frustration at failing to find the one reference image that spoke to me, the one with the perfect lighting, composition, that captured a moment, I stopped looking and started writing this narrative, instead.

And in the writing, I found a little clarity. The advice I would give another artist in this situation applies to myself as well.

Paint what you like. Stop worrying about the marketing, the likes and shares, the sales, the prints, the licensing, the niche, the pressure, the noise. Stop anticipating and giving in to the critics, real or imaginary.

If you’re creative for a living, the business stuff is important, no denying it. You can’t wing it and pretend that money is just going to flow to you. You must think like a business owner, treat it like a job, and remember this is how you pay your bills.

But not all the time.  Otherwise, what’s the point of being an artist for a living?

I went back to the archives with a different goal, to paint something for me. If other people like it, great. If not, I’ll paint something for them next time.

Once I got past all the critical voices in my head, I really enjoyed this piece. I immersed myself in the long hairs in his mane, the short hairs on his muzzle, the dark shadows that defined the larger shapes, the warm colours in the fur, the bright highlights, and that contented smile on his face, which put a smile on mine.

Sure, I’ve painted lions before.

I’ll paint lions again.

That’s OK, because each will be different than the last. And all will be time well spent.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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The Delight Is In the Details

I began a new painting last weekend, which will have a high-speed painting video to go with it. I didn’t intend to paint this animal right now, but the video narrative will explain the choice and why I tried to talk myself out of it for all the wrong reasons.

A week into it, I’m enjoying the work a lot more than I thought I would because I stopped overthinking it and surrendered to having some fun.

With daily editorial cartoon deadlines, the usual admin work, and other myriad tasks that go with self-employment, I usually reserve Saturday mornings for painting. I paint throughout the week, of course, but if I’m home, Saturday morning is usually my sacred painting time. Sundays are one of my busiest days of the week because I draw two editorial cartoons to send out first thing Monday morning.

This week was a little different.

Shonna and I were fortunate to book our first vaccines for mid-morning on Saturday. Grateful to get our shots; it was obviously our top priority.

While it doesn’t happen every year, there have been times where I haven’t felt that great the day after my annual flu shot, a common possible side effect with any vaccine. A couple of friends both felt a little under the weather the day after their COVID shots, so I planned to take Sunday off if needed. This meant getting my editorial cartoons done on Saturday.

I had still planned to get up at five on Sunday as usual, but with the cartoons done, I realized that I could paint all day if I felt good. If I didn’t, no big deal.

I woke feeling fine, more than a little relieved to have received the first shot, so I spent the day painting hair, fur and features. I don’t recall the last time I switched up that routine, but I might do it again. I enjoyed the freedom of having the deadlines done a day early.

Here’s a sneak peek at some of the detail so far. And no, it’s nowhere near done yet.

As Shonna worked at her part-time job Sunday evening, I decided to watch Kong: Skull Island again, a light, fun, monster movie. Here’s the trailer if you haven’t seen it.

The original King Kong was released in 1933. That’s 88 years ago! The original monster was stop-motion, clunky, and laughable by today’s standards, but it was an incredible achievement at the time. Since then, each of the eleven King Kong remakes has pushed the realism envelope a little more.

I watch a lot of movies more than once and get something new out of them each time. This was no exception. The camera got close to Kong’s skin, hair, eyes, and I frequently paused the movie to take a good look at the incredible realism they achieved.

One of the things I love most about movies today is the extra content. From Director’s commentary to behind-the-scenes features, I enjoy seeing how movies are made, the artistry and collaboration of hundreds of creative professionals coming together to realize a shared vision.

In one featurette, Jeff White, the Visual Effects Supervisor and Creative Director for ILM Vancouver, explained how they brought Kong to life. While he talked about the structure, rigging, muscles and skin, it should come as no surprise that I was most fascinated by how they achieved such realistic hair.

“He’s covered in about 19 million hairs. A lot of the detailed styling and sculpting of the hair is all done by hand. We had two artists working on it for almost a year, just on getting all the different styles and looks to his hair.”

He then went on to talk about how messing up the hair was a big challenge because, in the story, the fur would get wet and damaged, which would change the texture and consistency.

Two artists worked on hair for a year?!

I have a lot of patience painting hair and fur because I enjoy it so much. I’m always trying to achieve a new level of realism. While I never quite get there and will eventually abandon a painting to move on to the next one, I’m now inspired to try even harder.

Granted, for two artists to devote that much time to get the hair right in the movie, they had to be compensated, so their bills got paid. I would imagine there were more than a few days where that meticulous detail got tedious, especially when the software started acting up, as it always will from time to time. This would have been an incredible amount of challenging hard work.
But when they saw their efforts come to life on the big screen, for it to look so delightfully real and terrifying, I can only imagine their pride in the accomplishment. I also suspect they both still noticed flaws that nobody else would see.

Because that’s what artists do. We are always our own worst critics.

This morning, while continuing to work on the current painting, I decided I’m not going to rush it. I’m taking a little more time on this one to push it further because I’m enjoying it so much.

I’ll be pleased to share the finished piece and the video that goes with it, though I don’t currently have an idea when that will be. But even if I’m happy with it, it won’t be long before I see the flaws, wish I’d done something different, and try to do better the next time.

Because that’s what artists do.
© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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A Turtle and a Grizzly

Two new prints are now available in the store, the Sea Turtle and Grizzly on Grass.

All of my prints are professionally printed in Victoria, BC at Art Ink Print. Their commitment to quality and consistency means I never have to worry about what I’m getting when the shipment arrives. Despite having used their services for several years now, I’m still impressed each time I see a proof for a new painting. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had to make a colour adjustment and re-proof.

It can be frustrating sometimes to buy an art print, then have to spend three or four times as much having it professionally framed. That’s why each print in my store is 11”X14”, a standard size that makes it easy to find a store-bought frame. Each print is hand-signed. Not to worry, that website address is not on the actual print.
To purchase either of these prints, click on the images, or browse around the store to choose from more than 50 available paintings.

Cheers,
Patrick
© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Collars and Colours on Canvas

A couple of months ago, I shared a finished commission piece of Bomber. Here’s the link to that post.

This was a unique experience for a few reasons. The person who hired me was not the person with whom I had worked or who received the painting— it was a gift commission. As I mentioned in that post, the experience was ideal. The gift giver and the recipient were terrific to work with, and I have nothing but fond memories of that commission.

The recipient often works for periods of time in one province but lives in another, and not the next one over, either.

So when it came time to ship the canvas, Bomber’s Mom asked me to send it to her work address, so when she was missing being home with her dog, she’d have the art to keep her company. I kind of liked that.
I finished this painting in February and shipped it shortly after. While Sharon has seen the image and was happy with it, she didn’t get to see the 12”X16” canvas until last week.

I’m proud of the quality of my poster prints; otherwise, I wouldn’t sell them. The quality available today versus what was possible and affordable twenty years ago is night and day. Art Ink Print in Victoria does my poster prints, and it has gotten to the point where I rarely need to proof them because they do such a great job. They know my work and how it’s supposed to look. I can rely on them to make it look the way I want it to, and I never have to apologize to my customers, as the prints they order consistently exceed their expectations.

I sent an additional poster print of this commission to the person who hired me, a little bonus and keepsake.

Despite how much I like my poster prints, I’ve been telling people for years that my work looks best on canvas. There’s just something about the added texture of the fibres and the giclée print quality from ABL Imaging in Calgary. It makes the image pop, the colours look richer, and I’m always pleasantly surprised when I see the first canvas printing of a piece.

A little unsolicited advice to artists; if you’re going to print your work, don’t go for the cheapest you can find. People will pay for quality. You want to look at your own prints and think, “yeah, I’m happy to put my signature on that!”

I took photos of the Bomber canvas before I shipped it but didn’t want to share it until after Sharon had seen it. The photos still don’t do it justice, because iPhones have a tendency to wash out the lighter areas, which you can see in the top image and closeup. Even still, why would I want to dilute her moment of seeing the painting at its best?

She sent a message last week with this…

“I wanted to send you a note to let you know I finally made it back to ___ and just opened the package. You were right, it does hit different in person! It’s even more perfect than the picture. It’s up hanging in my office now and will remind me every day of home.”

There are few things I like better than happy clients.

If you’d like more information about commissions, you can read about them on my site, either in the post I linked to at the beginning of this piece, or on my Commissions page.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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The Musing Meerkat

Many artists I know have multiple shelves full of art books. I only have about a dozen of this type of book. Any more than that and some would probably never get opened more than once. As it is now, the ones I have only leave the shelves about once a year. But I’m still tempted to buy every time I see a new one.

Some notables include The Art of Tangled, a favourite animated movie, Drew Struzan’s Oeuvre, and Sebastian Kruger’s Stones. And I’m not even a Rolling Stones fan, I just enjoy Kruger’s study of them.

One of the things I love is the sketches and smaller illustrations peppered throughout these books. They’re usually unfinished doodles, sometimes chicken scratches, often looking like last-minute additions to fill up too much white space. But this accent art is deliberately and carefully chosen to compliment an illustration or story.

I enjoy seeing the bones of an illustration, the gestures, the rough idea, where the artist might have begun and what changed between the concept and finished piece. You can learn quite a bit from what the artist discarded.

I’ve long wanted to do an art book, but it’s always over the next hill.  You readers that have been with me for years (thank you!) will recall my mentioning this once or twice (probably more). I could make any number of excuses, but it’s a pretty easy truth to admit — I haven’t made it a priority. There are plenty of stories in my more than a decade of blogging about my art, and I’ve got much more finished work than I need to fill a book. Hell, I even have a publisher who wants to make it happen.

So the failure to launch is all mine, a victim of fear, perfectionism and procrastination. I have visions of boxes of books in my garage, gathering dust for years.

However, even if I conquer the imposter syndrome, one ingredient that is still missing is all of those little sketches and rough illustrations that I enjoy so much in other art books. I barely have any.

Even though sketching for fun, drawing from life and for practice has long been proven to make an artist’s skills better, I haven’t been in the habit of doing so for many years.

Almost all my work ends up being a finished painting. I spend a lot of time beforehand planning it out and choosing the correct reference. I experiment while I’m painting, but all of it leads to having a fully rendered piece done at the end of each beginning.

One of the reasons I bought an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil was that I wanted to do more digital sketching. The procreate app is an incredible bit of software. It’s better for digital drawing and painting than Photoshop was for most of my early career. Plenty of artists are doing finished work on it, some impressive stuff.

But I haven’t been using it as often as I thought I would, at least not for drawing.

I recently went through my photo archives and grabbed a bunch of reference I liked, but not enough to contribute to a finished production print. I uploaded many of these to the iPad and promised myself that I would make more time for sketching, drawing and painting that I may or may not show to people, but eventually, they might be good accent pieces for an art book.

I started on this meerkat earlier this week. I got it to a point where it was a decent sketch, and I could have put it away and started something else. But I was having so much fun with it (dammit!), I didn’t want to stop.

Before I knew it, I was painting in little hairs around the ears and muzzle, adding finer detail work,  and experimenting with a different brush style. While not quite as refined as some of my other work, this could be a production piece.

And because procreate has a great feature where you can record every brushstroke, I could export that, edit it, add some music and voila — a high-speed short video with some fun music to go along with the brush strokes.

Once again, I have failed at creating some rough sketches but succeeded in having some more fun rendering a funny-looking animal painting. I’ll call that a win.

As for sketching, I’m probably going to have to set a time limit — 10, 20, or 30-minute sessions, and I have to stop when the buzzer goes off.

Otherwise, I’m just going to keep painting.

Cheers,
Patrick
© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Close Encounters of the Bear Cub Kind

DISCLAIMER: Don’t EVER approach bears, bear cubs or animals in the wild.

Earlier this week, Shonna and I were thrilled to be invited to Discovery Wildlife Park to meet their latest adoptees.

Bos and Piper are two Kodiak cubs from the US who needed a new home. While they’re not siblings, they are the same age, three months old today. The amount of paperwork and regulatory hurdles required to rescue these cubs from an unsustainable situation, especially during this unprecedented time of COVID, was monumental.

Our friend, Serena, the head keeper at DWP, has been around animals her whole life. With her staff’s help, she has raised quite a few bears, wolves, and other animals in need of rescue, ones that couldn’t be rehabilitated and returned to the wild.

Discovery Wildlife Park, the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre and the Calgary Zoo, are places I support and the Alberta Institute of Wildlife Conservation, which rescues, rehabs, and releases animals back into the wild. I have no real interaction with the last one, aside from a monthly donation. To be released back into the wild, the animals need as little human contact as possible.

We would like to believe that this could be a world where no animal would ever need to live in captivity, but that would require sacrifices most of us aren’t willing to make. Our addiction to excess is one of the main reasons for disappearing wildlife habitats around the world.

With almost 8 billion people on the planet, each with our own opinions, vices, and levels of acceptable compromise, nothing is ever as black and white as we would like to believe.

Co-existing with wildlife is a never-ending discussion. There are strong opinions on both sides of the argument, from the average person on the street to nature and conservation experts, each speaking from their own experience and perspective. And those experts rarely agree. Unfortunately, there’s often more talking than listening, and the middle ground is mainly unpopulated and devoid of footprints.

I’ve personally wrestled with the issue for many years and will continue to do so. I’ve asked the hard questions from the dedicated people who work in these places. While the answers aren’t always the ones I’d like to hear, I believe they’re doing the best for these animals in their care and that their intentions and motivations are honourable.

I’ve seen how the animals interact with the park staff for years now, their evident trust and affection. I wouldn’t support any facility that didn’t treat its animals with respect and kindness or contradicted my wildlife protection values.
It’s with no small amount of gratitude that I enjoy such a close relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park. Their allowing me close contact with the animals over the past several years is a profound trust I don’t take lightly.

I’ve taken thousands of reference photos at the park, which has allowed me to create some of my best work. But I’ve also learned an incredible amount about wildlife, their behaviour, medical and dietary challenges and their profound intelligence.

Discovery Wildlife Park sits on 91 acres, fenced and double-fenced in places. There is a forested shallow ravine on the western edge of the property, complete with a flowing creek. As this area is inappropriate for any structures, it’s largely untouched and remains natural. This is one of my favourite photos of Berkley from one of our excursions in this little forest a few years ago.

When they’re small, many of the animals spend plenty of time in these woods, where they can run, explore, climb trees, eat berries, and play.

On the day that Shonna and I visited, the cubs were teething, as traumatic for animals as humans. Along with the physiological problems that accompany teething, there’s not much that can be done for the pain and discomfort.

We watched Piper have a full-on meltdown for about a half-hour, bellowing and bawling her way through the woods. She was cranky and having a bad day, reminding me of a child throwing a temper tantrum in a supermarket. It was just as uncomfortable to watch, but Serena wasn’t concerned, as it’s all part of being a baby. Piper eventually exhausted herself and went about exploring, playing and climbing trees.
The following morning, I sent Serena a text asking how Piper was doing.

“She is a happy girl today.”
Bos was much more subdued, a little lazier, but curious and seemed to be enjoying himself as he chewed on trees, dug in the dirt, and wrestled with his adopted sibling.

Just like people, they have their own unique personalities. As my only other experience with a brown bear cub is Berkley, the differences are remarkable. Berkley rarely vocalized, whereas these two are talking all the time. Piper was so named because she’s got a real set of pipes on her.


Though she’s always had an overall genial way about her, Berkley went through a bit of a rebellious teenage phase where she would push Serena’s buttons to test her boundaries. It’ll be interesting to see how these cubs grow into their personalities.

Presently, they require constant care, familiar territory for Serena and the staff. It will be some months before the cubs can spend any significant time alone. There’s little time off for those who care for animals, but I’ve never heard them complain. It’s a demanding but rewarding lifestyle.
In the hour and a half we were out in the woods with the cubs, I took just under 1500 photos. With bright sunshine and dark shadows, the lighting wasn’t ideal. The bears were often between me and the sun, so I didn’t get as much light on their faces as I would generally like. Hard to complain, though, since I was watching bear cubs play in the woods. I wanted to take some video, but it was too much to handle and would have ruined the experience.



As I don’t like hoarding photos, I’ve already gone through them all and kept just over 100. Most are shots I simply liked, the ones you see here. But I did get about a dozen that I think will be the seeds for future work; there are two paintings in there for sure.

We didn’t get to visit Berkley this time around for a couple of reasons. Her large enclosure is on the far side of the park, and they’re doing a lot of work right now getting ready for their season-opening. Most importantly, the animals thrive on routine, and right now, visitors aren’t part of that, so there’s no need to confuse her.

I’ll have to return often this spring and summer to spend some time with her.

If you’d like to watch the cubs grow up, you can follow Discovery Wildlife Park on Facebook and Instagram, where they regularly post photos and videos. They can only care for these critters thanks to the generosity of donors and visitors during the summer season, so if you’re in the Innisfail area, consider stopping in to check it out. It’s easy to keep your distance from others with plenty of outdoor space while still enjoying all that the park has to offer. They open May 1st, and annual memberships are available.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Spring in My Steps

Twice last week, while working on my latest Grizzly on Grass painting, I got an idea for a post. Instead of simply jotting it down, I ended up writing a thousand words. Before I knew it, I thought, “wait, wasn’t I just painting?”

Winter is nose to the grindstone time for me; low on inspiration and motivation, putting in the hours to get the work done. Spring is the opposite; an abundance of nervous energy, plenty of ideas and not enough time for all of them.

Not having enough ideas is bad, but having too many can be worse, especially when all of them seem important. There is the fear that if I don’t address these lightning strikes right away, I’ll have lost whatever mojo that made it exciting enough to stop painting in the first place when I finally do get to them.

I count on that spring motivation to pull me out of the winter blues. I usually get a lot done in spring and summer. Last year, that spring motivation never showed up, for obvious reasons. I spent most of those months and a good chunk of summer worrying about losing my business.

While it certainly wasn’t a comfortable time, my worst fears didn’t materialize, so all of that worry was a big waste of time, as worry usually is.

I must now be used to this new base layer of uncertainty because this year, the spring high thankfully showed up. I’ve got many things I want to do, not enough time to do them, and I must prioritize what’s important.

As I talked about in a recent post, marketing my work and looking for new ways to get the word out has become one of those priorities. David Duchemin has opened my eyes to possibilities I hadn’t considered, and now I’m seeing them more often. There are plenty of little ways to improve my marketing efforts. Lumped together, it seems like a monumental effort, a mountain to be climbed. But you know what they say about the journey and single steps.

Besides drawing, painting, and writing, I’m trying to add a bit of marketing every day, either research or actual implementation.

Here are a couple of recent changes that I hope are improvements.

Checking Out?

If you don’t have a PayPal account and want to buy something online from an independent seller, it’s clunky to go to the checkout on the site and then keep going when you find you have to set up another account somewhere else.

For some, it’s one step too many and leads to cart abandonment, which translated for the site owner, means you just lost a sale.

Shopping is supposed to be easy.

PayPal is the most popular online payment method, and plenty of people have an account, but if you don’t or don’t want to use one, I’ve tried to make my online store a little simpler at check out.

As of yesterday, in addition to the usual PayPal option, you can now checkout directly with your credit card. My site was already well secured, and while the back-end payment engine is still PayPal, it will no longer take you to another site to process payment; it will happen right in the shopping cart.

Better still, if you’re looking for a specific print, you can now buy directly from the item and bypass the cart process entirely.

Care to Comment?

Blogs were a big thing in the early/mid-2000s. I’ve had mine since 2008. Over time, they seemed to fall out of fashion, criticized for something that old people did. In recent years, however, I’ve been reading about their resurgence. With so much content online, people are again more interested in the stories behind the work and long-form articles. The wheel has come around again, and blogs have integrated with newsletters.

I kept my blog going all of these years because I enjoy writing. I don’t remember when I turned off the comments, but I certainly know why.

Before Facebook and Twitter became the polarized sewers they are today; there were still people who wanted to turn every available comment opportunity into a forum for their political or social grievances, regardless of where they were.

My early work’s foundation was editorial cartooning, so my work attracted quite a few trolls long before that term was in widespread use. The same people would show up on my site and accuse me of being in bed with one political party or another, regardless of what I posted. When it was just on the editorial cartoons, I tolerated it because I felt it only fair to allow a rebuttal to my own illustrated opinion.

That was back when I would foolishly engage in political discussions with strangers. Live and learn.

As my work became more diversified and I’d paint caricatures of celebrities or illustrations for board games, those same commenters would still have something to say, and often it had nothing to do with the post. They had just become used to my site being somewhere they could spew whatever bile they had thought up that day.

When these same people began to drive away others or tried to start an argument with followers in my comment section, I’d had enough and disabled the comments. Think about it, if you were about to check out a retail store and saw people inside having a loud argument, would you go in or keep moving?

That’s also why I deleted my Facebook page and Twitter account. Because Facebook and Twitter are now notorious for anger and bitterness, with people posting and repeating their political agendas all over the place, it’s easy for artists and other self-employed people to get caught in the crossfire, with little means of controlling the damage.

The upside of all that vitriol concentrated on social media is that blog posts like mine are no longer attractive venues for political opinion carpet bombing. People who engage in that type of recreation want as many eyes on their rage as possible and social media is their preferred playground.

Now that I’m focusing more on serving my audience, I thought a little more engagement might be beneficial. People send me emails all the time, something for which I’m grateful. I try to respond to each one. But as my work gets more popular and my audience grows, it can be a little time-consuming. Comments are one way I can still hear what my audience has to say, what they like and what resonates with them, but they might not always require me to reply.

In the end, all of this stuff is an experiment, anyway. I could suddenly be inundated with spam or inappropriate comments and might have to turf it all again as I did before. I hope that doesn’t happen, and I’d like to see it become one more small improvement to the overall enterprise.

Time will tell. With fingers crossed and happy thoughts, what do you think? Feel free to comment below.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Grizzly on Grass

Yet another painting of Berkley, but for marketing reasons and the potential implication of that goofy grin, I’m calling it Grizzly on Grass.

Aside from their efforts to rescue and take in orphaned animals, one of the things I love about Discovery Wildlife Park is their focus on enrichment. In the wild, animals are kept busy searching for food, defending their territory, and making miniature versions of themselves.

While captivity is never ideal, the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park would likely have been destroyed due to the circumstances that brought them there in the first place. Those circumstances are usually us, people who have either directly or indirectly prevented them from surviving and thriving in the wild.

The animals at the park can’t be rehabilitated and released, either because laws prevent it or they were too habituated already, which is why they needed to be here.

With 91 acres on the property, the park can provide the animals with large enclosures, complete with natural structures, clean ponds and water features. The black bears and Berkley can dig their own dens each year, or they’re given structures they can use if they choose the artificial route. It’s incredible how each bear has a different preference.
They’re provided with as much hay as they want to pad the dens for warmth and comfort. I remember Serena (the head keeper and good friend) sending me pictures and videos the first year Berkley dug her den. Berkley took the hay inside, then came out and dropped a little at Serena’s feet, asking for more, which of course, they gave her. Some bears do get up during the winter, even in the wild, but Berkley has always slept straight through.

If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you’ll know I have a special place in my heart for Berkley. I was able to get to know her when she was weeks old and had many visits with her in the first couple of years. Discovery Wildlife Park has a large, wooded area where she could climb trees, splash around in a creek, play in the snow and wander around as she liked without any danger.

The personal contact I had with her when she was a cub created a lasting bond, and when I visit her now, she knows me. If I go to one end of her considerably large enclosure and call her, she’ll come from the other end to visit, and we’ll hang out together on either side of the fence. We can’t have close contact these days because even though she’s a very gentle bear, I’m intimidated by her size. My nervousness creates an unknown safety issue.

The park staff are incredibly dedicated and care a great deal for the animals in their care. You need only talk to them and watch their interactions to realize the trust between them. When an animal dies from medical complications or old age, it hits them all hard. They work hard to give the animals the best life they can, despite their captivity.

Survival is no longer a concern for these animals. Their diets and health are continually monitored, and they receive top vet care. The problem with captive animals, however, is that without constant stimulation, they will get bored. As a result, the animals get plenty of enrichment opportunities.

The structures in their enclosures are often changed around, diversions hidden in strange places, along with additional food. It gives them something to explore and dig out. There is a large forested fenced amphitheatre area that acts as another natural playground. The bears and wolves are taken in often and allowed to run around as they like. Not together, of course. There are many rock structures and ponds for them to play around in, with room to run. This new environment gives them plenty of stimulation, and they seem to enjoy it a great deal.

There is a high cost to maintain this type of facility, and they’re always looking for new revenue streams to help. In addition to the gift shop, campground, and winter RV storage, they rely on donations and sponsorships to keep the doors open. If you’ve ever seen the vet bill for a jaguar’s arthritis stem-cell transplant or a root canal, you’d understand.

“I’m in it for the money,” said no zookeeper ever.

When they built the amphitheatre area, they had the foresight to install a fence along one side, with large enough holes along it for camera lenses to poke through. They regularly host small groups of photographers to come and take photos of the bears and wolves in their playground. It’s an opportunity for the animals to play and for the park to raise funds to care for them.

In September of 2019, my buddy Derek, a skilled tattoo artist and painter, and I went up to Innisfail to participate in one of these photo sessions. While I enjoyed taking photos of the wolves, as I always do, I’ll confess that my main focus was Berkley. I just can’t get enough time with her.

The problem is that because she knows me, she kept coming over to the fence to say Hi, which means nobody could get any photos. Serena kept having to call her back. She finally gave me shit and said I was never going to get any pictures if I kept talking to her. I had to turn my back and retreat so Berkley would go back to enjoying the natural playground.
Once she did, we were able to get some great photos. She has a natural smile and brightness in her eyes. People often remark on the personality I create in my paintings. It’s almost like I don’t have to add any with Berkley because it’s already there. She remains my favourite subject to paint, and I can’t imagine I’ll stop anytime soon. There’s just something in that face that makes me happy.

Even though she played in the water, scratched and climbed on trees (she’s tough on trees), Berkley looked over often, and I had to be careful not to distract her. But it meant that I got some great pics of her looking right into my lens, including the reference for this painting.
I didn’t want to stop working on this image because I enjoyed it so much. Even though the finished painting is a horizontal composition, I painted it vertically to get the expression right. I’ll confess that if I get this printed for myself, a distinct possibility, I’d hang it vertically above my desk, so that goofy grin can greet me every morning.

I’m looking forward to seeing Berkley again soon. She’s up from hibernation and gaining back the weight lost during her winter slumber. Every year I wonder if she’ll still know me, but she always does, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world.

If you’d like to support Discovery Wildlife Park, you can donate or buy an annual membership on their site. They open for the season on May 1st and will be happy to see you. You can buy my prints in the gift shop and see some of my artwork around the park. Be sure to take part in their daily education talks about how to be safe in bear country and help contribute to wildlife conservation, no matter where you live. Ask plenty of questions. Education is a big part of why they do what they do.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Zen and the Art of Course Correction

It would be an understatement to describe this past year as challenging. However you choose to define it, we’ve all lost something, and much of it won’t be coming back.

Those newspapers that laid me off a year ago said that it would be temporary, but to still believe that now would be wishful thinking. We can choose to desperately hang on to false hope or have a moment of grief and move on.

Like many people, I’ve been struggling with next steps and feeling a little bit helpless and defeated, despite knowing I’ve got plenty for which to be grateful.

There’s an old Zen proverb that states, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have a couple of mentors, people without whose assistance I might not be a self-employed artist today.

In 2001, at thirty years old, I was drawing a weekly editorial cartoon for the Banff Crag and Canyon, something I’d done for a few years. At the time, I had no designs on becoming a professional artist; it was just an amusing side gig.  Even still, I began drawing other cartoons for casual clients along with some illustration work. When my newspaper publisher discovered this, she told me I could only draw cartoons for The Crag in Banff and couldn’t do any other cartoons. For $30 a week, I was not about to accept that and planned to quit.

At the same time, an upstart newspaper was about to launch in Canmore. The owners wanted to create a better vision of a paper for the whole Bow Valley, consisting of Exshaw, Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise. One of the Crag and Canyon reporters left to join the new paper and let them know I was unhappy. The new editor had already planned to offer me the job as their editorial cartoonist.

It was only a bit more money, but Shonna and I had just left Banff to buy our first home in Canmore, and the timing was right.

Carol Picard was the editor and part-owner, and before too long, she asked me why I wasn’t syndicated. I told her it was difficult for an unknown artist to sign with a syndicate.

She told me that was silly, that I should do it myself, something I didn’t know was possible. At the time, submissions went by fax (look it up, kids). So I went to the library in Calgary to find all of the addresses and contact info for Canadian newspapers. None of that information was as yet available online.

And I bought a fax machine.

For the next couple of years, in addition to the Rocky Mountain Outlook cartoon, I drew two or three cartoons a week, sent them out to newspapers and got almost no bites. It was brutal, demoralizing and I came close to quitting many times. I had a full-time job to pay the bills and drew cartoons early in the mornings before work and in the evenings afterward, as well as every weekend.

It took over a year of submissions, but I still remember my first syndicated weekly paper, The Vulcan Advocate. They paid me $10 a week for a syndicated cartoon. That first $40 cheque was like winning the lottery. By the end of the second year, I had two papers.

Carol no longer owns the Rocky Mountain Outlook, but it survives and thrives today. Their competitors, the same two papers that ridiculed them for their brash audacity; one is gone and the other is a shell of what it once was.

I still draw a local cartoon for The Outlook. It will be twenty years this fall since their first issue, and I have never missed a week. There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be an artist for a living had Carol not intervened at the right time.

During those early first few years of syndicated cartooning, I watched a Sunday morning news show where they interviewed one of Canada’s most notable and accomplished editorial cartoonists, Terry Mosher. Drawing under his nom-de-cartoon, Aislin, he’s been a cartoonist since the late 60s, part of the foundation of the Montreal Gazette.

In the interview, he remarked about how difficult it was for young cartoonists to get started. In my early thirties, I was not so young, but knowing little about the rest of the industry, with no contacts to speak of, I threw a Hail Mary pass and sent him an email, asking for advice.

He replied with one line, “Send me some of your stuff.”

Over the next few years, we got to know each other, and he introduced me to the world of Canadian editorial cartooning. He told me I needed to draw more, that I had to send out at least five cartoons a week, rather than two or three.

As I wasn’t a very good artist, with no grasp of the fundamentals, it took many hours to draw a cartoon, three or four times what it takes today, so I struggled to increase my workload.

Terry was the editorial cartoon editor of Maclean’s Magazine and put me in the rotation in the company of some of the most well-known cartoonists in Canada. It paid $400, which at the time seemed like a lot of money. He introduced me to Doug Firby, the former editor of the Calgary Herald. Doug was generous with his time and advice and started using my cartoons when their in-house cartoonist Vance Rodewalt had days off.

Terry came out west in 2003 with his wife to talk at the Banff Centre and visit family in Jasper. They took Shonna and I out to dinner, and we were their guests at his presentation. It was an exciting visit. I had the assignment for Maclean’s that week. Though I don’t recall the cartoon’s context, I had to draw former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, and I remember sending Terry the cartoon for his OK while he was still in Jasper.

He called me and said, “it doesn’t look like him.”

Having spent hours on it, I was crushed, but he told me over the phone how to fix it. Put his eyes closer together; his hair is bigger; you’ve got the mouth wrong. I scrambled to write it all down and worked ’til 2 in the morning fixing it, even though I had to be at my day job by 8:30. His critique was accurate, and he said my revision was much better.

Terry taught me how to take constructive criticism. There is ALWAYS room for improvement.

I was so appalled that I had failed to capture Klein’s face that I became obsessed with becoming an expert at capturing likenesses, which has served me well in my painted work. When Klein retired from office in 2006, I painted a caricature that appeared in the Calgary Herald and other Alberta papers. I sold a few prints of it and somebody gave him one for his retirement. This photo appeared in the Calgary Herald.

My credibility as a Maclean’s magazine cartoonist opened doors with many other newspapers across Canada. In 2005, I quit my day job and became a full-time professional artist.

Because Canmore is one of Canada’s most expensive communities in which to live, there was no chance of living on one income. Shonna and I agreed that if I couldn’t pay half of the mortgage and bills, I’d get a part-time job. It didn’t seem like as big risk then as it would now.

Both Carol Picard and Terry Mosher were the mentors I needed at the time, and I remain forever grateful for their help.

Some time ago, my friend Crystal, a graphic designer in Calgary, recommended a podcast by David Duchemin. I’ve written about it before.

David has had a strange but wonderful creative career. He’s been a comedian, photographer, author and educator. I guarantee there are other professions in there with which I’m not yet familiar. His podcast is geared toward creatives, and it’s quite inspirational. We’re about the same age, but I think of David as older than I am, based on his wealth of experience.

I’ve never shied away from sending emails to people whenever they’ve influenced me or provided content worth my time. I know what it’s like to work in a lonely profession. No matter how successful or influential you might imagine someone might be, they’re still just people. We all like to know that we’re doing a good job or are providing value to somebody else.

People are too often quick to criticize but slow to applaud.

When I’ve found one of his podcasts particularly resonant or uplifting, I’ve sent David an email.

Not too long ago, following one of those messages, for which he was always gracious and kind, we got into a more detailed discussion about this business of art. He lives on Vancouver Island, one of Shonna’s and my favourite haunts, and he’d already said to let him know when I was next in the area.

But not too long into this discussion, he said that we should have a phone call.

After some initial small talk, David suggested I could be doing better at marketing my work. Realizing he was treating me with kid gloves, I assured him he could speak frankly. He wasn’t criticizing my art but my business, and I already knew I had plenty of room for improvement. As I said, I welcome constructive criticism, especially from somebody who has walked their talk.

He hit me with both barrels, and I couldn’t take notes fast enough.

For two hours, David lobbed marketing advice and ideas at me, and we had a fascinating discussion. Many of these suggestions seemed so obvious in hindsight, but I had never considered them. Grateful for the help, I asked him why he was so generous with his time and advice, especially since we didn’t yet know each other well.

I can’t remember his exact words, but it came down to this – for the quality of my artwork, I should be a lot further ahead, and he wanted to help me get there.

David gave me a crash course lesson in getting more newsletter followers and better serving them. He stressed the importance of focusing less on individual sales and more on my relationships with those who’ve supported my work for years. His philosophy on serving my audience revealed how I’m already doing that well and pointed out where I could be doing better.

He helped me make improvements to my website, with more changes coming. He suggested I offer desktop and mobile device wallpapers to my audience, something I should have thought of years ago, but it had never occurred to me. The immediate positive feedback from my subscribers was overwhelming. They loved them!

He reminded me that many of my customers buy my work for the children in their lives. Wouldn’t they love to be able to give their grandkids, nieces and nephews colouring pages of my paintings? What about publishing a colouring book from them later? Let me tell you, that was a palm to the forehead moment. I’m releasing a few of those to my subscribers today, and I learned a lot while creating them.

David was surprised with how quickly I’ve implemented some of the ideas generated from our discussions. My view on that is simple. When somebody gives you a push in the right direction, the one you’ve REALLY needed, you don’t sit down and think about it. You take advantage of the momentum and speed up.

That’s how you show your gratitude for their generosity.

I wrote to David the other day, “While telling my wife about our last chat and the options you suggested, she said it was nice to see me excited about my work again, focusing on forward movement, rather than worrying so much.”

He replied, “That makes me very happy.”

I don’t know how long I’ll benefit from David’s willingness to share his hard-earned knowledge with me. I’m simply going to do the work to be worthy of it.

If you’re a photographer, designer, illustrator, cartoonist, any other type of creative, I’d encourage you to check out his site and listen to his podcast, ‘A Beautiful Anarchy.‘ Recommend it to any creatives in your life, too, especially if they could use a boost.

My first two mentors showed up when I was at a significant crossroads in my career and life, though I only recognized it in hindsight.

This time, there is no doubt.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Painting and Peak Experience

The pervasive uncertainty of the past year continues. We can be hopeful that we’ll make progress in the next few months, with vaccines, reopening, and putting the economic engine back into gear. However, everything still comes with a big asterisk and question mark.

Even when you know that change is necessary for growth, it almost always comes at a time when we least expect it, and it’s rarely comfortable. There is the change you make happen, change that happens to you, and then change you have to make to adapt.

Over the past year, I’ve spent many hours reading and listening to articles about boosting sales, getting more followers, expanding my reach, and introducing my work to new markets. I worry about the next quarter, the one after that, and juggle the what-ifs, ad nauseam.

Nail-biting, teeth grinding, hand wringing. More than a few tossing and turning sleepless nights and heavy sighs with head in hands.

There are plenty of quotes about worry, how unproductive it is. We’ve all seen the memes.

“When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”
– Winston Churchill

“If you treat every situation as a life and death matter, you’ll die a lot of times.”
– Dean Smith

“Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.”
– Erma Bombeck

Envying other artists, looking at their followers, careers, losing sight of the big picture, knowing that comparison is the thief of joy, but still falling for the same trap over and over again, despite knowing that it’s unproductive.

But then there are mornings I find myself at my desk, having had a welcome good night’s sleep, tunes in the earbuds, a shuffle of songs hitting all the right notes, painting tiny little hair’s on a bear’s muzzle. And I realize that I’m grinning.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term ‘peak experience.’

From an article by Kendra Cherry, “Peak experiences are often described as transcendent moments of pure joy and elation. These are moments that stand out from everyday events. The memory of such events is lasting and people often liken them to a spiritual experience.”

Yeah, I know. It sounds out there and flaky, and you wonder what I’ve been smoking, but I believe in these moments. I’ve had them. While paddling in a canoe on a lake early in the morning as the sun’s coming up, or when a Humpback whale surfaced right beside our boat in the Broken Group Islands near Ucluelet, or when a little bear cub named Berkley decided to crawl up my back and lick my ear.

But most of the time, I have these moments while painting. Usually early in the morning when it’s still dark, about an hour into the work, drinking hot black coffee, the right song in my ears, laying down brushstrokes on one of my funny-looking animals.

It’s the feeling that, within that moment, I’m right where I’m supposed to be. Sometimes it lasts for seconds, others for minutes. It comes on like a wave, a welling up of feeling, like a hypodermic shot of happiness.

And none of that other crap seems important.

This is that living in the moment stuff they go on about in all the mindfulness articles and self-help books. At these times, I get it, and I want to bottle it for those times when I don’t.

That other real-life stuff still needs to be handled, no doubt about it. Ignoring your bookkeeping or taxes, skipping that medical checkup for the fourth time, pretending that clunking sound in your engine will go away — all of that will bite you in the ass later if you’re not paying attention.

Sometimes things work out, other times they don’t, and shit happens.

I wouldn’t say I like it, but I accept it. So, I’ll get to that other stuff.

Right after I finish painting more little hairs on this lovable bear’s face.

“Stop worrying about what can go wrong, and get excited about what can go right.”
– Anonymous

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt