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The Stories Behind The Work

When I plan to paint a funny looking animal, the goal is usually to create a finished piece, something destined for print. That’s what I’m thinking when I go through my extensive archive of reference, selecting photos to help me create the next painting. As such, there are many images that don’t make the cut.

I’ve recently been going through those files with a different goal in mind, finding reference I still like, from which to practice sketching and drawing.

The first three I tackled, the ones throughout this post, ended up being painted pieces. Still not the level of detail you’ll find in my production prints, but images I enjoyed bringing to life. Unlikely to become prints on their own, I painted them for fun, knowing that one of these might inspire other ideas.

Years ago, while learning to create on the iPad, I painted a practice piece of an Ostrich. At my wife’s insistence, I later developed it into a fully rendered painting and it became one of my bestsellers.

While painting these three pieces, however, I began to think of another use for them.

It doesn’t seem like four years ago, but I had intended on producing a book of my artwork. I had a local publisher lined up and the plan was to have it ready for 2017. But at the end of 2016, life got complicated.

With no desire to dig through old ground, or drag any of you through it again, the short version is that I went through a bout of severe depression. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the experience was a necessary evil and I’m now grateful for that catharsis. Real change never happens when you’re comfortable.

I came out the other side with a better perspective on things, not the least of which is a much lower tolerance for toxic bullshit. Leaving Facebook and Twitter was a good first step in eliminating quite a bit of it.

It took a long time to right that capsized ship, however, and one of the casualties of that dark night of the soul was the art book.

As I’ve been doing a lot more writing this year, the blog, newsletter and fiction, thoughts have returned to that dormant project.

The kind of art book I’ve always enjoyed from other creatives, whether it’s photography, painting, or sketching, is one that talks about the stories behind the work. That’s the kind of book I wanted to produce then, and four years later, I still have the same desire.

Many of my paintings have stories behind them. Hell, just the stories, sketches and paintings about my time spent with Berkley the Bear from Discovery Wildlife Park could fill a large volume.

The thought of such a project fills me with doubt. Anyone who has ever created anything, let alone a book, has experienced imposter syndrome. Who am I to write a book and assume anyone will want to buy it?

I can easily come up with a long list of reasons why publishing an art book is a bad idea.

It’ll cost a lot to produce. Even though I may or may not have to publish it myself, there’s a significant expense involved, and books don’t sell as well as people think they do. It has long been my experience that for every twenty people who say they will buy something, only one actually does.

It’s so easy for someone to post a supportive casual comment on Instagram or drop me a line saying they can’t wait until prints of a new painting are available. And while many of my supportive, generous, loyal customers do indeed follow through, most people don’t, despite their good intentions.

If you’re a creative starting out on this journey and happen to be reading this, that’s Lesson #1 in life and in business. People talk a good game.
So, what about Kickstarter or Patreon? For those to be successful, creatives have to offer different tiers of incentives to entice backers, or people will simply wait until the book comes out to buy it. Suddenly, all of the work involved with writing the book, laying it out, hiring an editor, and having it professionally produced is now paired with coming up with added incentives for the different tiers.

As I am a one man operation, already using most of my limited hours in a day, there’s no more water to draw from that well.

There are plenty of people who’ve done all of the work, launched a book, did the promotion, put in the hours and still ended up years later with boxes upon boxes of them gathering dust in their garage. I recently heard of one author who took most of her leftovers to the landfill as she couldn’t bear to look at them anymore. That must have been a hard day. I would imagine the drive home would have involved a stop for chocolate, ice cream, alcohol, or all three.

While it’s easier than ever to self-publish and produce a book today, it becomes the duty of the creator to do the lion’s share of promoting and selling it. That means gift and trade shows, events, readings, book store signings, not to mention all of the online promotion to ensure people are even aware that you have a book to sell. That’s difficult when things are normal, even tougher now that many of those opportunities aren’t possible due to COVID-19.

At this point, I wouldn’t approach the same publisher again without a finished book in hand. I’ve already abused that faith once before. While it’s a common tale in the publishing trade for well-intentioned would-be authors to fizzle out before launch, that personal failure weighed heavy on me. I wasted another self-employed person’s time, a crime I will not repeat.

As you can tell, talking myself out of this project is easily done. I have no shortage of excuses. I can come up with many more reasons why creating an art book is a bad idea.

I can also give you many reasons why creating art for a living is a bad idea, not to mention self-employment or starting any business. But that didn’t stop me or the millions of other people who’ve done the same thing, and succeeded against the odds.

Nothing good comes without risk.
I’m going through the stories behind the paintings again, with fresh eyes. I’m looking through all of the work I’ve done, both the production paintings and ones like those you see here, deciding which would be good candidates for inclusion. The art books I enjoy have smaller pieces peppered throughout, and I have plenty of those from which to choose.

But I plan to paint a lot more of them as well.

Despite all of the arguments I gave against the idea, and many more that I didn’t, I still want to create an art book, whether it makes any money or not.

One thing I do know for sure, is that I can’t sell one if I don’t write one.

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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Still Not Painting

I’m writing this on a Saturday morning when I had intended to start a new painting.

I’ve chosen the reference. But instead of opening a new file and putting brush strokes on a blank page, I’ve been surfing around the internet, pretending that I’m working.

At first, I checked the daily Postmedia papers to see if I was published today in any of those half dozen dailies. The Edmonton Journal printed my cartoon about a recall of the whole year of 2020.

I read a couple of articles before a little voice in my head asked, “Shouldn’t you be painting?”

“Give me a minute, OK?”

Somewhere along the line, at the bottom of something I was reading, there were suggestions for other articles. A couple of well-written headlines caught my attention, clearly based on an algorithm’s evaluation of what I’d be most likely to click.

Somewhat effective, because I right-clicked on half a dozen, opened them in new tabs and began reading.

Still not painting.

I read part of four articles. One was about celebrities pandering to issues like Black Lives Matter and social injustice. After a few paragraphs, I was no longer interested. I already know celebrities do that to boost their own profiles.

Another article asked why civilizations collapse and addressed the misconceptions surrounding that. I’ve long been interested in South American cultures, specifically the Mayan and Incan civilizations, so I went down that road for a while. It wasn’t very interesting, so I closed it halfway through.

I forget what the others were about, but the last one was called A Splash of Red, by author Gabriel Cohen. It’s about how he found a cheap apartment in New York, only to discover it had been the scene of a grisly murder. I quite enjoyed the article, and you can read it here.

At the bottom of the piece, however, it reads,

“Gabriel Cohen is the author of six books; has written for the New York Times and many other publications; teaches writing at Pratt Institute; and is about to teach a course in writing crime fiction at the Center for Fiction’s Crime Fiction Academy in NYC”

SIX books?

Son of a bitch.

My green-eyed monster leaned over my shoulder to see what woke him up and murmured, “That guy’s a real writer.”

I’ve long wanted to write more. It’s an ache, a daily itch in my psyche, complete with a ticking-clock sound effect that grows louder all the time.

The silly part is that I’m actually a prolific writer. I’ve kept an active blog since 2008. Before I was a cartoonist and long before I painted funny looking animals, I wrote two novels. But I chickened out on sending them, and twenty years later, I’m convinced they’re crap.

I’ve started another novel; I’ve got extensive notes, good ideas, plenty of inspiration and life experience to put it all onto the page. But my energy is spent finding any excuse not to write. I thought 2020 was the year I’d finally put up or shut up.

2020 had other plans.

Hey look, I found another excuse. There’s rarely a supply shortage.

I Googled “fear of writing” and came up with a couple of encouraging articles, telling me things I already know. I’ve done this search before, many times. This is a well-travelled road.

A sponsored writing course pops up, and I click on it. It tells me all of the right things, has all the right testimonials, and I think, “That’s what I need.”

I already know that it is NOT what I need. You become a better writer by writing. I tell this to students about art all the time. You want to draw or paint; you have to put your ass in the chair and do it.

Still not painting.

I’ve got a dozen books on writing on the Kindle app on my iPad, one on how to write good characters, another on language for rural settings, another for writing good dialogue, all of them as of yet, unread.

An hour and a half after I sat down this morning, before diving headfirst down this rabbit hole, I have not painted one brush stroke. Instead, I have beaten myself up about my lack of a disciplined writing routine, am now frustrated that I’ve wasted a good chunk of my morning with unproductive time on the internet, wishing that I’d got up this morning and started a new painting as planned.

Still not painting.

Procrastinating to avoid starting a new painting, I ended up writing about not painting.  Even though I create art for a living, I still begin each piece convinced that it will suck, even though the evidence of past work doesn’t support that insecurity.

Still not painting.

Still not writing.

At least not the writing I want to be doing.

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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Habit-Forming

The timing of this post might seem like a New Year’s resolution update, but that’s a coincidence. Shonna recently recommended this book she’d found interesting, but had she done so in August, I would have tried these changes then.

Atomic Habits is a New York Times bestseller by James Clear. While I’ve read my share of self-help and pseudoscience over the years, often with more than a grain of salt, I was willing to give this a shot. It didn’t seem like the usual positive-thinking-will-solve-all-of-your-problems tripe.

I wasn’t a fan of the title, but it wasn’t long before Clear explained the reason for it by calling out the definition. Atomic, meaning powerful but also tiny. The premise of the book is that small changes yield big results, building good habits and breaking bad ones.

Full of practical perspectives within, two strategies caught my attention.

The first is something Clear calls habit-stacking. We all have habits we do every day, from our morning rituals to how we accomplish routine procedures at work. These are behaviours we do to be more efficient with everyday tasks. Habits, when appropriately used, add some automation to our day, freeing up our brainpower for more interesting things.

Habit stacking involves adding onto an existing habit or series of habits, making the new behaviour easier to adopt. In my case, I’ve been trying to make time for meditation every morning. I’ve been unsuccessful at keeping a regular practice over the years because I could never find the time.

In the fall, I took an eight-week course on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy combined with Mindfulness Meditation, which I found well worth my time. I’ve been meditating ever since but found it easy to skip a day here, two days there and hadn’t yet found my groove, despite my best intentions.

After reading Atomic Habits, I realized I just had to add it to my existing routine. In the mornings, I get up at 5, turn on my computer, go downstairs, start the coffee, have a shower, get dressed, go back downstairs, do a series of push-ups and sit-ups, grab my coffee and back up to my office to start work.

Over the past month, I now meditate for 15 minutes, after the sit-ups, before grabbing my coffee. I’ve inserted it into my usual routine, and it’s ridiculous how easy it was to do because it’s not something for which I need to find the time. It’s now just part of how I start my day.

As an aside, if you’re unfamiliar with mindfulness meditation, suspend your preconceived notions about lotus positions, chanting like a monk and becoming one with the universe. The practice is about being present in the moment. Most of us are victims of endless mind chatter where we ruminate on our past mistakes or shortcomings and worry about the future, while rarely being right here, right now.

I’m not very good at it, but that’s not the point. My mind still goes off on its own on dark tangents, and I have to gently bring my attention back to my breath or a chosen focus. Some days are harder than others, but I still sit there in silence for 15 minutes, and the benefits are evident. There’s plenty of information online if you’re curious.

The second habit-changing practice I’ve adopted from the book involves my office calendar. The jury is still out on whether or not this has become a good habit or bad.

At present, my revenue streams are my nationally syndicated editorial cartoons, which I work on most days but send out Monday to Friday. Then there’s my painted work, which involves commissions, prints, and licensing on many different products through several different companies.

On top of those pursuits, I enjoy writing, but for many years, that’s been confined to my regular blog posts and newsletters. But in recent months, I’ve wanted to get back into writing fiction. I wrote about this in a previous post, so I won’t elaborate here.

In Atomic Habits, the author suggests that one method of adding a desirable habit is to employ a calendar.

I’ll use eating healthier as an example. Each day you have a serving of fruit, you put an X on the calendar. Successive calendar marks will make you want to add more, an absence of them will motivate you to prevent further blank spaces. It’s a visual representation of what you’re actually doing, rather than what you think you’re doing. Eventually, you just become somebody who has a habit of eating fruit.

You can use this for reading, playing an instrument, going for a walk, stretching or adding any good habit to your life. Consequently, you can use the same strategy for eliminating bad habits, marking an X each day you don’t perform a habit you dislike.

I’ve got three creative outlets I want to accomplish each day; Editorial cartooning, Painting and Writing.  All three every day is possible, but not realistic. However, that’s still my goal.

Adding writing into an already busy schedule, I knew that was going to be tough, but I also knew that if I didn’t, I’d suddenly be 20 years older, lamenting the road not taken.

Blog posts and newsletters count as writing, so if I wrote something like this post, I got to add a W to that day. But if I only wrote a sentence or two, I wouldn’t, since I’d only be fooling myself.

Having done this all month, I looked at all of the red letters on the calendar for this month and had mixed feelings.

Clearly the editorial cartoons are where the bulk of my creative time is spent, followed by painting, which makes sense since that’s how I earn my living.

As intended, I’m writing fiction again, something I haven’t done in twenty years. I’m quite a few thousand words into a story that I’m enjoying, even though I have no idea where it’s headed. Without this calendar practice, I believe I’d still be wishing I’d started, just as I have for years.

As I recently heard in a book or podcast, “Writing isn’t hard. Putting your ass in the chair to start writing is hard.”

There were days this month when I wanted to write, but life got in the way. Shonna’s car battery died during a brutal cold snap, -30C and below for more than a week, which took two days of problem-solving, trips to Canadian Tire, and serving as her taxi. Now, I work at home, have the most flexible schedule and I was happy to take care of that stuff. OK, happy isn’t the right word, but I certainly didn’t blame her for the inconvenience, especially since my car was warm and comfortable in the garage.

Add to that all of the other daily stuff that comes with life, year-end bookkeeping, tax prep, month-end invoicing, communicating with clients, all of the usual and unavoidable tasks.

The most startling revelation in this whole experiment, however, was that there isn’t a day off on this calendar. Even on Saturdays, my day with the most freedom in the week, I still get up at 5 a.m. and put in 3 or 4 hours before Shonna gets up.

This might seem like humble bragging, as in look how busy the martyr is, but I’m well aware that just being busy isn’t a badge of honour. If it were, we’d all get a participation medal. Everybody is busy.

No, this is indicative of a bigger problem. Anybody who has ever been self-employed knows how much work it takes, especially in the beginning. Then if you make a good go of it, it becomes less about enjoying the successes and more about hanging on to what you’ve got for fear of losing it.

When the inevitable losses do come, in the usual ebb and flow of life, you end up working even harder (not smarter!) to keep as tight a grip as possible. Pretty soon, you’re taking little time off, are perpetually tired, grumpy, depressed, running on empty and operating from a position of fear. You spend less time with friends, and the concept of spending an entire day doing nothing feels, well…irresponsible.

Like any bad habit, it’s easy to come up with excuses that sound reasonable.

Some of the greatest hits we’ve all said or have heard include…I’ll quit smoking next month when work is less stressful. I’ll start saving money next year because it’s Christmas and it’s too hard right now. I’ll make time to exercise later when I’m not so tired. Any bad habit comes with a dump truck full of enthusiastic excuses that sound good at the time, but ultimately don’t hold water.

I’m too busy to take time off. In reality, I’ve just forgotten how.

So while this calendar habit was supposed to be a motivating carrot on a stick, I ended up beating myself with it, and I’m disappointed. Awareness, however, is the most significant part of solving any problem, so I intend to continue using it to motivate me to write. But it will also serve double duty as a cautionary device, reminding me that having a blank day here and there is ultimately healthier than killing myself for another editorial cartoon.

The next time somebody suggests I write a children’s book, get into animation, draw something for their fundraiser, or do a commission for them ‘in my spare time,’ however, I’ve got an excellent visual aid for when I respectfully decline.

I remain a work in progress, just like everybody else.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
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The Purge

On New Year’s Day, I threw out my Photoshop World Guru Awards.

It wasn’t an impulsive move, but something I’d thought about many times the last couple of years.

When it comes to endings and beginnings, it would make more sense for each person to have some serious annual reflections on his or her birthday, truly the turning of a new year for each of us.

But New Year’s Day works for most because it’s the turning of a big number and a new calendar.

I began the year with a new painting. It’s not something I do every year but were I to have a tradition, that seems like a good one to me. Start another trip around the sun by making the work I love most a priority. It sets a precedent.

Following a couple of hours of painting, however, I suddenly had the urge to clean up my office.

For the most part, I keep a tidy space, but like anyone, papers pile up, items land in corners, and unoccupied floor space suddenly gets filled. Then it all begins to gather dust.

My office occupies the entire second bedroom of our townhouse condo and most of the time; it’s well organized. We’re not big consumers, so we don’t have much clutter. And still, even with shelving in the closet, bookcases, two large desks and ample drawer space, stuff accumulates.
My closet is floor to ceiling shelving. In multiple large alphabetized bins is my inventory of hundreds of prints. Boxes of canvas prints, support materials for my booth at Expo, large rigid print mailers, foam core backer board, cellophane sleeves, magnets, coasters, aluminum prints, a variety of packing material, and other sundries that go with this art-for-a-living operation. This is just one end of it, the other looks similar.

If allowed free-range, it could quickly turn wild.

In drawers, you’ll find replacement ink cartridges and paper for my printer, pens, paper clips, staples and the supplies that go with any office. Add to that empty, half-filled and filled sketchbooks of various sizes, and plenty of art supplies for sketching, even though these days, I primarily work digitally.

Among those necessities, there exists the things I hang onto that have outlived their usefulness.

Dozens of art prints I’ve bought from other artists over the years that I always intend to frame and put up. Many people have a collection like this, but especially artists. We love to buy new pretty pictures, even if they’re eventually filed away with the ones we’ve bought before.

There are images of my own work, special edition productions I’ve done where I’ve printed too many, just to be on the safe side. There’s nothing wrong with them, aside from the low demand, but I can’t seem to recycle them, and giving them away feels like a slap in the face to those who actually paid for one.

Odds and ends of packing material with no use, kind of like the stale ends of a loaf of bread, kept in the unlikely chance they might be of use later.

There is a large box of computer cords and other gadgets or parts, either obsolete or won’t connect to any current equipment, but there was that time years ago when I needed something like that and didn’t have one. Just don’t ask me to recall when that was.

Finally, on the top shelf, there are empty product boxes. For the iPad, iPhone and Apple Pencil I bought more than two years ago. Just in case I need to return one? A box for a camera lens, to replace the one that broke when I slipped on a Vancouver Island beach more than two years ago. I still have the broken lens, too, because it was expensive.

What it all comes down to is something called sunk costs.

You can find long explanations of the term online, a lot of them having to do with accounting and business expenses, but the short version, as I understand it, is that we often make bad decisions and hang onto things, because they once had value, even if they don’t anymore.

Say you bought a computer monitor ten years ago. Even though it has dead pixels, the colour shifts, it makes a weird humming sound, is too small for your current needs, and the one you’ve got now is so much better, that old monitor still sits in the corner of your basement or garage, taking up space. Because you spent good money on it and somehow keeping it around means you didn’t lose that money.

We keep things long after they no longer have value to anyone because throwing it out not only feels wasteful, but we think that if we keep it, the money isn’t really gone if we still have the thing we bought.

It’s the reason I have TWO four-shelf bookcases full of books even though I haven’t opened most of them in years. Some I have yet to read, but most of them are art books I don’t open anymore and likely never will again. But I spent money on them, so it seems like donating or recycling them now meant I wasted money when I bought them in the first place, even though that isn’t true.

What about Kijiji?  I could still get five or ten bucks for some of this stuff. But since it isn’t wise to invite strangers to my home, that means I’m going to sit in a parking lot somewhere, waiting for somebody to show up on time, if he shows up at all, to make $10, when I would make more than that spending my time working on a cartoon or painting.

Time is the most valuable resource we have and turning my old stuff into a travelling yard sale is a poor use of mine.

A good friend of mine is a whiz with musical instruments. He’ll pick up a beat-up guitar at a pawn shop, take it home, disassemble it, clean up the parts, install new ones for broken pieces, and give it new life. Then he’ll sell it for more than the original cost and his time, making a tidy profit. He enjoys both the hunt for the instrument and bringing it back to life.

That’s not the same thing as trying to get $5 for an old pair of PC headphones that are long obsolete.

In addition to those headphones, and another set, a portable drawing table, some promotional valise type carrying cases, and various other odds and ends, I donated a large box of stuff to the local thrift store last week.

A small tube TV I’ve had in my office since we lived in Banff in the 90s went to electronic recycling, along with a radio, and the useless computer cords. I hadn’t turned that little TV on in over a year, not since we killed our cable.

And in a couple of garbage bags that went to the dumpster were my three Guru Awards from Photoshop World.

Winning those awards meant a great deal to me. Professionally, it gave me credibility as an expert in digital painting. The first in 2010 was for the Illustration category, the second that same year for Best in Show. It was a sense that I had finally arrived, that I wasn’t kidding myself about the quality of my work.

It introduced me to Wacom, which led to working with them.

The third award in 2014, was again for Best in Show. The prize was my Canon DSLR camera, which changed my whole process. Taking reference photos became as important a part of my painted work as the painting itself. Today, one doesn’t exist without the other. It was the last time I would attend Photoshop World, a period in my life I remember fondly.

The conference itself has withered in recent years, with attendance dropping off. The community of friends I knew, none of them go anymore. And these days, outside of that group, most people don’t even know what the award represents.

Winning the awards mattered to me, the doors they opened mattered to me, the recognition mattered to me.  Those three large chunks of acrylic gathering dust on the shelf don’t matter to me, and they certainly don’t matter to anyone else. For the most part, nobody spends time in my office but me.

I asked myself, “Do I need to keep these?”

The answer landed them in the garbage bag, and three days later, as I write this, I have no regrets. Those laurels are in the past and if I’m still defining my worth by awards I won 6 and 10 years ago, that’s a problem.

Getting rid of useless stuff feels like dropping a heavy pack after a long hike, suddenly realizing how much weight was on your back.

The awards, the TV, those computer cords and all of that stuff I haven’t touched in years, I can’t give you a good reason why I hung onto any of it as long as I did, other than the fact that at one time, they had value.

If your home burned to the ground, what do you currently own that you wouldn’t even consider using the insurance money to replace? Look around. If it was suddenly gone, would you repurchase it? That’s the first clue you no longer need it.

It’s all baggage, the stuff that belonged to who we used to be that holds us back, shit we carry that prevents us from moving forward.

As Tyler Durden said in Fight Club, “Things you own, end up owning you.”

Up next, the bookshelves.
__________________

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
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Write or Wrong

As mentioned in my recent post about painting Quint from Jaws, there’s something about this time of year, I get this panicky, restless, fretting feeling that time is ticking, life is passing by too fast, and there’s so much I need to get done before I die.

There are plenty of problems with that first sentence, aside from the fact that it’s too long.

Right up until sixth grade, I got excellent marks, but then I entered French Immersion, and everything plummeted. What used to come easy suddenly required work.  I was a lazy student, didn’t pay attention, always daydreaming, class clown, none of this should surprise you considering how I make my living.

I squeaked by in high school. Even if I knew the material, I often tanked the tests. My French teacher told me at graduation that I failed my final exam, which made no sense since I was still fluent at the time. She wrote it off as a bad day and passed me with 80%.

In college, I spent a couple of years in Psychology because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I went to class, enjoyed the subject matter (still do), but was put on academic probation my second last semester and wasn’t ‘invited back’ after the last one.

Despite studying, I didn’t do well on the tests.

I suspect it was an issue I have to this day, putting pressure on myself for even the little things, so that during those tests, I would wonder, “What if it’s a trick question? What if I don’t know what I think I know? What if I make the wrong choice?”

That became a repetitive exercise in self-sabotage.

After that, I went to school to become an Emergency Medical Technician. I did well in training, enjoyed the experience, had a successful practicum in Calgary with an excellent preceptor, and despite failing the registration exam the first time (it’s like there’s a pattern here), I received my license.

In the middle of all of that, I spent five years in the Reserves, where I met Shonna. She was also in college in Red Deer, for Hospitality and Tourism, which is why she moved to Banff for her practicum and stayed for the advancement. I moved to Banff after my EMT training to save the failing long-distance relationship and realized I no longer wanted to work on an ambulance.

We were married the following year. Twenty-five years later, there’s no doubt I made the right call.

Between then and now, I worked in tourism and retail, drew my first editorial cartoon in 1998, then once a week for the next three years. I became nationally syndicated, part-time until 2005, when I was able to quit my job working as an Office Admin for a physiotherapist. I’ve been a full-time artist ever since, drawing daily editorial cartoons for newspapers across Canada and painting funny looking animals for prints and licensing.

That’s the Coles notes version, CliffsNotes for Americans.

Despite all of my shortcomings in school, however, I’ve always enjoyed writing. Essays, book reports, poetry assignments, creative prose, I not only liked the work, but I did well at it.

One English teacher in junior high even called my parents to tell them that I must have plagiarized an assignment because the writing was too advanced to be my own. She couldn’t prove it, and my folks backed me up.

To this day, that accusation pisses me off. I hang on to shit. It’s unhealthy.

What most don’t know is that I’ve written two novels. These aren’t ideas, notes, and outlines, but finished books.

I’m not saying they’re any good, but I did the work, spent countless hours for a few years, writing, re-writing, and hashing out characters. I even used up a week’s vacation one year to complete that first book, and when finished, I was pleased with it.  But just like all of those failed tests, when it came time to put up or shut up, I caved.

I only sent it out once and got a charming, encouraging rejection letter.

Rejections are part of the process; the price all writers must pay. I knew that going in, but I never sent it out again. Instead, I wrote another book, and I never even sent that one out once. Both of them have been sitting idle in a drawer and on various hard drives for close to twenty years.
A few years ago, I planned to do an art book, a collection of my animal art and portraits from the past decade or so, along with the stories behind the paintings, of which there are many. I even had a local publisher commit to producing it, one of the highest hurdles in writing a book. It was supposed to come out in 2017.

Since it’s 2019 and there’s no book available on my site, you can guess what happened. I choked.

The material is there, in a dozen years of regular blog posts, thousands of words already written, hundreds of images sketched, drawn and painted, all waiting to be edited, rewritten and put together, but for my crippling self-doubt and failure to follow through.

When I run into that publisher here in town or at the Calgary Expo, there is no small amount of shame, and it requires effort not to hide from him. I’m pretty sure he’s moved on. Who wouldn’t?

It’s basic psychology. A simple fear shared by every creative who has ever lived. If I don’t put it out there, it can’t be rejected, judged or ridiculed.

The irony is that when I started editorial cartooning, the odds were stacked against me to the same degree, if not more. And yet, I still drew three to five cartoons every week for two years, earning no money from it. I came close to quitting many times but kept at it.

The same thing happened with the painted work, albeit to a lesser degree as I was already a working artist, but it took a few years for that work to pay dividends.

There were plenty of rejections during that time, more than I can count. I still get rejections every day, whether it’s because a newspaper runs a competitor’s cartoon instead of mine or somebody picks up one of my prints at the Calgary Expo, puts it back and moves on. I can’t imagine how often that happens in retail stores with my licensed products.

I make my living in a profession synonymous with failure.

So why is writing different?

Part of it is that now that I pay my bills with my creative time, the thought of spending it on something unlikely to make money, it just feels irresponsible. I could spend two hours painting or drawing an editorial cartoon, or I could spend two hours writing. Two of those options will put food on the table.

That’s the trap of being creative for a living. When you first start, it’s just great to be creating. Then it’s thrilling when somebody wants to buy what you’ve made. When you realize you can make a living at it, well, that might as well be a lottery win.

Until one day, you reach down to scratch an itch on your ankle and realize there’s a shackle and chain around it. Suddenly it isn’t that you get to create, but that you have to create, as much as you possibly can. Otherwise, it’s back to one of those real jobs.

So when I think of writing a book, whether an art book or a novel, it feels like wasted time. It feels like risking the tangible paying creative work on a pipe dream that is only so much smoke.

The reality is that most writers never make any money from it. The stats don’t lie. For every Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Malcolm Gladwell, there are millions of others who will spend their lives writing words that nobody will read.

Over the past year, I’ve felt the urge rising again. I’ve got multiple notebooks on the go, rewrites of the first two books, one for the art book and a new one that has been rattling around in my head. I think about the last one every day.  It’s a good idea, a book I’d want to read, but aside from taking notes, I haven’t written a word.

I’m just afraid it’s gonna suck.

If somebody doesn’t like an editorial cartoon or a painting, I can easily chalk that up to preference. Hey, you don’t agree with my opinion, you don’t find it funny or resonant, or my artwork isn’t for you. That’s art for you, and I’m okay with that. I’ve got close friends and family who don’t like my work. It doesn’t bother me.

The writing is different. Even with blog posts, which I always seem to find time for, I worry that they’re too self-indulgent or narcissistic or first-person, uninteresting, too long, derivative, whiny, redundant, dull.  I could write negative, self-critical adjectives all day long.

With writing, it almost seems like I’m waiting for somebody to give me permission, some panel of experts who will deliberate and deliver their verdict.

“We’ve discussed your case at great length, read through your blog posts and newsletters, and we’ve decided that you’re just not good enough to write anything of substance. We find you guilty of hubris. Request denied.”

Even as I write this, the critic in my mind admonishes, “wait, you’re not going to post all of this bullshit, are you?”

If you’re reading this, I guess you know how that turned out.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King wrote, “If you write, or paint, or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose, someone will try to make you feel lousy about it.”

For most creative types, the loudest critical voice is usually our own. What I fear more now is not that I’ll write a lot of garbage that won’t be any good, although that fear is ever-present, but that I’ll think about it for another twenty years without writing anything.

Better to risk being a bad writer than a wannabe.

As always, finding the time for anything new is a challenge. Editorial cartooning and painting are each hard enough to make time for, let alone photography, marketing, file prep, bookkeeping, and the other trappings that go along with being self-employed. I do manage to write regular blog posts and newsletters, however, and that’s tens of thousands of words each year.

Since I don’t have kids, I should probably just shut up about not having enough time. Excuses, like opinions, are never in short supply.

One of my favourite movies is Rocky Balboa, the sixth movie in the franchise, written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. You want to talk about writing against the odds; Stallone’s success story with the original Rocky is legendary. How that industry worked at the time, the movie not only should never have been made, but Stallone should never have starred in it. It won multiple awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture.

I’ve watched the movie many times, and there’s an incredible speech about this very thing, letting your fears dictate your path. I’ve included it at the end of this post.

But there is also a scene where the character Marie says to Rocky, “Fighters fight.”

The last time I saw it earlier this year, however, I heard, “Writers write.”

I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

@LaMontagneArt
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Hearing Voices

Books

There was a small video crew here this morning to interview me, some footage for a piece they’re doing on the upcoming 15th anniversary of the little paper that could, The Rocky Mountain Outlook. Lots of people said it would fail when it first began in 2001, an empty curse that is often in the first paragraph of many success stories.

I have been the cartoonist for the Outlook since the first time it hit the stands and one of my cartoons has been in every issue. My connection to what has become the newspaper of record ‘round here is something I’m proud of, because it was a dream built by tough people who then passed it on to another generation and they’re taking good care of it.

I’m a big softie when it comes to nostalgia. I reminisce often and usually put an overly romantic spin on the memories when I do. Despite my misanthropic outlook, I’ve known a lot of good people in my time, many of whom have helped me get to where I am today, often with gentle nudges but sometimes with the use of high voltage cattle prods placed in uncomfortable places.

The interview this morning got me thinking about the road from there to here. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of my first editorial cartoon, a poorly drawn black and white scrawl for The Banff Crag and Canyon. I look up at the Coyote Totem hanging on my wall, with his knowing grin and I can’t help but marvel in hindsight at all of the dots that had to connect to finally become good enough to paint him. Had I missed just one of those dots, it might have all gone away.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing, an outlet that has ebbed and flowed throughout my life, ever since I was a kid.

At my last Photoshop World, the subject of storytelling kept popping up. One of the instructors was talking about doing that with photos, but the other two mentions seemed entirely random. And yet, I picked up on it. Since then, the theme has been ever-present.

When my publisher Alex and I began talking about my upcoming book of my animal artwork, he was adamant that the writing in it should focus on telling the stories surrounding the paintings. When I dropped off a print to a valued client in Red Deer the other day, she told me how much she liked the stories behind the work. And one of my followers on Facebook commented this week that “One day you will also be an award winning author if you aren’t already.”

I don’t know if that last one is true, but I appreciated the thought. This common theme of writing has resurfaced in recent years, often to the point of distraction. I have editorial cartoons and painting to do, but I made time to write this instead.

When I was in the sixth grade in Lahr, West Germany, I had a teacher named Tom Muise. He was one of those teachers you hear about, who just happened to say the right thing at the right time and probably didn’t even know he was doing it. Handing me back an essay one day, he paused with it just out of reach, so I had to look up at him. When I did, he said, “Someday, you’re going to be a writer.”

I have never forgotten that. I still think about it often. In the late nineties, I was halfway through writing a novel and once again heard his voice in my head. He talked about it often, so remembering that he was from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, I found a number online for a Tom Muise and called him. He didn’t remember me, which wasn’t surprising, but I told him I wanted to thank him for the inspiration and that his kind words had not been forgotten.

Tom Muise died of cancer in 2008. I’m so glad I called.

I finished that novel and only sent it out once. One rejection is all it took for me to put it back in a drawer. Had I known then what I know now about no reward without risk, I would have kept at it and started collecting the pile of rejection letters that every published author holds dear. I still think about the story often and twenty years later, I’ve got pages of notes for a rewrite, hopefully with a more experienced voice. Shonna thinks I was holding back when I wrote it the first time and I know she’s right.

There was another novel after that, and both are printed and held together with cerlox binding, sitting on a shelf where I can see them as I write this. Last year, I bought three moleskin notebooks and keep them close at hand most of the time. I take them camping, on vacation, and on road trips. One is for the rewrite of the first novel, the second is for notes about the art book, and the third is for a new novel with the working title ‘The Dark,’ which will work well enough until something better comes along.

And yet, despite that the fact that I am not a writer, Mr. Muise’s words came to me and helped with my artwork over the years, too. Because what he was really saying was that I could do whatever I wanted to.

In every creative life, there are critical voices. They might come from family, friends, or simply in the form of drive-by posts on Facebook or shouts from the cheap seats through cupped hands. But the worst one is internal. It asks, “What makes your story so special? What an ego to think anything you have to say is worth anybody else’s time. What arrogance. Who do you think you are?

That toxic voice keeps a lot of people from realizing their potential. It’s loud, obnoxious, and provides innumerable excuses for failing to try. Every creative I know fights with that voice on a regular basis. It just told me to delete this self-indulgent post before I embarrass myself.

That’s the voice that made me stop sending out the book after one rejection. Today, it’s not as big and scary as it used to be. Having made my living as an artist for more than a decade, I’m very comfortable with rejection. It’s simply a part of the gig. Its life’s way of asking, “How bad do you really want it?”

There is a parable of a grandfather telling his grandson about two wolves that live inside each of us, constantly battling with each other. One is evil, the other is good. When the grandson asks which one wins, the grandfather says, “the one you feed.”

We each have that choice.

Editorial cartooning will be over someday, of that I have no doubt. Painting will likely be a large part of me as long as I draw breath. This recent urge to write more, however, is a mystery. It might be short-lived, simply dropping by for a little while as it has before. Or perhaps it’s just finally the right time.

What is clear to me is that to ignore the impulse would be a disservice to whatever other has granted me the ability.

So I’ll write, and see what happens.

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Letter to my Editor

I’ve been following Renegade Arts Entertainment for some time now as the company is a local success story. A Canadian publisher of comic books and graphic novels featuring internationally known writers and artists, Renegade’s reach appears to be ever expanding. Based right here in Canmore, their commitment to quality artwork, storytelling, and printing has earned my respect.

Earlier this year, I asked Editor and Publisher (and writer!) Alexander Finbow if he wouldn’t mind meeting me for lunch. I was looking to pick his brain about publishing and asked for any advice he could give me. Alex and I didn’t really know each other, though we’d met, but I needed help and figured I had nothing to lose by asking.

He was gracious and generous with his time and information, we talked about Renegade possibly publishing my book (something I didn’t expect), but with the many submissions he gets each week and the fact that my book will be very different from anything they’ve published before, it was just tire kicking on both of our parts. I thanked him for his time and willingness to share what he knew and I went away with a lot more to think about.

Alex and I ran into each other a few times at the Calgary Expo, talked while walking to the BMO Centre one day during the event, and he invited my wife and I to a networking event that weekend as well, which was a lot of fun.
Alex01FBThis past Sunday, I went downtown to Café Books here in Canmore to buy Renegade’s latest book, The Loxleys and Confederation, and Alex and I chatted more about my project. Before I knew it, we had agreed to work together on it, and Renegade will be publishing my book in early 2017. If that seems like a lot of lead time, it’s because there are a thousand things to do if you want to publish and market a book well. Creating the content is step 1. I’m looking forward to a lot of work and a lot of education over the next year. The artwork and writing of the book needs to be done by Canada Day, 2016.

So now I have a deadline. I’m good with deadlines.

With some suggestions for the narrative from Alex and my own thoughts rattling around my head, he tasked me with laying down a foundation for the book. What do I want to say? What story do I want to tell?

Yesterday, I sent Alex the following email and I thought it might be something you’d like to read, with his permission and approval, of course. He even came up with the title for this post.

So here it is. The beginning of my first book of artwork…

Hi Alex:

Having had some time to think about the direction of the narrative in the book, I wanted to write down what I think would give you my best work to go along with the images. Most people I know who’ve run their own business or charted their own course for any length of time, have experienced the rewards of following their gut instinct. Sometimes it’s soft spoken, other times it’s a deafening roar. We’ve all been the victims of ignoring that instinct as well, and the ones still working have learned from it. I’m sure you can say the same of your own experience.

With that in mind, I don’t want to include any fictional stories in the book. Don’t get me wrong, I like writing fiction. I’ve written two novels that have been sitting on a shelf for the past fifteen years because I was focusing on my artwork instead. Truth be told, I chickened out on trying to get either published, although I did recently start editing the first one again to give it another go.

But for the animal work, fiction just feels wrong to me. What I had intended from the beginning, and what still feels true to me, is to use the writing in the book to talk about the road from there to here. How I stumbled upon drawing animals and the success of that work at this point in time is a weird meandering story and that’s the one I want to tell.

I’ve never gone to art school, so I don’t like talking or teaching art in that way because I don’t feel qualified to do so. I’m also not an animal expert by any means so talking about habitats and biology would be boring for me to write, not to mention for someone to read. As for telling a story that goes with each painting or image, there really isn’t one for every animal. Some of them, like my Bactrian Camel image, was just because I saw one at the Calgary Zoo and thought, “I want to paint him!”

BactrianCamel
That’s often the case with most of my images and there will be plenty of sketches and works-in-progress I’d like to include in the book that won’t require captions or accompanying text.

But there are many paintings that do have fun and ridiculous stories associated with them. There are the owls up at Grassi Lakes, a rooster on a hobby farm outside of Bowden, a couple of goofy looking seagulls on a dock in Ucluelet, the lion cubs I photographed up close outside of Innisfail recently, and a Coyote that waited twenty years to be painted. Incidentally, that Coyote is my favorite painting and I’m willing to tell that story in the book. I’ve never written about it before.

CoyoteTotem
I’ve got plenty of stories to tell, but the common thread that will tie them all together is that they’re part of my story. So that’s what I want it to be, a collection of stories that contribute to the whole. The lessons I’ve learned from painting animals.

I want to talk about my philosophy on the business, anecdotes, learning to paint, following instinct, serendipity and happy accidents. I started in my mid-late twenties and somehow turned this into a career. What I’d like to share with people is the inspiration that it’s never too late to try something new and to point out the value of taking risks. Ask twenty artists how to become a success and you’ll get twenty answers. The ones who went to art school will say you have to go to art school. The ones who paint with oils and acrylics will say you have to paint with traditional materials. More and more in my career, I find that the rules others tell you that must be followed are often shackles, chains that prevent you from moving forward.

This is the type of narrative I want to write, the one I’m the most passionate about, and what will deliver my best work to the project. It’s these types of themes that have given me the greatest response in newsletters and blog posts over the years, the ones that strip away the glossy PR and marketing and talk to people like they’re real…well…people.

I’ve been keeping a pretty regular blog since February of 2008, although some months are leaner than others. Lately, more of my writing has gone into my newsletter, but there’s a lot of material there and more I can add that I think will make an interesting read to go with the paintings.

Everybody’s got a story to tell, and I’d like to start telling mine. I think there’s value in it. Plus, I really do enjoy writing and if I’m going to keep painting the images I want to paint, then I’d like the writing to follow the same guidelines.

That being said, I fully submit to your editing expertise when the writing is done. I mentioned to my wife the other day that it seems laughable when we were kids that our teachers would assign 1000 word essays in English class. I can write that much in an email even when I’m trying to keep it short. Clearly, I need an editor.

I’ve had a title in mind for a couple of years now. It best sums up the work and describes the whimsical nature of most of my paintings. I’d like to call it, “Funny Looking Animals.”

With that in mind, I’d welcome your thoughts and advice on this. I’m happy to send you links to any blog posts I’ve written that I think best illustrate the tone I’d like to set in the book. I’m looking forward to working with you.

Cheers,
Patrick
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