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Kartooning Kenney

When I first started editorial cartooning twenty years ago, I would spend hours nitpicking details, trying to get everything just right. I wasn’t a very good artist then, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

Obsessing over the details, often with one eye on the clock before I had to get to my day job, my wife would often caution me about trying to turn every cartoon into The Sistine Chapel.

To this day, whenever I spend a lot of time on a cartoon, we refer to it as a Sistine Chapel.

I realized quite some time ago that many of my competitors and colleagues became editorial cartoonists because they were political animals who enjoyed drawing, whereas I was the opposite. I liked to doodle in my spare time and stumbled upon the gig that would change the course of my life because of an ad in the weekly Banff paper. I was 27 years old. Before that, I paid very little attention to politics or the news.

While learning to be a better artist, I was also learning to follow politics and the news.

In the days when many newspapers had their own in-house cartoonist, that artist could spend an entire day on a cartoon, coming up with the idea, drawing the sketch, presenting the editor with a rough, and delivering the finished cartoon at the end of the day by deadline.

He (they were almost always men) didn’t have to worry that another cartoonist was going to take his spot in the next day’s paper.

These days, with so many newspapers having laid off their staff cartoonist, many use syndicated freelancers, so it’s a dog eat dog world of not only coming up with the cartoon, but getting it drawn fast in order to meet a much earlier deadline.

Quite a few of my weekly newspapers want their cartoons before 9 o’clock on Monday morning in their own time zone. I work weekends.

On top of that, with clients in many provinces, I also have to consider that even though the Alberta election has an impact on the entire country, a cartoon on that topic might not resonate with a weekly paper in Ontario. While I will still send them those cartoons, I will make sure I send them other cartoons so they have more options from which to choose.

What all of that means is that a part of my brain is perpetually on the lookout for cartoon ideas, I am always planning the next day’s (week’s, month’s…) cartoons, and trying to come up with the best use of my time so that the cartoon will still consist of a number of ingredients. It should be funny, but sometimes intentionally not funny. It should be an insightful comment on an issue, but sometimes just a joke about dog poop thawing in the spring. It should be well drawn, but often a simple drawing will suffice to get the message across.

I’m supplying not only an artistic comment for an editorial page, but also a product for my client, and they won’t wait until I’m ready to send it if they’re up against deadline and other cartoonists have already sent in submissions.

I rarely take days off, but that serves my nature. I’m always working on the next cartoon, the next painting, the next blog post, or preparing files for my licensing clients. When I hear friends talk about looking forward to their retirement, I’m just trying to work as long as I can, hoping my eyesight and dexterity hold out before age robs me of both.

Add to that the tenuous nature of a daily deadline for a struggling industry in a gig economy and there are days when I feel more like a factory worker pushing out widgets than an artist. I don’t often get to put as much into a cartoon as I’d like.

Every so often, however, I make time for a Sistine Chapel.

A little background…

The province of Alberta was ruled for 44 years by the Progressive Conservative Party.

In the last election, they managed to anger Albertans so much that people voted for the New Democratic Party en masse and they won a majority, which for this province was a huge upset, a dramatic swing from right to left. I figure people voted for them out of protest in order to give the Conservative Party a spanking to remind them who they worked for.

I don’t think anybody expected the NDP to win. I sure didn’t.

In 2017, the two right wing Progressive Conservatives and Wild Rose parties merged and now the new United Conservative Party is trying to take Alberta back from the NDP in our current election.

Many who support the UCP blame the NDP for anything and everything that has ever been wrong with Alberta, which is ridiculous because the whole reason they got elected was that the previous government had screwed everything up so badly having been corrupted by their sense of entitlement. Since the Wild Rose was made up of former PCs, nobody trusted them either.

Of course, when I say stuff like this, people think I support the NDP, which I don’t. I’ve drawn plenty of cartoons critical of the current government, but when it comes to the lesser of evils, they most certainly are, for one reason.

Because the UCP is led by Jason Kenney.

Jason Kenney was a career federal politician, whose past positions on some pretty important social issues weren’t very popular. Having followed federal politics for many years, I’ve formed the opinion that Jason Kenney’s primary interest is Jason Kenney and if the UCP doesn’t get elected, it’ll be because he’s in charge.

I don’t trust him. A lot of people don’t trust him.

My impression is that Kenney realized he was never going to be the Prime Minister of Canada, so he came back to Alberta, said all of the right things to get people angry, pointed a finger at the NDP, said they’re to blame for everything and thank heavens he showed up just in time to save us from ourselves.

All he’s missing is Make Alberta Great Again embroidered on his fresh off the rack cowboy hat, to go with his pristine blue pickup truck.

The current Premier, Rachel Notley, has a lot of hard work to do. She’s made some unpopular choices with Albertans and there’s plenty of room for improvement. I’m not a fan of hers, either. The primary goal of every party anywhere is to get re-elected and the NDP are shoveling hard.

But Jason Kenney is irresponsible, reckless and dangerous. He is preying on fear and outrage, and will divide Alberta even more than it already is. He is not the solution to what ails us.

So when I decided to draw this cartoon, I allowed more time than I’m used to. I spent hours on the sketch and drawing, painted in little details that nobody will see, tried some stuff that worked, discarded other stuff that didn’t and probably sacrificed a second cartoon that could have been completed had I rushed this one through.

Regardless of where (and if) it gets published, it was well worth my time.

Because it was fun.


To see the rest of my current cartoons, here’s the link to that page, updated each week.

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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Caricature and Cartoons

When I first started out as an editorial cartoonist, I was horrible at caricature. It took forever for me just to get a passable likeness and sometimes, I even had to put the name of the person on a briefcase or name tag just to be sure that people would know who they were looking at.

As time went on, I spent a lot of energy trying to become better at that, because this artistic shortcoming drove me nuts. I tried to do the extreme exaggeration caricature, with the huge features, but never really took to it. I tried to do faces that were far too realistic so that they weren’t caricatured at all. Eventually, I discovered my own style which is a mix of the two, leaning more toward a realistic than extreme distortion. But still with big noggins.

It has been my experience that caricature is often seen as something easy to do by people who don’t draw or paint. I’m not sure why that is, perhaps it’s because many people have seen or had their caricature painted by one of those artists at county fairs or carnivals in ten minutes or less. What most people don’t realize is that the people who can do that are incredibly talented. That kind of speed and accuracy takes years to acquire and I have a lot of respect for the artists I know who can do it. It is a skill I do not possess.

I took an online caricature course years ago from Jason Seiler through Jason is an incredibly talented portrait and caricature artist, his work has appeared in many magazines and publications. He has even painted Pope Francis for Time’s Man of The Year cover last year. You probably saw it, even if you didn’t know who did it.

I learned a lot from Jason’s course, it was well worth my time and money. I probably found my own personal value more in the painting techniques I learned from that course, rather than the caricature. That’s not a failing on his part, far from it. It’s just where my interest was. A lot of the painting techniques I still use today have core elements of the skills I learned from Jason.

When it comes to caricature, I’ve done commissions for individuals, illustrations for magazines and newspapers, business graphics, and celebrity portfolio pieces. After I discovered my animal work, however, I realized that’s where my niche was and have since devoted most of my painting time to that. My caricature skills, such as they are, are clearly a part of that work. While I will still get requests from time to time for caricature commissions of people, I most often turn them down unless there are very special circumstances.

These days, the majority of my caricatures are for editorial cartoons. As deadlines are constantly on my mind, I can’t always put long hours into them, but every once in a while, I’ll make the time.
MulcairNotley_closeupAs I’d had the idea for this cartoon on Friday, in anticipation of the upcoming NDP convention in Edmonton, I decided to devote Sunday to working on it. I started with the sketches very early in the morning and finished painting it sometime around 3 pm, I think. Allowing for time to eat, chitchat with my wife throughout the day, I would guess this one took me somewhere around 6 or 7 hours to complete.

Editorial cartoon caricatures are tough because newsprint is a muddy and unpredictable medium. Subtle brushstrokes often get blurred out so they’re not even seen. For that reason, I have to paint with more contrast, harder lines, and include black lines where I might normally leave them out in another painting. It’s about finding the right balance between how I’d really like to paint the face and what I need to do to make it stand out on newsprint and hopefully look relatively the same in all of the publications that print it. You’d be surprised how one press can make a cartoon look great, while another can make it look completely washed out, all from the same file.

For those who follow my artwork, but not my editorial cartoons or Canadian politics, the guy is Thomas Mulcair, leader of the New Democrat Party of Canada. The woman is Rachel Notley, Premier of Alberta, also with the NDP but at the provincial level. Neither is very popular right now and they’re both struggling for relevance.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, not only the faces, but also painting the car, just spending time on the whole image overall. Without worrying about whether it gets widely published or if my editors like it, I had fun painting it, nitpicking over the details, trying a few experiments, improving on my skills. It was time well spent.

While there will always be room for improvement, likenesses are a lot easier for me now than they used to be. And best of all, I’m confident that I don’t have to write their names in there anymore.


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Young and Hungry


“…So my question to you is, do you have any advice, or tips, for a young artist who wants to make it a way of life? Especially without a degree under my belt.”

I often get questions from young and hungry creatives who want insight into becoming a professional artist. In this case, his focus is on writing. As I’d like to keep things anonymous, I’ve met (let’s call him Brian) a couple of times where my work and his job have crossed paths. It doesn’t matter that I don’t write for a living. Art is art.

There are plenty of ‘you can do it, Nicky!’ posts out there that say if you want it and wish hard enough, your dreams will come true. This isn’t one of those. Motivation is important, but so are reality checks.

I sent questions and emails to artists when I was young and hungry, too, and I always appreciated responses, so I try to pay that forward. The edited version of my response…

We’re all just winging it, Brian. I’ve never met an artist (writer, musician, photographer, creative type) who has it all figured out.

We’re all products of the talents we’ve been given, the drive to do something with them, the skills that come from constant practice and the backgrounds that put us in front of the right opportunities at the right time.

The only thing we can control is whether or not we recognize and take advantage of those opportunities.

I didn’t realize I wanted to create art for a living until my late twenties and it seemed to happen by accident. There was an ad in the Banff Crag and Canyon newspaper for an editorial cartoonist. Once a week, draw a cartoon on local politics and current events for $30. I was working at a hotel at the time and it seemed like an easy way to get some extra beer money, especially since nobody else applied. I had always been a doodler, but never went to art school, had no training and was simply willing to fail publicly.

I spent five years in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, I took Psychology in college and then was an Emergency Medical Technician who never worked for an actual ambulance service after my training. And I have no degree. At the time, I worked in tourism.

Those first cartoons were pitiful and took so many hours, but for three years I did it and never missed a deadline. Without even realizing it, I was putting in the practice time for what would become my career. When another local newspaper started up in 2001, they asked me to be their cartoonist.

One of the owners, who was the editor and is now a good friend, asked me why I wasn’t syndicated. She told me to start doing cartoons on national topics and just start sending them out to papers across Canada. For the first two years, I had two papers, each paying me $10 a week. It was pitiful. I was working so hard, evenings, early mornings before work, and weekends drawing cartoons and sending them out, getting almost no bites at all, while still working a full-time job to pay the bills.

I often thought of giving up. Hours and hours and hours drawing cartoons that never got published. And in hindsight, it was just more of the necessary practice it took to help me become the artist I am today. I just didn’t know it at the time. I felt taken advantage of and tremendously foolish, as if I was kidding myself to think that I could make a career of it.

When things finally started to click, however, it happened pretty quickly. I started getting more and more papers and a little over ten years ago, my wife and I had a serious discussion about my quitting the full-time job. I was 34 years old, but I felt like I was too old to be taking such a risk. I now know different. You can take risks at any age and nothing great ever comes without one.

But for each person, the sacrifice will be different, greater or less depending on your personal circumstances.

The only way I could quit my job was if my business could still pay half of our mortgage and bills. While those first two or three years were pretty damn lean, we managed, and these days I don’t have to refer to myself as a struggling artist.

I’ve had good advice from unexpected sources, bad advice from others. I’ve made mistakes that have cost me time and money, something that still happens occasionally but a whole hell of a lot less. I’ve planted and cultivated new ideas and pursuits that have withered and died on the vine. Other crops have flourished. My career has shifted from solely focused on editorial cartoons to including my paintings of whimsical wildlife. Each year that part of my business shows positive growth and I plan for that trend to continue.

But there’s no secret that only successful artists know. It’s the same requirement for anybody who wants to be self-employed in any field.

You have to work your ass off.

When your friends are going out partying on a Friday night, you have to consider that Saturday will be wasted if you’re hungover. Every leisure activity you do has to be reconsidered. You must sacrifice.

Those two years when I wasn’t getting any newspapers but was still working what seemed like a full-time job on top of a full-time job, I was giving up time with friends and family, I quit skiing because I could no longer afford it, we got by on one car and vacations were few and far between. We rarely went out for lunch or dinner.

I’ve heard stories of photographers who had to sell expensive lenses to pay the rent, writers who write all day and then go work night jobs while the only thing showing up in the mail is rejection after rejection after rejection, not to mention artists who paint on anything they can find because they can’t afford canvas or other materials.

I think that’s the universe’s way of making you prove how bad you want it. It’s an old cliché, but it applies…if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.

Paying the bills isn’t as hard as it used to be, but I still expect it to be all taken away tomorrow, by some unexpected calamity. It feels like I’m always living on borrowed time and I’m days away from having to go back and get a real job, even though I’m not. I am always working. Even when I’m camping or on vacation, I’m thinking about projects or cartoon ideas, following the news, etc. Success in self-employment means having to remind yourself to stop and smell the roses, but you’ll still only budget a small amount of time for it. I force myself to take afternoon hikes as often as possible just to stay healthy and get out of the office, but I’m still thinking about cartoon ideas and paintings while doing it.

That young guy in the picture above was not thinking about work that whole weekend. I guarantee it.

You want to be a writer? Write. All the time, even when you don’t feel like it. Waiting for inspiration is for independently wealthy trust fund babies. Success only comes to the creatives who treat their gifts like tools, just like a plumber, electrician, or other skilled trades-person. He or she worked hard for their expertise, artists have to as well.

Write about the dirt on the window, the dust on the desk, the clouds in the sky, that rude barista at Starbucks (wait, you can’t afford Starbucks anymore), the guy who cut you off in traffic, the ridiculousness of Apple iTunes agreements, the first blade of green grass you saw in the Spring. Just write!

Making a living at it isn’t for everybody. For some artists, the thought of soiling their talents with money and sales is as distasteful as dining on raw sewage. There’s nothing wrong with that. They can still create and have a job on the side to pay the bills. That works for a lot of people. Their creative pursuits are what make their job bearable.

So you have to decide what you want, and what you’re willing to give up to get it.

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Fine Tooning

WynneToonI spent most of Sunday (and a bit more of Monday) working on the cartoon you see above, featuring Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, a comment on this week’s provincial budget. From an efficiency perspective, it wasn’t the best use of my time. I could have easily done two or possibly three cartoons in the same span. But I love to paint and it’s been quite some time since I’ve poured everything into a caricature.

From an hourly perspective, I doubt I made minimum wage on this one, but it was fun and good practice, so it can’t really be seen as time misspent. I would love to be able to create this kind of detail in editorial cartoons on a regular basis, but in the quest to find the middle ground between best art and making a living, sacrifices must be made.

Like every other creative I know, chief among the questions I’m asked about editorial cartooning is, “where do you get your ideas?”

The short answer is that I follow the news closely, pretty much all the time. Newspapers, television, Google, websites like CBC, CTV, Global, National Newswatch and social media if you want specifics. While I won’t have the cartoon idea right away, I’ll be able to see from a headline and summary that there is likely one to be found within. That just comes with experience.

I’m what you call a self-syndicated editorial cartoonist. This means that I create one or two cartoons each weekday on regional, provincial, national and international topics, which I then send off to newspapers across Canada. Some clients only run my work; otherwise I am competing for space with other editorial cartoonists.

There are some daily newspapers that have a staff cartoonist, which is an endangered position, especially when layoffs seem to be the quickest way to cut expenses. I’ve often said that I’m glad I never got a job with a daily newspaper, because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t still have it today.

From 2001 to 2006, I was self-syndicating to newspapers across Canada while holding down a full-time job to pay the bills. I would get up at 5:00am each day to draw and send a cartoon before heading off to work. I would also draw evenings and weekends. When I finally became busy enough to quit the ‘real job’ and still pay my half of the bills, I continued to get up at the same time simply because I’m a morning person. While most think it’s nuts, I truly do enjoy getting up that early. A lot of other artists work late at night into the wee hours, but that’s just not me. I’m in bed by 9:30 or 10:00 most nights.
WynneCloseI work almost every day, though on weekends I have a little more flexibility. Saturdays I try to paint in the morning, but my wife and I will usually go do something the rest of the day. Sundays, I’m working on editorial cartoons. I squeeze in painted work and writing whenever and wherever I can.

The big challenge with freelance editorial cartooning is the speed at which cartoons need to be done. Someone who draws for a daily newspaper has the luxury of taking time to come up with the right idea and then enjoying the whole day to draw it. Nobody is going to take that spot on the editorial page from them as it’s reserved for their work.

For freelancers, however, it’s all about getting a good idea, drawing it fast, and sending it out to as many papers as possible before they go to print. For some weekly papers, that’s before noon on certain days and if there’s a time change in the wrong direction between here and there, that window of opportunity closes fast. This is where the early mornings help.

Not only do I have to make sure I deliver on time, but I’m also competing with other freelancers, not to mention a syndicate that resells cartoons from the few cartoonists who still work for the major dailies or the ones who’ve been laid off.

While I’m comfortable spending my days working alone, the isolation does have its stresses. For example, when big shifts happen in the world of newspapers, like last month’s round of Postmedia layoffs, things change quickly. Those Postmedia daily papers that used to run me quite often, well there’s been a sudden drop this month as editorial page editors have lost/left their jobs and new ones have started in. When there’s a shift like that, I often have to figure it out on my own and adapt quickly. Freelancers don’t get invited to meetings.

There’s also been a noticeable lurch to the right in much of the commentary on some of those daily pages, so any cartoon I draw that doesn’t paint the Conservatives in anything but a positive or persecuted light, well lately they don’t see the light of day. I’ve got no love for the Liberals or NDP, but I can’t bash them every single day ‘just because.’ That’s the Opposition’s shtick.

There is no doubt that the winds have changed. While I don’t expect any sympathy for having to adjust my sails to compensate, especially when so many have been outright laid off from their jobs, it has got me a little concerned. With an overactive OCD fueled imagination and a lot of time alone to think bad thoughts, the stress multiplies.

Thankfully, I have my painted work and print sales to reinforce the hull where it shows potential signs of leaking, but in a down economy, art isn’t a priority for a lot of people, either.

So what does one do? Well, the only thing I can do, I guess. Keep working, scramble a little harder, draw a little faster, look for new revenue streams, try to keep my current customers happy and borrow from a famous prayer. Accept what I can’t change, change what I can and figure out the difference.

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Out of the mouths of editors

About ten years ago, I couldn’t think of anything I would rather be doing for a living than editorial cartooning. I had a full-time office job, and I was working my ass off to try and leave it. It wasn’t a bad job; in fact it was a pretty good one. My boss was a decent guy (still is), he paid me well enough, and I wasn’t expected to work overtime or on weekends. But it just wasn’t what I wanted to do.

Without boring you with all of the details, I was eventually able to leave that job with the blessing of my employer and I often tell people that it was the best last job (and boss) to have. It was very scary, but exhilarating.

Fast forward eight years and editorial cartooning is now ‘the job.’ I don’t really enjoy it as much as I used to, but there are plenty of worse ways to make a living. While I’m still trying to be original and do my best, I’ve often said to people that the job can be emotionally taxing and I wonder if any of these smartass illustrated comments even matter to anybody.

I’ve likened following politics and the news for a living to getting out of bed every day, having a shower, then wading into raw sewage. The animosity and venom online that accompanies any news story (don’t read the comments, don’t read the comments…), the general distrust of elected officials, the hypocrisy of entitled federal politicians who will walk across the aisle and hug after a national tragedy, but then will say the most horrible things about and to each other just days and weeks afterward, thinking we’re all too stupid to notice, (take a breath!) it’s a little much to take sometimes. They’ll all campaign for more civility in the House of Commons, but their actions rarely match their words.

Ask them about this behaviour and they’ll tell you that it’s all part of the game and you find out that a lot of these people in opposing parties are quite civil and friendly with each other when the cameras are off. Somehow they figure that they can justify these actions at taxpayer expense, with “Oh, we’re just playing.”

Follow politics long enough and you realize that it doesn’t matter who is in power. They’re all playing the same shell game and Canadians are the dupes who continue to put down the money, only to have it taken away. And of course, the game doesn’t work unless we believe that one day we’ll be quick enough to beat the shifty con man on the other side of the apple crate.

See? I’m well into a rant I had no intention of writing. But it’s because I get worked up about it. While I do try to use it to my advantage and see the humour in it, tell myself that it’s all part of the job, I also become angry about it, a lot more often than I want to.

Clearly, I take this job way too personally. But as the scorpion said to the frog, “I can’t help it. It’s my nature.”


What brought this all to mind today was something one of my editors said to me about my Remembrance Day cartoon I sent out this week, the one shown here. It’s a topic on which I must draw each year, and I’ll be honest, I dread it. This year was especially difficult given recent events.

I’ve often used quotes in these more serious images, so this particular editor asked whose lines I’d used in the cartoon. I think he thought I might have forgotten to credit them appropriately. When I told him that the words were mine, he was complimentary and I thanked him, explaining that with a military family background on both sides, and five years spent in the Reserves, I always try to be as respectful and original as possible with this particular cartoon without being maudlin and trite.  I usually spend a lot of time on it, both in thought and on the artwork.

On that point, he said something that made me stop and think, not just about the Remembrance Day cartoon, but about editorial cartooning in general. He said, about his own job, “I try my best with my limited abilities, and I plan to come to work every day until they tell me to stop. Once in a while, though, those of us who do this sort of thing for a living, like you, create something that DOES matter, that DOES resonate with people, that DOES meet our own expectations. Not always, but sometimes. And it’s worth it, you know?”

Thanks, Steve. I think I needed that.

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An Editorial Cartoon in Two Minutes

This is just over an hour of sketching, drawing, and painting, condensed down to two minutes.  From sketch to finished work created digitally using a Wacom Cintiq 24HD display and Photoshop CC.  While the majority of my editorial cartoons are sketched on paper first and then scanned, this is pretty much the whole process I go through for each cartoon.  This is best viewed at full screen in HD.   To learn how this is done, you can purchase my cartooning DVD at PhotoshopCAFE.

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Photoshop Brush Maintenance

The other day I found myself wanted to do a little housekeeping with my Photoshop brushes, and I figured I’d share some thoughts.  I won’t be teaching anything about how to create brushes in Photoshop here as I’ve already detailed all of that in both of my DVDs, an article I wrote for Photoshop User Magazine and in a webinar or two that I recorded for Wacom.  Creating Photoshop brushes is an easy topic to find online and I would encourage anyone who wants to paint digitally to learn how to create and customize your own brushes.

Brush Hoarding

With an almost limitless supply of free brush sets online, digital artists of all levels seem to have a habit of downloading anything they can find on the off chance that one day; they might have use for the Valentine’s Day Zombie Cupid Brush Set.

I’ve seen artists who not only have hundreds of brush sets at the ready, most of which they’ve looked at once, but also those who have a hundred or more brushes in the set they use every day, most of those going untouched as well.  Before downloading a brush set, ask yourself if you’re really going to use it.

Stamp or Paint

There are two main brush types that I’ve come across and both have their uses.  The first are stamp brushes.  Usually it’s the type of brush that is meant to be tapped onto an image just like a stamp.  For my editorial cartoon work, my signature is a stamp brush.  As I want my brand to be consistent, it is comprised of my editorial cartoon signature (different than my actual signature), and my website address.  On every cartoon I’ve done for the last few years, my signature looks exactly the same because of this stamp brush and it’s the only stamp brush I use consistently.

Paint brushes on the other hand are ones intended to be used with a brush stroke.  With a little imagination and experimentation, a well-crafted stamp can be turned into a versatile and powerful paint brush.


Brush Sets

Some of the free downloads out there are really great.  You can find specific sets for holidays, environments, themes, moods, and weather.  I’ve spent many hours exploring brush sets over the years.  As time went on, however, I found that less is more and I pretty much stick to one brush set, most of which I designed myself.


Here’s the set I started with and what it looked like after I was done editing.  Some were even duplicates, although I don’t know how I managed that.  Some look like duplicates but because of different settings, the brush stroke is very different, even if the stamp doesn’t reveal that.   To clean them up, I just went through them one by one and asked myself how often I really used a brush.  If the answer was ‘almost never’ then I deleted it.

I still have and use other brush sets from time to time.  For example, I have a brush set that is just snowflakes, another that is just leaves, and yet another that is just lightning stamps.  But I use them very rarely, so while those brushes are not part of my main set, they’re still worth keeping.  What you see here, however are the brushes I rely on every day.

Grouping Brushes

Because I like to keep my tool and brush palettes clean and out of the way, I don’t worry too much about naming my brushes because I only view them as small thumbnails.  I do, however, like to have them grouped so that I don’t have to test a brush each time I grab it to make sure it’s what I want.  If they’re grouped together, I have a good idea what any brush is going to do when I choose it.  Here’s how mine are grouped.


Why I Don’t Share Brushes

I’ve been asked innumerable times to provide my brush set for people and the answer is always No.  It’s not that I have any magic brushes; it’s just that you will learn a lot more by creating your own than by using ones other artists have created.  The main brush I use for painting, however, is one you already have if you use Photoshop.  It’s a default and is my favorite painting brush, the one you see in the next image.   In articles and videos, I’ve also shown how to make my hair brushes, but don’t be fooled.  Having the tools is completely different than knowing how to use the tools.  You only get that from experience and you only get experience by painting.

Experimentation and Discovery


While this panel may look complicated, it’s not.  The best way to find out how everything works is to experiment with the different settings and paint on a blank page while doing it.  I actually use much less than half of the options available to me in this panel because the way I paint doesn’t require all of the bells and whistles. My brushes are pretty simple.

Cleaning up this brush set took well over two hours because I kept experimenting with ways to make each brush better and I enjoyed playing around with the possibilities.

One brush, however, kept crashing Photoshop, and I have no idea why.  Every time I tried to work with it, Photoshop CC died on me.  The first time it happened, I lost about 20 minutes work because I hadn’t saved the new brush set.  Happened three times before I realized it was the brush itself, and I ended up deleting it entirely and avoided any further crashes.  It takes very little time to save the set after each brush change.  Get in the habit of doing that when you’re working with brushes.  Save the brush, save the set.

Final Note

There are so many ways to paint digitally.  Some artists seek to emulate traditional media and do so with great skill.  Others paint in ways that traditional artists would find completely confusing.  Everybody has their own way of doing it and designing your own brushes can often spark ideas for paintings and images that you might not have considered had you simply downloaded somebody else’s tools.

Less is more, so if you have 100 brushes in your main brush set, see if you can’t whittle that down to 50.  Keep the old set on your computer and save to a new set so you can always go back and retrieve any you wish you’d kept.  Create new brushes, make changes to old ones, keep them organized and never be afraid to improve on the old standbys and eventually you’ll wind up with a brush set that is uniquely yours.

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Best of the Outlook Cartoons

Many cartoonists will do a ‘year in review’ this time of year, a selection of what they, their editors, or their readers viewed as their best cartoons of the year.  It looks good on the editorial page of a daily newspaper.  Since all of my daily work is syndicated and freelance, any selection of my best national cartoons won’t be printed on an editorial page anywhere, although one or two of mine have shown up in dailies where a number of cartoonists have been represented.  I’ll have a selection of MY favourite syndicated cartoons here on Monday.  But for now, here is the ‘Best of 2012’ selection for the Rocky Mountain Outlook, the local weekly I draw for that covers the communities of Exshaw, Canmore, Banff, and Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies.  We’ve lived in this area for quite awhile, 7 years in Banff, 11 in Canmore, and while we talk about leaving every winter (even just for a few months), I’m pretty sure it’s all talk, at least for a few more years.  This is home.

A few notes…we have a bunny problem in Canmore.  I could have filled the page with bunny cartoons and had some left over.  Banff National Park has a problem with tourists feeding wildlife, especially bears.  They’re not tame, people.  It’s not a petting zoo!  Bottom left, the dogs in the window, refers to a dog attack in March by a cougar in Canmore.  A LOT of people told me they loved that cartoon, so I guess it hit home for locals.  Bear deaths on the highway is an ongoing issue as well, as people refuse to obey the speed limit.  And finally, Banff has an ongoing battle with providing economic stability and growth for a tourist town, located inside of a national park.  Never easy, but always fodder for cartoons.

Click on the page to see it larger.

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Cartooning on Election Day

Today is the day after the Alberta provincial election.  To set the stage, there were four parties, the right-wing Progressive Conservatives who’ve been in power for 41 years, the Wildrose Party, a very new party even more right-wing than the PC Party,  the Liberal Party and the Alberta New Democrat Party.  The last two didn’t really stand a chance of winning, and all of the polls were indicating the the Wildrose Party could not only win, but might get a majority.

Alberta’s election was making headlines nationwide, because this province has huge deposits of natural resources which makes it a very wealthy province in that department.  Many in Canada were watching this one closely.  For example, a cartoon I did about Danielle Smith, the leader of the Wildrose Party, a couple of weeks ago was published in a number of my Ontario papers.  I didn’t expect that.

Again, ALL of the pollsters were predicting that the Wildrose Party was going to take the election in a big way.

Without getting into the reasons why, the results last night had the PC Party win their 12th consecutive majority, taking 61 seats.  The Wildrose Party got 17, making them the Official Opposition, the Liberals and the NDP each got 4 seats.  It wasn’t even close and nobody saw it coming.  There is an article in the Vancouver Sun this morning (obviously gone to press before the results were in)  by Andrew Coyne that reads, “Unless something astonishing happens, the Wildrose Party will form the next government of Alberta.”

As a syndicated cartoonist, my job yesterday was to put out cartoons that would cover almost any reasonable outcome.  Many of my papers publish weekly, and a number of them publish today.  They needed to have a cartoon to put onto the editorial page at the last possible moment, right before going to press.  No time to draw something once the results were in at 9:00 last night, so I had to anticipate different outcomes, knowing that most of these cartoons would end up in the trash.  Considering this led to a 12 hour day at my desk plus a couple of hours on Saturday when I was taking a weekend off at the cabin, I worked for very little money yesterday.

It’s part and parcel of the profession, however, and while none of the cartoons addressed the sweeping majority, there were still a couple that would have been ‘good enough’ to do the job, even though I don’t consider them really ‘good.’  Let’s take a look at what I sent out yesterday.

This cartoon has absolutely nothing to do with the election.  Even though Canada was watching this one, many of my weeklies in other provinces were wanting a cartoon on something else.  I knew this without their having to tell me, so this went out first to cover them.

There was some talk that there could be a minority government, and if that happened, there had to be a cartoon for it, because the others were all talking about who won. This cartoon went out second.

A lot of people were doing a lot of talking over the past month, and everybody sounded like they were sure of the outcome.  Happens in every election.  The day after, however, stories change and everybody boasts that they knew it all along.  That’s about as predictable as politicians breaking election promises.  This cartoon was pretty easy to swap out.  Change the name and…

…this is one of the cartoons that works.  Premier Alison Redford is the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and won her seat, so any of my papers could have put this one in and it would have been appropriate.  Not a great cartoon, granted, but if I’m being honest, I was more concerned with it being right than great.

If the Wildrose Party had won, I would have liked to have seen the above cartoon printed in a number of papers.  I kind of like it.  Seemed an appropriate theme for our western province, especially if a Wildrose win upset 41 years of rule by the previous ‘brand.’  Unfortunately, this took me a couple of hours to paint and nitpick, and the results rendered it completely useless.  That being said, I didn’t want to see the Wildrose Party win, so I’m fine.

This is the last cartoon I sent, just after 5:0o yesterday evening.  Danielle Smith, the leader of the Wildrose Party had promised (there’s that word again) to give every Albertan a cheque for $300 from the Alberta Energy Dividend Fund once the province was boasting a surplus again.  It was dubbed ‘Dani Dollars’ by the press and ended up being a significant part of the campaign, one met with mixed reviews.  This cartoon works for today as well, although I’m not sure how many papers will actually use it.

As an Alberta citizen and voter, I was relieved with last night’s results.  As an editorial cartoonist, I know I didn’t hit any home runs with the usable cartoons. More like base hits.  But my papers were covered, so I did my job.  I’ll still do a couple of post election toons this week, but none will be wasted as we now know the results.

It was an interesting election and I don’t say that often.  Most importantly, voters were involved and I’ll be anxious to hear what the official turnout numbers were, because it’s expected to be significantly better than the dismal 40% from 4 years ago.  That being said, I’m glad it’s over, as my illustration contracts and painting commissions have had to simmer on the back-burners this past month.  I’m happy to get back to those this week.

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Cartoons and Catastrophe

Somebody asked me if I was going to be doing a cartoon about the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

It’s important to understand that the Titanic has long been one of the most overused clichés in editorial cartooning.  Although I’ve never actually drawn the iconic ship, I’ve put a Prime Minister at the front of a ship referencing the ‘king of the world’ line.  in 2004, I put a submersible at the bottom of the sea, with lights illuminating the words Liberal Popularity on the hull,  talking about the difficulty of raising it.  The ship obviously wasn’t the Titanic, but the reference could be interpreted that way, so I’m willing to concede that as ‘a Titanic cartoon.’

There are many clichés in editorial cartooning, another being ‘the pearly gates’ cartoon.  Somebody passes away and they’re almost always drawn exchanging words with St. Peter at the gates of heaven.  While I have been guilty of picking the low hanging fruit from the idea tree, and using clichés from time to time, I’ve never actually depicted anyone at the pearly gates, and it’s doubtful I ever will.

I’m very fascinated by the story of the Titanic, and have been ever since I was a kid.  While skiing in Kitzbuhel, Austria on a family vacation, (we lived in Germany for many years) my father, sister and I were stranded at the restaurant/chalet at the top when a wind storm rendered the cable car unsafe to take skiers down the mountain.  I think I was 13 or 14.  It became a party atmosphere and we ended up skiing down by torchlight later, but I remember sitting with some very kind University students from Southampton and being fascinated that they were from the same place that had launched the Titanic.   Where the interest came from, I don’t know.

I’ve been to the Titanic exhibit twice, once in Las Vegas, and again when the traveling exhibit came to Calgary.  I’ve seen a number of the movies more than once.  I’m one of the few guys who will admit to seeing the movie in the theatre, not once, but three times.  It just fascinated me to see it all unfold on the big screen, and I’ve always enjoyed James Cameron as a film maker.   While I’m not obsessed with every detail of the story, I do know quite a bit of the trivia.   I’ve got the DVR set to record all of the National Geographic specials this week, and watched James Cameron and crew dissect every last detail last night on how the ship ended up on the bottom looking the way it did.  A forensic archeological  deconstruction of the event, that even had him admitting he got a few details wrong in his larger than life movie.

The London Bombings, July 2005

When bad things happen, it’s difficult to draw cartoons about it.  Even worse is the pressure to get it out quickly, because after all, the goal is to be published in that empty space before a competitor can snag it with another cartoon, one they’re also feverishly drawing at the same time.  I often feel like a vulture picking over the fresh carcasses of whatever unfortunate souls perished in the news event.  Sounds pretty morbid, doesn’t it?  That’s how it feels, too.   How does one draw something appropriate, respectful, and sincere with very little time to mull it over?  When the disaster or event is fresh and acute, that’s the time to get the cartoon done.  I remember drawing a cartoon about the 2004 Tsunami in the Indian Ocean the day after Christmas, because it was big news.

Hurricane Katrina. Found out later that Bourbon Street was largely spared.

If it’s a big enough disaster, like Hurricane Katrina, there will be many cartoons in the days and weeks following, but that first cartoon is the most difficult.  The other goal is to avoid the ‘yahtzee’ as it’s come to be known.  That’s when two or more cartoonists come up with the same idea for the same situation at the same time.  When the twin towers fell on 9/11, a number of cartoonists drew the same images.  The towers as the number 11, with smoke coming from them was one.  Another was tears in the eyes of the Statue of Liberty.  Two of Quebec’s most celebrated cartoonists, Terry Mosher (Aislin) of The Gazette and Serge Chapleau of La Presse, drew the very same image.

I began my syndicated career at the end of September, 2001, so I never had to draw a cartoon about 9/11.

Situations like this, people are hurt, suffering and dying, and I have to draw a cartoon about it.  It’s never supposed to be funny in a situation like that, but the goal is that it be moving, if only a little.  If it’s a major news story, if an editorial is likely to be written, then an editorial cartoon needs to be drawn.  It isn’t something I want to do most of the time, but it’s part of the gig, one I dislike very much.  When somebody famous dies, I have to make the unenviable distinction between whether it’s newsworthy enough to warrant a cartoon.  Was this person important enough that a newspaper will want to highlight it?

These are not my proudest moments.

So what about the Titanic?  The disaster itself was one of the worst of its time.  It shook the world and haunted the news pages for a long time.  Countless books have been written on it, and historians still debate to this day, what happened on that night in April, 1912.   But let’s be fair.  It was 100 years ago.  Had the ship made it to port in New York, everyone would still be deceased today.  A tragedy, yes, but one that needs to be put into the proper historical perspective.

Each year, I have to do cartoons about Remembrance Day, to commemorate the Canadian men and women who’ve lost their lives in this century’s armed conflicts.  It gets more and more difficult with each passing year.  It will often be a respectful image, perhaps of a cenotaph or other memorial, an image of a poppy, and a quotation or a couple of lines.  Over a decade of Remembrance Day cartoons and I’ve realized that I am unlikely to come up with anymore original ideas.  It feels incredibly insincere, and definitely not the tribute owed to the sacrifice.

Remembrance Day, 2011. The cenotaph in Victoria, BC.

If I have a hard time mustering the sincerity for something as important as that, due to the fact that it has become routine, anything I draw to commemorate the Titanic tragedy, will simply be paying lip service, and rehashing imagery that others have already thought of.  If you don’t believe me, do an image search on Google.  I still have a lot of interest in the story, the details fascinate me, but not because I feel anymore for those people than I do for those who perished on the Hindenburg or in the Civil War.  It happened a century ago to people for whom I feel no connection.

The hubris of those involved in the Titanic’s conception, construction and operation caused the demise of the ship.  There is a lesson we’re supposed to learn from the arrogance of believing we can ever conquer the forces of nature.  Aside from a few changes to maritime law, those people died in vain, and therein lies the real tragedy of the event.  We continue to choose to ignore the lessons of history.

I did wrestle with possible images on the subject.  An image of the name of the ship in dark water with an appropriate memorial quote, something nautical perhaps.  Maybe the flag of the White Star Line and some cautionary words about humility.  Took me a couple of days to realize that everything I came up with made me feel like a hypocrite, trying to create an image to stir emotion about an event for which I feel none.

While I don’t always have the luxury of ignoring a news story,  I think I’m just going to let this one go.