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2019 in the Rearview

My fuel gauge approaches empty when December rolls around, so I spend it in hermit mode, a little more than usual. We attend Shonna’s office Christmas party, but that’s about it because I don’t have the energy to play the festive role. Celebrating Christmas seems like one more obligation, so I opt out.

In the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day, however, I do get reflective in my seasonal melancholy.  I spent some time last week going through the 2019 blog posts to remind myself of the year that was.

In February, I checked out of social media entirely but then went back to Instagram a couple of months ago. I missed seeing art from those whose work I admire, but I’m still on the fence about that decision.

On the promotion and sales front, there were two significant developments this year.

The first was watching my work spread to many new places, thanks to the license with Pacific Music and Art. Seems a regular thing now for somebody to say they saw my stuff in a store in Oregon, or Alaska, all over B.C. and Alberta, not to mention the calendars and notepads in so many Save-On stores. I had lunch with a friend on Saturday, visiting from Vancouver Island and she said it’s strange walking by the gift store on Mt. Washington where she works, seeing a whole floor to ceiling corner of my art. It’s looking like 2020 will see more of that migration, but it’s my nature to be cautious. Those chickens ain’t hatched yet.

Secondly, the revival of my relationship with Wacom was a welcome surprise. With so many talented digital artists in the world to choose from, I enjoy the ego boost that comes with being a Wacom influencer. I’ve already agreed to another project with them shortly, but there’s a reason they make you sign a non-disclosure agreement.  Must keep secrets.

I painted 11 finished funny looking animal pieces this past year, the latest one above. I called it ‘Sitting Pretty,’ and she’s based on a black bear named Angel, who lives at Discovery Wildlife Park. I’d like to have painted more critters, but I’ll always say that. If I had painted 15, well, it should have been 20.

While there’s something about each painting that I enjoy, if I had to pick a favourite from this year, it would be Snow Day with the three cougar cubs. That was the best of both worlds, a real challenge and a lot of fun. I should have prints of this one available soon.
I painted a couple of dogs for fun, but no commission work this year until just recently. I’m not disappointed by that because I had plenty to do and wanted to focus on more images for licensing. The two dogs I’m currently painting in my whimsical style are for the same client, hoping to finish in a few weeks. They contacted me about the commissions after seeing my work in a BC Ferries terminal gift shop, a side bonus from my license with Pacific.

Two portraits of people this year, John Malkovich and Quint from Jaws, both of which I enjoyed a great deal. I’d always like to have more time for those, but wouldn’t we all like more time for the fun stuff?
Taking into account all of the syndicated cartoons I did this year, plus the custom local ones I draw each week for the Rocky Mountain Outlook, I drew 419 editorial cartoons in 2019. That might be an annual record for me. I have mixed feelings about that. I wonder how many paintings I could have done with all of those hours.

As for the coming year, I’m not big on resolutions. Well, maybe just one. I intend to write a lot more. There’s undiscovered country there and I need to explore it.

There are other things I want to accomplish, both personal and professional, growth I’d like to achieve, and skills I’d like to learn. Try to keep moving forward, best I can, just like everybody else.

Of course, none of this would be possible were it not for those of you who follow and support my work, read my ramblings, and tolerate my eccentricities. We all have limited time and attention in this life, and I appreciate that you spend some of yours with me.

Happy New Year,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
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Season’s Greetings – A Video

 

Every so often, I like to record a high speed ‘how it’s made’ video for a cartoon or a painting. I’d love to do more of these, but they’re time consuming.

With the over-the-shoulder view, the kind most people want to see, I used my Canon DSLR on a tripod for the best result. The challenge is that it needs to be close enough to capture the pen on the display, but back far enough so that I don’t bump into it with my shoulder or chair.

I’ve been drawing on Wacom tablets and displays for almost twenty years, so a lot of it is muscle memory. I go through the motions without thinking about the technology. As any artist in any medium can attest, once you’ve been using them for any length of time, the tools become extensions of your hands and arms. You think about the image you’re creating, not about the tools you’re using.

When I record the process, however, the tools are front of mind, which means the cartoon or painting takes longer. There’s really no flow to it and the process feels clunky.

When I’m painting, I can go for an hour without thinking about much else. When recording, I have to stop the camera after about ten minutes. Software is hardly perfect and by recording multiple short segments, it wouldn’t matter too much if I lost one. If I recorded all of it at once, however, that one file becomes a lot more precious.

I don’t record every brush stroke because it would be incredibly boring. I record ten minutes, shut the camera off, draw or paint for ten or twenty more minutes, then record again. There needs to be a big enough change between segments to keep the viewer’s interest.

Once I have enough from the camera, then I’ll often record some screen capture.  It’s no longer the display itself, but software in my computer recording what is happening on the screen. This doesn’t work all that well for painting detailed hair and fur because the cursor, brush and detail is so small, that it’s barely discernible to the viewer.

And again, incredibly boring.

Once I have all of the files recorded, from the camera and computer, I’ll bring them into my video editing software.

How I decided on the length of the video was the music I used as accompaniment. That isn’t always the case, but usual for cartoon videos. I can shorten visual segments, change the playback speed, and more easily mess with the footage than I can with the audio. This Christmas tune is around two minutes, which is a good length for a Youtube video, since our attention spans keep getting shorter.

I didn’t record the whole sketching process because I knew I’d have to mess about with the poses to get all three characters in, plus the talk bubbles.  That’s why you can see my tracing over my own sketch. While that would no doubt be of interest to the beginner or student, not so much for the average viewer.

These videos, it’s all about compromise for content.

For those interested in the tech part, I draw almost exclusively in Photoshop on a Wacom Cintiq 24HD. This recording, however, was done on a Wacom Cintiq 16 display, as they sent me one in August. I put it through its paces while painting my White/Amur Tiger video.

It’s a nice display and I enjoy drawing with it, so that’s why I chose it again for this video.

For recording and editing, I use Camtasia Studio 8. It’s a simple interface that gives me what I need without complicating things. I’ve been using this software for many years and it gets the job done.

While this video added an extra few unpaid work hours to my Sunday morning, I created it to give my newspaper clients some added bonus content for their websites and social media feeds. In any business, you’ll rarely go wrong by offering added value from time to time.

As always, feel free to share it, along with any of my other work.

Cheers,
Patrick

@LaMontagneArt
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The Infinite Game

The following was part of this week’s newsletter, sent Wednesday 11/13/19. While I write blog posts and newsletters on a fairly regular basis, a lot of what I write in the newsletter is only seen by subscribers, along with some photos, sketches and works in progress. If you’d like to sign up, here’s the link. Enjoy!

In addition to listening to podcasts and music while I work, I’ve always got an audio book on the go.

The one I’m listening to right now is quite fascinating. I told Shonna this morning that it might be one of the best books I’ve ever read (listened to) on why we do the things we do, even when it is against our own best interests.

This book focuses on business, but not the ‘rock me to sleep’ boring facts and figures type stuff. Anybody who has ever wondered why things aren’t working out the way they thought or hoped, would benefit from this book. It’s replete with examples of corporate executives, politicians and world leaders who have consistently failed in their roles due to finite thinking. Conversely, there are some surprising examples of leaders who went against the grain, defied convention, and made positive changes while everybody was telling them that they were crazy.

The book is called ‘The Infinite Game’ by Simon Sinek.

One of the things he has been quoted as saying in the past is “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Now at first glance that might seem like one of those pithy little sayings that somebody slaps on a meme and shares on Twitter, but in the week or so since I’ve heard the phrase, it’s been occupying a lot of my thoughts. I even went so far as to write it on a post-it note and stuck it to the bottom corner of my Cintiq display.

It feels like a mystery to be solved, because I can’t really say why I do what I do, but I feel I should know.

There are plenty of professions that are much easier and pay more than being a self-employed artist. If it was just about the money, I’d be foolish not to do something else.

Editorial cartooning, if I’m being honest, I just do that for the money. Sure, I still get to draw and be creative with it, I’m engaged in daily critical thinking, practicing and improving my art skills, but as I’ve talked about (far too often) in the past, following politics and bleeding-leads every day for twenty years begins to do long-term damage to a person’s soul.

I show up for that work every morning, put my ass in the chair, draw a cartoon or two and make sure my clients are supplied with what I’ve promised. Editorial cartooning is my day job.

It’s no secret that newspapers are struggling and have seen their best days so the fact that this profession still manages to pay a large chunk of my bills is surprising, but I’m under no illusion that it will still be doing so in ten years. Then again, I said the same thing ten years ago, so what do I know?

Each year prior to this has financially been better than the year before. That is, until this year.

At the risk of breaking the unwritten rule of self-employment, to always shout that everything is peachy and amazing and frickin fantastic (!!!), I’m experiencing my first down year, enough to make me more than a little nervous.

Why would I share this? My editors might read this, not to mention my competitors. Why would I point out the blood in the water?

Because I get really tired of the bullshit we feed each other, pretending we’ve got it all figured out when almost none of us do. I know you’re lying about your picture perfect curated Facebook life, you know I’m lying about mine and we’re all just pretending to go along with each other’s fabrications.

I’ve talked to a LOT of people who are having a tough time this year, business owner friends who are freaking out about the red in their books, but that’s only shared in whispered one-on-one conversations lest anybody finds out. The economy is down, people are scared and when that happens, they spend less money, which affects everybody.

As one of my editors said in a candid conversation yesterday, expecting to have nothing but good years, in business and in life, is incredibly naïve. Shit’s gonna happen and if you can step back and take a long look at it, it might be the required catalyst for positive change that wouldn’t have happened if everything stayed the same.

I began painting my whimsical wildlife portraits ten years ago, not knowing at the time that it would be the next transition in my career. It’s the work I love doing most and if there’s an answer to the question, “Why do I do what I do?”, it’s hidden in those brushstrokes.

The happy accident of all this, however, is that the revenue from licensing this work and selling prints has been increasing year after year, and this year, thanks to companies like Pacific Music and Art, Harlequin Nature Graphics and Art Licensing International, I’m seeing the largest year of growth in that part of my business. So the seeds I planted ten years ago are bearing more fruit.

But it’s hard to see that as all positive when the cartoon revenue that has sustained me well for so many years is experiencing a decline. That’s human nature, and generates all sorts of negative cognitive distortions. Change is always hard, but inevitable.

While working on my local cartoon for the Rocky Mountain Outlook, having already sent out today’s syndicated cartoon, looking forward to working on my current animal painting this morning, I got that familiar anxious feeling, worrying about income.

“Maybe I should get another cartoon done for today instead of painting, just to try and make a little more money. I can always paint tomorrow.”

But clearly Sinek’s book is sinking in, because I thought, “this is finite thinking, focusing on the quarterly profit numbers, at the expense of the long game.”

If I keep putting off painting, then no painting gets done. The work I enjoy most that is laying the foundation for the future of my career, is being set aside for the short term revenue that is unlikely to be paying the same portion of my bills a decade from now.
Focusing on the big picture, I decided to paint instead and made some nice progress. It took me about a half hour to really get into today’s session, to quiet the fearful voice in my head, but it was eventually drowned out by the music in the earbuds and the good feelings of painting three happy cougar cubs. Still a long way to go on this, but I can see the finished image in my mind.

Just as the sixty plus whimsical wildlife images I’ve painted during the past ten years are generating income for me now, this painting will do the same later. I just need to stay focused on playing the infinite game.

Cheers,
Patrick
@LaMontagneArt
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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.

Cheers,
Patrick

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

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Caricature and Cartoons

MulcairNotley
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 Schoolism.com. 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.

Cheers,
Patrick
MulcairNotleyCartoon

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Young and Hungry

YoungHungry

“…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.”

Remembrance

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.

Brushes004

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.

Brushes001

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.

Brushes003

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

Brushes002

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.