I recorded a high speed video of a cartoon I sent out this morning, some bonus content for my newspaper clients.
The type of cartoon in this video would normally take me about three or four hours since detailed caricatures are a lot more work. Add in camera setup, periodic recording throughout the process, sourcing and buying music, and editing, and I spent about nine hours on this yesterday, which is why I can’t do these as often as I’d like.
Because of the way I’ve set up my office, having a camera on a tripod over my left shoulder while recording is kind of clumsy. I can’t have it on the right, where there is a lot more room, because my hand would obscure the drawing. With a tripod leg right behind me, I have to be careful not to move my chair back and bump it. So there’s really no way to get into the groove of drawing while recording, at least not one that I’ve found.
I’ve tried recording with my phone or iPad on a goose-neck, since that setup is much more user friendly, but the problem is that even if you manually adjust the brightness, the cameras on portable devices just aren’t designed for recording the backlit display of another screen. I’ve even tried a GoPro camera, but none of them have worked as well as the DSLR camera you see here.
In the photo, you can see my second monitor, where I’ll often put the images I’m using for reference.
The display I’m drawing on is a Wacom Cintiq 24HD and the software is Photoshop, which is the most widely used professional illustration and digital drawing/painting software on the planet. There have been plenty of times I’ve wished it were called something else, because for many years, people assumed that if you were using Photoshop, you must simply be manipulating photos.
Thankfully, anybody younger than me has grown up with this technology, so I don’t have to explain it as often as I used to.
If you like the video below, feel free to share it from YouTube.
One of the unexpected benefits of having been a digital artist since the late 1990s is that I’ve been able to see all of the advances in the medium. My first Wacom tablet was an original Intuos with only a 4”X5” drawing surface.
It seemed so futuristic. I could move the stylus on this tablet, which would be mirrored on the screen by the cursor, and then DRAW. To some, it seemed complicated, but to me, it seemed like a prosthetic limb I’d been missing.
I don’t know how to paint with oils, acrylics, or watercolours. My sketching skills with a pencil are adequate; my pen and ink skills less so. I’ve tried charcoal, woodcarving, sculpture, but just barely, and all of it felt clumsy.
This is obviously a personal problem, given the centuries of incredible artwork created with those tools.
But digital tools always felt right to me. It has been my medium for more than twenty years.
When it came to software, there was Photoshop, Painter, and a few others. I tried them all. But for the hardware, if I wanted to work digitally, a Wacom tablet wasn’t an option. It was a requirement.
Since then, I can only guess how many Wacom devices I’ve owned, upgrading when I felt the need and could scrape together the funds. For the first half of my professional career, I used tablets rather than displays. That’s where you look at the screen but draw on the device sitting on your desk. It’s not difficult to get used to since we all use a mouse the same way. We look at the cursor, not the device in our hand, and our brain figures it out pretty fast.
Drawing with a Wacom tablet was easy for me.
But in 2011, I got my first Wacom Cintiq display, a 12WX, where I could draw right on the screen. These days, that seems unremarkable, considering how many screens and mobile devices we have at our fingertips. But at the time, it was a huge deal for me.
The 12WX was pretty thrilling, even though it could be a bit clunky at times. Marketed as a portable model, being the first one that didn’t take up your whole desk, it was more like the prototype for what would come next. When I got my Cintiq 24HD in 2012, everything changed for me. Not only was I now using their most professional display model, but I also had a working relationship with Wacom.
That display is still the one I use every day, and while there are newer models available, I have a sentimental attachment to this display, and I never feel it’s lacking. Yes, it’s a piece of technology, but like a reliable car, years out of the showroom, my 24HD is like an old friend. I’ve created many of my favourite paintings on this display.
In the past six months, Wacom has sent me a couple of their newer portable models to evaluate and work with, recording videos with them. The Cintiq 16 I received last summer is a welcome addition to my digital toolset. I use it while working on my laptop, often on the couch in the evenings while watching TV. You can see a recording I did with that one in a blog post from late last year. Just recently, I was asked if I would take their new Wacom One display for a spin. Pitched as an affordable solution for artists looking to make the jump to digital or for those just starting, it’s an entry-level display.
After using it to paint my latest Ring-tailed Lemur, however, I find that notion rather amusing. This display is better than all of the tablets and displays I used for most of my professional career.
Without getting too technical, it’s a comfortable experience. From the feel of the stylus on the screen, the pressure sensitivity, the image quality of the display and the simple setup and installation, this is a display I would have been thrilled to have worked with early in my career.
I know many people these days draw on the iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil, and I’ve seen some incredible work done with those tools. I have an iPad Pro, I use it every day, and when I bought it, I expected I’d be doing a lot of drawing with it. There’s even a professional level painting app called procreate that’s pretty incredible.
But no matter how often I work with the iPad, it never feels quite right to me.
Whether it’s the stylus on the screen, the display itself, or the size, I can’t seem to get comfortable with it. To be fair, the iPad is a standalone device, where a Wacom display has to plug into a computer, whether a PC, Mac, Notebook or Laptop. But most people have those already.
I’ve often said that the best tools are the ones you don’t have to think about. When I’m in the zone, painting fur, feathers or details, I don’t want to have to stop because the tools aren’t doing what I want them to do. I’ve invested quite a bit of time on the iPad Pro, and it just doesn’t feel as comfortable as a Wacom display.
I’m well aware that we resist change, so I’ve tried other devices and displays. But I keep coming back to Wacom time after time. Part of me knows that being sent the display, tasked with doing a video, it’s my job to pump it up and promote it.
But honestly, if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t. And I know my friend Pam at Wacom wouldn’t want me to. I was thankful I didn’t have to find a way to put a positive spin on this display. There is nothing about this display that I can criticize. For what was promised, it over-delivered.
The only thing I missed while using it was the Express Keys I have on my Cintiq 24HD. I use those all the time. Those are buttons and dials that you can program to access features you use often. Those features are now automatic to me. Thankfully, in recent years, Wacom introduced a device called the Express Key Remote. It’s a standalone device, and it worked flawlessly with the Wacom One.
A beginner might find Express Keys too intimidating at first, and I understand why they left out of this entry-level display, both for price and function. But it’s nice to know that if a user wants to try them, there’s an affordable add-on option.
As for the video above, called ‘Voices,’ my task was to offer a message to new artists, something to inspire them to give their creativity the chance it deserves. I spent a great deal of time thinking about what I would have wanted to hear when I was new at this artist’s life, trying to gather the courage to stick my neck out.
Ultimately, I ended up speaking to myself two decades ago, that twenty-something kid who was scared to death of being a fraud, having never gone to art school. I’d have wanted to let him know that it isn’t easy for anybody. The only way to navigate this world is through experience. Decades later, it’s still scary to do this for a living, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.
I’d like to think the message I recorded would have given him hope.
Here’s a new painting, a Ring-tailed Lemur just finished this morning.
Wacom sent me their new Wacom One display to take for a test drive and to record a video for them. The video has an inspirational theme, rather than a technical one. I’ve written the script, recorded the video, but now I need a few days to edit all of the footage and record the audio, especially since I have my cartoon deadlines as well. It’s a lot of work to take a painting that took about 15 hours and compress it into a 3 or 4 minute video so people won’t get bored.
Seriously, I love painting hair and fur, but it would be effective torture to make me watch many hours of somebody else doing it.
Initially supposed to be more of a cartoony creation, I wanted to see what kind of advances Wacom had made in their display technology, so I painted with it instead. The Wacom One is being marketed as an entry-level display, but I enjoyed working with it and didn’t feel hobbled at all.
I’ll have a more technical evaluation post a little later, but for those of you who just like looking at my funny looking animal paintings, I’ll save those details.
The Ring-tailed Lemurs at the Calgary Zoo are fun to watch, and the Land of Lemurs is an immersive experience. Their enclosure allows them to freely roam where they like and it’s the people who are restricted in the center, but with no barrier. With zoo staff on hand to make sure people follow the rules, the open-air concept allows for some great photo opportunities.
I’ve taken many shots of these critters and plan to paint a group of them together as they like to huddle in a ball. All of the expressive faces peeking out is quite comical. While going through my photo reference, however, I came across the image above. She’s a female, as are all of the ring-tailed lemurs at the zoo (or were at the time of this photo), and I liked what I saw. I even loved the blue sky background, and saw no need to change it. I don’t know if she really has a bad attitude, but part of the reason I paint the personalities I do is that I actually see that in the photo reference I take. The painting definitely looks male, however.
This was a lot of fun. I know I say that about many of my paintings, but I’d put this painting experience in the Top 3. Many of my paintings could be labelled cute, but this one borders on psychotic, which is probably why I liked it so much. Those crazy eyes suggest a critter that isn’t quite all there.
As my friend Pam at Wacom said this morning on Instagram, “He looks like an evil ringleader.”
So while I don’t know if it’s the kind of image that will be popular on a print or licensed product, some of my best images were ones I did for myself. I never expected my cantankerous Ostrich image to be popular and that one has developed a strange cult following I don’t fully understand.
I worked a very long day on Sunday drawing three editorial cartoons so that I could spend all day yesterday putting the final hours in on this piece. I could have finished it last night, but I erred on the side of patience and decided to sleep on it. When I opened the image this morning, I laughed out loud. It’s such a ridiculous expression. Another hour on the fine hairs, tweaks here and there, tunes cranked in the earbuds, and I’m glad I waited. It was a great way to start my day.
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.
It used to be that the happy afterglow of finishing a painting would last a day or two. These days, it’s usually a couple of hours, and then I’m thinking about the next piece.
On my latest white tiger painting, this piece felt ruined almost immediately after it was done. I found out some information about white tigers that changed everything about the painting.
The worst part was that I had recorded the process for Wacom. When you factor in camera setup, changing my office around, my painting routine, writing and recording the narration, editing, all of that work on the painting, plus the time on the video, it all seemed about to be wasted.
Thankfully, my friend Pam at Wacom is great to work with, is very supportive and has an open mind. I offered to do another painting from scratch, but we decided to turn the whole situation into a teaching moment about art, ethics, and wildlife conservation. Then my wife, Shonna offered a suggestion that allowed me to salvage the painting and turn it into something else.
The following video link not only shows my painting technique, the new Wacom Cintiq 16 display (which was a joy to work with) but explains the problem with white tigers and the solution that allowed me to save the painting.
In the late nineties, when I first started to create art professionally, I had primarily drawn in pencil or pen on paper. Up until my first editorial cartoons for a local newspaper, I had never considered art as anything more than a hobby.
I had played around with some art on a computer from time to time, but only using a mouse. If you’ve never done that, it can be a rather frustrating experience, especially when you try to include any detail.
Digital drawing tablets were in their infancy, but I knew I wanted one. My ever-supportive parents bought me my first one as a gift. It was the first generation Wacom Intuos tablet, quite small, with a working surface of just 4 X 5 inches.
I thought it was one of the coolest things I ever owned. I’ve been drawing and painting on a computer ever since.
The technology was so new then, that you had to explain it to people. The worst part was that as soon as you said you worked on the computer, people figured that the computer was doing all of the work. It certainly didn’t help that one of the most popular and widespread pieces of art software on the planet was (and still is) Adobe Photoshop.
So not only was the computer doing all of the work, but all a digital artist was doing was changing a photo. I can’t count how many times I heard that stated with authority.
I’ve spent over half of my career explaining to people that digital drawing and painting is just as much of an art medium as oil, acrylic or watercolour. These days, the stigma surrounding digital art is largely gone and people realize that it’s more than just pushing a button or applying a filter. There are countless skilled artists around the world now creating digitally, each an ambassador for the medium.
One of the pillars of my two decade career has been that I’ve always worked on a Wacom tablet or display. They were the only name in digital art tools when I first started and they’ve remained the industry standard for quality and innovation. Whenever I’ve replaced one, it has been to take advantage of something new they’ve come up with that would make my work more enjoyable or efficient, never because it broke or stopped working.
I still have a backup Intuos 5 tablet in my closet; ready as a substitute should my Cintiq 24HD display ever stop working. It’s like an insurance policy, but one I never really expect to use. I would never want to be without a Wacom device.
Even today, with advances in mobile drawing technology, I only use my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil for practice pieces and sketches. All of my finished work is done on my Wacom Cintiq.
In 2010 at the Photoshop World Conference, my funny looking animal paintings were still pretty new and I was thrilled to win the Guru Award for the Illustration category AND the Best in Show Award. In a strange twist of fate that would change the course of my career, the emcee of the event, Larry Becker, misspoke and said that the top prize was a Wacom Cintiq 12wx display.
I was pretty excited about that since it was Wacom’s first crack at a portable drawing display on an actual screen.
When I went to the Wacom booth at the Expo to claim my prizes, I was told that the 12WX wasn’t actually one of them. I was disappointed but I understood that mistakes happen and wasn’t going to hold them to it. But Wacom being who they are and Larry Becker being a class act, they made good on the slip and sent me the display shortly after the conference.
As great as that was, however, the best part was that I met Pam Park.
In every career, there are people who show up to mentor, encourage and give you the right push or connections when you need it. I’ve been fortunate to have some great support over the years from some special people, without whom I believe my work and life would be significantly diminished.
I loathe the phrase, “it’s not personal, it’s just business,” because it’s most often a cop-out people use for bad behaviour.
We don’t really have relationships with companies; we have them with people, so it’s always personal.
From that first meeting with Pam at Photoshop World in 2010, I then became acquainted with two others at Wacom, Joe and Wes. Over the next five years, the three of them hired me to do webinars for them, inspirational videos for new products, blog posts and I even represented the company at a training seminar in Calgary in 2011.For one demo I did for them, the subject of the painting was Pam’s dog, Brisby, seen above.
On one visit to the Banff High School in 2014, to talk about and demonstrate digital art, Wacom generously donated a number of tablets to their new media program that I was thrilled to deliver personally. At Photoshop World, I would give presentations at their booth; one of those rare cases where doing it for the exposure was well worth my time. Being associated with Wacom has always been good for my career and professional credibility. As the saying goes, however, all good things must come to an end. At one point, they had wanted to hire me to come down to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and work at their booth. Being Canadian, I realized I couldn’t go without a work visa and there just wasn’t time to get one. A few years ago, as my friends at Wacom moved to other positions and one left the company, the opportunities for me to work with them fell off.
A new person in marketing took things in a different direction and I had resigned myself to the fact that I’d had a great experience for quite a few years with Wacom, but that it had run its course with no hard feelings. It sure was fun while it lasted. The only regret was that I lost touch with those people who made it happen and who had such a positive impact on my career.
Then out of the blue a couple of weeks ago, I got a personal email from Pam, checking in to say Hi. It was great to hear from her and in the course of catching up, she mentioned that she was back in a marketing and promotional position with Wacom and if I ever wanted to work with them again, they’d be happy to have me.
I had to give that some serious thought, for about a millisecond.
Considering the wealth of talent they have representing their products these days, it was a real honour to be asked once again to add my voice to the chorus.
After some back and forth catching up, Pam told me she was sending me the new Wacom Cintiq 16. I’ll be putting it through its paces, doing some painting on it and recording some videos for Wacom, the first of who knows how many in the near future. It’ll be a nice replacement for my Cintiq 13HD, which for the record, still works just fine.
The Cintiq 16 arrived by UPS before I was finished writing this post, and I realized that the feeling of receiving a new piece of Wacom tech, it just never gets old. In fact, I’m probably more excited about this display than I was at receiving my very first tablet twenty years ago.
This little guy was painted on the iPad Pro in the Procreate app using an Apple Pencil. I took the reference for this painting while visiting the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in June. For their small size, they certainly do cop an attitude. But then again, my perception of expression and personality in the animals I encounter just might be a little skewed toward the comical and caricature.
Burrowing owls are an endangered species in Canada and there are a number of conservation groups working to protect them, including the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation and The Alberta Birds of Prey Centre, both of which I’m proud to support.
From the latter’s website…“Offspring from our Burrowing Owl breeding program have been released in all four western provinces.”
While my more finished work is painted in Photoshop on my Wacom Cintiq display, I’ll often sketch or begin a painting on the iPad Pro, using an Apple Pencil and the Procreate app. The advances in both hardware and software in recent years has come so far that the portable device experience now far exceeds the desktop painting I was able to do when I was first starting out.
Having been a digital artist for the past twenty years, I’m very comfortable with the desktop tools I’ve been using. I’ve been forcing myself to draw more with the iPad Pro and Procreate lately because I feel there’s a lot of room to improve my painting skills using the portable tools. The more time I spend working with these tools, the greater the detail and painting quality I’m able to achieve, which only makes sense. It’s also nice to be able to take them with me when I want to work at the tattoo shop, or draw at the cabin or on vacation.
An impressive feature of the Procreate app on the iPad Pro is that it will record every brush stroke you make, allowing you to play it back at high speed to see an image from start to finish. While I edited this one myself, the video below gives you a look at the progress behind the painting.
I’m currently working on a portrait of Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield. The reference that I’m using is from a Youtube video, so even in web HD, the quality isn’t great. I’m used to working with poor quality reference from time to time, and it’s actually a good thing when it comes to portraits, as long as the quality isn’t too bad. If the quality were perfect, I might rely too much on the photo and there wouldn’t be enough art in it, just replication.
A common practice in painting from photos is using the grid method. The short explanation is that you divide your reference photo into grids, then you divide your canvas into equally proportioned grids. This helps a person establish where the major landmarks fall on the reference photo and suggests that those same landmarks should fall in the same place on the canvas grid. Here’s a very basic explanation of The Gridding Method if mine doesn’t do a decent job of it.
Norman Rockwell, Leonardo da Vinci and many other artists of note would use the grid method in their work. Some artists consider it cheating, but then again, I’ve met artists who say I’m not a real artist because I sell my work commercially. Art for a living is not a profession for anybody with thin skin and there is often no harsher critic than another artist. I don’t have the rare skill to paint a person’s likeness from memory, so I need photo reference, as do most portrait artists. My take on the grid method is that it is a tool that has its place, but I wouldn’t rely on it completely. Photoshop has the ability to apply grids in any configuration over your image. It’s under Preferences > Guides, Grids, and Slices. When I do use it, I choose percentages, but you can choose more precise methods of measurement as well. 7 percent is pretty small, but you’ll see why I chose that at the end of the post.
I never use the grid at all when I’m painting my Totem paintings because they’re not supposed to look like the reference photos. Nor would I use grids when doing caricature work, because exact proportions would defeat the whole purpose.
Just to prove that I can paint without the grid method, this is a portrait of James Whitmore that I did on the iPad, where grids weren’t possible. I had a photo, the iPad, and nothing but time. It did take quite awhile, and a big challenge was the low resolution possible with the first gen iPad, but I’m pleased with the likeness I was able to achieve.
I try to only use the grid method when I’m stuck on something in a realistic portrait of a person or know that something is wrong and just can’t quite see it. For example, when I’m working on a likeness of a person, I may know that there’s something wrong with the eyes, but can’t figure it out. I’ll flip the canvas horizontally, vertically, try all of my tricks and still be stuck. By using the grids, I’ll see that it could be something as simple as the corner of the eye is in the wrong place or the iris doesn’t have the correct curve. I only use the grids when a painting is in the middle stages. Once the likeness is there, I don’t use them anymore, because I find that relying on it too much makes the subject of a portrait look wooden. I pride myself in the personality and life in my images and that doesn’t come from accurate placement of features, but from artistic impression of the subject. This is also the reason I paint people that inspire me or characters I feel a connection with, because that helps me with the feeling of the work. Having the tools is easy, knowing when to use them comes from experience.
Here’s a challenge I faced this morning on the current painting of Chris Hadfield. In the reference image I’m using, his mission patch is clearly visible on his shirt. Because I’m trying to capture a moment, I want to include that in the painting. I went back and forth on how to do it. That mission patch is readily available online in pristine condition, just as the designer would have finished it. One way to do it was just paste the perfect image in position, use the distort and warp tools, maybe rough it up a bit with a texture brush, add a little blur and it’s done, quick and easy. Another way I could do it, was do a vector trace of the graphic, basically just using the pen tool, trace over the coloured elements, convert them to paths, fill with colour, distort, warp, place, texture, blur, done.
So why didn’t I do either of those? With a logo in an editorial cartoon, I do that all the time, and I’m fine with it. Usually on a tight deadline, it’s a satirical commentary, and an accurate logo that I’ve recreated with the pen tool by tracing over it is something I’m comfortable doing because of the context. It’s part of the job and spending 20 hours on each editorial cartoon would be career suicide. With the painting, however, it felt like cheating. To somebody else, it might not have, and that’s OK. Everybody needs to make their own choices. I just know that had I done either of those, I’d finish the painting, would probably like the end result, but every time I look at that patch, it’s going to bother me.
So I decided that for the patch, I would use the grid method to help with the accuracy of the pieces in the patch, but paint it as I see it in the reference image. It’s going to take me quite awhile longer to paint the patch, but I’ll be happier with it in the end. As you can see from the above reference image on the left and painting on the right, I’ve got a long way to go to get it right, but it’s not like it’s wasted time because I’m still learning from every painting I do. In the end, I’ll be happier with the painting, so it’s time well spent.
Preparing for the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo at the end of April is proving to be an exercise in anxiety. I already know that my work sells well in the right venues. I’ve had my Totem prints in four different galleries and retail outlets and while some are better than others, the response has been quite favorable. Five of the designs are currently licensed to The Mountain and I’m always working on a commission piece for somebody. While confidence in the work is usually one difficulty faced by newbies to Cons and Expos, that’s not the problem I’m facing. Even if my work isn’t popular with the crowd that shows up to the Calgary Expo, I’ll still be OK with the work, and just know that it wasn’t the right venue. I’m not even uncomfortable running the booth, talking to people, or selling, which is something else artists often have difficulty with. For many years, I worked in the tourism and retail industries, I ran Wacom‘s booth on my own for a full day at a training seminar, worked a trade show booth on my own up at Fort McMurray for a Banff hotel I used to work for, and have done live painting and training demos quite a few times in the last four or five years. While public speaking scares a lot of people, it’s honestly not a problem for me. In fact, the trick is getting me to shut up.
Where the challenge lies is knowing how to stock my booth. I could spend many thousands of dollars selling everything from cartoon prints, illustrations, paintings, portraits, cards, prints, t-shirts, posters, canvas…it’s a long list of possibilities. The key to a successful booth it would seem, is focus. And, of course, not overextending myself. I’ve got three full days to sell merchandise at an event that has become so big that with 600 vendors and artists, and 50,000+ attending, there are a lot of things to consider. I already know that I’m just going to focus on my Totem paintings, for the sake of continuity. But I don’t want to run out of stock on Saturday morning, nor do I want to be packing up a lot to bring home on Sunday afternoon.
There’s a lot of advice online from people who attend expos like this, telling artists to balance ‘fan art’ with their own work. Use the fan art to get people to your booth. That doesn’t work for me. Fan art is basically just copying somebody else’s popular characters and selling them. While illegal, most of these offenses go without prosecution, so artists keep doing it. Considering how many artists complain about being ripped off online, I’m surprised at how many still condone the practice. I intend to find out if I can support my booth on my own work alone.
As this is my first booth, I will do a number of things wrong, I’m sure. How can you learn from experience until you have some? But in an effort to put my best foot forward, I created a small survey earlier in the week to ask people their opinions on a few questions I’m faced with. Two winners were chosen from the respondents to receive 11″X14″ matted Totem prints of their choice. I received 100 responses, which was the survey limit, but the results were pretty clear when it came to ranking which of my Totem paintings people liked best, along with opinions on matted prints vs. unmatted. In an effort to perhaps help somebody else prepare for a show like this, here are my results and how I choose to interpret them.
I asked respondents to rank my Totem paintings in order of preference. While I have 16 Totems in my portfolio, I’ll only be selling 8-10, so here are the Top 10 in the order the survey indicated.
Some surprises here. The Humpback Whale is one of my favorites, and even though a few people agree with me, most do not. But for this survey, I would have included it in my print run for the booth. Many people did say in their comments that it was tough to choose and that they had a hard time ranking them because they liked them all. While I can understand that, and appreciate the compliment, the ranking was very clear for the first five, not so much for the last five. The Bighorn Sheep could have easily been shown instead of the Penguin as they were neck and neck. But I chose the Penguin because the venue will be in Calgary and with the addition of the penguins at the zoo last year, it’s a safe bet some will buy it based solely on where it’s being sold.
The Wolf Totem has long been a favorite among people who like my work. It’s a big seller and very popular. But it was done over two years ago and I’m pleased to see that my two most recent pieces are in the Top 3. Thankfully, it would appear my best work isn’t behind me, something many artists fear.
Matted prints and cost. 78% of people would prefer a matted print to an unmatted one and 73% said cost didn’t affect that decision. That was very revealing, however the people who follow me online aren’t necessarily the same demographic as those who will be shopping at the Expo. A lot of people go to the Expo to buy inexpensive prints and even at a reduced price of $30.00, it will be too much money for some, when they could buy two or three prints for the same amount of money, which means more art from different artists. If this were a Christmas trade show with an older crowd, I would go entirely matted at regular price with a lot of canvas as well, but at this venue, I’ll be doing a mix of matted and unmatted prints. But this was very helpful in helping me decide the balance.
The majority of people were interested in a discount on buying two prints, rather then three or four.
When it comes to the T-shirts available from The Mountain, the Wolf was the clear winner, the Ground Squirrel second, but it was an even balance between the other three. If I do decide to include T-shirts in my inventory, and that’s still undecided, it is obvious that I should include all five. The large majority of respondents would buy one for themselves or somebody else. One commenter suggested that she still liked the T-shirts, but wouldn’t buy one because her family just doesn’t wear shirts with designs on them. Personally, neither do I, so I was curious to see how many thought the same. Selling T-shirts as well as prints might be a little too much this year as it would require a lot of inventory in different sizes and might make for a very crowded booth. This first year, I might just stick with prints and have one of each design on hand to let people know that they’re available online from The Mountain.
Finally, more than half of the respondents left comments, which I found very valuable. Many were complimentary of my work, which I appreciated. Others told me that ranking the Totems was very difficult and a couple even seemed to worry that they were hurting my feelings by doing so, telling me I shouldn’t think they hated the last one they picked. No worries, I’ve got thick skin. Still, others were just very nice words of encouragement and nobody gets tired of hearing those, so thanks for that. Some suggested that other animals should be on T-shirts. As they are licensed and not produced by me, it’s actually up to The Mountain which ones end up on T-shirts. So while these five are the only ones at the moment, who knows what the future will hold?
Here are some other comments I found helpful, and my thoughts on each.
“Your pricing, I would do the multiples on the $10 mark… so $40, $50 etc. Just keeps things simpler.” This is good advice and something I’m going to seriously consider.
“Would it be too much work to get more mat colors than black? Black looks nice, but can take away from some pieces depending on color. A color mat can really enhance the work. Good luck!!” and another comment in the same vein “White matte and $40. I don’t like black mattes. Too heavy. Your prices are too low.” Matting is always tough. With lighter colour work or black and white, a white mat usually looks best. With darker work (such as mine), a black mat usually looks best. And you’ll easily find people who will disagree with both statements. In a perfect world, a painting looks best when matted to reflect colours in the painting and matches the decor of a room. How do you do that for every customer? Well the simple answer is that you can’t. White or black are the choices and as in all things, people prefer one or the other. For continuity in an artist’s work and to minimize cost and inventory, it isn’t advisable to offer both, because hanging together on a wall or display, they will actually look bad beside each other. As for choosing a coloured mat, that’s a minefield. A number of people said they didn’t like the purple of the Wolf T-shirt, even though it did draw out colours from the painting itself. Honestly, purple wouldn’t have been my first choice, either. But it was still the most popular shirt in the survey.
I trust the advice of my printer, as he does both white and black mattes for many different artists. After seeing these comments, I asked him what he thought and he said he thinks my work looks better with a black mat. My wife agrees and I think so, too. Art is a such a tricky business, because everybody likes different things for different reasons, and you can’t please everybody. So I’m sticking with the black mats, but wouldn’t tell somebody they were wrong if they swapped it out for a white or coloured mat. Even still, with the choice of only the black mat, the vast majority still preferred to have a print sold with the mat.
“A set of postcards of your totems on a special paper would be pretty cool.” That’s a great idea. While I was going to have postcards for promotional reasons, I hadn’t considered doing that for each animal as a little collector piece on their own. Might sell them for $1.00 or $2.00 each or two or three for $5.00. I already have art cards licensed through Island Art Publishers, but promotional postcards for the show might be a nice addition.
“Would like to see your totems on ball caps and mugs.” That’s a licensing thing and while I wouldn’t produce them myself, you never know what might come around in the future. I’m always talking to other companies and if I find the right one, you may get to see both.
A lot to consider with this survey and I would like to thank everyone who participated. The expense of this show is significant, thousands of dollars to prep the booth and stock inventory, so I really wanted to put my best foot forward. The input was very helpful and I imagine there will be other opportunities in the future for me to ask for your opinion and offer prints as prizes. As always, however, you can always share your thoughts with me on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.
Yesterday, I wrote about why I painted this portrait of Martin Sheen’s character, Tom, from the movie ‘The Way.’ Click on this link, if you’d like to read it. Today, I figured I’d write a little bit about the how, as there are always artists out there who want to know the technical details, and I’m happy to oblige.
This painting was done entirely in Photoshop CS6 Extended using a Wacom Cintiq 24″HD display. No photos were used in the painting, aside from reference. I didn’t keep track of how long it took me to complete it because I wasn’t on deadline or in a rush, so while I could easily say 20 hours, it was probably more, over a few weeks. Without a deadline, I was able to nitpick it and get it as close to perfect as my current skills will allow. At some point, however, I just have to call it done, because any changes become so minute that nobody will see them but me.
With all of my previous work, it has become my practice to start a painting at low resolution, usually around 9″X12″ at 72ppi. Then, as the painting progresses, I will keep bumping up the size and resolution. I teach this method in my PhotoshopCAFE DVD, “Animal Painting in Adobe Photoshop” and it’s the same practice I use for painting portraits of people. There used to be two reasons for doing this. First, when you’re working at low-res, you can’t get distracted by putting in too much detail because the size just won’t allow any. This forces me to well establish ‘the bones’ of a likeness before working on wrinkles, skin texture, and hair. The other reason for starting at low-res was that my computer had reached the end of it’s efficient life for this type of work and at full-size and full-res, the brushes just wouldn’t move well enough to make broad strokes across the digital canvas. A completed painting was never more than 18″X24″ at 300ppi, because at that size, I could only work on the fine details without experiencing some lag.
Recently I had a new computer built and I’m back to working on a very current, high end machine. Running 64bit Windows 7 with 64bit Photoshop, 16GB of RAM and a 4GB video card, everything is running incredibly smooth. I could have started and finished this painting at full-res, without any problems at all. BUT, I’m going to continue using my low-res to high-res workflow for the first reason I mentioned. It forces me to get the likeness right and it works well for me. That being said, I decided to push this painting to see if I could make it larger, which also allows more attention to detail. This final painting is 32″X24″ at 300ppi. At that size, the brushes were working just fine, and I could have bumped it up even more, with no issues in performance.
I’m still using the regular brushes in Photoshop and haven’t used any of the Mixer or Bristle brushes in my paintings. Those brushes are designed to simulate traditional media and I honestly don’t feel the need to do that. Digital painting is a medium all on its own, and I don’t try to make it into something it’s not. I do intend to give those other brushes a try in the coming year, however, simply to see if they’ll offer me some choices to make my work better. While I’m pleased with the quality of this painting and very much enjoyed working on it, there will always be room to improve.