Diamond Art Club has the worldwide exclusive license for most of my work on diamond art kits, and I’ve been thrilled with what they’ve done with it.
To create a diamond art kit from a detailed image like mine, designers need to convert a painting into an entirely new format, a kind of blend between paint by numbers and cross-stitch.
I’ve checked out their competitors, and Diamond Art Club’s kits are the best I’ve seen. Clearly, their customers agree as they have a massive, devoted following.
The Otter was my first painting they launched last year, and that kit sold out in the first week. They released the T-Rex at the beginning of January this year, and that kit sold out, too. While the Otter is back in stock, I don’t know when they’ll restock the big dinosaur, but if you follow this link, they’ll let you know. Once on the site, make sure you select your country at the top right for pricing in your currency.
Others are coming this year, but I can’t talk about those yet. Their surprise announcements are always fun, anyway.
This brings me to the latest announcement yesterday. One of my most popular paintings, the Smiling Tiger is now a diamond art kit, and they’ll release it into the wild on Saturday, February 4th!
This kit is 20” x 27” (50.7cm x 69 cm) Round with 37 colours, including 2 Aurora Borealis colours. Diamond and Ruby members have a 30-minute early access window Saturday to shop the newest releases at 9 am PST / 12 pm EST, then general release will follow at 9:30 am PST / 12:30 pm EST. One of the great benefits of licensing is that it introduces my work to a whole new community and audience. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from folks who have bought and enjoyed these kits and many of them have become welcome subscribers to A Wilder View.
I’ve had so many requests for a sloth over the years that I decided to make it my first painting of 2023.
As with most paintings, it came with unique challenges and choices.
A sloth’s fur is coarse and wiry, with a bad-hair-day look, rather than the soft and smooth fur I enjoy painting most. I chose an entire body pose rather than a closeup of the face and a full-foliage scene over a nondescript background.
I could have painted the sloth in warmer colours for more contrast with the background or added more leaves in front and behind. Even though sloths are light brown, they move so slowly that algae and fungi grow in their fur, giving them a green tint. They use the algae to feed their young, and it provides camouflage. Moths and beetles live in their hair as well.
Many photos I found showed a lot of green, but some almost none. Some sloths have shorter fur, some longer. Some have smooth-looking heads; others look like they’re sporting a bob cut.
I won’t get into boring technical jargon, but there is a much wider range of colours available on a screen than in print, and green is one of the most temperamental colours to print. So even though I would like to boost the greens in a piece like this, I must account for colour shift.
Thankfully, Photoshop provides several methods to detect areas where print problems might occur. However, I can still push it a little because I have years of experience with my printer in Victoria and know what to expect.
When the art is for commercial prints and products, that also affects my composition choices. Most of my paintings are 3:4 aspect ratio because that works best for my needs.
I tell market and Expo customers that every print is 11” x 14”, a typical off-the-shelf frame size you can buy at most stores and that often helps make the sale. It’s annoying to buy a $30 print only to spend $100 or more to frame it because it’s a weird size, so I keep mine consistent.
Painting on a fast and powerful computer, my final pieces are 30” x 40” at 300 pixels/inch. That creates a huge file but allows me to print large sizes without sacrificing detail.
When it comes to Pacific Music & Art products, a painting must work for a long template of a coffee mug design and a square layout for a coaster or trivet. Most licenses don’t require the artist to create format files, but I volunteer to do the layouts for Mike, so I’m happy with how they look.
Here’s a shot I took this weekend at About Canada on Main Street in Banff of some of those products.
I can separate the sloth from the background and foliage for my own use to make a vinyl sticker. As I’m currently working on layouts for my first puzzles, I thought about those while painting this piece and wondered what composition choices would make it more enjoyable to assemble.
Most of the time, I’ll use one primary photo reference for a painting and additional ones for detail. Ideally, they’re photos I take myself. In some cases, I’ve relied on generous photographer friends or purchased reference I want to use. I bought stock photos for this one and used about a dozen images.
With no vacation plans this year and unlikely I’ll be going back to Costa Rica soon, stock photos were my best option for this sloth. Some photos were good for the pose, others for the face, and others for anatomy clarity and colour. Some sloths are cute; others are downright unattractive, so I looked for common features for accuracy. My versions of these critters might be caricatured and whimsical, but I still need to know what the actual animal looks like to make it believable.
A happy irony with this piece is that my buddy Derek Turcotte and his family went to Panama for Christmas, and he saw protected sloths in the wild. He generously offered some of his photos for reference, and one shot, in particular, was a perfect closeup of a cute sloth. I was halfway through this piece when I got it, and it helped a lot.
Critique is helpful when creating art if it’s asked for and given with goodwill. To have people you trust who can look at your work and offer constructive advice is priceless. Of course, it’s essential that if you ask for critique, be ready to accept it with gratitude.
Avoid asking the opinions of those likely to tell you, “That’s stupid. Looks like crap.”
That won’t help you become a better artist, and that kind of nasty cheap-seats criticism is usually more about them than you.
I’ll occasionally bounce editorial cartoon ideas off Shonna or my friend, Darrel. Most of the time, it’s to confirm that the message comes through. Does it make sense? I’ve been doing this long enough that I usually know, but occasionally, I’ll wonder if an idea is too vague or obscure.
I often spend ten to twenty hours on a painting. Though I have a few tricks to reset my brain so I can notice an issue, like flipping the canvas and reference horizontally, or looking at it on my phone or iPad, sometimes trouble spots escape me.
Shonna has an excellent eye for problems in my painted work. I’ll admit that even though I ask her opinion on almost every painting, when she points out an issue, I occasionally resist and must bite my tongue. Sometimes I argue against her view, but if I set aside my ego and seriously consider the suggestion, it’s most often correct.
By the time I ask her opinion, she’s seeing the piece with fresh eyes, knows my work very well and sometimes, it’s a small change that makes a big difference, even though most people wouldn’t notice. But once it’s pointed out, I can’t unsee it.
Derek is another valuable critique resource. He’s an exceptionally skilled tattoo artist and traditional painter. He has often asked me for my opinion on works in progress. Most of the time, however, I see nothing wrong. Like most perfectionist artists, he’s already obsessed over it himself. Nevertheless, when I have seen an area I think could stand some improvement, he’s been receptive and often made the change.
Twice this week, I asked Derek for his thoughts on this painting. Both times, he pointed out a couple of clunky composition issues I had failed to notice. Once seen, it was obvious he was correct, and I repainted those sections.
Even after it was finished, I called him and asked about something small that was bugging me. He could see my concern and suggested an easy way to fix it, but it wasn’t a big deal and Derek told me I was probably overthinking it.
That kind of help from another artist is invaluable.
In other cases, criticism is an opinion that might not align with your vision for a piece. For example, I’ve had plenty of people suggest I paint more realistic animals instead of the caricatured or cartoony personalities that define my work.
That’s their preference. My work isn’t for them.
I’ve had gallery owners and other retailers tell me that if I did create traditional wildlife paintings, no matter how good they were, they wouldn’t want them because that’s what everybody else is selling. My ‘cartoony but real’ animals are my signature look, and that niche has allowed me to continue to create art for a living.
As with every painting, my audience and customers will decide if this sloth becomes a popular piece. That’s something over which I have no control. All I can do is paint the critter, have some fun with it, and release it into the wild.
Diamond Art Club reached out to me in the middle of 2021 with a professional and detailed inquiry and a polished contract. That’s always a good start. Though I didn’t know much about the product at the time, their site and representative explained it well.
Aside from three images, Diamond Art Club now has the worldwide exclusive license for my work on diamond art kits.
Like many licenses, there were months between uploading images and availability for purchase. To create a Diamond Art Kit, designers need to convert a detailed painting into an entirely new format, a cross between paint by numbers, cross-stitch and lite-brite.
I’ve checked out their competitors, and Diamond Art Club’s kits are the best I’ve seen. Clearly, their customers agree as they have a massive, devoted following.
When my first kit launched last summer, the Otter sold out in a few days. Restocking these kits isn’t a simple matter of reprinting the image. First, each kit needs to be manufactured, and that takes time. Unwrapping my sample of the first kit, it’s easy to see why. So it took several months, but I’m happy to report that the Otter is now back in stock on their site.
Several subscribers purchased the Otter and said they’ve enjoyed it.
Today, it’s my pleasure to announce that a new diamond art kit will launch TOMORROW. I’ve known about this one coming for some time but couldn’t announce it until now.
This one is 22″ X 29″ (55.8cm x 73.7cm) Square with 48 colours including 3 Aurora Borealis colour. The T-Rex is now available! You can see and purchase it here.
The designer(s) did a fantastic job rendering my T-Rex painting into a diamond art kit format. The conversion looks a lot like pixel art, but instead, each pixel is one of their patented colourful resin rhinestones.
Other designs are coming this year, but I’m not allowed to reveal anything more.
But if they turn out as well as the first two have, I’ll be thrilled to let you know when I can.
Keeping a blog is handy when I write a year-end wrap-up because I don’t have to remember what happened. So here are some of the standouts from this year.
While on a cabin trip last year, my buddy Darrel suggested my work might lend itself well to vinyl stickers people put on vehicle windows. So, I designed a few, sourced a production company, and realized he was onto something.
The ten designs have done well with regular re-orders at the Calgary Zoo, Discovery Wildlife Park, and Stonewaters in Canmore. They were also popular at Calgary Expo and the Mountain Made Markets. This week, I reordered a bunch and added two new designs. In the upcoming year, I’ll be working to get these into more stores.
The NFT boom goes bust
Earlier this year, I thought there might be a market selling NFTs of some of my paintings. I read a lot of information, entertained offers from online galleries, and eventually signed with one. They were professional and good to work with, but then the entire crypto art market fell apart.
Thankfully, I lost no money on the experiment. I never bought any cryptocurrency or paid for my own NFT minting. The time I lost was an educational experience, and I have no regrets. You will never have any success without risk. Kevin Kelly once said, “If you’re not falling down occasionally, you’re just coasting.”
Will NFTs come back into favour? I doubt it.
Cartoon Commendation I don’t usually enter editorial cartoon contests, but I made an exception this year for the World Press Freedom Competition. I’d already drawn the cartoon above that fit the theme, and the top three prizes included a financial award. Though I hadn’t expected much, I won 2nd place and the prize money paid for most of my new guitar.
The Rocky Mountain Outlook is our local weekly paper. I’ve been their cartoonist since it began in 2001, and I’ve never missed an issue. National awards matter to weekly papers as they lend credibility to the publication, especially when soliciting advertisers who pay for it. The Outlook enters my work into the Canadian Community Newspaper Awards each year.The CCNAs didn’t happen last year because of the pandemic, so they awarded two years at once this time. For Best Local Cartoon, I won First, Second and Third for 2020 and Second and Third for 2021 in their circulation category.
Given there are fewer local papers each year and even fewer local cartoonists, I wonder if the multiple awards say more about the lack of competition than the quality of my work. Regardless, the recognition is still welcome.The problem with local cartoons is that you kind of have to live here to understand most of them. So the ones I’ve shared here are a random selection of local and national topics. Between the five or six syndicated editorial cartoons I create each week, plus the local cartoon for The Outlook, I drew 313 editorial cartoons this year.Calgary Expo and the Mountain Made Markets
I know artists who do the gift and market circuit all year long. For some, it’s their entire living, and they do well. Others try it for a few years, don’t make any money, and move on to something else. It can be a real grind.
More than once, I’ve considered getting a bigger vehicle, a tent and the display and booth hardware I would need to do the fair and market circuit in the warmer months and the holiday shows in November and December.
But with daily editorial cartoon deadlines, long days away and travelling each week are next to impossible. I enjoy working in my office every day and have no desire to spend a lot of my time driving and staying in hotels.
The one big show I look forward to each year is the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo at the end of April, five long days, including a full day for setup. So when the full event reemerged from its two-year pandemic hiatus, I was excited to return.
Not only was 2022 my best year of sales to date, but it was also great fun. I’m already looking forward to the 2023 event, though I’m tempering my expectations with a possible looming recession. Then again, I didn’t think this year would be good, and I was happily proven wrong.
There were several Mountain Made Markets this year, with weekend events every month from May to December. Held indoors at the Canmore Civic Centre, it’s an easy setup close to home, so it’s worth my time.
Each market was profitable, and I enjoyed introducing new people to my work, meeting subscribers in person and visiting with customers, vendors and friends. Significant changes are coming for that event this year. Whether good or bad remains to be seen, but I hope to do more of them in 2023.
If you’ve ever bought a face mask, magnet, coaster, or calendar from me, those come from Pacific Music & Art, just a handful of the many items they sell. I often hear from people who’ve bought a trivet in Banff, a coffee mug in Alaska, or an art card in Washington.
Licensing allows me to spend my time painting and still reach new markets and audiences. I signed a few new deals this year with Art Licensing International agency, a company that has represented my work for several years. Agencies might have many more contacts, but they take a big chunk of the royalties, so it’s a double-edged sword. I prefer to find most licenses on my own.
Sometimes companies cold call me. When Diamond Art Club contacted me about licensing my work, I had barely heard of diamond art kits.
Though there was a lead time of many months, the Otter kit finally launched this summer and sold out in days. Producing these kits involves more than simply printing the image on an item, so it took a few months for them to restock that first piece, but it’s again available on their site.
More diamond art kit designs are coming in 2023, but I’m not allowed to share which ones yet.
I signed a new contract last week for ten of my images with an overseas company for another product, but that, too, will be something I can’t share until the middle of next year. Licensing usually involves quite a bit of time between signing contracts and actual production, so it’s work now that pays later.
Come to think of it, that’s a good way of looking at commercial art in general. Every piece I paint is an investment in future revenue.
As I wrote about my latest commission earlier this week, here’s the link if you’d like to see and read about the pet portraits I painted this year.
Every year, I begin with great plans and expectations, but things go off the rails or new opportunities show up, and the whole year becomes a series of course corrections. All I can do for delayed projects important to me is try again.
I tend to slip into a fall melancholy or winter depression most years. When it happens, I often throw my efforts into a personal project, usually painting a portrait of a screen character. I’ve painted several portraits of people, and many result in great stories to go with them. Here’s the John Dutton character painting I did last year.I realized earlier this month that I wouldn’t get to one this year, even though I had already chosen someone to paint. While disappointed, not having the time was likely due to the work I put into the markets, something I hadn’t done in previous years. However, my latest commission of Luna almost felt like a personal piece because I so enjoyed that painting.
I still had down days this fall, especially with our brutally cold November and December. But September and October were beautiful and right before the weather turned, I had a great cabin trip with my buddy, Darrel.
So the seasonal depression wasn’t as dark as it has been in recent years, and for that, I’m grateful.
On a sunny June day in Calgary, a woman ran a red light and wrote off Shonna’s car. While we had no immediately apparent injuries, we’ve been sharing one vehicle ever since and likely will until sometime in the middle of next year. Unfortunately, everything we can find, used or new, is overpriced, and we’ve heard many stories of fraudulent car dealers adding extra fees and playing bait-and-switch games. As if the near criminal behaviour of our own insurance company wasn’t bad enough.
But we bought Pedego Element e-bikes and love them. Canmore is easier to get around by bike than car, and it has become a necessity since they brought in paid parking. So we were both disappointed when winter arrived with a vengeance in November, and we had to put them away. While we had planned to get studded tires and ride the bikes all winter, as many around here do, 20″ studded fat tires are just one more item on the long list of global supply problems.
We had a wonderful vacation in August, glamping and kayaking for a week off northern Vancouver Island, a 25th-anniversary trip we had postponed at the beginning of the pandemic. It was one of the best adventures we’ve ever had.
I bought a silent acoustic guitar this year and began to play music again. It’s always within arm’s reach of my desk, and I’ve been playing it almost every day, sometimes for ten minutes, but most often for an hour or more. With regular practice, I’m a better musician now than I’ve ever been, and it’s a lot of fun, especially bringing it on a couple of cabin trips.Best of all, there is no chance I will ever play guitar for a living. It’s a purely creative escape with no responsibility to pay my bills.
Including the two commissions, I completed nine full-resolution production pieces this year. I wanted to paint more.
Best I can figure, preparing for and attending the additional Mountain Made Markets this year ate up a lot of time and energy, especially on weekends when I do a lot of my painting. I still had to create the same number of editorial cartoons each week but sacrificed painting time. That’s valuable information to have when considering future markets and shows. While those might give me more opportunities to sell the work, they steal from time creating it.
I’ve put together another video to share this year’s painted work. Most of these are finished paintings, with a few works in progress.
Hundreds of new people subscribed to A Wilder View in 2022. My sincere thanks to you who’ve been with me for years and those who just joined the ride. Whatever challenges you face in the coming year, I hope the occasional funny-looking animal in your inbox gives you a smile and makes life a little bit easier, if only for a moment or two.
One of the questions I get from people is, “what’s your medium?”
When I answer that it’s digital, I can expect a few different reactions because many people don’t understand it or think it’s something else.
Many people hear digital and think I’m just messing around with photos on the computer, especially because my work is highly detailed and often has a photorealistic quality. I explain that it’s all brushwork on a digital drawing display, like a cross between a TV monitor and a drafting table. Even though I take my own reference whenever I can, no photos are ever part of the paintings.
For most people, that’s enough of an explanation.
When I tell a traditional artist, somebody who paints with acrylic, oil or watercolour, that I’m working digitally, I often get disdain and condescension. A lot of traditional artists don’t like digital. It might be that they can’t do it, don’t understand it, or feel threatened that it will replace their work medium. Or they don’t like the idea that anybody creates anything on a computer and calls it art.
It used to bother me, and I’d feel insecure about defending my medium, but these days, I dismiss it and move on. I started creating art on a computer in 1998 with one of the first drawing tablets Wacom ever made. I’ve been making my full-time living as an artist for almost twenty years and arguing art mediums is wasted time and energy.
I can’t imagine any photographers or moviemakers still arguing film vs. digital these days. But when digital cameras first came out, those communities had plenty of heated discussions. It seems rather foolish as the camera doesn’t create the art; the photographer does.
It strikes me ironic that artists who are all about free expression, exploring creativity and pushing boundaries are often the first to tell another creative, “you have to stop because that’s not the way it’s done.”
Judge a piece of art by how it makes you feel. If you get nothing from my work, it’s simply not for you. Move on to another artist whose creations push your buttons.
Fortunately, anybody under 30 has grown up with digital art, so they have no stigma. They’ve seen it in movies and video games their whole life. They’ve been doodling on their tablets and phones for years. So when those people ask me about the work, they usually want to learn how to do it.
And I’m always happy to share what I know because so many generous artists gave me their time and knowledge when I was coming up.
While creating a Christmas-themed editorial cartoon this week, I decided to share the different stages of how I draw a cartoon. This isn’t a tutorial, as I don’t want to bore all of you who aren’t aspiring digital artists. Instead, it’s simply a window into the creation.
I put rough perspective guides on a layer in Photoshop for this cartoon.
On another layer, I’ll sketch out whatever I’m drawing and keep refining over and over until I get what you see here. It’s the same principle as sketching and drawing on paper, without all the mess of smudging and erasing.
Then I’ll drop the opacity of the sketch layer, so it’s very faint and create cleaner black lines on the layer above. I call this an Ink layer, even though there’s no ink involved.
I’ll delete the sketch, create a new layer beneath the ink layer and fill in sections of flat colour on different layers. This helps me establish a base colour for separate pieces and select certain painting sections easily.
On top of the flat layer, I create a layer for light and shading. The initial sketching and the painting layer are where I have the most fun.
Finally, I’ll create a painted background, add talk bubbles, my text and signature, and save different formats to send to my newspaper clients across Canada.
Years ago, I recorded a whole DVD on this process through PhotoshopCAFE. It’s no longer available, but this is the basic idea.
The painting process I use for my whimsical wildlife and portraits of people is more complicated because each painting takes many hours to complete and involves a lot of fine detail. But the tools are the same. Many artists have asked me about my painting brushes over the years, and they’re surprised that they’re not complicated. Just like in traditional art, it isn’t the brush; it’s the person wielding it.
As in any profession, creative or otherwise, skills only come from years of working on your craft, and there are no shortcuts.
I created a time lapse video of a Christmas reindeer a few years ago. It shows the Wacom display on which I work and a painting from start to finish in two minutes. Watch ‘til the end for a little digital magic.
As this is likely my last post before the 25th, I hope you all have a Merry Christmas. I’ll have something else for you before New Year’s Eve.
Here’s my latest piece. I call it ‘Staring Contest.’ This is another painting of Berkley from Discovery Wildlife Park. I took the reference a couple of years ago, the same day I did for one of my favorite pieces, Grizzly on Grass. I love painting this bear. Spending time with her was, and continues to be, a highlight of my life. I’m forever grateful to Serena and her staff for that privilege. Below is a time lapse video of this piece, from start to finish, along with narration to go with it. The text for the voice-over is below the video if you’d rather read than listen to it. Thanks for being here.
Every artist is familiar with imposter syndrome. It has now become a cliché that’s right up there with the overshared quote about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
We compare ourselves to other artists and not only feel like we don’t measure up but that we never will. It’s easy to fall into the headspace that an art career is a zero-sum game, that when another artist wins, you lose. It can be somebody you’ve never met with whom you have no connection, but when they’re making headlines and you’re not, it feels like you’re failing.
Worse, news of other people’s successes is front and center all the time. As a result, we now compare ourselves to everyone else on the planet.
So-and-so exceeded their Kickstarter funding by $50,000. And there’s the guy who makes his entire living from his Patreon subscribers. That woman over there makes six figures from YouTube videos, and that other person has thousands of followers on Instagram.
That artist made millions on NFTs. Somebody else just published their 4th book. His course went viral. She’s featured at Comic-Con. That big company sponsored this guy, and that girl scored a five-figure art grant.
Some kid’s painting video goes viral, and now he’s making movies with James Cameron? He’s 18. That girl’s not even out of art school and got a gig with Disney?
Suddenly I have to start dancing on TikTok to sell my art.
What the hell?
That’s the problem with attention. You’ve got to keep coming up with something new to get more of it and find a way to stand out in a crowd of millions doing the same damn thing.
When you’re not chasing the spotlight, you need to pay the bills.
I’ve been making my full-time living as an editorial cartoonist, illustrator and digital painter for nearly twenty years, plus several years part-time before that.
And yet, I wonder if I’ll still be able to do this for a living in six months.
I’ve had that worry every month since I quit my full-time job in 2005. It has never gone away. Good stuff has happened in my career, a lot of it. But when it does, that little voice always reminds me not to get comfortable. Because as soon as you stop and smell the roses, you get a thorn up your nose.
There are plenty of articles that try to talk you down from the comparison ledge. I know, I’ve read them. Hell, I’ve written some, though I felt like a fraud while doing it.
The worst part is the longing, that feeling that you could be so much more than you are, but you somehow missed that critical memo everybody else got because they seem to know what they’re doing, and you’re the idiot still looking for the light switch in a dark room. It’s that failure to live up to your own perfectionist personal potential, that dark cloud of not being good enough that will rob you of most of the joy of creating art.
Then there’s the shame that comes from not being more successful, feeling like a joke to your friends and family, as if they’re reluctantly indulging this phase you’re going through, just waiting for you to come to your senses and get a real job.
I can’t tell you how many acquaintances I’ve run into, people I hadn’t seen for years, who ask, “Oh, you still doing that art thing?”
“Good for you.”
All that’s missing is the pat on the head.
Now, this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you to let it all go, enjoy the ride, stop trying so hard and making yourself miserable. Comparison is the thief of joy. But then I’d be a hypocrite because I’m 51 years old, and I haven’t figured out how to accept any of that.
Not long ago, I watched that ‘Light and Magic’ series about the creative minds behind ILM. For a movie and art nerd like me, it was exciting stuff. The contrast between what they created in the ‘70s and what it has become today is remarkable. From little plastic spaceship models and whole camera systems they had to invent to bring Star Wars to life to later making dinosaurs real in Jurassic Park, it’s practically sorcery.
On the one hand, it was incredibly inspiring that they just made stuff up, and it worked. But, on the other, it triggered a sense of desperation that nothing I’ll ever create will ever be that good.
I paint funny-looking animals. How important is that? It’s not! But you know what? Neither is modelling toys and playing with space aliens. But those people changed movies forever. Those people changed the world
What I liked best about the story was how those people talked about each other 40 years later. They were like family. It was the kind of workplace everybody wants but is ultimately very rare. They gambled on a dream and turned it into reality.
It’s easy to quote, “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
But chances are better than average that they won’t. For every ILM lightning-in-a-bottle story, there are a hundred others we’ll never hear about, featuring creative types who dreamed just as big and worked just as hard.
This artist’s life delivers more than its fair share of torment, uncertainty, and feeling unoriginal like it’s all been wasted time. I wonder if I’ll still be able to draw when I’m older or if age will rob me of my dexterity and eyesight. I worry I haven’t saved enough for retirement because I’ve invested more into this creative life of risk than my financial security.
And yet, for all the fear I feel every single day, and the shame for not knowing how to make all the right business moves, it’s still one of the very few places in my life where I’m allowed to touch something magical and unexplainable. In the work is a sense of connection to something greater than myself, even though I can’t define it. It’s a feeling outside the five senses, a well I’m allowed to draw from but not one I own.
It doesn’t come in the first moments I sit down to paint, nor does it show up even an hour into it. I’m still distracted by random thoughts, checking emails, and going to YouTube to answer a question that just popped into my head, leading to three more videos. And finally, an hour later, I must remind myself to get back to painting.
Once immersed in the work, a couple of hours into a session, something happens that reminds me why I’m spending so much of my limited time on the planet painting little hairs around a silly little grizzly bear’s ear.
It just feels right, that it’s where I’m supposed to be. It quiets the angry, critical, unkind voices in my head. It’s an escape, something good in a world I’m convinced is not. It’s a fleeting thing, only sticks around for a little while, but it comes and goes in waves.
Over the years, chasing those moments, that connection, those little hairs became a painting, then another, then a portfolio, and a body of work. Before I knew it, it was a career and life as an artist.
If you are lucky in a creative profession, you never stop learning and trying to become a better version of the artist you were yesterday, which is the only comparison that matters. I thought this painting was done, but then I realized that the bear’s muzzle wasn’t long enough. Most people wouldn’t care one way or the other, but once I’d seen it, I knew I’d forever look at the painting and wish I had changed it.
So I did some cutting and pasting, a little warping and nudging, and spent a couple more hours repainting that section. It was frustrating, but I’m more content with the finished result and glad I didn’t rush it. And though it’s done, it’s still not quite good enough. I can do better, and I’ll try again on the next one.
Because that is the hardest part of being a professional artist, making peace with the fact that you will never be good enough for your own expectations and will spend a lifetime reaching for that carrot on the stick, knowing you will never get it. Even if you did, it wouldn’t be what you thought it was.
We’ve had fantastic fall weather this year in the mountains. The leaves took a long time to change, and there are still plenty on the trees. It’s been almost like summer, right up until last week, with our first snowfall. A warming climate is a growing concern, but it has been hard to see that big picture lately while still biking in shorts in the middle of October.
And yet, despite the excellent weather, I’ve been depressed and angry. I’m not the type to put my fist through a wall or throw things; instead, I hold it all in and ruminate. One could argue the latter does more damage in the long run.
This melancholy happens to me this time of year, but usually a little later. I suspect it’s a combination of several things.
I’m weary from the last three years. But, unfortunately, rather than getting easier, this difficult period in our collective history seems to keep compounding. As if we all haven’t had enough, inflation is up, spending is down, and even more financial stress is on the horizon.
Then there is the constant deluge of negative news. Editorial cartooning, the other half of my business, requires I turn my daily focus to bad actors with nefarious agendas, lying and cheating their way into powerful positions. Around the world, people dissatisfied with their current leaders seem content to vote for any alternative, even when a second’s reflection quickly reveals that the new boss is far worse than the old one. Most of these button-pushing zealots’ plans stop at ‘get the power.’
I’m not sleeping well, I have no appetite, and under all of it is a growing sense of futility, especially as a self-employed artist. More than once in recent days, I’ve considered chucking it all and going back to a real job. Last month, a complete medical checkup revealed I’ve no physical health issues. All numbers are in the green, with no red flags.
Mentally, however, I’m struggling.
This is not a ploy for sympathy because, seriously, who among us hasn’t got reasons to feel blue and lost lately? Another local business closed last week. A friend had two close family members die this year, one after another. So everybody is struggling in one way or another.
What weighs most heavily on me is how so many are taking it out on each other. Thankfully, I don’t have to see it on social media anymore. Killing those platforms was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But people are becoming bolder and more abrasive in real-world interactions, and I find it profoundly disturbing.
Anyone who takes out their frustration over a long lineup, on the grocery store clerk who actually showed up for work, should have to return to the back of the line.
Ironic that so many of us hated the lockdowns, being told we couldn’t go anywhere or socialize. Now that everything has opened again, I’ve found I prefer to stay home and avoid people by choice.
No, I’m not special. Neither are you. We’re all going through some tough shit.
I’m just explaining the source of this latest painting.
I have been working on another cute, happy painting of a grizzly bear for the past couple of months. I’m recording the process and writing a narrative to go with it. These videos take a lot more time than a regular piece. Recording the painting, writing the text, recording the voice-over, selecting the music, and editing it all add hours to the work.
I don’t want to rush it, but I didn’t want to go too long without a new painting to share and add to my licensing. While perusing my extensive library of reference images, looking for a subject to paint, the happy, genial photos weren’t resonating with me.
Then I came across a series of photos I’d taken of Griffin, a lion at Discovery Wildlife Park. In a couple of shots, he looked a little annoyed. Considering my present dark cloud perspective and frustration, it felt right.
Naturally, I exaggerated the expression to make him look downright grumpy, hence the title. The more I painted, the more it felt like a self-portrait.
I know that people who buy and license my work are looking for happy, whimsical wildlife paintings to make them feel good. I also know my role in this relationship, and I’m delighted to play it most of the time. I get a lot of satisfaction and joy from my work, and I’m glad many of you enjoy it, too.
But art is often cathartic and a means of expressing our emotions, whether for the person creating it or those it touches.
Though this lion’s expression isn’t happy, I can still see some comedy in it. But make no doubt about it. He’s pissed off, unimpressed, and wants to be left alone.
As with every painting, once released into the wild, I have no control over how people feel about it or whether this grump will connect. But I have a couple of other paintings that aren’t so happy and cheery, and they’ve found their audience, so who knows?
When I’m at the Calgary Expo or a Mountain Made Market, people often repeat the same lines I’ve heard dozens of times. So I’ll confess to having a few stock responses at the ready. It’s impossible to avoid once you have phrases you know connect with people.
While standing at the booth or table, gazing at the wall of paintings before them, some will say, “they’re all so happy!”
I’ll agree with them but offer, “Well, maybe not the Ostrich. He’s got a bit of an attitude problem.”
Part of living in bear country is knowing how to be safe when hiking or exploring. It’s important to learn how to react should you encounter a black bear or a grizzly in the woods, and sometimes even in your neighbourhood.
While bear spray within easy reach is more than just fashionable, the best policy is to avoid an encounter, making noise to alert any bears to your presence. Most of them don’t want to encounter humans, so they’ll scurry off before you even see them.
Certain times of the year, however, it’s not so simple. If she’s got curious cubs, Mom will stick around to protect them because they don’t yet know to avoid people. In the fall, bears are eating as much food as possible, preparing for hibernation, and it’s not easy to distract them or get them to leave a bush full of berries.
You can buy bear bells all over the place around here, but they’re ineffective. The noise doesn’t carry; it’s too soft to be heard over the wind or through trees. The same goes for banging sticks or rocks, as those sounds occur naturally.
The best noise is the unmistakable human voice. A conversation among a group of friends will usually convince a bear to seek life elsewhere. Sure, constant yapping goes against the pursuit of natural peace and quiet, but ambulance sirens are worse. Pick your poison.
When it’s tough to get a group of people together for a hike, or you just don’t like that many people in the first place, you can sometimes identify solitary hikers by their familiar call of, “Hey Bear!”
I’ve heard this call more times than I can count in the 20+ years I’ve lived and hiked in this area and have used it myself. But it always strikes me funny because, last I checked, bears don’t speak English.
As far as they’re concerned, you could yell anything, and it would still accomplish the same goal. To a bear, there’s really no difference between yelling “Cleanup Aisle 4” or “Flip Flop Hula Hoop” or “Blah, Blah, Frickety, Blah Blah!”
You might amuse other hikers, though.
And if you happened to yell, “Hey, Elk” or “Yo, Squirrel,” it’s not like a grizzly will continue to go about her business, thinking, “oh, that’s for somebody else.”
I don’t know why this occurred to me while painting this bear, but it made me snicker. I thought of walking through the woods, getting that familiar ‘it’s quiet, too quiet’ feeling and calling, “Hey, Bear!” only to have a massive grizzly pop its head up out of a nearby bush and answer, “Hey!”
Here’s a painting I did late this week. Not a fully rendered piece, just something I did for fun. I’m still working on another bear, a more finished piece and video. I hope to have that one done in a week or so.
It’s not unusual to see bears in this valley, but it has been a strange season for encounters. The berry crop was poor this year, and bears have been spotted all over town for weeks.
When people fail to pick the ripe fruit from the trees in their yards, it attracts bears. Dog food, bird feeders, dirty BBQs, and garbage will too. Bears have an incredible sense of smell, and they’re attracted to anything that gives off an interesting odour. Dirty diapers will attract bears.
All it takes for a bear to become spoiled and dangerous is too many opportunities to associate people with food.
Shonna and I bought our townhouse condo in 2001. It’s in a well-defined complex with single road access and a couple of other walking entries on the opposite end. We’ve occasionally had elk inside the complex, but in the 21 years we’ve lived here, I’ve never seen a bear on the property.
A couple of weeks ago, while checking the mail, I noticed a sizeable pile of scat six feet from our front door. If you’ve never seen bear poop, it’s unmistakable.
At the end of our street, nowhere near a wilderness area, a well-used gravel path passes beside a daycare. A week before, as I rode my bike around the building heading for downtown, I was surprised to see a mother black bear and two cubs in my way. I hit the brakes, breathed something like “oh shit,” and slowly backed up, wondering what she would do.
She and her cubs looked right at me, but I got away without a confrontation. It was only a half block from home, so I called the Bear Report Line, as did several others.
Still on the phone when I got home, I stepped onto our kitchen balcony to see the Mom and cubs walking by on the street below. It was just after noon.
Many in town have seen this bear and her two cubs, another black bear and her three cubs or several other single black bears looking for food in suburban neighbourhoods.
I recently had a cable internet issue requiring a service call. The tech who came to sort it out lives in an apartment-style condo building near the other end of our street. While walking his dog one evening, he saw a grizzly in his parking lot. Others in his building have seen it too, and warnings are now posted around the property.
Last Sunday, our next-door neighbour Chris sent me a text warning at about 9:15 pm that the black bear and three cubs were spotted walking down a long road that leads to the top of our condo complex. Shonna would be biking home an hour later from her part-time job at Safeway.
Here’s a late-night photo Chris took from his balcony at the end of August.
I called Shonna to warn her and said I’d keep an eye out. She takes well-lit main roads to get home, away from the current bear sighting. But this year, they can be anywhere, including downtown.
A half-hour later, Mom and cubs were walking down the road inside our complex, straight toward our front door. Four people stood in front of our place, taking pictures and videos with their phones. I warned them from my open living room window that they were in a dangerous spot and should leave.
They were dismissive and waved me off, a typical tourist response. But I think these were locals who should have known better. Shortly afterward, my neighbour was more blunt when he warned them about their poor choices.
Chris and I were more concerned about harm coming to the bears. When stupid people trigger an encounter that forces a bear to defend itself, the authorities shoot the bear and orphan her cubs. All for an Instagram post.
Fortunately, this bear was more intelligent than those people. She turned around and went back the way she came. The four humans finally left as well, their departure significantly increasing the average IQ of our neighbourhood.
Though the bears were no longer in sight, I knew they’d still be close.
Shonna called before she left Safeway, and I told her I’d be waiting. Bear spray in hand, I stood at the open front door until I heard her repeatedly hitting her bike bell as she drove into the complex. I opened the garage door as she turned the corner so she could go right in, ending our evening’s excitement.
I have a complicated love-fear relationship with bears.
The first whimsical wildlife critter I painted in 2009 was a grizzly bear, and I’ve painted more bears than any other animal. I’ve spent countless hours at Discovery Wildlife Park, having close encounters with their rescued orphan bears, especially a favourite named Berkley. I’ve painted her quite a few times. On the flip side of that coin, I am unreasonably terrified of bears. For years, I’ve tried to get used to camping in a tent in bear country.
Bears are more likely to avoid people than seek them out. I know that if you keep a clean campsite, don’t bring any strong smells into the tent with you, and sleep away from where you cook, you’re unlikely to attract bears.
I know what to do if I encounter a black bear or grizzly. I make noise while out in the woods, carry bear spray and know how to use it. I know that bears have far more to fear from us than we ever do from them, that bear attacks are almost unheard of and usually defensive, prompted by a human doing something foolish.
Bears don’t kill people. People kill bears.
And even with that knowledge, I’ve never been able to shake the phobia while camping or hiking in bear country. Every noise is a bear, especially from dusk ‘til dawn. My camping companions have taken great delight in mocking my bearanoia, despite having phobias of their own.
Am I having fun yet?
After countless camping trips, not sleeping well, annoying others with my nervousness, and living with the shame of not being able to talk myself out of it, I’ve given up camping in tents in the Rockies. I return home more pissed off than relaxed.
Besides, a cabin is much more comfortable, especially when it rains.
Strange that I had no concerns on our recent kayaking adventure on Vancouver Island, living in a tent in an area with a dense population of black bears. I slept great every night. Is my fear geographical?
The most remarkable recent bear encounter was at the September 3rd Mountain Made Market when a black bear tried to walk into the Civic Centre in the middle of the day, about forty feet from my table. Fortunately, the Town building monitor, Maurice, a genial and helpful gentleman, stood at the door waving his arms and making noise, convincing the bear to seek a different path. There’s a man who’s good under pressure.
I’ve enjoyed my market experiences over the past year. Decent sales, close to home, and I get the same great location in the Civic Centre each time. Connecting with other vendors and my customers, I always learn something new.
This market was especially fun because Alexander Finbow occupied the next table. He owns Renegade Arts Entertainment here in Canmore. Alex has been ready to publish an art book of my work since 2016. He has been very patient, is still interested and we talked more about it.
Alex figured out that I’ve been making too big a deal out of it, trying to put together one big book instead of a smaller one. He suggested that rather than try to cram my whole career into one volume, I make it more specific, and pick stories and artwork that fit a theme. Then if the first book does well, there will be more books on other parts of my work in the future. That not only relieves a lot of pressure, but it’s a sound business plan as well.
Sometimes you just need somebody to point out the obvious.
The first art book is about bears. Perhaps it always has been.