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Newsletter

Want to keep up with new paintings, blog posts, special print offers, cartoons and other news? Sign up for my newsletter, delivered directly to your email. I don’t keep a regular schedule, but it’s usually 1 – 3 per month, depending on how busy I am. You can read the latest edition by clicking on the image above. Sign up within or by clicking on this link.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Selling Out Selling Art


A student from the Alberta College of Art and Design recently asked to interview me for an assignment. I was happy to oblige. While in Calgary to drop off prints at the zoo and take some photos, I made time to meet her for coffee last week.

It got me thinking about the road traveled.

My first paying gig as an artist was as the editorial cartoonist for the Banff Crag & Canyon newspaper. I drew my first cartoon in May of ’98, so it’s been just over twenty years. I’ve been a full-time artist since 2006.

Over my career, it has always been easy to find resources in order to become a better artist. While I started with books and magazines, no matter what style of art you want to learn today, there are talented teachers on the internet willing to share their skills, often for a very reasonable price.

Google: “How do I learn to draw?”

While you can peruse countless lessons, videos, books, articles, buy all of the best materials, tools and hardware, unless you practice, you will never become good at anything.

People want the skills, but a relative few are willing to invest the countless lonely hours drawing and the years of bad artwork, most of which will be incredibly unsatisfying and unpaid. I have a hard time looking at my earlier work, but all of that led to all of this.

Creating art for fun can be a great hobby and escape. I’ve encountered many skilled artists with no designs on becoming pros. They are content to draw, paint, sculpt, or play simply for the joy of it, with no illusions.

As for me, I am a commercial artist. It’s how I make my living.

I’ve encountered plenty of artists over the years who’ve told me that I was selling out by selling art, that they wouldn’t dare sully their creative process by putting a dollar amount on it, that real art is made for creativity’s sake alone and not for financial compensation.

That’s bullshit.

I enjoy being an artist, but it’s my job, and just like any other. There are many necessary parts of my job that I do not enjoy.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had to reformat paintings to conform to multiple templates for a new licensing contract. Sixteen images had to be resized, cropped, and uploaded in eleven different formats each, many of which were uncomfortable compromises. Over two days, it took about fifteen hours, during which I still had to meet my daily editorial cartoon deadlines for my clients across Canada.

Prior to that, I was in contract negotiation with that company, back and forth, making changes to the wording, all amicable and professional, but time consuming.

On Sunday, I drew three cartoons to send out Monday because I spent that day reconciling my books for the past three months so that I could file my GST remittance with the government. The day after that was month end invoicing for all of my editorial cartoon clients across Canada.

And still, editorial cartoon deadlines had to be met.

Tomorrow afternoon, I have a meeting with the owner of the aforementioned company as he will be driving through town. If I’m sending mixed signals, let me clarify. The setup work and contract stuff was tedious, but the license itself is exciting and I’m looking forward to sharing the details very soon.

My point is that I have spent as much time this week on the administration and promotion of my art as I have creating art, and that art was all cartoons.

I’ve only squeezed in a couple of hours of painting in this week. That’s it. But I’m hoping to find time for it this weekend, which is why I still get up at 5am on Saturdays even though I don’t have a cartoon deadline that day.

I painted my first funny looking animal in 2009 as an experiment, to try something different that might end up being a more marketable print than the caricature portrait commissions I was doing. Ironic that it was looking to sell more art that led me to the work I enjoy most and a whole new product that changed my whole direction. Commercial art led me to photography as I knew I could paint better images if I took my own reference. It is unlikely I would have found either of those if I wasn’t trying to grow my business.

None of this is complaining, I assure you. Everybody has parts of their job they dislike. That’s why it’s called work.

Quite often over the years, I’ll get emails or questions from young artists asking me for advice on how to create art for a living, which I’m happy to answer.

They become less enthusiastic when I tell them the single most important thing they can do is learn the business of art. Bookkeeping, contracts, licensing, customer service, meet deadlines, keep regular hours, pay your taxes, stop wasting time on social media, be polite to your customers, under-promise and over-deliver. Be accountable and professional.

It’s tedious and you’ll spend all of that time wishing you were drawing or painting instead. You’ll make so many mistakes, but you’ll learn from them and be better for the lessons. Whenever I work with somebody new, especially when it comes to licensing, a voice in the back of my head is always asking, “How is this person trying to screw me?”

Cynical? Yes.

Appropriate? Absolutely.

People take advantage of artists because we not only allow it, we encourage it. Artists are the biggest pushovers around. We not only want you to like our work, we want you to like us, too. Here, just take it for free.

These days, I have enough experience that the warning signs are easier to spot, but I don’t imagine myself immune to more lessons down the road.

I have been screwed more than once in this business. I will get screwed again, but hopefully not in the same ways, because then I won’t have learned anything.

Most of the time, however, the person on the other end of a negotiation is fair, professional, accommodating and a pleasure to work with. But most of the people in your neighbourhood are probably nice, too, and yet you still lock your doors at night.

This business of art is always challenging and the learning is never over. It’s hard work, all the time, and it’s not for everybody.

Creating art is easy. Selling art? That’s the hard part.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Transition of Power



(Yesterday, one of my newspapers asked me to write a few lines to accompany the editorial cartoon video you see here, ‘Transition of Power.’ I sent them a short paragraph, but realized I had more to say on the matter.)

In the 1980s, my father was stationed in Lahr, West Germany with the Canadian Armed Forces. Growing up overseas was a privilege, but during the Cold War, there was no doubt as to why we were there. Our Canadian schools ensured we got the most out of our time in Europe. We were able to see a lot of it, were exposed to different cultures and we learned its history.

A school visit to Dachau concentration camp had a profound impact on me as did visits to other World War II sites. The history of that era is something I’ve read about a great deal in the more than three decades since.

Most recently, I’ve read the Third Reich trilogy by British historian Richard J. Evans, which details the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. It was a bit of a slog to get through it, but well worth the effort. While there are many differences between the world of the 1930s and today, the similarities to today’s climate in the U.S. can’t be ignored.

There is a well-known internet adage called Godwin’s Law. It states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.”

It’s true. We tend to be cavalier with the assertion and most often, it’s unwarranted. The mere mention of Hitler in the same sentence as a current leader is looked upon with derision, along with accusations of lazy logic. Some might say that to compare the current U.S. President to the leader of the Third Reich is irresponsible and inappropriate, largely because it amounts to placing a living human being in the same company as a man who is considered to be the worst mass murderer the world has ever known.

So why is this different?

Today, we have the benefit of hindsight, to see what was allowed to happen in Europe of the late 30s and early 40s once the invasion of other countries began. While world politicians talked, worried about polls, votes and public perception, the ball continued to roll toward what we now know as the worst genocide in human history.

And by the time enough people noticed, it was too late.

We can pretend that what’s going in America is politics as usual, that things will settle down soon and he’ll mellow into the job, despite there being no sign of this happening. It has become cliché to say that we ignore our history at our own peril, and yet we continue to do so time and again.

Hitler surrounded himself with men who supported his views, some who entertained demons far worse than his own. These were men he tasked with carrying out his orders, but also whose appointment gave tacit approval to come up with orders of their own. And they did.

Goebbels, Bormann, Himmler, Eichmann, Mengele, and more. Without Hitler, these men might never have been put in positions that allowed them to achieve their full, horrific potential.

So it isn’t just one man being compared to another, it’s what that one man represents. It’s what he allows simply by his presence.

We forget that Hitler didn’t start by building concentration camps. He started by promising to build a better Germany for Germans, swore to return the Fatherland to its former greatness, and he pointed fingers at minorities and said they were to blame for all that was wrong in the world, then he compared them to vermin.

Yes, the blame rests largely on his shoulders. Hitler wrote the tune and he conducted the orchestra, but he wasn’t the one playing the instruments.

The score was performed by the German people of the time, a shame they later had to live with. Had they known what they were allowing in the 1930s when they failed to speak up, had they a glimpse into the future to see the legacy of their misplaced rage, would they have changed course?

We can never know. How could they possibly have imagined the nightmare to come?

But that is what it means to learn from history, to see the same patterns repeating and to make different choices. Unlike the German people, we know too well what is possible when bad men are given power.

If we allow men like Donald Trump and those he enables to flourish, to explore the full potential of the seemingly limitless power they are currently testing and exploiting, the shame will rest on all of our shoulders.

Will Donald Trump and his inner circle become as monstrous as Hitler and his followers?

I doubt it.

But how far down that road is far enough? A quarter of the way? Half the way?

What are we willing to give up in order to find out?

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Red Deer Advocate Cover Story

Cover
The Red Deer Advocate interviewed me last week for a feature piece. I had no idea it was going to be on the cover above the fold. My Dad sent me the photo.

Here’s the story…

Doodling for fun, profit
by Susan Zielinski

Patrick LaMontagne can’t escape politics.

But the syndicated editorial cartoonist said that luckily many politicians have interesting faces he can play with.

“Rachel Notley is pretty fun to draw. Her hair frames her face well. She also has very expressive eyes and when she smiles she has good lines in her face,” said the former Red Deerian.

“Ed Stelmach was really tough. I hated drawing him. Jim Prentice was kind of fun to draw. I really loved Ralph Klein. As a cartoonist, I miss him a great deal.”

LaMontagne, whose work has appeared regularly in the Red Deer Advocate since 2007, said he usually collects ideas to draw five to seven cartoons each week.

“This week it’s the Olympics, the Senate scandal, one on extreme weather that I’m working on that right now. The U.S. election is pretty big. I just did a caricature of Hillary Clinton this morning and sent it out.

“At this point I can usually know if there’s a cartoon in a story. Sometimes a cartoon just pops out, then I try and make it a little more original because I know another cartoonist might be making the same connections.”

LaMontagne, 45, of Canmore, said he never intended to pursue a career in the arts.

“I make the majority of my living from my syndication and the rest from my painted work.

“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else now, but this was never the plan. I never thought of going to art school.”

LaMontagne said he was basically a doodler from way back, including in class at Camille J. Lerouge Collegiate in Red Deer.

“I really remember Mr. Molesky, my physics teacher, always giving me trouble for doodling in class when I was suppose to be paying attention.”

LaMontagne was born in Red Deer when his father was posted at CFB Penhold. He returned for high school and attended Red Deer College when his family came back to Penhold for his father’s last posting in 1986. His parents Peter and Maureen eventually made Springbrook (edit: actually Penhold) their permanent home.

LaMontagne first started drawing for Banff’s Crag and Canyon newspaper in 1997 and became editorial cartoonist with The Rocky Mountain Outlook in 2001, the same year he became nationally syndicated.

In 2006, he quit his full-time job as an administrative assistant for a physiotherapy clinic and became a full-time cartoonist.

His work appears in 60 to 75 newspapers across Canada.

Each week LaMontagne aims to tell stories without words. He said some days are more difficult than others.

“Right now coming up with new ideas for the Olympics is tough because I have to do it every couple of years and you can only make so many jokes about the Olympics.”

But the political ups and downs in Alberta is something he can rely upon.

“Alberta politics is something that everyone in the country watches because of the economic engine here, when it sputters, it hurts everybody.”

He said every editorial cartoonist quietly roots for certain politicians, not for their policies, but because they’ve become a favourite to draw.

“I have no party loyalty whatsoever.”

For more information on LaMontagne visit www.cartoonink.com.

Inner

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Young and Hungry

YoungHungry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have to work your ass off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fine Tooning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Death Cartoons and David Bowie

BowieAs an editorial cartoonist, one of the topics I loathe is death cartoons.

I’ve mentioned this before, I know, but it all comes to mind again today with the death of David Bowie. You want the brutal truth, here it is. When somebody dies and I hear about it in the news, I weigh the depth of their publicity and decide whether or not I have to do a death cartoon, which for me, is often a memorial, more painterly than my other cartoon work. I’ll often include a quote, their name, and the birth/death dates.

Many cartoonists will draw the pearly gates, where there is a humorous or heartfelt exchange between St. Peter and the recently deceased. I loathe that concept and have never drawn a ‘pearly gates’ cartoon, at least as far as I can remember. For one, I’m an atheist, but otherwise, it’s just an overused vehicle that grates on my nerves.

That last statement makes me a hypocrite, by the way. I have recycled plenty of overused vehicles in my time as an editorial cartoonist, just not that one.

It seems incredibly callous that I must end up passing judgment on somebody’s life, whether their death is worth my effort. Does this person’s passing warrant the expense of my time and energy and will newspapers want to publish it? I have to ask myself that question. Then I must answer it.

Politicians, it comes down to their impact on society, the level of their station and historical significance. Celebrities, it’s whether or not they were beloved or famous enough. Religious leaders, artists, social activists, anybody who has contributed to our culture in some way or another merits weighing them on the decision scale.

Yes, it feels as dirty as it sounds. Sadly, it’s part of the job. In the case of Robin Williams, I deliberately chose not to draw a cartoon, even though he warranted one. It just hit me at a very low point in my own life and I didn’t feel like digging a deeper hole.

I woke this morning at my usual time of 5AM. I live in the Mountain Time Zone, but I have newspapers in the east so I need to get an early start every day, especially on Mondays. As I’ve done this for years, I even get up that early on weekends, because it turns out I’m a morning person and that’s when I do my best work.

My routine is to go into my office, turn on the computer and go downstairs to start the coffee. I come back up, check my email, scan the news headlines and hop into the shower. If there’s a breaking story, I’m thinking about cartoons.

The first email this morning was a CBC news alert about the death of David Bowie.

“Shit.”

Yeah, that sucks. 69 is not old anymore and cancer, well… shit. David Bowie. What a shame.

No doubt I had to do a cartoon and even though it was unlikely to happen, I had to try to be original, which is a tall order at the best of times, but especially when doing a memorial cartoon. I knew pretty quickly that I wasn’t using a quote, because that guy was a poet and everybody else would be quoting his lyrics or something profound that he said. Many would be using the same ones.

I showered quickly, got dressed, grabbed a coffee and starting looking for reference and ideas. The only thing I could think of was to do a portrait but it would have to be quick. I’m an obsessive nitpicker when I paint and I invest a lot of time in that work. But on a Monday morning when all of my papers are expecting cartoons before 10 and everybody and their dog is posting memes and my competitors will be doing the same thing I’m doing…yeah, I had to be fast.

I found a few reference pics, figured out what I was going to do, put down the broad strokes, got the features in the right place and then just painted, with upbeat music playing in the headphones to help me keep the necessary pace. The choices were made on the fly. Originally it was going to be Bowie when he was young, then as Ziggy Stardust, even as The Goblin King from Labrynth, then finally just a portrait of him as an older man, trying to capture his personality.

I used my own digital texture brushes, layer upon layer upon layer, threw down darks and lights, and just kept piling it on. Eventually, getting to a point where it was coming together quickly, after only about an hour and a half of painting. Finally, I wanted to add in some different colour and almost did the full Ziggy lightning bolt on his face, but opted for more of a suggestion of that persona, faded like an old tattoo, a remnant of his past but still a big part of who he is and what he’ll be remembered for.

The final piece ended up taking only a couple of hours, and yet still stretched my skills, that element of haste forcing me to cut corners, paint more loosely, and sacrifice the detail I normally enjoy and am known for in my painted work. I even abandoned my usual practice of using typed text, having to choose an appropriate font and instead just scrawled in the name and dates. It just seemed to work.

This piece ended up being a happy accident, brought about by the sad passing of a true visionary. I didn’t just have to do a death cartoon, I realized that I wanted to, a small tribute among so many today, paying respect to an artist whose impact on music and culture can’t be overstated. Few of us can claim that we have lived our lives so well.

I’ve drawn a lot of death cartoons and when I finish one, I usually feel a sense of relief, that it’s over and I can move on to something else, despite the fact that the responses are usually very positive.

With this one, however, I feel I’ve learned something, and become a better artist as a result.

This piece made an impression on me.

Just like David Bowie.

BowieClose

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Out of the mouths of editors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembrance

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

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

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

Thanks, Steve. I think I needed that.

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Death and Cartoons

Last Friday, I was out in Golden, BC for a guys weekend at a buddy’s cabin.  When I first started going out there, it was just the cabin itself on this plot of wooded land, but now, my retired friend and his wife have an art studio and a new home on the land as well.  But that cabin up the hill is still there and he generously allows his friends to use it.  I don’t take a lot of time off, but as that Friday was my birthday and Sunday was my friend Jim’s birthday, it was a great excuse to get away with no work.  Set up on the deck of the house, the three of us enjoying the sunshine, I decided to grab my bedding and gear and hike it up the hill early so I didn’t have to do it in the dark later.  On my way back down the trail, enjoying being in the woods with great weather and just starting to relax, I got an email alert on my phone.  I stopped and already had an idea what it was.  My suspicion was confirmed when I read that former Premier of Alberta Ralph Klein had died.

Continuing down the hill, I opened up a beer, sat down in my chair on the deck and began working on my phone.  My buddies gave me grief that I was supposed to be relaxing, but I explained the situation, told them I needed a half hour and I began sending emails to the daily newspapers across Canada that would want a cartoon on this breaking news.  You see, the cartoon was already done.  The files had been on my phone for about a week, ever since the news came out that Ralph Klein was close to the end after years of suffering a debilitating illness.  Once the cartoons were sent, I spent another half hour answering emails from editors either thanking me for getting the cartoon out so quick or a couple of others asking if I had a Ralph Klein cartoon for them.

KleinToon

Yes, it’s morbid that from time to time, I make my living from a product that is derived from someone’s death.  When I hear that someone of note, whether political or cultural, is close to death or has died, I often feel like a vulture, sitting on a fencepost, waiting to take advantage of the situation.  It’s not a great feeling.  And it’s very difficult to be genuine and not come across as maudlin.  There’s a lot of ‘bandwagon grief’ and crocodile tears on social media these days and I try to walk a fine line between honest respect and overt false sentimentality.  There are few things I dislike more than hypocrisy and social media is ripe soil for that particular crop.

What’s even more morbid is that when I find out somebody has died, I have to decide if it’s cartoon worthy or not.  I must ask myself if newspapers will find it newsworthy enough to write stories or editorials on this person.  In some cases, it’s quite obvious.  In the case of Ralph Klein, he was one of the most charismatic and popular provincial Premiers in Canadian history.  He was beloved by many and not just in Alberta.  Personally, I was saddened by his death, largely because his debilitating end seemed so unfair, given how he lived.  I felt the same for former NDP leader Jack Layton when he passed, one of the few politicians I genuinely liked, even though I didn’t agree with a lot of his politics.  Those cartoons aren’t as difficult because I actually feel something for who the person was, for the life they lived.   While I wouldn’t call it grief, there’s a small connection and a desire to honour them appropriately,  to do right by them in the cartoon.

Then there are the cartoons I must do about death that are newsworthy, but are regarding people for whom I feel little.   This is not a comment on their character, their impact, or their value as a human being, simply that they are strangers to me.  A recent example would be former Premier of Alberta Peter Loughheed who passed away last year.  A respected leader, a man of vision whose footprints are all over the province I call home, and whose death was mourned by many.  But Lougheed ended his run as Premier in 1985.  I was 14 years old, living overseas in West Germany and I didn’t even start following federal politics until my late twenties, let alone that of any province.  I’ve never felt a connection to the man.

Loughheed

The same could be said for former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who passed away this morning at the age of 87.  While her influence was definitely felt on my generation, I feel little connection to her.  While it’s unlikely that I would have shared her obviously right wing views while she was in office, her legacy is undeniable.  Her impact on the UK and the world is clear.  Up at 5:00 this morning, I was working on a cartoon about her death by 5:30 as it was obvious newspapers would be reporting and editorializing on her life and times.

Both of these previous mentions are examples of situations where my profession dictates that I must observe the contribution of these two people even though I feel nothing for them on a personal level.  So, how do I do that without being cliché, falsely sentimental or hypocritical.  The simple answer is that I can’t, not completely.  But I do my best.

StompinTom

Then there are the many more people who die whose lives are not of interest to the editorial page.  Annette Funicello died today as well.  Roger Ebert died a few days ago.  I did not feel their deaths warranted the drawing of a cartoon.  There was no money in it.  That’s the distinction I have to make.  Can you believe that?

Often there will be a natural disaster where a lot of people have died and I have to draw a cartoon on that because there is nothing else to do.  Trust me, nobody is going to print something funny or political on their editorial page when more than 200,000 people have died from a tsunami on Boxing Day.  It was horrible, a tragedy and a nightmare for so many.  The last thing I wanted to do was draw anything about it, because I didn’t feel my illustrative voice could possibly make anything better.  My solution was to guilt people into giving.

Tsunami

I also have a difficult time with Remembrance Day, which is an annual cartoon about death.  I’ve drawn a cartoon each year for November 11th for more than a decade, and each year it gets more and more difficult to create fresh imagery.  Poppies, cenotaphs, senior citizen soldiers talking with children, military iconic images, memorials, passages and quotes about 11:11, In Flanders Field, Lest We Forget, and We Remember.  Each year, I do my best to summon up hackneyed images to appear genuine, but feel like a fraud doing it.  What’s worse is that I come from a military family on both sides, I grew up a base brat, and spent five years in the Reserves.  Heck, I even met my wife there.  But saying ‘Lest We Forget’ feels like a routine, kind of like saying Bless You when somebody sneezes.  We say it, but how many really mean it?

Remembrance

One of the all time cliché death cartoons is that of the pearly gates.  Cartoonists the world over have been showing the deceased either talking with St. Peter or being greeted by somebody who has passed away before them.  There are many variations on the theme.  I can honestly say that I have never drawn a pearly gates cartoon and never will.  It’s an image that has been done to death, pardon the pun.  But that’s not to say that mine are terribly original, either.

When I approach this sort of cartoon, if you could call it that, I’ve now developed what could easily be called my signature ‘tribute’ image, examples you can see above.  Usually a painted portrait, rendered as well as I can in the short amount of time I’ve got, with either a quote, the name of the deceased, the dates they lived, or anything else I can think of.  Having done a number of these over the years, even this now feels trite.  Give me a week or more and I might be able to come up with something more original, but that’s not how the 24 hour news cycle works.  Because I have a knack for portraiture and people seem to like and publish them, I continue to do these cartoons when appropriate and then I move on as quickly as I can.

Regrettably, it’s part of this business of being a freelance editorial cartoonist in Canada.  The bills get paid by getting that spot on the editorial page earmarked for images rather than text.  If I choose not to draw these memorial or tribute cartoons, somebody else will and I’ll be out of a job.  Most of the time, I get to draw and colour and make smartass comments for a living. It involves long hours, it’s competitive, and it’s non-stop, even on a weekend off in the woods on my birthday.  I thrive on the pace, I enjoy the work and it’s rarely boring.  But while it’s a great gig and a great way to make a living,  no job is perfect.

From the tone of this post, you can probably deduce that drawing another death cartoon this morning did little for my mood, today.  Drawing cartoons about people dying is part of this gig I could really do without.

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Top 12 of ’12

It’s that time of year when editorial cartoonists and other creative types compile their ‘Best Of’ collections.  To be honest, I have no idea if the following cartoons are representative of my best work for 2012.  How it works in the world of freelance and self-syndication is that I follow the regional, national and international news each day, decide which stories are big enough or interesting enough to comment on with a cartoon, and then I send the images off to newspapers across the country.  If editors like the cartoon, they print it, and I get paid.  If they don’t, I try again the next day.  At the end of each month, most papers simply tell me how many cartoons they used, but only a few tell me exactly which ones.  Preferences vary from region to region, so while a cartoon may play well in Ontario, it might be a dud in Western Canada.  That’s the nature of this business, trying to please everybody.

So, when it comes to picking my ‘Best of’ cartoons for 2012, I’m just showing you the ones I liked best out of the 275-300 syndicated cartoons that I drew this year.  Could be because the commentary still made me smile when I was going through the archives, or that I remembered enjoying working on the drawing.  For example, the Pac-man cartoon has no editorial or political value at all.  It’s a seasonal cartoon.  But for some reason, I really like it, so it made the list.  There are a few that take shots at Prime Minister Stephen Harper in here as well.  The other party leaders have no power right now.  They’re just noise in the wind.  So naturally, the blame is placed at the top, the guy with the power.  And considering how much he abuses it, there were a number of cartoons about that this year.  Pardon my candor, but that guy just pisses me off.

All the rest were on topics that made me laugh, made me think, or in a perfect world, accomplished both, which is what an editorial cartoon is supposed to do in the first place.  For those of you who follow my daily cartoon posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, thanks for your continued support this year.  I will do my best to keep you interested and amused in 2013.

To get a better look, click on the page and it’ll allow you to zoom in.