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Artist Q&A

From time to time, I’ll receive emails from art students or aspiring artists who have questions about my process or my road from there to here. I remember doing the same thing when I was first starting out. You never know when a kind word or tidbit of information might make a big difference, as it often did for me when more experienced artists took the time to respond to my own inquiries.
 
Hi Patrick!

My name is **** and I am a senior at UC Berkeley studying Biology and Art Practice – I stumbled upon your website while learning how to draw on my own Wacom tablet using photoshop!

I love drawing animals and the detail in all your work is truly stunning – I especially love the shine and depth of the eyes.
I was just wondering – what size canvas do you usually work with in Photoshop to have such high quality? Is all of your work on display digitally or have you ever printed them out for a physical show, etc.?

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions! I’d love to cite your work as some of my inspiration for my senior thesis.

 
Hi ****:
 
Thanks for the compliments about my artwork. I do enjoy creating my funny looking animal paintings. People often mention the eyes as being the part they like most about my work and I would agree. If I don’t get the eyes right, there’s just no life in them.
 

My digital process hasn’t really changed much over the years, even though it sprang from technology shortcomings. I begin a painting at 9″X12″ at 300ppi, or sometimes at 12″X16″. The reason is that I want to get the ‘bones’ of the work done before I work on the detail. A mistake amateurs often make is focusing on detail too soon. It’s a lesson I had to learn myself after much frustration. If the likeness or character isn’t right, painting in a ton of detail won’t fix it.

Once I have the general look right, painting the broad strokes, playing with different colour choices, experimenting with expressions, then I’ll bump up the size. Early on, I used to start with a smaller canvas because my computer and Photoshop would start to lag if I was trying make broad brush strokes on a big canvas. But these days, my hardware/software is plenty fast enough that I could start on a large canvas without any issues, but I still start small for the reasons mentioned above.
 
As I create more and more detail, I’ll bump up the size of the image. 12″X16″ becomes 15″X20″, 18″X24″, 21″X28″…until eventually I’ve been topping out lately at 30″X40″, so my Master files are very versatile for sizing, whatever the need. With each bump up in size, the detail ends up blurring a little, so I’ll sharpen sections as I go, by painting in more detail at that size. It adds to a layered look, especially on fur, which is how it looks in real life. That was initially just a happy accident, but it’s now a critical part of my process.
 
Most importantly, I save multiple versions of a painting as I go. While it’s rare that I experience a crash these days while painting, it was common enough in the early days that I risked losing whole paintings or files if I wasn’t expecting it. Again, it was because the technology couldn’t keep up with the demand I was placing on it. Photoshop would freeze and I’d have to do a reboot, sometimes losing the file in the process. I’ve also got into the habit of saving often, even have an Express Key on my Wacom tablet set so I can one-click it at any time. By the time a painting is done, I’ll have seven or eight working files in different stages of progress. That way, if the most recent file ever gets corrupted, I’ll have only lost two or three hours of work instead of ten or twelve. It still hurts, but not as much.
 
When a painting is done, the first thing I do is upload a Master file to Dropbox. I’ve also got multiple backups on external hard drives. Failing all off that, my licensees and printers have full-res files, so I’m confident my bases are covered. I’ve heard far too many stories from artists who have lost everything because of a failed hard drive at just the wrong time, sometimes years of work because they weren’t diligent in their backups.
 
As for the second question…
 
Because my work is licensed and I sell prints, I usually keep most of it to the same size and ratio. I personally hate buying a print for $25 and then having to spend $100 or more to frame it. So I keep my prints at a uniform size where frames can be easily bought off the shelf. The majority of my consumer prints are 11″X14″, an easy size to find. That helps with sales, too, because people are more likely to buy if they know it won’t cost them a fortune to frame it.
While my work looks best on canvas, I don’t print a lot of those these days, because they’re more of an investment both for me and my customers. They don’t move as fast as the paper prints so I end up hanging on to a lot of inventory. When I do print canvas, it’s usually 12″X16″, the sides are printed black and include hanging hardware on the back. This creates a free hanging look so people don’t have to frame it at all. Looks pretty sharp as is. Any canvas sales are usually done in person at a trade show I do each year, The Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, or by special order. From time to time, people will commission me to paint their pets and a canvas print is included. I don’t print large canvas very often because my type of art doesn’t usually define a big room, like a landscape or modern art piece does.
 
I once had a customer at a trade show tell me that they had two of my pieces in their bathroom. His wife gave him a light punch and said, “Don’t tell him they’re in the bathroom!”
 
To which I replied, “Hey, you had to buy them to hang them there.”
 
I’m under no delusion that my art will someday be in a book of great masters. The paintings make people happy, provide me with a good income, and that’s enough.
I consider myself a commercial artist. I make my living at it so I’ve got no dreams of having my work hang in a prestigious art gallery somewhere. I sell prints at zoos, online and at the occasional trade show. But the largest market for my animal art is through licensing. I’ve got over sixty paintings licensed globally through Art Licensing International. They act as my agent for a number of licenses, mostly for print on demand websites. I’ve also got my work licensed on T-shirts through Harlequin Nature Graphics and on a number of different retail products (magnets, coasters, trivets, art cards…) through Pacific Music and Art, both based on Vancouver Island. Those two licenses wholesale my work to retailers across Western Canada and in a number of States. It’s strange and gratifying to visit somewhere I’ve never been, walk into a gift store, and see my own work staring back at me from a rack or shelf.
The other half of my business is editorial cartooning. I’m nationally syndicated across Canada, providing daily editorial cartoons to many weekly and daily newspapers. I create a minimum of seven cartoons each week, often more, especially during elections. We’re in a federal election campaign right now in Canada.
 
It’s a tough balance sometimes. While both sides of my business involve artwork, they’re very different in theme and audience. There are plenty of people who know me as either an editorial cartoonist or a painter of whimsical wildlife, often unaware of the other work.
 
As is the case for most self-employed folks, it’s an ongoing challenge to adapt to the ever increasing pace of a changing market, but for the most part, it’s work I enjoy.
 
Good luck with your thesis and feel free to quote any parts of this email. Now that I’ve written this much, it occurs to me that this would make a good blog post, for anyone else who might have similar questions. Your name and details will be kept confidential, of course.
 
Cheers,
Patrick
 
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Tiger Trouble

It used to be that the happy afterglow of finishing a painting would last a day or two. These days, it’s usually a couple of hours, and then I’m thinking about the next piece.

On my latest white tiger painting, this piece felt ruined almost immediately after it was done. I found out some information about white tigers that changed everything about the painting.

The worst part was that I had recorded the process for Wacom. When you factor in camera setup, changing my office around, my painting routine,  writing and recording the narration, editing, all of that work on the painting, plus the time on the video, it all seemed about to be wasted.

Thankfully, my friend Pam at Wacom is great to work with, is very supportive and has an open mind. I offered to do another painting from scratch, but we decided to turn the whole situation into a teaching moment about art, ethics, and wildlife conservation.  Then my wife, Shonna offered a suggestion that allowed me to salvage the painting and turn it into something else.

The following video link not only shows my painting technique, the new Wacom Cintiq 16 display (which was a joy to work with) but explains the problem with white tigers and the solution that allowed me to save the painting.

Cheers,
Patrick


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Podcasts I Have Known

Podcasts have become a big part of my work day. While I enjoy listening to music when I paint my funny looking animals or portraits, I’m almost always listening to podcasts when I draw editorial cartoons, drive to Calgary or on longer road-trips. I consider myself late to the party when it comes to podcasts, because I only started listening to them a couple of years ago and they’ve been around for quite some time.

Once Shonna got tired of hearing me talk about all of the things I learn from various subscriptions and episodes, she started listening to them as well and a lot of our conversations revolve around some of our favorite topics and podcasts, many of which we share.

From Wikipedia, “A podcast or generically netcast, is an episodic series of digital audio or video files which a user can download in order to listen to. It is often available for subscription, so that new episodes are automatically downloaded via web syndication to the user’s own local computer, mobile application, or portable media player.”

How do you listen to them? No matter what device you’re on, there’s an app for that. I listen to them on my iPhone via the Apple Podcasts app, but you can listen to them on Spotify, your desktop PC at their various sites and via many other apps.

They have sponsors, which mean there are commercials, but usually only two or three and for the content you’re getting without having to pay for it, they’re worth the annoyance. People need to get paid.

It occurs to me that while I’ve mentioned podcasts before, I haven’t talked about which ones I listen to. I gravitate toward random topics, history, long-form interviews, self-employed business stuff, and inspiration. So if you’re new to podcasts or are looking for some new ones to explore, here are my four favorites and a few honourable mentions.

WTF with Marc Maron. Marc interviews some pretty fascinating people and is a real character. He’s been a working stand-up comedian all of his adult life, but never really achieved real fame or recognition until this podcast, which just had its 1000th episode.

He’s now synonymous with the genre, one of the highest rated, is open about his own recovery from alcoholism and addiction, really gets to the heart of people in his long-form interviews and comes across as a genuine human being looking to make sense of the world, just like the rest of us. He managed to get President Barack Obama as a guest awhile back while he was still in office. When a sitting US President comes to your garage in California for an interview, you know you’re doing something right.

Duration/Frequency: 60-120 Minutes, Biweekly

Akimbo: A Podcast from Seth Godin. Unlike many other podcasts, this isn’t an interview; it’s just Seth, an incredibly successful author and former dot com business executive. Yeah, I got that description from Wikipedia because when you’ve had the impact this guy has had, it’s hard to describe him. I just discovered this podcast a couple of weeks ago, now in its fourth season. But I started at the beginning and have been listening to multiple episodes every day. I’m coming to the end of the archive and now have to make peace that I will only get a new one each week. Will probably mean I’ll have to buy one or more of his 18 books.

As an artist creative type, this guy has some of the most fascinating insights I’ve ever come across. Really resonates with me and I think I’ll be talking about him more in the future. He’s changing the way I look at my business and life at its foundation, with concepts that only seem like common sense after somebody points them out.

Seth not only provides focused alternatives to the way we do things (without even knowing why), especially for self-employed people, but he also has a section at the end of each podcast where he answers questions about the last episode, and he encourages listeners to pose them.

Duration/Frequency: 20-40 Minutes, Weekly

Stuff You Should Know Podcast. Hosted by Josh Clark and Charles W. “Chuck” Bryant, this is the brain child of the folks who bring you How Stuff Works. With easy going humour and camaraderie, these two charismatic guys do an incredible amount of research on their wide ranging field of topics. From the truth about the Loch Ness Monster to How Druids Worked, to name a couple of recent ones, I spend most of my SYSK listening time thinking “Really?! That’s nuts!” and then I call Shonna in the other room to ask if she’s heard this, and if not, she should add it to her list.

If you want a wide range of topics to choose from in order to get your feet wet, start with this one.

Duration/Frequency: 20-60 Minutes, Biweekly

The End of the World with Josh Clark. Half of the duo from Stuff You Should Know, this is only one season. Just 10 episodes but so good! Talks about all of the ways the world could end, from the Fermi Paradox to Natural Disasters. Rather than depressing, it reinforces how fortunate we are to be here at all.

A lot of this is difficult science explained in a way that won’t make you feel stupid.

Duration/Frequency: 60-70 Minutes, 10 Episodes

A few others that I subscribe to but don’t always listen to are as follows.

Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin. Long-form interview style, gets some really interesting guests.

The Tim Ferriss Show. Best-selling author of The Four Hour Work Week and others, Tim often talks with guests that don’t interest me or heads off in a direction I find distracting, but some of his interviews and discussions are among my favorites. While driving up to the cabin this past weekend, I listened to his interview with author Neil Gaiman and didn’t want it to end.

Making Sense with Sam Harris. Thought provoking topics and discussions, requires an open mind to hear opinions and perspectives you might not agree with, but will ultimately help you grow. Shouldn’t that be how we approach life in general?

No matter who or what you’re into, there’s a podcast out there for you. In this information age where we are bombarded with trivial nonsense and empty calories for the mind, podcasts can help you change the channel. Think of it as furthering your adult education.

Cheers,
Patrick

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The Bear Berry Buffet


Late last month, Shonna and I drove up to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail for one more regular season visit. With kids back in school, waning light and cooler temperatures, it gets quieter as Thanksgiving approaches, their last weekend before closing until May.

They still do their shows as advertised, though. As we were told, everybody paid their admission, so they’re entitled to the same experience whether it’s busy or not.

The bear presentation is a bit of a head fake, because even though you get to see the bears show off their training, it’s primarily an opportunity for keepers to educate a captive audience about conservation and safety. They talk about the differences between black bears and grizzlies and what to do should you encounter either while out in the woods. I’ve seen the bear show a few times, but as it was a small group and we’ve gotten to know the keepers, we figured we’d sit in again just to be polite.

Of course, the moment you get cocky and think you know a lot, that’s when you learn something new and get taken down a peg.

While Serena was talking about Charley and Angel, two of their black bears, she told us about hyperphagia. I’m pretty well read, have lived in bear country for more than twenty years, but I honestly can’t recall hearing that word before, or at least not so it registered. From being bear aware and years of local warnings every fall, I know that bears are eating a lot this time of year to prepare for hibernation, but I had never looked into the science.

From the North American Bear Center website, “Experimental studies with captive bears revealed the following: …Hyperphagia is a period of excessive eating and drinking to fatten for hibernation. Black bears with unlimited food and water ate 15,000 to 20,000 kcal per day and drank several gallons.”

According to Serena, it’s a chemical process that happens this time of year, making them eat anything and everything they can get. The Park provides plenty of extra healthy food for them during this stage to prepare them for hibernation. On this particular day, we were told that their black bears had just finished this stage and were starting to slow down.

In the wild, it can be a dangerous time of year to run into bears, because they’re so focused on eating and not so much on their surroundings. So if hikers aren’t making enough noise, they might surprise a feasting bear, which can have less than desirable consequences.

Bears in captivity still hibernate and Discovery Wildlife Park makes them as comfortable as possible in their enclosures while they sleep. Some make use of the large culverts provided, a manmade cave, while others dig their own dens in their enclosures. What many don’t know, however, is that bears still do wake up in the winter. This happens even in the wild, especially on nice sunny days, but they won’t stay up for long.

There is one bear, however, who won’t go to ground this winter at Discovery Wildlife Park, and that’s Berkley, their Kodiak Cub. She’s not even a year old yet, has plenty of energy and is still marveling at the world around her. She’s seen snow a few times and appears to enjoy it quite a bit. Serena has said that Berkley likely won’t hibernate for a few years, but she might slow down a little during the winter months.

That being said, Berkley still appeared to be under the influence of hyperphagia. Shonna and I had the pleasure of going for a walk with her in the woods that evening. On a previous excursion, Berkley seemed to want nothing more than to explore, climb trees and play. On this visit, however, she just wanted to eat.




Like a kid in a candy store, she stopped at every berry bush she could find and proceeded to chow down. It was fascinating and fun to watch. Then when she discovered Serena had peanuts, she whined like a little baby until she was given some.

Of course, when they find the treat that each bear likes best, that becomes a golden opportunity to use it for positive reinforcement and enrichment. Berkley has proven herself to be a smart bear and learns new behaviours quickly, especially when peanuts are involved.
Another black bear at the park named Reno has a thing for guacamole. I met this gentle giant in early 2016 and he’s a wonderful bear. Reno is 22 years old and has been raised at the park his whole life. He weighed one pound when they got him.

He had some issues with his lungs last month and is still recovering, but he was on the mend when we saw him, turning a corner thanks to the antibiotics. They had managed to get him to drink enough fluids without having to put him on an IV and we got to see some of his extra special TLC when we were there.
At one point, while Serena and Mari were in the enclosure with him, he started to urinate and they excitedly grabbed a specimen bottle to collect it before he was finished. They were positively giddy. You know you love your bear when his peeing makes your day. It was a good sign for his recovery and here’s hoping Reno continues to improve.

Vet bills for a bear aren’t cheap, but they do everything they can for their orphans and rescues at this place. It’s a big job, keeping all of these critters housed, fed, and healthy, both physically and mentally. I continue to be impressed with their dedication to these animals and am forever grateful they’ve allowed me to be a part of it. From sketch paintings to finished prints, I’ve painted most of their bears at Discovery Wildlife Park. I hope to keep doing so for many years to come.

Cheers,
Patrick

Here’s a video of our evening with Berkley last month. I suggest you watch it in HD on YouTube.

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Bear Belle (3 of 3)

(This is the third part of a three part post. Here’s a link to Part 1 and to Part 2.)

Walking back to the main building after taking pictures of the wolves, Serena said that I was welcome to join her and Berkley on their evening walk. I really felt I’d taken advantage of their generosity enough and told her so, but she said she was taking her anyway, so it was no imposition.

How could I say No? More importantly, WHY would I say No?I went to the main building for fifteen minutes while Serena and Denise put away the raccoons for the night and took care of some other end of day chores. I’d been told that when I next saw her, Serena would have Berkley with her and she would not be on a leash. Most likely I could expect Berkley to come and check me out and that she might put her nose on my legs, maybe even open her mouth as she did it, but that I shouldn’t be concerned as that’s all it would be.

Sure enough, I saw Serena coming and she asked, “Ready?”
When Berkley saw me, she did indeed come over and check me out. While I didn’t ignore her, I also didn’t make a big deal about it as I wanted her to feel comfortable with me. I was wearing shorts, so I felt a cold wet bear nose bump my leg a couple of times.

I told Serena that I knew not to run, as it would trigger Berkley’s instinct to chase. Even at her small size, she can likely outrun me now. While people think bears are big and lumbering, they are incredibly fast when they want to be. A bear can run up to 40mph in short bursts, faster than a race horse, uphill or downhill. That’s why you’re never advised to run from a bear.

But I asked what else I shouldn’t do.

Serena told me not to ruffle her fur back and forth on her back like you might do to a dog as it’s a signal for aggression, or rough play. A bear cub is very strong and even without meaning to, Berkley could hurt me. So while I didn’t need to be afraid of her, I did need to respect her space.

“But I can still touch her?”

Serena said that I could.
When I first met Berkley, she was about 12 pounds and very small as you can see in the above photo. That was mid-April. When I saw her again last week, she was 54 pounds. The difference is startling, because while she’s still a cub, you can see the adult bear she’s going to become, especially in the way she walks.

I had already doused myself once again in bug spray before they arrived. I had asked if it would bother Berkley, but Serena said the keepers wear it, so the animals are used to the smell. We headed for the tall grass and trees and I instantly realized the spray wasn’t going to cut it. Again, still worth it, but I was scratching for days afterward.

At first, she stuck with Serena and I walking along the path, but eventually Berkley took off into the tall grass, as she often likes to make her own route.
We came to the creek and I was told to sit down on a rock close to the water. Berkley usually crossed a log there and sitting where I was, I might get some good shots. Of course, that didn’t quite work out when Berkley came right to me and started climbing up my shoulders and back. I’ll admit to being quite nervous at this point, but Serena told her to get down and she did.

It should be noted that while Berkley has sharp claws, I’ve never felt them when she’s crawled on me. Not once.

Serena apologized because she suddenly remembered my recent fear of bears, but I was just startled more than anything. Berkley had already found other things to explore, anyway.

Serena told me not to be offended, but that Berkley really wouldn’t be that interested in me. I can’t remember her actual words, but it became clear that I was simply another piece of forest furniture. I was fine with that, because it made following her around and taking photos much more enjoyable and natural.

As we walked, Berkley went this way and that, just having a great time being a bear. She must have climbed more than half a dozen trees and it was amazing to see how easily she did it, scrambling up a trunk as if it was a ladder, then crawling back down to check out something else. She’d dig in the ground, chew on a stick or leaves, eat some grass, whatever caught her interest.
I asked plenty of questions, as I always do, and eventually I realized how comfortable I was walking through the woods with a bear. She never strayed far from Serena, but still did her own thing while we happily snapped photos of her.

We came to one of many large logs across the creek and Serena crossed first, leaving me on the other side with Berkley. She took a few photos of us with her camera but I knew I’d never get to see them until the fall. Summer is so busy for the park staff that any pictures and video you see on their active Facebook page have been taken with Serena’s phone, although they sure don’t look it.

She just hasn’t the time to download and sort through photos from her DSLR during peak season. So I asked if she’d mind taking a few of Berkley and I with my camera. It warrants mentioning that a lot of my photos from the walk are only good because Serena gave me some tips on shooting in the woods in low light.

I leaned across the creek and nervously handed my camera across to her, remembering my broken lens last month when I fell on some rocks on Vancouver Island.
My standing up and then sitting back down attracted Berkley’s attention, which made for a great photo. But then she decided I was worth checking out again and she crawled up on my shoulder. This time, I wasn’t so nervous until she started snuffling my hair, which is when Serena called her off.
Berkley crawled off and crossed the log, once again letting me know that know I’m not THAT interesting.

On the other side of the creek, Serena was looking at the photos in her camera, when Berkley came up behind her, started pulling on the string of her backpack. Serena leaned back so Berkley could crawl up on her and I got this shot.
This kind of photo can be misleading and people might think Berkley is as tame as their dog or cat. She’s not.

Berkley is a cub and only six months old and they’re still getting to know her and how she reacts to other people. One bear’s personality will be different from the next. Still, the most unpredictable ingredient in these encounters will be the person, not the bear. They can’t risk somebody thinking she’s so cute and reaching out to cuddle her or push her around. People might have the best of intentions, but she’s still a bear with wild instincts.

This experience of walking with her in the woods is not something they can make available to most people. I honestly didn’t expect to be offered this opportunity again after the first time because she’s getting bigger. Serena told me that the keepers have been around me enough to know that I’m not going to do anything to endanger the animals, staff or myself. It’s gratifying to know that I’ve gained their trust, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly.
Serena knows Berkley best as she still takes her home every night. It’s a lengthy process getting Berkley used to being alone for extended periods of time. She has a small barn on the property where she goes to sleep during the day and that’s a comfortable space for her. Eventually, she will have a very large enclosure all of her own, and it’s there waiting for her. But to introduce her to such a large space all at once would be frightening so it will be done carefully and gradually. Until then, she demands a lot of Serena’s time, with the nightly walks and constant care, but as she said, “that’s the commitment I made when we adopted her.”

When you see photos and videos of Berkley playing or cuddling with Serena on Discovery Wildlife Park’s Facebook page, it’s because she might as well be her Mom. Berkley trusts her completely. She’s also that comfortable with Serena’s Dad, Doug. At the end of the evening when she saw him in a golf cart, she went right over and climbed up the front of it to see him, putting her face right up to his. Serena’s husband and kids are used to having all sorts of little animals at home, too.

This family knows bears. And lions, tigers, wolves, ostriches, beavers, raccoons…it’s a long list.

I’m sure they’re getting sick of me thanking them for the opportunities they’ve made available to me at Discovery Wildlife Park. It has been a great privilege to be granted such access to their animals and to continue to build relationships with the staff. Learning about the animals and their behaviour has been as rewarding as taking the photos.
Just like many of the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park, Berkley is an ambassador for her species. Post-secondary Biology students are getting the opportunity to visit with her and watch her explore, just like I did. She is providing baseline health stats for a healthy Kodiak bear cub and will do so her whole life. She has already been trained to give urine and has started the training to give blood. That data is shared with universities and researchers to give them a better understanding of bear physiology, which will in turn help with populations in the wild.

I look forward to many more visits to the park and if you’ve not yet had the pleasure, I would highly recommend it. It’s a great place for families and there are education opportunities for all ages. Ask questions, even the uncomfortable ones, but please do so with respect. The keepers are more than willing to answer them.

Responsible wildlife sanctuaries offer many benefits. They provide homes for orphaned animals whose unfortunate circumstances prevent reintroduction into the wild. They provide valuable insight into behaviour and physiology that is often too difficult or unsafe to observe in the wild. And when people have an opportunity to see wildlife up close, it fosters more empathy, and instills in many a desire to protect them.

It certainly has in me.

Cheers,
Patrick
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Dabbling in Something New

Before I became self-employed full-time, I was the admin assistant for a physical therapy office here in Canmore. For a lot of the time, it was just my boss Shane (the physiotherapist) and occasionally a massage therapist working there in the small clinic. If I recall, Shane and I are close to the same age, both into technology, and he was well aware of my eventual plans to work for myself, as my business was thriving part-time on the side. I only worked for him for a little over two years, I think, and I often tell people that it was the best last job to have. That was more than ten years ago. I left on good terms and when I run into Shane on the street once in a while, I’m always happy to see him.

Because we talked about our mutual interests a fair bit when it was slow, he knew that I had been looking into 3D modeling. I had no designs on getting into it hard-core, but just enough so that I could occasionally add some 3D to my editorial cartoon work. At the time, I wasn’t painting more than the occasional caricature for a client and definitely no animals. I was still exploring my options, however, dabbling in Flash animation, trying new things to see where my career might take me.
boardgameMy first year working for Shane, he ended up buying me one of the earlier versions of Carrara by Daz3D as a Christmas bonus. He and I had talked about the software earlier and I remember thinking that was quite thoughtful. Instead of just a cash bonus, he bought me something I wanted but really couldn’t prioritize as a valid expense as I was still very much a struggling artist and it wasn’t cheap.

Shane now has a much larger clinic in another location, with a number of physiotherapists, massage therapists and staff working for him and I’m glad his business is such a success. Both Shonna and I have gone there for physiotherapy since.

I loved working with Carrara and bought a supplement for it called Hexagon, which was a basic modeller. Stuff I created in those programs ended up being part of a number of editorial cartoons. Rather than search for reference or work out difficult perspective on some things, I just built basic models of what I was envisioning, brought them into Photoshop, traced over the bones and moved on from there.

Sometimes, I just built the whole cartoon in 3D, like the chess pieces below. It was a real time saver. It also allowed me to move models around to get better angles, more interesting perspectives and revealed possibilities I might not have considered. Four of those cartoons you can see in this post, all built in 3D, with some drawing in Photoshop after the fact. A few of these were way more complicated than they needed to be, but I was also experimenting.
checkmateThis Checkmate cartoon was for the Alberta PC Leadership race. Not knowing the outcome, I was able to create three different versions, with the names changed to reflect all three possible winners. When the result was in, I just sent out the correct one you see here.

Over time, I stopped using 3D because I wasn’t interested in doing more than I was doing with it, every new release of the software involved learning new things I didn’t need, and a simple process I enjoyed became a complicated mess as they often fixed software that wasn’t broken. Eventually, the software wasn’t being supported anymore and I just let it go. I had also moved on to doing a lot of painting and the animal work that is now such a big part of my life.

Every so often, however, I’ll start drawing an editorial cartoon and think, “this would be so much easier if I just built a 3D model first.”

That’s been popping up in my head more often the last couple of years. I’ve also thought that it might be fun to build some 3D caricatures of both people and animals. To be honest, it’s been some time since I’ve yearned to learn something new, even though this would actually be revisiting an old interest with new tools and a new perspective.

I’ve investigated other 3D software here and there and it’s often too expensive to justify and too complicated for my needs. It would be like learning to fly a Boeing 747 when all I need is to drive to the grocery store. I have limited time to learn new things and keep up with everything else I do. I also knew that I would lose interest in it fast if I had to essentially follow stereo instructions just to create a flower pot.
blocksOne of the best programs out there, however, is one called ZBrush. A lot of professionals use it in conjunction with other software and some of the results I’ve seen are incredibly impressive. But for the cost and learning curve, it looked like the same story. Too big.

In recent months, however, I’ve been hearing a lot about the recently released ZBrushCore, which is a trimmed down version of ZBrush. I’ve watched a number of videos and it reminds me a great deal of Hexagon and Carrara, those early pieces of software I enjoyed so much. The difference is that it’s more sophisticated, streamlined and offers more functionality without being a complicated mess. Few artists are programmers and when it goes so far toward the tech that it no longer feels like creating, then I’m lost.

After watching a number of tutorials the past couple of days, I bought ZBrushCore this morning for $200 Canadian, which I consider very affordable.

I’m a little excited about this, and while the challenge will still be to make the time to learn it, use it, and have fun with it, I’m optimistic. Learning something new this winter might also be a partial antidote to my usual seasonal doldrums. So, it’s likely I’ll be adding some 3D elements to my editorial cartoons in the coming year, and might even try out a funny looking animal or two. If nothing else, I hope to have a little fun sculpting.

My animal Totems started as an experiment, painting a funny looking grizzly bear. Who knows where this might lead?
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The Ultimate Bear Experience

SunshineIn December of last year, I received an email from Discovery Wildlife Park telling me about the Ultimate Bear Experience. A rare opportunity to “spend 4 hours with our black bears and our zookeepers. Feed, train and get to know each bear personally!”

For adults only, a limit of five spots, I booked quickly and was confirmed for the date seven months later. I have been looking forward to it ever since.

As of last year, I’ve become a regular visitor to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, Alberta. I did the behind the scenes tour with the lion cubs twice last year as I knew it wouldn’t be offered again once they’d grown. Having seen them again this week, I’m glad I took advantage of it as those kitties got big! In October, I was granted a short photo shoot with GusGus the beaver and those photos resulted in my latest painting, which is already proving popular. My prints are now available in their gift shop this year as well.

Incidentally, I showed GusGus his painting on Thursday. Clearly, not a fan.
GusGusWhile I was sure the bear experience was going to be enjoyable and educational, I didn’t know what would be involved and was pleasantly surprised that it exceeded my expectations. Not only did we get close access to the bears, but one of the keepers was snapping photos the whole time, so in addition to my own pics, I was given theirs as well, a nice record of the day. Considering some of the great things we got to do, my camera would have been in the way during those times I wanted my attention on the bears.
BearShitWe began with raking and shoveling bear poop, something that is done every day by the keepers. After that, we stuck fresh cut branches of varying sizes into the ground around the enclosures while the bears were ‘loaded up.’ This means they were in their adjacent pens, a substitute for a den and safe place for them, much like how your dog feels safe in his kennel.
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Planting01We were given peanut butter and honey that we smeared on logs, leaves and branches around the enclosure. Just a little bit, enough to pique the bears’ interest. The purpose of this exercise is enrichment. By introducing new things into the enclosures on a regular basis, it gives the bears something to do. In the wild, a bear’s time is consumed with finding food. In captivity, enrichment provides them with stimulation through interesting things to explore, directly contributing to their overall mental and physical health.
Sunshine2
LittleBear01After we left the enclosure, the bears were released and we were able to see the results of our efforts. Sure enough, they were eager to check out the new digs. They manipulated the branches, sniffed out the little food smears, and were genuinely interested and engaged with what we had done. I had plenty of time to take pictures of the results.
GroupFor the rest of the time, we moved from one bear to the next. A couple of them live together, others on their own. I had expected to only be exposed to them with a chain link fence between us, so I was pleasantly surprised when we were able to step inside a few times. The only separation between our group and the bear was an electric fence, similar to one you’d find around a cattle pasture. Nothing that can hurt the bear, just annoying enough to create a barrier they learn to avoid.
ToesWe had a chance to reinforce some of their training, spoon feed a favorite treat of avocado, and when I mentioned that a large reason for doing this was to challenge my bear phobia, the head zookeeper decided to ‘take it up a notch’ and brought out the apple pieces. The result you can see below, a wonderful experience I won’t ever forget.
RenoPat01smDuring our time with the keepers, I asked a lot of questions about captivity, the training, and the overall health of the bears living the way they do. I’ve had the back and forth arguments of conscience that many animal lovers have when it comes to wildlife in captivity. Is it cruel? Is it necessary? Would these animals be better off in the wild?

Some people have asked me how I can support zoos with my artwork and accuse me of selling out at the expense of the animals. In our social media ‘judge first, ask questions later’ culture, I’m used to this and dismiss that sort of thing. It’s not worth my time to argue with people who are more interested in telling you their opinion than having an intelligent discussion.

What people often fail to do is ask questions, in order to examine both sides of the argument. From what I’ve learned so far, I believe that animals in captivity, with the proper oversight and safeguards in place, offer valuable insight, especially when it comes to research, conservation and species at risk. Exposure to wildlife fosters empathy, especially in children. That empathy will hopefully later translate to a greater consideration for the world around us, something of which is currently in short supply.

Without going into great detail, I am personally satisfied that Discovery Wildlife Park is doing right by the animals in their care. Most are orphans or rescues and the only life they’ve known is at the park. Had they remained in the wild, they would have died. Returning them to the wild would have the same result. The life expectancy of an animal in captivity receiving top notch care and enrichment far exceeds that of one in the wild.

One thing is clear to me about this facility. These animals are loved. While the chain link fence separated us from the bears, the keepers were able to move about freely with them. In many cases, they’ve raised them and all of the training has been through positive reinforcement. I’d like to talk more about the reason for the training, but will save that for another post.

The facilities are clean, well maintained and the enclosures are large. For some of their animals, their spaces appear smaller, but from asking questions, I found out that there’s a good reason for that.

I’m a sucker for animals and when I see one hurt, injured or abused, it bothers me a great deal. I would not be able to support this park if I thought any of their practices were harming the animals that live there.

I plan to return often.
BearPose
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Fall Reflections

Creek091813BlogThis time of year finds me reflective.  The Canadian Rockies are breathtaking in the fall and it somehow makes me want to slow down and find a little more peace.

Earlier this month, I found myself paying attention to the goings on at Photoshop World in Las Vegas, a conference I’ve attended for the past four years, but one I decided to take a break from this time.

It was a surprise to me that I missed being there, but I couldn’t put my finger on why, since not going was a conscious decision.  The last couple of years, I’d been going for networking, socializing, and making strategic moves to further my career via different connections and affiliations.  While that proved to be well worth my time, it also tainted the experience I’d had the first couple of years when I’d been taking classes and was really excited to be there.

When I first began this self-directed career, I was always hungry to become better.  Having never gone to art school and starting pretty late to this business of art, I felt a need to catch up to my competitors, to prove I could hold my own, even had a chip on my shoulder about the whole thing.  Over time, through a lot of trial and error, I eventually found the work I love most.  But during that period, I was learning new techniques from other artists, watching DVDs, reading articles, tutorials, and taking classes.

Then there came what I thought was a natural evolution.  Suddenly, I’m the one writing articles, recording videos and training DVDs, doing demos and training for companies, schools and groups, and figuring that this was what I was supposed to be doing now, moving up to the teaching level.  Many friends and colleagues have made teaching a large part of their businesses and some of them are not only very good at it, they really seem to thrive on the experience.

But more teaching will involve more traveling, writing scripts, recording, and less time doing the work I enjoy most.  It will also involve breaking down the work I love so much into an assembly process, evaluating it to death and sucking all the life out of it.  There’s still a feeling of magic in my work when I draw and paint, a connection to something else that isn’t me, as nauseatingly artsy as that might sound.  It’s what I love most about painting, the soul of it all.  You can’t dissect something without killing it.

The opportunity to speak and demo at the Wacom booth last year in Vegas was one I enjoyed.  Even as an introvert (not to be confused with shy), I’ve got no problem with public speaking or talking with people, and I’ve been told I’m pretty good at it.  Repeating that experience now and then is something I’m happy to do.  I’ve realized that I do not, however, want teaching to be a large part of my career, at least not now.  I’m fine with showing how I do it, talking about what I’m thinking, and trying to inspire others to explore their own creative instincts, but breaking my work down to stereo instructions is not something I enjoy.

I’ve written in the past that one way to find out what you want to do is to start checking off the things you don’t, then look at the choices that remain.

Over the past few weeks and months, an underlying melancholy has been lurking just below the surface, this feeling that something is missing.  This week, while taking one of my regular walks up Cougar Creek, on the day I took the photo you see above, I realized what has been bugging me.  I miss being a student.

When you’re self-employed at anything, especially in a creative field, fear is a part of daily life.  After you’ve been in the gig for a number of years and are making a good living at it, the fear can stop being a motivator, however, and can instead keep you from moving forward, a fear of losing what you have already gained.  It can happen so subtly that you don’t even realize that you’ve painted yourself into a corner.

The last couple of years have found me concerning myself with marketing moves, making connections and evaluating promotion strategies, all absolutely necessary for anyone who has chosen  art as a profession.  But when you’re going ninety miles an hour trying not to fall behind where you think everybody else is (a race you can NEVER win), you start missing the reason you’re on the road in the first place.  That’s when it’s time for a change.

I still plan to draw the daily editorial cartoons, paint my whimsical wildlife paintings and some portraits, and take illustration and painting commissions as usual.  I’ll still be promoting my work the same way I’ve always done, running my booth at the Calgary Expo in the Spring, and evaluating each opportunity as it comes along.  I’ve worked very hard to get to a place where I make a good living doing the work I love, and I still do have to make a living, so I’ll always run my business to the best of my ability.

But, I’ve decided to take my foot off the pedal for a little while.  I’m tired of running all the time and want to slow down.  There is some fear that if I stop scrambling in the promotion game, that I may ‘lose ground’ but really, what the hell does that mean anyway?  Lose ground to whom?

I miss being a student, so I’m going to spend more time being one.  I can’t recall the last time I sat and read an article about painting or drawing or took some lessons to become better.  Lately, when I see other artists and illustrators posting teaching and training videos, I’m not thinking, “I should be doing that.”  What I’m actually thinking is, “I want to learn from these people.”

When in doubt, trust your gut, and this just feels right.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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A Look at the Books

For some reason, I had an overwhelming urge to clear out the books that I was no longer using.  I’ve currently got three bookshelves in my office.  A couple of them hold novels, magazines, binders, some photo albums, and even a couple of novels I wrote years ago that I never published.  Most of what I cleaned out was from those shelves.  My wife cured me of any hoarding tendencies many years ago and now I hate clutter and hanging on to things I don’t need.  When it comes to art books, however, it’s tough for me to let those go and all of those reside on the bookshelf right beside my desk.  Sure, it was easy to recycle the Photoshop World class notes book from 2009 and a Tips and Tricks book from Photoshop CS3, but most of that bookshelf stayed.

Over the years, I’ve seen other artists share insight into what sort of books they have on their shelves, so I thought I’d do the same.  First of all, I like reading books and magazines on my iPad, but when it comes to art books, I still like being able to grab one off the shelf, pour a cup of coffee and spend a half hour on the couch leafing through it.  It’s just not the same with an e-reader. These are the books I still reference, look through for inspiration, or just enjoy revisiting once in awhile, especially if they’re artists whose work I admire.  While I’m not going to go through these book by book, I’ll tell you a little bit about them.  I’ve picked these up at the Calgary Expo, bookstores, or online.  Some I’ve gone looking for, others I’ve just discovered.

Forgive the badly stitched first photo, but this is the top shelf.

Shelf01wbe

In no particular order since you can find the ones I’m talking about.  Drew Struzan is easily my favorite artist and I find endless inspiration from his work.  The days of illustrated movie posters are behind us now, but he was the best at it.  He still does one or two when fans like Writer/Director Frank Darabont ask him to, but he’s mostly retired, now.  Many of these books are instructional by cartoonists and animators I admire and still learn from.  Bruce Blitz, Chris Hart, Tom Richmond, Jack Hamm, Tom Bancroft, Richard Williams.  Both of Bert Monroy‘s books on Painting in Photoshop are here and those are great.  Bert’s style is very photorealistic and while very different from my own work, I’ve learned a lot from him over the years, both in person at Photoshop World and online.  There are a couple of books on sculpting with polymer clay, something I’ve always wanted to try but haven’t yet made the time for.   A lot of great photo reference books here.  Mark Simon‘s Facial Expressions is a fantastic resource.  He has one for adults, and another for Babies to Teens.  I would recommend these books to any cartoonist or animator.  There are a couple of Virtual Pose books, different positions of poses in print and on CD.  The Artist’s Photo Reference Series, and not surprisingly, a number of photo reference books for animals.  Jill Greenberg’s Bear Portraits and Monkey Portraits are two of my favorite books.  She is a master photographer of posed animals and I love her work.  Skin by Lee Varis is a cool book for photographers, all about lighting and retouching faces in photos.  A lot of applied theory in this book directly relates to painting skin as well.

Shelf02webThe second shelf consists mostly of books that feature the work of other artists.  The first two on the left are beautiful photo books of faces.  Celebrities, actors, well known people of accomplishment.  While I’d never use these photos for main reference for a portrait, they’re wonderful for seeing detail in human features, skin texture, lighting.  Love these books.  Tangled is a favorite animated movie for the artwork.  Rustboy was a one man 3D animated movie that never got finished. But the artist had some great ideas, the book is excellent, and he’s moved on to other things.  Some artists represented on this shelf are Stephen Silver, Frank Cho (Liberty Meadows cracks me up!), Greg Horn, Luis Royo, Joe Chiodo, Jason Seiler, Bobby Chiu, Joe Bluhm, J.M. Linsner, DPI Studios, Jenn Llewellyn and Tom Bancroft again.  A few collections from The Calgary Expo, CrossGen Comics, Ballistic Publishing.  Two favorite artists on here that specialize in animal character design are David Colman and Joe Weatherly.  Their work has been a great inspiration to me.  One book on this shelf, Cartoon Animation by Preston Blair is a must have for cartoonists and animators.  I can’t count how many times I’ve referenced this book over the years.  And finally, there are books on the right side that I keep within easy reach.  Fowler’s Modern English Usage, The Complete Color Harmony, Selling Art 101, Licensing Art 101 and the Graphic Artists Guild bible; Pricing and Ethical Guidelines.  While the prices in here aren’t always accurate, due to market fluctuations and the economy, there are great benchmarks for all sorts of freelance artists to base their pricing structures on.

Shelf03webAnd finally on the third shelf down are the comic strip and editorial cartoonists.  Collections of Canadian editorial cartoons by Aislin, Macpherson, Elston, Rodewalt, De Adder, Innes and Raeside as well as a few years of Portfoolio books.  Uderzo’s Asterix books have long been favorites, I’ve always loved his artwork.  Trudeau’s ‘Doonesbury’, Darby Conley’s ‘Get Fuzzy‘, Berke Breathed’s ‘Bloom County‘ (easily my favorite comic strip of all time), Larson’s ‘The Far Side,’ Scott and Borgman’s ‘Zits‘, Lynn Johnston’s ‘For Better or Worse‘ and Watterson’s ‘Calvin and Hobbes.’  On another shelf, I have four books of Frank Cho’s ‘Liberty Meadows’, which I consider a close second or third to Bloom County.

So there’s a vast amount of useless information for you, a look at which books and artists rev my creative engine and inspire me to want to be a better cartoonist, illustrator and painter.  There will always be artists better than you are and it’s in your best interests to seek them out and learn from them.  I’ve always found that the best way to do that is to get to know their work.

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Forward Momentum

One of the best things about being a freelancer these days, whether it’s writing, photography, illustration or just being self-employed is that there is no shortage of information out there to help you.  Just twenty years ago, there was no such thing as Google.  The Internet didn’t begin to gain real traction with the public until the mid to late 90’s.  Before that, you had to go to the library.  That’s a building with books in it.

We enjoy almost instant connection today, but it used to be a lot more difficult to find information while learning a skill.  If you were lucky, you might find a professional artist with whom to apprentice, but what to do if you lived in a rural area and had limited resources?  Now, we have access to apps, books, trade magazines, DVDs, online courses, webinars, forums, and websites full of information, all from the comfort of our own homes.

The problem with access to all of that information is that it is far too much for any one person to take in.  You may have the resources to learn all you want to, but so do your competitors, so there’s no room for complacency.  Thirty years ago, for example, a newspaper would have an editorial cartoonist on staff and that’s how they’d make their living, drawing one cartoon a day (sometimes less) for that one publication, spending the whole day working on one image, and not having to worry about sales, marketing, printing, promotion or local, national, and international competition, certainly not to the extent one must do so, today.

Most daily newspapers have dismissed their cartoonists and are opting for more regional, national and international syndicated cartoons and paying significantly less than they used to.  We are all familiar with this trend in every industry, so lamenting the fact is a useless exercise.  Adaptation is the order of the day in every profession.

With all of that information available and so many options, it can be easy to become anxious about where to put your efforts.  Ask ten freelancers which sites, organizations, and advice you should follow, and you’ll get an infinite number of answers.   If you dig a little deeper, you’ll discover that each of those ten freelancers is following the advice of ten other people, and everybody is just winging it, hoping to get enough work to pay the mortgage.

Put simply, you have to try new things and then evaluate their worth on your own.  Then you have to consider that something that worked for you yesterday might not work for you tomorrow.  Your own instinct will be your best guide.

For example, I’ve been a member of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals since September of 2004.  That’s quite a long time these days.  In addition to all I’ve learned about Photoshop, I’ve made invaluable contacts in the industry, and have formed lasting relationships with many people, a number of whom I consider good friends.  The investment in that membership has been very good for my career.

In recent years my skills have reached a point where I’m now in need of more advanced training and when the air gets a little thin, it’s tough to find that in any organization that must cater to a wide variety of skill levels.  That, coupled with the fact that today, NAPP’s focus is almost exclusively on photography, it has become obvious that there isn’t much left there for me anymore.

The friendships and connections, I take those with me, but when my membership expires next month, I won’t be renewing it.  It was a tough decision, but I based it on the question, “Had I not been a member for the past eight years, would I  join the organization today?”

The answer was an easy No. It isn’t that NAPP doesn’t have value for photographers, because it clearly does.  But I’m not a photographer.

While I had a good run and it was time and money well spent, I’m looking for other learning opportunities.  That being said, there’s still a good chance I’ll return to Photoshop World in Las Vegas next year.  Connecting with others, networking and spending time with other industry professionals is invaluable, not to mention that I always have a good time.  My experience teaching at the Wacom booth in September was great and I hope to repeat it again next year.  But I’ll be there on the periphery, not as an attendee.

So the message here is that continuing education as a freelancer is crucial to developing and maintaining a thriving career, but it’s up to you to find your own teachers,  a task that will never end.  You must constantly adapt to an environment that is changing so much faster than most can keep up with.  When something is working for you, get as much from it as you can.  When it stops contributing to your momentum and success, you need to cut it loose.

For now, my own path to continued education is uncertain, but I’ll keep looking to online courses, webinars, trade magazines and I’ll follow the art of other creatives, those who inspire me to be a better artist.  They say when the student is ready, the teacher shows up, so I’m not worried.

While I’m waiting, I’ll just keep working.  Practice makes perfect and even though I’ll never get there, I’m still aiming for it.