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Zen and the Art of Course Correction

It would be an understatement to describe this past year as challenging. However you choose to define it, we’ve all lost something, and much of it won’t be coming back.

Those newspapers that laid me off a year ago said that it would be temporary, but to still believe that now would be wishful thinking. We can choose to desperately hang on to false hope or have a moment of grief and move on.

Like many people, I’ve been struggling with next steps and feeling a little bit helpless and defeated, despite knowing I’ve got plenty for which to be grateful.

There’s an old Zen proverb that states, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have a couple of mentors, people without whose assistance I might not be a self-employed artist today.

In 2001, at thirty years old, I was drawing a weekly editorial cartoon for the Banff Crag and Canyon, something I’d done for a few years. At the time, I had no designs on becoming a professional artist; it was just an amusing side gig.  Even still, I began drawing other cartoons for casual clients along with some illustration work. When my newspaper publisher discovered this, she told me I could only draw cartoons for The Crag in Banff and couldn’t do any other cartoons. For $30 a week, I was not about to accept that and planned to quit.

At the same time, an upstart newspaper was about to launch in Canmore. The owners wanted to create a better vision of a paper for the whole Bow Valley, consisting of Exshaw, Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise. One of the Crag and Canyon reporters left to join the new paper and let them know I was unhappy. The new editor had already planned to offer me the job as their editorial cartoonist.

It was only a bit more money, but Shonna and I had just left Banff to buy our first home in Canmore, and the timing was right.

Carol Picard was the editor and part-owner, and before too long, she asked me why I wasn’t syndicated. I told her it was difficult for an unknown artist to sign with a syndicate.

She told me that was silly, that I should do it myself, something I didn’t know was possible. At the time, submissions went by fax (look it up, kids). So I went to the library in Calgary to find all of the addresses and contact info for Canadian newspapers. None of that information was as yet available online.

And I bought a fax machine.

For the next couple of years, in addition to the Rocky Mountain Outlook cartoon, I drew two or three cartoons a week, sent them out to newspapers and got almost no bites. It was brutal, demoralizing and I came close to quitting many times. I had a full-time job to pay the bills and drew cartoons early in the mornings before work and in the evenings afterward, as well as every weekend.

It took over a year of submissions, but I still remember my first syndicated weekly paper, The Vulcan Advocate. They paid me $10 a week for a syndicated cartoon. That first $40 cheque was like winning the lottery. By the end of the second year, I had two papers.

Carol no longer owns the Rocky Mountain Outlook, but it survives and thrives today. Their competitors, the same two papers that ridiculed them for their brash audacity; one is gone and the other is a shell of what it once was.

I still draw a local cartoon for The Outlook. It will be twenty years this fall since their first issue, and I have never missed a week. There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be an artist for a living had Carol not intervened at the right time.

During those early first few years of syndicated cartooning, I watched a Sunday morning news show where they interviewed one of Canada’s most notable and accomplished editorial cartoonists, Terry Mosher. Drawing under his nom-de-cartoon, Aislin, he’s been a cartoonist since the late 60s, part of the foundation of the Montreal Gazette.

In the interview, he remarked about how difficult it was for young cartoonists to get started. In my early thirties, I was not so young, but knowing little about the rest of the industry, with no contacts to speak of, I threw a Hail Mary pass and sent him an email, asking for advice.

He replied with one line, “Send me some of your stuff.”

Over the next few years, we got to know each other, and he introduced me to the world of Canadian editorial cartooning. He told me I needed to draw more, that I had to send out at least five cartoons a week, rather than two or three.

As I wasn’t a very good artist, with no grasp of the fundamentals, it took many hours to draw a cartoon, three or four times what it takes today, so I struggled to increase my workload.

Terry was the editorial cartoon editor of Maclean’s Magazine and put me in the rotation in the company of some of the most well-known cartoonists in Canada. It paid $400, which at the time seemed like a lot of money. He introduced me to Doug Firby, the former editor of the Calgary Herald. Doug was generous with his time and advice and started using my cartoons when their in-house cartoonist Vance Rodewalt had days off.

Terry came out west in 2003 with his wife to talk at the Banff Centre and visit family in Jasper. They took Shonna and I out to dinner, and we were their guests at his presentation. It was an exciting visit. I had the assignment for Maclean’s that week. Though I don’t recall the cartoon’s context, I had to draw former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, and I remember sending Terry the cartoon for his OK while he was still in Jasper.

He called me and said, “it doesn’t look like him.”

Having spent hours on it, I was crushed, but he told me over the phone how to fix it. Put his eyes closer together; his hair is bigger; you’ve got the mouth wrong. I scrambled to write it all down and worked ’til 2 in the morning fixing it, even though I had to be at my day job by 8:30. His critique was accurate, and he said my revision was much better.

Terry taught me how to take constructive criticism. There is ALWAYS room for improvement.

I was so appalled that I had failed to capture Klein’s face that I became obsessed with becoming an expert at capturing likenesses, which has served me well in my painted work. When Klein retired from office in 2006, I painted a caricature that appeared in the Calgary Herald and other Alberta papers. I sold a few prints of it and somebody gave him one for his retirement. This photo appeared in the Calgary Herald.

My credibility as a Maclean’s magazine cartoonist opened doors with many other newspapers across Canada. In 2005, I quit my day job and became a full-time professional artist.

Because Canmore is one of Canada’s most expensive communities in which to live, there was no chance of living on one income. Shonna and I agreed that if I couldn’t pay half of the mortgage and bills, I’d get a part-time job. It didn’t seem like as big risk then as it would now.

Both Carol Picard and Terry Mosher were the mentors I needed at the time, and I remain forever grateful for their help.

Some time ago, my friend Crystal, a graphic designer in Calgary, recommended a podcast by David Duchemin. I’ve written about it before.

David has had a strange but wonderful creative career. He’s been a comedian, photographer, author and educator. I guarantee there are other professions in there with which I’m not yet familiar. His podcast is geared toward creatives, and it’s quite inspirational. We’re about the same age, but I think of David as older than I am, based on his wealth of experience.

I’ve never shied away from sending emails to people whenever they’ve influenced me or provided content worth my time. I know what it’s like to work in a lonely profession. No matter how successful or influential you might imagine someone might be, they’re still just people. We all like to know that we’re doing a good job or are providing value to somebody else.

People are too often quick to criticize but slow to applaud.

When I’ve found one of his podcasts particularly resonant or uplifting, I’ve sent David an email.

Not too long ago, following one of those messages, for which he was always gracious and kind, we got into a more detailed discussion about this business of art. He lives on Vancouver Island, one of Shonna’s and my favourite haunts, and he’d already said to let him know when I was next in the area.

But not too long into this discussion, he said that we should have a phone call.

After some initial small talk, David suggested I could be doing better at marketing my work. Realizing he was treating me with kid gloves, I assured him he could speak frankly. He wasn’t criticizing my art but my business, and I already knew I had plenty of room for improvement. As I said, I welcome constructive criticism, especially from somebody who has walked their talk.

He hit me with both barrels, and I couldn’t take notes fast enough.

For two hours, David lobbed marketing advice and ideas at me, and we had a fascinating discussion. Many of these suggestions seemed so obvious in hindsight, but I had never considered them. Grateful for the help, I asked him why he was so generous with his time and advice, especially since we didn’t yet know each other well.

I can’t remember his exact words, but it came down to this – for the quality of my artwork, I should be a lot further ahead, and he wanted to help me get there.

David gave me a crash course lesson in getting more newsletter followers and better serving them. He stressed the importance of focusing less on individual sales and more on my relationships with those who’ve supported my work for years. His philosophy on serving my audience revealed how I’m already doing that well and pointed out where I could be doing better.

He helped me make improvements to my website, with more changes coming. He suggested I offer desktop and mobile device wallpapers to my audience, something I should have thought of years ago, but it had never occurred to me. The immediate positive feedback from my subscribers was overwhelming. They loved them!

He reminded me that many of my customers buy my work for the children in their lives. Wouldn’t they love to be able to give their grandkids, nieces and nephews colouring pages of my paintings? What about publishing a colouring book from them later? Let me tell you, that was a palm to the forehead moment. I’m releasing a few of those to my subscribers today, and I learned a lot while creating them.

David was surprised with how quickly I’ve implemented some of the ideas generated from our discussions. My view on that is simple. When somebody gives you a push in the right direction, the one you’ve REALLY needed, you don’t sit down and think about it. You take advantage of the momentum and speed up.

That’s how you show your gratitude for their generosity.

I wrote to David the other day, “While telling my wife about our last chat and the options you suggested, she said it was nice to see me excited about my work again, focusing on forward movement, rather than worrying so much.”

He replied, “That makes me very happy.”

I don’t know how long I’ll benefit from David’s willingness to share his hard-earned knowledge with me. I’m simply going to do the work to be worthy of it.

If you’re a photographer, designer, illustrator, cartoonist, any other type of creative, I’d encourage you to check out his site and listen to his podcast, ‘A Beautiful Anarchy.‘ Recommend it to any creatives in your life, too, especially if they could use a boost.

My first two mentors showed up when I was at a significant crossroads in my career and life, though I only recognized it in hindsight.

This time, there is no doubt.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Another Berk in Progress

Here’s a sneak peek at a new painting of Berkley that I started this morning. I took the reference for this one in September 2019 at Discovery Wildlife Park but didn’t see the potential in it until just recently.

She was lying in the grass, looking right at me, so it’s actually a horizontal image, but I’m painting it vertically so that I can get the expression right. When it’s finished, people can hang the print whichever way they want, so that’s a fun little twist.

As the painting develops, I’ll paint in blades of grass in the foreground on the right side. It will partially obscure that side of her face but give the whole image a sense of place.

Yesterday, my friend and head keeper Serena sent me a personal video and a couple of photos to let me know that Berkley has woken up from hibernation. While it’s already warming up around here, seeing that sleepy 4-year-old brown bear’s face certainly makes it feel like spring might finally be around the corner.

Having raised her from a weeks-old cub, Serena and Berkley have a special bond, and I don’t know who was happier to see the other.

I’ll share more work-in-progress shots with my newsletter followers as this painting progresses, but I don’t think this one will take long. There’s no other face I like painting more than Berkley’s.

Almost all of the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park are orphans and rescues; many are brought to them from Alberta Fish and Wildlife. These are animals they can’t release back into the wild and would otherwise have to destroy.

While animals in captivity are never ideal, people have made many bad choices, and there are very few places in the world where animals are truly wild outside of protected regions.

I live in an area where trains, highways and tourists are the biggest threat to bears, wolves and other wildlife. By leaving food in easy reach, approaching wildlife, and even deliberately feeding them, we teach them to associate people with a free meal. When they eventually become too comfortable or even aggressive, they often must be euthanized.

Hazing and relocation to other areas will occasionally work, but most often, the damage has already been done and is irreversible.

Discovery Wildlife Park works to educate guests and visitors about coexistence and conservation, which is why I support their efforts.

But without financial support, they wouldn’t be able to do the work they do.

Discovery Wildlife Park is closed for the season right now, but they’ll be open May 1st. With 90 acres of space in which to move around, it’s a great place to get outside and spend time with the animals while still being able to social distance. While you’re there, make time for their daily scheduled presentations to learn how you can help keep wildlife wild.

Memberships are currently on sale for almost 50% off, granting unlimited admission all season.
© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Continuing Education

Since I didn’t start seriously drawing until my mid-twenties and never went to art school, I have often felt that I have spent most of my career playing catch-up.

I’m a workaholic perfectionist, which can be good or bad, depending on your metric. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t work, even for a couple of hours. This is not a complaint, nor should it be interpreted as humble-bragging.

It’s just my wiring.

On self-employment, Seth Godin once wrote, “You would never work for somebody who treats you the way you treat yourself.”

See? It’s not just me.

I heard recently on an art podcast that most people who go to art school don’t end up as artists for a living. The talent and art skills aren’t enough; you have to be driven.

The fact that I started late in the game means I’ve always been hungry, which has contributed to my longevity in this profession that’s synonymous with failure. An unhealthy dose of fear plays a big part as well. Grabbing the brass ring is easy but keeping a white-knuckle grip on it for decades, therein lies the struggle.

When people find out that I didn’t go to art school, they’ll often ask, “oh, so you’re self-taught?”

Self-Taught sounds like I just conjured it out of thin air, a claim that would be incredibly arrogant and false. I prefer the term self-directed.

I’ve learned from plenty of teachers, most of whom don’t even know it. While the internet has its fair share of toxicity and bile, it’s also a treasure trove of knowledge we often take for granted. While at Red Deer College, I remember having to drive down to the University of Calgary library to research a Psychology paper because the information wasn’t available in the college or city library where I lived.

Today that sounds positively archaic.

In books, webinars, podcasts, conference classes and online courses, there’s always a new bit of wisdom or technique waiting to be absorbed.

If you can’t find it, you aren’t looking.

Whether it’s how to make an image better or insight into the business of art, there is no excuse for failing to acquire or improve any skill you might have or desire.

That’s why the thought of retirement seems so foreign to me. I may slow my pace and become more selective of the work I do, but I’ll create art for as long as I’m able; however that looks.

I recently bought an online course on Character Design from Aaron Blaise, a fantastic artist with impressive credentials. Although I learned long ago to never say never, I don’t currently want to be a character designer.

But I’ve always felt that the principles of character design and animation, putting more action, life and dynamics into my cartoons and paintings, that’s where my skills are weakest. I’ve taken a couple of other courses on this theme over the years, but they never seemed to take.

This one, however, is fantastic. Even Shonna has noticed an improvement in my cartoons lately, and I’m only halfway through the course. It’s so good that I intend to watch it again, to reinforce some of the techniques. When finished, I’ll take another of Blaise’s courses.

I plan to talk about this course again, likely an accompanying narrative with a painting video, but for now, I’ll say that it has been time and money well spent.

As I approach my 50th birthday, I still feel like I’m playing catch-up when it comes to my art, even though the only person I should be comparing myself to is the artist I was yesterday. Funny how often I fail to remember that, especially while scrolling through Instagram.

Most of the time, everything I draw, whether cartoon or painting, is designed to be a finished piece. However, this course has got me drawing for practice again, investing in the skills that will allow me to make even better finished pieces later.

This weekend, I spent most of Saturday morning working on a new commission and Sunday morning on editorial cartoons. But in the afternoons, I played with this funny looking Mandrill. It’s much more developed than I had originally intended because I enjoyed it so much and didn’t want to abandon it.

A lot more caricatured than my usual animals; some might say too much, so it doesn’t fit with the rest of the portfolio. But I have no doubt that the techniques I’m learning to allow me to draw something like this will still inform my future painted work and make it better.

It also provides me with an escape from the work, to draw and paint just for the fun of it, which is why I wanted to do this for a living in the first place.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Bear Hug

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to focus on a whimsical wildlife painting. For those who follow my work specifically to see those, thank you for your patience.

Wacom hired me to create a video for them connected with a promotion they’re doing right now called “Find Your Gift.”

As many of you know, Wacom creates the tablets and displays on which I’ve created my work for more than twenty years. I’ve been their guest on webinars, created new product demo videos for them, represented them at an event in Calgary, presented at their booth at Photoshop World, and they generously allowed me to donate tablets to a local school.

My work wouldn’t be possible without Wacom.

So when my friend Pam asked me to create another video for them, there was only one answer.

What I like best about our relationship is that Pam lets me do my own thing. Of course, we have some back and forth to make sure my vision matches hers, but she knows what to expect from me, and I do my best to deliver.

In this case, I had the freedom to interpret the word gift and paint and write what I wanted, which allowed me to create my best work.

I spent the last three or four days chained to my desk, creating this painting, recording with the camera and screen capture, writing and recording the narration, and editing it all together a la Dr. Frankenstein. It was a lot of work, but I’m quite pleased with the result.

I realized that the three recent paintings I like best are ones I did for Wacom videos. Those include the Amur Tiger, the Ring-tailed Lemur and this one.

The model for this painting is one of the most handsome residents of Discovery Wildlife Park. Gruff was an orphaned black bear cub who had a rough start in life, but thanks to Serena and her staff’s tireless efforts, he has grown into a beautiful, gentle bear with a wonderful personality. The keepers try not to pick favourites, but they each have a special place in their heart for Gruff, as do I.

I’ve often written about how much I value my relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park. They allow me incredible access to the animals, for which I’m immeasurably grateful. On my most recent visit in September, I was able to sit inside the enclosure while they did their bear education presentation, where they teach people about bear safety, behaviour and conservation.

I took hundreds of reference shots and didn’t realize I’d be using ones from that session so soon.

One of the keepers, Jacob, was in Canmore last week, and I had a brief visit with him. I told him what I was painting, inspired by the poses I shot. He told me that Gruff almost always has a ball with him. It doesn’t need to be the same ball, but it’s kind of like his security blanket. He even takes a ball with him into his den when he hibernates.

On one visit to the park a couple of years ago, Serena sent me a text asking where I was. I said that I was watching a silly bear play with a ball. She responded, “Gruff.”

Gruff taught himself how to pose with the ball and because it was so endearing, the keepers used positive reinforcement to encourage that behaviour. It was this pose that inspired the painting. As the light wasn’t great in this shot, the sun beside and behind him, I had to use other reference photos for the details. Thankfully, I have hundreds of pictures of Gruff.

Even though I was pressed for time on this, more self-inflicted than not, this painting was a joy to create. It’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun painting one of my whimsical wildlife portraits. Considering the kind of year it’s been for all of us, that’s no small thing.

If you’ve got five minutes, you can see a high-speed time-lapse below of how I painted Gruff and hear some of my thoughts about the importance of finding and sharing your own gifts.

Take care of yourselves,
Patrick

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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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A Cheetah Painting and Photoshop Friends

For many years, I was a member of a group called the National Association of Photoshop Professionals. I don’t remember when I joined, but I think it was sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s, and I remained a member until 2014 when it rebranded.

Owned and operated by Scott Kelby, the organization contained a wealth of online tutorials, a magazine called Photoshop User, and the Photoshop World conference. There was extensive training from internationally well-known instructors, each with their own areas of expertise.

Before social media ruined it all (yeah, I said it!), when like-minded individuals wanted to learn from each other, share their work for critique, answer each other’s questions and simply offer support, there were online forums where artists could gather.

I learned a lot from the NAPP forum and made some terrific friends there. Quite a few of them, I never got to meet in person, but when I finally got to Photoshop World Las Vegas for the first time in 2009, that was the best part of the whole experience, meeting this community in real life.

Over the next five years, I enjoyed seeing them each year, attending classes together all day, parties at night, hanging out at different venues. It was a fun event.

My involvement with NAPP was in a large way responsible for my now expert level skills in Photoshop. The networking opportunities introduced me to people and companies that advanced my career in many ways. I recorded a couple of training DVDs for Photoshop CAFE, wrote some articles for Photoshop User magazine, and won a few prestigious awards. It was due to a weird comedy of errors at my first conference that led me to a long and productive relationship with Wacom, the company that makes the digital tablets and displays on which I create my artwork.

I honestly believe that if I hadn’t been a member of that organization, with the opportunities and insights it afforded, I wouldn’t be painting my whimsical animals today. There’s a direct line between those people and experiences and the work I enjoy most.

Sadly, nothing lasts forever. The organization changed focus, became the Kelby Media Group, they retired the forum,  and most of my friends stopped attending Photoshop World. It doesn’t hold the same value that it used to.

I still talk to some of them now and then, but not nearly as often as I’d like. To this day, there are still a few people who call me Monty, my username from that forum.

For the first part of my career, while I’d been drawing editorial cartoons, I would also paint detailed caricatures of celebrities, and people would hire me to paint them for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and the like. But I didn’t see a future in it. The first funny looking animal in 2009 was an experiment, inspired by some personal reflection following my first Photoshop World that year.

Without good reference photos, I can’t paint the detail I enjoy, so in the beginning, I had to buy stock photos and relied on the generosity of photographer friends I knew through NAPP.

In 2014, I had already been taking my own photos with a decent camera I’d bought, but it was essentially a point-and-shoot with a good zoom lens. That spring, I painted a family of owls from the reference I’d taken myself here at Grassi Lakes above Canmore.
At Photoshop World that year, I won the Best of Show Guru award for that painting. At the last minute, they announced that part of the grand prize would be a Canon 5D Mark III camera. The oohs and aahs from an audience of mostly photographers indicated that it was something special. I had no clue.

When I won, I remember somebody laughing and saying, “Of course, the illustrator won the camera!”

When I returned to my seat, the friends I’d been sitting with told me just how good it was and that it was worth thousands of dollars. I remember calling Shonna to tell her I’d won, and we mused that I should probably sell it on eBay as such a professional camera would be wasted on me.

When I mentioned that idea to my buddy Jeff from Boston, he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received in my career. He told me to keep it and learn to use it.

Since then, I’ve discovered a love of taking reference photos, and it has become as much a part of the creative process for me as the painting itself. While I don’t make a habit of calling myself a photographer and have no designs on going pro, I enjoy it a great deal.

I’ve taken good care of that camera, been using it for six years, and it still does the job I need it to do. If something happens to it, or when it comes to the end of its life, I’ll buy another professional camera, because it’s now such a big part of my work.
Still, now and then, I find myself unable to take my own reference pics. This is especially true of commissions, where I rely on clients to provide me with the photos I’ll use to paint their furry family members.

Or it’s merely a case of access and travel being prohibitive. I’ve been searching for the right reference for an elephant painting for years. My friend Serena from Discovery Wildlife Park went to Africa earlier this year and brought back the perfect photos for me.

One of the people I knew well from my years in the NAPP organization and Photoshop World was Susan Koppel. It’s not enough that she was a flight instructor at 18 and then became an aeronautical engineer, but she’s also an incredible photographer and supporter of animals.

Now retired from the aviation industry, Susan’s photography business is her primary focus, pun intended.  She volunteers for the Nevada Humane Society taking pictures of the animals to make them look their best for their adoption photos. She also donates her skills to a wildlife sanctuary and nature center in Reno called Animal Ark.

The facility has adopted several cheetahs, and one of their regular events is to have cheetah runs. This gives the animals much-needed exercise opportunities to run full out, as they would in the wild, but also provides photographers with a chance to take pictures they can’t get outside of Africa. These photography events give the sanctuary added funds to continue the work they do.

Years ago, Susan provided me with the reference for my Raccoon and Fox paintings. I’ve seen her cheetah photos before and recently asked her if she’d be willing to share some. I’ve wanted to paint a full body cheetah in a running pose, mostly inspired by the photos Susan has posted over the years.

Susan generously opened up her online archive to me and told me I could use what I’d like. I ended up grabbing a dozen or so and expect to do three cheetah paintings in the near future. The reference was just so good that I couldn’t decide.
This is the first of those cheetah paintings, and I obsessed over the details. I expect I could have spent another 10 hours on this one, just nitpicking every little hair. But as every creative knows, eventually you just have to abandon one piece so that you can start on the next.

I miss all of those great people in the NAPP organization and at Photoshop World conferences. Each of them, in one way or another, inspired and contributed to my creating the work I love most, and I believe I’m a better artist and a better person for having known them.

Cheers,
Patrick

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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Broken News

I follow the news for a living, and at the best of times, it wears on me. A constant diet of negative news is awful for your mental health. I have to limit it as much as I can, or my mind goes down that dark rabbit hole of despair.

Now that many of you are home all day, I know you’re spending a lot of time on the internet, surfing through the horror, continual updates on the global death toll, getting into arguments online about which information is right or wrong, and then sharing news stories to your social media that you think sound right as if your friends aren’t surfing the same news you are.

We do this because it makes us feel like we’re in control and informed, when we all know that we aren’t.  In fact, by reading this stuff and sharing it, you’re making yourself even more anxious. When you share it, you’re not making people feel better; you’re making them feel worse. This virus of anxiety we’re all spreading is more damaging than the virus itself.

I’ve been actively avoiding phone calls and conversations with people because the whole discussion just ends up being about the news, this article and that, these facts and those, what Trump said, what Trudeau said, what this doctor said, what this victim said, and the numbers. I end up leaving the phone call feeling worse than before and wished I’d never called or picked up.

I understand it’s the topic on everybody’s lips, we’re all frightened, and we think that by talking it to death, it will make us feel better. Ask any psychologist, and they’ll tell you the opposite.

The media is hurting for revenue right now; they’re fighting each other for your online attention because they’re trying to get advertisers to keep paying them. The only way they can do that is to be upping the tragedy, to find new angles to make you afraid, new headlines to get you to open their link. They will never do that by telling you, “It’s going to be OK.”
I’ve always gotten news alerts from multiple outlets; it’s part of my job as an editorial cartoonist, it’s how I know a breaking story is happening, one that I might have to comment on with a cartoon. But in recent weeks, these outlets have been abusing the privilege. I now get multiple BREAKING NEWS alerts from each outlet throughout the day.

The Prime Minister’s been offering a daily briefing from his house because he’s been in isolation since his wife was exposed to Covid-19. CTV was sending me an alert that this was happening, which was helpful. But in recent days, they’ve been sending the alert about a half-hour early, meaning I tune in and have to watch/listen to doomsday coverage I don’t want to hear before I get to the coverage I need to see.

That’s click-baiting. And while I understand it, I resent it. And so should you.

The constant apocalypse feed breeds more anxiety, contributes to depression, and when those two degenerates get a hold of you, you start thinking irrationally and make poor decisions. Spending hours on social media, surfing the news and talking about all of this is not only detrimental to your mental health, but it’s also unsustainable.

I’ve had OCD for years, ever since I was a kid, though I didn’t know it until I was in my early thirties. While I’ve always been mindful of washing my hands, not touching my face, etc., mine doesn’t manifest as germophobia. OCD is much more than that. It’s about control, worrying, ruminating, fear, and anxiety.
After I went for groceries yesterday, I mentioned to a friend over email that the fear and tension in peoples’ faces were disturbing. But when this is all over, if people ask me what OCD is like, I now have an example. Do you remember how you felt all day long during the pandemic? That’s it, except that you feel it when times are good, too.

Mine has been much better over the past couple of years, mainly because I read some excellent books, was in therapy for a while, found coping tools, meditate almost every morning and I’ve established boundaries. I still worry more than is necessary about things I can’t control, but it doesn’t consume me like it used to.

The most significant contributing factor to my feeling better than I did, however, was limiting my exposure to the news and social media. The easiest way to know if it’s a problem for you is to try and turn it off for a day.

One day.

Don’t even look at it. If you can’t, you have a problem, and the first step to solving any problem is to admit that there is one.

If you can’t go one whole day without social media or the news, you don’t need me to tell you that’s an issue.

I’m not saying to avoid the news or social media forever. While we’re in isolation, we need to be informed, but be smart about it. Pick the news outlets you trust and follow them, especially your local news. Don’t click on anything and everything your friends post just because the headline or graphic triggers your fear. That’s what it was designed to do.

It shouldn’t matter to somebody in Saskatchewan that some people in Australia aren’t following social isolation rules. That’s a problem for them to solve. The borders are closed. They can’t get to you. There are almost 8 BILLION people on the planet. Following every story of tragedy for all of those people will ruin you, especially when most of those tragic stories are embellished, spun and manipulated for maximum fear.
My wife had to tell a friend two days in a row that a “news” story she shared was inaccurate; it took her no time at all to find evidence that it was false. But then she saw the same stories shared by a bunch of other people. Nobody is even bothering to check, primarily if it supports what they already believe. I shouldn’t have to explain how dangerous that is.

But to spend our isolation with a display in our hand all day long, punching that refresh button, madly scrolling for fear of missing out, you’re making yourself miserable, along with everybody with whom you’re sharing it.

If you’re going to share stuff, why not good news stories for a change? There are still plenty of those out there, too. Videos of people on their balconies singing, applauding first responders, live concerts online for charity, and kitten videos. Come on, you can never have enough kitten videos.

Your friends and family are already scared. You can contribute to that fear, or you can help them down off that ledge.

It’s a choice.

__

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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9 Tips for Working at Home for Artists

Our current global situation is unprecedented, and we’re each trying to figure out how to adapt to the new normal. We all face similar challenges; how to stay healthy while still getting groceries, staying connected with our family and friends, and planning our day to day with limited resources for however long our self-isolation lasts.

Each profession, industry or walk of life, however, will have specific hurdles to overcome, so this is directed at creative types.

Most of us find ourselves confined to quarters right now. You might be a professional artist who already works from home or one who works for a company and suddenly finds yourself working from your residence. You might be an art student home from school or a hobbyist who now has some extra time to devote to creating art.

Whatever your situation, I hope some of these tips give you ideas and inspiration to make the most of this challenging time.

I’m a professional artist, a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist for newspapers across Canada and a painter of whimsical wildlife. My painted work is licensed internationally on many products through different companies and sold as prints in several zoos and via my online store. I’ve been working from home full-time for the past fifteen years and part-time for five before that. I’d like to share with you some productive practices I employ to make the most efficient use of my time. I’ve learned most of these from correcting my own mistakes over the years. Here goes…

1) Set Up a Work Space

I work from a dedicated office in my home. When I’m in this space, it’s work time, so it’s easy to make that mental shift when I walk through the door. Occasionally, I’ll work at the kitchen island if I want a change of pace, but the majority of my work is done in front of my Wacom display, sitting at my desk.

I get that not everybody has the space for their own office. Twenty-five years ago, we lived in a tiny apartment, and my workspace was a small desk in the living room, jammed in beside the TV. When I sat at that desk, however, it was creative time. Facing the wall was a big part of that because there were no distractions in front of me.

2) Get Dressed

It is tempting when confined to your house or working from home to let yourself go a little, and that’s fine, but staying in your pajamas all day or throwing on a robe without showering will not put you in the right mindset to work. Get up, shower, and put on clean clothes. You don’t have to wear a power suit or anything silly like that, but being clean and presentable counts. It will make you feel like a professional. Walk your talk.

I wear pretty much the same thing every day unless I’m going out. My lounge pants could very well be used as PJ bottoms by some, but I wear them for comfort and a t-shirt. If it’s chilly in my office, I wear a hoodie. But it’s all clean clothing every day. If somebody comes to my door, I am presentable and don’t need to apologize for my appearance. How you look impacts how you feel.

3) Establish a Routine

If you’re new to working from home, a routine is vital. You’ll be forming new habits in your new work environment and what you prioritize will determine your success. I have no boss other than my clients, but I get up at 5 am every day, even on weekends. I do some moderate exercise, meditate for 15 minutes, shower and grab my coffee and am at my desk by 6.

This is my routine, and by sticking to it, I get a lot done.

Obviously, you don’t have to get up as early as I do. I’m a morning person and established that time when I needed to get cartoons drawn and sent before going to my regular job. When I went full-time at home, I stuck to that because it works for me. Find what works for you and stick to a schedule.

I am at my creative best first thing in the morning, so I make sure I’m ready to work during that time. I save the afternoons for admin work and other parts of my job that don’t require my best creative skills.

It is too easy to sleep in, laze around, watch some TV, and figure you’ll do some work when you feel like it. Before long, hours have passed; you haven’t done anything, and then you beat yourself up for your failure.

Talent will only get you part of the way. Success comes from self-discipline, in all things.

4) Avoid the Kitchen

You’re at home; all of your favorite foods are available. It is effortless to make multiple trips to the kitchen and have little frequent snacks. A few crackers here, a cookie there, some chips, a handful of nuts. Before you know it, you’re gaining weight and can’t figure out why.

Stick to regular meals, and if you’re not getting your usual level of activity, make meals smaller than what you’d typically eat. You won’t starve and can adjust as needed. This goes back to having a routine.

5) No Excuses

If you have a primary focus in the art you’d like to create, then get to it. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. That’s an excuse used by artists who don’t want to work. In my experience, the work comes first, and the inspiration follows.

Nobody is saying you have to work a four-hour stretch, chained to your desk. Start with a half-hour. Work for 30 minutes, without checking your phone, going on social media, watching Netflix, chatting with a friend. This is creation time! Start with less and build upon it.

6) Stop Scrolling

The biggest distraction we have, especially in stressful times like these, is our handheld devices. Silence your phone, turn off notifications, avoid social media and the news. You will survive a half-hour, hour, two hours without knowing every little thing going on in the world. Right now, it’s all pretty bleak, anyway, so what are you missing? There is no way to immerse yourself in your art with one eye on your phone.

7) Take Some Training

Every creative needs to keep learning. Even knowing that, it’s tough to make it a priority. I primarily need to use my creative time to produce art to pay my bills. With some extra time at home lately, I’ve been catching up on some online training and enjoying it.

Despite our present challenges, we live in a great time right now. Anything and everything is taught online. And best of all, with money tight for many, a lot of it is free. Not just click-bait teasers with the meat of the instruction behind a paywall, but real valuable art training, more than you could ever take in a lifetime, is available for free from world-class instructors.

You just have to go looking for it, and then make the time to watch, learn, and practice.

I’m an expert in painting and drawing in Photoshop, which comes from twenty years of doing it. And yet, I watched a recent tips and tricks video and rolled my eyes at some skills I could have been using, but didn’t know existed.

8) Try Something New

I’ve known many creatives in my life, and one thing I’ve noticed about most of them; they’re good at more than one kind of artistic expression. I know many painters who are also musicians. A tattoo artist I know is a skilled 3D modeller. An animator I know is a killer character designer. All are creative pursuits requiring different skills.

There was a time when I devoted a lot of my energy to learning Flash animation when many thought that was the direction editorial cartooning was heading. I got pretty good at it, but nobody wanted to pay what it was worth to create. And I didn’t like it much.

I was a bad graphic designer for a short time. Didn’t have the eye for it, nor the interest. I painted caricatures of people. I was good at that, but there wasn’t much call for it, and I grew tired of it.

But all of that work was worth my investigation. All of it taught me something, and I can trace a direct line through each of those pursuits to the painted whimsical wildlife work that is now half of my business. It pays, I’m good at it, and I enjoy it a great deal. I don’t think I would be doing it had I not tried those others first.

Part of trying new things is also realizing what you don’t want to do. By process of elimination, you might find your true calling. But you won’t know until you try.

9) Reach Out

We’re told to self-isolate, but we have the means to connect with anyone in the world.

Everybody is living this situation; we’re all nervous, a little afraid, and misery loves company. Just talking with people like you, who are going through the same thing, will ease tensions. Best of all, you never know what insights or opportunities might come up in an email exchange, Facetime chat or Skype call.

Just this morning, a graphic designer friend in a nearby city recommended a podcast to me that turned out to be one I liked. She was correct; it was right up my alley.

The other reason to reach out to your network is to get work. There might be skills you have that you don’t actively pursue that deserve a second look now. Survival under challenging times requires adaptation and approaching problems in a new way.

Be respectful, open-minded and receptive. The person you contact might not have any work for you, but they could suggest somebody else and offer an introduction or recommendation.

Nobody will give you these opportunities. You have to ask for them. And be honest in your inquiries, because it’s no secret that we’re all navigating strange waters. There’s no shame in saying that work has suddenly become difficult to find, and you’re exploring your options. Right now, that won’t surprise anybody.

They might say no, because a lot of companies are suddenly finding themselves in the same situation. But they might also say Yes.

How do you think I got this writing assignment?

____
(this article was commissioned by Wacom, you can see it on their site here.)

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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Wacom One Inspiration

One of the unexpected benefits of having been a digital artist since the late 1990s is that I’ve been able to see all of the advances in the medium. My first Wacom tablet was an original Intuos with only a 4”X5” drawing surface.

It seemed so futuristic.  I could move the stylus on this tablet, which would be mirrored on the screen by the cursor, and then DRAW. To some, it seemed complicated, but to me, it seemed like a prosthetic limb I’d been missing.

I don’t know how to paint with oils, acrylics, or watercolours. My sketching skills with a pencil are adequate; my pen and ink skills less so. I’ve tried charcoal, woodcarving, sculpture, but just barely, and all of it felt clumsy.

This is obviously a personal problem, given the centuries of incredible artwork created with those tools.

But digital tools always felt right to me. It has been my medium for more than twenty years.

When it came to software, there was Photoshop, Painter, and a few others. I tried them all. But for the hardware, if I wanted to work digitally, a Wacom tablet wasn’t an option. It was a requirement.

Since then, I can only guess how many Wacom devices I’ve owned, upgrading when I felt the need and could scrape together the funds. For the first half of my professional career, I used tablets rather than displays. That’s where you look at the screen but draw on the device sitting on your desk. It’s not difficult to get used to since we all use a mouse the same way. We look at the cursor, not the device in our hand, and our brain figures it out pretty fast.

Drawing with a Wacom tablet was easy for me.

But in 2011, I got my first Wacom Cintiq display, a 12WX, where I could draw right on the screen. These days, that seems unremarkable, considering how many screens and mobile devices we have at our fingertips. But at the time, it was a huge deal for me.

The 12WX was pretty thrilling, even though it could be a bit clunky at times. Marketed as a portable model,  being the first one that didn’t take up your whole desk, it was more like the prototype for what would come next.
When I got my Cintiq 24HD in 2012, everything changed for me. Not only was I now using their most professional display model, but I also had a working relationship with Wacom.

That display is still the one I use every day, and while there are newer models available, I have a sentimental attachment to this display, and I never feel it’s lacking. Yes, it’s a piece of technology, but like a reliable car, years out of the showroom, my 24HD is like an old friend. I’ve created many of my favourite paintings on this display.

In the past six months, Wacom has sent me a couple of their newer portable models to evaluate and work with, recording videos with them. The Cintiq 16 I received last summer is a welcome addition to my digital toolset.  I use it while working on my laptop, often on the couch in the evenings while watching TV. You can see a recording I did with that one in a blog post from late last year.
Just recently, I was asked if I would take their new Wacom One display for a spin. Pitched as an affordable solution for artists looking to make the jump to digital or for those just starting, it’s an entry-level display.

After using it to paint my latest Ring-tailed Lemur, however, I find that notion rather amusing. This display is better than all of the tablets and displays I used for most of my professional career.

Without getting too technical, it’s a comfortable experience. From the feel of the stylus on the screen, the pressure sensitivity, the image quality of the display and the simple setup and installation, this is a display I would have been thrilled to have worked with early in my career.

I know many people these days draw on the iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil, and I’ve seen some incredible work done with those tools. I have an iPad Pro, I use it every day, and when I bought it, I expected I’d be doing a lot of drawing with it. There’s even a professional level painting app called procreate that’s pretty incredible.

But no matter how often I work with the iPad, it never feels quite right to me.

Whether it’s the stylus on the screen, the display itself, or the size, I can’t seem to get comfortable with it. To be fair, the iPad is a standalone device, where a Wacom display has to plug into a computer, whether a PC, Mac, Notebook or Laptop. But most people have those already.

I’ve often said that the best tools are the ones you don’t have to think about. When I’m in the zone, painting fur, feathers or details, I don’t want to have to stop because the tools aren’t doing what I want them to do. I’ve invested quite a bit of time on the iPad Pro, and it just doesn’t feel as comfortable as a Wacom display.

I’m well aware that we resist change, so I’ve tried other devices and displays. But I keep coming back to Wacom time after time. Part of me knows that being sent the display, tasked with doing a video, it’s my job to pump it up and promote it.

But honestly, if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t. And I know my friend Pam at Wacom wouldn’t want me to. I was thankful I didn’t have to find a way to put a positive spin on this display. There is nothing about this display that I can criticize. For what was promised, it over-delivered.

The only thing I missed while using it was the Express Keys I have on my Cintiq 24HD. I use those all the time. Those are buttons and dials that you can program to access features you use often. Those features are now automatic to me. Thankfully, in recent years, Wacom introduced a device called the Express Key Remote. It’s a standalone device, and it worked flawlessly with the Wacom One.

A beginner might find Express Keys too intimidating at first, and I understand why they left out of this entry-level display, both for price and function. But it’s nice to know that if a user wants to try them, there’s an affordable add-on option.

As for the video above, called ‘Voices,’ my task was to offer a message to new artists, something to inspire them to give their creativity the chance it deserves. I spent a great deal of time thinking about what I would have wanted to hear when I was new at this artist’s life, trying to gather the courage to stick my neck out.

Ultimately, I ended up speaking to myself two decades ago, that twenty-something kid who was scared to death of being a fraud, having never gone to art school. I’d have wanted to let him know that it isn’t easy for anybody. The only way to navigate this world is through experience. Decades later, it’s still scary to do this for a living, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.

I’d like to think the message I recorded would have given him hope.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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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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