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Silly Monkeys


As a perfectionist workaholic with unreasonable personal expectations, my past year reflecting most often reveals that I didn’t get enough done.

I’ve wanted to create an art book of my work for years with little progress. Almost a decade ago, I recorded two training DVDs for painting and cartooning that did well, so I’ve been planning an updated online painting course.

Two years ago, right before all plans went to hell, my friend Serena and her family went on African safari for a few weeks. She brought home plenty of reference for me for an elephant I’ve wanted to paint for years. I still haven’t started it.

I’ve been procrastinating, making excuses that I’m too busy with other work. There’s no profound psychological mystery as to why.

If I never complete these things, they can’t suck.

The holidays are always a low point for me. We don’t celebrate Christmas for various reasons. While I genuinely did enjoy the three recent holiday markets, they wore me out. In addition, earlier deadlines for Christmas and New Year’s cartoons and fewer publication dates meant less revenue from the daily papers.

As I write this, I’m in a creative rut, unmotivated to draw, paint, or write anything uplifting. In recent days I’ve still been up at five and sitting at my desk before six, googling articles and watching videos about art marketing, an exercise in desperation.

There are more online listicles on how to create a successful art career than anyone could read in a lifetime, often written by those with little experience. The same regurgitated tips and tricks, all revealing the same truth, that there is no map to get there.

Not that long ago, society’s idea of a good career was picture perfect.

Go to college, university or learn a valuable trade, and get a job with a good company. Then, over the next thirty or forty years, advance through middle-management, then management, earning enough to pay off a mortgage in the suburbs, provide for your family of 2 kids, get a dog, and have BBQs on the weekends with neighbours you’d live beside for decades.

Sometime in your sixties, the company (really, we’re a family!) will throw you a party, give you a gold watch, and you’ll retire with a comfortable pension, spending your weekends playing with the grandkids on the porch. Then, one day, at a ripe old age with a smile on your face, you’ll pass away comfortably in your sleep.

That story starts with “Once upon a time” and ends with “happily ever after.”

Because it’s a fairy tale.

Before I found any direction in my early 30s, I tried a few different things. I spent five years in the Reserves, two of those as a full-time instructor, and thought I might join the military like so many in my family. I went to school for EMT training, got my license, but never actually worked on an ambulance service. Before that, I spent two and a half years in college because that’s what was expected. I moved to Banff, worked in hotels and retail, got married, moved to Canmore and here we are.

I don’t regret any of those choices, but none of it was part of any plan.

The notion that we’re supposed to decide the rest of our lives while in high school is ridiculous. We’re still children but are somehow supposed to have the foresight to know what we’ll want to be in our forties.

I was an idiot at 18, and I suspect many of you were as well, with no idea how the real world worked. I took foolish risks and did very stupid things, convinced I was immortal. I’ve often mused, “thank god we weren’t taking photos with our phones all the time and posting every moronic thought that crossed our pea-brains.”

Although frankly, plenty of people my age and older still haven’t learned that lesson.

We’re all victims of our own cognitive biases; errors in thinking, logic, and interpretation that influence how we perceive the world. We can easily spot them in others but often fail to acknowledge our own, even though we all exhibit these behaviours.

Cognitive bias is the fuel that runs the social media machine.

There are many on the list, but one is called “Rosy Retrospection.”

We remember the ‘good old days’ with a sigh, when everything was easier, cheaper, people treated each other better, and the world was a nicer place.

It’s why “Make America Great Again” worked so well as a campaign slogan. Nostalgia is powerful even though it takes minimal surface scratching to reveal that our wistful memories are largely edited and wildly inaccurate.

There has never been a golden age of sustained prosperity, freedom and peaceful coexistence in the United States, Canada, or anywhere else.

I look back on the early days of my professional art career and remember my tenacity and motivation, working mornings, evenings and weekends on the side to build up my business so that I could one day take it full-time and SUCCEED! (whatever the hell that means.)

However, my nostalgia wants to leave out that I was drawing three to five syndicated cartoons a week for only two weekly papers for a few years. Paid $10 each; I was essentially making pennies an hour, eating up all my free time.

I came VERY close to pulling the plug several times in those early years, asking myself why I bothered to work so hard for no money. I constantly wanted to quit, convinced I was wasting my life.

That was almost 20 years ago.

Following the news every day is a dangerous game when things are normal. If it bleeds, it leads is the very foundation of news media. We might be at the top of the food chain, but we’re still animals, barely out of the trees on an evolutionary timeline. We say we want to hear good news, yet we focus all our attention on the bad. Our actions speak louder than our words.

We are emotional, scared little monkeys who react to anything remotely threatening with a fight, flight, or freeze response. We imagine ourselves incredibly intelligent, but the evidence doesn’t support our hubris.

For example, everybody knows the basic rule of investing. Buy low, sell high. And yet, all it takes to throw the market into a tailspin of frantic trading and panic is one billionaire tech mogul to tweet something silly while he’s sitting on the john.

And it’s not just those Wall Street types. One need only look to the rest of us glued to our screens and devices, slaves to social media, eating garbage food, drinking too much, failing to exercise, and wasting our lives watching forgettable TV for hours on end every night.

This past year, I’ve found myself skimming the employment section of our local paper more than once. I’ve been here before, walking this familiar territory. It doesn’t take a leap of logic to realize this behaviour comes from fear.

But I also know that the greener grass is simply a trick of the light.

There’s a severe staff shortage in this valley. If I did get a job, it wouldn’t be the one advertised. It would be longer hours covering the other positions they can’t fill, for less money than the job is worth. The cost of living in this community is one of the highest in the country, even though wages are not.

Logically, I know that leaving this long art career experiment and going back to a ‘real job’ won’t solve any problems, financially or otherwise. And further down that well, I also know that taking the difficult steps toward worthwhile change never happens until you’re really uncomfortable.

Because otherwise, why would you change?

My business has suffered the last couple of years. Newspapers were already struggling before the pandemic, still operating under last century’s business model. The other half of my business depends on tourism and people with disposable income, both in short supply.

I don’t write this to gain your sympathy because everybody is suffering right now, in one fashion or another. We’re all dealing with a whole lot of unexpected, uncomfortable shit.

You can blame the media, politicians, bureaucrats, or run down the long list of ridiculous conspiracy theories. However, it still doesn’t change that we must deal with the circumstances before us, and complex problems rarely have simple solutions.

Our nostalgia filter might tell us otherwise, but the normal we yearn for wasn’t the utopia we pretend it was. We took for granted all that we now pine for, complained about everything, and blamed whatever we could find for our lives not living up to our expectations. We did it before, and we will do it again. It’s our nature.

We spend a lot of time wishing other people would change, but the only thing we can ever change is ourselves.

I’m very uncomfortable right now; professionally, emotionally, financially, and spiritually, which means I’ve got to change. My focus for the next year is on diversification, making my income dependent on more revenue streams so that when one suffers, it doesn’t threaten the foundation. Some of those projects are underway. For others, I need to stop procrastinating and light fire to kindling.

I’m no longer willing to accept poor treatment simply because somebody doesn’t agree with my perspective. I don’t need everybody to like me. It’s a fool’s errand because it won’t ever happen.

I will put less energy into trivial pursuits and more time into riskier endeavours that may or may not work. That’s what got me here and what will move me beyond. Unplanted trees don’t bear fruit.

I will try to treat myself better, stop beating myself up over every stumble, perceived shortcoming, and soften that hard-edge perfectionism. Because I will never live up to my own ridiculous unattainable standards, making me miserable.

I will likely fail at some or all these things because I have failed before. But you know what they say about trying again.

Life is tough. It will still be tough when this pandemic is over, just as it was before.

So rather than pretend that turning a calendar will solve our problems, I’m going with a more realistic view of the new year.

2022. Shit will happen. Deal with it.


© Patrick LaMontagne

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Made in the Mountains

I signed up late for The Mountain Made Christmas Market at the Canmore Civic Centre, but since I had the stock, the time, and it was close to home, I couldn’t think of a reason not to give it a try.

As it was a six-foot table space rather than a 10 x 10 booth, and I haven’t used any of my hardware and displays since April of 2019, I set it up in my garage last week to figure out how I wanted it to look. With setup time limited on-site, you don’t want to experiment and solve problems in the final moments before the doors open.

Usually, these events have vendors packed tightly together, but with distancing rules, there were 2m between booths and a building capacity limit, including those behind the tables. So while it meant fewer vendors could attend, it didn’t feel crowded, and we had breathing room. Behind masks, of course.

If you’ve followed my work for a while, you know I’m most comfortable working on editorial cartoons or paintings in my office. I know a lot of artist introverts, seems to go with the profession. We’re good with one or two other people, but crowds sap our energy.

And yet, I didn’t realize how much I missed the interaction at these things.

The show hours were 10-4, and I had a prime corner in the main lobby. With a couple of hours setup on Saturday before opening, restocking on Sunday morning, and an hour of tear-down at the end, it was just a couple of eight-hour days. I even got some painting time in at home in the morning before heading to the venue. Some of these shows have long hours without a break, all day, every day. So I come home exhausted after five days at The Calgary Expo.

Getting to know the other vendors is usually enjoyable. Sometimes you can have a conflict, especially if a neighbour starts pushing into your space, but it’s most often a cooperative, friendly environment. When possible, we help each other out with forgotten supplies, keeping an eye on tables for bathroom breaks, taking orders for coffee runs, chatting during the slow periods, and learning about what each of us does.

Before the pandemic, I only did one or two shows a year. The daily editorial cartoon deadlines prohibit a lot of travelling. Some of these vendors make their entire living doing the gift, craft, and trade show circuit, and they’re pros at it. They’ve got setup and travel down to a science. When it comes to farmer’s markets, some of them go four or five days a week in different locations, a lot of time spent on the road.

While I only had a five-minute drive back to my house on Sunday after tear-down, one of my neighbours was still packing up before her four-hour drive back to Fernie, BC.

Halfway through Saturday, I realized I was having a good time. I’ve written about this before, but I love it when people are surprised by my wall of funny-looking animals. Even behind masks, the positive reaction is obvious.

It’s a good feeling to make people smile, especially since the past year and a half has seen so little of that.

I’ll often have to invite people to come closer, telling them it’s OK, my critters don’t bite. Their hands come up as they point out different ones to their companions. Because I had over 45 different images at the show, with no way to put them all on canvas on the wall behind me, I invite people to flip through the bin of poster prints, assuring them they’re all different.

I get the same questions all the time, and I’m happy to answer them.

“Are you the artist?”

“Did you paint all of these?

“How do you do this?”

And I hear the same comments, without complaint.

“They’ve got such personality!”

“They look cartoony…but real.”

“I love these.”

Yeah, that last one never gets old. Even if people don’t buy anything, it’s comforting that my work helped distract them from their troubles for at least a moment or two. Not a bad way to measure success.

Sales far exceeded expectations, and I couldn’t have asked for a better weekend. What people buy in different places and times of year never fails to surprise me. While prints like the Otter and Smiling Tiger always sell well, people have their favourite animals or a friend who loves owls, cows, or moose. So one person buys a rat, the next person a hippo, and the one after that a Ring-tailed Lemur who’s not quite all there.

But two popular standouts at this show were the Winter Wolf and the Sea Turtle, both newer paintings.

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8X10 aluminum prints and ceramic coasters were big sellers at this show, and I sold out of calendars. Those are all made by Pacific Music & Art, and I’ve already placed a resupply order. I’m adding the Sea Turtle, Winter Wolf and a few others to aluminum art for the next time around.

There will be another two-day Mountain Made Christmas Market at the Civic Centre on December 11th and 12th and a one-day Last Minute Market on December 18th. As this was such a positive experience, I’ve registered for both. This was an enjoyable event because the organizer, Julian, set the right tone and did a fine job of putting everything together. In addition, the Town of Canmore’s building monitor, Maurice, was ridiculously helpful and courteous, and we let him know how appreciated that was.

We’re often quick to point out when others fall short but fail to tell them when they’ve done a great job. People need to hear it, to let them know that it matters.

Now, please don’t get excited and think I’ve found my long-lost Christmas spirit or anything.

Having just endured two back-to-back elections in Alberta, plus the last year and a half of uncertainty and stress, it was nice to talk with people without the whole conversation revolving around politics, the pandemic, and polarized opinions.

Thanks to all of you who signed up for A Wilder View at the show. Chris S. won the calendar and sticker draw, and I’ve already delivered it to him. I enjoyed chatting with all of you, and I welcome your feedback, so don’t be shy about leaving a comment on a blog post or sending me an email from time to time.

Coming up next week, I’ll have a new desktop/device wallpaper download for all subscribers. I think you’ll really like this one. It’s one of my favourite paintings, and I hope it will put a smile on your face, even if I don’t get to see it in person.

Until next time, thanks for being here.

Cheers,
Patrick.

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Spring in My Steps

Twice last week, while working on my latest Grizzly on Grass painting, I got an idea for a post. Instead of simply jotting it down, I ended up writing a thousand words. Before I knew it, I thought, “wait, wasn’t I just painting?”

Winter is nose to the grindstone time for me; low on inspiration and motivation, putting in the hours to get the work done. Spring is the opposite; an abundance of nervous energy, plenty of ideas and not enough time for all of them.

Not having enough ideas is bad, but having too many can be worse, especially when all of them seem important. There is the fear that if I don’t address these lightning strikes right away, I’ll have lost whatever mojo that made it exciting enough to stop painting in the first place when I finally do get to them.

I count on that spring motivation to pull me out of the winter blues. I usually get a lot done in spring and summer. Last year, that spring motivation never showed up, for obvious reasons. I spent most of those months and a good chunk of summer worrying about losing my business.

While it certainly wasn’t a comfortable time, my worst fears didn’t materialize, so all of that worry was a big waste of time, as worry usually is.

I must now be used to this new base layer of uncertainty because this year, the spring high thankfully showed up. I’ve got many things I want to do, not enough time to do them, and I must prioritize what’s important.

As I talked about in a recent post, marketing my work and looking for new ways to get the word out has become one of those priorities. David Duchemin has opened my eyes to possibilities I hadn’t considered, and now I’m seeing them more often. There are plenty of little ways to improve my marketing efforts. Lumped together, it seems like a monumental effort, a mountain to be climbed. But you know what they say about the journey and single steps.

Besides drawing, painting, and writing, I’m trying to add a bit of marketing every day, either research or actual implementation.

Here are a couple of recent changes that I hope are improvements.

Checking Out?

If you don’t have a PayPal account and want to buy something online from an independent seller, it’s clunky to go to the checkout on the site and then keep going when you find you have to set up another account somewhere else.

For some, it’s one step too many and leads to cart abandonment, which translated for the site owner, means you just lost a sale.

Shopping is supposed to be easy.

PayPal is the most popular online payment method, and plenty of people have an account, but if you don’t or don’t want to use one, I’ve tried to make my online store a little simpler at check out.

As of yesterday, in addition to the usual PayPal option, you can now checkout directly with your credit card. My site was already well secured, and while the back-end payment engine is still PayPal, it will no longer take you to another site to process payment; it will happen right in the shopping cart.

Better still, if you’re looking for a specific print, you can now buy directly from the item and bypass the cart process entirely.

Care to Comment?

Blogs were a big thing in the early/mid-2000s. I’ve had mine since 2008. Over time, they seemed to fall out of fashion, criticized for something that old people did. In recent years, however, I’ve been reading about their resurgence. With so much content online, people are again more interested in the stories behind the work and long-form articles. The wheel has come around again, and blogs have integrated with newsletters.

I kept my blog going all of these years because I enjoy writing. I don’t remember when I turned off the comments, but I certainly know why.

Before Facebook and Twitter became the polarized sewers they are today; there were still people who wanted to turn every available comment opportunity into a forum for their political or social grievances, regardless of where they were.

My early work’s foundation was editorial cartooning, so my work attracted quite a few trolls long before that term was in widespread use. The same people would show up on my site and accuse me of being in bed with one political party or another, regardless of what I posted. When it was just on the editorial cartoons, I tolerated it because I felt it only fair to allow a rebuttal to my own illustrated opinion.

That was back when I would foolishly engage in political discussions with strangers. Live and learn.

As my work became more diversified and I’d paint caricatures of celebrities or illustrations for board games, those same commenters would still have something to say, and often it had nothing to do with the post. They had just become used to my site being somewhere they could spew whatever bile they had thought up that day.

When these same people began to drive away others or tried to start an argument with followers in my comment section, I’d had enough and disabled the comments. Think about it, if you were about to check out a retail store and saw people inside having a loud argument, would you go in or keep moving?

That’s also why I deleted my Facebook page and Twitter account. Because Facebook and Twitter are now notorious for anger and bitterness, with people posting and repeating their political agendas all over the place, it’s easy for artists and other self-employed people to get caught in the crossfire, with little means of controlling the damage.

The upside of all that vitriol concentrated on social media is that blog posts like mine are no longer attractive venues for political opinion carpet bombing. People who engage in that type of recreation want as many eyes on their rage as possible and social media is their preferred playground.

Now that I’m focusing more on serving my audience, I thought a little more engagement might be beneficial. People send me emails all the time, something for which I’m grateful. I try to respond to each one. But as my work gets more popular and my audience grows, it can be a little time-consuming. Comments are one way I can still hear what my audience has to say, what they like and what resonates with them, but they might not always require me to reply.

In the end, all of this stuff is an experiment, anyway. I could suddenly be inundated with spam or inappropriate comments and might have to turf it all again as I did before. I hope that doesn’t happen, and I’d like to see it become one more small improvement to the overall enterprise.

Time will tell. With fingers crossed and happy thoughts, what do you think? Feel free to comment below.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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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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Painting and Peak Experience

The pervasive uncertainty of the past year continues. We can be hopeful that we’ll make progress in the next few months, with vaccines, reopening, and putting the economic engine back into gear. However, everything still comes with a big asterisk and question mark.

Even when you know that change is necessary for growth, it almost always comes at a time when we least expect it, and it’s rarely comfortable. There is the change you make happen, change that happens to you, and then change you have to make to adapt.

Over the past year, I’ve spent many hours reading and listening to articles about boosting sales, getting more followers, expanding my reach, and introducing my work to new markets. I worry about the next quarter, the one after that, and juggle the what-ifs, ad nauseam.

Nail-biting, teeth grinding, hand wringing. More than a few tossing and turning sleepless nights and heavy sighs with head in hands.

There are plenty of quotes about worry, how unproductive it is. We’ve all seen the memes.

“When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”
– Winston Churchill

“If you treat every situation as a life and death matter, you’ll die a lot of times.”
– Dean Smith

“Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.”
– Erma Bombeck

Envying other artists, looking at their followers, careers, losing sight of the big picture, knowing that comparison is the thief of joy, but still falling for the same trap over and over again, despite knowing that it’s unproductive.

But then there are mornings I find myself at my desk, having had a welcome good night’s sleep, tunes in the earbuds, a shuffle of songs hitting all the right notes, painting tiny little hair’s on a bear’s muzzle. And I realize that I’m grinning.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term ‘peak experience.’

From an article by Kendra Cherry, “Peak experiences are often described as transcendent moments of pure joy and elation. These are moments that stand out from everyday events. The memory of such events is lasting and people often liken them to a spiritual experience.”

Yeah, I know. It sounds out there and flaky, and you wonder what I’ve been smoking, but I believe in these moments. I’ve had them. While paddling in a canoe on a lake early in the morning as the sun’s coming up, or when a Humpback whale surfaced right beside our boat in the Broken Group Islands near Ucluelet, or when a little bear cub named Berkley decided to crawl up my back and lick my ear.

But most of the time, I have these moments while painting. Usually early in the morning when it’s still dark, about an hour into the work, drinking hot black coffee, the right song in my ears, laying down brushstrokes on one of my funny-looking animals.

It’s the feeling that, within that moment, I’m right where I’m supposed to be. Sometimes it lasts for seconds, others for minutes. It comes on like a wave, a welling up of feeling, like a hypodermic shot of happiness.

And none of that other crap seems important.

This is that living in the moment stuff they go on about in all the mindfulness articles and self-help books. At these times, I get it, and I want to bottle it for those times when I don’t.

That other real-life stuff still needs to be handled, no doubt about it. Ignoring your bookkeeping or taxes, skipping that medical checkup for the fourth time, pretending that clunking sound in your engine will go away — all of that will bite you in the ass later if you’re not paying attention.

Sometimes things work out, other times they don’t, and shit happens.

I wouldn’t say I like it, but I accept it. So, I’ll get to that other stuff.

Right after I finish painting more little hairs on this lovable bear’s face.

“Stop worrying about what can go wrong, and get excited about what can go right.”
– Anonymous

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Painting Pet Portraits

Meet Wellington Bomber, a Rhodesian Ridgeback and my latest commission. Having shown it to the happy client this morning, I can now share it with you. I’ll let it sit for a day, give it one last critical eye, then send it for printing tomorrow morning. I hope to ship it later next week.

It was a privilege to paint Bomber, and I quite enjoyed this one.

This particular painting was an unusual circumstance as the commission was a gift purchase, so I only talked with the recipient after the fact. I usually don’t accept these commissions because they have created problems if the recipient isn’t familiar with my work. Assured that Bomber’s owner knew and liked my work, I took the gamble.

I need not have worried. Both the giver and recipient of the gift were ideal clients. From start to finish, this was a perfect commission experience.

Painting pet portraits is a challenging undertaking. I know plenty of artists who don’t take commissions because they can be a minefield of unwanted surprises.

When the experience is good, however, it’s usually great. I’ve had some fantastic clients, and it’s those paintings that keep me doing this work. More than one client over the years has said that I made them cry, including this one. Let me tell ya; there’s no better compliment.

For other artists, clients and the merely curious, here are some of the hurdles involved with pet portrait commissions.

Photo Reference
Given a choice, I would always take my reference photos, but since most clients aren’t local, that’s rarely possible.

It can take some time to find the right images, which means back-and-forth emails with clients. Most of the pet portraits I’ve painted have been memorials. When the animal has passed on, my only choices are what they have. I’ve turned down commissions for lack of good reference.

Are we On the Same Page?
Clients hire me for one of two styles, and I require a clear understanding of which before I begin. Do they want a portrait style or my whimsical wildlife style?

When it’s a memorial commission, the client most often wants a traditional portrait.

Sometimes the client will say they want my whimsical style, but then they attach conditions and limitations. One client had a big slobbery dog I was excited to paint because I was going to put some long stringy drool and goofy personality into that face.

The client asked that I paint my style, but make him look more dignified with no slobber at all, which are conflicting instructions. To this day, I wish I could have done my version.

When I have the freedom to paint the way I see it, the painting could end up goofy or with slightly less caricatured expression, depending on how it comes together. Clients who agree to allow me that freedom usually get something pretty special.

Price
Some bristle at the price tag, and I think it’s because we’ve become accustomed to online mass-market gimmick art, especially when it comes to pets.

No doubt you’ve seen those ads where they stick your dog’s head on the body of royalty or a military general in a renaissance-style portrait for under $100.

You choose from a handful of template options and backgrounds, upload the photo of your pet, they cut, paste, apply filters, and voila, Fido looking cute in a faux classic oil painting. Anybody with Photoshop experience can easily create that sort of image.

For a fun, inexpensive novelty item, there’s nothing wrong with that. You’ll get what you paid for, and I’m sure many people find it amusing and enjoyable. It’s also the same thing that thousands of other people got.

Hiring an artist to paint a custom painting of your pet is a whole other animal; pardon the pun. You’re buying an original piece of art that’s personal to you.

There’s a significant amount of time involved in a pet portrait, from the initial consultation to delivery of the finished painting. My price includes a ready-to-hang medium-sized canvas print and shipping, but the cost for that is more than it seems.

I have my canvases printed professionally in Calgary by ABL Imaging. Their quality standards are high, which means I never have to apologize for cracked seams, inferior quality wood on the stretcher bars, or the wrong colour. If I wouldn’t hang it in my home, I won’t expect a client to hang it in theirs.

But quality costs.

For a one-off 12″ X16″ print, it costs me around $150. Then there’s the 2.5-hour drive round trip to Calgary to get it. If I’m running other errands or going to the zoo to take photos, it’s a detour and worth it. If not, I’ll have a courier pick it up. That’s another $35.

If I’m shipping the canvas, that’s more time and materials, plus $30-$50 depending on where it’s going.

That’s just the cost of production and time, and we haven’t even got to the creative part, which is where the real value exists.

Time
Whether it’s art for a living or any other service provided by a self-employed professional, pricing needs to factor in time. You can’t create two things at once, at least not well.

There is time spent talking with the client, checking reference photos, explaining why one works and another doesn’t, having email conversations to ensure expectations are reasonable and that there’s a shared vision. That consultation time adds up.

Most importantly, when I’m working on a commission, that’s time I’m not working on editorial cartoons or paintings for prints and licensing.

Then there’s the actual painting time. A commission will usually require a minimum of fifteen hours, but most likely more, spread out over a few weeks, depending on my other deadlines. I treat the likeness and personality as I would that of a portrait of a person. It has taken me decades of training, practice and experience to create my signature style of artwork.

Just as a skilled trades-person commands a professional rate, so do creative professionals. People often think that because an artist enjoys his or her work, that they will (and should) gladly do it for free.

The work we choose to create is the work we enjoy most. The work somebody else wants us to do, that comes at a price. You are buying not just my art skills that took a lifetime to master, but also my work time, which I never get back.

This latest commission was a real challenge. I had a hard time with the personality, mainly because the dog is a senior. Goofy didn’t seem to be the right direction, so most of the character had to be more subtle, and I spent hours trying to get it right.

It was only when I stopped trying to force it that the personality showed up. I’m happy with the result, and my standards are so much higher than that of my clients.

Friends and Family
In my experience, artists are notorious people pleasers and pushovers, most often to our own detriment.

Friends, family and even total strangers often strongly suggest that they expect a discount or free painting, or they outright request one.

Most people mean well and don’t consider it a big deal, nor do they realize that they’re the 100th person who has asked you to paint their pet “in your spare time.”

Like most people, I don’t have spare time. Ever.

Live long enough, and you accumulate many friends and acquaintances, most of whom are genuinely lovely people, all of whom you want to give a discount.

But sooner or later, you’re going to lose your business because you wanted to be a nice guy.

The hardest thing people pleasers need to learn is how to say No. I’ve struggled with this my whole life. The worst part of it is when people get used to you saying Yes all the time, they’ll resent you when you say No.

Suddenly you’re not the nice person who has always been agreeable to their requests; you’re the rude person who has gotten too big for his britches.

Sometimes, it’s personal.
From time to time, I may want to paint somebody’s dog, for the same reasons I want to paint a wild animal. I see something I like, or I have a connection with the dog or cat, or I want to give a gift that only I can give.

I’ve painted my parents’ dog, who passed away last year, and I will undoubtedly paint their new dog.

Our next-door neighbours have a wonderful dog that Shonna and I adore. Running into her in the driveway never fails to brighten our day, and she gets offended if we don’t visit for even just a minute. I’ve already taken reference of her when she was still a big puppy, and I’m going to paint her eventually.

I’ve talked about the cabin north of here that friends and I have gone to in recent years. I drive by the owners’ place on the way to the cabin, and even if I know they’re not home, I stop to visit their dog, Jingles. I painted her in a portrait style simply because that’s what felt right at the time. I was happy to give them a framed print as a thank-you for always being such great hosts.
Whenever I finish these personal pieces, however, I always get messages and comments from people ‘offering’ to let me paint their dog, assuring me that their dog is adorable, cute, and has a great personality.

Almost every dog I’ve ever met matches that description, especially to their family.

But despite what most people think, art is a business, one that requires thick skin. Art for a living is finding a balance between producing work that pays the bills and making time for the work I want to do.

When I choose to paint a pet for my enjoyment, much like the portraits of people I paint, there is little to no market for that painting after the fact. People rarely want paintings of someone else’s dog to hang on their wall; they want a painting of their own dog.

Conclusion
When a client hires me to paint their pet, I take it seriously. Someone is choosing to spend a significant amount of their hard-earned money on a personal piece of my artwork. Depending on where they hang it, they might look at it every day for many years to come.

I owe every client my best work.

Whether you’re an artist thinking of offering pet portrait commissions as part of your menu of services or a client thinking of hiring me or someone else to create a piece of art personal to you, hopefully this has provided a little insight.

I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to create art for a living for many years. The artistic skills have been challenging to earn, often frustrating, featuring many course corrections and more than a few dead ends.

But by far, the hardest lessons I continue to learn have been about the business of art. People want art in their lives, but they often forget to view it the same way they do other services and products. What’s worse, artists themselves are often the worst failures at running their own businesses for the same reason.

And to those artists, I will leave you with three critical thoughts.

Creating art is easy. Selling art is hard.

If you don’t value your own work, nobody else will, either.

Trying to please everybody is a recipe for misery, in art and life.

Cheers,
Patrick

A Final Word on Commissions
From recent market consultation and after careful consideration of my work’s value, I have increased my commission rate to starting at $1900.00, which includes the ready-to-hang canvas print and shipping. That rate is effective immediately, but my newsletter subscribers can still lock in the current rate of $1100.00 by booking a commission with a non-refundable deposit by March 31st.
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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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May You Live in Interesting Times

Like many people, the last week of any year inspires reflection. Despite my often-cynical perspective and the abundance of personal and professional setbacks I experienced in 2020, the silver linings aren’t hard to see.

Business advice articles and videos for freelance artists will often say that diversification and multiple revenue streams are what will get you through the hard times. That has never been more evident than this year.

With so many newspapers suspending freelance contributions in the spring, it would have been a much leaner year had I been solely relying on my editorial cartooning income.
I’m grateful that Mike at Pacific Music and Art could effectively pivot much of his focus to face masks. Not without difficulty, and requiring plenty of patience with design logistics and shipping delays, it turned out to be a welcome bright spot in a year of dark clouds. Several people have told me how much they’ve enjoyed having a fun and silly mask to wear, rather than the utilitarian alternative.

As recently as yesterday, an email about my latest painting contained a line about how many positive comments they get about their masks.

The masks brought more people to my work, increased my newsletter followers and generated more print and licensing sales for the rest of the year. How could I have possibly predicted that at this time last year?

2021 is a big question mark for all of us. Hard to plan for anything more than survival, in every meaning of the word. There’s plenty of reason to be optimistic, of course, but reality will lie somewhere between hoping for the best and expecting the worst.

In other words, be ready to adapt and don’t get cocky.

For all of you who follow, share, and have supported my work, I hope I effectively expressed my gratitude in my post before Christmas. My Cartooning COVID video, still being viewed and well-received, serves as my cartoon wrap-up for the year.

That brings me to the paintings I completed in 2020. In what came as a surprise to me, I did more paintings this year than last, 17 of them: three dogs, three people portraits, and eleven funny looking animals. There were a handful of others, but those were the production level pieces.

The response to my latest paintings has been very nice; several people already asking for prints. I will be sending the latest five; Big Boy, Bear Hug, Winter Wolf, T-Rex and Winter Raven for proofing next week.

With the zoos and parks unlikely to be placing print orders anytime soon, and the Calgary Expo moving to the August long weekend in the coming year (maybe?), I’m reluctant to invest in a large print order right now, only to hold most of them in inventory for the foreseeable future.

So when I get the proofs, I’ll likely do a pre-order special, though I haven’t yet figured out how that will look. I’ll soon be clearing out some 12” X 16” canvas prints at drastically reduced pricing as well, so keep your eyes on the newsletter for that opportunity. With only one or two of each, they will likely go fast.

On the subject of canvas, every image I paint is available for custom special order. If there’s a painting you like and want to invest in a larger piece, my work has always looked best on canvas. ABL Imaging in Calgary does my printing for me, and they do an incredible job. Is there a painting you really like? Feel free to send me an email and request a quote.
A customer ordered a 32” X 32” canvas print of my Sire painting in March, and I was so pleased with it that I wanted to keep it for myself.

As always, feel free to drop me a line anytime with questions or comments. It may take me a couple of days to get back to you, but I always will.

While my original post ended with the 17 paintings posted as images, I decided to instead create a video montage of each piece, in the order in which they were painted. I have replaced the still images with that video below. Turn up your sound for the full movie trailer feel.

Happy New Year!

Patrick

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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
Sign up for my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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Cartoons, Clichés and COVID

There’s an exhaustive list of images, references and tropes that cartoonists (over)use. I could attempt to list them all and it would still only be the tip of the iceberg. Oh, that’s one right there.

The Statue of Liberty or an eagle representing the US, a beaver for Canada, a bear for Russia, panda for China, St. Peter at the Pearly Gates greeting whichever notable figure just died, or somebody looking down from heaven. Variations of logos for the Olympics, companies, and events; broken records, road signs, going off a cliff or over a waterfall, weighing scales, talking animals…it’s a long list.

I’ve yet to meet any cartoonist who hasn’t used many of these, although most will be quick to criticize another for doing the same. I’ve been guilty of both of those, more than once. Sometimes it’s laziness, other times it’s trying to find a new angle on an old theme, and more often than not, it’s desperation.

But we’ve all used these tropes.

It’s a point of personal pride that I’ve never drawn a pearly gates cartoon, but that’s splitting hairs, because I’ve used almost all of the others.
As you can see above, I released a cartoon this week that used one of the biggest clichés in cartooning. The Titanic has been drawn often, by many. I don’t think I’ve drawn the whole ship before, but I’ve certainly drawn sunken or sinking ships and alluded to the iceberg, which is the same thing.

The Titanic represents hubris, man’s ego coming back to bite him in the ass. It’s appropriate for politics, corporate greed, and blind ambition, unchecked by reality. Sooner or later, an iceberg comes along to challenge the unsinkable claim. PLENTY of cartoonists have drawn politicians standing on the bow as it sinks.

While I would normally avoid the Titanic imagery, and I’m sure other cartoonists who see it will roll their eyes at my audacity for bringing it out of mothballs, it was a popular cartoon this week. I heard from several editors who loved it, proving once again that we’re supposed to be pleasing our customers, not each other.

In my experience, most of us are bitter and cynical ‘hey you kids, get off my lawn’ types anyway, as insecure about our work as every other artist, something a few attempt to hide with false bravado and imagined authority that everybody else sees through.

It happens in every industry, especially creative ones. Artists will spend days debating details that nobody else cares about.

When I used to attend the Photoshop World conference each year in Las Vegas, several classes I attended were for photographers. Long before I took the volume of photos I do today, I learned a lot from those classes, because what makes one image better will ultimately make another image better.

Alan Hess is a skilled concert and event photographer, author, instructor and he takes photos of other genres as well.  He’s also a friend, who helped me out with reference photos in the early days of animal work, and I wrote a guest piece years ago about digital painting on the iPad, for one of his books.

During one of his classes, Alan shared a photograph, then zoomed in to show that, seen up close, it was grainier than it looked at full size. I can’t remember the context of that lesson, but something he said has always stuck with me.

“You know who cares the most about noise in photographs? Photographers!

It still makes me smile, because that kind of quibbling over inconsequential details exists in every field, especially creative ones. Artists will obsess (!!!) over the most ridiculous things in their work. We’re miserable about it. We’ll talk each other to death about details that nobody sees or cares about, and judge each other harshly for it, almost as much as we judge ourselves.

Plenty of freelance writers who imagine themselves Hemingway or the next Woodward or Bernstein will author listicle after listicle to pay the bills. You know the articles I’m talking about. 21 Uses for Old Underwear or 10 Reasons Your Editorial Cartoons Suck!

Then they’ll judge other writers for releasing yet another listicle.

We’re all hypocrites.

While it’s still worthwhile to try to be original and not fall back on tired or overused imagery, sometimes it is indeed that imagery that works best, because it resonates with people. There’s nothing to be gained by over-complicating a simple message.

And sometimes, it’s just an off day with a deadline.

I enjoyed drawing the Titanic in this cartoon. I could have spent a couple more hours nitpicking it. But that would be obsessing over details that nobody would see, and in a deadline-driven profession, time is money.

The downside of these tropes, however, is that when other cartoonists draw on them, eventually you’re going to use the same ones, sometimes on the same day. A well-known moment in editorial cartoon culture is that many cartoonists used the same image to depict the events on 9/11, the Statue of Liberty with tears in her eyes.

I was about two weeks away from trying to become a syndicated cartoonist when that happened, so I didn’t draw a 9/11 cartoon, though I certainly wouldn’t fault any of those artists. How original can you be with such a monumental event, with no time to let it all sink in before drawing a cartoon? The deadline was as immediate as the disaster.

They call this a Yahtzee when multiple cartoonists come up with the same idea. The fact that they even have a name for it, reveals that it’s not uncommon. While idea theft does happen, it’s more often just a bad luck coincidence. None of us wants to draw the same thing and the ones who do steal ideas are usually well known for it.

In my experience, this kind of thing happens a lot in holiday seasons, whether it’s Halloween, Thanksgiving, the New Year, and especially Christmas.
I drew this cartoon yesterday afternoon and sent it out first thing this morning.

Then I went to peruse the daily papers that publish my work to see if they’d printed any of mine. In the Edmonton Journal, I saw this cartoon by Malcolm Mayes, their staff cartoonist. I will admit to uttering a four-letter word or two.
I don’t need to tell you that Rudolph is as common a Christmas image as Santa, the elves, the North Pole, a lump of coal, a stocking, a tree, lights, we don’t have all day. Malcolm and I won’t be the only ones to imagine the COVID-19 virus replacing Rudolph’s nose. It’s low-hanging fruit and if we hadn’t used it this week, somebody else would use it next week, or already has and I just haven’t seen it.

I’ve been sending out 7 cartoons a week, every week, for many years, as have all of my colleagues, especially the ones that are still managing to make a living in this profession, or part of one. With that volume of content, it’s the truly original ideas that are the exception, not the rule.

In the old days, before the internet, an editorial cartoonist with a daily staff job had all day to stew over an idea, come up with multiple angles, try to squeeze out another ounce of cleverness, and take hours to bring a cartoon to life. A very few still have that luxury, knowing that spot is reserved for them every day.

Back then, once the cartoons were published, they wouldn’t immediately see what their colleagues at other papers had drawn because it didn’t matter as much. These undesirable coincidences wouldn’t even get noticed.

But today, with instant connection, websites and social media, freelance cartoonists are often competing for the same open spaces, so it’s as much about the speed of delivery as it is about the idea. First past the post often wins the day.

What’s worse is that we’re not just competing with each other, we’re competing with viral memes and videos, too. I keep a long list of ideas for editorial cartoons and can’t tell you how often I’ll see a meme that necessitates me opening that Word file, finding the same idea and deleting it.

The holiday season will see a lot of cartoonists combining masks, sanitizer, and distancing, our now universal COVID clichés with all of the traditional Christmas ones we trot out every year, trying to be original, but ultimately failing. This dominating news story isn’t going away soon and having to find a way to draw something new about COVID-19 day after day after day after day…it’s exhausting.

I know this cliché cartoon coincidence will happen again and it will bother me as much as it did this morning, but will probably go unnoticed by most, except for other cartoonists.

Cheers,
Patrick

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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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No Small Thing

In the winter of 1998, my wife Shonna and I took a trip to Las Vegas.

It was the early days of the internet, so we booked through a travel agent, which is why we ended up at the Treasure Island hotel. A pirate ship battle in the lagoon multiple times every night? What’s not to love?

My friend Bruno took care of our cats, and I asked him if there was anything he wanted from Vegas. He said a friend of his had brought back a glass skull beer mug from the same hotel, and he wanted one of those. I was happy to oblige.

In 2010, I began going back to Vegas on my own each year for the Photoshop World Conference. After hearing my stories about great food, whining that I was always too busy to do anything while I was there, we decided to return to Vegas for a vacation in 2013.

We stayed in a suite at Mandalay Bay, I introduced my foodie wife to some restaurants, and we had a great time. We went to the shooting range, took an open cockpit biplane flight over the Hoover Dam, and went skydiving for the first time, the highlight of our trip.

One day, we took the bus to the other end of the strip and made a day of walking back to our hotel, stopping in at restaurants and attractions along the way. When I saw Treasure Island, I thought about that mug and wondered if they had skull shot glasses.

I’m not a big drinker, but my spirit of choice is amber rum. In keeping with the whole pirate-rum thing, I’d long wanted a skull shot glass, a silly but harmless indulgence.

They didn’t have them, and I was a little disappointed.

Fast forward a year or two, and we were in a gift shop on Main Street here in Canmore, with a visiting friend. While wandering the shelves, I laughed when I came across a set of four skull-shaped shot glasses, right in my hometown. I bought them on the spot.

These days, if I wanted them, I’d probably go to Amazon and yep…set of 4, less than $25.

I like my story better.

Dumpster fire, steaming pile of…er…manure, train wreck, these are just a few of the phrases I’ve heard to describe 2020. The pandemic has changed the planet.

An optimist might suggest looking for the silver lining, appreciate the little things, realize what’s truly important and learn to live with less. But it’s hard to make that shift when you’ve had your salary cut in half, your kids’ education hobbled, all plans cancelled, and the dark cloud of uncertainty steals the colour from every sunrise.

That’s even if you still have a job.

The thought of a trip to Vegas right now makes me shudder. No thanks.

Putting aside the politics and rhetoric, the armchair epidemiology summit that convenes online every day, and the pervasive rage surrounding any discussion about viruses and vaccines, we’re all hurting and miserable.

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear someone’s story of how this has affected their business, usually in a way I hadn’t considered.

The sandwich shop owner in downtown Calgary who relied on the busy lunch hour crowd that no longer exists. The event auditorium manager, one eye on the empty seats and the other on his bank account. The clothing store owner who was already competing hard with online shopping, now wonders why she opens her doors.

And the gift shop in a tourist town.

These people have families to support, mortgages, rent, debts and face the same uncertain futures as everybody else.

When one business fails, and another and another, then communities fail. For want of a nail and all that.

As a self-employed artist, a profession that has traditionally been synonymous with financial failure, this year has been the same kick in the crotch for me like everyone else. I’m fortunate that I’m still able to pay the bills, but it’s a good thing we can’t go anywhere because luxuries are not in the budget.

Every time I send out a newsletter or marketing post this year, it feels a little like panhandling. I know that many other business owners, both home occupation and brick-and-mortar, feel the same way. It’s hard to make the ask when you know money is tight.

I’m fortunate to have what I consider a large following of supporters, many of whom have been cheering me on for years. I appreciate those folks now more than ever, not just the ones who buy my artwork, but all of them. Some days, they simply give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning and keep trying. That’s no small thing.

Most business owners feel the same way about their loyal customers, clients and supporters.

I get that Amazon is cheaper, has free shipping and easy returns. I know that Costco, Walmart and similar behemoths offer a convenience you can’t find anywhere else.

I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I shop at these places, and I will continue to do so. They employ people in the community, too, but they’re not in danger of going under anytime soon. Amazon doesn’t need your money.

Small businesses and the self-employed are struggling. This year will be the last for some of them. Many of those businesses employ others, and when the closed sign goes up on the door for the last time, those people will be looking for work, where there’s no work to be found.

Communities are an intricate web of connection. When you start cutting threads, it falls apart.

Small businesses support local events, community initiatives, school programs, sports teams and a whole lot more. They are continually asked for donations of product, time and money. While Amazon does give generously to charities, they’re not going to supply the coffee or hot dog buns for your kid’s hockey tournament.

So here’s today’s pitch.

Support small business.

It’s trite, cliché; we hear it all the time. I know.

Support small business.

I’m not saying do all of your shopping locally. Paying $50 for something at a local store that you can get online for $20 when you’re already financially strapped, that’s a hard sell.

But how about one or two things, especially for this year’s holiday season? Buy a gift with a story behind it, include a note about the excellent service at the little store where you bought it. Buy a gift card from the locally-owned coffee shop, the one where the owners have greeted you by name for decades, ask about your kids, and how you’re holding up.

And not to be too obvious, but how about buying from an independent creative type? We’re all over the place.

Give a gift as you’d want to receive one, with some thought and effort. Spread some good feelings in a time when we could all use it.

To quote from Bon Jovi’s latest offering, “When you can’t do what you do, you do what you can.”

Living in Alberta, I hear many angry people talking about how Canada has turned its back on Canadian oil, buying from other countries. While I’m sure it’s more complicated than a Facebook meme (it always is), I understand that sentiment.

It’s hard not to be frustrated when Canadians choose not to support Canadians.

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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
Sign up for my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

If It’s Broke, Fix It

Taking the summer off from promoting my business was an uncomfortable decision.

Covid-19 was the catalyst, but this period of reflection was overdue. I’ve been uninspired, bored with my own art and writing, unable to maintain the pace.

In 2005, I had been working as an Office Admin for a small physiotherapy clinic here in Canmore, spending early mornings, evenings and weekends drawing editorial cartoons. Eventually, that part-time side hustle allowed me to quit my job and become a full-time artist.

It seemed like a big risk, but not massive. We decided that if I couldn’t pay my half of the bills, I’d just get a part-time job. There were plenty of them available.

I’ve had a pretty good run as an editorial cartoonist for the past two decades. It afforded me the ability to try other art-related avenues, one of which became the evolution of my career, painting my funny looking animals.

I’ve never lost sight of the fact, however, that the foundation of my profession for the past twenty years has been an industry afflicted by a slow and terminal cancer. To expect that I will be drawing editorial cartoons in ten years is almost fantasy.

Then again, I said the same thing in 2001, so what do I know?

We pretend to be masters of our own fates, but we’re notoriously bad at predicting the future. Who had Global Pandemic on their schedule for 2020?

As one might expect, those first years were a struggle. I often went into overdraft on my business account and couldn’t afford many luxuries. I did get a part-time job working at a local DVD rental place (remember those?) but not because of the money. I needed to get out of the house and one of the perks was free movie rentals. This was in the dark ages, kids, before streaming video.

I enjoyed the experience for a year, but working until 11:30 some nights, then getting up at 5:00 to draw quickly lost its appeal.

There were some in my profession who figured the next evolution in the craft would be animated editorial cartoons.  I invested in Flash software, training courses, royalty free music, learned how to record audio, and spent countless unpaid hours creating those things. During a federal election one year, all of the big Canadian media outlets wanted to run my animations on their websites, but in a sign of things to come, almost none were willing to pay for them.

I even had a weekly series called Big Plans, where a cartoon beaver in a suit and tie, talked about the week’s political events, complete with cutaway scenes. It was an animated version of the Daily Show or Rick Mercer Report, without interviews and not nearly as funny.

It took about twenty hours a week to create each one, and I only got paid a small amount for a handful of them.

I didn’t like the work much and wasn’t a very good animator. I was more relieved than distraught when it came to an end. But I took the risk, and invested the time, on the off chance that it might pay off.

There have been a few ventures like that, but I’ve learned something from each, lessons for the next idea. Eventually, one of those tries became my whimsical wildlife paintings, changing the course of my life and career. As Steve Jobs once said, you can only connect the dots in hindsight.

When COVID-19 landed on us, a lot changed for most people in a short amount of time. All in the same week, several of my newspapers told me they could no longer afford to pay any freelancers. A temporary layoff, but nobody could say for how long. That was at the end of March. Only one of those papers has hired me back.

This year was supposed to be a big one for my painted work, building on the momentum of my newest license with Pacific Music and Art. I was beginning to see (and hear about) my work being sold in stores all over the place. With multiple re-orders, more retailers signing on and word getting out, 2020 should have been a leap forward.

I don’t need to explain why it wasn’t.

Thankfully, Mike at Pacific Music and Art had the foresight to see the coming demand for face masks and that my paintings would work well on them. I put in late nights, even earlier mornings, and long days preparing the images while still drawing the same number of cartoons for about half the clients.

Promoting, packaging and shipping the masks, plus the paperwork and bookkeeping, it was exhausting. Add in the uncertainty of the pandemic, both the health and financial repercussions, and burn-out was inevitable.

Thanks to my newsletter followers, I filled two large mask orders, and a third smaller one, the revenue helping to shore up my other losses. Pacific Music and Art is now selling the masks wholesale to retailers and individual customers can order directly from their site. I’ve received photos from people who’ve bought my masks at The Calgary Zoo. They’re also available at Shopper’s Drug Mart here in Canmore, stores in Banff, plus a bunch of other places in Western Canada and in the Pacific Northwest.

Those sales now will mean revenue later this year.

I did a couple of successful print promotions, launched my 2021 calendar, and have gotten used to this new reality. You thought I was going to say normal, didn’t you? I think we can all agree, that ship has sunk. We need to build a new one.
This frenzy of activity, adapting daily to more potholes than road, I had no gas left in the tank. I was still meeting my cartoon deadlines, but painting was a slog, and it felt like anything I’d write would be crap, even before I put my fingers to the keys. My past work seemed like garbage and I was circling the drain.

When you spend year after year creating art, promoting it, trying to sell it and come up with something better every day, taking time off from promoting it feels irresponsible.

I like to work. I don’t do well with too much time off. I’ve got a friend who has been talking about his retirement for years and finally managed to do it before he was 60. Unless something radical changes in me in the next ten years, the thought of not working does not appeal to me.

At this stage in my life, looking down the road, retirement to me would mean the freedom to only do the work I want to do. But I still want to work.

My biggest fear is that something will happen that will prevent me from being able to create, paint, and write. I dread the thought of an injury, an illness, a cognitive deficiency, something that will rob me of my abilities or mental faculties.

On report cards when I was a kid, common teacher comments were “doesn’t pay attention in class” and “not living up to his potential.”

It’s ironic that I’m now wary of not having enough time to reach that full potential.

Last year, my friend Jim and I were sitting on a deck of a cabin we rent, looking out at the pasture. In front of us, there were two windows in the covered section, but to the immediate left, the deck is wide open. A wasp was repeatedly bouncing off the glass, trying to get through.

I don’t recall if I said it or if Jim did, but we both connected with the message. “Boy, if that’s not a metaphor for life.”

All that wasp had to do was back off, turn left and fly six inches to freedom. Instead, it just kept bouncing off the glass.

Jim credits that moment with his decision to finally retire.

I took it as a message to rethink where I’m putting my energy.

There are many ways to reach your goals but beating your head against an immovable object isn’t one of them.

I’m already getting up early every day, working hard. I rarely take a day off and when I do, I still somehow manage to squeeze in something related to my business. It might be taking photos, doing some writing, reading trade articles, but that’s only because I enjoy my work and the creative pursuit. I don’t know how to separate the two, so I don’t try.

That also means there is no extra time to do more. It’s such a cliché, to work smarter, not harder, but clichés have longevity because they contain simple wisdom.

Maybe it’s because he was younger, with seemingly more time ahead of him than I’ve got. But, there’s a lot of water under the bridge between me and the guy who said, “well, if I don’t make enough money, I’ll just get a part-time job.”

I feel like I have a lot more to lose than he did.

He didn’t know that editorial cartooning would provide him with a good living for the next fifteen years. I know for a fact that it won’t provide me with another fifteen. Failing to course correct for that reality would be short-sighted.

I remember somebody telling me once to cup my hands together as if I were holding some water within them, then to squeeze my hands into fists and asked, “what happened to the water?”

When you hold onto something too tightly for fear of losing it, you lose it anyway.

During the past two months of promotional hiatus, I completed a few paintings, wrote quite a bit in a fiction novel I started this year, drew the usual editorial cartoons, listened to podcasts, read books and articles and I worked. My computer died suddenly one night, which I’ll talk about in another post, and I had to get a new one built. I got away to the cabin for a few days, took some pictures, and hid from the tourists who have flooded this valley all summer.

And I asked myself some hard questions.

“Where do I want to be in a couple of years? Five years? Ten?”

“On what am I wasting a lot of time and effort that doesn’t get me there?”

“What marketing opportunities am I missing out on?”

“If I stopped banging into the glass, backed up, took a breath, and looked around, what might I see?”

For the first couple of weeks, I felt like I’d forgotten something, that nagging feeling like I’d left the stove on. I’d become so used to posting on Instagram, sharing stories, scrolling through other people’s stuff. It ate up a lot of creative time.

When I finished a painting, it felt strange not to immediately size it for the blog, create a closeup, write a post about it, share it on Instagram with all of the hashtags, tell a story, write a newsletter, share that, then wait to see what kind of reaction I might get.

Promotion and marketing, it’s part of working for yourself. It’s necessary if you want to make a living with your art or whatever you create. You must sell it. But taking this break made me think about how I’m doing that.

Do I need to share it as soon as it’s done? Would it matter if I waited a day? Maybe two? Do I have to immediately write about it? Does it have to be immediately shared on Instagram?

The answer to these last questions is No.

One marketing opportunity I’ve decided to explore is to offer an audio version of some of my blog posts, starting with this one.

I’ve had several people tell me they like my writing, but some get the newsletter and realize they haven’t the time to read it, They put it aside for later and never get back to it.

I hear ya. Happens to me all the time. But if there’s an audio version, it can be downloaded and listened to at your leisure.

An audio version allows followers to consume the content the way they want to. From what I’ve read, it increases followers and site interaction, which directly translates to sales.

Will that kind of marketing work for me? I have no idea, but I’ll give it a try.

As for those other questions, they’ll require a longer view, some percolation in the old melon. Not quite as deep as “Why am I here?” but not so shallow as, “Peanut butter? Or jam, too?”

The break was worth it and I will do it again.

Whether you read this, or listened to it in the new format, thanks for making the time. One thing I’ve never forgotten in this roller coaster life of being creative for a living…it wouldn’t happen without you. 

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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
Sign up for my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.