Posted on 4 Comments

Swimming Upstream

Here’s a little duckling I finished painting this morning. The duckling itself wasn’t difficult, but the water certainly was. Ironic that I began this year with a commission piece where water was also the hardest part of that painting. There will always be room for improvement in any artistic pursuit, so I welcome these unexpected challenges. The work might become boring without them.

When I first began creating digital art more than 20 years ago, there was a common misconception that if you used a computer, then the computer was doing all the work. Press a few buttons, apply a filter or two and anybody can do it. There was also a ‘look’ to a lot of digital art. It was far too smooth, with a blurry airbrushed look, and it all looked the same. Plenty of amateur artists still make this mistake when they get started. After hearing more than enough of this (anything but constructive) criticism, I worked hard to make my work look more like traditional acrylic or oil textures. That effort paid off because I developed a textured brush style evident in all of my work today. People are still surprised to find out my medium of choice and will often say that it doesn’t look digital.

For the water in this painting, however, I had to go backwards, and paint with that smooth, airbrushed look I have deliberately avoided for so many years. Texture in the water would not only have looked wrong, it would have distracted from the subject of the piece. It’s the contrast between the detailed hair-like feathers of our little friend and the water in which he’s swimming that makes the duck stand out.

This is the final cropped composition for this painting, but I painted more water than you see here. As most of my paintings end up on licensed products, I painted more of the background to allow for different Pacific Music and Art templates. On some of my older pieces, I’ve had to repaint entire sections to accommodate items like coffee mugs and different-sized aluminum prints.

These days, I keep that in mind while painting a piece. It means more work that most people won’t see but less of a headache when I format the painting for more than a dozen different items in their catalogue. Art (and artists) must be flexible when the work is destined for commercial products.
I took the reference for this painting four years ago from the boardwalk that winds through the Policeman’s Creek wetlands here in Canmore. Easily accessible for people of all fitness levels, it’s located in the middle of town and might as well be an urban park. It’s a pretty walk, a nice shortcut from where we live to downtown Canmore, and preferable to walking on the sidewalk of a busy street.

You might think I’d be happier taking photos of bears, wolves, eagles or other more exciting animals, but I’m just as content to spend an hour chasing around a family of ducks with my camera. You never know what critter might end up in a painting.

Only a couple of days ago, I realized just how few paintings I’ve completed this year. I painted the commission of Santé in February and finished my elephant painting in March. In addition, I’ve painted a couple of burrowing owls that are part of a larger piece, but this duckling is only the third finished painting, and the year is almost half over.

Considering I usually produce 10 to 15 pieces each year, I’m well behind where I’d like to be. Of course, one could argue quality vs. quantity, but as this work is a big part of how I make my living, I try to balance them.
The reason for fewer paintings is no mystery. Despite the dramatic decline in the newspaper industry, it’s still a big chunk of my income, and I’m unable to put off or set aside my daily editorial cartoon deadlines. As a result, those take priority every day and painting time is often sacrificed for the cartoons.

On the animal art side of things, I’ve been more occupied this year creating new products, filling and delivering print orders, planning and attending Expo and more local markets, all things that have been on hold the past couple of years. I’m not complaining that I have more sales and increased opportunities to put more work into the world, but it illustrates that art for a living is an illusion.

I don’t spend as much time creating the work as I do promoting and selling the work.

We all struggle with finding enough time to get it all done, whatever ‘it’ is, and most often fail in the attempt. Unfortunately, knowing the solution is simple doesn’t make it any easier.

Saying ‘No’ a lot more often than ‘Yes’ to requests and demands goes against most of our instincts to be friendly, help people out, and put others’ needs ahead of ours. But when it means sacrificing what is most important to us, whether time with our family, the pursuit of hobbies, recharging and relaxing, or time to paint more funny-looking animals, nobody else will make that time for us.

These paintings are a lot of work, but it’s work that I love a great deal, so it makes sense that I’d want to spend more time doing it. I’ll try to remember that for the second half of this year.

Cheers,
Patrick

Posted on 6 Comments

Setting the Table for Expo

The Calgary Expo is a monster event, beginning on a Thursday afternoon and ending Sunday evening. Pre-pandemic, close to 100,000 people came and went through the doors for four days. It was once the 6th biggest Comic-Con in North America, still growing before the world swerved drunkenly into traffic.

Attendees include comic, toy, art, and pop culture collectors. Movie and television fans pay additional fees to line up for signatures, photo ops, panel discussions and talks from invited celebrities. Calgary attracts some very big names, which draws in more people.

One year, the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation attended, resulting in absolute chaos. The Fire Marshal eventually shut it down with so many people inside that you couldn’t move. Thankfully I wasn’t a vendor that year. Organizers rewrote their rule book the following year.

In 2014, the cast of Aliens was a big draw, resulting in one of my favourite memories, when the late Bill Paxton ended the show by intentionally overacting his most famous movie lines on the intercom. Exhausted vendors suddenly woke up from packing our booths, cheering and applauding the gesture.

Cosplayers spend countless hours creating incredible outfits, from elaborate body paint to 3D printed helmets and armour of pop culture, movie, TV, animation and comic book characters. For example, my former employer spent weeks creating the most realistic Chewbacca costume you’ll ever see, complete with stilt extensions and an electronic voice box. He was a big hit at the show.
Truly an all-ages, family-friendly event, it has consistently been one of the most positive experiences I’ve had each year. The people-watching alone is worth attending, and the whole event has a circus feel.

In fact, they even have a signature parade in downtown Calgary called POW! Parade of Wonders on the Friday (although Expo is open Thursday evening) to kick it off. I’ve never seen it live because I’m always prepping my booth for the day. But it sure looks like people are having fun. This was from 2019.

Retailers include comic book stores, T-shirt vendors, book publishers, and every kind of nerdy pop culture collectible under the sun. Then there is the art. There’s so much quality art that it would take more time than I’ve got to catalogue it all.

Artist Alley is a section unto itself, with more affordable booths for creatives to sell their prints and other items. Many are hobbyists building an audience, though some have built a large fan base and do quite well.

The large halls of the main building are divided into 10 x 10 booths, with some larger companies occupying several. Naturally, these Retailer booths cost more, but increased space and traffic translates to more sales.

Having worked my way up from my first booth, more of a table really, in the now-retired Small Press section, I’ve been in the Retailer section for several years. In my last year in 2019, I had a corner booth on a main thoroughfare, a prime location that I had earned through seniority. I have no idea where I’ll be this year as the floor plan is likely to change and they haven’t released any information yet.

No matter how many times I prepare for this event, it’s a logistical gauntlet. For best pricing, booths are usually booked a year in advance on the last day of the previous Expo. I booked my 2020 booth in April of 2019, so they’ve had my money for three years. Even though they responsibly offered refunds several times during the pandemic, I wanted to keep my booking and priority.

The booth space shown here was bigger than I was used to as the vendor next to me no-showed. So I was able to spread out a little bit, as did the guy on the other side. It’s usually more compact.
Neighbouring vendors form temporary communities at these shows. We watch each other’s booths for bathroom breaks, might do a coffee run if one of us is going, and we talk during set-up and slow periods. I hear a common question: “How did you do today?”

A frequently heard answer, especially from people who don’t do this for a living, is, “I’ve covered my booth costs.”

If that’s your only goal, and you’re doing this for fun or a side hustle, that’s important. The booth fee is usually the most significant expense, but it’s certainly not the only one.

My corner booth costs $1228.50. Despite overall bright lighting in this venue, having my lights on my artwork and banners makes it pop and attracts more attention. So, I rent power for my booth, another $134. Parking for the five days (including Wednesday set-up day) is $65, and my car stays in that lot from Thursday to Sunday.

If I were doing regular shows, I’d get a blanket policy through my insurance provider to cover all of them. All it takes is one person to bump the wrong thing and fall in your booth, or if something from your display falls into an aisle and somebody trips over it, the vendor could be liable. Of course, nobody thinks it will happen to them, but it’s not worth the risk in our litigious society. So, I get vendor insurance for this show through the venue, which costs $64.

Canmore is only an hour away from downtown Calgary when there’s no traffic, but getting in and out of the grounds with everybody else adds a lot of time. I wouldn’t get home until 10 PM at the earliest Friday night and would have to leave by 7 AM the following day to make it back. Add in the potential for a spring snowstorm, which has happened more than once on this weekend, and commuting would be a gamble.

So from Thursday to Sunday, I stay in a hotel. It’s six or seven blocks away from the venue, and I walk back and forth each day. That’s $470 all in, with the Expo rate.

I don’t have a big appetite these days, and I stay away from the high-fat food trucks. Instead, I eat breakfast at the hotel, pick up a healthy lunch at Sunterra market on the way to the grounds each morning, bring trail mix snacks, fruit and cheese from home, and then grab a late takeout light dinner on the walk home to eat in my room. I used to attend the odd networking event at this show, organized by Calgary artist collectives. They were fun, but I prefer winding down in a quiet hotel room. These are long, loud days with many people, and that always takes it out of me.

My food expense for the weekend is usually around $100.

In the late 90s, I worked at a hotel in Banff. For a couple of those years, I was an accounting clerk. Later, I worked as an office admin for a physiotherapist here in Canmore. Through these jobs, I became proficient with Microsoft Excel.

Shonna is an Excel wizard and loves putting data into a spreadsheet. It might sound boring, but it’s a great skill. We each keep our own finances, but there are no mysteries in our household budget for the joint expenses. She’ll spend hours tweaking those numbers to make sure everything gets paid, money is set aside for savings, and ensure that we still get to live a life.

So for Expo a few years ago, we sat down and built a spreadsheet to find out exactly how much it cost to do the show.

My booth might cost $1228.50, but before I sell anything, the initial costs add up to almost twice that, and I haven’t even mentioned creating a booth and filling it with stock.

The most considerable expense of building a booth is in the first year. I didn’t make any money the first two years I did this show, and the second year I barely broke even. I’ll buy one or two new display items to improve things each year, but if you take care of your equipment, almost all of it is reusable.

Here is a list of some of the display materials and equipment. Grid walls, corner braces, wall coverings, hangers, lights, lightbulbs, power bars, banner stands, banners, two folding tables, tablecloths, table riser, magnet boards, coaster/sticker display risers, print display bins, print storage bins, storage rack, canvas/metal cases, floor mats, office supplies, toolbox/tools, cargo dolly, business card holders, display easels, and a bunch of other minor stuff.

In the beginning, this whole show was cash transactions. The rule was to bring lots of small bills for your float. Very few sales are cash these days, and everybody wants to use TAP. My handheld terminal costs $20/month to rent, but it’s well worth it. But like any other retailer in the world, the banks and credit card companies take a small percentage of every transaction.

That’s to build a temporary store for those four days. Then, after that, I need to have items to sell.

Before I sell a print, I pay a printer to produce it, order a backer board to protect and make it presentable, order art bio labels for the backer board, and a cellophane sleeve. Every print comes with an initial cost. It’s the same for the large metal prints, canvas and stickers. For the coasters, magnets, calendars, small aluminum prints and anything else I get from Pacific Music & Art, I buy those from Mike. I get them at less than wholesale because he doesn’t have to pay me a royalty on products I buy for myself.

Every item breaks down on that Excel spreadsheet. From what it cost to buy it to what I sold it for, and in the final column is the profit from that one item. I track everything I sell during the show, writing each transaction in a notebook. Then, I enter it into a spreadsheet on my iPad in my hotel room at the end of each day. Finally, I enter each day into the more extensive spreadsheet at the show’s end.

From the total profit of each item sold, I deduct the hotel, parking, electrical, insurance, and food costs. Only then do I know if I made any money.
That explains the hard costs, but what about my time?

Coming up with an hourly wage for self-employment is almost like mixing math and philosophy. Building my art skills took decades; painting each piece took many hours, and the whole collection of whimsical wildlife paintings has taken 13 years so far. There wouldn’t be any prints, coasters, magnets, calendars, and other items to sell without all of that. So, how could I come up with a value for that time?

I recently spent an hour redesigning my booth in Photoshop, creating scale pieces of the different items and moving them around for greater efficiency. Does that count against time spent?

What about the intangible benefits from the show that can’t be quantified?

Each year, I meet new people and introduce them to my work. If they don’t buy something the first year, they might buy something next time. I’ll get new subscribers to A Wilder View, so maybe they will buy something later or share my work with their friends. I reconnect with people who already like my work and come back to see me year after year.

How do I enter those benefits on an Excel spreadsheet? The simple answer is I can’t, but they’re still valuable.

But for the costs that can be recorded, it’s essential to know what you’re getting out of it and to be honest with yourself if it’s worth doing.

This show has been financially well worth my time and effort for years. But, I’ll admit that significant changes to the show before 2019 had me rethinking whether I would do it again. When the ‘little Expo that could’ sold to the multi-national Fan Expo, now a subsidiary of Informa, it lost the local community feel and it has become a colder corporate event. As a vendor, I used to feel like a valuable participant, friendly with the organizers and happy to see them each year during setup. Now, I just feel like a number on a sheet, easily replaced.

But that turned out to be my most profitable year, and I was pleased with the return on my investment. While I’ve lost any connection with the organization, I still had a great time with my customers and fellow vendors. So, I booked again, unaware that the next two years would change everything for everybody.

I have no idea what to expect this year. As I post this, there’s still no floor plan published, I don’t know my booth number or move-in details. Eight days out, that’s concerning as far as confidence in the overall organization. It could be a great show, with record attendance and people buying a lot of my art. Or it could be quiet, folks reluctant to gather in groups, still financially shell-shocked from the last two years, and just browsing. It will likely be somewhere in between, but that’s still a big range.

I won’t know until Monday, April 25th when I run the numbers.

Cheers,
Patrick

Posted on 2 Comments

Levelling Up

Here’s the fourth burrowing owl in the series, which will be part of a larger piece featuring multiple owls in different poses. I don’t know how many owls yet, and I only have a rough vision of it.

Though I’ve only been to the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale a couple of times, spending two days on each visit, I’ve also seen them on several occasions here in Canmore.

Before the pandemic, The Town of Canmore used to host a WILD event at the Civic Centre. It featured everything from hikes, art activities, educational talks about the environment, etc. Colin Weir and his daughter Amy would bring their ambassador birds to the event, featuring four different owl species and a golden eagle named Sarah.

It allowed the public to get up close and personal with these owls, learn about the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation’s great work and raise funds for the non-profit organization.

I’ve taken thousands of photos of these birds over the years, and even though I’ve only kept the best of these shots, I still have hundreds in my well-organized archive. Every time I go through these photos looking for my next painting, I often think it a waste to have so much reference that I’ve yet to use.

While most of my whimsical wildlife paintings are single animals in a portrait-type pose, I enjoy the challenge of putting multiple animals in a composition and creating a scene.

There’s the Two Wolves painting where it looks like they’re sharing an inside joke. Another is the three cougar cubs laughing together in Snow Day. One of my favourites and still a very popular painting is One in Every Family, a scene I painted in 2014 featuring four great horned owls.
Part of the reason I love that painting is the story behind it. That painting won the Best of Show award at Photoshop World that year, but the prize for that win was my Canon 5D Mark III camera that has become like an old friend. I baby that thing because it has helped me take the reference that allowed me to paint my best work in the years since.

That owl piece began as a practice experiment. I took several photos of the family up at Grassi Lakes over multiple days, and the experience was more about seeing these wonderful birds in the wild than creating a painting.

I did some individual sketch paintings from better shots than I expected to get. Eventually, I put those rough paintings together and invested the time to render the finished piece above.

Having painted more than 100 production pieces since 2009, I’ll often go through my photo archive and have difficulty deciding what to paint next. Lion? I’ve painted a few of those. Wolf? Several of those. Eagle? Raven? Black Bear? Many of each.

I could quite happily paint Berkley the brown bear repeatedly for a year, and I have more than enough references. But a variety of popular animals is more desirable, to find something new that will be appealing to me and be of interest to my customers and licensing clients.

There’s the difference between art for a hobby and art for a living.

So, when I repeatedly came across dozens of burrowing owl photos, many of which are the same owl, this little fella named Basil, I wondered what I could do with them.
And that’s how I ended up creating a folder called Next Level Projects. About a year ago, I spent a whole weekend going through my photos looking for animals for which I had plenty of reference; that would also look good in a painting featuring a group of them.

The first is going to feature these burrowing owls. I’ll paint several of them individually, like the one at the top of this post. Then, when I have enough, I’ll move them around on a larger digital canvas, come up with a scene, and spend time painting over them, ensuring the light matches up and they look like they belong together.

From a business perspective, each one of the owls will lend itself to an individual painting on different items. For example, Pacific Music & Art could have a set of six burrowing owl coasters, all of which are also part of the same painting in a print. It would work for stickers and magnets as well. But the larger painting, featuring all of them, would work well on a coffee mug, as it’s a longer horizontal layout.

Because I’ve been painting these animals for thirteen years, many in the same popular format of the headshot composition, the routine has started to creep in, and it’s a little concerning. I’m not tired of this work; I still enjoy it immensely. But as the recent commission piece taught me, and the latest elephant painting, it needs to continue to be challenging, or I’ll get bored of my work.

Paintings featuring multiple animals feels like the next step, and I’m focusing on creating more of those this year.

I’ve long wanted to do a painting featuring several meerkats. There’s one I keep coming back to with multiple ring-tailed lemurs, too. I’ve already got titles for both and a lot of reference. And I have so many baby pictures of Berkley and the new cubs at Discovery Wildlife Park that I’ve long wanted to put multiple brown bear cubs in one painting.

I’ll still paint the single animal pieces because I have several in mind as well, but these multiple-animal pieces will present an ongoing challenge to keep me excited about painting.

So instead of sharing as many finished paintings with you this year, I’ll likely be sharing pieces of finished paintings and the stories behind these next-level projects.

In the meantime, I’m always open to suggestions. So, if there’s an animal you’d like to see me paint, let me know in the comments. There is always the chance you’ll come up with something I haven’t considered. Or if you’d just like to tell me which one of my many paintings is your personal favourite(s), that helps me decide on future paintings, too.

Cheers,
Patrick

Posted on Leave a comment

Eagles and Reality TV

Late last month, a subscriber sent me a link to a live cam of a bald eagle nest on Big Bear Lake, California. She has a cabin on this lake.

These cams exist all over the place; there’s one of an osprey nest just down the road from me. I took to this one because of the story of the breeding pair, Jackie and Shadow, and the beautiful scenery in which they live. The image quality and camera placement is fantastic; it switches to infrared at night, providing a clear image without disturbing the eagles. Their nest is 145 feet high in a Jeffrey Pine Tree.
I’ve been checking in on them every day, sometimes more than once, as it lets me scan backward several hours to see if I missed anything good. I only end up watching a few minutes each time, and I’ll admit to preferring the scenes where both eagles are in the nest, which is usually only a minute or two.
Jackie laid her eggs in January, and ‘pip watch’ begins next week. Jackie and Shadow haven’t had a successful clutch the last couple of seasons, so hopefully, they will this year. But, unfortunately, nature can be pretty brutal, and life isn’t as rosy and fairy tale as we’d like to imagine. There’s no guarantee that these eggs will produce healthy offspring that survive to leave the nest, between predators, the elements, and all that can go wrong. That makes those that do even more of a wonder.

The information shared on this camera space by Friends of Big Bear Valley is extensive, as is the commentary in the sidebar chat. While I’ve not participated in that conversation, I’ve learned a lot from reading through it.

I’ve enjoyed watching the two eagles switch off incubating the eggs so the other can go eat, fending off marauding ravens, and interacting with each other. The chatter between them when one flies in is amusing and fascinating. That tree also gets rocking when the Santa Ana winds blow over the lake. A snowstorm blew in fast and heavy last week, and while the eagles certainly didn’t look like they were enjoying themselves, they handled it well.

I didn’t see them complaining about it on their phones, at least.

 


© Patrick LaMontagne

Posted on Leave a comment

Wilder Reflections

Last year, I created a video of the paintings I created in 2020. I enjoyed sourcing the music, creating pan and zoom features for the images, editing and putting it together. So I spent some of the day on Christmas Eve putting together another one for this year and had fun with it.

Watch it on full screen and turn up the volume for full effect. And if you like it, feel free to share it.

My personal favourite paintings from this past year are Grizzly on Grass, John Dutton and the Sea Turtle. I have been reminded often in my career that the ones I like best, however, aren’t always the most popular with subscribers and customers. But that’s art for ya.

As this will be the last post of the year, please accept my sincere thanks for continuing to follow, support and share my work. I’m incapable of expressing how much I appreciate it.

Very few people get to make a living from their art, and I’m well aware that it can go away instantly. Many of you have been hanging around this virtual studio for many years, and I’m grateful for your company. You frequently respond to my Wilder View emails with such encouragement and compliments, and when I’ve gone through dark times, you’ve often sent messages of overwhelming empathy and compassion.

To all of you who display my whimsical wildlife on your home and office walls, fridges, filing cabinets, coffee tables, put it on your phones, laptops, and vehicles, wear it on your bodies and faces, have bought it for yourselves, your friends and family, or commissioned me to paint your pets, Thank You hardly seems adequate.

These past two years have been difficult for everyone, and we’ve all responded to it differently. I’m going to keep this positive, so I won’t go down that rabbit hole. But I’ve heard and read quite often that this pandemic experience has spurred a lot of people to make overdue changes in their lives.

Some are leaving jobs where they’re unappreciated. Others have reached the limit of what they’ll endure from toxic relationships. Many are realizing that life is too valuable to spend on unimportant crap. I’ll be trying to find the courage to walk more of that talk in 2022, and I hope you do, too.

This ain’t over yet, but fingers crossed it will be soon. Until then, when you have the choice between joining the mob in rage and conflict, or extending a hand of support and kindness, please choose the latter.

Here’s to a better year ahead for all of us.

Cheers,
Patrick

 

Posted on Leave a comment

A Christmas Bear

Whenever there was a turning point in an 80s movie, you could expect a music montage. Whether it was rebuilding a classic car, a group of rebellious teens learning to dance, or the karate tournament advancing to the final match, an upbeat song helped the story jump through time without making the viewer watch all the actual hard work.

Did you really want to see the protagonist standing in line at the auto parts store to get an air filter for the ’67 Camaro he’s restoring?

It often takes many days or weeks to complete one of my whimsical wildlife pieces, and I enjoy most of it. Drinking hot black coffee, tunes in my earbuds, I’m quite content to spend hours at a time painting tiny little hairs on a wolf’s muzzle or adding texture detail so the sea turtle’s skin looks real.

But if you were watching this work over my shoulder, I guarantee you would be bored out of your mind.

My buddy Derek is one of the most incredible tattoo artists you’ll ever see. When I hang out at the shop, I’ll often lean over his shoulder to watch. His linework is ridiculously precise, and I’m fascinated at the silky-smooth colour gradients he achieves with a tattoo machine. But eventually, it gets boring. He’ll often have clients that sit for hours all day for three days straight.

I just want to see some of the work in progress and the finished piece.

I’ve been creating time-lapse videos off and on for many years, and even though they can add hours of extra work to a painting, they’re fun to put together.

Sometimes I’ll record a voiceover, something inspirational for other artists, or relevant thoughts on the piece. Over the years, I’ve done a few of those for Wacom, the company that makes the tablets and displays I’ve been using since the late 90s. While I still love their products and will continue to recommend them, the best days of that working relationship are likely behind me now.

Most corporations are still chasing the likes and shares on social media, whereas I am not. I have no designs on becoming an Instagram influencer. I’d rather spend that time creating more art.

The time-lapse videos I enjoy most are the short ones with a musical accompaniment. These days I have a monthly subscription to Epidemic Sound, and it allows me to find the right track to go with a painting, regardless of the mood I’m trying to set.

I record the first part of the video over my left shoulder with my DSLR camera. I must keep in mind that the camera is beside me on the tripod, careful not to bump it. Because I’m recording a digital screen with a digital capture device, it also creates lighting problems.

Movies and TV shows will often add device and monitor screens after the fact in editing because it’s so difficult and time-consuming to record them with a camera.

But people like to see my hand holding the stylus, moving around the display.

For the rest of the video, I use Camtasia‘s screen capture software. I’ve been using it to record and edit since I created my DVDs ten years ago, and it works well.

But when I get down to the smallest of hairs in the painting, making subtle shading changes, and applying catchlights to the wet skin of the nose or around the eyes, it eventually becomes difficult for the viewer to follow the cursor.

And finally, our attention spans keep getting shorter. With slot machine scrolling on our phones, multiple tabs open on our desktops and pinging alerts going off all around us, holding somebody’s interest is a challenge.

I used to record four- or five-minute time-lapse videos, but most people won’t sit through those anymore, so I try to keep them under two minutes. Of course, it means there are significant jumps in the painting’s progress and detail, but it works.

People just want to see some of the work in progress and the finished piece.

Cheers,
Patrick

P.S. As always, feel free to share the video, with my thanks. That goes for anything else I post on this site as well.

Posted on Leave a comment

A Portrait of John Dutton

When I’m not drawing and distributing daily syndicated editorial cartoons, I’m painting whimsical wildlife portraits for prints and licensing. Add in the usual office administration, marketing, writing and everything else that goes along with self-employment, and that’s pretty much how I spend my days.

However, I enjoy painting portraits of people, most often characters from movies. I usually make the time for a couple of these a year, but I’ve only managed this one in 2021.

I’ve often mentioned that I paint these when I’m feeling the need to reconnect to art for art’s sake or when I’m in a low place creatively, but thankfully I’m not feeling that this year. The whole year has been low for obvious reasons, and I just felt like painting a portrait.

I have no interest in painting the publicity or paparazzi headshots of movie stars or celebrities. The less I know about the gossip or their personal lives, the better. Instead, I’m more interested in the characters they play. Those characters are created by skilled writers, directors, and gifted actors, including the supporting cast and professional crews that bring it all together.

When I painted Quint from Jaws, it wasn’t just the actor Robert Shaw I was painting, but the character he inhabited, written by Peter Benchley, directed by Stephen Spielberg and brought to life in a scene with Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider.

I love movies, but we’re living in an age with great television, too, with plenty of writing and acting that can easily go up against any Academy award-winning film.

One of the shows I’ve enjoyed most in recent years is Paramount Network’s Yellowstone. Written and often directed by Taylor Sheridan, Yellowstone chronicles the lives of a generational ranching family in Montana, led by the patriarch, John Dutton.

It’s simply a great show, but not for the faint of heart. If you’ve got issues with language, violence, nudity, sex, lawlessness, smoking, gambling, alcohol, and more, you should seek your entertainment elsewhere.

There are no flawless heroes here. Instead, it’s a family of broken people, each with their dark pasts and demons. One moment they’re prey, the next predators, and you’re never quite sure when they’re right or wrong. But with incredible writing, scenery, and rich characters played by a stellar cast, it’s never dull. I am fulfilled and disappointed after each episode because I must wait a week for the next one.

But I’m glad they dole it out. If they released the season all at once, we’d easily gorge ourselves on it in a few days.

I realized that I wanted to paint John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner, about the middle of last season. Tough as nails, Dutton tries to keep his ranch and family together, while outside interests plot to take it away from him, piece by piece. Even though he knows he’s fighting a losing battle against progress and the future, he won’t resign himself to his inevitable fate.

As often happens when I want to paint other characters, I won’t know what I’m looking for until I see it. Near the end of last season, there’s a scene where Dutton is sitting on his porch, and he looks off to the horizon in the fading light. The moment clicked with me, and I had found my reference, thanks to Cinematographer Ben Richardson’s lighting and cameras.

I painted the scene more sepia tone than the reference, with more contrast, making my own choices for the painting. I like to be inspired by moviemakers and their vision, but I don’t want to create a carbon copy. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I started this painting in July, and I worked on it for a couple of hours here and there whenever I could find the time. I had planned to have it done before the fourth season began this month, but the paying gigs always take priority. So this past week, I put in the last ten or so hours over a few days. With no deadline, there was no reason to rush it, but I also didn’t want this painting to last for too much longer. As much as I loved the work, the best part is calling it done.

If you’re already a Yellowstone fan, I hope you like my rendering of this great character.

If you haven’t yet seen the show, I envy you. You get to start at the beginning with almost four seasons of great storytelling ahead of you.

Cheers,
Patrick

Posted on Leave a comment

Whimsical Wildlife Furniture

While I find it hard to put into words the joy I get from painting my whimsical wildlife, it’s even more gratifying that many others like it as well.

Art is a personal thing. What pushes one person’s buttons might solicit a dismissive ‘meh’ from somebody else. Whether movies, music, painting, drawing, writing, dance, cooking, or myriad other creative pursuits a person can explore, there are more than 7.7 billion people on the planet, each with different gears that make them tick.

My funny-looking animals aren’t for everybody, but they do have a following. And for that, I’m grateful.

( I’m going to apologize in advance if I get any of the following details wrong, Brian. It’s been a weird year, and my memory files might be a little corrupted. )

Brian signed up for A Wilder View at the beginning of this year, but I don’t know when he discovered my work. However, I know that he really likes it, and his kids do, too. Brian has called me a couple of times after finding my work in stores, looking for more.

I know that he has masks, coffee mugs, and other items, but he recently told me he was working on a special project featuring my artwork. You see, Brian is building a coffee table for his son, with a tiled top. What makes this a unique art project is that the tiled surface consists of trivets featuring my paintings.

Brian had already purchased a handful of trivets he found in stores, but he needed a lot more and wanted to know if I could make that happen for him. Since the trivets come from Pacific Music & Art, and I knew that the owner, Mike, would be as intrigued by this project as I was, I put them in touch.

Mike assured me he would help Brian bring his project to life.
Earlier this week, Mike was in Alberta and Saskatchewan visiting retailers and vendors, and family in Calgary. While there, he met up with Brian to deliver his order of 25 more trivets for the table. It was the first ceramic printing for some of the newer paintings.

On his way back to Victoria, Mike met with some retailers in Canmore, and he and I got together to catch up. He shared these photos of Brian’s project so far, and Brian graciously allowed me to share them. The picture shows a rough mock-up, and Brian said the finished project would look different.
That means I can look forward to sharing more photos later, and hopefully, I’ll get to take those myself if I see the finished piece in person. The whole project is incredibly flattering.

Over the years, people have sent me photos of their collections of prints, wearing face masks in different locations, coffee mugs on desks, displays from retail shops and countless messages from all over the world, talking about my funny-looking animal paintings. It always makes my day and motivates me to keep painting more. Thanks for that.

If you’ve got your own photos or stories to share with me, don’t be shy. I’m happy to receive them and would love to share them with others, too.

Cheers,
Patrick

Posted on Leave a comment

Learning, Listening, and Rising Together

Early in this editorial cartoon profession, somebody once told me that editorial cartoons are supposed to make you laugh, think, and hopefully do both. I think it was Terry Mosher (Aislin).

I have repeated that line often. In interviews, blog posts, talks to school kids or simply as an explanation when somebody challenges me on the content of a cartoon.

As we’re all now attuned to our individual offensensitivity meters, convinced that if something makes us uncomfortable, it must be inappropriate; I’ll often get emails chastising me for drawing a cartoon, telling me, “that’s not funny.”

Cartoons aren’t always meant to be.

Several times a year, I’m required to draw cartoons for tragedies, recurring events, serious moments and on topics where any levity would indeed be inappropriate by any metric.

Nobody drew funny cartoons the day after 9/11. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a knee-slapper in any newspaper in Canada on Remembrance Day. And there’s nothing funny about what went on for decades in Canada’s Residential School System.

When the federal government announced that September 30th would mark the first annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I knew I’d have to draw something.

An editorial cartoon isn’t unbiased. I don’t consider myself a journalist. While I do try to consider all sides of an issue, my cartoons are my illustrated opinions. So when you see them on the editorial page, it means the editor shared my opinion or at least thought that many of their readers might.

I can’t just spout off and draw something about whatever might cross my mind. I must consider whether it’s fair comment, reasonably concluded, and if it might get myself or my client in trouble. The standards for your local newspaper are a lot higher than Facebook or Twitter.

When it comes to residential schools, the last thing an indigenous person needs is yet another colonial descendant analyzing their history, whitesplaining it and offering up his conclusions. So, I won’t.

But I still had to draw a cartoon because it’s my job.

I’ll admit that my more serious cartoons have a distinct look to them. Often a more painted illustration, rather than a crisp ink line cartoon, accompanied by some text. Sometimes I’ll use a quote, especially if the cartoon is about a notable person who has just died, some of their own words or song lyrics.

But I prefer to use my own words, a couple of lines to complement the artwork so that the entire piece is my own creation. And these always take a lot longer to draw.

I’ve drawn cartoons about this topic before and wanted to avoid the same imagery. I avoided using the recently revealed Survivor’s Flag, as it felt like I would be appropriating the artwork painstakingly created by those who directly experienced this dark history.

We all have our own ways of connecting to what I call ‘the other.’ For some, it’s through organized religion, or it might be an individual faith and relationship with their god, whatever that means to each person. For others, it might be the connection they feel when they volunteer, do charitable works, or anything that makes them feel that there’s more to the world around them than what they see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

While I don’t believe in a god, heaven or hell, or practice any organized religion, I frequently feel connected to something I can’t define. I most often feel closest to that when I’m painting, and I’m grateful to that something else for granting me the ability and the means to create.

I feel it most when I’m painting my whimsical wildlife paintings. It’s what I imagine Maslow meant when he defined the peak experience.

When I first created my animal art, I called them Totems but stopped the practice a few years ago.

About the change in 2018, I wrote, “What (totem) meant to me was paying homage to the animal spirit meaning of the word. The personality and character I paint in these animals make them feel alive to me. I’ve had some unique and special experiences with animals in recent years and can’t help but feel a connection with them, so it’s for personal reasons that I decided on that name.”

But as I explained in the post, having read and learned more about the difficult conversations surrounding cultural appropriation, I didn’t want the work I enjoy most to be tainted by misunderstanding. I didn’t want to imply or claim any connection to native culture, so I no longer refer to my animal paintings as Totems.

And yet, it’s through this work and these animals where I feel the most tethered to that something I can’t explain.

When I had the opportunity to create this cartoon, I felt that the sincerest offering I could make to this difficult discussion was to combine all my skills into one image.

In much of First Nations culture, the eagle is a sacred image. In my most basic understanding, it represents the closest connection to the creator, and it’s a conveyor of messages and prayers.

To illustrate just how sacred the beliefs surrounding this animal spirit are, it is illegal in Canada and the U.S. for any non-indigenous person to own any eagle parts, including feathers. I’ve learned more about this from my visits to the Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale, Alberta, where they rescue and rehabilitate eagles, among other species. It’s also where I took the photo reference for this eagle image.

Any eagle feathers dropped by the birds at their facility are collected and sent to Alberta Fish and Wildlife. After examination for conservation research and screening for disease, they’re distributed to different tribal councils.

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is about honouring the children who died in residential schools, healing for the survivors and promoting understanding and education about our history. So the eagle image seemed the best fit for what I wanted to say.

Whether it resonates with my editors or their readers is beyond my control. But hopefully, I did my job.

 If not, then I will try harder next year.

___
© Patrick LaMontagne
To find out more about The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, please begin here.

Posted on Leave a comment

Fit to Print


This week, I put myself in a cartoon for the 20th anniversary of The Rocky Mountain Outlook newspaper. Since the beginning, I’ve been the cartoonist for my local paper with a cartoon in every issue, so it’s also my 20th anniversary.

In August of 2001, Shonna and I bought our townhouse in Canmore and moved here from Banff. At the same time, I left the Banff Crag & Canyon newspaper, where I’d been the cartoonist for three years, drawing one cartoon a week for what amounted to beer money.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook was launching, the brainchild of Bob Schott, Larry Marshall and Carol Picard. As editor, Carol offered me the cartoonist position. Then, a short time later, she asked me why I wasn’t syndicated.

Syndication sends the same cartoon to several publications. They pay a fee to run it, substantially less than an original. It’s the reason you used to see the same comic strip page in many daily newspapers or the same Dave Barry humour column across the United States.

At the time, my limited understanding was that an artist had to sign with a syndicate, a company that would act as an agent, send out the work, collect the fees and pay the artist a royalty.

Carol set me straight. When she told me I could do it myself, it was a light through the clouds moment.

She gets tired of me thanking her, but tough noogies. Without her advice, support and mentorship, it’s unlikely that I would be a full-time artist today.

I’ll skip the details of the steep learning curve and logistics, but the short version is that I began creating syndicated cartoons and cold-calling newspapers across Canada. One or two cartoons a week soon became six, plus the local cartoon for the Outlook. In black and white for the first few years, then colour as newspapers made that transition on their editorial pages.

For four and a half years, I worked mornings, evenings and weekends drawing cartoons while working a full-time day job to pay the bills.

In January of 2006, I became a full-time artist, and I’ve been unemployable ever since.

At launch, the other valley papers mocked their audacity. Still, Bob, Larry and Carol soon made The Outlook the paper of record for the Bow Valley, including Stoney Nakoda, Exshaw, Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise. After her partners and close friends both passed on before their time, Carol eventually sold the newspaper. 

Ownership, publishers, editors, and staff have come and gone over twenty years. The only people there for the first issue who are still here today are reporter Cathy Ellis, accountant Donna Brown, and this here cartoonist.

I’ve never actually been staff with my name on the masthead, simply a regular weekly contributor. But I still consider myself part of the paper, as do many readers.

While some believe the newspaper industry is dying or dead, I would argue that it’s experiencing a difficult transition and struggling for footing like many in the internet age. Formerly large daily newspapers compete with Facebook and Twitter, stories shared by people who don’t care if they’re true, just that they support what they already believe.

We’ve become familiar with the term fake news because we must frequently ask ourselves if what we’re reading comes from that deep and polluted well.

Many of these newspaper chains slash and burn their newsrooms to stay profitable or solvent, cutting costs wherever they can. But people pick up the paper for what they can’t get on Google News, National Newswatch or the T.V. News channels and sites.

They pick up their hometown paper for local news and views, the stories that make their community theirs.

People in Ottawa don’t care about a rural town in B.C. unless it’s burning and feeds their addiction to tragedy. Just as somebody in Mayerthorpe, Alberta doesn’t care about the new rec centre in Guelph, Ontario.

But the people who report those stories to the people who care about them are local reporters in local communities. So, when a tiny little paper in rural Saskatchewan only prints stories from the national news wire, it’s no wonder no local businesses want to advertise in it because nobody’s reading it.

Advertisers pay for newspapers. It’s the reason your local community paper is often free. However, when the content within is suddenly uninteresting or irrelevant to the people who live there, it’s hard to convince a business that their customers will see their ad. They might as well be advertising in the Yellow Pages.

COVID has been tough on many businesses, and newspapers are no exception. I’ve made no secret about the fact that I lost syndicated newspaper clients at the beginning of the pandemic. While they all said it would be temporary, only one of those has since hired me back, over a year and a half later.

I’ve seen reporters and editors lose their jobs sacrificed to the balance sheet, and many local papers have become shells of their former publications. One newspaper chain sacrificed all freelance content, then gave the cartoonist spot to one of my competitors for supplying them all with free cartoons for months on end.

Apparently, that cartoonist has never heard that nobody wins a race to the bottom.

A few other papers are now running bargain bin priced syndicated cartoons from the United States. Why would anybody in rural Manitoba want to see cartoons about Biden, Trump and the U.S. Congress each week in their small-town community paper?

Carol, Bob, and Larry started the Rocky Mountain Outlook to create a newspaper that the Valley could be proud of. It has won many awards in several categories, setting the standard for community journalism.

I hope that when this pandemic finally ends –and it will end—that our community and several others once again realize the value and benefit of local journalism and news.

When nobody is left to tell the stories, vet sources, check facts, present both sides of an argument, and provide ongoing investigations into complicated issues, the information we rely on won’t be worth repeating.

We’ll simply be sharing more ranting and raving on Facebook and Twitter by the loudest and angriest among us.

And that ain’t news.

© Patrick LaMontagne