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A Different Kind of Canada Day

Drawing an editorial cartoon or illustration for Canada Day is usually fun, and most of the time, without controversy.

This year, however, with all we’ve been through living with the virus and coming to terms with the darkest parts of our nation’s history, July 1st will no doubt be a day of reflection for many.

With the discovery of more unmarked graves at former sites of Indian residential schools, Canadians are once again coming to terms with our past.

We have long pretended that we walk the high road, especially when comparing ourselves to other countries. We have prided ourselves in being polite, friendly, and first to come to the aid of others in need, even when we weren’t any of those things.

But we were never on firm ground while walking that road because we’ve always known our own history, even when we chose to ignore it. These graves might be new physical evidence, but what went on at residential schools was never a secret.

In 1922, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce wrote a whistle-blowing book entitled “The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice for the Indians of Canada.” He had submitted a report in 1907 to the Department of Indian Affairs that was largely ignored.

It wasn’t until 1958 that Indian Affairs regional inspectors recommended the closure of all residential schools. The last one didn’t close until 1996.

One of the most overused clichés surrounding Remembrance Day in Canada, when we remember our fallen service members on November 11th, is the phrase ‘Lest We Forget.’

It has become more of a tagline, something companies can put on their ads, and individuals can share online because they’re supposed to. It almost feels like saying ‘Bless You’ when somebody sneezes, a courtesy without meaning. It’s just something you say.

But Lest We Forget is important. It’s about remembering your past so that you don’t repeat it.

Despite our bad habits on social media, where we are quick to point out the failings of others, comparing our best traits to their worst, there isn’t one of us who would have all of our past sins laid bare for public scrutiny. We are fallible and damaged; we are human.

We tear down statues and spit on the ground when we say the names of the architects of the residential school system, but we conveniently forget that Canadians elected these people. Many of those native children are alive today, and they’re not as old as you might think.

This is not ancient history. It happened in our lifetime, much more recently than the world wars we remember each year without fail.

We point the finger at our past leaders and say that they should have done something, but that’s the easy way out. It’s also easy to blame the current leadership and say that it’s their fault, but most of the time, that’s simply partisan politics. We switch political parties in this country more than we switch vehicles.

A hundred years from now, our descendants will not look kindly on our inaction. Such is the luxury of hindsight.  Our behaviour during the pandemic, how we treat our most disadvantaged citizens, our obsession with moral grandstanding on social media, and our disregard for the threat of climate change, the ground on which we stand is indeed shaky.

But we can change. We can have more empathy for our fellow travellers. We can try and put ourselves in another’s shoes before passing judgment on the narrow snapshot we might see of them. These are choices.

Some municipalities have cancelled their Canada Day events, others are going ahead with the party, and more are still on the fence. Individuals must decide for themselves.

I don’t agree with scrubbing away our history, nor do I support daily self-flagellation. Neither accomplishes much of anything. We should know our nation’s past, reflect on it, and learn from it.

Remembrance is not just about the wars we won, but our collective history as a nation, the good and the bad.

Lest we forget.

© Patrick LaMontagne

 

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Standing Room Only – Find Your Audience


Finally writing this post makes my day because I’ve wanted to share this news for quite some time.

Most artists hate marketing. Hell, most people who are self-employed hate marketing. While it’s a necessary evil to let people know what you have to offer, self-promotion often feels like begging.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

I’ve written a few posts over the past several months on David duChemin’s impact on helping me expand and improve my marketing. What I haven’t shared is that in addition to a couple of incredibly informative personal calls, David has been working hard on a new course called Standing Room Only.

I’ve been part of a group of a dozen or so creatives who’ve taken and completed this course in recent months.

Regular readers will know how little respect I have for business promotion on social media. It has been indescribably frustrating how much energy, time, and money I’ve spent on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram over the years, receiving very little in return.

As David wrote in one of his recent Audience Academy e-mails, “I’m on social” is not a marketing plan.”

Regular followers of A Wilder View have seen some of the changes I’ve made in recent months. The fact that I no longer call it ‘my newsletter’ is just one of them.

The colouring pages, free wallpapers, positive changes to my website and online store, the new look to A Wilder View and a sharper focus on where I want to take my work — all of that is thanks to David and this course.

And I’ve just barely scratched the surface on the changes that are coming.

NONE of this course is flowery self-help crap, nor is it empty “you can do it” motivational pablum. David isn’t offering a list of tips and tricks; he’s teaching a perspective and offering a viable alternative to spinning your wheels on social media.

It’s not about getting people to just give you their money; it’s about serving your audience, to make them want to follow your work because you’re giving them something they can’t get somewhere else.

We all complain that so many businesses have forgotten about customer service, and I agree.

I remember Shonna and I going to a restaurant in Calgary a few years ago for lunch. Our young server was attentive, efficient, friendly, and it was remarkable how that stood out as unusual.

We told her how much we appreciated her efforts, and she started to tear up, telling us how much she needed to hear it. Because get this—she was having a bad day!

What was she like when she was having a good one?!

Her gratuity reflected our appreciation, and I made a point of finding her manager before we left to tell him how her efforts were responsible for our positive experience.

The food was good, but I don’t remember what we ate that day. I do remember that we felt like valuable customers.

THAT’S how I want my followers to feel, that their experience here matters to me.

David’s Standing Room Only course is all about teaching people how to do that.

I am not being paid to promote the course, I don’t get any kickback if you say you heard about it from me, and there is no affiliate link you need to click.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money reading books, articles and watching videos that promised results and delivered nothing, ones that talked about how to outsmart the social media algorithms, how to trick people into buying your work or employ various cheesy used-car sales gimmicks.

This isn’t that.

This is about changing how you look at promoting your business, taking a long view of where you want your work to take you, and how to invite people to come along for the ride by making it fun for them, whether they buy something or not.

I’m promoting this course because it’s hands down one of the best investments I’ve ever made in my business. And when I say investment, I mean time, money, and effort. Because I won’t lie, this course is a lot of work, and David doesn’t sugarcoat that.

Anything worthwhile is work.

But it’s rewarding work. I’m actually about to go through the resources again because I already need a refresher. There was so much information.

Now, I could go on and on, but I’ll wrap it up because if you need this — and if you’re a self-employed creative, you need this! — I’ll let David speak for himself on the Standing Room Only course site. Let me assure you, it may sound too good to be true, but he delivers more than what he’s promising.

It even comes with a money-back guarantee, and he’ll stand by it. Take the time to watch the video and read through the site. Please invest that much. Enrollment closes this Friday, so do yourself a favour and take a look. And if you know an artist, maker or creative, do them a favour and send them the link.

Cheers,
Patrick
© Patrick LaMontagne

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Bias and Bighorns

Driving back to Canmore from visiting a friend in Exshaw, I came around the bend to a massive herd of bighorn sheep. There were 40-50 of them on both sides of the secondary highway and a handful crossing from one side to the other. Thankfully, I had plenty of time to slow down and navigate the obstacle course of rams, ewes, lambs, and the four or five tourist vehicles stopped to take pictures.

Watching for wildlife on highways around here is routine. Rarely have I made that ten-minute drive without seeing one or two sheep.

When I got home, I sent my buddy a text about the largest herd I had ever come across, and he was unimpressed. Like many Exshaw residents who work in Canmore, he’s made that commute for years, so bighorn sheep along the highway are more annoying than enjoyable, especially when winter renders that road more treacherous.

Along with that stretch of highway, you can often find these critters around the junction of Kananaskis and Smith Dorrien Trails on Highway 40 and on the Lake Minnewanka loop outside of Banff. But they can pop up anywhere.

It can present problems with traffic jams and often-shocking displays of poor judgment, but tourists love to see wildlife, and it’s a big part of the allure of the Canadian Rockies.

While I have lived in one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet for almost thirty years, wildlife is a big draw in many parts of the world. Each has its hierarchy of popular species.

Everybody wants to see a lion or elephant on an African safari, but few have shelled out the big bucks just for a wildebeest or zebra.

Shonna and I are frequent visitors to Vancouver Island, and the big-ticket item there is whales, preferably humpbacks and orcas. Our friends own a wildlife tour company in Ucluelet, and while they usually see plenty of animals on their cruises, they’ve had to be specific that they can’t promise whale sightings. Any company that does, it comes with a caveat; the guarantee usually means you can come on the tour again for free.

Guides know where they’re most likely to find the animals, but luck and timing play a big part. Wildlife doesn’t punch a clock.

Eagles, otters and black bears are a welcome sight out there — sea lions, seals and seagulls, not so much. Large fat sea lions congregate on docks causing costly damage for fishing boat operators and municipalities, requiring inventive countermeasures to keep them away. Sea lions are lazy, noisy and they smell nasty.

However, as a tourist, I’ll happily snap photos each time I see them, and I’ve painted more than one. Not surprising that they weren’t popular prints.

Back here in the mountains, the big sighting for tourists is bears, preferably a grizzly. And if she’s got cubs, well, that might as well be a lottery win. Conservation Officers and Park Wardens spend a great deal of time shooing tourists away from these situations. Summer ‘bear jams’ are common around here, sometimes leading to confrontation.

When a tourist and a stressed bear have a bad encounter, they don’t shoot the tourist.

Wolves and moose are high on the list, followed by pikas, marmots, pine martens, and other elusive smaller critters. But somewhere in there, you’ll find elk, bighorn sheep and deer, animals that aren’t difficult to find. While still exciting for tourists, locals are used to them, and they’re often the reason for traffic delays, or worse, injuries and fatalities from collisions on highways.

For many locals, these animals are a prime example of familiarity breeding contempt. I would imagine the feeling is mutual.
I’ll still take pictures of elk, bighorn sheep and deer, but it’s not nearly as much a thrill as it used to be. I didn’t stop when I came across that herd the other day, despite a safe pullout parking lot close by, but I have before. The reference for this painting was a photo I took at Lake Minnewanka a few years ago when I had explicitly gone searching for bighorn sheep.

While browsing my reference archive the other day, looking for something to paint, I opened that folder with low expectations. An image caught my eye, though, and I thought, “why not?”

Sure, he’s grinning, but the expression isn’t genial like many of my other whimsical wildlife pieces, and that’s by design. He’s untrustworthy and up to something. I wouldn’t turn my back on him. When I asked Shonna for a critique, she complimented the artwork but was less enthusiastic than usual about the subject. When pressed, she simply said, “I don’t like bighorn sheep.”

Clearly, she’s not alone.

But he was fun to paint.

© Patrick LaMontagne

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The Musing Meerkat

Many artists I know have multiple shelves full of art books. I only have about a dozen of this type of book. Any more than that and some would probably never get opened more than once. As it is now, the ones I have only leave the shelves about once a year. But I’m still tempted to buy every time I see a new one.

Some notables include The Art of Tangled, a favourite animated movie, Drew Struzan’s Oeuvre, and Sebastian Kruger’s Stones. And I’m not even a Rolling Stones fan, I just enjoy Kruger’s study of them.

One of the things I love is the sketches and smaller illustrations peppered throughout these books. They’re usually unfinished doodles, sometimes chicken scratches, often looking like last-minute additions to fill up too much white space. But this accent art is deliberately and carefully chosen to compliment an illustration or story.

I enjoy seeing the bones of an illustration, the gestures, the rough idea, where the artist might have begun and what changed between the concept and finished piece. You can learn quite a bit from what the artist discarded.

I’ve long wanted to do an art book, but it’s always over the next hill.  You readers that have been with me for years (thank you!) will recall my mentioning this once or twice (probably more). I could make any number of excuses, but it’s a pretty easy truth to admit — I haven’t made it a priority. There are plenty of stories in my more than a decade of blogging about my art, and I’ve got much more finished work than I need to fill a book. Hell, I even have a publisher who wants to make it happen.

So the failure to launch is all mine, a victim of fear, perfectionism and procrastination. I have visions of boxes of books in my garage, gathering dust for years.

However, even if I conquer the imposter syndrome, one ingredient that is still missing is all of those little sketches and rough illustrations that I enjoy so much in other art books. I barely have any.

Even though sketching for fun, drawing from life and for practice has long been proven to make an artist’s skills better, I haven’t been in the habit of doing so for many years.

Almost all my work ends up being a finished painting. I spend a lot of time beforehand planning it out and choosing the correct reference. I experiment while I’m painting, but all of it leads to having a fully rendered piece done at the end of each beginning.

One of the reasons I bought an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil was that I wanted to do more digital sketching. The procreate app is an incredible bit of software. It’s better for digital drawing and painting than Photoshop was for most of my early career. Plenty of artists are doing finished work on it, some impressive stuff.

But I haven’t been using it as often as I thought I would, at least not for drawing.

I recently went through my photo archives and grabbed a bunch of reference I liked, but not enough to contribute to a finished production print. I uploaded many of these to the iPad and promised myself that I would make more time for sketching, drawing and painting that I may or may not show to people, but eventually, they might be good accent pieces for an art book.

I started on this meerkat earlier this week. I got it to a point where it was a decent sketch, and I could have put it away and started something else. But I was having so much fun with it (dammit!), I didn’t want to stop.

Before I knew it, I was painting in little hairs around the ears and muzzle, adding finer detail work,  and experimenting with a different brush style. While not quite as refined as some of my other work, this could be a production piece.

And because procreate has a great feature where you can record every brushstroke, I could export that, edit it, add some music and voila — a high-speed short video with some fun music to go along with the brush strokes.

Once again, I have failed at creating some rough sketches but succeeded in having some more fun rendering a funny-looking animal painting. I’ll call that a win.

As for sketching, I’m probably going to have to set a time limit — 10, 20, or 30-minute sessions, and I have to stop when the buzzer goes off.

Otherwise, I’m just going to keep painting.

Cheers,
Patrick
© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Close Encounters of the Bear Cub Kind

DISCLAIMER: Don’t EVER approach bears, bear cubs or animals in the wild.

Earlier this week, Shonna and I were thrilled to be invited to Discovery Wildlife Park to meet their latest adoptees.

Bos and Piper are two Kodiak cubs from the US who needed a new home. While they’re not siblings, they are the same age, three months old today. The amount of paperwork and regulatory hurdles required to rescue these cubs from an unsustainable situation, especially during this unprecedented time of COVID, was monumental.

Our friend, Serena, the head keeper at DWP, has been around animals her whole life. With her staff’s help, she has raised quite a few bears, wolves, and other animals in need of rescue, ones that couldn’t be rehabilitated and returned to the wild.

Discovery Wildlife Park, the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre and the Calgary Zoo, are places I support and the Alberta Institute of Wildlife Conservation, which rescues, rehabs, and releases animals back into the wild. I have no real interaction with the last one, aside from a monthly donation. To be released back into the wild, the animals need as little human contact as possible.

We would like to believe that this could be a world where no animal would ever need to live in captivity, but that would require sacrifices most of us aren’t willing to make. Our addiction to excess is one of the main reasons for disappearing wildlife habitats around the world.

With almost 8 billion people on the planet, each with our own opinions, vices, and levels of acceptable compromise, nothing is ever as black and white as we would like to believe.

Co-existing with wildlife is a never-ending discussion. There are strong opinions on both sides of the argument, from the average person on the street to nature and conservation experts, each speaking from their own experience and perspective. And those experts rarely agree. Unfortunately, there’s often more talking than listening, and the middle ground is mainly unpopulated and devoid of footprints.

I’ve personally wrestled with the issue for many years and will continue to do so. I’ve asked the hard questions from the dedicated people who work in these places. While the answers aren’t always the ones I’d like to hear, I believe they’re doing the best for these animals in their care and that their intentions and motivations are honourable.

I’ve seen how the animals interact with the park staff for years now, their evident trust and affection. I wouldn’t support any facility that didn’t treat its animals with respect and kindness or contradicted my wildlife protection values.
It’s with no small amount of gratitude that I enjoy such a close relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park. Their allowing me close contact with the animals over the past several years is a profound trust I don’t take lightly.

I’ve taken thousands of reference photos at the park, which has allowed me to create some of my best work. But I’ve also learned an incredible amount about wildlife, their behaviour, medical and dietary challenges and their profound intelligence.

Discovery Wildlife Park sits on 91 acres, fenced and double-fenced in places. There is a forested shallow ravine on the western edge of the property, complete with a flowing creek. As this area is inappropriate for any structures, it’s largely untouched and remains natural. This is one of my favourite photos of Berkley from one of our excursions in this little forest a few years ago.

When they’re small, many of the animals spend plenty of time in these woods, where they can run, explore, climb trees, eat berries, and play.

On the day that Shonna and I visited, the cubs were teething, as traumatic for animals as humans. Along with the physiological problems that accompany teething, there’s not much that can be done for the pain and discomfort.

We watched Piper have a full-on meltdown for about a half-hour, bellowing and bawling her way through the woods. She was cranky and having a bad day, reminding me of a child throwing a temper tantrum in a supermarket. It was just as uncomfortable to watch, but Serena wasn’t concerned, as it’s all part of being a baby. Piper eventually exhausted herself and went about exploring, playing and climbing trees.
The following morning, I sent Serena a text asking how Piper was doing.

“She is a happy girl today.”
Bos was much more subdued, a little lazier, but curious and seemed to be enjoying himself as he chewed on trees, dug in the dirt, and wrestled with his adopted sibling.

Just like people, they have their own unique personalities. As my only other experience with a brown bear cub is Berkley, the differences are remarkable. Berkley rarely vocalized, whereas these two are talking all the time. Piper was so named because she’s got a real set of pipes on her.


Though she’s always had an overall genial way about her, Berkley went through a bit of a rebellious teenage phase where she would push Serena’s buttons to test her boundaries. It’ll be interesting to see how these cubs grow into their personalities.

Presently, they require constant care, familiar territory for Serena and the staff. It will be some months before the cubs can spend any significant time alone. There’s little time off for those who care for animals, but I’ve never heard them complain. It’s a demanding but rewarding lifestyle.
In the hour and a half we were out in the woods with the cubs, I took just under 1500 photos. With bright sunshine and dark shadows, the lighting wasn’t ideal. The bears were often between me and the sun, so I didn’t get as much light on their faces as I would generally like. Hard to complain, though, since I was watching bear cubs play in the woods. I wanted to take some video, but it was too much to handle and would have ruined the experience.



As I don’t like hoarding photos, I’ve already gone through them all and kept just over 100. Most are shots I simply liked, the ones you see here. But I did get about a dozen that I think will be the seeds for future work; there are two paintings in there for sure.

We didn’t get to visit Berkley this time around for a couple of reasons. Her large enclosure is on the far side of the park, and they’re doing a lot of work right now getting ready for their season-opening. Most importantly, the animals thrive on routine, and right now, visitors aren’t part of that, so there’s no need to confuse her.

I’ll have to return often this spring and summer to spend some time with her.

If you’d like to watch the cubs grow up, you can follow Discovery Wildlife Park on Facebook and Instagram, where they regularly post photos and videos. They can only care for these critters thanks to the generosity of donors and visitors during the summer season, so if you’re in the Innisfail area, consider stopping in to check it out. It’s easy to keep your distance from others with plenty of outdoor space while still enjoying all that the park has to offer. They open May 1st, and annual memberships are available.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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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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Grizzly on Grass

Yet another painting of Berkley, but for marketing reasons and the potential implication of that goofy grin, I’m calling it Grizzly on Grass.

Aside from their efforts to rescue and take in orphaned animals, one of the things I love about Discovery Wildlife Park is their focus on enrichment. In the wild, animals are kept busy searching for food, defending their territory, and making miniature versions of themselves.

While captivity is never ideal, the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park would likely have been destroyed due to the circumstances that brought them there in the first place. Those circumstances are usually us, people who have either directly or indirectly prevented them from surviving and thriving in the wild.

The animals at the park can’t be rehabilitated and released, either because laws prevent it or they were too habituated already, which is why they needed to be here.

With 91 acres on the property, the park can provide the animals with large enclosures, complete with natural structures, clean ponds and water features. The black bears and Berkley can dig their own dens each year, or they’re given structures they can use if they choose the artificial route. It’s incredible how each bear has a different preference.
They’re provided with as much hay as they want to pad the dens for warmth and comfort. I remember Serena (the head keeper and good friend) sending me pictures and videos the first year Berkley dug her den. Berkley took the hay inside, then came out and dropped a little at Serena’s feet, asking for more, which of course, they gave her. Some bears do get up during the winter, even in the wild, but Berkley has always slept straight through.

If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you’ll know I have a special place in my heart for Berkley. I was able to get to know her when she was weeks old and had many visits with her in the first couple of years. Discovery Wildlife Park has a large, wooded area where she could climb trees, splash around in a creek, play in the snow and wander around as she liked without any danger.

The personal contact I had with her when she was a cub created a lasting bond, and when I visit her now, she knows me. If I go to one end of her considerably large enclosure and call her, she’ll come from the other end to visit, and we’ll hang out together on either side of the fence. We can’t have close contact these days because even though she’s a very gentle bear, I’m intimidated by her size. My nervousness creates an unknown safety issue.

The park staff are incredibly dedicated and care a great deal for the animals in their care. You need only talk to them and watch their interactions to realize the trust between them. When an animal dies from medical complications or old age, it hits them all hard. They work hard to give the animals the best life they can, despite their captivity.

Survival is no longer a concern for these animals. Their diets and health are continually monitored, and they receive top vet care. The problem with captive animals, however, is that without constant stimulation, they will get bored. As a result, the animals get plenty of enrichment opportunities.

The structures in their enclosures are often changed around, diversions hidden in strange places, along with additional food. It gives them something to explore and dig out. There is a large forested fenced amphitheatre area that acts as another natural playground. The bears and wolves are taken in often and allowed to run around as they like. Not together, of course. There are many rock structures and ponds for them to play around in, with room to run. This new environment gives them plenty of stimulation, and they seem to enjoy it a great deal.

There is a high cost to maintain this type of facility, and they’re always looking for new revenue streams to help. In addition to the gift shop, campground, and winter RV storage, they rely on donations and sponsorships to keep the doors open. If you’ve ever seen the vet bill for a jaguar’s arthritis stem-cell transplant or a root canal, you’d understand.

“I’m in it for the money,” said no zookeeper ever.

When they built the amphitheatre area, they had the foresight to install a fence along one side, with large enough holes along it for camera lenses to poke through. They regularly host small groups of photographers to come and take photos of the bears and wolves in their playground. It’s an opportunity for the animals to play and for the park to raise funds to care for them.

In September of 2019, my buddy Derek, a skilled tattoo artist and painter, and I went up to Innisfail to participate in one of these photo sessions. While I enjoyed taking photos of the wolves, as I always do, I’ll confess that my main focus was Berkley. I just can’t get enough time with her.

The problem is that because she knows me, she kept coming over to the fence to say Hi, which means nobody could get any photos. Serena kept having to call her back. She finally gave me shit and said I was never going to get any pictures if I kept talking to her. I had to turn my back and retreat so Berkley would go back to enjoying the natural playground.
Once she did, we were able to get some great photos. She has a natural smile and brightness in her eyes. People often remark on the personality I create in my paintings. It’s almost like I don’t have to add any with Berkley because it’s already there. She remains my favourite subject to paint, and I can’t imagine I’ll stop anytime soon. There’s just something in that face that makes me happy.

Even though she played in the water, scratched and climbed on trees (she’s tough on trees), Berkley looked over often, and I had to be careful not to distract her. But it meant that I got some great pics of her looking right into my lens, including the reference for this painting.
I didn’t want to stop working on this image because I enjoyed it so much. Even though the finished painting is a horizontal composition, I painted it vertically to get the expression right. I’ll confess that if I get this printed for myself, a distinct possibility, I’d hang it vertically above my desk, so that goofy grin can greet me every morning.

I’m looking forward to seeing Berkley again soon. She’s up from hibernation and gaining back the weight lost during her winter slumber. Every year I wonder if she’ll still know me, but she always does, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world.

If you’d like to support Discovery Wildlife Park, you can donate or buy an annual membership on their site. They open for the season on May 1st and will be happy to see you. You can buy my prints in the gift shop and see some of my artwork around the park. Be sure to take part in their daily education talks about how to be safe in bear country and help contribute to wildlife conservation, no matter where you live. Ask plenty of questions. Education is a big part of why they do what they do.

© 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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Sea Turtle

Years ago, I belonged to an organization called the National Association of Photoshop Professionals. I’ve talked about this group quite a few times before and likely will again, simply because it had a profound impact on developing my skills and career. I can attribute a lot of my success to my involvement with NAPP, and its biannual conference, Photoshop World.

The best part about that group was the community of members. From hobbyists to professionals, it was a group of supportive creatives interested in becoming better artists and helping others achieve the same.

There was an active online forum where photographers, graphic designers, illustrators and other visual artists would hang out, ask questions, share work, and invite critiques.

Occasionally, you’d get the odd malcontent, but it was an incredibly positive group of people for the most part. Whether or not I’m biased in my nostalgia, I’ll never know, but that’s how I remember the experience, and I miss that community.

Many of us referred to each other by our forum aliases more than our real names. To this day, some of them still call me Monty, a nickname first given to me in the Army Reserves (La-MONT-agne). My Dad once told me that had been his father’s nickname in the military.

Some longtime readers might remember that my blog’s original name was Monty’s Muse.

I still keep in touch with some of those people, usually an email exchange here and there, though not as often as any of us would like, I’m sure. Former NAPP members have hired me to paint their pets, bought prints and face masks, and some still supply me with reference photos for paintings from time to time. While my first choice these days is to take my own photos, I don’t have access to some of the animals I want to paint.

One of those former NAPP members is PapaBob from Florida. Despite Bob’s skill with a camera, photography is his side gig. One of the nicest guys you’d ever hope to meet, he was one of the most supportive and genial people on the forum, always willing to help out a fellow creative.

Bob has been a supporter of my work for many years. He has bought big canvases for his law office, given my work as gifts and ordered face masks this past year. At the beginning of this month, Bob sent me a Happy New Year message, and we had a bit of catch-up over email. I mentioned that I still planned on painting that sea turtle, hopefully sooner rather than later.

You see, Bob is a scuba diver and takes fantastic underwater photos. I don’t remember how I first asked for them, but I suspect it might have been when I was still on Facebook. About six years ago, Bob gave me some excellent sea turtle photos for painting reference. While it’s true that I can sit on photos for some time before I get to painting them, this sea turtle has been an exercise in procrastination.

When I told Shonna about my enjoyable email exchange with Bob, she asked me why I hadn’t painted the sea turtle yet, considering that the reference was so good. I realized that I’ve been making excuses for fear of not doing it justice.

She suggested I stop putting it off and get to it, and I couldn’t come up with a good argument against it. I decided I’d waited long enough.

This was easily one of the most challenging paintings I’ve done. I don’t know how many hours I put into it, but it was more than usual. I tried a few different compositions, initially a simple gradient water background, but that just ended up looking like it was flying in the sky. I added water bubbles, but those seemed too cartoony. Finally, I decided to mimic the environment in Bob’s photos, which is close to what you see here. The background suggests vegetation, but any more detail would have distracted from the turtle. The animals in my pieces are the main focus.

I’m pleased with how this turned out and glad that I finally got around to it. Had I painted it five years ago, though, I don’t think it would be as proficient a painting, as I’m always trying to improve my skills.

Thanks for the photos, Bob. I couldn’t have done it without your help. And thanks to all of you NAPP folks who’ve helped and supported my work, way back then and in all of the years since. You remain some of my favourite people, and I miss seeing you online in the forum and in-person in Vegas. We had some great times.

Up next, I’m painting a commission of a wonderful looking dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback. I’ve got some great photos to work from, and the client wants it in my whimsical style, so this should be fun.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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A hippo, a dog, and a giraffe walk into a bar…

Whenever I start a new painting, I put pressure on myself that it needs to be a finished piece, suitable for prints and licensing. A consequence of that narrow focus, however, is that I don’t leave any room for practice pieces, which are often enjoyable.

Practice pieces are valuable for a few reasons. It keeps things loose and allows me to try new things without any pressure. If the painting ends up being unappealing, it’s no big deal. But sometimes, while working on a practice painting, I might see more possibility in it than I did when I first started. And if I get good feedback on a practice piece, that might spur me on to turn it into a finished painting. Some of my most popular paintings aren’t my personal favorites, so I never know what people will like.

My first Grizzly painting was an experiment. My ostrich painting was a practice piece on the iPad, but Shonna wanted me to finish it. Both paintings are still popular.

While looking for painting ideas last week, I went through a bunch of photos in my archive, pictures I’ve taken over the years that I might not have chosen as reference for a finished piece. When I’m choosing photos for practice pieces, however, I suddenly have more options.

A fully rendered painting usually takes me 10-20 hours to complete. I’m painting a sea turtle right now and it’s a lot of work. It’s proving to be time consuming to paint the patterns on the skin and the shell. I’m enjoying it, but it’s meticulous detail and will likely take a minimum of three weeks to complete. Working on practice pieces at the same time, each taking about two or three hours, means I get a break from that piece, allowing me to return to it each time with fresh eyes.

Finally, practice pieces give me more images to share and if I ever get around to creating an art book, I’ll be able to choose from a larger collection of work.

I took the reference for the hippo at the Calgary Zoo.
When I took the reference for the Bernese Mountain Dog, my camera was actually full of owl pics. A couple of years ago, Colin from the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre was in Canmore with some of his birds for an annual education event in the fall at the Civic Centre. He was holding a Great Horned Owl on his arm and this dog was very interested, both animals locking eyes on each other. The dog’s owner had a tight grip on the leash, but Colin didn’t seem too concerned. I don’t know who would have won that altercation, but my money was on the owl.

Here’s a one minute high speed video of the last practice piece, a giraffe from the Calgary Zoo, with a little musical accompaniment. I had to force myself to stop working on this one and I’ll admit to being uncomfortable with posting it, as it’s still quite rough. I already know that I’ll likely finish this piece as I think there’s more personality yet to show up and I was enjoying the work.

With thousands more reference photos from which to choose, I expect I’ll have more practice pieces to share soon enough.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt