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Write or Wrong

As mentioned in my recent post about painting Quint from Jaws, there’s something about this time of year, I get this panicky, restless, fretting feeling that time is ticking, life is passing by too fast, and there’s so much I need to get done before I die.

There are plenty of problems with that first sentence, aside from the fact that it’s too long.

Right up until sixth grade, I got excellent marks, but then I entered French Immersion, and everything plummeted. What used to come easy suddenly required work.  I was a lazy student, didn’t pay attention, always daydreaming, class clown, none of this should surprise you considering how I make my living.

I squeaked by in high school. Even if I knew the material, I often tanked the tests. My French teacher told me at graduation that I failed my final exam, which made no sense since I was still fluent at the time. She wrote it off as a bad day and passed me with 80%.

In college, I spent a couple of years in Psychology because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I went to class, enjoyed the subject matter (still do), but was put on academic probation my second last semester and wasn’t ‘invited back’ after the last one.

Despite studying, I didn’t do well on the tests.

I suspect it was an issue I have to this day, putting pressure on myself for even the little things, so that during those tests, I would wonder, “What if it’s a trick question? What if I don’t know what I think I know? What if I make the wrong choice?”

That became a repetitive exercise in self-sabotage.

After that, I went to school to become an Emergency Medical Technician. I did well in training, enjoyed the experience, had a successful practicum in Calgary with an excellent preceptor, and despite failing the registration exam the first time (it’s like there’s a pattern here), I received my license.

In the middle of all of that, I spent five years in the Reserves, where I met Shonna. She was also in college in Red Deer, for Hospitality and Tourism, which is why she moved to Banff for her practicum and stayed for the advancement. I moved to Banff after my EMT training to save the failing long-distance relationship and realized I no longer wanted to work on an ambulance.

We were married the following year. Twenty-five years later, there’s no doubt I made the right call.

Between then and now, I worked in tourism and retail, drew my first editorial cartoon in 1998, then once a week for the next three years. I became nationally syndicated, part-time until 2005, when I was able to quit my job working as an Office Admin for a physiotherapist. I’ve been a full-time artist ever since, drawing daily editorial cartoons for newspapers across Canada and painting funny looking animals for prints and licensing.

That’s the Coles notes version, CliffsNotes for Americans.

Despite all of my shortcomings in school, however, I’ve always enjoyed writing. Essays, book reports, poetry assignments, creative prose, I not only liked the work, but I did well at it.

One English teacher in junior high even called my parents to tell them that I must have plagiarized an assignment because the writing was too advanced to be my own. She couldn’t prove it, and my folks backed me up.

To this day, that accusation pisses me off. I hang on to shit. It’s unhealthy.

What most don’t know is that I’ve written two novels. These aren’t ideas, notes, and outlines, but finished books.

I’m not saying they’re any good, but I did the work, spent countless hours for a few years, writing, re-writing, and hashing out characters. I even used up a week’s vacation one year to complete that first book, and when finished, I was pleased with it.  But just like all of those failed tests, when it came time to put up or shut up, I caved.

I only sent it out once and got a charming, encouraging rejection letter.

Rejections are part of the process; the price all writers must pay. I knew that going in, but I never sent it out again. Instead, I wrote another book, and I never even sent that one out once. Both of them have been sitting idle in a drawer and on various hard drives for close to twenty years.
A few years ago, I planned to do an art book, a collection of my animal art and portraits from the past decade or so, along with the stories behind the paintings, of which there are many. I even had a local publisher commit to producing it, one of the highest hurdles in writing a book. It was supposed to come out in 2017.

Since it’s 2019 and there’s no book available on my site, you can guess what happened. I choked.

The material is there, in a dozen years of regular blog posts, thousands of words already written, hundreds of images sketched, drawn and painted, all waiting to be edited, rewritten and put together, but for my crippling self-doubt and failure to follow through.

When I run into that publisher here in town or at the Calgary Expo, there is no small amount of shame, and it requires effort not to hide from him. I’m pretty sure he’s moved on. Who wouldn’t?

It’s basic psychology. A simple fear shared by every creative who has ever lived. If I don’t put it out there, it can’t be rejected, judged or ridiculed.

The irony is that when I started editorial cartooning, the odds were stacked against me to the same degree, if not more. And yet, I still drew three to five cartoons every week for two years, earning no money from it. I came close to quitting many times but kept at it.

The same thing happened with the painted work, albeit to a lesser degree as I was already a working artist, but it took a few years for that work to pay dividends.

There were plenty of rejections during that time, more than I can count. I still get rejections every day, whether it’s because a newspaper runs a competitor’s cartoon instead of mine or somebody picks up one of my prints at the Calgary Expo, puts it back and moves on. I can’t imagine how often that happens in retail stores with my licensed products.

I make my living in a profession synonymous with failure.

So why is writing different?

Part of it is that now that I pay my bills with my creative time, the thought of spending it on something unlikely to make money, it just feels irresponsible. I could spend two hours painting or drawing an editorial cartoon, or I could spend two hours writing. Two of those options will put food on the table.

That’s the trap of being creative for a living. When you first start, it’s just great to be creating. Then it’s thrilling when somebody wants to buy what you’ve made. When you realize you can make a living at it, well, that might as well be a lottery win.

Until one day, you reach down to scratch an itch on your ankle and realize there’s a shackle and chain around it. Suddenly it isn’t that you get to create, but that you have to create, as much as you possibly can. Otherwise, it’s back to one of those real jobs.

So when I think of writing a book, whether an art book or a novel, it feels like wasted time. It feels like risking the tangible paying creative work on a pipe dream that is only so much smoke.

The reality is that most writers never make any money from it. The stats don’t lie. For every Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Malcolm Gladwell, there are millions of others who will spend their lives writing words that nobody will read.

Over the past year, I’ve felt the urge rising again. I’ve got multiple notebooks on the go, rewrites of the first two books, one for the art book and a new one that has been rattling around in my head. I think about the last one every day.  It’s a good idea, a book I’d want to read, but aside from taking notes, I haven’t written a word.

I’m just afraid it’s gonna suck.

If somebody doesn’t like an editorial cartoon or a painting, I can easily chalk that up to preference. Hey, you don’t agree with my opinion, you don’t find it funny or resonant, or my artwork isn’t for you. That’s art for you, and I’m okay with that. I’ve got close friends and family who don’t like my work. It doesn’t bother me.

The writing is different. Even with blog posts, which I always seem to find time for, I worry that they’re too self-indulgent or narcissistic or first-person, uninteresting, too long, derivative, whiny, redundant, dull.  I could write negative, self-critical adjectives all day long.

With writing, it almost seems like I’m waiting for somebody to give me permission, some panel of experts who will deliberate and deliver their verdict.

“We’ve discussed your case at great length, read through your blog posts and newsletters, and we’ve decided that you’re just not good enough to write anything of substance. We find you guilty of hubris. Request denied.”

Even as I write this, the critic in my mind admonishes, “wait, you’re not going to post all of this bullshit, are you?”

If you’re reading this, I guess you know how that turned out.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King wrote, “If you write, or paint, or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose, someone will try to make you feel lousy about it.”

For most creative types, the loudest critical voice is usually our own. What I fear more now is not that I’ll write a lot of garbage that won’t be any good, although that fear is ever-present, but that I’ll think about it for another twenty years without writing anything.

Better to risk being a bad writer than a wannabe.

As always, finding the time for anything new is a challenge. Editorial cartooning and painting are each hard enough to make time for, let alone photography, marketing, file prep, bookkeeping, and the other trappings that go along with being self-employed. I do manage to write regular blog posts and newsletters, however, and that’s tens of thousands of words each year.

Since I don’t have kids, I should probably just shut up about not having enough time. Excuses, like opinions, are never in short supply.

One of my favourite movies is Rocky Balboa, the sixth movie in the franchise, written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. You want to talk about writing against the odds; Stallone’s success story with the original Rocky is legendary. How that industry worked at the time, the movie not only should never have been made, but Stallone should never have starred in it. It won multiple awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture.

I’ve watched the movie many times, and there’s an incredible speech about this very thing, letting your fears dictate your path. I’ve included it at the end of this post.

But there is also a scene where the character Marie says to Rocky, “Fighters fight.”

The last time I saw it earlier this year, however, I heard, “Writers write.”

I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

@LaMontagneArt
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Instagram? But you said…!

Late last month, I attended the Calgary Tattoo Show to support my friends at Electric Grizzly Tattoo, the shop I frequent here in Canmore.

I spend most of my working life alone, which can be unhealthy at times, so to have somewhere I can go to hang out with other working artists, commiserate on the bullshit inherent in this business of self-promotion, to decompress and share a few laughs, it’s a wonderful thing. Shonna still jokingly refers to it as my artist support group.

Add to that the constant flow of inspiration watching these people work, these past two years getting to know these artists has been all positive. One of the side benefits from hanging out at the shop is that I get to meet many of their clients as well. These folks are from all walks of life, with diverse backgrounds, from different places, who’ve had myriad experiences, with unique perspectives.

More than a few of them have become my clients, since my work is hanging in the shop as well.

The group discussions in that place have not only been enjoyable, but enlightening. Just recently, one client on one table used to work for CN Rail while another on the next table currently does oil pipeline maintenance. In the midst of a political maelstrom of promises, disinformation and the online outrage of the election, that was one of the most informative (and civil) discussions I’ve had about media spin and partisan politics vs. the reality of natural resource safety, economics and transportation.

It gave me a new perspective and further reinforced that the world isn’t black and white, and the truth in most things is only revealed in the subtle shades of grey.

I’ve met more open-minded and tolerant people at Electric Grizzly Tattoo than I have almost anywhere else in my life. Organized religion and the political party faithful could learn a lot from tattoo culture.

Back to the tattoo show…

I had considered getting a booth at this show to sell my work, with the encouragement of my friends in the business, but I’m glad it didn’t work out. With the pressure of the election, getting cartoons drawn and sent, what it would have involved with stock ordering, prep and prints, the expense of it all, it was too much. I still went to check it out to decide if I might do it next year.

It was a good plan. While I enjoyed the experience, it really wasn’t the right place to sell my stuff, despite all of the talented artists in attendance. It just wasn’t my audience and it was a much smaller show than the Calgary Expo.

One side benefit, however, is that I got to hang out with an incredibly talented landscape photographer I’ve met through the shop. Wes isn’t a photographer for a living, but his landscape photos are some of the best I’ve seen. Wes heads out to the mountains and takes road trips on a whim, regardless of weather, and captures incredibly beautiful scenes.

They’re surreal, moving, ethereal…basically just choose an adjective that says, “this guy’s work is unique.”

While standing in front of a stage for a good half hour, waiting for one of the many contest events at the show, Wes and I caught up. I showed him my latest stuff and he showed me his latest work and I realized how much I missed seeing it.

I left social media quite some time ago because it felt like I was spending more time promoting my paintings than creating them, without having much to show for the time invested. I got sucked into the culture that says you have to be constantly posting CONTENT, even when you have nothing to post, just so that the people who follow you will see you pop up in their feed every day, because the all-seeing, all-knowing algorithm says so.

The likes were never enough, the shares were never enough, and it just made me miserable. When you see some kid posting his lunch every day and he gets a million followers, you kind of wonder if you’re even in Kansas anymore.

I also dislike being on my phone.

But in my hiatus, I’ve realized a couple of things. One, the likes and shares will NEVER be enough. If I get 10,000, I’ll soon be shooting for 20,000, then 100,000, then…well, you get the idea.

The second thing I learned, which is more of a reminder, is that there is no rulebook for being an artist for a living, or for life in general. You just do your best, try to be a decent person, make your choices and see what happens. And you can change your mind.

While I’m confident that I’ve closed the book on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve been mulling over the idea of giving Instagram another shot because of something I didn’t anticipate when I left it in February.

Basically, I miss seeing the work of many artists I admire and that’s how they choose to share it. I’m missing out on seeing work that inspires me. As for my own posts, I’m simply going to share stuff when I have stuff to share, just like on this blog or in my newsletter. I won’t be creating content just to have stuff to post, nor will I be paying to promote anything, because that requires a business account and a Facebook profile in order to pay for it. I might post a painting, then nothing else for two weeks until the next one.

This will mean less people will see my posts, I’ll get fewer likes and shares, but honestly, that kind of thing rarely generated any revenue for me in the first place. When I left Instagram the first time, only a handful of those followers signed up for my newsletter as a result, which speaks volumes about how invested many of those nameless, faceless followers were really interested in seeing what came next.

Everybody talks a good game online.

An art career is constantly changing and when the wind shifts, you adjust your sails and try to hold course, waiting for it to inevitably shift again. Sometimes you seek safe harbour from the storm for a while, other times you stand on the deck shaking your fist, hands tied to the helm, daring the tempest to sink you.

Why do I like nautical metaphors so much? I don’t even sail!

If I find in six months that my first instincts about leaving Instagram were correct, well then I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.

I remain, as always, a work in progress.

Cheers,
Patrick
@LaMontagneArt
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A Visit with Birds of Prey

After my first visit to the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale, Alberta last year, I was looking forward to another visit this season. Unfortunately, with other obligations close to home, I didn’t manage to get there before they closed last month for the season.

After reading their latest newsletter, which is always informative, I realized that I had not only failed to visit this year, but I hadn’t contributed financially either. I called up last month to make a donation and the patriarch of the family, Colin Weir, told me they’d be in Canmore again on October 5th at the Civic Centre.

I marked it in my calendar and made sure I wouldn’t be away or have other obligations.

A really nice day for it, I got there first thing on Saturday to avoid what would later become a good crowd of people. The birds were outside, in conjunction with a larger event focusing on Geology, fossils and the Canmore Museum, located in the Civic Centre.

The regular cast of characters were there, the ambassadors that travel with Colin when he goes to these events. These are birds that can’t be released back into the wild and have lived at the Centre for a long time. A Great Horned Owl, Short Eared Owl, Barn Owl, Burrowing Owl and Golden Eagle, each with names like Basil, Dexter and Edgar.
Their Golden Eagle is in her early thirties, and I painted her a couple of years ago. Sarah is a beautiful bird and Colin admits he’s very close to her, having raised her since the 1980s. His daughter, Aimee has joked that Sarah is the favorite child.

While I enjoyed painting Sarah, it’s not one of my more popular prints, largely because when the general public thinks of eagles, they’re most often after the Bald variety and that painting of mine is far more popular than this one.

Even still, I couldn’t resist taking more photos of Sarah, knowing I still may do another painting of her, for my own enjoyment.
I spent a good couple of hours there, taking hundreds of photos of all of the birds. The opportunity to get up close and personal, acquiring such detailed reference is one I rarely pass up. I was happy to leave another donation for the privilege of having the birds come to me.
When it comes to supporting charities and causes, I would encourage you to find the thing for which you feel a personal connection.

Whether it’s research into a medical illness that has touched you or a member of your family, efforts for building a new library in your community, or a regular donation to the food bank, find something you can regularly support that makes you feel like you’re making a difference.

As this is a wonderful facility that rescues and rehabilitates birds of prey, I know how much they rely on public support to continue the work they do. With so many worthwhile charities and causes out there, it can be overwhelming to want to give to everybody, but only having the funds to support a few. I decided quite some time ago that all of my charitable donations would go toward wildlife causes, especially facilities that help animals in need of emergency care and rehabilitation. I make a monthly donation to the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation in Airdrie, contribute to Discovery Wildlife Park in whatever way I can, and I support the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation, but I say No to most everything else, even though I still feel guilty while doing so.

Giving is one of the most selfish things we do, because it feels so good. It’s addictive. I’ll freely admit that it’s also self-serving for me to support wildlife causes and facilities because it’s allowed me to be able to get up close and personal with many of the subjects I’ve painted. How could I not support them in return?

I make a good living, but I’m not wealthy, despite the outsider’s view that everybody who lives in Canmore and Banff is rich. That’s right, the people serving coffee in the local shop, working at the gas stations, cleaning hotel rooms, and working in the grocery store are all rich people, slumming it because they’re bored.

To support a charity, any charity, doesn’t required a huge outlay of funds. A monthly donation of even $20 helps these places because they’re not just relying on your contribution but all of the others who can only give a little, which amounts to a lot. A monthly donation helps them budget for the year, to get the most of their donations and stretch it as far as they can.

I was talking to Colin on Saturday about the challenges faced with fundraising in a facility like his. He told me that their small staff does everything, from rescuing the animals, caring for them, releasing them, training new staff and volunteers, ordering for the gift shop, maintaining the facilities and what I can only imagine is a much longer list of daily duties that go on even when the facility is closed to the public in the off-season.

He told me about somebody who had called him recently from Fort McMurray who hit a Great Horned Owl with his truck at night. Colin showed me the picture of the owl trapped inside the damaged grill, looking out at the man taking the photo. He had to talk the guy through the extrication over the phone and they managed to free the owl that was seemingly undamaged. These types of calls are not unusual, and come at all hours.

On top of all of that, they also have to have a sharp focus on fundraising, or it all stops.

While the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation has a few generous corporate sponsors, like Fortis Alberta and AltaLink, they don’t receive any funding from the Alberta or federal governments. When governments change, priorities change and funding can suddenly be frozen or come with strings attached that would ultimately hinder their good work, rather than help.

If you think about some of the larger, more well-known charities, Colin points out that those organizations often have fundraising and marketing departments with more people in them than the entire staff at the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation. Not to mention that the marketing budgets of larger charities often exceed the entire operating budget of a facility like the Birds of Prey Centre, where all of the funds raised go directly to conservation.

The next time you’re thinking about where best to put your limited charitable donations, I would encourage you to find somewhere that does great work that aligns with your values. Consider choosing a small facility, where they might not have the flashiest of ad campaigns, but are on the ground doing great work that matters, necessary work that if they didn’t do it, nobody would. You won’t get the chance at a lottery prize or be invited to a gala fundraiser, but you’ll be able to see firsthand where your money goes and the good that it does.

It might be your local SPCA or animal shelter, a local greenhouse that grows food for struggling folks in your own community, or somewhere like the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation.

Be selfish. Give a little.

Cheers,
Patrick
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Clearwater Calf

On a recent visit to the cabin near Caroline in June, I was delighted to hear from the owners of KB Trails that they’d leased the adjacent pasture to a neighbour for his cows.  While I’m not exactly a city slicker, I’m pretty sure that nothing says, “he ain’t from around here” quite like standing in the middle of a field taking pictures of cows.

Even the cows seemed to be asking, “What’s this guy’s deal?”
But for me, any chance to get up close and personal to a critter for some photo reference is a good day.

I do love that landscape up there in Clearwater County, and the pasture behind the cabin. It seems there’s always something new to photograph. Deer, coyotes, moose, horses, cows, and a wonderful dog names Jingles. This is the second painting I’ve done from my trips up there, Jingles being my first. But it certainly won’t be the last.

From time to time, I’ll paint an animal where it’s a real challenge to get it to look right. Might be something in the features or in the fur, but some of my paintings have felt like real work.
This one, however, was quite easy, which was a welcome surprise. It still required quite a few hours at the digital drawing board, but it never had any frustrating moments. It was just putting in the time until it was finished.

Up next…well, I’ll let you know.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Fall Photos at Discovery Wildlife Park

An opportunity recently came up to do a fall photo shoot at Discovery Wildlife Park. I got the text while hanging out at Electric Grizzly Tattoo here in Canmore, which Shonna calls my artist support group.

The owner, Derek Turcotte, and I have gone on drives into Kananaskis looking for wildlife from time to time, and both of us like taking our own wildlife reference photos. I’m always up for taking photos at the park, especially when it’s an official photo shoot. Derek was into it too, so I booked it. $150 each, which was well worth it, since the money goes to support the park.

We drove up on Saturday, leaving just after 3:00 as Derek was tattooing a client all day. Thankfully traffic worked out with no delays en route, because we were cutting it close. We just made it for the 5:30 start. Serena, Belinda and Nadia met us at the main building and took us down to the photo shoot area in their ‘limo,’ which is just a golf cart with extra bench seats.

Discovery Wildlife Park has created a staged area in the woods on their property. It was already a natural area, but they’ve added some rock and water features and the backdrop is the side of the gully in which it sits. Running along one side of the area is a long, tall fence. This is designed specifically for photo shoots and the mesh of the fence is large enough that you can put a lens through it.

Derek and I were joined by two women who had also booked the shoot and with only four of us along the fence, we had plenty of room to move about, didn’t have to worry about getting in each other’s way and the opportunities for great photos were limited only by our own skills.For the first part of the shoot, the wolves Nissa and Lupé were let loose in the large enclosure. Through positive reinforcement with treats and praise, they would pose on marks, run around together, play and explore. The light kept changing as it shone through the trees, creating natural spotlights which was wonderful when the wolves would be caught in one.

After the wolves returned to their own large enclosure in the park, it was time for Berkley to join us.

I last saw her in July and she has grown bigger still. She’s now just shy of 350 lbs and is really showing her adult features. While she still has her wonderfully expressive childlike face and lovable personality, it is easy to see the big bear she will eventually become.

As I’ve mentioned before, it is always a pleasant surprise when she recognizes me and wants to visit. At first, she ran into the enclosure and I could see her coming around the top on the other side of the trees. She moves really fast when she wants to and came barrelling down the path beside the fence. When she got to where I was standing, she slowed right down and did a double take as if to say, “Hey, it’s you!”

That never gets old.
Of course, it did present a little bit of a problem when it was time to take pictures, because Berk just wanted to visit. Telling her to go see her Mom didn’t work, and Serena basically had to scold the four of us to stop talking to her, or we wouldn’t get any pictures.

We had to ignore her so that she would go to Serena, but once she did, she had a great time. From attacking trees, to playing on the large rocks, following Serena around and doing tricks for treats, my camera shutter just kept going rapid fire.
Sure, Berkley would occasionally look my way and then come over, but I just had to stand up and turn away for her to forget the distraction and go back into the middle of the enclosure. I felt bad for doing it, but I still got plenty of visiting time with her a little later on and before we left.

Derek was pretty thrilled to be that close to a grizzly bear, as were the other two photographers. I realized that I’ve gotten a little too used to having so much time with Berkley, that I forget what a unique privilege it is to have a (not-so) little bear friend. There’s nothing like looking into those eyes and that wonderful face.

Derek told me he wasn’t sure if I’d been exaggerating how much Berkley ‘knew’ me or not, so he got to see that first hand. He said it was great to finally see the place and meet some of the people I often talk about, and now he knows why.

With the light in the sheltered photo area fading enough that it was getting difficult to get any more good photos, Berkley left us and Serena offered us the opportunity to take some photos of Gruff, as his enclosure is up on the main flat area of the park, so we still had ten minutes of light to work with.
Derek was primarily looking for tattoo reference and for his own painted work, so Gruff performing his scary bear impression was something he was excited to get. Even though I just painted that very expression, I took some more photos and think I got even better reference of that than the last time. Might be another painting coming one day.

Although it required a four hour round trip drive for two hours at the park, both Derek and I felt it was well worth our time and we’ll do it again next year when the opportunity comes up. The fading light and sometimes fast motion of the wolves and Berkley created some photography challenges that resulted in more lost shots than we would have liked, but that’s part of photography, and life in general. You learn more from the mistakes and failures than the successes. Whether it’s taking the photos or painting from them, there’s more to learn than I will ever have time for in this life.

I took over 2600 photos, and after a few hours of going through them yesterday, ended up with about 100 worth keeping, including quite a few that will work as wonderful reference pics for future paintings.
I don’t know if it’s the last time I’ll see Berkley before she goes down for hibernation, but if it is, it was a nice visit on which to end the year. Discovery Wildlife Park closes for the season after Thanksgiving, so if you’re in the area, there’s still time to see the animals before that.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Artist Q&A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a trying year of challenges, both business and personal, Shonna and I had been eagerly anticipating our vacation this past week. Booked in early May, it was the light at the end of the tunnel of our still as yet uncompleted kitchen renovations which occupied our entire summer.

That light didn’t turn out to be as bright as it first appeared.

We wanted to see orcas and other wildlife from a kayak and we did a fair bit of research to not only choose the best time of year to go, but the ideal place to see them. We researched different companies and were confident that we had put our best foot forward in advance.

We had only kayaked once before a few years ago in Tofino and liked it enough that we wanted to try a longer trip.
Because of my workload and commitments to my newspaper clients, I can only take a week off at a time, rarely more than once a year. Whenever possible, I try to have it be a working vacation and since Shonna loves wildlife like I do, it’s usually easy to do on Vancouver Island.

To drive to Vancouver Island would be a total of four extra days on the road, hotel stays, ferry crossings and delays, so we always choose to fly from Calgary to Comox and rent a car. We’ve taken our Island trips like this for years.

On Tuesday of last week, we drove up to Campbell River from the Comox airport, took the ferry over to Quadra Island, and checked into a wonderful little B&B called Chipperfield Hollow, where we stayed on our first and last night on Quadra. We’d highly recommend it.

That evening, we had a pre-trip meeting at a local inn, just a short walk down the road, where we met with our guides from Spirit of the West Adventures. They operate a number of different tour options, but the one we selected was the Johnstone Strait Ultimate. Four days, three nights with a base camp. This company was suggested by a neighbour who used to guide in that area and our research supported that recommendation.

The next morning, we boarded a water taxi for the 2.5 hour trip up to the camp in Johnstone Strait.

Rather than give you an itemized itinerary, let’s just jump to the pros and cons.

First, the good…

The company was top notch. From our initial booking and advance emails we got all summer, our experience with their service couldn’t have been better. While on the trip, the three guides were professional, friendly, safe…I could just go on with positive adjectives.
Shonna and I rented rain gear and sleeping bags from them which were better than expected. The tent we slept in on a solid wood platform was equipped with comfortable Thermarest mattresses, and had an incredible view. The camp in the Johnstone Strait was in a perfect spot, the tents and platforms well laid out, a covered dining and kitchen area, camp toilets, even a propane heated shower in the trees and a wood-fired hot tub.
The food they provided exceeded expectations. From the appetizers and meals at the camp to the lunches and snacks they brought with us while kayaking, we certainly didn’t go hungry. They accommodated all dietary restrictions, confirmed well in advance. I can’t eat salmon or shellfish; so on the first night when they BBQ’d salmon for everyone, I got ling cod fillets that were delicious. Gluten free options, dairy free options, all were available for those who needed them.
The kayaks were in great condition, as was all of the other equipment. Safety was their top priority, not only while on the water, but in camp as well. This included briefings about possible bear encounters, keeping food out of the tents, etc.
Our kayaking trips were enjoyable. Shonna and I shared a tandem kayak the first couple of days, and then we each had a single kayak on the last full day. We kind of had to put our foot down with the other guests the evening before, explaining that we had done our time in the double, and just because we were a couple, didn’t mean we didn’t want to use the single kayaks.

For the first time ever, I checked two bags on the flight. The weather on Vancouver Island can turn on a dime and if it starts raining, it can go on for some time. Even when it stops, good luck in getting anything to dry because of the high humidity out there. So we brought plenty of clothing for that eventuality. We left our extra bags at the B&B on Quadra, but took plenty of clothing with us.

With perfect weather the whole time, we didn’t need most of it. It wasn’t even that cold at night. It didn’t start to rain until we were on the beach on our last day loading our gear to go home. We felt bad for the incoming group arriving in the rain because the forecast wasn’t good.
Each morning, we were socked in with fog, which made for an ethereal dreamy kayaking experience that I consider the best part of the trip. Eventually it lifted and we’d have beautiful sunshine and blue sky for the rest of the day. Better still; the water was a flat calm most of the time, unusual for that area.
When it came to the parts of the trip we were promised by Spirit of the West Adventures, we had no complaints.

The key word, however, is promised, because there are certain things they can’t control, and that’s what took the shine off of the rest.

Here’s what was lacking…

Including Shonna and I, there were 13 people on our trip. I was the only guy. Most of these women were older than we were and it created a strange dynamic. Even Shonna said that a balance of men and women would have been much more preferable. While it’s always nice to hear other people’s perspectives on things and everyone was friendly and nice, it often felt like we were on vacation with our mothers’ friends. It would have been just as weird had it been all guys and Shonna the only woman.

True, our lead guide was male, but he was there to work and run the tour, so that doesn’t really count.
It’s not like it was planned that way, and only a few of the women knew each other before the trip. There was a balance of genders on the trip before and a balance on the trip after, just not on ours. It should be noted, however, that all of these women were fit and up to the trip. When it came time to haul kayaks and gear, everybody pulled their weight. I even learned a few useful tips from some of the more experienced paddlers.

On one day, with the currents looking like the afternoon might not be ideal for kayaking, we were told to bring some WALKING shoes as we would be going on an easy hike instead. Since we were told to make sure we always had dry shoes in camp, we had our water socks for kayaking, and I had a pair of Keen sandals for this walk.

Turned out that the hike was downright vertical in places, up a winding roller coaster of rainforest trail with criss-crossing roots to navigate. What made it more difficult was that I was carrying my expensive camera in one hand the whole time. The pace was brisk and at one point some of the other guests began asking how much further. The guide told a white lie and said we were at the halfway point when we were actually about a third or less. Four women decided to turn back to the beach and a guide went with them. Had Shonna and I known how much further to the top and how anti-climactic it would be when we got there, we would have done the same.

We had no time to stop and look at the forest around us and it felt a little like a forced march when she and I were in the Army Reserves years ago. Shonna does Cross-Fit every morning and I regularly hike here at home, but the pace and terrain kicked our asses. I don’t know how the guide did it in Crocs.

For our efforts on the return, we were drenched in sweat, I had two very large blisters on one foot from wearing shoes in which I would never do a hike like that, and felt we’d been a little ripped off. We didn’t pay for a kayaking trip to waste an afternoon hiking, something we can do at home.

Needless to say, we both arrived back at the beach pissed off and fuming, biting our tongues. We would have much rather paddled around the sheltered bay or relaxed at the beautiful location of our camp if we couldn’t kayak, perhaps wandering the shore, looking for wildlife.

Shonna and I have lived in the Canadian Rockies for more than 25 years and the main business here is tourism, just as it is for many parts of Vancouver Island. When it comes to seeing animals, there’s a saying in both locales… “Wildlife doesn’t punch a clock.”

That means you can try your best to find the animals you came to see, but sometimes they just don’t show up. We were in the right place, at the right time, and pretty much got skunked.

Technically, we saw two or three orcas. On the trip up in the water taxi, way off in the distance, there were some blows and dorsal fins. Then while at camp, we saw some blows even further away one day, but couldn’t tell if they were humpbacks or orcas. One night, Shonna and I thought we heard blows in the water outside of our tent and figured it must be orcas, but it was so dark we couldn’t see anything.

We think it’s fair that we don’t count these.
We did see a black bear on our beach a couple of times, then later while kayaking in the fog another morning and on another beach nearby. We’re pretty sure it was the same bear and surprisingly, I was just fine with him being that close, despite my earlier bearanoia tale while camping this past May.

Other than that, we saw some white-sided dolphins go by from our camp a couple of times, a seal and sea lion, a blue heron, and countless ravens and seagulls. The only reference pic I got that I can paint from, however, is the blue heron, and the photos I took at Point Holmes in Comox a couple of days ago might be a better choice.

No orcas, no humpbacks, no otters, no eagles. On all of our visits to the Island, this was the trip where we saw the least wildlife of any kind.

At the end of our trip, we spent a couple of extra days in Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland visiting with a few friends we don’t get to see often enough. We kept trying to put our finger on exactly why this trip was a disappointment, and it pretty much came down to the reasons above. We still got to spend some time off together away from work, which is always a plus.
Just as somebody can end up spending days in their hotel room in Mexico from drinking the water, or luggage can get lost, or a hotel reservation can be screwed up, it was simply bad luck. That doesn’t really take the edge off of the disappointment, however, or that our hard-earned money is gone, or the fact that we really needed a good vacation and it didn’t measure up, or that I didn’t come away with any reference photos or inspiration for paintings.

As in all things, shit happens.

Cheers,
Patrick

Some of these pics were taken by iPhone in a waterproof plastic case or are stills from GoPro video, so not as sharp as I’d like. But I wasn’t about to take my good camera out of the dry bag on open water if I didn’t have to. An orca or humpback would have been worth the risk.

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Tiger Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,
Patrick


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Working with Wacom

In the late nineties, when I first started to create art professionally, I had primarily drawn in pencil or pen on paper. Up until my first editorial cartoons for a local newspaper, I had never considered art as anything more than a hobby.

I had played around with some art on a computer from time to time, but only using a mouse. If you’ve never done that, it can be a rather frustrating experience, especially when you try to include any detail.

Digital drawing tablets were in their infancy, but I knew I wanted one. My ever-supportive parents bought me my first one as a gift. It was the first generation Wacom Intuos tablet, quite small, with a working surface of just 4 X 5 inches.

I thought it was one of the coolest things I ever owned. I’ve been drawing and painting on a computer ever since.

The technology was so new then, that you had to explain it to people. The worst part was that as soon as you said you worked on the computer, people figured that the computer was doing all of the work. It certainly didn’t help that one of the most popular and widespread pieces of art software on the planet was (and still is) Adobe Photoshop.

So not only was the computer doing all of the work, but all a digital artist was doing was changing a photo. I can’t count how many times I heard that stated with authority.

I’ve spent over half of my career explaining to people that digital drawing and painting is just as much of an art medium as oil, acrylic or watercolour. These days, the stigma surrounding digital art is largely gone and people realize that it’s more than just pushing a button or applying a filter. There are countless skilled artists around the world now creating digitally, each an ambassador for the medium.

One of the pillars of my two decade career has been that I’ve always worked on a Wacom tablet or display. They were the only name in digital art tools when I first started and they’ve remained the industry standard for quality and innovation. Whenever I’ve replaced one, it has been to take advantage of something new they’ve come up with that would make my work more enjoyable or efficient, never because it broke or stopped working.

 I still have a backup Intuos 5 tablet in my closet; ready as a substitute should my Cintiq 24HD display ever stop working. It’s like an insurance policy, but one I never really expect to use. I would never want to be without a Wacom device.

Even today, with advances in mobile drawing technology, I only use my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil for practice pieces and sketches. All of my finished work is done on my Wacom Cintiq.

In 2010 at the Photoshop World Conference, my funny looking animal paintings were still pretty new and I was thrilled to win the Guru Award for the Illustration category AND the Best in Show Award. In a strange twist of fate that would change the course of my career, the emcee of the event, Larry Becker, misspoke and said that the top prize was a Wacom Cintiq 12wx display.

I was pretty excited about that since it was Wacom’s first crack at a portable drawing display on an actual screen.

When I went to the Wacom booth at the Expo to claim my prizes, I was told that the 12WX wasn’t actually one of them. I was disappointed but I understood that mistakes happen and wasn’t going to hold them to it. But Wacom being who they are and Larry Becker being a class act, they made good on the slip and sent me the display shortly after the conference.

As great as that was, however, the best part was that I met Pam Park.

In every career, there are people who show up to mentor, encourage and give you the right push or connections when you need it. I’ve been fortunate to have some great support over the years from some special people, without whom I believe my work and life would be significantly diminished.

I loathe the phrase, “it’s not personal, it’s just business,” because it’s most often a cop-out people use for bad behaviour.

We don’t really have relationships with companies; we have them with people, so it’s always personal.

From that first meeting with Pam at Photoshop World in 2010, I then became acquainted with two others at Wacom, Joe and Wes. Over the next five years, the three of them hired me to do webinars for them, inspirational videos for new products, blog posts and I even represented the company at a training seminar in Calgary in 2011.For one demo I did for them, the subject of the painting was Pam’s dog, Brisby, seen above.

On one visit to the Banff High School in 2014, to talk about and demonstrate digital art, Wacom generously donated a number of tablets to their new media program that I was thrilled to deliver personally.
At Photoshop World, I would give presentations at their booth; one of those rare cases where doing it for the exposure was well worth my time. Being associated with Wacom has always been good for my career and professional credibility.
As the saying goes, however, all good things must come to an end. At one point, they had wanted to hire me to come down to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and work at their booth. Being Canadian, I realized I couldn’t go without a work visa and there just wasn’t time to get one. A few years ago, as my friends at Wacom moved to other positions and one left the company, the opportunities for me to work with them fell off.

A new person in marketing took things in a different direction and I had resigned myself to the fact that I’d had a great experience for quite a few years with Wacom, but that it had run its course with no hard feelings. It sure was fun while it lasted. The only regret was that I lost touch with those people who made it happen and who had such a positive impact on my career.

Then out of the blue a couple of weeks ago, I got a personal email from Pam, checking in to say Hi. It was great to hear from her and in the course of catching up, she mentioned that she was back in a marketing and promotional position with Wacom and if I ever wanted to work with them again, they’d be happy to have me.

I had to give that some serious thought, for about a millisecond.

Considering the wealth of talent they have representing their products these days, it was a real honour to be asked once again to add my voice to the chorus.

After some back and forth catching up, Pam told me she was sending me the new Wacom Cintiq 16. I’ll be putting it through its paces, doing some painting on it and recording some videos for Wacom, the first of who knows how many in the near future. It’ll be a nice replacement for my Cintiq 13HD, which for the record, still works just fine.

The Cintiq 16 arrived by UPS before I was finished writing this post, and I realized that the feeling of receiving a new piece of Wacom tech, it just never gets old. In fact, I’m probably more excited about this display than I was at receiving my very first tablet twenty years ago.

Because now I know what I can do with it.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Continuing Crisis of Conscience

My friend Derek and I went for a morning drive up Highway 40 into Kananaskis last week. It was raining, grey and while we were initially headed up to the Highwood Pass to take pictures of the pikas, we were also keeping our eyes peeled for anything else we might find, especially bears.

Derek is an incredibly skilled painter and tattoo artist, the owner of Electric Grizzly Tattoo here in Canmore. His photography skills are pretty tight as well, so when it comes to art, we have a lot in common.

We never made it up to the Pass because it started to snow quite heavily as we gained elevation, but it was a quiet morning, very little traffic and we saw quite a few bears. Seven grizzlies and a black bear.

While we both got some very nice pictures, a few I can even paint from, the whole experience was tainted by my ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ guilt over taking the photos in the first place.
One of the most difficult parts of painting wildlife, even in my whimsical wildlife style, is the gathering of reference. Before I became proficient with a camera, I would often borrow from generous photographer friends or buy stock photos. I still do buy reference from time to time when taking the shots myself would just be unrealistic. For example, my recent underwater painting of an Orca would require a drastic lifestyle change and a lottery win to be able to gather those shots.

I’ve taken plenty of photos at Discovery Wildlife Park and at the Calgary Zoo, many of which have resulted in finished paintings. But even though I’ve made peace with the fact that both of those facilities are doing their best to aid in conservation and that the animals are receiving the best care possible, they’re still captive animals. My support of those places has drawn some criticism and I accept that. I still believe in both places and their best intentions, for lack of a perfect solution.

What many fail to understand is that when they say animals should be left to be free in the wild; there are very few places in the world where that’s still possible. Outside of national and provincial parks, sanctuaries and wildlife reserves, most animals are at constant risk from the most dangerous predator around. Us.

My friend, Serena, head keeper at Discovery Wildlife Park, is one of the most knowledgeable people I know when it comes to bears and other wildlife. She’s big on leaving bears alone in the wild, that pulling over in your car introduces people smells and habituation risks to bears, even in parks where they’re protected. Part of their bear presentation twice a day at the park is all about educating people on being bear aware in the wild, including being a responsible tourist.

Having lived in and near Canada’s most famous national park for the past twenty-five years, I’ve seen firsthand what happens when tourists forget themselves, and close in like a mob on a grizzly bear, in order to snap that pic for Facebook. If the bear defends itself, or becomes too used to humans, they sometimes have to shoot the bear.

Apparently shooting tourists is frowned upon.

I spend most of my life feeling guilty for my choices. Even with the best of intentions, trying to be an advocate for wildlife protection AND making a good chunk of my living painting whimsical wildlife portraits, there doesn’t seem to be a good answer to where I should get my reference. If I were a wildlife photographer, it would be even harder.

If I take the photos of a captive animal, no matter how well cared for or considering their circumstances, I’m a bad person for supporting that practice. If I take photos in the wild or in parks, well I’m a bad person for stopping to get a photo, even if I’m trying to minimize my impact on the animal.
Derek and I did our best to be responsible, as we always do. We both had long lenses, so we parked a good distance from all of the bears we encountered. We stayed in my car, either taking shots from our windows or out the sunroof. We were careful to limit our time with the bears we encountered, even though we would have liked to have stayed all day, especially near the grizzly and her cubs.

We even justified those pics because on the other side of those trees behind them is a campground with plenty of people smells already there. And Parks was on scene monitoring them.

That still feels hypocritical, telling myself whatever I need to, in order to justify the shots.
Basically, there is no right answer because everybody has their own opinion and judging others by the most rigid standards of hyper morality is at the core of being human. We compare our own best traits to the worst traits in others, convinced we’re better than most. (see: social media)

If another driver fails to signal a turn, they’re a stupid asshole, deserving of a long blast on the horn, shouting and obscene finger gestures. If we fail to signal, however, well we’re only human and it was an innocent mistake. Get over it.

Think on that, next time you’re in traffic.

I will continue to wrestle with this moral dilemma, convinced there is no answer that will please everyone. Just like my artwork, I am a work in progress.

Take care,
Patrick
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