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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.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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This painting began on the iPad in procreate as a sketch exercise. Playtime, if you will. I liked where it was heading, however, so I brought it into Photoshop and continued painting at a larger size. A departure from my style, but it was a fun experiment.

I called it ‘Roar’ but bears don’t really roar. They might make loud noises from time to time, but not the kind you hear in movies. That’s all Hollywood magic, the roaring sound added in editing.

Whenever I go to Discovery Wildlife Park, I usually watch the bear show, even though I’ve seen it quite a few times.

The bear show is kind of a misnomer and a big head fake. While people think they’re coming to see the bears just do a few tricks, they’re actually there for an education. The keepers use the opportunity to talk to people about bears in the wild.

Involving everything from how to tell a black bear from a grizzly, what to do when you happen upon either animal and how best to avoid any negative encounters, especially when camping or hiking. They also explain that the reason bears become orphaned in the first place (like all of the bears they care for) is most often a consequence of their encounters with people. By getting too close, directly feeding them, or leaving food out for them to find, we teach them bad behaviours that are difficult to break.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Park, you might think that having the bears do tricks is kind of cruel, like they’re in a circus or something. The reality is the opposite. It would be cruel NOT to teach them, as this keeps them active. It’s called enrichment.

In the wild, animals have three big priorities…finding food, procreating and avoiding predators, each requiring large expenditures of energy and attention.

The animals at Discovery Wildlife Park aren’t driven by the same priorities. They receive a well balanced diet of healthy food, have no concerns with predators, and they’re not being actively bred.

So the tricks, for lack of a better word, are designed to keep their minds working. It gives them problems to solve, tasks to complete, and they actively participate, all with positive reinforcement. There is no punishment for failing to do a trick. They can just walk away if they don’t feel like it.

One of the challenges for the keepers is coming up with new and interesting things to teach the animals. They’re so smart (the animals, not the keepers…wait, that didn’t come out right) that they learn things very fast and it becomes too easy for them. Some of the tricks serve double purpose, too.

By learning to present their paws, blood can be drawn without having to sedate them. They can also check their claws to see if there is any damage in need of intervention. They will urinate on command for samples, step up onto scales for weighing and a number of other behaviours designed to ensure they stay healthy.

One of the tricks the bears are taught at Discovery Wildlife Park is to “Be scary!”

Not only is it a standard trick of actor bears, it gives the keepers an opportunity for a dental inspection. A number of their animals have needed dental intervention, just like your own pet.

I find the “Be Scary” trick especially amusing, because I was there a couple of years ago when Berkley was just learning it and her scary bear was pathetic. If you’d like to see it, the video is available here, about the 1:15 and 3:25 marks. She now does a very impressive scary bear impression, gets her treat and then instantly reverts back to her regular adorable self.

This painting, however, is Gruff. He was raised at the park and his scary bear is top notch. Gruff is one of my favorite bears. As you can see below, I’ve painted him as a cub and as an adult, and have painted a number of roughs of him as well.

When he was first surrendered to the park, Serena wasn’t sure she could save him. He was pretty far gone, having been mistreated by a number of people who had initially found him as a cub, then traded him around. But thanks to Discovery Wildlife Park’s excellent care, he has become a wonderful gentle six-year old bear with a great personality.

On a recent visit to the park, I was invited to step inside the outer enclosure fence while the keepers and bears did the show. Sitting on a log beside one of the other keepers, I managed to get some very nice photos of the black bears, including the reference for this one.
As you can see, the painting is intentionally rough. A loose, large stroke style, with plenty of artifacts, errant brush strokes and I got creative with an analogous colour scheme. Each time I found myself starting to focus on painting finer detail, I forced myself to stop, erring instead on the side of discovery.


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Burrowing Owl – iPad Painting

This little guy was painted on the iPad Pro in the Procreate app using an Apple Pencil. I took the reference for this painting while visiting the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in June. For their small size, they certainly do cop an attitude. But then again, my perception of expression and personality in the animals I encounter just might be a little skewed toward the comical and caricature.

Burrowing owls are an endangered species in Canada and there are a number of conservation groups working to protect them, including the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation and The Alberta Birds of Prey Centre, both of which I’m proud to support.

From the latter’s website…“Offspring from our Burrowing Owl breeding program have been released in all four western provinces.”

While my more finished work is painted in Photoshop on my Wacom Cintiq display, I’ll often sketch or begin a painting on the iPad Pro, using an Apple Pencil and the Procreate app. The advances in both hardware and software in recent years has come so far that the portable device experience now far exceeds the desktop painting I was able to do when I was first starting out.

Having been a digital artist for the past twenty years, I’m very comfortable with the desktop tools I’ve been using. I’ve been forcing myself to draw more with the iPad Pro and Procreate lately because I feel there’s a lot of room to improve my painting skills using the portable tools. The more time I spend working with these tools, the greater the detail and painting quality I’m able to achieve, which only makes sense. It’s also nice to be able to take them with me when I want to work at the tattoo shop, or draw at the cabin or on vacation.

An impressive feature of the Procreate app on the iPad Pro is that it will record every brush stroke you make, allowing you to play it back at high speed to see an image from start to finish. While I edited this one myself, the video below gives you a look at the progress behind the painting.


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An Opportunity to Give

TalkToonA couple of weeks ago, I was asked by the Banff Community High School to speak to their digital media and art classes about the type of work I do.

In the past, these presentations have been more about editorial cartooning, especially when students are studying politics and current events. It provides a window into the difference between journalism and opinion, satire and commentary. There is value there, and I think those talks are important, too, but my passion lies with the other artwork I do, so I was really looking forward to this one, as it was about the art, not the politics.  To paraphrase the teacher who contacted me, it was basically an opportunity for students to be exposed to yet another creative medium of expression, one they might not have considered.

I’ve had plenty of folks give me a leg up in my relatively short career as an artist and whenever an opportunity like this comes up, I realize it’s my responsibility to pay that forward.  So, if I’ve got the time, I’m happy to help if I can.

I was scheduled to do two presentations to two different age groups. A slide show of my work, a little background on how I got into it, the type of work I do, plus a glimpse into how the actual drawing and painting is done.

In the back and forth emails leading up to the presentations, I became aware that the Banff Community High School didn’t yet have any drawing tablets. School budgets being what they are, students often don’t get all that we would like them to have. I thought that showing them how to draw and paint digitally and then denying them the means to do so would be a little cruel on my part. Hey, look at this delicious candy I’m eating…you can’t have any.

Over the past decade, I’ve been fortunate to have made some valuable contacts in this industry, and some even better friends. While I’ve used their products since 1997, it wasn’t until 2010 that I started getting to know a few people at Wacom quite well. Over the past four years, I’ve done webinars, tutorials and hangouts with them; written blog posts, recorded videos, done demos at their booth at Photoshop World, and even ran a booth on my own for them in Calgary at a Kelby Training Seminar. I’d hardly want to give the impression that this relationship is one-sided , however, so without getting into specifics, let’s just say that Wacom has been very good to me in return. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.

Needless to say, I’m lucky to call a few of them friends. With that in mind, without shame, I requested a discount on a couple of tablets, so that I could give them to the school. I figured I could afford it and two tablets are much better than none.

TabletsMuch to my delight, my friend (who is choosing to remain anonymous, dammit!) donated five Intuos 5 Medium tablets to the school, free of charge. For those unfamiliar with these devices, I could do all of the work I do on one of these tablets. These kids aren’t being asked to settle for inferior hardware, mostly because in my experience, Wacom doesn’t make inferior hardware. While I’m currently using their 13HD and 24HD displays (seen on screen in photo below), I have had an Intuos 5 Medium tablet for quite a while and if you went to my portfolio, a lot of it has been done with that device.

I was pretty thrilled at the donation, and it would have been more than enough.

But then I realized that because they don’t yet have the Adobe CC software, the students had something to draw and paint on, now they needed a program to do it with. Lately, I’ve been using Autodesk Sketchbook quite a bit and thoroughly enjoying it. Their app for iPhone and iPad are the best I’ve seen for mobile art and those are only outshone by their desktop version. I’ve been doing a lot of sketching for my editorial cartoons with that lately, so I knew the students would benefit from it.

Even though I haven’t had a long relationship with Autodesk, Wacom works closely with them and had recently introduced me to some of the folks in charge, a direct result of the work I’ve been doing with their software. Since I was already on a roll, I sent an email to their Product Marketing Manager, told him about Wacom’s generosity with the tablets and asked if I could get some licenses for software to go with them. He simply asked how many I needed, and then made it happen.

Then, while mentioning all of this privately to an industry author friend of mine, (who also wants to remain anonymous), he asked if they could use any books. I told him they couldn’t be software specific as they’d be wasted if the students didn’t have those tools. So he asked his publisher Peachpit what they could do and sure enough they donated half a dozen books on design and photography, titles that the students will benefit from no matter what software they’re using.

While bragging about this on my Facebook page, a few people made references to these being great Christmas presents and ironic that this here often-Scrooge gets to play Santa. In truth, it really is just a coincidence of timing that I was asked to speak to the students this close to Christmas. I’ve no doubt that had I asked these wonderful folks for their assistance in September, they would have come through in the same fashion. I’ve made a point of thanking all of these people individually, and I know the school has as well.

CintiqBut, I wanted to write about it for a couple of reasons. One, these companies and people deserve a little positive PR for helping out, even though that isn’t why any of them did it. Trust me on that.

Secondly, I would encourage you to consider how easy it is to give of your time and resources, no matter what it is that you do. You can’t always say yes to these requests, and over the years, I’ve had to decline these presentations almost as often as I’ve accepted them. Everybody has obligations and responsibilities, we’re all busy, we can’t give as often as we’d like. But it sure feels good when you can.

I would also encourage you to realize that when you need somebody’s help, especially to benefit someone else, don’t be afraid to ask. You’d be surprised how often people will say Yes when you need them to give a little, especially when it involves kids and education. If they say No, that’s OK, too, and don’t hold it against them.

It’s true that I was the one who got to stand up at the front of the room to reveal all of these great gifts from perfect strangers on Tuesday, and I got to do it twice.  I wanted you to know that I was just the messenger. The real thanks go to my friends and colleagues, the ones who said Yes when they were granted an opportunity to give to complete strangers.

Thanks again, folks. You know who you are.


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iPad Painting with the Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus

RatiPadFBAs anyone who creates digital art for a living will tell you, it’s difficult to do without a Wacom tablet or display.  Beginning with the Graphire and the first generation Intuos tablets in the late nineties, I’ve used almost all versions and evolutions of Wacom products.   Currently, the one I use on a daily basis is the Cintiq 24HD display.  When I want to get out of the office, which usually just means moving to other parts of the house, I’m drawing and painting on the Cintiq 13HD.

Many people have asked me if I’ll be getting one of the new Cintiq Companion displays, but having just purchased a top of the line laptop to supplement my desktop PC, I don’t need another computer.  I make my living with my artwork and have daily editorial cartoon deadlines.  I can’t afford any downtime, so having another full system that I can work on if my main computer needs repair is very important to me.  As I work at home and spend 90 percent of my time here, a fully functional portable Cintiq Companion would be wasted on me, so the 13HD and a laptop suits me just fine.

From time to time, however, I do enjoy the portability of drawing and painting on my iPad.  I bought my first gen iPad about three months after it came out in 2010 and I used it almost every day.  I began with finger painting, and then I probably spent a couple of hundred dollars in the first year, trying to find a stylus that would work well for drawing and painting.  Eventually, I settled on the Wacom Bamboo Stylus and it worked very well for its intended use.  Having tried many different drawing apps, I found that the ProCreate app suited my drawing style best and it’s the one I use above all others to this day.

I like to rest my hand on the screen, so I cut the thumb, index, and middle fingers from a light glove and wear that while drawing and painting on the iPad.  I worked around the lack of pressure sensitivity by manually varying the opacity in the app.  A similar method is to add a new layer and vary the opacity of that as well.  A little awkward, but I managed to create some iPad drawings and paintings that I was pleased with, even if they took longer than they would have on my PC with a drawing tablet or display.

IntuosCreativeStylusRecently, Wacom introduced their Intuos Creative Stylus for the iPad and I was intrigued.  It connects via Bluetooth, has pressure sensitivity, programmable buttons like their other tablet and display pens, and palm rejection capability, which means you can rest your hand on the screen without your palm creating any digital pen marks.  The key word here is ‘capability.’

As my first gen iPad had been proving unreliable and twitchy over the last year, I finally retired it and bought the new iPad Mini with Retina display, preferring the smaller size to the iPad Air.  The Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus arrived last week and I was eager to put it through its paces.

The first thing I was impressed with is that it comes in a very nice case.  With space for five spare nibs (it comes with two spares) and battery included, you feel you’ve purchased quality.  My Cintiq 13HD came with a very nice case for the stylus as well and it gives me peace of mind that these portable styli are well protected while they’re being carted around.

IntuosCreativeStylusCaseThrough trial and error and a little research, I found out some important technical info that will make your life a lot easier when using this pen.

First, the stylus takes an AAAA battery (that’s 4 As).  It comes with one of them, so it’s ready to use.  But I happened to be out running errands the day mine arrived so I wanted to see how hard it was to find replacements.  Fortunately I found a set of two at The Source, a small franchised electronics store.  A package of two batteries set me back $12.  Our grocery store battery display didn’t have AAAA batteries, so you might have to look to find them.  The Wacom site says a battery will last you 150 hours.  I spent a few hours painting with the stylus and the battery still reads 100% in the ProCreate app, so I’ve no reason to doubt the claim.

Second, I have a wireless keyboard that connects to my iPad via Bluetooth and you connect it in the iOS settings.  You can’t do that with the Intuos Creative Stylus, since it doesn’t even show up there.  The stylus connects to your iPad inside of the supported apps (click here and scroll down for the list).  In ProCreate for example, there’s a dropdown menu that shows a device option and sure enough, the Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus is one of the choices.  The connection was very stable and putting it away in the case seems to shut the pen off so it doesn’t waste the battery.

AppsI didn’t bother to try any of the other drawing apps, so let’s just talk about ProCreate and this stylus.  I haven’t done any iPad painting in a while so I was very impressed with the recent updates ProCreate has made to their app.  They’ve got great blend mode options for layers, adjustments for color, sharpness, blur, multiple transformation tools and their brush engine allows for a LOT of customization.  ProCreate is a very robust app and I see no reason to change my preference.  It didn’t crash once while painting my funny looking rat, so it’s very stable.

I was disappointed that I couldn’t get the palm rejection to work well in ProCreate, so I ended up wearing the makeshift glove again which doesn’t really bug me.  It was only later that I found out that it isn’t the stylus that doesn’t support palm rejection, it’s the app.  Again, refer to the list of which features work with which apps.

The pressure sensitivity on this stylus works like a dream!  With the programmable buttons, ProCreate allows you to choose which task you want each button to perform.  I set one button to activate the color picker, and the other button to Undo.  You don’t even need to have the pen in contact with the tablet to get these to work, either.

AppandiPadBottom line, this stylus works as advertised.  While the price may seem steep to some ($99.95 from Wacom), I’m a big believer that you get what you pay for and my experience with Wacom devices is that they last and work well for a long time.  I’m being careful not to drop this stylus, though, as it’s still a precise electronic device.

A couple of final thoughts.  It would be unreasonable to expect this stylus to perform as well as a Cintiq display.  I can make quicker brush strokes, enjoy much more precise pressure sensitivity and paint with larger documents with higher resolution on my professional displays than I would expect to on the iPad.  This stylus does not turn your iPad into a Cintiq Companion display.  Also, keep in mind that Wacom created the stylus, not the apps with which it is used, so if there’s something that doesn’t work the way you might expect it to, it’s likely the app, not the pen.

I’m very pleased with the Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus and I expect to use it often for sketching and rougher paintings.  Beginning the rat painting you see at the top on the iPad was quite enjoyable and the image will eventually become a much larger, much more detailed rendering using Photoshop and my Cintiq 24HD display.

I would recommend both the Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus and the ProCreate app without reservation, but as always, the tools are only as good as the artist using them.  For best results with your artwork, keep learning, follow the work of other artists, and draw and paint as often as you can.


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Another iPad Painting

Stump01Went for a hike up to Grassi Lakes here in Canmore yesterday afternoon.  Named for noted local, Lawrence Grassi, it’s not a long trail, but if you take the ‘difficult’ route, it’s quite steep in places and is very pretty.  There are a number of relatively short hikes I take in this area when I just want to get my daily exercise, each about an hour or two in duration.  Cougar Creek I can walk to from my house, but if I have to pull the car out of the garage anyway to get groceries or run errands, I’ll head to Grotto Canyon or Grassi Lakes for a change of pace.

During the summer months, Grassi Lakes is usually quite busy.  Even in the fall on weekends, you’ll find plenty of people walking this moderate hike, especially since the ‘easy’ route, which is essentially just a dirt road, makes the trail accessible to most people, regardless of their physical fitness.  Yesterday, being a Monday, I almost had the place to myself and it was very peaceful, both on the trail and at the lakes themselves, which are really two connected ponds.  The emerald colour of the water is very pretty and it’s a nice little spot.

I’ve noticed this tree stump at the lakes on a number of occasions.  For locals, look up on your left, just after you cross the little footbridge between the lakes.  More than once, I’ve sketched it, but yesterday I figured I’d like to paint it.  Since I haven’t done much paint sketching in the last little while and didn’t want to make a finished piece out of it, I painted this on the iPad while watching TV last night.  It sort of turned into a two-colour image and I quite like the finished result.

Painting on the iPad is a real challenge because of the low resolution (especially on my first-gen device) and the imprecise nature of the stylus.  By varying the opacity of the brushes and layers in the procreate app, I manage to simulate pressure sensitivity and have developed a method that works quite well for me.  Actual size of this image is 704 pixels X 960 pixels at 72ppi, so it would make a poor print, but it’s good practice.

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Mighty? Maybe not.

With the Adobe Max conference going on in L.A. this week, there are many in the design, photography and other digital creative industries that are actively talking about all things Adobe.  Most of the talk is surrounding the Creative Cloud and the subscription model.  In fact, I’ve seen and participated in some heated discussions the past 24 hours about the pros and cons.  Most of these arguments look very much like online political bickering, complete with name-calling, passive aggressive rants and the usual ‘my way or the highway’ arguments that are the staple of social media discussions.  Having expressed my opinion already, I don’t feel the need to repeat it all here.  Bottom line is that anybody who uses any of Adobe’s software will have to subscribe to the new model or eventually watch their tools become obsolete.  Time marches on, adapt and overcome, deal with it.  The corporate mind is made up and unlikely to change.  We’ll just have to agree to disagree and move on, since we should all probably be working anyway.

One of yesterday’s announcements that caught my eye was Adobe’s introduction of Project Mighty.  A pressure sensitive pen for the iPad and iPhone, connected to the cloud, allowing people to draw and take notes on the iPad. Before I talk about my impression, here’s a video that explains it, just so we’re all on the same page.

At first glance, this looks like it might be something very innovative.  In fact, I’ve had a number of people send me email and private messages since this was announced telling me I must be excited about this and asking what I think of it.  The only reason I assume they’re asking is that my medium for the majority of my work is digital and that I’ve also done a fair bit of iPad art over the past couple of years.  So having only seen the same video you just watched, my first impression is that the Mighty doesn’t strike me as memorable, at least not in this first edition.

I’ve tried a number of iPad pens over the last year.  Some of them have a plastic disc that rests on the screen, many have rubber eraser type nibs in varying sizes, and even one expensive disaster purported to be pressure sensitive, but ended up just being a waste of $80.00.  The battery didn’t last and it relied on raising and lowering the volume of the device since it communicated through the iPad’s microphone.  To quote Mr. Scott in Star Trek, “The more they over-think the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.”


In my experience with art on the iPad, the strength lies in a well developed app, because the hardware is a compromise.  The iPad just wasn’t designed to use a pen and Apple has consistently showed no interest in answering the scores of artists who have been begging for one.  As Steve Jobs famously said, “It’s like we said on the iPad, if you see a stylus, they blew it.”

But with a good third party stylus and a well written app, you can still draw and paint well enough on the iPad.  The best apps that I’ve used to date are procreate, artstudio, and Sketchbook Pro.  I’ve been able to work around the pressure sensitivity quite well in all of these apps simply by varying the brush opacity while I paint.   Coupled with a good stylus, I find painting on the iPad to be quite enjoyable, despite having to wear a light glove so I can rest my hand on the screen while I draw.  The pen I settled on after trying many of them, is the Wacom Bamboo Stylus and it works quite well, despite the limitations of the iPad itself.  The paintings you see here were done on the first generation iPad with the Wacom stylus.

WhitmoreWhat surprised me most about Project Mighty is that it doesn’t appear to involve Wacom at all.  I’ve been using Wacom tablets and displays since the 90’s and while each new evolution is better than the last, the one consistent thing I could always count on was that there was no better name in pen and tablet tech than Wacom.  I would defy any digital creative artist to challenge that statement.  The industry standard for pen technology has long been Wacom and if this pen was a cooperative venture between the two, I would have expected Adobe to lead with it, so I can only assume that this was an independent creation.  It was my understanding that the two companies had a symbiotic relationship as most Adobe users I know are using Wacom tablets or displays in their work.  Wacom’s lack of involvement in Project Mighty (unless it’s some deep dark secret) is perplexing.

One of the biggest complaints I hear when reviewing any stylus or app for the iPad is that people want it to work like their Wacom tablet.  Same features, sensitivity, and functionality.  Unrealistically, many artists want the power of a robust computer mixed with a Cintiq 24HD that is light and allows them to take it anywhere.   Someday, I’m sure, but I still think that perfect device is a long way off.  Then again, we might see a hint of that soon.

On February 28th, this status update on Wacom’s Facebook page created quite a ripple through the digital creative world.  “We’ve heard you shouting out loud for a Wacom mobile tablet for creative uses. Well… we’re listening. We’ve read your email and spoken to many about an on-the-go dream device. It will come. This summer. We’re working 24/7 on it. And yes, it has a real pressure-sensitive professional pen, smooth multi-touch, an HD display, and other valuable features that you haven’t seen in other tablets.”

With this tease still resonating, I won’t be buying into Project Mighty.  When it comes to digital pen technology, I’m willing to be patient and wait for whatever Wacom has up their sleeve.  We might finally see tablet hardware that doesn’t ask artists to compromise.  If Wacom’s previous track record for stealing the show is any indication, I expect many artists will consider everything that has come before it to be just an opening act.


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Another iPad Painting


My  buddy, Jeff Tamagini, is a photographer and architect who lives in Boston.  While we keep in touch online during the year, we only see each other in Vegas at Photoshop World.  This past September, he and I were having lunch at The House of Blues in Mandalay Bay.  The place has kind of low lighting, like a lot of bars, so when Jeff was checking something on his iPad, the screen lit up his face from underneath and I thought it looked pretty cool.  So I asked him to hold the pose, and I took a few shots with my phone.  As the only real light was the iPad and I couldn’t use a flash, the photo didn’t end up being all that sharp for detail, but I thought it would make a good practice piece for an iPad painting.

For the tech details, I was using a Wacom Bamboo Stylus, alternating between the regular version and the newer Pocket Bamboo Stylus.  I wanted to use the very expensive Jaja stylus I just bought for close to $100 with shipping, but turns out the damn thing is a huge disappointment.  It’s supposed to be pressure sensitive by way of a triple A battery and an ultrasonic speaker that communicates with the iPad microphone.  You can adjust the volume of the pen to better communicate with the iPad, but I when I turned the volume up (because it wasn’t working right), I could actually hear it, which was annoying, and the battery life is ridiculously short.  The manufacturers recommend you don’t use rechargeable batteries.  Not exactly the most environmentally friendly device.  It was pressure sensitive, sure, but the lines weren’t smooth, the performance was twitchy, basically I used it for a half hour and then went back to the Bamboo.  You  shouldn’t have to think about your hardware while painting.  The Wacom Bamboo Stylus is still the best one I’ve used.

I’m still using the first generation iPad, bought it a few months after the initial release.  While I’ve got a lot of use out of it, and my money’s worth, it’s starting to show it’s age and it’s beginning to have performance issues.  Apps crash often enough to be annoying, despite my turning off location services, running only one or two apps at the same time, and doing everything else that’s been suggested to streamline operations.  The fact is, every time Apple releases a new iOS. it has a harder time running on the old hardware.  Pretty smart…force your consumers to buy the new tech by rendering the old tech useless.  My next tablet might not be an iPad as I’ve become aware of better options out there for a more reasonable price.  For example, the new Wacom Bamboo Stylus feel technology exists in some newer tablets, rendering them truly pressure sensitive out of the box.  The usability will depend on what apps I can get for painting on another device.

The app I use to paint on the iPad is procreate.  I’ve tried a number of them and that’s been my favorite for awhile.  It just has a great interface.  To get around the lack of pressure sensitivity, I just manually adjust the opacity of the brush with my thumb via a convenient slider on the left of the screen, and I’ll also adjust the opacity of different layers.  Anybody who is expecting their tablet to perform like a Cintiq is kidding themselves, so you make do with what you have.  Limiting your options can actually make you a better artist.  The work I’ve seen done with this app on the newer iPads that have better resolution is very impressive.

Which brings me to WHY I paint on the iPad.  The simple answer is that it’s a challenge.  With only low-resolution options, especially with the first-gen iPad, I have to work with what sometimes feels like a blunt instrument to get the likeness down.  There’s no way of painting in details later, because I’m stuck with one size.  The best I can manage is to brush in some speckled texture to suggest detail.  Also, the iPad is portable, just like a sketch book.  This painting was done almost entirely while sitting on the couch watching TV.  I started it in the Fall, but haven’t done anything on it in quite awhile.  Finally picked it up again last week and finished it yesterday morning, working on it in my spare time.  No deadline, no expectations, just practice.  I’m reasonably happy with it, but I think I could have done better if I’d had a better reference photo.

Finally, because I don’t like working with the iPad at full brightness, I always seem to paint darker than I’d like the end result to be.  My eyes get used to it, so I don’t see just how much brightness I’m missing.  Once a painting is done, I bring it into the Snapseed app, make some very harsh brightness and contrast adjustments, then bring it back into procreate on a new layer.  By adjusting the layer opacity, I get the right mix of what I like.  My iPad paintings lack the finesse of the work I do in Photoshop, they’re rougher looking and lack detail, but I find they’re still worth doing.  And it’s fun.




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Why I Paint on the iPad

This is a painting I recently finished on the iPad.  For those who want the technical specs,  I’m using the first generation iPad, the Wacom Bamboo Stylus, and the procreate app.  The actual size and resolution of this image is roughly 13″ X 9″ at 72 ppi.  The only photo used was for reference (thanks, Pete!) and I designed my own brushes.  I have no idea how long it took me to paint as I worked on it over four or five days, an hour or two here and there.  I’ve never done a painting in one sitting and doubt I ever will.

Since the resolution and size for the iPad is so low, I’ll likely never be able to do what I call ‘finished work’ on it, so you might wonder why I bother at all.  As a sketch pad, it’s great, but why put all the time into painting in detail, light and shadow?  Very simply put, it’s a challenge, and it’s fun.

At the risk of sounding immodest, I already know how to make Photoshop sit up and do the boogaloo when it comes to painting.  I know what it takes to get the fine details and I’ll always keep working to add more realism and texture to my paintings, but any limitations I have in my painting are my own.  If my paintings aren’t as good as I can possibly make them, the fault doesn’t lie in Photoshop or my Wacom tablet, it’s in my ability.  I can’t remember the last time I thought, “I wish Photoshop could do…”

With the iPad, however, the challenge is to see just how far I can take a painting before I’m limited by the tools I’m using.  The resolution tops out at 72ppi.  The size is finite.  I have to work with what I’ve got, which is a combination of the device, the stylus and the app, all three I feel are the best I can find for my needs at the moment.  I’m not about to buy a new iPad while this one still works very well.  By working with limited hardware and software, it forces me to become a better painter, to find new ways of achieving the best I can from an image, with the tools I have at my disposal.  That stretching of skills can’t help but translate to better painting when I’m NOT limited by the hardware and software.

The fun part comes from being able to paint on a portable device.  As much as I enjoy working with the Wacom Cintiq 12wx and a laptop, or even just the Wacom Intuos4 small tablet and a laptop, neither option is REALLY as portable as a pencil and sketchbook, or an iPad and stylus.  Even though I work all day in my office, I often sketch the next day’s cartoon or paint on the iPad while sitting in front of the TV with my wife in the evening.

When I began to paint this ring-tailed lemur, I really had no intention of taking this image any further than this.  It was fun to work on, but it wasn’t supposed to be a finished painting.  But, much like the ostrich painting that was first started on the iPad, I’m pretty happy with it, and I love the manic expression in this little fella.  There is a very good chance I’ll be taking this painting into Photoshop, bumping up the size to 18″X24″ at 300 ppi and spending many more hours finishing it.

For the difference in iPad painting vs. Photoshop painting, here’s a comparison of the Ostrich Totem.

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The upside of 2011

Bighorn Sheep TotemAll things considered, 2011 was a great year.  While every year will have it’s challenges, I’ve been fortunate that I’m honestly able to see each year of the past decade as having continual forward momentum.  The work I’m doing is far beyond what I had hoped for when I first started in this profession and I’m very grateful for it.

I became nationally syndicated in September of 2001, sending cartoons out across Canada each week, and got very few bites.  For two years, I had no more than three newspapers, paying the bare minimum rate, and I will admit to almost giving up on it more than a few times.  With a full-time job to pay the bills, I had to get up at 5:00am each morning to get a cartoon out before I went to work.  When I came home, I had to sketch in the evening and work on the weekends in order to manage it all.  Finally I started making progress, got a few more papers, took advantage of other opportunities, and about six years ago, I was able to leave my job and play this game full-time.

Through it all was my ever supportive wife, Shonna, and I’m incredibly grateful that she never told me not to do any of this.  The only caveat given when I went full-time was that if I couldn’t pay my half of the mortgage and bills, I had to go back to work.  Canmore is an expensive place to live and we couldn’t do it on one income.  Fortunately, it never came to that, and each year has been better than the one before.  At the time, it was an incredible struggle, but in retrospect, I’m glad I had to go through it because it makes the present all that much sweeter.

If my 2001 self could see the work I’m doing now, he’d be pleasantly surprised, and I try to think about that when I’m having a bad day or feeling sorry for myself because of a heavy workload or when money is tight.  So far, I’ve not only gotten what I wanted, I’ve gotten much more.  Best of all, I discovered that I loved getting up at 5:00am to work, I still sketch in the evenings, and being self-employed means you often work weekends anyway, so I was already used to the routine.  Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Here’s a recap of my professional highlights of this past year, some of which I’d forgotten about until I went back through the blog entries month by month.

iPad Painting: Started playing around with this in January, and damn if it hasn’t been a lot of fun figuring it all out.  Ended up trying four different styli and half a dozen apps.  It would seem that I’ve finally settled on the Wacom Bamboo Stylus, the Nomad minibrush, and the procreate app.  The combination of those three gives me the best results, and while I don’t consider anything I paint on the iPad to be finished work, I would go so far as to call it advanced sketching, and I plan to keep doing it.

PhotoshopCAFE DVDs:  In March, I finished my first DVD, called Cartoon Illustration Techniques in Photoshop.  Easily one of the most difficult projects I’ve ever worked on.  Having only done a little bit of sound and video editing for a failed Flash animation project a few years back, it was a struggle.  But I finished it, it went into production, and is selling well.  I’ve heard from many who bought the DVD that have learned a lot from it and complimented me on my instruction, so I’m guessing I didn’t do so bad a job.

The second DVD, Animal Painting in Adobe Photoshop, was a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable as I wasn’t teaching raw Photoshop beginners.  It was more about the painting than the software and while it was a challenge, the difficulty I went through with the first DVD paid off while recording the second as there were few problems I hadn’t already solved.  Recording one DVD this year would have been enough of a milestone, but I never expected to record two, and to be very pleased with both of them.

Cartoon Ink: While my old website was ‘fine,’ it had become difficult to use and it was no longer the image I wanted to project.  While I had always done my own website in the past, this time I realized one of the most important business practices that so many have learned before me.  Hire professionals to do their job, so you can focus on doing yours.  With that in mind, I hired Erik Bernskiold of XLD Studios in Sweden to create a new website for me.  I knew Erik’s work and know him personally, so I was confident he would deliver much more than I could create myself.  With the help of Elizabeth Gast at Design by Firgs, another colleague and good friend who consulted on the site, and created an improved evolution of my logo, I was very pleased with the final logo and website and would highly recommend both of their work.  The time I saved was well worth the money spent and reduced stress.

Wacom: I began to form a relationship with the great folks at Wacom at Photoshop World in 2010 after I won the Guru Awards for two of my Totem paintings and I couldn’t be happier about it.  Having used their tablets since the late 90’s, you won’t find a bigger fan, so I’m very pleased to be working with them from time to time.

Over the course of the year, I’ve been featured in the Wacom eNews, have represented the company and demonstrated their products at one of Scott Kelby’s seminars in Calgary, and have been a featured guest on two of their one-hour Wacom webinars.  The people I’ve worked with at Wacom have been incredibly supportive and are absolute pros at what they do and I look forward to a continuing relationship with them.

The photo shown here is Joe Sliger demonstrating the new Wacom Inkling for me at Photoshop World this year.  He is also one of the moderators of the webinars.

Island Art Publishers: In July of this year, I began a licensing deal for some of my Totem paintings to be produced on art cards.  These are distributed throughout Western Canada and the northwestern U.S. and time will tell whether this arrangement bears any fruit.  An artist friend once told me that art cards are often your best advertising, because not only does the person buying it see your work, but so does the person receiving it.  You may not make much money early on, but it’s enough to get your work out there to a market that otherwise might not see it.  And the cards look really good.

Photoshop World: While it’s true that I didn’t learn much about technique or improving my work at this year’s Photoshop World in Las Vegas, I still think it was worth attending because of the networking opportunities.  Having recorded two DVDs for PhotoshopCAFE, it was great to finally meet the owner of the company in person, and see their operation on the Expo Floor.  I was able to meet a few more of the Wacom folks in person, and talk with other industry professionals I otherwise might not have had the opportunity to talk to.  Online interaction is fine, but it doesn’t compare with face-to-face conversations.  So while I won’t be going back as an attendee, I still think this year’s trip was well worth it.

knmadventuresAt the time, I was doing some illustration work for wildlife photographer and instructor, Moose Peterson as well, and being able to go over sketches with him in person was a real treat, as most of the time this would have all been done online.  The other benefit of the Photoshop World conference is that I get to meet with so many talented photographers, many of whom I consider close friends.  For somebody who relies on great photo reference for my painted work, their skills and talent are often one of my most valuable resources, not to mention their generosity with their work, and the support they offer for mine.

Paintings: Saved the best for last.  I am so very pleased with the progress I’ve made on my painted work this year.  The first half of the year, I was so busy with the DVDs and other work that I only painted one animal in my Totem series, the Great Horned Owl.  When I realized this in the latter half of the summer, I was ticked off.  The work I love to do most, I had placed in last priority.  In retrospect, however, I’m glad it happened because when I realized it, I vowed it would never happen again and it stoked the fire.  The end result is that from September to December, I’ve painted a number of new images and I feel they are my best work to date.

I had been becoming bored with painted caricatures of people in the past couple of years, but recently, I’ve realized that it wasn’t people I was bored with painting, just caricatures of them.  Beginning with a couple of iPad paintings, I’ve discovered how very much I enjoy painting portraits, and I’ve done a couple of pieces recently that I’ve really enjoyed.  Inspired by the work of Drew Struzan and others, I think I’ll be painting a lot more portraits of people, if nothing more than for the sheer enjoyment of it.  While style is always evolving, I think my paintings now have a definitive look that is mine, whether it’s people or animals, and it’s one I want to continue to develop and refine.

I’m now getting commissions to paint pet portraits and caricature this year, and it’s really enjoyable work.  The painting of Don Diego that I did for my DVD, the memorial to Titus the cat, and to being able to finally create a real painting for my folks of their dog, Bailey, it’s looking like this could be a big part of my work in the coming years.  Working on another commission at the moment, and having fun with it.

My real passion, however, is still the Animal Totems.  Nothing I’ve ever done in my career has filled me with as much joy as that I get from painting these whimsical caricatures of wildlife.  Not only are they fun to work on, but they sell well in the galleries which means others like them, too.  I’ve been fortunate that a number of wildlife photographers I know have been willing to sell me the license rights to use their photos as reference, or have enjoyed my work enough to want to trade me the use of their images for canvas prints of the painting when it’s done, both of which I’m more than willing to do.

Humpback Whale TotemEach of them is my favorite for different reasons, but the one I was most happy with this year was the Humpback Whale Totem.  I don’t know if it’s because I’ve wanted to paint it for so long or that it was such a challenge to paint an animal with no fur or hair, and the end result lived up to my expectations.  Either way, these paintings are the only work I’ve ever done that I still enjoy months and even a year after I’ve painted one.  That alone tells me this is the work I’m meant to do, at least for now.

As you can see, I’ve had a very good year, and I’m grateful for it.  For all of you that follow my work, your messages of support here on the blog, through social media, and email are all appreciated.  It’s a solitary existence, this freelance lifestyle, and it’s nice to know that others are getting enjoyment out of the work I do.  And if you’re struggling with your own creative endeavors, whether you’ve just begun or are just trying to keep going, I would urge you not to give up.  It may not seem like it in the moment, but I assure you, if it’s something you love to do, it’s worth the effort.