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Another great year, looking forward to the next.

Coming up on the end of another year and while it’s just a date on a calendar, having these periodic markers along the way does give a person a chance for reflection and to make plans for the next go round the sun.

I’ve been fortunate that every year in my art career has been better than the one that came before it. 2014 was no exception. Always learning and improving my skills, the challenge this year was to keep my eyes on where I’m going, despite the distractions that tempted me to lose focus. It’s easy to look at what other artists are doing and to wonder if they know something you don’t, but in my experience, we’re all just winging it, no matter what profession you’re in.

This past year, I found myself doing a lot of sketch paintings, simply the term I use for what I consider unfinished work. Some of those went further to become finished paintings in my Totem collection, others ended up being practice pieces, and still others sold well as prints, even though that hadn’t been my intention at the beginning of the year. I plan to do a lot more of that type of work in 2015, as I really enjoyed it.

In the spring, my wife and I were once again working my booth at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, our second year at that event. As it was a big success for us, I’ve been signed up for the 2015 Expo almost since the last one ended. I’ll be trying a few new things with print sales this year and I look forward to participating in their tenth anniversary. We also plan to have a booth at a few other trade shows during the year.

I painted my first landscape in 2014, an enjoyable personal project I did just to see if I could. I doubt that I’ll become a landscape artist anytime soon, but I’ve still got a few ideas I’d like to bring to light, so there will likely be one or two in the coming year, along with some experiments that may or may not involve animals.

One of the reasons I chose that particular image to paint, a landmark called White Face Rock, was that I had fond memories of Ucluelet, British Columbia, somewhere my wife and I had vacationed a few years ago. I decided to go back this year on my own in June for sort of an artist’s retreat and it ended up being one of the best experiences of my life so far. I rented a little cabin off the harbour for four days, took three days of wildlife cruises through Barkley Sound, brought home plenty of photos and thoroughly enjoyed myself. That trip also gave me the opportunity to get my work into two new galleries in Ucluelet and Tofino.  In the New Year, I plan to go back there and will stop in at some other places along the way. I still have reference photos I have yet to use from the last trip and I plan to get to some more of those soon.

One of the more valuable life lessons I’ve learned is to make time for personal projects. Seems each one ends up yielding unexpected benefits. One such project this year came from finding a nest of Great Horned Owls up at Grassi Lakes here in Canmore. After watching the family of owls for a couple of weeks, taking plenty of photos and doing some sketch paintings, I ended up with a painting that I called, ‘One in Every Family.’  It was a departure from my usual style of animal paintings.

At Photoshop World in Las Vegas this year, that painting won me the Best in Show Guru Award, the second year I’ve received that honour. A nice surprise bonus of that award was winning a Canon 5D Mark III camera, a professional piece of hardware that I am enjoying learning how to use. I’ve discovered that photography as a hobby has opened new creative avenues for me, especially since it contributes directly to my work. I take the camera with me whenever I go hiking or for a drive and it has helped me get even better reference photos for paintings. Funny how things work out.

While I’ve got plenty of fond memories of Photoshop World in Las Vegas, having attended five times, made plenty of friends and learned a lot, this year was a high note and I think a good ending for me for that particular event. I don’t think I’ll be going back anytime soon, certainly not in 2015. I’ve learned never to say never, but there are plenty of other experiences and trips I’d like to take.  The world’s a big place.

In August, I met a gentleman named Bruno, a vendor at one of the Canmore Market booths. I just liked his character and felt the urge to paint him, another personal project. He was willing to participate in the experience and I ended up doing a portrait piece that I was quite proud of.

Since then, I’ve gotten to know Bruno and he has been giving my wife and I a crash course in the community and inner workings of the artist trade show circuit in Western Canada. We’ve been learning a lot and planning to venture into that world a little more as a result. Serendipity once again. I will be doing more portraits in the coming year.

And finally, one of my favorite pieces this year was the commissioned painting of Denzil, one I consider to be my best work to date, at least when it comes to a realistic rendering. It raised the bar for what I will now consider a finished piece and it’s going to make me try harder. Many times I’ve finished a painting and thought, “that’s it, I can’t do better than that,” and I’m always wrong. With time and practice comes more skill and that applies to everyone and everything, no matter what you do.

I’ve no desire for time to move quicker than it already does, but I find myself excited to think about the paintings I’ll do five years from now.

For the next year, I’m playing the long game. I’ve met with and hired a local designer friend and neighbour who is going to help me bring a book of my artwork into reality, something I’ve wanted to do for years. Up until now, I didn’t feel I had enough pieces with which to populate the book I had in mind. I still don’t, but by the end of 2015, I will, so there will be a lot of painting this year.  Before I commit to anything else as the year goes on, that will be front of mind.

It’s with quiet confidence that I close out 2014, with great expectations for the coming year. I see no reason why the recent trend should not continue and I look forward to 2015 being better than the year that came before it.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a follower of my work. Perhaps you’ve purchased my prints at the galleries, online or at Expo, or you’ve been a client that hired me to paint one of your fuzzy faced loved ones. You might follow my Facebook page, Twitter feed, or subscribe to my newsletter. You might be one of my many editors across Canada who sees fit to publish my cartoons on your editorial page. Maybe you’re one of those friends or industry colleagues I’ve been fortunate to know and work with over the years. No matter where you fit in with your support of my daily work of drawing and colouring all day, please accept my sincere thanks.  I do appreciate it.

My very best to all of you in the coming year. Take chances, start checking items off those bucket lists, don’t wait to live the life you’ve imagined. It is well worth the risk.


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An Island Retreat

Last year, I had the idea to go away on a little bit of a working vacation, an artist’s retreat, for lack of a better term. Intending to start small, I was just going to drive down the road to Kananaskis in the fall, stay at the Lodge for a few days, and just sketch, draw, paint, and write.

True to my nature, I found a reason to cancel a couple of weeks beforehand with the excuse that I was too busy. Then I beat myself up about it, angry at my habit of talking a good game when it comes to stuff like this, and then playing it safe and chaining myself to my routine. It’s an odd quirk, considering that I had no problem quitting my safe full-time job eight years ago to freelance for a living.

Thankfully, my wife and I took an impromptu vacation to Vegas around the same time, did a whole bunch of fun stuff (biplane tour over the Hoover Dam, skydiving, gun range, saw some shows) and my failure to take the retreat was temporarily forgotten.

As winter wore on, overwhelmed with work, plus planning for the Calgary Expo, the thought of getting away started to creep in again. When I brought it up to my ever-supportive wife that I was thinking of going back to Ucluelet, somewhere we’d vacationed three years ago, she gave her blessing and I started planning.

I’d fly into Comox on May 31st, rent a car, drive across Vancouver Island, rent a cabin and for four or five days, I’d just sketch, draw, paint, and write. Shonna told me to save myself some money and use the Air Miles for the flight and car. I didn’t figure out why until later.

As the trip grew closer, and I realized how much work I had to do to, I started to once again consider that perhaps I was too busy to take this time off. But if you cancel a trip made with Air Miles, you lose them. That’s pretty much what kept me from finding a reason not to go. She’s sneaky, that wife of mine.

As a chronic over-planner, I tried my best to remain open to the adventure while still keeping my eye on the ball.  I fought my urge to please everybody and declined a number of offers of visits with people I know on the Island. But I did make time for one night in the Courtenay/Comox area. Had a BBQ with good friends who use to live here in the Bow Valley, spent the night with long-time family friends (their son is one of my oldest and closest friends), and planned to see my uncle and his wife on the way back to the airport on the last day. That was all I had time for unless I removed the whole reason for taking the trip. Selfishly, and without apology, this was all about me.

The mountain road out to Ucluelet and Tofino is winding, narrow, and a little hairy in places. I’m not a road trip kind of guy, I don’t like driving much in general, but that drive was a lot of fun thanks to the zippy little (and bright green) Mazda 2 the rental company gave me. Heading out early, I avoided any traffic and arrived in Ucluelet on Sunday morning before noon, to an ideal little cabin right on the harbour. It was bright green to match the car.

The plan was to sketch, draw, paint, write and be creative. Shonna and I took a wildlife tour three years ago with Archipelago Wildlife Cruises and it was a highlight of our trip to the Island. I wanted to spend another day on the water with them again. I was going to walk along Long Beach again, spend at least one day in Tofino, and hike some trails in between there and Ucluelet. I wanted to be productive, make the most of my time and get stuff done. In no time at all, the best laid plans of this obsessive over-planner were tossed out the window.

I didn’t sketch at all. Not once. I didn’t paint. I only wrote one blog post. I wasn’t creative in the slightest.

Hiked every day on the Wild Pacific and other trails, including a very creepy, but exhilarating walk through the rainforest to Half Moon Bay at twilight, where I didn’t see another soul for more than two hours.  I spent three days on the water with people I now consider friends, and that’s an upcoming post all on its own. I was still up before 6:00AM every day, out with the camera and a coffee in my travel mug. I wandered the harbour and docks, smelling the salt air, and ignored the news of the world. I took a ton of photos. It was perfect.

Talking to Shonna one night, I confided that I really didn’t feel like going to Tofino. I didn’t even feel like going to Long Beach, as there was plenty for me right around Ukee. But, I felt like I was supposed to go to these places because I was already in the area. She told me to do whatever I wanted, that it was my trip. If I wanted to stay in bed all day in the cabin, read a book and take naps, then that’s what I should do. And she was right.

There was this familiar urge to get things accomplished, but the only work I did was that I managed to get my prints into two new galleries, in both Ucluelet and Tofino, which will again be a whole other post, and I still didn’t have to go to Tofino. I felt this obligation to come back from the trip with a sketchbook full of work, thousands of words written, and a line by line accounting that quantified and justified the expense, as if I had a boss I needed to impress when I got home.

Last I checked, I became a freelancer so I didn’t have to deal with a boss like that.

Another artist might think it a sacrilege that I went all that way and didn’t do any of the creative stuff I was “supposed to do” while I was there. But according to what so many have told me I should be doing over the years, everything I’ve done to build my successful career as a freelancer has been wrong, anyway. Most of the advice I’ve gotten from other artists has been based on their own experience, and people like to justify their way of doing things by telling others they should do the same thing. If I were to add my own experience based truth about this profession, I would say, “Consider all of the advice, but ignore most of it. Trust your own instincts and chart your own course. It’s the only way you’re ever going to be happy.”

This trip exceeded my expectations. I came home inspired and invigorated. I will do it again, might even go back to the same place because I loved being there and I loved coming home, too. The photos I took have given me plenty of reference to paint from and that allows me to relive the experience. Given the chance to do it all over, I wouldn’t change a thing.

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The Highlights of 2013

All things considered, I’m pretty happy with the work I accomplished in 2013.  I wanted to focus more on painting, so I turned down more illustration gigs than I accepted this year and about that, I have no regrets.  Along with the daily editorial cartoons, I worked on a number of pet portrait commissions, added more Totem paintings to my portfolio and managed to squeeze in a couple of portraits of people, too.  Regardless of subject, each painting was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and as soon as I finished one, I was itching to start another.

If I were to choose the top three personal highlights of this year, they would be two portraits and one Totem.

MartinSheenAt the very end of 2012, my painting of Martin Sheen as Tom from the movie, The Way, had come to the attention of his son, Emilio Estevez, who wrote and directed the movie.  I had tagged him on Twitter, but didn’t really expect anything from it.  Much to my surprise, he contacted me the same morning asking about buying a print, then the original.   He said, “…the image is gorgeous and you have captured my father in a way that few have.”

Over the next few weeks of back and forth and having the canvas produced, it was delivered to Estevez at the beginning of February and he gave it to his father as a gift.   I had asked them both to sign a paper print for me as well, which I’ve now framed and have hanging in my office.   I was pleasantly surprised to later receive a copy of their co-written book ‘Along the Way,’ personally signed by both of them and a ‘Thank You’ note from Estevez.  The card is still tacked to my bulletin board.  What can I say, I’m a fan.

While the story received some attention in a number of media outlets, that sort of thing is fleeting and in the long run, just another blip in a rapidly changing entertainment news cycle.  But, what I enjoy most about the experience is that each time I come up the stairs into my office, the first thing I see is the signed painting and it frequently makes me smile.  It is still one of my favorite pieces both for the enjoyment I had painting it and the story that goes with it.  And I still love that movie.

ChrisHadfieldIn the Spring of this year, astronaut Chris Hadfield became the first Canadian to command the International Space Station.  With his daily tweets and seemingly endless supply of jaw dropping photos taken from a place few have ever been, he captured the imagination and excitement of the world, including me.  I was inspired to paint his portrait and was thrilled when I received a complimentary tweet from space from Hadfield himself.  If that weren’t enough, I drew an editorial cartoon about his taking command and in the toon, I mentioned Flin Flon, Manitoba.  This prompted an interview from that town’s local paper which again caught the attention of Hadfield and I received a second short message from the I.S.S..  Apparently all it takes to make a 43 year old man feel like a ten year old kid again is getting messages from an astronaut in space.  That was just cool.

CoyoteTotemFinally my favorite painting from this year was the Coyote Totem, because it’s one that’s been waiting to be painted for 20 years, even before I knew how to paint.  For reasons I don’t wish to share publicly, and couldn’t even explain if I did, this is the most personal of all of the Totems I’ve painted and the only one I’ve had printed on canvas and framed for myself.  It hangs in my office on the wall to my right, where I can easily see it.  I look at it often and it reminds me how fortunate I am and how I got from there to here.

I just wasn’t skilled enough to do it justice until this year, but of any image I’ve created, it’s the painting I love most.  And I’m grateful that the personality showed up.


I would like to give honourable mention to my most recent portrait of Anthony Hopkins as Bill Parrish from ‘Meet Joe Black.’  This was another personal painting because I did it just for me.  I started the year focused on a painting of a character and actor I admire, an image that got a lot of attention and ended the year with a painting of a character and actor I admire, an image that got very little.  And yet, I loved working on both portraits equally, the work itself brought me the most joy.

That’s the lesson I learned this year and the one I’m taking into the next.

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Artistic Freedom

CoyotePostThe greatest freedom in being self-employed is that you get to choose where you want to go. It’s one of the reasons so many creatives work for themselves and yet we too often forget that simple fact.

I’ve always felt a need to catch up, especially since I operated for a long time under the assumption that I started late. While I doodled as a kid and teenager, I never really started drawing with any intent or wanting to learn to be a better artist until my late twenties.  That was when the Banff Crag and Canyon newspaper needed a weekly cartoonist and nobody else applied.  It didn’t matter that I didn’t draw well or know much about politics or current events.  They weren’t paying much and nobody was looking to the Crag’s editorial cartoon to set the standard. I already had a full-time tourism job and no ambition to do anything art related past this one thing.   Draw one small town editorial cartoon each week for some extra beer money.  Let’s face it, I was 27 years old, I had never gone to art school, and I didn’t draw very well.  I never expected this to go anywhere.

Fast forward to today, I’m now 43, I’ve been doing this art gig full-time for almost 8 years and am very happy drawing and colouring for a living.  It has thankfully been more than a few years since I would consider it a struggle to make ends meet.  I’ve tried a number of different art related tangents, discarded the ones I didn’t like or that didn’t work, sought to become better at the ones I felt passionate about, and year after year, my focus has become sharper.

One of the best things I did this year was to begin removing myself from a few imaginary races I’ve been running.  It’s easy to get caught up in the hype today that an artist’s value is entirely dependent on how many people follow you on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and that the incremental rise and fall of your Klout score will determine whether or not your business survives the end of the week.  I know, because for a long time, I worried about that very thing.  It’s exhausting and it’s an illusion.

Social media has been great for my business, don’t get me wrong, but it just never worked for me when I was trying too hard to get it to work for me.   The scramble to be noticed by Company A, to be retweeted by Company B, and to have your site address posted by Company C becomes like an addiction.  When it happens once, you try to make it happen again.  When it doesn’t happen, or it happens but not as well as you wanted it to, and fails to pay the street-cred dividends you expected, you wish you’d never had the initial boost to your profile in the first place.  You start to question your own value when the person who was happy to hear from you last year suddenly isn’t returning your calls anymore.

Then you end up looking to other people in your industry that you view as more successful and try to copy what they’re doing.  Person A is writing articles, so I guess I need to write articles.  But Person B is teaching, so I guess I should be teaching.  Person C is traveling all over the place doing demonstrations at trade shows, so maybe I should be doing that, too.  And I don’t know what Person D is doing but everybody is talking about them so I need to find out why.

All of that scrambling leaves little time for anything creative.  While it’s true that I’m drawing editorial cartoons every day to meet my deadlines, last year I didn’t paint nearly as much as I had expected to, and not even close to how much I wanted to.  The one thing I enjoy most about my work, I shoved aside so that I could promote myself.  But what exactly was I promoting if there wasn’t any work?

This year, I’ve realized that the growth of my business is not tied to my connection to movers and shakers, nor is it tied to blogging freelancing tips and tricks or spending hours writing yet another tutorial on how to use brushes in Photoshop.   While people may value that contribution, it has rarely translated to income or led me in a direction in which I wanted to go.  I found myself looking forward and thinking, why do I feel like I’m voluntarily walking into a trap?  It also left me little time to paint or draw anything outside of my deadlines.

The greatest gains I’ve seen in my business, both financially and in my public profile, have been when I produce the work I enjoy creating.  The connection I make with the people who enjoy and buy my work doesn’t happen when I talk about being creative, it happens when I AM creative.

Therein lies the simple plan for the next year.  Pay the bills, learn to be a better artist, and chart my own course.  Spend a lot more time producing artwork and a lot less time talking about it.

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Out the Other Side

PatrickGrinIt’s ironic that I don’t celebrate calendar holidays, but the changing of the year always makes me reflective.  While I usually aim for one short blog entry for my year in review, it would appear I’m incapable of that, so this first one is less about the work and more about what’s been rattling around in my noggin this year.

It is difficult to find the separation between my personal and professional life.  Having been able to find that elusive state of doing what I love for a living, the majority of my business is work that I enjoy.  When your work and life become so interconnected, happiness in one depends on the same in the other.

Clearly a midlife evaluation of priorities and direction, I’ve been on an emotional ride the last few years, one that has included dark lows and bright highs.  Most of my college years were spent studying psychology, so I’ve always been a believer in talk therapy.  Even the most supportive family member or friend can be too close to the source and a trained therapist will often present perspectives and open doors that had not been previously considered.  With that in mind, I spent some time talking with a professional therapist over the past year and it was incredibly helpful.

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with OCD, and while sitcoms and movies like to use that as a punch line, it has a much broader meaning than fear of germs or lining up everything in the fridge, neither of those being components of my particular affliction.  I don’t mention this as a ploy to garner sympathy, just to point out that it’s a piece of the puzzle that makes me who I am.  As Michael J. Fox once said about his Parkinson’s disease, “Everybody has their own bag of hammers to carry around.  This is just mine.”

I mention it, because the ironic benefit of my particular OCD cocktail is that it makes me organized, driven and introspective.  As much as it can be likened to carrying around an annoying child in your head 24/7, one that never shuts up about shit you can’t control or change, it has also been one of the largest contributors to the success of my business and my work.

While some opt for medication to take the edge off of their anxiety disorder, and I certainly won’t judge anyone who has gone that route, I have chosen not to.  I have done well to rely on my gut instinct over the years and everything in me tells me that to chemically mess with the crazy, I risk damaging the creativity.  I am convinced that it all wells up from the same place.

I realize that calling it crazy isn’t politically correct, but I’ve lived with it long enough that I get to call it what I like.

Day in, day out I am worrying about things I can’t change and trying to control their outcome.  If I don’t have something to worry about, I will make something up.  Thankfully, I have a strong-willed wife who will apply the brakes when my mentally distracted driver starts veering all over the road.  When that annoying kid in my head attempts to draw her into a no-win pointless ‘what-if’ discussion, she is fond of sighing and saying “tell your little friend I’m not playing today.”

One particular quirk that comes with this genetic misfiring of chemicals in the grey matter is that I’m acutely aware of the passage of time.  While some may think they have all the time in the world, I’m under no such illusion.  I know it could all end in ten years, in twenty, or tomorrow.  That awareness factors into many decisions I make, especially in the past few years.  Funny how your early forties will do that to you.

WacoFBCoverOn our recent vacation to Vegas, it is this awareness that prompted Shonna and I to charter a biplane to take us on a tour over the Hoover Dam and to decide over lunch that we were going skydiving for the first time the very next day.  While I’m all too often guilty of having to plan everything and worrying about the future, it was worry about regret that allowed me to seize the moment, which made the experiences much more rewarding.  It also laid the foundation for the ones we’ll have tomorrow.

There is tremendous freedom in making choices, both personal and professional, if you imagine viewing them from the end of your life. If lying on my deathbed, would I look back on the choices I’m making today and wished I’d done them differently?  This is, however, a cautionary tale.  The choices we make for ourselves, when approached from that perspective, will undoubtedly alienate and disappoint some friends, family, mentors and others with whom we are connected.  But, those people see our lives from their perspective.  They don’t usually see that if we attempted to place the same restrictions or demands on them, they would resent it.

This is not an endorsement of shirking responsibility to your loved ones or those you care about.  But just as you choose to make yourself accountable to certain people, they are accountable to you as well.  Part of that accountability is allowing each other to make your own choices, good or bad, whether you agree with them or not.   One look at social media on any given day, and it’s easy to see that most people don’t walk that talk, your choices and opinions only valid if they happen to be the same ones they’re making.  Share or like if you agree.

Accounting for available evidence, we each only get one shot at life. While an unpopular view,  I don’t believe in heaven or hell.  If there is something after this life, I don’t think we can comprehend it in this existence and I certainly don’t believe we are meant to spend this life focused on it.  One person’s belief in their meaning and purpose may be entirely different than that of the person next to them, and both may be right.  I believe that you can live a good life and choose not to hurt other people without it being about a reward at the end.  If this timeline is all we get, it makes sense to get the most out of it.

If I have been going through a midlife crisis (evaluation, introspection, change of life, etc.), then I believe 2013 is the year I started coming out the other side, and not only was the whole difficult painful experience necessary for growth, it was incredibly freeing.  If the next year follows the same course, I am excited for what’s coming, and I’m looking forward to it.





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Be careful what you wish for.

YesNoGot this question on my Facebook page this morning.  After writing the response, I thought I’d share it here as well with a few added sentences I thought of after the fact, as I get this sort of question a lot…

Hey Patrick, is your illustrations your main income?? I’m rattling around so much with going full time with my gift of photography but afraid to take that jump.. I seem to have no time to create working a full time job and kids;)

Hi ________:

Between editorial cartooning, illustration, painting commissions, print sales and licensing…yes. I’ve made a good full-time living as an artist for the past seven years. But for nine years before that, it was a gig I did on the side while holding down a full-time job to pay the bills.

I built my business working mornings before work, evenings and weekends and finally got to a point where I couldn’t get any busier until I quit my job as an office manager for a physiotherapist. Living in Canmore (high cost of living in the Canadian Rockies) on one income is near to impossible, or at least was for us then, so the deal with my wife was that if I couldn’t pay my half of the mortgage, I had to at least get a part-time job to supplement the art income. Fortunately, my boss at the time was (and still is) a great guy, knew what I was planning from day one, and when I gave him two months notice, he suggested I go part-time first and he hired somebody else part-time to take up the slack. About six months later, I had to give notice again as I got a lot busier, but waited until he found the right person to fill my job, which took about a month. It was the best LAST job to have.

It was a real struggle for the first few years, a lot of waiting for money to come in, going into overdraft more times than I can count before I wasn’t relying on every invoice being paid in order to pay my half of the bills, but every year has been better than the one before. It hasn’t really been a struggle for about three or four years now.

I don’t want to discourage you, but your situation contains a big factor that mine doesn’t. We never chose to have kids, so the risk wasn’t nearly as much. My wife and I have often said that if we’d had children, I likely wouldn’t have been able to quit my job. I’m not saying it’s impossible, of course, lots of people do it, but it will be a lot more pressure on you. In those first few years, I had no time for anything else but working. Even now, I work almost every day.  I finally figured out awhile ago why they say ‘do what you love for a living.’ It’s not because you’ll be happy all the time. It’s because when everything is hitting the fan, you haven’t slept, eaten, and the bills are overdue, if you didn’t love it, you’d toss it all out the window and quit. Loving what you do is a survival requirement.

Without knowing anything more about your situation, I would advise that before you quit your job, make sure all of your ducks are in a row. Everything from bookkeeping, accounting, taxes and some money in the bank. Get as many gigs as you can part-time first and make your big mistakes while you still have a job. Those first few years, I was on edge and scared ALL the time, feeling like I was one gig away from losing my business.  You spend half of your time doing support work. In addition to bookkeeping and invoicing, you’ve got marketing, correspondence, portfolio and website maintenance, travel time, all of the little things that will take time away for your photography. So those billable hours have to cover that time, too.

I’m a big believer in doing what you love for a living, but it’s never easy. A lot of sleepless nights, chewed fingernails, and figuring things out as I went along, most often from doing a lot of things wrong.  The stress WILL take its toll in a number of different ways.  For however long it takes, vacations can no longer be a priority and you must go without luxuries.  When you do take time off, you’re not getting paid.  There is no such thing as a weekend anymore and if you don’t have a spouse whose job comes with health and dental benefits (fortunately I do), then you have to factor that into the equation.  I know a number of people who quit their jobs without having any idea of what running their own business required and it’s unfortunate, because often they’ll end up giving up their artwork altogether because of the failed business. So they took what they loved and killed it in an effort to make it their job.

Having a hobby you love is not justification for doing it for a living.  There are many days where the last thing I want to do is draw.  I’ve invested so much of myself into my business, and honestly there is nothing I would rather be doing.  Many people like the idea of being self-employed, but it isn’t for everybody.  You can also count on friends and family failing to understand your choice and telling you that you work too much and should take more time off.  They never stop doing that, by the way.

Whatever you decide, give it a lot of thought, but keep doing what you love. If it takes a little longer to do it for a living, and that’s what you really want, so be it, even though it’s frustrating to have to wait. I started very late to this art gig, didn’t even consider it until I was in my thirties and I know people who started even later than I did and are doing very well.

Anything’s possible, but as the old saying goes, “if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”

Best of luck,

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Avalanche Movies Rolls Credits


A few years back, I found myself considering a part-time job.  In my late 30’s, working full-time at home as a freelance artist, it wasn’t about the money, but getting out of the house a little more.  As much as I like working for myself, I missed having coworkers, even though when I had them, they drove me nuts.

The only place in Canmore I wanted to go for an evening job was Avalanche.  Make a little extra money, sure, but best of all, I got to be around movies, something near and dear to my heart.  I’m hardly the type of person that can discuss great cinema, tell you anything about Fellini or discuss the hidden nuances in Woody Allen films.  In fact, I can’t stand Woody Allen films.  I just love movies.

But Avalanche also has a reputation.  People like working there and that’s something you can’t fake, because they seem to like their jobs even when the owners aren’t around.  In a business well known for hiring teenagers and young adults, I was easily the oldest guy there.  Little did I know, the ownership was changing just as I was hired on, and I’ll admit that I thought I might have made a mistake.  But Jeff assured me that the owners weren’t just handing it off to anybody, they were making sure that it went to people who would keep the culture of Avalanche alive.

Enter Patrick and Camille, and I had no reason to worry.

I already had a work ethic; it’s something I take pride in.  But working at Avalanche, it didn’t take long to realize that everybody else there did, too.  Many of these ‘kids’ worked harder and knew more about customer service than most adults I’ve met and worked with.  For a lot of them, this was a coveted first job and with a lineup of their peers in this community waiting to take their place, few took it for granted.

My time at Avalanche was short, just over a year as I realized I was too busy for a part-time job, even though it was only a couple of nights a week.  But I enjoyed it and am thankful for the experience, because though I left a while ago, they still treat me like one of their own.  I even came back that year to work a shift with another former staff member, so everybody else could go to the Christmas party and we were happy to do it.  How many employers would you do that for?

To understand what kind of environment and direction Avalanche has provided to kids in this community, you need only look to the adults many of them have become.  Responsible and hardworking, they’re the type of people you want to know, hire and work with, because they know the value of doing a job well.

Customer service is a talk they walk at Avalanche.  Rather than just point a finger to a corner of the store when you ask for a movie, staff will take you right to it or go and get it for you.  That direction comes from the top.  Even as a customer, I still can’t walk by a crooked DVD case on the shelf without straightening it.

The place always smells of popcorn, free for the taking while you peruse the store, and if once in a while a batch gets burned, it’s usually because all of the staff are helping customers and didn’t get to it in time.  But a new batch isn’t far behind.

Only a fraction of late fees are ever collected.  Most of the time, they’re forgiven outright.  The only time you can be guaranteed to be asked to pay them is on the many occasions when they’re donated to benefit a local charity or cause.  And in this community, people are always happy to give more than they owe.

Walking into Avalanche, you never have to worry that you don’t know what to get.  I can’t tell you how many times Camille, Patrick or Jeff have taken the time to walk around with us, pointing out movies we should see, often  sleeper hits we’ve never heard of and then thoroughly enjoy.  It’s gotten so they even know what we like.  One of my favorite movies is “The Way.”.  This movie so inspired me that I painted Martin Sheen’s portrait from it.  I may not have ever seen it, had it not been recommended to me by Camille on one of those walks through the new releases.  That portrait now hangs in Sheen’s home in California.

Every dog in Canmore knows Avalanche.  Not only is it one of the few places where they’re welcomed to come on in, but there’s a never-ending bag of dog cookies behind that counter.  Even if you aren’t renting or buying a movie, dogs are always welcome to stop in for a treat, if they just happen to be on their way by.

For someone who lives outside of this community, you might view the closure of a movie rental business to be inevitable.  In the age of digital downloads and faceless automatic rental kiosks, it might seem that this business model has seen its day.  Not here.  As mentioned in their release, Avalanche is only closing because “our location is no longer available to us.”

You don’t just go to Avalanche to rent a movie, you go because you might run into someone you haven’t seen in a while. It’s one of the still locally owned gems in this town where they know you and they’re happy you stopped in, even if it was just to say Hi.  If this is the end for Avalanche, it will be mourned by this whole community.  Small towns have a way of disappearing one business at a time and while we all want the modern big box chain convenience, nothing comes without sacrifice and we lose a bit of ourselves each time it happens.

Hopefully somebody out there will want to write the sequel in another location.  If you’re that person, Patrick and Camille would like to talk to you.  If you want to know where to find them, just follow your dog.

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Working for Free and Clearing the Air

This topic seems to be floating around a fair bit lately and that’s a great thing.  Too many artists are doing work for free because many companies expect them to.  While I could write a long post about this, and I have in the past, Stephen Silver says it best in this video below.  If you are a freelance artist and aren’t yet aware of Stephen’s work, I would suggest you follow him.  He is respected for good reason.  He has great advice, is very inspirational and has been working in the animation and design business for a long time.  I’ve even taken an online character design course from him years ago and learned a lot.  While I don’t consider myself as accomplished a cartoonist or character designer as he is, my work is definitely better from having learned from him.  Now this video below is an angry rant, and this is out of character for Stephen, but he’s passionate about protecting artists from being taken advantage of, and you can see that in the video.  If you’re easily offended…well you wouldn’t be here, so never mind.

Before I get to the video, however, I’d like to address something I’ve been taking a bit of flack for the past couple of months, something that has direct bearing on this topic, and that’s the fact that I gave Emilio Estevez the painting of his father for free.  While I could easily dismiss the criticism as ‘some people are just angry at everything,’ I feel it’s important to address this because it’s not just me being slighted in the criticism, it’s Estevez as well.  While I’m sure he has thick skin and is used to being criticized for anything and everything in his profession, it bothers me that some think he got the painting for free because he expected it for free, simply because he’s a celebrity.  That’s not the case.

Throughout our correspondence, he was always offering to buy the painting.  He never expected me to give it to him.  When I explained that I couldn’t sell it because of why I painted it (you can read about that here), he then offered me other incentives from which I could make money from the print and I still declined.  My decision to give the painting was always mine.   I make a good living as a commercial artist, I do not do commission work for free, and nobody is taking advantage of me.  I wasn’t asked to do the painting.  That would have been something entirely different and I would have charged appropriately for my time and effort, just as I would have if the painting was going to be used commercially.

Let’s say that I had been in the same head space I was in when I painted that image of Martin Sheen, but had instead been inspired to paint somebody on the street in Calgary.  Let’s say I took a photo, and painted that person for my own enjoyment.   Let’s also say that person’s son or daughter saw the image and wanted to give that image to their father, the subject of the painting.   I can honestly say that I would have done the same thing, charged them only the printing and shipping and given them the painting, the same arrangement I made with Estevez.  The decision was not about celebrity.  It was about me, where I was at a couple of months ago, and what my instinct told me at the time.  The difference was that the inspiration came from a film, so the painting ended up being a character played by a well known actor.

Estevez was nothing but gracious and genuine throughout the experience and in addition to the signed prints I requested, and paying for the shipping and printing,  he even gave me a copy of the memoir written by him and his father, signed personally to me by both.  Some have suggested I should have gone for the big money grab because he was a celebrity.  That’s just not me.  While the story did get a fair bit of press in Canada and a little bit in the U.S., the experience doesn’t mean anything in the long run to anybody but me and the recipients of the painting.   It’s already long over, as most stories of this nature so quickly are.  To do it all again, I would change nothing.  While I have some very nice souvenirs of the experience,  I’m back to doing what I do best, drawing cartoons, illustrations, and painting funny looking animals for a living.  Throw in the odd portrait for fun and inspiration and that’s where I want to be.

Hopefully that clears a few things up for a few angry people out there.  If not, feel free to continue to wallow in it.  It’s your problem.  For the rest of you, take a look at this video by Stephen Silver.  If you’re an artist, it might inspire you to believe in your own worth.  If you’re not an artist, but someone who might hire one, perhaps this will enlighten you as to the struggles being faced in the industry.  We’re all building our own individual careers, but we also need to look out for one another as well.

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A work visa? But, I’m Canadian.

This year could have started better.  I just cancelled my flight, hotel and other arrangements for CES in Vegas next week and I’m not too happy about it.

I was supposed to be working in the Wacom booth for the Consumer Electronics Show next week, leaving Monday morning, coming home on Friday.  While I did a demo presentation at their booth at Photoshop World last year,  I wasn’t compensated for that appearance, so it didn’t pose a problem.  For CES, however, Wacom was sending me there and we overlooked something very important.

Canadians need a work visa to work for an American company in the United States.   I honestly didn’t know this and neither did Wacom, as this was a new experience for both of us.  My research over the past 24 hours has shown that most Canadians who get paid to travel to work at trade shows, do guest lectures, and speak at U.S. conferences are completely unaware that without a work visa, they’re doing so illegally.  If you’re compensated for your appearance, even if it’s just your expenses, you need a work visa.

Believe it or not, this came to my attention just yesterday while my wife and I just happened to be watching a National Geographic Channel series, “Border Security” which looks at the challenges faced by Canadian Border Services at the three different types of entry (air, sea, land) into British Columbia.  An American traveling to Canada needs a work visa for trade show work, guest lecturing, speaking, etc. as well.  One particular case sounded so similar to mine, and the person was denied entry into Canada, that I started looking around and found out that I was in trouble.

Had I shown up at the airport and told them what I was doing, completely unaware that I was in violation of Immigration Law, U.S. customs would have likely denied me entry into the U.S. and I’d be doing a quick turnaround heading right back home, my file flagged for all future border crossings.

My research, of course, found plenty of examples of people saying they just say they’re ‘attending’ a conference, rather than working it, and that’s how they get around the rules.  Then there are the people who’ve been caught lying to border security who caution against that tactic.  Border security officers are trained and experienced to know when you’re lying and I’ve always said I’d be a bad poker player.

I have an over-developed sense of ethics that has served me well throughout my life, but I’ll admit it makes me feel like a bit of a pushover sometimes when so many others regularly break laws like this and get away with it.

But here’s the thing.  If I tried to skirt the U.S. border laws by lying about my reasons for heading into the U.S. and they caught me in the lie, I’d be banned from travel to the U.S. for 1-5 years with no opportunity to appeal.  They don’t even have to prove you’re lying, they just have to think you are.  That means I couldn’t even land in the U.S. enroute to somewhere else.  And anybody who has ever had issues crossing the U.S. border will tell you that all it takes is ONE incident and you’ll have issues for the rest of your life, because they make a note of it on your file.  This would be far more damaging to my life and career than missing three days at CES in Vegas next week.

Just the fact that I called the U.S. consulate this morning to confirm all of my concerns, and they won’t even talk to you without your giving them your passport number, means I can expect that the inquiry alone is now on my file.  Any entry into the U.S in the near future will be met with additional scrutiny, I’m sure.

There is obviously a lot more for me to learn about this situation.  While the U.S. Consulate in Canada did answer some of my questions, they weren’t very helpful and seemed to have no sympathy for my situation at all.  Just getting to talk to a real person took me four or five different phone numbers and about 20 minutes playing touch-tone Olympics getting through the various menus.  Hitting zero just disconnected the call.

As it stands now, I need to talk to the U.S. Consulate in Calgary to find out exactly which visa I need (there are several kinds), make an appointment for an interview (in person), pay the fee if I’m accepted, obtain letters from any U.S. companies I’m working for, etc.  There are a couple of visas I may need, however, that require this work to be initiated by any company in the U.S. that I’ll be working for on U.S. soil.

Canadians have gotten comfortable with the fact that we are such close friends and neighbours with the U.S. that we’ve started to think that we have certain rights when crossing into the U.S. and it’s just not the case.  The United States is solely concerned with looking after Americans.  While Canadians may have a more trusted status in most cases, we are still visitors in a foreign country.  We can be refused entry for any reason deemed appropriate by the U.S. government and they don’t have to justify it to us.  In today’s charged protectionist climate, the rules are stricter now than they’ve ever been.

The same holds true in reverse, something that surprises many Americans when they travel to Canada as well.

So I’ve learned a valuable and humbling lesson this week, and as with most hard lessons, I’m paying for it by not going to Vegas next week, and worse, not working with Wacom while I was there.  Gut feeling, I did the right thing and even though I’m not a happy camper today, things could have ended up worse in the long run.

If there is a bright spot in all of this, it’s that I found out now, so I could cancel my flight and hotel and only be out a couple of hundred dollars in non-refundable fees.  Had I shown up at the airport and been denied access to the U.S. for lack of a work visa, I would have been out the cost of my flight, first night’s hotel, and the return fee for the airport shuttle I was taking Monday morning to Calgary.

There are a couple of days off in my immediate future.  Self-pity will likely be involved.

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Risking your love for a living.

There’s an old saying that says, “Do what you love for a living and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

There’s  another old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.  You just might get it.”

With the accessibility of training, the affordability of equipment and an endless string of stories of people who have turned their hobbies into their living, it seems that many have become convinced of that being the end goal for any creative pursuit.  If you can draw, write, paint, play music, act, sculpt or create anything, you’re supposed to be working to make that your profession.

As someone who made that very choice and is creative for a living,  I consider it a great job, but it is still very much ‘a job.’

Right about now, you’re likely thinking this motivational blog post just went wildly off the rails.  My apologies if you’re disappointed, but there’s plenty of ‘you can do it!’ advice out there and too few reality checks.  Brace yourself.

Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m not comfortable with my choice to be an artist for a living, because I am.  I make my own schedule, I answer only to whom I choose, and if I sense a job is going to be a nightmare, I’m in the enviable position that I can turn it down.   Lately, however, I’ve been experiencing an uncomfortable anxiety about my work.  While there are going to be bad days  in every profession, regardless of how much you like it, there seem to be many more days lately where I get up in the morning and just don’t feel like drawing or painting.  For somebody who used to find any excuse to do either, that’s disturbing.

I used to work at a hotel in Banff.  As far as jobs go, it was a very good one with good people, and I look back on my time there fondly.  During my six or seven years at that hotel, I ran a waterslide facility, then worked night audit, front desk and eventually became the accounting clerk.  During the off season, there was more than the usual downtime.  Sometimes, after all of the cleaning was done each day, I might be alone in the waterslides for an hour or more, just sitting at the desk.  It was then that I’d doodle and sketch and it would pass the time.  When I worked night audit, I would arrive just before midnight, run the reports and balances until about 2:00 AM and then just babysit a sleeping hotel until about 6:00 when people would start to be up and about and the day staff would come in.  That gave me about four hours to read, draw and sketch.

No deadlines, no expectations, just enjoyable drawing.  It was a nice hobby.

During that time, I began drawing one editorial cartoon for the Banff Crag and Canyon, the local weekly newspaper.   Not very well drawn, not very insightful, but no real pressure.  It wasn’t the National Post.

I could write a whole volume about what has come between then and now, how one thing led to another and how I ended up being a full-time artist.  Let’s enter that as read and we’ll jump ahead to the present, shall we?

I can’t remember the last time I drew something simply for fun.

You see, these days, everything I create is part of an end product.  If I’m sketching or drawing, it’s for an editorial cartoon or illustration.  If I’m painting, it’s for promotion, a training video or DVD, or an image I will sell or have been commissioned to do.  Everything feeds the constant deadline.  I realized this recently while working on my last couple of Totems and a commission piece.  There was something missing in the enjoyment of it and it was unsettling.

At the beginning of this ride, there was excitement in the scramble of it all.  Getting that new newspaper, having a magazine print an image, being recognized by a publication or resource.  I was younger, hungrier and enjoyed the competition.  After you reach a certain level, however, it’s no longer a thrill of being ‘on the way up’, but the maintenance required to ‘keep from losing any ground.’  The same old drug dosage is no longer providing the high that it used to.

Continuing on with known sayings, how about this one? “When your hobby becomes your job, you need to find another hobby.”

I used to have full-time day job, and editorial cartooning was the fun gig on the side.  Then it became ‘the job.’  Illustration was then the fun side gig, then it became part of ‘the job.’  Painting became the fun side gig…you can see where I’m headed, here.

Being an artist for a living is great.  I wouldn’t want to do anything else and I would still say that even when I’m having a bad day.  But if you’re considering that leap, go into it with your eyes wide open.

The truth is that business and marketing is where success lies as a creative, not doing what you love.  I’ve seen artists so much better than myself and others, fail to get anywhere because they don’t know how to sell and manage their business at all, or ignore the necessity of it.  I know some self-employed people who are three years behind on their taxes and are living under a ton of debt they’ll be lucky to ever crawl out from.  They wonder why they have no money but they haven’t done any invoicing in months.  I speak to school classes regularly and one question always comes up about whether or not they should go to art school.  I tell them to go to business school.  If you love art, you’ll do it anyway and will find the resources to become better by yourself, but where most artists fail is running their business and selling their work.

You have to be every department as a freelancer.  Accounting, PR, sales, admin, and creative.  Invoicing is done immediately or at the end of the month, without fail.  GST payments are never late.  Tax installments are never late.  You must foster relationships with your clients all the time.  If they know you and like you, they’re unlikely to replace you.  I would estimate that I spend only half my time drawing and creating, and the other half of my time running the business.  All of that comes with expenses, too.  Website design, printing costs, accountants, bookkeepers, lawyers, etc.  Even designing your own budget website will cut into the time you’d rather be working on why you’re in business in the first place.

If this is what you want and are prepared for what it takes, then more power to you.  I would encourage anybody to give it a shot because I prefer these long hours working for myself than shorter hours, vacation time and weekends off working for somebody else.  If, however, you just love to draw or create, seriously consider if you really want to risk that by turning it into your job.  When your hobby becomes your work, it will change how you feel about it and it will no longer be that which you do in order to relax and unwind.  While compromise is always a part of life, decide how much you’re comfortable with.  There is no right or wrong answer, but there is a choice.

I will still write inspirational ‘you can do it’ posts here and elsewhere, and if you read one of those, don’t doubt that I mean it, but success stories will always be about hard work.  In this age of instant celebrity with folks believing they will be ‘discovered’ on shows like American Idol or YouTube and that they deserve to be successful by the simple virtue that they exist, inspiration needs to be tempered with reality, too.

Finally, a word of caution in the form of one more old saying.  “Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.