When I’m not drawing and distributing daily syndicated editorial cartoons, I’m painting whimsical wildlife portraits for prints and licensing. Add in the usual office administration, marketing, writing and everything else that goes along with self-employment, and that’s pretty much how I spend my days.
However, I enjoy painting portraits of people, most often characters from movies. I usually make the time for a couple of these a year, but I’ve only managed this one in 2021.
I’ve often mentioned that I paint these when I’m feeling the need to reconnect to art for art’s sake or when I’m in a low place creatively, but thankfully I’m not feeling that this year. The whole year has been low for obvious reasons, and I just felt like painting a portrait.
I have no interest in painting the publicity or paparazzi headshots of movie stars or celebrities. The less I know about the gossip or their personal lives, the better. Instead, I’m more interested in the characters they play. Those characters are created by skilled writers, directors, and gifted actors, including the supporting cast and professional crews that bring it all together.
When I painted Quint from Jaws, it wasn’t just the actor Robert Shaw I was painting, but the character he inhabited, written by Peter Benchley, directed by Stephen Spielberg and brought to life in a scene with Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider.
I love movies, but we’re living in an age with great television, too, with plenty of writing and acting that can easily go up against any Academy award-winning film.
One of the shows I’ve enjoyed most in recent years is Paramount Network’s Yellowstone. Written and often directed by Taylor Sheridan, Yellowstone chronicles the lives of a generational ranching family in Montana, led by the patriarch, John Dutton.
It’s simply a great show, but not for the faint of heart. If you’ve got issues with language, violence, nudity, sex, lawlessness, smoking, gambling, alcohol, and more, you should seek your entertainment elsewhere.
There are no flawless heroes here. Instead, it’s a family of broken people, each with their dark pasts and demons. One moment they’re prey, the next predators, and you’re never quite sure when they’re right or wrong. But with incredible writing, scenery, and rich characters played by a stellar cast, it’s never dull. I am fulfilled and disappointed after each episode because I must wait a week for the next one.
But I’m glad they dole it out. If they released the season all at once, we’d easily gorge ourselves on it in a few days.
I realized that I wanted to paint John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner, about the middle of last season. Tough as nails, Dutton tries to keep his ranch and family together, while outside interests plot to take it away from him, piece by piece. Even though he knows he’s fighting a losing battle against progress and the future, he won’t resign himself to his inevitable fate.
As often happens when I want to paint other characters, I won’t know what I’m looking for until I see it. Near the end of last season, there’s a scene where Dutton is sitting on his porch, and he looks off to the horizon in the fading light. The moment clicked with me, and I had found my reference, thanks to Cinematographer Ben Richardson’s lighting and cameras.
I painted the scene more sepia tone than the reference, with more contrast, making my own choices for the painting. I like to be inspired by moviemakers and their vision, but I don’t want to create a carbon copy. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I started this painting in July, and I worked on it for a couple of hours here and there whenever I could find the time. I had planned to have it done before the fourth season began this month, but the paying gigs always take priority. So this past week, I put in the last ten or so hours over a few days. With no deadline, there was no reason to rush it, but I also didn’t want this painting to last for too much longer. As much as I loved the work, the best part is calling it done.
If you’re already a Yellowstone fan, I hope you like my rendering of this great character.
If you haven’t yet seen the show, I envy you. You get to start at the beginning with almost four seasons of great storytelling ahead of you.
Although it was a miniature version of the usual event, I spent Sunday at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo. I have no regrets about passing on a booth this year as I still think it would have been more expense than revenue, but a day at the Expo made me realize how much I miss it.
When I’m a vendor, there’s little opportunity to walk around to meet and talk with other artists, aside from my immediate neighbours.
The best I could hope for in previous years is showing up a little early to take a quick tour, but it’s tough to chat with other vendors while they’re trying to set up for the day. Shonna has occasionally worked my booth with me on the busier days, and she’s a big help, but people want to talk to the person who created the artwork, so I stay close to my own customers.
This time, free to wander, I met some talented artists, asked questions about their setup and advice on products they sold, and enjoyed talking shop without having to rush back to my booth. But, of course, when potential customers stepped up, I quickly moved aside and let the vendor go to work.
In my experience, fellow vendors are always willing to share information. At my first show in 2014, I didn’t know anything, so I was grateful for the constructive criticism and advice that came my way. Now that I’ve gained my own experience, I try to help newbies when they show up at my own booth with questions.
I spoke with quite a few vendors who sell vinyl stickers along with their prints and other products. When I showed them my first sticker pack and asked their advice/opinions, all agreed that I was selling them for too little. For the size of my stickers, the vinyl and design quality, a four-pack for $15.95 is a lot less than the current market price.
So, after careful research and consideration, I’ll soon be increasing the price of those stickers in the store to $20.95. As I learn more about the sticker market, I’m optimistic and excited about the possibilities. They’ll undoubtedly be prominent products in my Expo booth in April.
It was also great to reconnect with Alexander Finbow, the owner of Renegade Arts Entertainment, a growing publishing house right here in Canmore. Alex has published several award-winning graphic novels, comic and children’s books by international authors and artists. It seems they’re well known in the industry but still a well-kept secret here in the Bow Valley.
Having arrived on Sunday at 9:30 that morning, I had plenty of time to accomplish my own goals before my buddy Derek arrived with his daughter and her friend around 1:00. The owner of Electric Grizzly Tattoo here in Canmore, he’s an accomplished tattoo artist and skilled painter, so it was nice to walk around with somebody who’s as much into the art as I am. Also, even though I’m not a ‘kid person,’ I will admit that seeing a couple of nine-year-olds excited about comic and cartoon characters I didn’t know or recognize was fun.
And if it weren’t for the kids’ excitement about a booth full of snakes and lizards, I might have missed the opportunity to face up to one of my phobias.
Hairy spiders have always given me the creeps, but I don’t like being afraid of them since they’re such fascinating creatures. So when I realized that I could hold one, courtesy of Calgary Reptile Parties, I had a quick argument in my head. I knew that if I chickened out, I’d beat myself up all the way home and likely wake up the next morning regretting it.
So, I stepped up and let a hairy tarantula crawl around my hands and arms. She was delicate, fragile, light and gentle, and after a few seconds, I was more afraid of flinching and maybe hurting her. While not quite the same as close contact with a bear cub, a wolf, or an owl, it was an exciting critter experience, and I’m glad I did it.
The fear in our heads is usually so much worse than reality.
I also bought some art, something I rarely do at this event, since I never have the time to look. Edmonton artist Sabrina O’Donnell does more than 25 shows a year (pre-Covid) and gave me some of the best advice on selling stickers. She based this little Canuck Crow piece on a news story she read about a Vancouver crow who stole a knife from a crime scene. I liked her rendering and that the work tells a story. I bought a couple of books from Toronto cartoonist Scott Chantler. Both are graphic novels/stories about real people and histories. I’m not big on comics or graphic novels, but I like his art and the subject matter and found his work inspiring. Always worth it to explore another’s approach. Finally, I bought a piece of art to hang in my office, something I’ve not done for a long time. Regular readers know that I’m a movie fan and will paint character portraits from time to time. I enjoyed the 2019 Joker movie, especially Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, so when I saw this piece by Alberta artist Sheldon Bueckert, I wanted it.
Even still, I waited a couple of hours before pulling the trigger to ward off any buyer’s remorse from an impulsive purchase. But right before I left the Expo, I went back for it. Whether it’s Sheldon’s choice of pose, colour, or his style of brushwork that drew me in, there’s just something about the piece I like.
That’s art for you. When it speaks to you, go with it.
I had an enjoyable day, better than expected. It was nice to be a bit of a fan again, rather than working the whole event. I’ve confirmed with the organizers that my booth is good for April, and I can expect to have the same spot I had in 2019. It’s a placement I worked hard to get over several years, earned through seniority.
To all of you I used to see at the event, I’ve missed you, and I’m already looking forward to seeing you again in 2022.
In the meantime, a day with all that inspiring art has filled the creative tank, and I’m anxious to paint. Anybody up for a cute and cuddly painting of a tarantula? ?
I began a new painting last weekend, which will have a high-speed painting video to go with it. I didn’t intend to paint this animal right now, but the video narrative will explain the choice and why I tried to talk myself out of it for all the wrong reasons.
A week into it, I’m enjoying the work a lot more than I thought I would because I stopped overthinking it and surrendered to having some fun.
With daily editorial cartoon deadlines, the usual admin work, and other myriad tasks that go with self-employment, I usually reserve Saturday mornings for painting. I paint throughout the week, of course, but if I’m home, Saturday morning is usually my sacred painting time. Sundays are one of my busiest days of the week because I draw two editorial cartoons to send out first thing Monday morning.
This week was a little different.
Shonna and I were fortunate to book our first vaccines for mid-morning on Saturday. Grateful to get our shots; it was obviously our top priority.
While it doesn’t happen every year, there have been times where I haven’t felt that great the day after my annual flu shot, a common possible side effect with any vaccine. A couple of friends both felt a little under the weather the day after their COVID shots, so I planned to take Sunday off if needed. This meant getting my editorial cartoons done on Saturday.
I had still planned to get up at five on Sunday as usual, but with the cartoons done, I realized that I could paint all day if I felt good. If I didn’t, no big deal.
I woke feeling fine, more than a little relieved to have received the first shot, so I spent the day painting hair, fur and features. I don’t recall the last time I switched up that routine, but I might do it again. I enjoyed the freedom of having the deadlines done a day early.
Here’s a sneak peek at some of the detail so far. And no, it’s nowhere near done yet.
As Shonna worked at her part-time job Sunday evening, I decided to watch Kong: Skull Island again, a light, fun, monster movie. Here’s the trailer if you haven’t seen it.
The original King Kong was released in 1933. That’s 88 years ago! The original monster was stop-motion, clunky, and laughable by today’s standards, but it was an incredible achievement at the time. Since then, each of the eleven King Kong remakes has pushed the realism envelope a little more.
I watch a lot of movies more than once and get something new out of them each time. This was no exception. The camera got close to Kong’s skin, hair, eyes, and I frequently paused the movie to take a good look at the incredible realism they achieved.
One of the things I love most about movies today is the extra content. From Director’s commentary to behind-the-scenes features, I enjoy seeing how movies are made, the artistry and collaboration of hundreds of creative professionals coming together to realize a shared vision.
In one featurette, Jeff White, the Visual Effects Supervisor and Creative Director for ILM Vancouver, explained how they brought Kong to life. While he talked about the structure, rigging, muscles and skin, it should come as no surprise that I was most fascinated by how they achieved such realistic hair.
“He’s covered in about 19 million hairs. A lot of the detailed styling and sculpting of the hair is all done by hand. We had two artists working on it for almost a year, just on getting all the different styles and looks to his hair.”
He then went on to talk about how messing up the hair was a big challenge because, in the story, the fur would get wet and damaged, which would change the texture and consistency.
Two artists worked on hair for a year?!
I have a lot of patience painting hair and fur because I enjoy it so much. I’m always trying to achieve a new level of realism. While I never quite get there and will eventually abandon a painting to move on to the next one, I’m now inspired to try even harder.
Granted, for two artists to devote that much time to get the hair right in the movie, they had to be compensated, so their bills got paid. I would imagine there were more than a few days where that meticulous detail got tedious, especially when the software started acting up, as it always will from time to time. This would have been an incredible amount of challenging hard work. But when they saw their efforts come to life on the big screen, for it to look so delightfully real and terrifying, I can only imagine their pride in the accomplishment. I also suspect they both still noticed flaws that nobody else would see.
Because that’s what artists do. We are always our own worst critics.
This morning, while continuing to work on the current painting, I decided I’m not going to rush it. I’m taking a little more time on this one to push it further because I’m enjoying it so much.
I’ll be pleased to share the finished piece and the video that goes with it, though I don’t currently have an idea when that will be. But even if I’m happy with it, it won’t be long before I see the flaws, wish I’d done something different, and try to do better the next time.
One of the things I’ve learned about licensing is that I need to be open to suggestions, especially from my licensing partners. Mike from Pacific Music & Art has more than once asked that I paint a dinosaur, but I didn’t want to.
The first time I considered it, earlier this year, my biggest concern was that the only available reference is scientific illustration based on the fossil record for an extinct animal. That means I would need to reference the work of other artists. Having been a victim of it myself, I’m hyper-sensitive to artistic theft. To use another artist’s work feels wrong.
Since the obvious subject choice was the Tyrannosaurus Rex, I thought perhaps if I got the reference from Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, I could ease my conscience a little, even though the animatronic dinosaurs are still the collective work of artists. I’ve used scene references for all of my portraits of movie characters.
I watched Jurassic Park, realized that all the closeup shots were in darkness and while raining. Since I didn’t want to paint my dinosaur like that, that was the first problem. Recent discoveries have shown that the T-Rex likely had feathers, some theorizing they had brighter colouring rather than that of a giant lizard. I couldn’t decide whether to paint the classic T-Rex we all know and love or go with a more up-to-date scientific version.
I gave up on the whole idea because it pushed all of my ‘this isn’t right for me’ buttons.
I started to think about it again in recent months and went on a deeper dive for reference.
While talking to a friend recently, I mentioned I was painting a T-Rex. I joked that taking the photo reference involved a DeLorean and a lot of running.
I watched all of the Jurassic Park movies on Netflix, found a couple with some potential reference scenes, and bought two of the films so that I could get some screen capture shots.
The best reference was still in darker scenes, again with rain, but I managed to find some useful scenes. That still didn’t get me everything I needed, so I went scouring the internet to see what others had done. I found 3d models, photos of dinosaur sculptures from zoos and parks, and scientific illustrations.
And I made peace with the idea that I’d be painting the traditional lizard looking T-Rex.
While preparing for this painting, I found an interview where Steven Spielberg revealed that he knew that some of his dinosaurs, including the T-Rex, weren’t accurate. He said that he was making an adventure movie, not a documentary and wanted to go with scary.
That convinced me to go with what felt right for my art style, and if some took exception to the scientific inaccuracies, then clearly it’s not for them.
I once had somebody angrily comment about my painting that “a fox’s eyes don’t look like that!” I invited him to look at my other art. None of my animals look precisely like the real thing.
Cartoonist Gary Larson, of The Far Side fame, once had a reader take issue that one of his cartoons had a penguin and a polar bear in it. He had pointed out to Larson that penguins and polar bears do not live in the same climate. Larson responded, “But it’s OK that they’re talking, right?”
Because I used so many different reference images and it would be impossible to say which one was the most significant contributor to the finished piece, I felt comfortable that I have not ripped anyone off in my depiction of the T-Rex.
I wanted to go big on the exaggerated mouth, a toothy grin with an equal mix of menace and fun. I think I achieved that. I was prepared for this to be a difficult piece, and it was. The skin texture proved incredibly challenging because I wanted to convey the reptilian skin, but I didn’t want to go in and map it so that it was hyper-accurate. The overall feel of the painting was more important to me.
I did create a couple of new brushes for this, something I haven’t done in some time. I’d forgotten how much fun that can be. The background is not the focus of the piece, but it took a long time to paint, though it’s mainly out of focus to suggest depth of field. I deliberately didn’t include the little arms for which the T-Rex is well known because I wanted the face to be the focus, and it would have required a different composition.
Earlier this year, I had to replace my computer. When the motherboard failed, at least I think that’s what failed; I knew it was time for a whole new machine, rather than replacing parts. My computers are custom built and not inexpensive, so it’s money I didn’t want to spend this year, but on the other side of it, I’m glad I did.
This piece really put it through its paces. The final image size was 30”x40” at 300ppi, and the working file size was 1.4GB. This new computer had no perceptible lag or hiccups, and I’m confident the old computer would have struggled. I would have had to have babied it at the end of the piece, careful not to crash it.
I’m glad that I revisited this idea and am pleased with the finished piece. I learned a few new tricks and techniques out of necessity, and that’s always well worth my time.
Best of all, Shonna really likes this one, and she’s my harshest critic. She had some excellent advice when I asked her opinion, most notably to tone down the saliva. I had initially painted several strands between the teeth, and her critique was accurate; less was more. Whenever she likes a painting, that’s a nice bonus.
When I released my last two paintings, Bear Hug and Winter Wolf, I immediately had newsletter followers asking to buy prints. While I would have liked to have had them available right away, I won’t be having those proofed until the new year, along with this one. I’ll be sure to announce it when they’re all available.
While on a recent visit to the tattoo shop, one of the artists asked me if I was painting anything for Halloween.
For the past twenty years, I’ve drawn plenty of editorial cartoons with a Halloween twist, but Eric’s question caught me off guard. I’ve never considered painting something for Halloween.
One of the reasons I enjoy spending time with the artists at Electric Grizzly Tattoo is that they offer a different perspective. I’ve had several projects, promotions, and ideas borne of conversation at the shop.
While I’ve seen these guys come up with many different tattoo designs in various themes, much of their work involves pop culture. Whether characters from TV, animation, movies, comic books, graphic novels or music, there are clients who get full sleeves done in a pop culture theme.
One of Derek Turcotte’s clients has an entire leg done with characters from horror movies. It’s pretty impressive, both in the artwork’s exceptional quality and the tapestry woven from all of those images.
A couple of years ago, Derek painted Pennywise from the 2017 movie IT, based on the 1986 Stephen King novel. For the most recent movie adaptations, the character is played by Bill Skarsgård.
But I remember another version of It, a 1990 two-part TV miniseries with Tim Curry in the title role.
The basic story is that there’s a creature living beneath Derry, Maine. Every 27 years, in the guise of Pennywise the clown, It murders children after luring them into the sewers and has been doing so for centuries. In the two-part story, a group of children takes on the clown and thinks they have killed It. But they make a vow that they will return to finish the job if it ever comes back.
Sure enough, 27 years later, Pennywise returns, as does The Losers Club, to fulfill their promise.
I’m a big Stephen King fan. I started reading his books when I was a young teenager, probably earlier than I should have. Pet Sematary gave me nightmares. I could give you a long list of favourite King novels, but top of mind are The Dark Tower books, The Stand, The Tommyknockers, Needful Things, Dr. Sleep and, of course, It.
Unfortunately, a lot of King’s books became movies that weren’t very good. It’s usually a pleasant surprise when I enjoy one as much as the book. The writer/director Frank Darabont is also a Stephen King fan, which is why his three adaptations are among my favourite movies.
Many people are surprised that the movie The Shawshank Redemption is based on a Stephen King short story. Darabont made that movie, as well as The Green Mile and The Mist. This scene from The Mist is especially telling in our current climate.
Other screen productions based on King stories that I’ve enjoyed have included Stand By Me, Misery, The Shining, Dr. Sleep and the second season of Castle Rock.
Stephen King made me want to be a writer, and I’ve read and listened to his book ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’ a few times.
While I have started writing fiction again this year, when I force myself to put ass in chair, it has been a struggle. The editorial cartoon deadlines, the paintings, plus the admin and promotional work that goes along with that work don’t give me a lot of time to write anything other than blog posts and newsletters.
But that’s nobody’s fault but my own. Excuses are easy to come by.
So when it was suggested I paint something for Halloween, my thoughts returned to Pennywise. Not a difficult leap of inspiration, since Derek’s painting of the Skarsgård clown loomed large on the wall about ten feet to my left.
As I own the original IT miniseries on DVD, I began looking for reference that afternoon when I got home. Filmed for television, thirty years old and with special effects almost too painful to watch at times, the reference didn’t meet my usual criteria
There’s a scene at the end of the miniseries where the clown’s true form is revealed, a large spider-like creature. The effects are bad, with jerky puppet-like movements. The colour and light don’t match the background. It was scary in 1990, but now it’s just comical.
All that aside, Tim Curry was still great in the role of Pennywise. I’ve enjoyed his over-the-top villain roles in many movies. From his iconic performance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Cardinal Richelieu in 1993’s Three Musketeers, it’s always a pleasant surprise when Curry shows up where I least expect him.
Sadly, he now uses a wheelchair following a stroke in 2012.
Finding the reference was tough. I ended up taking photos of the TV screen and then trying to salvage what I could in Photoshop. None of the reference was what I would call good, and while it’s still got the bones beneath it, the finished painting doesn’t resemble Curry’s character as much as I had initially intended.
Partway through, I realized I wanted to make it as horrific as I could; the fangs, skin texture, demonic expression in the eyes. Eventually, it became my own version of Pennywise, which made it a lot more fun. I wanted to paint the clown that would have scared the hell out of me when I was a kid. I believe I achieved that. But rather than scare me now, I found myself smiling a lot. I kept wanting to push it a little further, adding more texture and detail, trying for just a little more realism in the brushwork.
I didn’t want it to end.
This is not the kind of work my regular followers expect from me. But before 2009, all people got from me were editorial cartoons and my painted caricatures of celebrities, no animals at all. You never know where new ventures might lead.
No matter how much I enjoy my animal art, it can get a little boring from time to time if it’s just about pumping them out, one after another. Every so often, I need to take a break, try something different and take a vacation from the fur and feathers. The collection of those occasional side projects have now become a gallery of portraits, mostly movie characters. Some of those paintings have resulted in the most unexpected and wonderful moments of my art career.
While I don’t expect to be turning my attention to painting more killer clowns or creatures from the depths of horror movies, this was worth my time. It was a welcome visit to the dark places I usually avoid, shining a flashlight on just one of the things that live there in the shadows.
The best part about this painting was that it wasn’t work. I had no illusions that this would end up being a published print or an image for licensing.
In a year when self-employed job security is shakier than ever, when the future is a towering question mark (with an exclamation beside it), and it seems like every creative moment should be spent trying to increase revenue, I’m glad I made time for Pennywise.
For you digital artists with tech questions, I painted this in Photoshop on a Wacom Cintiq 24HD display. I used screen captures for reference, but no photos are part of this work. I created the textures with brushwork alone, no images or overlays. The finished file is 30″ X40″ at 300ppi, painted in the AdobeRGB(1998) colour space. I have no idea how long it took to paint.
In 2014, the cast of the 1986 film, Aliens reunited at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo. There were autograph signings, photo ops, and a stand-alone event one night where the cast was interviewed, and shared stories in front of an audience of thousands.
Because I was working at my booth, selling my funny looking animal prints, I missed it.
For one reason or another, sci-fi and fantasy movie fans have one favorite franchise.
For some it’s Star Wars, others it’s Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, the Marvel Universe and many others. While I can take or leave the Lord of the Rings, I enjoy those others and have seen them multiple times. Then again, I’ve seen all of the Scorsese’s stuff multiple times, too.
I just love movies.
Even though television writing has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years, and I’ve got many shows I like, I’d choose movies over TV every day of the week.
I’ve been a fan of the Alien movie franchise for most of my life, although I can’t remember when I first saw the original movies but I know it wasn’t in a theatre. I do know that the gateway movie for me, however, was James Cameron’s Aliens.
Over the years, I’ve owned the box sets in multiple formats and have watched them often. I own all six on Blu-Ray and digital and enjoy each movie on its own and as part of the whole. I could rate them in order of preference, but I’m not a militant fan-boy about it. They’re still just movies.
You won’t find me on a forum anywhere arguing continuity errors, or debating the Ridley Scott vision of the canon vs. James Cameron’s. I didn’t get angry when Prometheus and Covenant went off in a truly unexpected direction, because I’m just a fan along for the ride. They don’t owe me anything and truth be told, I like those latest movies, too.
I don’t have shelves full of toys and action figures…OK, I have one xenomorph figure, and I also have the poster for Alien: Covenant beside my desk, but simply because I love the art.
H.R. Giger’s Alien design and art wasn’t part of why I started liking these movies, but it certainly is today.
It’s fun escapism and for whatever reason, this franchise resonates with me. I can quote more lines from Aliens than from any other movie, much to the eye-rolling annoyance of my wife.
For reasons I need not explain, I’ve been pretty low the past couple of months. Lost a big chunk of my newspaper clients, the licensing momentum I was looking forward to building upon this year has been crippled, the Calgary Expo was cancelled, along with two trips to Vancouver Island this spring and summer, and until recently, I haven’t been able to see my friends.
I haven’t slept well in quite some time and my back is killing me, both directly related to my inability to deal with stress. It’s been a shitty year so far, as it has been for everyone.
I have little motivation to paint happy animals right now, because I’m just not feeling it.
Even before the virus-that-shall-not-be-named ruined everything, I’ve fallen down in the dumps creatively from time to time. It happens to all artists.
While it usually occurs at the end of the calendar year, when the darkness and cold of winter sets in, this year it’s spring, usually my most upbeat and productive time of year. It’s a feeling that everything I’ve ever painted sucks and there’s no hope for it to get better. I’m a hack, kidding myself about my skills, might as well throw in the towel and give up this foolishness. Anyone who creates anything knows this feeling at some point.
What has worked in the past to help me shake the blues is to paint a portrait of a movie character I like. It gives me a break from the commercial stuff, reminds me why I like painting, and has no financial pressure or deadline attached to it. With a few exceptions, most of the portraits in my Character gallery were painted for my own enjoyment.
Canadian Geographic Magazine commissioned me to paint Rick Hansen in 2018, and a couple paintings have attracted attention after I posted them on Twitter years ago, most notably Martin Sheen and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. The latter sent me two tweets from the International Space Station about my work, a surreal experience. But, I don’t really expect the subject will see the portrait I paint of them.
So even though I’ve been focused on keeping my finances secure during all of this, trying to maximize revenue, my mood has been steadily declining and I needed a break.
I figured my skills might finally be good enough to attempt a painting of my favorite movie action hero, Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver in multiple films.
My buddy Derek once asked me if she was a movie crush and no, it was never about that. What I admired about the character was that she was a regular person, put to the test. Step up or buckle, and most likely die.
At a time when women in action movies were usually just damsels in distress, T&A accessories for the men who would ultimately save them, Ripley became a leader who held it all together and kicked some ass, even though she didn’t want the hero role.
Say what you want about James Cameron and the stories about him being difficult to work for, but he’s always written great roles for strong independent women. Sarah Connor in Terminator, Rose in Titanic, Lindsey in The Abyss, Neytiri and Grace in Avatar, and Ripley in Aliens.
True, Ridley Scott birthed the Ripley character in the original Alien movie, but it was Cameron who allowed Sigourney Weaver to turn her into a badass.
Interesting side note about James Cameron’s creative skills, it was his hands drawing the portrait of Rose in the movie Titanic. He was drawing right handed for those scenes but is actually left handed. He also drew all of the sketches in Jack’s portfolio for that film.
Throughout this painting, I found myself rushing it at times and having to stop myself. This wasn’t a deadline, I had all the time in the world, and the whole point was to enjoy it, get lost in it, and to improve my skills with the work.
While watching the movie again to find reference, I had a lot of options. I could have painted her with the pulse rifle in the action hero pose, the alien eggs around her, ready to start firing. Maybe in the power loader suit doing battle with the Alien Queen, or standing outside on the planet after they realized they were stranded on LV-426, right after Newt says, “They mostly come at night. Mostly.”
I know, I’m descending into nerdy stuff here. Bear with me.
Ultimately when I choose to paint a character, there’s usually a look I see on screen, combined with the right lighting and I just know that’s it.
This painting is from a scene close to the end. The colony has been blown up, the drop ship has returned to the Sulaco in orbit and Ripley is telling Bishop that he did okay. Seconds later, the Alien Queen emerges from the landing gear, tears Bishop in two and starts looking for revenge.
It’s at that moment, Ripley looks up at the Queen in disbelief, but realizes once again that it’s either step up or run and hide. That’s the moment I painted.
Not long after, Ripley steps out into the light in the power loader and says one of the most memorable lines in movie history.
“Get away from her, you bitch!”
The two hardest parts of any painting is starting and finishing. Getting those first lines of the sketch down, convincing myself, “I can do this,” while a louder voice in my head says, “No, you can’t.”
Eventually I come to a moment when I have to say, “This is the best I’ve got right now” and call it finished, while that other voice is saying, “well your best ain’t much.”
It happens on every single painting.
In between those moments, however, it’s like working clay, smoothing out the curve of a cheekbone, lightening a shadow that’s too dark, choosing colours, angles, highlights, a hair here, another there, and putting in the hours, all in search of an accurate likeness and bringing a vision to life.
A likeness in a portrait isn’t about getting the features right, it’s about the relationship between those features as well. I could paint the eyes perfectly, but if the nose is too far away from them, or the angle of the mouth is wrong, the whole thing falls apart.
It’s a balancing act, zooming in and out, squinting, painting tweaks here and there, flipping the canvas and reference back and forth to see what I’m not seeing, shutting it down and walking away, only to open it again the next day and instantly see something I need to fix.
Finally I had to call it done; knowing that a year from now, I’ll look at this and think I could do a better job of it. But that’s art for you; it’s the epitome of the cliché about the journey vs. the destination. As for the whole cast coming to Calgary that year, my priority was my booth, not signatures and photo-ops. The video of the interview session in the corral was put online later on, so I still got to watch all of that after the fact. I enjoy behind-the-scenes stories of movie making, especially ones I’ve enjoyed for years.
I did share an elevator with Lance Henriksen, who played the android Bishop, at the Palliser Hotel that week, twice in fact. I didn’t embarrass myself, and simply said it was nice to see him and I hoped he enjoyed Calgary.
Shonna and I and our friend Michelle were having a late dinner one night in the lounge, when almost the entire cast of Colonial Marines from Aliens came in to have a drink together. Peppered around the room were other celebrity guests. It was quite the surreal environment, but in true Canadian fashion, nobody approached or bothered them, mindful that they deserved their downtime too.
I never did see Sigourney Weaver or Bill Paxton that week, but I was fine with that. Had I the skills to have painted this portrait then, I might have lined up to have Ms. Weaver sign it, but that would have been an exceptional circumstance.
At the end of the Expo that year, while everybody began tearing down, a voice came over the loudspeaker. I don’t know if it was live or recorded earlier, but Bill Paxton recited some of his most famous lines from Aliens, including Hudson’s “Game Over, Man”, with intentional overacting.
After five long days, the vendors and staff exhausted, weary and wanting to go home, the place went nuts with cheers and applause. That’s one of my favorite memories from Expo, and a little bitter sweet. Paxton died four years later at 61, complications from surgery to repair a damaged heart valve.
I don’t know what I’m going to paint next, will need to give it a bit to see if this portrait shook loose the creative cobwebs, but I’m glad I made the time.
In the wake of the rapidly changing (over)reaction to the Covid-19 virus, I’ve been thinking about the Calgary Expo next month.
It’s the only show I do, but it’s a big one. Close to 100,000 people attend each year. With the Alberta economy doing so poorly, my expectations for this year are already low. People don’t have a lot of money for luxuries, of which art is undoubtedly one.
But I was optimistic it would still be worth my time to connect with my regular customers, hold my booth space until things improve and hopefully make some money.
In recent days, however, with conferences and events being cancelled all around the world as people shy away from crowds, it’s now looking like the Calgary Expo could be twice cursed.
The Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle was postponed yesterday until sometime in the summer, a week away from their event, about the same size as Calgary’s. Leading up to it, the list of cancelled guests was huge. The organizers offered refunds to advance ticket holders nervous about attending because of the virus, and 10,000 people took them up on it. That’s a significant number.
The SXSW (South by Southwest) event in Austin, Texas, which draws 400,000 people, was cancelled yesterday.
So I find myself facing a dilemma. If I cancel, I lose my booth fees, $1200 in a year where my revenues are already taking a hit because of the economy.
I’m reminding myself of the sunk cost fallacy, which makes people do something against their best interest because of money already spent. We’re emotional, irrational creatures and will often tend to double down on a bad bet because of money or time we’ve already lost.
If I continue on this present course, I will spend more money on three nights in a hotel, electrical fees, parking, insurance, ordering more stock, only to potentially have a large corner booth in the middle of a ghost town for four days.
If the guests and celebrities don’t show up, people don’t show up. With the economy down and folks staying away out of fear, the odds of making enough sales to make a profit this year goes beyond optimism. It’s naïve wishful thinking, bordering on delusion.
If I cancel, I lose the booth cost and my preferred booth space, which is based on seniority. There’s a good chance I’d no longer do this event.
I’m not worried about getting sick. I have a healthy immune system and most people who get this particular coronavirus have mild symptoms and recover well. Seniors with existing medical conditions are the most vulnerable to this illness, and the Calgary Expo is just not their scene.
It’s not a question of fear or pessimism, but surveying the land and deciding if there’s a reasonable expectation of growing any crops there. I still want to do the Expo, but it’s a LOT of work, before, during and afterward. It seems foolish to invest that time and money only to be standing there for four days, stinking of desperation.
Ideally, it would be great if the Calgary Expo cancelled the event and issued refunds, but if that happens, I don’t see it coming for another month. They’d have a hard time postponing the event until the summer as Emerald City Con did because that would require a vacancy at the BMO Centre for a five day event, and that’s unlikely. If they cancelled the event this year and bumped everybody’s booth and fees to next year, I’d be okay with that, too.
A lot of people will be affected by cancelling Expo. This event is a big moneymaker for many, including me. For some, it’s part of the foundation of their annual income, especially those putting the con together. People have booked flights, rental cars, ordered stock and planned their big book, art, and product launches around this event. The local economy counts on this event, the largest in Calgary each year, second only to Stampede.
To lose it will hurt a lot of people.
To go ahead with it could be just as bad.
I’m an obsessive worrier by nature, and even I’m not worried about getting sick. Since the symptoms of coronavirus are mild for MOST people, I expect there are thousands worldwide who’ve had it, recovered from it, and nobody even knows. How often does the average person go to the hospital for the flu? Most will assume that’s just what they had.
But if one person dies or catches it at Calgary Expo and infects somebody else who dies, that could likely be the end of the whole event. The mass hysteria, finger-pointing and unreasonable fear that’s currently infecting the world are far worse than the virus itself. The court of public opinion, on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere else would descend en masse on the organizers.
When we become gripped by unreasonable fear, we start looking for an enemy to blame.
The SARS outbreak in 2003 would have been far worse for the world and economy if we’d had social media. Daily updates on where the virus has shown up are incredibly bad for your mental health. What’s worse is that people aren’t only absorbing the panic; they’re spreading it on their own social media feeds.
This is new. We’re freaking out, and losing all perspective. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 1.25 million people die in road crashes each year, on average, 3,287 deaths a day. An additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled. In the United States alone, 37,000 people DIE in car crashes each year.
Could you imagine being updated EVERY TIME somebody dies in a car accident, let alone gets hurt in one? We’d never get in our cars.
But we’re so used to it; we ignore it to the point where we have to be told not to use our phones while we drive.
Despite the assertions of everyone and anyone on Facebook, Twitter and the News Comments sections who have suddenly become virology experts in the past five minutes, there are no easy answers. There rarely are for complicated issues.
At present, I will wait on a decision, evaluate the situation as it unfolds, expect the worst, but hope for the best. Eventually, I’ll have to decide whether it’s worth it to go ahead or pull the pin, take the loss and accept the consequences.
In the meantime, I won’t be buying any masks, hoarding toilet paper or running and screaming every time I see an Asian person. It’s stupid, dangerous, and if it goes unchecked, it won’t be long before we’re turning on each other. Because when things get scary, that’s what people do.
To illustrate that point, I’ll leave you with this short scene from the movie, The Mist.
This is a portrait of Solara, a character from the movie ‘The Book of Eli.’ While the movie received mediocre reviews from critics and audiences alike, I’ve always liked it.
A dramatic thriller set in post-apocalyptic America, it feels a lot like a Western. What the movie might lack in originality or depth, it makes up for with a talented cast of actors. Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and Mila Kunis carry the movie well. I bought it on DVD and have watched it a number of times, as I often do with movies I enjoy. I’ve never really liked film critics, so I won’t pretend to be one here by over analyzing it or trying to convince you to give it a try. There is a clever twist at the end, however, which makes watching it the second time even more interesting.
I’ve always been taken with the lighting in this movie. It has a definite sepia quality appropriate to the desperate tone of the setting. In one particular scene, near the end of a gun fight in the street, Solara peers out from where she’s hiding and I found it to be a powerful moment. Without saying a word, her face reveals her thoughts and I instantly wanted to paint Kunis in the role.
That was easily about two years ago, but I never quite forgot it. When I was looking to do another portrait, simply for my own enjoyment, I had a number of candidates in mind from films I’ve enjoyed, but I kept coming back to Solara. Part of the reason was that my portfolio has an abundance of male actors in it and I want to add more women, but also because I’ve thought about this painting often.
I started this in February, but with the preparation for the Calgary Expo, other deadlines and commissions, I had to put it aside so nothing got done on it for a couple of months. I finally made the time for it recently and I think I’m happy with the result.
There’s no denying that Mila Kunis is an attractive woman, but in this role, she was living in a desolate world, barely surviving. Her character lived in what passed for civilization and she was as close to privileged in the role as one could be in those circumstances. But, one of the biggest challenges for this piece was trying not to make it look too clean to preserve that tone, but also not to use too many rough textured brush strokes so that it was overdone. I didn’t want to ‘grunge it up,’ just because I could.
It was an interesting challenge and I experimented with new brushes quite a bit while painting, which made the effort of working on this piece well worth my time.
This was painted in Photoshop CC on a Wacom Cintiq 24HD. Movie stills were used only for reference.
Over the past month, I’ve been offering up a weekly prize on my Facebook page, a contest with the rather unimaginative name, Monty’s Month of May Giveaway. While there are almost 300 people who currently ‘Like’ that page, there were about 40-60 that entered the contest each week, including a number of friends and even a few family members. This is why I had to have an impartial person make the draw each week. I have to tell you, it was a lot of fun for me and I really want to thank those who participated. I’ll definitely be doing this again.
The winners and their prize choices for each week were as follows…
Some of the comments over the month made me laugh out loud, as did the very feeble tongue-in-cheek attempts to bribe or coerce me. My totem paintings are the most enjoyable work I’ve done to date and it’s flattering that so many of you wanted a print. In a perfect world, I would have given a print to everyone who entered, but I’m just not that wealthy…yet.
The questions I asked over the four weeks gave me food for thought. Week 1 gave me a little insight into what you do to be creative, and as I said on the Facebook page, I agree that cooking is definitely a creative pursuit. I’ve watched my wife experiment in the kitchen and she’s come up with some wonderful dishes with her own personal flair. Cooking and baking is definitely NOT a skill or talent I possess, so I have a lot of respect for those who do. I would encourage everyone to make time to be creative. Try those artistic pursuits you might have been afraid to and just do it for the fun of it. Nobody has to know but you.
In week 2, I wanted to know what your favorite cartoon character was, and I was surprised to see a few I’d never heard of, so I looked them up, and received a little education. As for the rest of those listed, it was like a taking a walk through my Saturday morning childhood and I really enjoyed that. Incidentally, Wile E. Coyote has always been my favorite. You have to respect somebody who never gives up, no matter what life (or a Warner Brothers writer) throws at him. I’m a big fan of Looney Tunes.
Week 3 asked you for your favorite movie character, and I love that so many of you seem to like movies as much as I do. I must confess, however, to being shocked that nobody listed Carl Spackler from Caddyshack as their favorite movie character. “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort?”
And finally, in Week 4, I asked which wild animal you’d like to me to paint. Some of the animals you mentioned are already on my list, such as a beaver, sea otter, fox and cougar. Others were welcome additions to my current list, especially the bison. I even went as far as looking at some reference photos for that one after it was suggested, as I think that fur would be an interesting challenge.
One thing is clear, many of you want to see an African series, and I assure you, I’ll eventually get to it. Lion, giraffe, cheetah, lemur, gorilla,…it’s a big list. I agree with my friend Gudrun who suggested the hippo. That leathery skin would be a challenge, and I’d like to give that a go. Looks like I’ll be going on safari in the future, or spending more time at the Calgary Zoo.
Finally, I was able to give a DVD away to another cartoonist, and I hope that perhaps some of the things I’ve learned will contribute to his development, just as other artists continue to contribute to my own.
Once again, thanks to all who participated. I quite enjoyed giving these items away. For those who didn’t win this month, thanks for being such good sports about it. Hopefully you still had a little fun, and there’s always next time.
My wife and I watched the Disney film ‘Tangled’ again last night. I bought this DVD before I’d even seen it which was rare for me, but there was something in the trailers that told me that even if the story was weak, the artwork would be worth it. I wasn’t disappointed in either. I posted on Facebook that ‘this artwork makes me high,’ and I wasn’t kidding. There’s something about cartoons with a lot of life in them that just gets me excited. While Disney may not do it for everybody, and I’m not a huge fan of every one of their movies, this style makes me want to be a better artist. It makes me hungry to sit down and draw.
No matter what creative avenue you’re strolling down, if the scenery isn’t doing it for you anymore, and you’re bored, find something that will reignite that old passion and put a spring in your step. I have a few go-to books and movies that do it for me. Tangled is now added to that library.
I’ll often get people asking me if I want to animate, and the answer is a flat out ‘No.’ A number of years ago, when the general consensus seemed to be that Flash animation was the next step in editorial cartooning, I did create a weekly animated editorial cartoon called ‘Beaver Fever.’ Sort of a Rick Mercer/Jon Stewart wanna-be cartoon beaver with guests and commentary, that sort of thing. A lot of people liked it, including some big media outlets in Canada, but nobody wanted to pay what it would take to keep me doing it, so I scuttled that ship. I didn’t enjoy the work. It felt tedious and mechanical.
Knowing what you want to do is essential in any career, but equally important is knowing what you do not want to to do. I do NOT want to be an animator.
But I love movies. I mean, I REALLY love movies. I’m not obsessed with them, by any means, but I can watch some movies over and over again. Tangled will be one of those. I would love to work designing characters for movies one of these days. Not full-time or anything, just a commission once in awhile. It would be great to see some animal I created brought to life on the big screen. That’s one of those things I regularly throw out there into the ether, because it seems to have worked well for a lot of other dreams that have become reality in my career.
Never underestimate the power of passion. Glen Keane has worked on some of the best animated movies out there, often as Supervising Animator. I’m talking about Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and of course, Tangled. There are many others of course. Those who followed the comic strip, Family Circus, as I did growing up, will be interested to know that Glen is the son of cartoonist Bil Keane, and was the model for the character Billy in that strip.
While I have known and admired Glen’s work for years, I am most in awe of an artist who has been working in the field for as long as he has, a man who has done and seen it all in the world of animation, and yet still has that passion in his voice for his craft. You can tell he is still excited to be doing what he’s doing. Watch this video and you can see it. Listen to how he talks about this character. To Glen, she is real, she has life, and most importantly, she has passion.