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California Sea Lion

It’s been some time since I’ve done a painting in my whimsical wildlife style, but I was pleased to put the finishing touches on this California Sea Lion this morning.

This year has been a challenge to get any traction on new work as the business of being an artist has taken precedent over the artwork itself. It isn’t enough to create the art; you also have to sell it, which involves a lot of behind the scenes admin type stuff, especially when a large new license is involved.

While I enjoy most of the paintings I do, some of them are done with more of a commercial intent than for my own pleasure. This is one of those. Pacific Music and Art has quite a few retail clients on Vancouver Island and all up and down the coast into the United States. A sea lion might not come across as a big draw like a bear, eagle or whale, but they are popular with tourists, largely because they’re all over the place and accessible. They’re just a comical looking animal, with an obnoxious air of entitlement that reminds me of politicians, no offense intended to the sea lions.

Add in their distinct barking, awkward movement on land and naturally amusing expressions, I’ve always been pleased to see them on our many trips to Vancouver Island. It wasn’t hard to find reference to paint this piece, because I’ve taken plenty of shots of them over the years, just a few shown here.
Shonna and I do have a trip to the Island planned for later in the summer, but it will be the first time we won’t be going out to Ucluelet, one of our favorite places on earth. We’ll still be on the hunt for wildlife, but the adventure we’ve booked this year will have a different flavour and some new excitement.

In the meantime, I’ll be starting another painting right away with plenty more planned for this year.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Bearing It All

“Don’t run.”

That’s what I told myself after coming across a black bear and her cub, the first time it has ever happened to me, in a place where I’ve worried about it for the past twenty years.

Each year, the first weekend of May, a group of friends has camped at a lake in B.C. for three nights, though the roll call changes from time to time. In earlier years, we used to go more often during the summer as well, but this formerly well-kept secret spot just isn’t anymore.

My first trip was in ’95, with gaps when I was first self-employed and time off was rare, and when I owned a little car that couldn’t make it up the road without multiple rock hits on the bottom.

Still, I have many trips under my belt.

Paddling around the lake in the canoe, lots of laughs, some bad weather, some good, plenty of stories about past excursions, and treasured shared memories with friends I’ve known for decades.

One thing I could never quite kick, however, was my fear of bears.

I’m an anxious person, high strung, easily startled, on edge most of the time. At some point in your life, usually after a mid-life crisis, you just have to own it and say, “fuck it, this is who I am.”

I won’t apologize for it anymore. Nobody else does, and I know plenty of people just as screwed up as I am, whether they’ll admit it or not.

I’ve had my share of irrational fears, but have done my best to face them, most with great results.

Claustrophobia. I went caving. Twice. It included plenty of tight squeezes, only one of which I couldn’t bring myself to do, but the experience was incredible. Not just facing the fear, but seeing that ancient underground world.

Fear of Heights. Shonna and I went skydiving in Vegas. An unparalleled rush, I would do it again without hesitation.

Fear of Public Speaking. I’ve taught at conferences, given talks to groups, spoken to schools. It no longer bugs me.

My fear of bears, however, is a strange one.

I probably know more about bears than most people. Living in bear country, I’ve educated myself to try and come to terms with this irrational fear. And yes, it is irrational because bears are not looking to have a confrontation. Despite what you might have seen in movies and on TV, bears would rather not encounter people. When bears meet people, it often ends up very bad for the bears.

And yet, people still have encounters for a variety of reasons.

They go camping and leave food out. Bears are opportunists with an incredible sense of smell and will come into a campsite simply to get a free easy meal. Most of the time, it’s preventable, but people are slow learners.

Folks will stop on the road and actually get out of their cars to approach a bear for a photo. This is a large animal that will defend itself. It did not instigate this situation simply by being there but it will react if it’s threatened.

People will come across a bear in the woods because they weren’t making noise and surprised it. Same situation, the bear will startle and defend itself, especially if it has cubs.

I could write thousands of words about bear safety, but the information is easy to find. Bears will leave you alone if you leave them alone, almost all of the time.

It’s incredibly annoying when somebody finds out I’m afraid of bears and then tells me all of the anecdotal information of which I am well aware. I’ve lived in bear country for 25 years. I know this shit.

Where I live in the Canadian Rockies, there are people who run into bears all the time, whether in their yards, while hiking, camping in the back-country and it doesn’t bother them in the slightest. My phobia makes no sense to these people, just as it doesn’t to me. I’ve even tried hypnosis, which helped me be more comfortable hiking, but did nothing for sleeping in a tent.

It’s embarrassing, it feels juvenile, and there is no small sense of shame surrounding the whole thing.

Despite my own internal logical arguments against it, the fear persists.

In 2016, I began a relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail. They had a behind the scenes bear encounter with their orphaned black bears to learn more about them. I signed up, to work on my fear.
It was an experience I won’t forget. When the head keeper Serena (now a friend) found out I had a phobia, she took it up a notch and I got up close and personal with a black bear, even feeding a gentle giant named Reno. This was huge for me, and since then I’ve had even more encounters with their bears, especially with their latest orphan, a grizzly named Berkley.
Anybody who has seen my photos, videos and my experiences with Berkley probably doesn’t get that I’m afraid of bears. Over the past couple of years, we have walked together, played together, she has crawled all over me, given me kisses. While I don’t have close contact like this with her anymore as she’s much bigger, my time with Berkley has been one of the best experiences of my life.

Bears are my favorite animals to photograph, paint, read about, and champion. I feel strongly about bear conservation, rescue, and preserving their habitat. All of the time I’ve spent at Discovery Wildlife Park, I’ve asked many questions of Serena and she’s taught me plenty about bears.

So it makes no sense to me that they are what I fear most when I go out into the woods.

Just like challenging my other fears, I have been determined to continue to expose myself to the threat to try to get over it. I still go camping out there, and every night when I lie down on my cot in my tent, I spend the next couple of hours trying to get to sleep. It eventually comes, but the fear remains undiminished, year after year.

Friday night, we arrived at the lake, set up our accommodation and got to work gathering firewood for the weekend. My friend Jim in his little Boler trailer, Babe in his Boler trailer, and two friends Babe brought with him had a forty foot custom renovated blue school bus that navigated the difficult road with ease, an impressive feat.

As usual, I was in my small tent.

Despite the sketchy weather, colder, windier and wetter than forecast, it was rather normal. But over the past couple of years, I’ve started to feel the trip is a bit of an obligation. Sleeping in a tent loses its appeal as one gets older and early May in the mountains, the weather is unpredictable and usually quite cold at night. Falling within days of the Calgary Expo, it’s a challenge to get everything home from that event, unpacked, put away, get cartoons done for the week, then shop, pack and take off again a few days later for this trip. It shouldn’t feel like another chore.

Even though it’s a beautiful spot, the novelty of the same place, on the same weekend, each year, has lost a great deal of its appeal for me. But I’ve kept going, because I didn’t want to be the one to call it quits.

That’s the frame of mind with which I started this weekend, though I kept it to myself.

As usual, I lay awake in my tent for a couple of hours, trying to talk myself out of my usual bearanoia and eventually fell asleep.
The following morning, I woke early, made some coffee, grabbed my camera gear and headed out in the canoe for a paddle around the lake. It was enjoyable, although windy and cold, but comfortably familiar. I patrolled the shoreline, taking pictures of ducks.
The weather grew progressively sketchy. But we read, talked, got to know our new camping companions, and puttered as usual.

In the early evening, I decided to take a quick walk up the road to send Shonna a text. Unreliable cell service out there means pockets where No Service becomes one small bar for short windows.

About 150 yards away from the camp beside the road, I approached a familiar flat green space. Through the trees, I saw a large moving black shape, then another smaller one behind it in the grass. A black bear and cub.

I stopped, looked back and forth to make sure I wasn’t looking at a stump or pile of dirt and it moved again. I shouted, “HEY, GET OUT OF HERE!”

She raised her head, looked in my direction, then ignored me and went back to eating.

I turned back the way I came and started walking, too fast.

“Don’t run.”

Forcing myself to slow, I kept one eye on where I was going and one behind me. Since I was close to the camp, Jim was coming up to the road as I got back. They’d all heard me yell.

I told them what I saw. Naturally, I was the only one freaked out by it.

We ate dinner, but stress completely ruins my appetite, so I ended up discarding half of mine, the meal I’d been looking forward to most.

Years ago, Shonna and I were camping with Jim out there and while he was out in the canoe, we had seen a large black shape up on the road that spooked us. It turned out to be a cow, as ranchers down the mountain will often let their herds wander.

Did I really see a bear through the trees, or was it a cow? I doubted my own eyes, thinking my overactive imagination had conjured up my worst fear.

After dinner, Jim said he’d go back up the road with me to check for evidence that I saw what I’d thought I saw.

I was now wearing my bear spray on my hip, and Jim had a large stick he was loudly tapping on the ground as he walked behind me, an effort to alert a bear to our presence. The silly thing is that I was almost trying to be quiet so that I could get some validation that I wasn’t making this up. I know better than that.

Sure enough, as we approached the green space, Jim’s tapping did the trick. With plenty of room to spare, a black bear ran up onto the road from the flat area, heading away from us, followed by one…two…three cubs.

From my car, a cabin, on a boat out in Ucluelet, that kind of sighting would have been wonderful. In that environment, however, it ruined my weekend.

There was no way I was sleeping in a tent.

Thankfully, I had options other than my car. Jim’s Boler has a single bed in it he calls the spice rack because it’s so narrow, but I’m not a wide guy, so it would work. Better still, our new friends had a garage built into the rear of their converted bus for their two Harleys they’d left at home. My cot fit with plenty of room to spare, their hospitality greatly appreciated. I even had my own entrance so I didn’t have to invade their privacy.

We keep a clean camp, but we’d eaten plenty of food. Bears had investigated the picnic table before, just not on trips I’d been on. The next morning, no tracks, no scat, no sign they’d been there.

I had contemplated going home, but I had slept well in my secure accommodation so I decided to continue on with the weekend. I still canoed, even hoped I might see the bears around the lake so I could take pictures from the water, but saw no more sign of them. The weather went from rain, to sunny breaks, to windy, to cloudy, back to rain, with no end in sight.

We alternated between sitting by the fire, huddling under the tarp, sitting by the fire, then moving under the tarp again. All of us wearing multiple layers, toques, gloves and trying to stay positive.

More than once I thought, “Why do I do this to myself?”

On the last evening, Jim came back from his paddle around the lake and said the bear family was in the vacant site at the other end of the lake. They’d stayed in the area the whole weekend.

You might wonder, knowing what I know of bear behaviour, that they aren’t predatory, or naturally aggressive, or looking for confrontation, what did I think was going to happen? I mean, she ran the other way long before we even got close. That’s typical and appropriate bear behaviour.

Here’s an example of where my mind takes me…In the middle of the night, while we’re all asleep, they wander into the camp looking for food. One of the cubs comes over to my tent, starts pawing at it, perhaps attracting Mom’s attention. I wake up at the noise, try to yell out or set off my car alarm, it startles Mom or the cub, but instead of running away, she gets defensive and I’m toast.

In my underwear.

The what-ifs of my paranoid mind spiral downward from there, taking turns with the self-loathing voice telling me I’m being stupid.

As my wife said when I got home, “Why do you keep going? What are you trying to prove?”

The only answer I can come up with is that I don’t want to be a coward.

I force myself to go on this trip every year, intent on beating this phobia, even though after twenty years, it’s still undiminished, just so that I can say I didn’t give up.

That’s a great frame of mind when something matters, like my marriage, career or a difficult painting or project.

But this is supposed to be a relaxing getaway after the most demanding part of my year. One day back and I can tell you, the most relaxing part of it was the hot shower and good night’s sleep when I got home.

This is likely my last trip to the lake for the foreseeable future. Investing in a hard shell trailer or larger vehicle for the three or four times I might use it each year is a bad investment. Add to that having to pay to store it somewhere. Doing the math, I realized I could rent a cabin for four three night stays every year for the next ten to fifteen years for the same price it would cost me to buy a trailer or camper, not to mention the vehicle to haul it.

And it’s a much more comfortable stay when the weather turns foul, where seeing wildlife is a treat, not an imagined threat, where I sleep well, truly relax and recharge.

While I’ll take some grief from my friends for this decision, they’ll eventually realize it’s a much more enjoyable trip without the guy who jumps at every rustle in the bushes.

It’s ironic that I’m soon heading up to Discovery Wildlife Park for the first time this year. I miss Berkley and the other bears.

Cheers,
Patrick

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2020 Calendar & New Prints

I can finally announce that by the end of April, my first calendar will be available in more than 50 Save-On-Foods stores in Western Canada. More than once over the years, I’ve walked into a store somewhere and have been surprised to see my own art staring back at me, whether on a T-shirt in Victoria or on a coffee mug in Banff. Now I can look forward to seeing my funny looking Otter in a display rack at my local grocery store.

This  2020 calendar is now available for purchase from me directly. These will retail for $12.99, but I’m offering them for $12.00 (plus tax and shipping). If you’re local, I’ll even deliver free of charge. If you’d like to order one (or two, or three, or…), send me an email with your address and I’ll be happy to make that happen. I’ll accept e-transfer or Paypal for mail orders. In person, I can take debit, credit, or Apple Pay. Cash works, too.
There are also three new prints available in the online store. Happy Baby, Peaceful Panda and Walking Wolf. Hard to believe I’ve painted more than 60 production pieces, with just over 40 currently available as prints.

Back to the brush strokes.

Cheers,
Patrick

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John Malkovich – a Portrait

Whenever I’ve painted portraits of actors, it’s been a character I like from a movie, rather than a portrait of the person playing the part. This one is an exception.

There was a lot of hype surrounding the movie Bird Box, mostly because the media reported that some were mimicking the characters and doing silly things while blindfolded. Despite hearing some negative reviews, I guess the gimmick worked well on me, because I gave it a chance while drawing one evening.

I didn’t find the movie terrible, but it’s not one I’d rush to watch again. It struck me as a poor man’s copy of A Quiet Place, but it was certainly watchable and I didn’t count it a waste of my time. A shame that the characters were forgettable, however, since it featured accomplished actors.

One of those, in a supporting role, was John Malkovich, an actor I’ve always liked and admired.

As often happens when I paint movie characters, it wasn’t something I had planned in advance. There was a scene where Malkovich turned and it struck me that I wanted to paint him from that moment. The light, the composition, his expression, who knows?


Aside from one commission last year from Canadian Geographic Magazine, where I was tasked with painting Rick Hansen, I paint portraits of people for my own enjoyment, to challenge and improve my skills. A couple have attracted attention after I posted them on Twitter years ago, most notably Martin Sheen and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, but I don’t ever expect the subject will see the portraits I paint of them.

Now that I’m off social media entirely, there’s no incentive to tag them or add a dozen hashtags, which I think is a good thing. It takes away the pressure for likes and shares and leaves me free to paint how I like without wondering how it will be received.
I started this on the iPad Pro in the procreate app, then brought it to my desktop and painted the second half in Photoshop on my Wacom Cintiq 24HD display. The brushwork was initially a lot smoother while I nitpicked the details to get the likeness right, but in the final couple hours, I added layers of texture and grunge to rough it up. Seems to better fit the character and feel of the movie.

There are some other portraits I expect to paint this year, but for now, it’s back to the funny looking animals.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Peaceful Panda

One of the things I value most in my profession is the relationships I’ve formed over the years.

Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, The Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation in Coaldale, Archipelago Wildlife Cruises in Ucluelet, and of course, The Calgary Zoo. I’ve made friends at all of these places and remain grateful for their generosity in allowing me to get close to so many critters.

Some of my best work wouldn’t have been possible without their assistance in gathering the reference I need to paint my whimsical wildlife paintings. Whenever possible, I’ve tried to ensure these relationships are quid pro quo. I’ve created artwork for them, made donations, or have simply tried to promote the conservation work they do whenever I can.

My prints have been sold in the various gift shops at The Calgary Zoo for more than five years, along with licensed images on other products. During that time, I’ve become friends with the Retail Manager. Kathryn has given me invaluable marketing advice and has always been supportive of my work, helping me put my best foot forward.

In the spring of last year, the Calgary Zoo received four pandas from The Toronto Zoo. The two adults had been there for five years, on generous loan from China, with two cubs born during that time. As per the agreement with China, the remaining five years of the loan, they’ll live in Calgary, although the cubs will be returned to China sometime next year.

While I’m not a professional photographer, I take some decent photos from time to time and she needed some for her own marketing purposes to promote the pandas. The deal was, I could get into the habitat early, in exchange for some of my photos.

The Calgary Zoo is strict about no behind the scenes photography, so I should clarify that I was still only allowed in the public areas, just a couple of days early.
Early one morning at the end of April, Kathryn took me over to the brand new Panda Passage habitat and aside from a couple of keepers, we had the place to ourselves for a couple of hours. Of the four residents, I only saw Da Mao that morning, the adult male. He was active and accommodating, which is a rare treat when it comes to pandas. They spend a lot of their time sleeping.
I ended up with a LOT of nice photos, a couple of dozen I shared with Kathryn, and many others that will serve as good reference for paintings. I’ve already done one painting from that session (above) , and it became a popular acrylic magnet that sold well at the zoo. My previous Panda painting has been a best seller over the past year in their gift shops and I’m hoping this new one does equally well.

While I don’t often share the reference photos I use for paintings, I’m making an exception here to show that my work is more of an interpretation of the reference rather than a copy. This photo wasn’t one of the best quality I took that day and would have been of no use for promotional purposes for the zoo.
It was shot through glass, with a bit of a glare I couldn’t compensate for, not even with a polarizing filter. But with Da Mao climbing up on the log and looking right at me, the pose was a gift I couldn’t pass up. I used other reference for some lost detail, especially in the face.
This is one of the reasons I like to take my own reference. The pose is the same in both photo and painting, but both images are mine, so a photographer can’t say I copied their composition. When I buy stock photos for animals to which I can’t gain access, I try to create an image different than what the photographer took, but when it’s my image in the first place, it hardly matters.
This won’t be the last panda I paint; there might even be another this year. I’m pleased with how this turned out because it’s a full body image but still has that whimsical quality inherent in the rest of my work.

Cheers,
Patrick

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