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Got Bears?

Here’s a painting I did late this week. Not a fully rendered piece, just something I did for fun. I’m still working on another bear, a more finished piece and video. I hope to have that one done in a week or so.

It’s not unusual to see bears in this valley, but it has been a strange season for encounters. The berry crop was poor this year, and bears have been spotted all over town for weeks.

When people fail to pick the ripe fruit from the trees in their yards, it attracts bears. Dog food, bird feeders, dirty BBQs, and garbage will too. Bears have an incredible sense of smell, and they’re attracted to anything that gives off an interesting odour. Dirty diapers will attract bears.

All it takes for a bear to become spoiled and dangerous is too many opportunities to associate people with food.

Shonna and I bought our townhouse condo in 2001. It’s in a well-defined complex with single road access and a couple of other walking entries on the opposite end. We’ve occasionally had elk inside the complex, but in the 21 years we’ve lived here, I’ve never seen a bear on the property.

A couple of weeks ago, while checking the mail, I noticed a sizeable pile of scat six feet from our front door. If you’ve never seen bear poop, it’s unmistakable.

At the end of our street, nowhere near a wilderness area, a well-used gravel path passes beside a daycare. A week before, as I rode my bike around the building heading for downtown, I was surprised to see a mother black bear and two cubs in my way. I hit the brakes, breathed something like “oh shit,” and slowly backed up, wondering what she would do.

She and her cubs looked right at me, but I got away without a confrontation. It was only a half block from home, so I called the Bear Report Line, as did several others.

Still on the phone when I got home, I stepped onto our kitchen balcony to see the Mom and cubs walking by on the street below. It was just after noon.

Many in town have seen this bear and her two cubs, another black bear and her three cubs or several other single black bears looking for food in suburban neighbourhoods.

I recently had a cable internet issue requiring a service call. The tech who came to sort it out lives in an apartment-style condo building near the other end of our street. While walking his dog one evening, he saw a grizzly in his parking lot. Others in his building have seen it too, and warnings are now posted around the property.

Last Sunday, our next-door neighbour Chris sent me a text warning at about 9:15 pm that the black bear and three cubs were spotted walking down a long road that leads to the top of our condo complex. Shonna would be biking home an hour later from her part-time job at Safeway.

Here’s a late-night photo Chris took from his balcony at the end of August.
I called Shonna to warn her and said I’d keep an eye out. She takes well-lit main roads to get home, away from the current bear sighting. But this year, they can be anywhere, including downtown.

A half-hour later, Mom and cubs were walking down the road inside our complex, straight toward our front door. Four people stood in front of our place, taking pictures and videos with their phones. I warned them from my open living room window that they were in a dangerous spot and should leave.

They were dismissive and waved me off, a typical tourist response. But I think these were locals who should have known better. Shortly afterward, my neighbour was more blunt when he warned them about their poor choices.

Chris and I were more concerned about harm coming to the bears. When stupid people trigger an encounter that forces a bear to defend itself, the authorities shoot the bear and orphan her cubs. All for an Instagram post.

Fortunately, this bear was more intelligent than those people. She turned around and went back the way she came. The four humans finally left as well, their departure significantly increasing the average IQ of our neighbourhood.

Though the bears were no longer in sight, I knew they’d still be close.

Shonna called before she left Safeway, and I told her I’d be waiting. Bear spray in hand, I stood at the open front door until I heard her repeatedly hitting her bike bell as she drove into the complex. I opened the garage door as she turned the corner so she could go right in, ending our evening’s excitement.

I have a complicated love-fear relationship with bears.

The first whimsical wildlife critter I painted in 2009 was a grizzly bear, and I’ve painted more bears than any other animal. I’ve spent countless hours at Discovery Wildlife Park, having close encounters with their rescued orphan bears, especially a favourite named Berkley. I’ve painted her quite a few times.
On the flip side of that coin, I am unreasonably terrified of bears. For years, I’ve tried to get used to camping in a tent in bear country.

Bears are more likely to avoid people than seek them out. I know that if you keep a clean campsite, don’t bring any strong smells into the tent with you, and sleep away from where you cook, you’re unlikely to attract bears.

I know what to do if I encounter a black bear or grizzly. I make noise while out in the woods, carry bear spray and know how to use it. I know that bears have far more to fear from us than we ever do from them, that bear attacks are almost unheard of and usually defensive, prompted by a human doing something foolish.

Bears don’t kill people. People kill bears.

And even with that knowledge, I’ve never been able to shake the phobia while camping or hiking in bear country. Every noise is a bear, especially from dusk ‘til dawn. My camping companions have taken great delight in mocking my bearanoia, despite having phobias of their own.

Am I having fun yet?

After countless camping trips, not sleeping well, annoying others with my nervousness, and living with the shame of not being able to talk myself out of it, I’ve given up camping in tents in the Rockies. I return home more pissed off than relaxed.

Besides, a cabin is much more comfortable, especially when it rains.

Strange that I had no concerns on our recent kayaking adventure on Vancouver Island, living in a tent in an area with a dense population of black bears. I slept great every night. Is my fear geographical?

The most remarkable recent bear encounter was at the September 3rd Mountain Made Market when a black bear tried to walk into the Civic Centre in the middle of the day, about forty feet from my table. Fortunately, the Town building monitor, Maurice, a genial and helpful gentleman, stood at the door waving his arms and making noise, convincing the bear to seek a different path. There’s a man who’s good under pressure.

I’ve enjoyed my market experiences over the past year. Decent sales, close to home, and I get the same great location in the Civic Centre each time. Connecting with other vendors and my customers, I always learn something new.

This market was especially fun because Alexander Finbow occupied the next table. He owns Renegade Arts Entertainment here in Canmore. Alex has been ready to publish an art book of my work since 2016. He has been very patient, is still interested and we talked more about it.

Alex figured out that I’ve been making too big a deal out of it, trying to put together one big book instead of a smaller one. He suggested that rather than try to cram my whole career into one volume, I make it more specific, and pick stories and artwork that fit a theme. Then if the first book does well, there will be more books on other parts of my work in the future. That not only relieves a lot of pressure, but it’s a sound business plan as well.

Sometimes you just need somebody to point out the obvious.

The first art book is about bears. Perhaps it always has been.

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Licensing and Diamond Art Club

When a company needs artwork for a product, they’ll often contract an artist to use their work in exchange for a future royalty percentage on sales.

Depending on the product, percentages can be small. But if the company sells a lot of that product, it can add up to a significant portion of an artist’s income.

This is licensing.

Some artists don’t like licensing because they think they’ll lose control of their art and it will be stolen. That has happened to me more than once, and to every professional artist I know. Sometimes you don’t even know about it until long after the fact, and most of the time, there’s nothing you can do about it except tell them to stop.

Most of the licensing companies I’ve worked with are professionals. They use the art how they say they will, pay me regularly, and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

They don’t always use the images I want them to, or as many of my paintings as I’d like, but that’s not my call. They’re running their own businesses, and my art is often a tiny part. Once they license the work, it’s theirs to market how they see fit if they keep to the spirit of the agreement.

Harlequin Nature Graphics licenses a handful of my images on T-shirts. DecalGirl offers several of my paintings on cases and decals for electronic devices. A dozen other companies around the world have licensed my art through an agency for cross-stitch, fabrics, canvas art, and other products.
My most significant license, of course, is Pacific Music & Art out of Victoria, BC. Thanks to Mike and his staff, my work is on coffee mugs, water bottles, calendars, art cards, magnets, coasters, trivets, notebooks, and more. During the first year of the pandemic, his foresight to put my work on face masks was a welcome flotation device when other parts of my business were under water.

I regularly encounter people who tell me they’ve bought some of my art at stores I didn’t know existed in towns I’ve never visited. One local friend recently returned from a trip to Vancouver Island and told Shonna, “Pat’s art is everywhere!”

At the Calgary Expo this year, a very nice woman came into my booth and loudly proclaimed, “That’s my otter!”

I laughed and replied, “I beg to differ, Ma’am. That’s MY otter!”

She had bought the image as a framed art card in a BC store more than a year ago, and it hangs in her kitchen.
I get my licenses in three ways. The first is through an agency. They will contact me and propose a contract with a client. I have first right of refusal on every deal, and I have politely declined the opportunity a couple of times. They represent many artists, so it’s not a very personal relationship.

I look up every company in every proposed agreement. Sometimes it conflicts with an existing license; other times, their site looks unprofessional, I don’t like the product, or it’s just not a good fit. But most of the deals they send me are worth a try, and I give them the go-ahead.

Sometimes I look for a license because I think my work will fit a product or I like a specific company.

The third way is that a company will reach out to me. They’ve seen my work somewhere, looked around my website, saw images they liked and want to talk about a license.

About a year ago, Diamond Art Club contacted me to discuss access to my catalogue. The contact was professional, sent me a great information package for prospective licenses, and they were upfront about their royalties and payment schedule—no red flags.

I looked through their professional site and was impressed with how many high-end brands and artists they have under license. There’s no credibility question when a company has the official DC Comics and Harry Potter licenses.

I had heard a little about diamond painting kits but didn’t know much about the hobby, nor how massive it is. The simplest explanation is that it seems to be a blend of paint-by-numbers, cross-stitch and a little bit of the classic lite-bright toy. So rather than butcher the explanation, I’ll refer you to their site’s excellent description. Click here or on the image below.
After a couple of weeks back and forth with contracts and questions, I uploaded my art to their servers and tried to put it out of my mind. They were clear that nothing would likely be available until the end of the year. Licensing is often a long game, depending on the product, and each company’s lead time is different.

The production pipeline on these kits is extensive. First, there’s research with customers and retailers to determine which images to produce, then assigning an image to a designer who will turn a piece of art into a kit. Following that, the kit must be manufactured in large quantities and shipped. It’s more involved than most products I’ve encountered.

I don’t know the timeline for when the world is normal, but I was forewarned that it is much longer under the shadow of the pandemic.

It has been a year since I signed the contract with Diamond Art Club. I checked in with them every couple of months, and they were friendly and accommodating as they explained the different stages of delay. And I’m just one new artist. They no doubt have hundreds of other pieces in the pipeline, all affected by the same delays every company in the world has faced these past couple of years.

The first image Diamond Art Club put into production was no surprise. My Otter is one of my top two bestsellers everywhere, a close tie with the Smiling Tiger.

I’m glad they started with that one because if it does well, there will no doubt be more of my images on these kits in the future. Given the popularity and quality of these kits, I certainly hope so.
My sample arrived this week, and I was eager to open it. The first thing I noticed was the fantastic design of the packaging, both outside and in. The tools and pieces are well organized and labelled. The quality of the otter image on the canvas is superb, and there’s nothing about this kit that looks cheap and thrown together. At 23″X17″, it’s a fairly large image.

If I were into this hobby and bought one from Diamond Art Club, I would feel like a valued customer. As a licensed artist, I feel my work is represented well, and I’m pleased to be involved with this company. I hope it’s for a long time.

I’ve learned about licensing, however, that I have no clue what will do well or for how long. Certain paintings may be incredibly popular with the people who like them, but will a new product find a new audience? I have no idea.

So, while I wait and see, I let these companies do what they do best, and I’ll keep painting new portraits of whimsical wildlife for their future consideration.

Because that’s what I do best.
If you’d like to learn more about Diamond Art Club, head to their site and check it out. Right now, you can get 20% off your first order with the code SUMMER20. While they have a large assortment of fantastic art, might I suggest a certain Otter as your first piece?

Cheers,
Patrick

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Mountain Made Market – July 30th


It’s that time again, another long weekend Mountain Made Market this Saturday at the Civic Centre, downtown Canmore. There will be 25 vendors inside and out, specialty foods, arts & crafts and live music. The Canmore Folk Fest also returns this weekend, so downtown will be a hopping place. With Main Street closed for the summer to motor vehicles, there’s plenty of room to move about, see the sights and enjoy the atmosphere.

As I don’t do the regular market circuit, I haven’t got a big tent, so you’ll find me just inside The Civic Centre in the main foyer. I’ll have plenty of prints, including the latest releases, 2023 calendars, coasters, magnets, aluminum art, canvas, stickers and more. So come on down and support local art and artists!

Hope to see you there.

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Goofy Grizzly


Here’s a painting of one of the younger bears at Discovery Wildlife Park. I took the reference in September of last year, but because there were two bears the same age, and I don’t know them as well as I do Berkley, I didn’t know which one I was painting.

I sent the finished piece to my friend Serena, the head keeper at the park, and she immediately said it was Bos (rather than Piper), which I took as a compliment that she could identify the bear from my painting. Another keeper also knew which as well, so it felt pretty good that even with my whimsical style, I got the personality and likeness right.

Serena reluctantly mentioned an anatomy issue with one of the paws/claws and said the claws looked more like a black bear than a brown bear. I asked for more clarification and spent some time repainting the problem area.

When it comes to unsolicited criticism, the kind most people offer is a glib comment that costs them nothing, so they speak before thinking. Unfortunately, it can often be unkind, malicious, or personal, which usually says more about the critic than that being criticized.

One of the pillars supporting social media is that we’re all so sure of our clear view from the cheap seats. It has always been easier to tear somebody down than build them up.

Constructive criticism, however, is a valuable resource, and artists need to cultivate relationships with people who genuinely want to see them create better work. For example, my buddy Derek and I have often sent each other paintings in progress, asking for critique.

Another tattoo artist friend sent me a beautiful sea turtle painting he’d completed the other day and asked my opinion. I loved the piece and enjoyed seeing it but had no suggestion for improving it, which isn’t unusual.

Most of the time, we’ve each scrutinized our work to death already before we request a second look.

But staring at a painting too long, sometimes you miss what’s right in front of you until a trusted friend and colleague points it out. Then you wonder how you ever could have missed it. Or you make the suggested change to see the results and agree it was a better choice.

When you do get an honest critique from someone whose intentions are genuine, be grateful. That person took the time to help you improve your work.

Serena’s not a painter, but when it comes to animal anatomy, I trust her eye, and I’m glad she saw what I missed. Better still, I’m happy she said so, rather than worry that I would take it personally.

From time to time, however, the creator of a piece might consider a critique and still disagree. That’s fine, too. Every artist sees things differently, and ultimately it comes down to making your own choices. I’ve had plenty of well-intentioned suggestions over the years, both on specific pieces and my business in general, that I decided weren’t right for me.

You never know, however, when somebody might offer a solution to a problem you didn’t know you had. For example, my buddy, Darrel, casually suggested vinyl stickers a while back because he saw a few on vehicles and thought my work would lend itself to those. I’m glad he did because my stickers are now doing well in a few retail stores, and I’m actively seeking more resellers.

But then, I also get a lot of people suggesting I create children’s books, and it’s just not something that interests me.

This painting was supposed to be a practice sketch. But my obsessive nature and perfectionist tendencies don’t seem to allow me to stop if I can just paint in a little… more… detail. So, this became a finished piece. I think it will make a nice sticker, too, and possibly a print later.

Regardless of where it ends up, I consider any time painting bears to be time well spent.

Cheers,
Patrick

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The Circle of Prints

I’ve painted over 100 animals since 2009, and I can’t keep them all in stock. Even five of each is a lot of inventory. So whenever I bring in new ones, I’ve got to retire some. Some paintings seem to be perpetual best sellers, while others have their day in the sun for a few years and then wane in popularity.

To ensure a reasonable price from my supplier, I have to order prints in volume. So when a print plays out its best days, it’s no longer worth ordering a large amount. That’s a good indication it’s time to let it go and give a new one a chance.

Today, I’m retiring three prints. The Bald Eagle, Black Bear and Grizzly have been removed from the store. They’re still popular on other items through my various licenses, but not as much as prints in my online store. I get attached to these paintings as each has a story and takes many hours to paint. This round of retirees is especially bittersweet as this Grizzly was the first animal I painted in my whimsical wildlife style, the bear that started it all. But I’m always painting new grizzly bears and black bears, so there’s no shortage of that subject.

As much as I like my Bald Eagle painting, I’ve taken many excellent references at The Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale, Alberta in recent years, and I’m looking to paint a new one.

With a new print order just arrived, the Beaver and Two Wolves are back in stock, so if you’ve been waiting for those, thanks for your patience.
Of course, no new order would be complete without some first-issue prints. My latest paintings, Snow Queen and Duckling, are now available in the store! I love seeing the first prints of a new painting; these were no exception. There’s just something about a print that makes the work complete.
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All prints are 11″ x14″ with a white border, and it’s easy to find an off-the-shelf frame as it’s a standard size. In addition, each is hand-signed and comes with a backer board and artist bio in a cellophane sleeve.

If you have any questions about the available prints or vinyl stickers, feel free to drop me a line, and I’ll be happy to answer. Otherwise, take a browse through the available paintings and see if there’s one that catches your eye. And a reminder that all images (even the retired ones) are available via custom order, as canvas or metal prints.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Snow Queen

After I finished my recent duckling painting, I did what I always do, went through my archive of photos to look for the next project. All the reference photos I’ve taken over the years are organized in folders by animal name, so before I even look at the images, I’ll admit to deciding against an animal simply because I’ve already painted it.

I get tunnel vision sometimes, thinking that this next animal must be one I’ve never painted before. As a result, I’ve occasionally talked myself out of a painting because “I’ve already done that.”

It’s rather silly when you think about it.

There are several animals I’ve painted more than once, and it’s a rare thing that the first one is the best one. Some photographers make their entire careers from taking photos of critters from the same part of the world. So to dismiss an animal simply because they’ve seen it before would be shortsighted.

Had I stopped at the first tiger I painted, I wouldn’t have painted my Smiling Tiger, one of my best-selling pieces. While my first wolf is special to many people, including me, my latest Winter Wolf has surpassed its popularity and has become a personal favourite. It’s part of the reason I wanted to paint this Snow Queen in the same palette.
And finally, the very first whimsical wildlife image I painted was a grizzly bear. I’ve painted more than a dozen since, and it remains my favourite animal to paint. It would have been a shame to decide that I’d done enough of them and never got to Grizzly on Grass, the painting I love the most out of all my work.

So even though I’ve painted a snow leopard before, I wanted to paint another. I painted most of this piece while under the weather last week, and I still enjoyed it. Thankfully, I felt better for the final hours this weekend and truly enjoyed watching her personality show up. I hadn’t planned on it being so obviously feminine, but that’s the magic of this work. A lot of this stuff just happens, and I’m grateful for it.
For those interested in the technical side of things, this file is 30” X 40” at 300ppi, with seven layers and an adjustment layer. I usually only have three layers at the end of a piece, the background, backdrop and subject. For this one, however, I wanted to keep some parts separate in case I have some formatting or colour challenges later with licensing.

The working file was 1.33GB, the largest file I’ve worked on since this computer was built in 2020. However, it handled it beautifully, and I could still jump around and paint fine detail with no performance lag.

Next up, I’m going to paint another burrowing owl to include with a larger piece I started months ago. Having a piece I can keep coming back to with fresh eyes is fun.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Swimming Upstream

Here’s a little duckling I finished painting this morning. The duckling itself wasn’t difficult, but the water certainly was. Ironic that I began this year with a commission piece where water was also the hardest part of that painting. There will always be room for improvement in any artistic pursuit, so I welcome these unexpected challenges. The work might become boring without them.

When I first began creating digital art more than 20 years ago, there was a common misconception that if you used a computer, then the computer was doing all the work. Press a few buttons, apply a filter or two and anybody can do it. There was also a ‘look’ to a lot of digital art. It was far too smooth, with a blurry airbrushed look, and it all looked the same. Plenty of amateur artists still make this mistake when they get started. After hearing more than enough of this (anything but constructive) criticism, I worked hard to make my work look more like traditional acrylic or oil textures. That effort paid off because I developed a textured brush style evident in all of my work today. People are still surprised to find out my medium of choice and will often say that it doesn’t look digital.

For the water in this painting, however, I had to go backwards, and paint with that smooth, airbrushed look I have deliberately avoided for so many years. Texture in the water would not only have looked wrong, it would have distracted from the subject of the piece. It’s the contrast between the detailed hair-like feathers of our little friend and the water in which he’s swimming that makes the duck stand out.

This is the final cropped composition for this painting, but I painted more water than you see here. As most of my paintings end up on licensed products, I painted more of the background to allow for different Pacific Music and Art templates. On some of my older pieces, I’ve had to repaint entire sections to accommodate items like coffee mugs and different-sized aluminum prints.

These days, I keep that in mind while painting a piece. It means more work that most people won’t see but less of a headache when I format the painting for more than a dozen different items in their catalogue. Art (and artists) must be flexible when the work is destined for commercial products.
I took the reference for this painting four years ago from the boardwalk that winds through the Policeman’s Creek wetlands here in Canmore. Easily accessible for people of all fitness levels, it’s located in the middle of town and might as well be an urban park. It’s a pretty walk, a nice shortcut from where we live to downtown Canmore, and preferable to walking on the sidewalk of a busy street.

You might think I’d be happier taking photos of bears, wolves, eagles or other more exciting animals, but I’m just as content to spend an hour chasing around a family of ducks with my camera. You never know what critter might end up in a painting.

Only a couple of days ago, I realized just how few paintings I’ve completed this year. I painted the commission of Santé in February and finished my elephant painting in March. In addition, I’ve painted a couple of burrowing owls that are part of a larger piece, but this duckling is only the third finished painting, and the year is almost half over.

Considering I usually produce 10 to 15 pieces each year, I’m well behind where I’d like to be. Of course, one could argue quality vs. quantity, but as this work is a big part of how I make my living, I try to balance them.
The reason for fewer paintings is no mystery. Despite the dramatic decline in the newspaper industry, it’s still a big chunk of my income, and I’m unable to put off or set aside my daily editorial cartoon deadlines. As a result, those take priority every day and painting time is often sacrificed for the cartoons.

On the animal art side of things, I’ve been more occupied this year creating new products, filling and delivering print orders, planning and attending Expo and more local markets, all things that have been on hold the past couple of years. I’m not complaining that I have more sales and increased opportunities to put more work into the world, but it illustrates that art for a living is an illusion.

I don’t spend as much time creating the work as I do promoting and selling the work.

We all struggle with finding enough time to get it all done, whatever ‘it’ is, and most often fail in the attempt. Unfortunately, knowing the solution is simple doesn’t make it any easier.

Saying ‘No’ a lot more often than ‘Yes’ to requests and demands goes against most of our instincts to be friendly, help people out, and put others’ needs ahead of ours. But when it means sacrificing what is most important to us, whether time with our family, the pursuit of hobbies, recharging and relaxing, or time to paint more funny-looking animals, nobody else will make that time for us.

These paintings are a lot of work, but it’s work that I love a great deal, so it makes sense that I’d want to spend more time doing it. I’ll try to remember that for the second half of this year.

Cheers,
Patrick

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A New Marshal in Town

In November of last year, I finished this painting of Kevin Costner as John Dutton from the top-rated Paramount show Yellowstone. Like many of the portraits I paint, it was a personal project, something I did for my own enjoyment. You can read about that piece here.

I don’t attach any expectations to these portraits, but sometimes they either reach the people I’ve painted or attract some attention after the fact that I couldn’t have anticipated. But I learned long ago that if you try to make stuff like that happen, it rarely works. All I can do is complete the painting, put it out there and move on to the next one.

I have a couple of favourite unexpected results, like when Emilio Estevez wanted to buy the original canvas of a painting I did of his father, Martin Sheen. That was almost ten years ago, so I won’t rehash it again. However, if you’re not familiar with that story, you can read about it here. The print signed by both of them hangs in my office.
Another was when I painted Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield while he was in command of the International Space Station. He saw the painting online and sent me an appreciative tweet from space, which was a special moment.

This week, the Calgary Stampede announced that Kevin Costner would be this year’s parade marshal. I’m a fan, or I wouldn’t have painted the portrait in the first place. But I’m not big on crowds, and it’s unlikely I’ll attend the parade or Stampede. Still, the event is a big deal for Calgary. After the last two years, here’s hoping an unrestricted Stampede is a welcome economic boost for the city and surrounding communities, mine included.

As the Calgary Herald has been running my syndicated cartoons regularly for almost 20 years, I emailed the editor and suggested the painting as a cartoon for the announcement, with the caption you see below. He liked the idea, and it appeared in Wednesday’s edition.
As it also made national news, and Yellowstone is a wildly popular show, I sent it out to my other papers this morning, in case there’s more interest in it. For context outside of Calgary, I added “Calgary Stampede:” before the caption for those other papers.

I’ve done portraits for cartoons before, but most often, it’s for memorials, and they’re never as detailed as I would like. It took more than 20 hours to paint this portrait, so it’s not something I would have done specifically for this purpose. There wouldn’t be a decent return on the investment, and I couldn’t get it done on a tight deadline anyway. To have had the painting done and ready to use for this announcement was a nice moment of serendipity.

Newsprint is unfortunately a muddy medium. Publications use different colour profiles and printers, so a cartoon that might look bright and crisp in one paper might look too bright or dark and desaturated in another. I can do nothing about that, so I adjust the image to find the middle ground for all papers. I put a lot of time into getting the colour right in my work, so I’m most often disappointed when I see it in newsprint, but I’ve had to make peace with that.
The Costner portrait file is 30” X 40” with a lot of detailed brushwork. To shrink it down and prepare it for newsprint, I had to boost the contrast, oversharpen it, and make other Photoshop adjustments to mitigate a poor result. So while I was happy to see it printed in the Calgary Herald (digital edition above), I couldn’t help but see all the flaws in the reproduction, even though I know that most people won’t notice or care.

As always, I just hope people like it.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Levelling Up

Here’s the fourth burrowing owl in the series, which will be part of a larger piece featuring multiple owls in different poses. I don’t know how many owls yet, and I only have a rough vision of it.

Though I’ve only been to the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale a couple of times, spending two days on each visit, I’ve also seen them on several occasions here in Canmore.

Before the pandemic, The Town of Canmore used to host a WILD event at the Civic Centre. It featured everything from hikes, art activities, educational talks about the environment, etc. Colin Weir and his daughter Amy would bring their ambassador birds to the event, featuring four different owl species and a golden eagle named Sarah.

It allowed the public to get up close and personal with these owls, learn about the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation’s great work and raise funds for the non-profit organization.

I’ve taken thousands of photos of these birds over the years, and even though I’ve only kept the best of these shots, I still have hundreds in my well-organized archive. Every time I go through these photos looking for my next painting, I often think it a waste to have so much reference that I’ve yet to use.

While most of my whimsical wildlife paintings are single animals in a portrait-type pose, I enjoy the challenge of putting multiple animals in a composition and creating a scene.

There’s the Two Wolves painting where it looks like they’re sharing an inside joke. Another is the three cougar cubs laughing together in Snow Day. One of my favourites and still a very popular painting is One in Every Family, a scene I painted in 2014 featuring four great horned owls.
Part of the reason I love that painting is the story behind it. That painting won the Best of Show award at Photoshop World that year, but the prize for that win was my Canon 5D Mark III camera that has become like an old friend. I baby that thing because it has helped me take the reference that allowed me to paint my best work in the years since.

That owl piece began as a practice experiment. I took several photos of the family up at Grassi Lakes over multiple days, and the experience was more about seeing these wonderful birds in the wild than creating a painting.

I did some individual sketch paintings from better shots than I expected to get. Eventually, I put those rough paintings together and invested the time to render the finished piece above.

Having painted more than 100 production pieces since 2009, I’ll often go through my photo archive and have difficulty deciding what to paint next. Lion? I’ve painted a few of those. Wolf? Several of those. Eagle? Raven? Black Bear? Many of each.

I could quite happily paint Berkley the brown bear repeatedly for a year, and I have more than enough references. But a variety of popular animals is more desirable, to find something new that will be appealing to me and be of interest to my customers and licensing clients.

There’s the difference between art for a hobby and art for a living.

So, when I repeatedly came across dozens of burrowing owl photos, many of which are the same owl, this little fella named Basil, I wondered what I could do with them.
And that’s how I ended up creating a folder called Next Level Projects. About a year ago, I spent a whole weekend going through my photos looking for animals for which I had plenty of reference; that would also look good in a painting featuring a group of them.

The first is going to feature these burrowing owls. I’ll paint several of them individually, like the one at the top of this post. Then, when I have enough, I’ll move them around on a larger digital canvas, come up with a scene, and spend time painting over them, ensuring the light matches up and they look like they belong together.

From a business perspective, each one of the owls will lend itself to an individual painting on different items. For example, Pacific Music & Art could have a set of six burrowing owl coasters, all of which are also part of the same painting in a print. It would work for stickers and magnets as well. But the larger painting, featuring all of them, would work well on a coffee mug, as it’s a longer horizontal layout.

Because I’ve been painting these animals for thirteen years, many in the same popular format of the headshot composition, the routine has started to creep in, and it’s a little concerning. I’m not tired of this work; I still enjoy it immensely. But as the recent commission piece taught me, and the latest elephant painting, it needs to continue to be challenging, or I’ll get bored of my work.

Paintings featuring multiple animals feels like the next step, and I’m focusing on creating more of those this year.

I’ve long wanted to do a painting featuring several meerkats. There’s one I keep coming back to with multiple ring-tailed lemurs, too. I’ve already got titles for both and a lot of reference. And I have so many baby pictures of Berkley and the new cubs at Discovery Wildlife Park that I’ve long wanted to put multiple brown bear cubs in one painting.

I’ll still paint the single animal pieces because I have several in mind as well, but these multiple-animal pieces will present an ongoing challenge to keep me excited about painting.

So instead of sharing as many finished paintings with you this year, I’ll likely be sharing pieces of finished paintings and the stories behind these next-level projects.

In the meantime, I’m always open to suggestions. So, if there’s an animal you’d like to see me paint, let me know in the comments. There is always the chance you’ll come up with something I haven’t considered. Or if you’d just like to tell me which one of my many paintings is your personal favourite(s), that helps me decide on future paintings, too.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Peaks and Valleys

Last month, I finished what could easily be called my favourite commission piece to date. For those who’ve hired me for commissions in the past, don’t take that personally. I’ve enjoyed almost all the pet portraits I’ve painted. But this last one represented some notable artistic growth, which has become a rare thing.

When I first started drawing and painting, it was easy to take large leaps. Looking back on my earlier work, I can see considerable improvement over time as short as six months. Because I wasn’t very good at it, was hungry for new skills, and had no shortage of exceptional artists to learn from, I couldn’t help but get better if I kept putting in the hours.

Over time, however, my skills became more and more refined, as any creative should expect, and my work, especially in my style, reached a plateau. I had found the look that identifies my art, something most artists chase. People who know my work can easily spot it, even if they don’t see my name, just as I can spot the work of artists I follow.

I’m still always seeking to get better, but any improvement is often most noticeable to me. I get better at light and shadow, the way fur and hair flows, subtle shaping of features to reinforce the balance between whimsy and realism without straying too far into that phenomenon known as the uncanny valley.

People often say that my work looks “cartoony, but real.”

I’ve heard it said so often that I’ll occasionally use it myself when somebody tries to describe it but can’t find the right words.

I’m always trying to push the realism, mostly to challenge myself, without going so far that it becomes creepy and unappealing.

So, it isn’t just about painting better hair, fur, skin textures and personality in my funny-looking animals, but knowing when to stop. I suspect I’ll find that out the hard way one day and need to dial it back. I’m confident that Shonna will let me know.

This recent commission taught me I (thankfully) still have plenty of room for improvement. As I wrote about in that post, the client requested a full-body action pose because that’s how she wanted to remember her dog, Santé.

She didn’t insist on it, but it was her preference. And the last thing I want is for a client to be mostly happy with a finished painting but still think, “it’s good, but not what I really wanted.”

It was something I wanted to try but was afraid of because I didn’t think I was good enough to pull it off.

In every painting, there are peaks and valleys. The spark of the idea, taking and choosing reference photos, and imagining different options are always high points. But once the first brush strokes hit the digital canvas, so begins a slow decline. I find that the first half of a painting is simply putting in the hours, and there isn’t a lot of enjoyment there.

But somewhere in the middle, the fun starts when it starts to reveal what it might become. Sometimes it peaks again and then crashes when something doesn’t work, which can take hours to repair. The more time it takes to get through that valley, the more I think the whole piece sucks, I’ve lost it, and there’s no saving it.

But a brush stroke here, some light and shadow there, I solve the issue and again find the joy in it.

The best part of any painting is the last two hours. I have a playlist on Spotify reserved just for this period in a painting. It’s called ‘Pick Me Up,’ With that playing in the earbuds, drinking hot black coffee, often in the early morning hours, I’ll finish the piece and feel good about it.

That euphoria lasts a few hours, but I’m heading back down to the next valley by that evening, wondering what to paint next. Or I’ve shifted back into editorial cartoon mode and following the news, which can be like dark clouds ruining a sunny day.

Of course, there are other peaks for most paintings. The feedback I get from readers and subscribers is gratifying; those who follow my work and are kind enough to post a comment or send an email telling me how much they like the new piece. And if a new painting isn’t one they especially like, they’re usually kind enough to keep that to themselves.

I’m under no illusion that every painting is a winner.

Another peak is the first time I get a print because it never feels real or complete until I see it in real life. Most of the time, it’s when the first poster print proof arrives from Art Ink Print. Proofing with that company has become just a formality. I know how to prepare an image for their press, and they know what my work is supposed to look like, so I can’t remember the last time I had to reproof an image because the first one didn’t look right, but it’s been several years.

When the 18”x24” matte aluminum print of the latest commission arrived, it was a very good day. I checked it for flaws and couldn’t find any. However, I discovered that while the white background was smooth, the painted area was slightly raised with a noticeable texture. This was an unexpected but welcome happy accident that added even more to the print.

And there is the valley of apprehension of packaging and shipping the piece, waiting for it to arrive, or driving to deliver the work to the client. Finally, after more than two months of back and forth, sourcing the photos, discussing the approach, many hours of painting, sending periodic progress updates, her financial investment in the piece, it all comes down to the delivery and reveal.

No pressure.

Suzanne had already seen the image via email, but as I said, it’s not quite real until you see it in print.

Thankfully, she was pleased with it. We had earlier discussed some of her other artwork, and she generously showed me other pieces in her collection, including the first piece she bought of mine online from Wayfair. While I’ve had this license for some time, I’ve never actually seen one of the canvases in person, and I was pleased with the quality.
It’s always flattering to see my work in somebody’s home, especially a canvas of one of my personal favourites, my Berkley painting called “Peanuts.”

Even before I got home to Canmore, Suzanne had hung the print and sent me photos she generously allowed me to share.

As much as I love meeting clients in person, especially one who was such a pleasure to work with, and while delivering the painting is the pinnacle of all those peaks and valleys, there was an unexpected bonus to the day that can’t be minimized.
I got to meet Suzanne’s new little wonder, River, a black lab puppy, who is in that lovable, awkward, too small for her big paws stage.

From the dark valley of having to say goodbye to her best friend, Suzanne now gets the peak experience of providing a home to a new dog and introducing her to adventures around every corner.

Under Santé’s watchful eye.
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