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Fit to Print


This week, I put myself in a cartoon for the 20th anniversary of The Rocky Mountain Outlook newspaper. Since the beginning, I’ve been the cartoonist for my local paper with a cartoon in every issue, so it’s also my 20th anniversary.

In August of 2001, Shonna and I bought our townhouse in Canmore and moved here from Banff. At the same time, I left the Banff Crag & Canyon newspaper, where I’d been the cartoonist for three years, drawing one cartoon a week for what amounted to beer money.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook was launching, the brainchild of Bob Schott, Larry Marshall and Carol Picard. As editor, Carol offered me the cartoonist position. Then, a short time later, she asked me why I wasn’t syndicated.

Syndication sends the same cartoon to several publications. They pay a fee to run it, substantially less than an original. It’s the reason you used to see the same comic strip page in many daily newspapers or the same Dave Barry humour column across the United States.

At the time, my limited understanding was that an artist had to sign with a syndicate, a company that would act as an agent, send out the work, collect the fees and pay the artist a royalty.

Carol set me straight. When she told me I could do it myself, it was a light through the clouds moment.

She gets tired of me thanking her, but tough noogies. Without her advice, support and mentorship, it’s unlikely that I would be a full-time artist today.

I’ll skip the details of the steep learning curve and logistics, but the short version is that I began creating syndicated cartoons and cold-calling newspapers across Canada. One or two cartoons a week soon became six, plus the local cartoon for the Outlook. In black and white for the first few years, then colour as newspapers made that transition on their editorial pages.

For four and a half years, I worked mornings, evenings and weekends drawing cartoons while working a full-time day job to pay the bills.

In January of 2006, I became a full-time artist, and I’ve been unemployable ever since.

At launch, the other valley papers mocked their audacity. Still, Bob, Larry and Carol soon made The Outlook the paper of record for the Bow Valley, including Stoney Nakoda, Exshaw, Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise. After her partners and close friends both passed on before their time, Carol eventually sold the newspaper. 

Ownership, publishers, editors, and staff have come and gone over twenty years. The only people there for the first issue who are still here today are reporter Cathy Ellis, accountant Donna Brown, and this here cartoonist.

I’ve never actually been staff with my name on the masthead, simply a regular weekly contributor. But I still consider myself part of the paper, as do many readers.

While some believe the newspaper industry is dying or dead, I would argue that it’s experiencing a difficult transition and struggling for footing like many in the internet age. Formerly large daily newspapers compete with Facebook and Twitter, stories shared by people who don’t care if they’re true, just that they support what they already believe.

We’ve become familiar with the term fake news because we must frequently ask ourselves if what we’re reading comes from that deep and polluted well.

Many of these newspaper chains slash and burn their newsrooms to stay profitable or solvent, cutting costs wherever they can. But people pick up the paper for what they can’t get on Google News, National Newswatch or the T.V. News channels and sites.

They pick up their hometown paper for local news and views, the stories that make their community theirs.

People in Ottawa don’t care about a rural town in B.C. unless it’s burning and feeds their addiction to tragedy. Just as somebody in Mayerthorpe, Alberta doesn’t care about the new rec centre in Guelph, Ontario.

But the people who report those stories to the people who care about them are local reporters in local communities. So, when a tiny little paper in rural Saskatchewan only prints stories from the national news wire, it’s no wonder no local businesses want to advertise in it because nobody’s reading it.

Advertisers pay for newspapers. It’s the reason your local community paper is often free. However, when the content within is suddenly uninteresting or irrelevant to the people who live there, it’s hard to convince a business that their customers will see their ad. They might as well be advertising in the Yellow Pages.

COVID has been tough on many businesses, and newspapers are no exception. I’ve made no secret about the fact that I lost syndicated newspaper clients at the beginning of the pandemic. While they all said it would be temporary, only one of those has since hired me back, over a year and a half later.

I’ve seen reporters and editors lose their jobs sacrificed to the balance sheet, and many local papers have become shells of their former publications. One newspaper chain sacrificed all freelance content, then gave the cartoonist spot to one of my competitors for supplying them all with free cartoons for months on end.

Apparently, that cartoonist has never heard that nobody wins a race to the bottom.

A few other papers are now running bargain bin priced syndicated cartoons from the United States. Why would anybody in rural Manitoba want to see cartoons about Biden, Trump and the U.S. Congress each week in their small-town community paper?

Carol, Bob, and Larry started the Rocky Mountain Outlook to create a newspaper that the Valley could be proud of. It has won many awards in several categories, setting the standard for community journalism.

I hope that when this pandemic finally ends –and it will end—that our community and several others once again realize the value and benefit of local journalism and news.

When nobody is left to tell the stories, vet sources, check facts, present both sides of an argument, and provide ongoing investigations into complicated issues, the information we rely on won’t be worth repeating.

We’ll simply be sharing more ranting and raving on Facebook and Twitter by the loudest and angriest among us.

And that ain’t news.

© Patrick LaMontagne

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Birds of Prey on Display

This past Thursday, I drove the four hours down to Coaldale, Alberta, to visit the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre before they close for the season. While the foundation operates all year long, rescuing and rehabilitating different species of owls, eagles, and hawks, the centre is open to the public between May and the end of August.

I first met Colin Weir and his daughter Aimee here in Canmore in 2017. They had brought a handful of their ambassador owls and a golden eagle named Sarah to the Town of Canmore’s WILD event at the Civic Centre.
The Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation began in 1982 when there weren’t any wildlife rescue endeavours operating in Western Canada. Colin has been rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing birds of prey back into the wild for almost forty years. Birds with permanent injuries or those that can’t be released have been given homes at the centre, a beautiful spot in southern Alberta, right in the middle of a reclaimed wetlands area.

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to know Colin and can’t accurately convey my respect and admiration for his dedication and commitment to wildlife conservation. The facility receives no government subsidies, and they rely solely on financial donations from regular people and some generous corporate sponsors like Fortis Alberta.

Anytime a facility relies on government funding, they risk having that lifeline cut or eliminated with each election or political party whim, which would continually put the wildlife at risk. Unfortunately, politicians are usually more concerned with the optics of a ribbon-cutting than a long-term vision for wildlife conservation.
As with any non-profit operation, caring for the birds is only half the battle, and it’s a never-ending quest to raise enough funds and resources. To attract people to the centre, it must be safe, appealing, and well-maintained, a feat they have managed well. The Alberta Birds of Prey Centre is an attractive, professional, and welcoming facility. All the enclosures, aviaries and structures are top-notch, serving as housing and rehab areas for the birds and an educational facility for the public.

If somebody hits a great horned owl with their truck in the middle of the night, they’ll often call Colin. Sometimes he’s simply a knowledgeable, helpful voice on the phone, but his efforts are the difference between life and death for the unfortunate bird on many other occasions. If somebody can’t deliver the bird to the centre, he often must retrieve it, which can mean hours on the road, all year long.
I’ve wanted to get down to the centre more than once this summer, but as with all things these past many months, best intentions haven’t always aligned with feasibility. Plagued with long stretches of record-breaking heat, a thick choking blanket of wildfire smoke for weeks on end and the uncertainty of changing pandemic restrictions, this summer has been challenging. Add long hours in the office working to diversify my business, and I haven’t been able to get away.

With the weather changing for the better, some welcome rain and reduced smoke, I had to prioritize the trip before their season ends.

I arrived in Coaldale around noon and spent the afternoon taking photos and chatting with the knowledgeable staff. Colin and I had an excellent long talk catching up, which I greatly appreciated, as he doesn’t have much free time. One of the biggest challenges this year is that his phone is constantly ringing with people asking if the centre is open (it is) and if there are any COVID restrictions (there aren’t). It’s an open-air outdoor facility, ideal for a natural escape, with plenty of room to keep a respectful distance. Colin takes those calls with his typical grace and friendly nature, but it must be frustrating sometimes, especially when they interrupt his long list of other duties.

It’s a long drive to get there, so even though I took plenty of photos on Thursday, I stayed the night and returned the following morning to get more pics of their flight training.
Over two days, I watched them fly a mature bald eagle, a juvenile bald eagle, and two red-tailed hawks. Bald eagles don’t get their full head of white feathers until four or five years old. One of the staff suggested on the second morning that I lie down on the ‘runway’ to take some head-on shots of the red-tailed hawk. To take advantage of a cushion of air just above the ground, the birds drop down low when they’re flying back and forth, only climbing again at the end.

From my spot on the grass, I was right in the hawk’s path, which allowed me to get some exciting photos. The trainer told me my presence was inconsequential and wouldn’t be a distraction. The bird’s primary focus was the piece of chicken held in a gloved hand above and behind me.
I could write a few thousand more words on their important work and all I learn whenever I visit the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre. The staff share some fascinating and amusing stories during the flight training presentation and are always available for questions from visitors. Nothing is off-limits, and they’re more than willing to talk about the challenges they face each day while caring for these birds.


It’s hard to describe the thrill of close-up visits with weeks-old snowy owl chicks and burrowing owls (above respectively), or to hold a great horned owl in a gloved hand, to feel the feathers of a golden eagle and hear their calls and cries. These opportunities are open to all visitors to the centre.
I’ve painted several eagles and owls and will likely paint more in the future. A few years ago, I painted Sarah, one of the longest residents, seen here with Colin Weir. Sarah is a beautiful golden eagle that Colin has raised since the 80s. She is a healthy 37 years old, a commanding presence, but gentle enough that children can pet her, under Colin’s supervision, of course.

While I enjoy seeing all the birds, and I take plenty of photos of each species, I’ll admit that my primary goal this time around was to get reference of a red-tailed hawk. I’ve wanted to paint one for many years. They’re a common sight around Alberta, often seen on fenceposts along rural roads or highways. However, whenever I’ve spotted one, it’s been in heavy traffic or on a road without a shoulder, and it was unsafe to stop my car.

I took over 2400 shots this week and spent a few hours Saturday morning sorting through them. As is often the case, most of those shots end up being useless to me, either from poor lighting or focus or uninspiring captures. I whittled them down to around 300 and will likely discard two-thirds of those of a second pass. This still leaves me with plenty of ‘keepers,’ and I was happy to discover dozens of reference photos for paintings among them.
Best of all, I finally have more than enough shots of a red-tailed hawk, so many good ones that I’ll have a hard time deciding which to use. Or maybe I’ll have to paint more than one. It’s a good problem to have. Feathers are much harder to paint than fur, especially when intricate patterns are involved, so don’t expect a painting anytime soon. It’ll likely be a winter project, but one I’m eager to start.

The Alberta Birds of Prey Centre is open until Labour Day, and if you’re looking for one last summer southern Alberta getaway, or you find yourself on a road trip in that part of the province, it’s well worth a visit.

However, if that’s not in the cards, please visit their website, look at the great work they do for wildlife conservation, and consider donating. Every contribution helps, and your support is greatly appreciated.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Thanks for Your Support

The podcasts I listen to change from time to time. I’ll add new ones, delete old ones, depending on what I get out of each and where I’m at in my work life.

The one that prompted me to write this post was recommended to me by my friend Crystal, a Calgary-based graphic designer. While skilled in her chosen profession, one of Crystal’s most outstanding qualities is that she is a cheerleader for other creatives.

Since I’ve known and liked Crystal for years, I take her advice seriously. While it was my licensing agent in Vermont that got me the deal, and I had little to do with it, Crystal has been bugging me for years to get my work on puzzles.  When I got the box of my artist samples from Spilsbury, Crystal was first on the list to receive two of them.

So when she suggested I listen to David duChemin’s podcast, A Beautiful Anarchy, and said she thought I would connect with it, I didn’t hesitate.

David is a Canadian photographer and author, but his impressive skills far exceed his current professional pursuits. His podcast is not an interview format, but more of a ‘lessons learned and thoughts he’s thinking’ structure about pursuing a creative life. I could write a lengthy description, but David speaks better for himself than I could. I invite you to listen to see if it resonates with you as it does with me. There’s a link at the end.

When we’re allowed to travel again, one of the first places I’ll go is back to Vancouver Island. I cancelled two planned trips there this year, one for business, another a kayaking trip for Shonna’s and my 25th anniversary. As we’ve had some back-and-forth emails in recent months, I look forward to adding ‘meeting David in person’ to my next Island itinerary.

While beginning a new painting this morning, I listened to David’s latest, Episode 51: No One Needs a Juggler. In it, David talks about the feedback he received from another episode about his leaving social media.

In the current episode, he talks about the marketing challenges faced by self-employed creatives and some of the methods he used for reaching people before social media existed. It’s something on which I currently spend a great deal of mental energy. With so much content out there, it’s more challenging to get noticed in today’s world, but not impossible. It involves a great deal of work, not merely to create the art, but to get people to see it. While I am no expert at this and have made mistakes from which I’ve learned valuable lessons, I’ve also done many things right.

For most of my career, I’ve had a website that gets redesigned and improved every so often. I have it professionally done, try to keep it simple, and have always given serious consideration to feedback. I’ve kept a blog since 2008 and a newsletter since 2014, which has helped me become a much better writer. While blogs may seem antiquated to some, I regularly receive positive feedback on mine.  I’ve shared the details behind the work, milestones and setbacks, incredibly personal stories, both good and bad, frustrations, motivations, and highlights.

It would be easy to focus on the losses this year, and I’m not going to give you yet another positive ‘we’re all in this together’ message because we get those every day, and we’re all a little tired of them.

David’s podcast this morning reminded me of the one precious thing I have that I never want to take for granted, and that’s all of you.

Many of you have followed my work for a long time, some for almost two decades. Seriously, I could list a bunch of your names who have been supporting my work for well over ten years. Many of you remember the days when the extent of my work was editorial cartoons and celebrities’ caricatures. And a lot of that work was terrible!

Over time, the list has grown, and more of you have signed up for the ride. When I left Facebook and Twitter, many of you signed up for my newsletter. I know many of your names but have never met you in person, and I may never will. Some have never bought a print, calendar, mask or product, yet you send me regular emails telling me how much you like something I’ve created. That encouragement is just as valuable to me as a sale, and I mean that.

Some of you have commissioned paintings of your pets, a few more than once. I know which of you like big cat paintings, the ones who love bears more than any other animal, some of you name your prints when you get them, and some have even shared your personal struggles with me. I know that a couple of you buy prints to send to your grandkids overseas, more than a few of you have whole walls of my images in your homes, and I’m well aware which of you are patiently waiting for me to paint your favourite animal one of these days.

Though I do include links to the online store in each newsletter, hopefully you don’t feel like I’m always trying to sell you something. On the other side of that, however, I hope you understand when I have new prints or products to advertise or let you know about a pre-order or sale.

You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 has been a year like no other. While it’s personally been a challenging year, I’m surprised to find that I’m actually in a better frame of mind in December of this year than I have been in many others. I think it’s because I’m beginning to realize what I could be discovering if I wasn’t so desperately trying to hold on to what I’ve got.

2020 has taught many of us that the things we always thought we could count on are illusory.

I’ve got some new things on which to focus in 2021, stuff that I have been reluctant to try for fear that it might not work. I bought a webcam, and I want to try doing some painting demos on my YouTube channel. Not formal, scripted lessons, or start-to-finish paintings, but talking about what I’m doing while I’m painting. Ten minutes here, ten minutes there, videos that answer common art questions. Who knows where it might lead?

Thanks for being here, for following along, for your encouragement, for the emails you send after I publish a newsletter or release a new painting. Thanks for so many thoughtful responses to the Cartooning COVID video essay I posted this week. I didn’t expect such a positive response, and I’m glad it connected with so many of you. Many of my newspapers either published it on their sites and social media or are doing so this week. One even called for an interview about it.

And finally, I will take some more advice from David duChemin’s podcast and do something incredibly uncomfortable. I’m going to ask for your help.

It always strikes me funny when one of you sends me an email asking if you can share something I’ve sent. I not only love it when you think enough of one of my creations to share it with your friends and family; I want you to. Word of mouth is an absolute requirement for the success of my business and career.

When somebody buys a print from me, I always include a personally hand-written card in a little envelope, along with two business cards. One is for you to keep, and the other so you have one to give away. The best compliment you can ever pay me is to refer my work to somebody else.

So here’s the ask.

In the coming year, if I share a new painting, a video, a written post, a cartoon or anything else that connects or resonates with you, the best thing you can do to help me keep doing what I love to do is to share it. Please send it in an email to one friend, share it on your sites, on social media, private messages, or post a link to my site with my sincere gratitude.

If you have any questions, thoughts, suggestions, or simply want to say hello, please drop me a line. I try to respond to every email I get, and I love hearing from you.

Finally, as this will be the last post before Christmas, I know it’s going to be a tough one for many. Long-time followers know that I’ve never been a fan, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever want to diminish anyone else’s holiday. However different things look for you this year, I hope you can find some joy and peace.

Merry Christmas.

Cheers,
Patrick

As promised, here’s the link to David’s podcast and to my friend Crystals’ site.

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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Another Funny Looking Animal

In the waning days of the self-isolation portion of our COVID program, I bought new glasses to replace the ones I’d broken near the end of March. I took a selfie and posted it on Instagram, complete with a goofy expression. Someone said, “you look like a caricature of yourself,” to which I replied, “I AM a caricature of myself.”

That planted the seed for this painting, although it became more of a self-portrait than caricature, with little exaggeration. My face just looks like that when I ham it up.

Isn’t Shonna a lucky lady?

Why do artists create self-portraits? That occurred to me while painting this.

Is it narcissism? Sure, that’s part of it. Though artists are notorious for self-criticism, we wouldn’t bother to put our creations out into the world without at least a little conceit.

Self-portraits are also about process and practice. I’ve painted caricatures and portraits of myself a few times over the past twenty years, mostly for promotional reasons.

It’s also a way to see the evolution of art skills, an exercise in progress, and an opportunity to poke a little fun at myself. And I’m a model who works cheap.

I paint portraits of people for my enjoyment, primarily characters from movies, though I have done one professional portrait commission of Canadian Paralympian Rick Hansen for Canadian Geographic Magazine.  I only accepted that one because the editor’s proposed vision was clear, and he hired me because he liked all of my other portraits. I’m not actively seeking other such opportunities but never say never.

I know some excellent portrait photographers whose editing abilities are one of their most laudable skills.

It’s a common photography practice to augment reality by taking portraits using excellent lighting, backdrops, great gear and the all-important artistic eye. If a blemish can easily be removed, have at it. Nobody wants a head-shot, especially for business, that shows a pimple, stray hair, red eyes or deep shadows in undesirable places.

When it stops looking like the person, however, that’s a clear indication you’ve gone too far. A skilled portrait photographer knows just how far to take it without it becoming surreal. Unless of course, that’s what the artist is going for, which is a whole other realm of artistic expression.

It’s easy to spot those social media selfies where the result is more filters than photo because nobody looks like that in real life. The lines in our faces are part of who we are. We age, we weather, we’re asymmetrical and imperfect.

Even though we pretend to go along with the ruse, to obtain that perfect selfie, some take two dozen shots, fix their hair many times, change their shirt, apply makeup, filters, suck in their belly, adjusted the lighting, primp and preen, all to make it look like the photo was spontaneous.

The next time you see one of those serene-looking yoga poses, that meditative scene with bright sun rim lighting, in the mountains, by a river, or any other idyllic setting, take a moment to consider that they had to set up the camera and position themselves into the pose. Using either a timer or remote, they took the shot, went back to the camera or phone, checked the result, then repeated the process until they got the one that looked most like they had achieved nirvana and oneness with the universe.

The photo I used for reference for this painting had less than ideal lighting, my eyes were a little redder, I hadn’t shaved that day, and the background was my kitchen. But in the painting, I was careful to alter or improve only the things that I could do naturally in real life. Had I taken the shot following a better night’s sleep and after I’d put a razor to my face, it would look more like what you see here.

Naturally, it’s still a promotional painting and done in the same style I paint my animals and other portraits. It’s not supposed to look just like the photo, but it still needs to look like me.

Had I removed the grey or stray hairs from my beard, the lines in my face, or painted a perfectly coiffed hairstyle, I’d only be fooling myself, but not really.
While painting this portrait, I often forgot that it was me. It was just about getting the likeness right, the shape of the features, the values in the shadows and highlights.

Shonna is always my harshest critic. She can spot the flaws in my paintings, and it used to drive me nuts. I now brace myself before asking her opinion because she’s going to be honest. While it’s always frustrating, the nits she picks will usually result in a better-finished piece.

When I asked her about this portrait, her only critique was a structural problem with the bridge of my nose, easily fixed once I could see it. Other than that, I’m confident it’s me, or at least how she sees me.

While she liked this painting, she has suggested I should do another, one that shows my dark side, a glimpse of the inner demons with which we all wrestle. I told her I find that idea frightening, which she said was probably a good thing, kind of like art therapy.

Yet, one more reason for this artist to paint a self-portrait.

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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Ripley – A Portrait

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.

Cheers,
Patrick

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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Are We There Yet?

End of another week.

Shonna and I had a trip to Vancouver Island booked for the end of August for our 25th anniversary, a glamping kayak trip, hoping to see orcas and other wildlife. The company let us know this week that their season has been scuttled. They can’t implement safety restrictions and still run the tour that we booked. It’s another gut punch, and we are disappointed.

As a friend recently said, “2020…the year of cancelled plans.”

Weddings, vacations, graduations, sabbaticals, reunions, the disruption to all of our plans and the ever-present uncertainty is weighing heavy.

I could vent, rant and rave, but there’s far too much of that online already and it just makes things worse for everybody, since none of us are having a good time.

Just because we have the right to an opinion, doesn’t mean we need to beat each other over the head with it post after post after post after post. People won’t remember whether you were right or wrong, they will remember how you made them feel when they were having a hard time.

I’ve got a friend with six inches of water in his basement because of a high snow pack and water table, three sump pumps going, thinking he might have to evacuate his home for the second time in less than ten years. Most of his neighbours are in the same boat, and there’s rain in the forecast.

I’ve got another friend who’s usually upbeat and positive, but his business has been deep in the red for months. It could take him years to recover. The last time I saw him, he admitted he wasn’t doing well, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do and he’s had enough.

Another colleague has been going through radiation treatment for cancer while trying to keep his business going through all of this.

These are just three stories of woe, and everybody you meet right now will have one, to varying degrees, including you. None is more important than the other, because to the person living it, it’s a darkness unique to them. And telling somebody, “hey, suck it up, because it could be worse,” will only make them feel guilty for having emotions, and surprise, that will only make them feel worse.

Given the choice of a nasty word or a kind one, choose the latter or nothing at all. I’ll admit to struggling with that, because I’m a reluctant misanthrope, which is just a big word for not liking humanity much. And yet, I know a lot of good people, so it’s both a paradox and hypocrisy.

You don’t have to be a super-positive, look-on-the-bright-side, we’re-all-in-this-together, it-could-be-worse, the-sun-will-come-out-tomorrow cheerleader. I’m certainly not. Just try not to make things worse for other people. Pause before you share every tragic news story, or your version of ‘truth’ story, passive-aggressive meme, or post designed to tell somebody else that they’re stupid because they don’t think like you do.

When’s the last time you changed your mind about something because somebody told you that you were an idiot for believing it?

There’s a well known internet axiom attributed to actor Wil Wheaton. It originated as a plea for sportsmanship and civility in the gaming community, but over the years it has been applied to any online interaction. It’s known as Wheaton’s Law and simply states, “Don’t be a dick.”

Consider that you likely don’t know what someone else is going through, assume they’re struggling and go from there. If you alienate people online, you’re alienating them in real life. Most people will not make the distinction, and you’ll wonder why friends have started to avoid you.

Some of you might be reading this thinking, “hold on, I know you in real life and you can be a bitter, cynical, depressed, neurotic, fist-clenched, hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn sourpuss grump.”

Agreed. I’m well aware of my own shortcomings.

But I’m working on it.

Have a good weekend,
Patrick

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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A Cheetah Painting and Photoshop Friends

For many years, I was a member of a group called the National Association of Photoshop Professionals. I don’t remember when I joined, but I think it was sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s, and I remained a member until 2014 when it rebranded.

Owned and operated by Scott Kelby, the organization contained a wealth of online tutorials, a magazine called Photoshop User, and the Photoshop World conference. There was extensive training from internationally well-known instructors, each with their own areas of expertise.

Before social media ruined it all (yeah, I said it!), when like-minded individuals wanted to learn from each other, share their work for critique, answer each other’s questions and simply offer support, there were online forums where artists could gather.

I learned a lot from the NAPP forum and made some terrific friends there. Quite a few of them, I never got to meet in person, but when I finally got to Photoshop World Las Vegas for the first time in 2009, that was the best part of the whole experience, meeting this community in real life.

Over the next five years, I enjoyed seeing them each year, attending classes together all day, parties at night, hanging out at different venues. It was a fun event.

My involvement with NAPP was in a large way responsible for my now expert level skills in Photoshop. The networking opportunities introduced me to people and companies that advanced my career in many ways. I recorded a couple of training DVDs for Photoshop CAFE, wrote some articles for Photoshop User magazine, and won a few prestigious awards. It was due to a weird comedy of errors at my first conference that led me to a long and productive relationship with Wacom, the company that makes the digital tablets and displays on which I create my artwork.

I honestly believe that if I hadn’t been a member of that organization, with the opportunities and insights it afforded, I wouldn’t be painting my whimsical animals today. There’s a direct line between those people and experiences and the work I enjoy most.

Sadly, nothing lasts forever. The organization changed focus, became the Kelby Media Group, they retired the forum,  and most of my friends stopped attending Photoshop World. It doesn’t hold the same value that it used to.

I still talk to some of them now and then, but not nearly as often as I’d like. To this day, there are still a few people who call me Monty, my username from that forum.

For the first part of my career, while I’d been drawing editorial cartoons, I would also paint detailed caricatures of celebrities, and people would hire me to paint them for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and the like. But I didn’t see a future in it. The first funny looking animal in 2009 was an experiment, inspired by some personal reflection following my first Photoshop World that year.

Without good reference photos, I can’t paint the detail I enjoy, so in the beginning, I had to buy stock photos and relied on the generosity of photographer friends I knew through NAPP.

In 2014, I had already been taking my own photos with a decent camera I’d bought, but it was essentially a point-and-shoot with a good zoom lens. That spring, I painted a family of owls from the reference I’d taken myself here at Grassi Lakes above Canmore.
At Photoshop World that year, I won the Best of Show Guru award for that painting. At the last minute, they announced that part of the grand prize would be a Canon 5D Mark III camera. The oohs and aahs from an audience of mostly photographers indicated that it was something special. I had no clue.

When I won, I remember somebody laughing and saying, “Of course, the illustrator won the camera!”

When I returned to my seat, the friends I’d been sitting with told me just how good it was and that it was worth thousands of dollars. I remember calling Shonna to tell her I’d won, and we mused that I should probably sell it on eBay as such a professional camera would be wasted on me.

When I mentioned that idea to my buddy Jeff from Boston, he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received in my career. He told me to keep it and learn to use it.

Since then, I’ve discovered a love of taking reference photos, and it has become as much a part of the creative process for me as the painting itself. While I don’t make a habit of calling myself a photographer and have no designs on going pro, I enjoy it a great deal.

I’ve taken good care of that camera, been using it for six years, and it still does the job I need it to do. If something happens to it, or when it comes to the end of its life, I’ll buy another professional camera, because it’s now such a big part of my work.
Still, now and then, I find myself unable to take my own reference pics. This is especially true of commissions, where I rely on clients to provide me with the photos I’ll use to paint their furry family members.

Or it’s merely a case of access and travel being prohibitive. I’ve been searching for the right reference for an elephant painting for years. My friend Serena from Discovery Wildlife Park went to Africa earlier this year and brought back the perfect photos for me.

One of the people I knew well from my years in the NAPP organization and Photoshop World was Susan Koppel. It’s not enough that she was a flight instructor at 18 and then became an aeronautical engineer, but she’s also an incredible photographer and supporter of animals.

Now retired from the aviation industry, Susan’s photography business is her primary focus, pun intended.  She volunteers for the Nevada Humane Society taking pictures of the animals to make them look their best for their adoption photos. She also donates her skills to a wildlife sanctuary and nature center in Reno called Animal Ark.

The facility has adopted several cheetahs, and one of their regular events is to have cheetah runs. This gives the animals much-needed exercise opportunities to run full out, as they would in the wild, but also provides photographers with a chance to take pictures they can’t get outside of Africa. These photography events give the sanctuary added funds to continue the work they do.

Years ago, Susan provided me with the reference for my Raccoon and Fox paintings. I’ve seen her cheetah photos before and recently asked her if she’d be willing to share some. I’ve wanted to paint a full body cheetah in a running pose, mostly inspired by the photos Susan has posted over the years.

Susan generously opened up her online archive to me and told me I could use what I’d like. I ended up grabbing a dozen or so and expect to do three cheetah paintings in the near future. The reference was just so good that I couldn’t decide.
This is the first of those cheetah paintings, and I obsessed over the details. I expect I could have spent another 10 hours on this one, just nitpicking every little hair. But as every creative knows, eventually you just have to abandon one piece so that you can start on the next.

I miss all of those great people in the NAPP organization and at Photoshop World conferences. Each of them, in one way or another, inspired and contributed to my creating the work I love most, and I believe I’m a better artist and a better person for having known them.

Cheers,
Patrick

___

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Bird Watching

One of the wonderfully strange things I’ve never quite gotten used to over the years of licensed work is how my animals show up in the oddest places.

With the Pacific Music and Art license, that seems to be accelerating, because they’re in many more places than I could ever reach on my own, which is the whole point.

Earlier this week, my buddy Al sent me a text that made me laugh out loud, because it included the following photo. It had been shared on The Chive under a headline “Sports Moments Caught Out of Context…”
That ostrich T-shirt certainly does get around.

Years ago, my first T-shirt license was with a company called The Mountain. The relationship was a good one, they treated me well, cheques showed up monthly, but after five years, the owner chose not to renew the license. While I thought sales were right for me, they weren’t enough for The Mountain. The large volume of sales they were after from each design, my funny looking animals weren’t making the mark.

I was disappointed but didn’t take it personally, and we parted on good terms. The owner was a good guy, and when the company shut down its licensing division for anything but shirts, he recommended me to Art Licensing International, an agency that represents me today.

Some Canadian customers wanted to sell my shirts in their stores or gift shops but found the prices from The Mountain to be prohibitive, mainly because of the exchange rate. So, I was pleased to sign on with a Canadian company after that, Harlequin Nature Graphics on Vancouver Island.

Sometime later, however, The Mountain wanted to continue selling the Ostrich shirt, mainly because of one client. Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch and Petting Zoo is a family-owned facility in Arizona, frequented year-round, and it’s my understanding that this one client is responsible for the majority of sales for my Ostrich Tshirt.

With licensing, the main thing is not to step on other clients’ toes, so I checked with Harlequin, as they’ve got exclusivity and first rights of refusal on my designs. They were fine with me continuing that one design license with The Mountain, as they haven’t optioned that painting.

I painted it quite a few years ago on my iPad. It was a sketch painting, a fun experiment, never designed for print. But when Shonna saw it, she said she really liked it and told me I had to finish it.

I know a lot of creative art type people, and there’s something most of us have in common; our spouses aren’t impressed with our work. I’ve heard the same stories in interviews and on podcasts from many people. Actors, musicians, painters, writers, it seems that many of our partners aren’t fans, which in moments of clarity, I know that’s a good thing.

So, when Shonna likes a painting, I get a little excited, because she’s so hard to impress. As much as it pisses me off, she’s usually the last critical eye on a painting. When I ask her opinion, I bite my tongue and brace myself, because she almost always sees something that’s off. I grumble about it, make the change, and reluctantly admit she was right.
 
Man, I hate that.

In recent years, I’ve had people send me images of this ostrich shirt from some unusual places. The first was a screenshot from TSN showing a New York Islanders hockey game. A guy behind the bench was wearing it, making it look like he was giving the coach the evil eye.

A character was wearing it on a Netflix show called Disjointed, a sitcom about a pot shop. Then on the A&E series, “Ozzy and Jack’s World Detour,” Ozzy and Kelly Osbourne visited the ranch mentioned above and were both wearing the shirts in the scene following their departure.
This latest image of the announcer holding up the shirt, I’m sure was from the ranch as well, because I can see a name drop on the sleeve. Though I can’t read it, it looks the same as the one Ozzy is wearing. Interesting post-script to the announcer picture…when I sent this post to my newsletter followers, a friend in San Diego wrote me to say that he knows the guy holding the shirt, even told me his name. He’s going to ask him about it next time they meet. This bizarre small world in which we live.

These are the incidents in my work I can’t ever predict, but I’m delighted when they happen. It’s not like any of these people know who I am, but they’re wearing my art, and that’s enough for me.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
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Quint

Seems that each year, right around this time, I get the urge to paint a portrait.

When fall starts feeling like winter, my mood lowers, some years worse than others. It might be the waning light and the colder temperatures, perhaps the early onset of seasonal affective disorder. Maybe it’s that the end of another year triggers my existential angst, wondering where this whole art career is heading next, and whether it’ll continue to sustain me. Too much time alone naturally leads to expert level navel gazing, a little too much introspection and prolonged eye contact with whatever is down there, lurking in the abyss.

See? Now I’m paraphrasing Nietzsche. How melodramatic.

For whatever reason, I’ve been using portraits of people as a pressure release valve for quite a few years now. I paint them for myself, with no eye on sales, a reminder that even though I am a commercial artist; it doesn’t always have to be about making a buck.

I’ve always found painting likenesses especially challenging, so from time to time, it’s nice to step into that ring and go a few rounds.

The federal election occupied most of my recent attention, not to mention quite a bit of behind-the-scenes file prep for licensing. I’ve not had much time to paint anything, let alone write any blog posts. But when I could, I was stealing time for this portrait, one I’ve wanted to paint for a while.

Regular readers will be well aware of my affinity for movies. As a consequence, most of my portraits end up being paintings of characters from films, rather than the actors themselves. Trust me, there’s a big difference, although you don’t get great characters without great actors, so you can chicken and egg that all day long.

While the actor in this image is the late Robert Shaw, the character I’ve painted is Sam Quint, the shark hunter from the movie, “Jaws.”

It’s one of those movies that seems like it has always been there, likely because it first hit screens in 1975. That’s right, Jaws is over 40 years old. It’s one I watch at least once every couple of years and while gathering reference for this painting, I watched it again. It still holds up, even if the non-CGI shark looks a lot more fake than it used to.

That’s right, kids, they used to make movies with hand-made models and camera tricks. There was something called a phone booth in those days, too. Go Google it, I’ll wait.
I read somewhere that Jaws was the first real summer blockbuster, and it was so successful, that it changed the way that movies were made and marketed.

Culturally, Jaws is an uncomfortable guilty pleasure. It scared the living hell out of people when it first came out, keeping many away from the beaches in 1975. There are many adults today who saw it when they were too young, and it gave them a lifelong fear of sharks.

What’s worse is that by turning the Great White Shark into a monster, the movie was indirectly responsible for granting tacit approval to the global slaughter of sharks that goes on to this day. According to Greenpeace, 100 million to more than 250 million sharks are killed each year around the world.

Just like every other wild creature with which we share the planet, they’ve got a lot more reason to be afraid of us than vice versa.

Peter Benchley , the author who wrote the novel Jaws and co-wrote the Spielberg screenplay, said he later regretted writing it and felt genuinely responsible for his role in casting sharks as villains, which directly contributed to culls around the world. He spent the rest of his life advocating for shark protection and ocean conservation.

So while the movie’s theme may be yet another scar on our dismal track record as a species, the film is still one I enjoy. In the right context, it’s a thrilling monster movie with plenty of action and well-rounded memorable characters.

I guess I could have painted Chief Brody or Matt Hooper, played by accomplished actors Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, but it’s usually a specific scene that captures my attention when I choose which character I want to paint. It might be something they said, a trick of the light, an expression, anything that prompts me to cock my head, pause or rewind the movie and think, “hey, there’s a painting there.”

There’s a familiar and wonderfully playful scene in the movie where Hooper and Quint are comparing scars, having drinks while sitting at the galley table of the Orca. At one point, Chief Brody asks about the one on Quint’s forearm. Quint tells him that it’s a tattoo he had removed, the U.S.S. Indianapolis.

Suddenly the tone gets serious and Quint tells his tale.

The scene is one of my favorites of any movie, a classic edge-of-the-seat monologue, leaving the audience hanging on every word. Not only is the real-world tale of the Indianapolis tragic, but it explains Quint’s hatred for sharks and why he hunts them. What you might not know is that the late Robert Shaw was an accomplished writer, and he rewrote the scene with Spielberg. By all accounts the collaboration made it the most resonant scene in the film.

Quint meets his demise a short time later when the shark evens the score. Oh sorry, should I have said, “spoiler alert?”
I enjoyed working on this portrait and once I found the time to really devote some hours to it this week, I didn’t want it to end. There was always one more brush stroke to make, a small wrinkle here, a blemish there, just to improve the likeness a little more, to capture the feeling of Quint.

Eventually, as with all of my paintings, I just had to accept that it would never be perfect. I called it finished, content that I was able to carve out some creative time for myself, hopefully improved my skills a little through the effort, and abandoned this painting so that I can start another. I’m pleased with how it turned out and I think I accomplished what I had envisioned.

Given that this winter melancholy and malaise seems to have settled in early this year, I believe I might have another portrait to paint before long.

After I get back to the paying gigs for a while.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Thank You Notes

One of the more interesting highlights of my art career happened in 2013 when Emilio Estevez wanted to buy the original painting I did of his father, Martin Sheen. I’ve told this story more than once, but if it’s new to you, here’s the link.

While it did generate some media publicity for me, and was personally exciting, it did little for my career. Painting portraits of people is something I do for my own enjoyment and with the exception of one commission I did for Canadian Geographic and the occasional editorial cartoon portrait (usually when somebody dies), I’m not hired for this sort of work and that suits me fine. The editorial cartoons and funny looking animals keep me plenty busy.

I do enjoy telling the story about that experience when it comes up, especially about how genuine and kind both actors were in our communication. Not only did they sign a print for me that hangs in my office, they gave me a signed copy of the book they co-wrote as well, as I’d mentioned in our correspondence that I’d given my copy to my father.
Incidentally, if you haven’t seen the movie The Way, which inspired my painting, it’s one of my favorites. Few films have moved me the way that one still does.

A short time ago, I came across a note card that Estevez included when he returned the signed prints. Or it came with the book, I don’t remember. It was an unnecessary nicety that might not seem like much, but it struck me as a classy gesture.
I remember thinking at the time that I should get little note cards like this. It added more value to the experience, and I thought it might be nice to pass the same feeling on to my clients. Obviously it’s something on which I failed to follow through.

Whenever I send a print out to someone who has purchased from my online store, I usually include a little note on the invoice or on a post-it, just a little thank you in my own handwriting, which is atrocious, by the way.

But on the invoice or post-it, it always feels a little cheap to me. It’s a personal note, sure, but it’s still the bare minimum.

This year, my painted work is being seen in more places than ever before. Thanks to my licenses with Pacific Music and Art, Harlequin Nature Graphics and Art Licensing International, it’s very easy to buy my work online. You can now order a canvas print of my funny looking animals from Wal-Mart, Amazon and other sites in the U.S. through one of my licenses.

But when people order from MY store, they’re getting it from me. I hand-sign the print, I package it, I put the art bio in the sleeve and I’m the one who personally takes it to the post office to ship it. Sure, I’ve included an extra art card or another small goodie when I can, but every once in a while, I’ve thought about that note card from Emilio Estevez.

A couple of weeks ago, I designed and ordered new business cards to reflect the changeover from Cartoon Ink to LaMontagne Art. Those arrived yesterday, along with my new note cards. It’s just a small thing and it adds to the print cost on my end, but I think it’s worth it.

At a time when you can order anything and everything online from an impersonal shopping cart, every so often I like to remind my customers that their purchase is appreciated, that it was bought from a real person. We all work hard for our money, so when somebody thinks one of my prints is worth parting with some of theirs, that’s pretty cool.

It deserves better than a post-it note.

I can’t do anything about the bad handwriting.

Cheers,
Patrick