Last year, I created a video of the paintings I created in 2020. I enjoyed sourcing the music, creating pan and zoom features for the images, editing and putting it together. So I spent some of the day on Christmas Eve putting together another one for this year and had fun with it.
Watch it on full screen and turn up the volume for full effect. And if you like it, feel free to share it.
My personal favourite paintings from this past year are Grizzly on Grass, John Dutton and the Sea Turtle. I have been reminded often in my career that the ones I like best, however, aren’t always the most popular with subscribers and customers. But that’s art for ya.
As this will be the last post of the year, please accept my sincere thanks for continuing to follow, support and share my work. I’m incapable of expressing how much I appreciate it.
Very few people get to make a living from their art, and I’m well aware that it can go away instantly. Many of you have been hanging around this virtual studio for many years, and I’m grateful for your company. You frequently respond to my Wilder View emails with such encouragement and compliments, and when I’ve gone through dark times, you’ve often sent messages of overwhelming empathy and compassion.
To all of you who display my whimsical wildlife on your home and office walls, fridges, filing cabinets, coffee tables, put it on your phones, laptops, and vehicles, wear it on your bodies and faces, have bought it for yourselves, your friends and family, or commissioned me to paint your pets, Thank You hardly seems adequate.
These past two years have been difficult for everyone, and we’ve all responded to it differently. I’m going to keep this positive, so I won’t go down that rabbit hole. But I’ve heard and read quite often that this pandemic experience has spurred a lot of people to make overdue changes in their lives.
Some are leaving jobs where they’re unappreciated. Others have reached the limit of what they’ll endure from toxic relationships. Many are realizing that life is too valuable to spend on unimportant crap. I’ll be trying to find the courage to walk more of that talk in 2022, and I hope you do, too.
This ain’t over yet, but fingers crossed it will be soon. Until then, when you have the choice between joining the mob in rage and conflict, or extending a hand of support and kindness, please choose the latter.
When I’m not drawing and distributing daily syndicated editorial cartoons, I’m painting whimsical wildlife portraits for prints and licensing. Add in the usual office administration, marketing, writing and everything else that goes along with self-employment, and that’s pretty much how I spend my days.
However, I enjoy painting portraits of people, most often characters from movies. I usually make the time for a couple of these a year, but I’ve only managed this one in 2021.
I’ve often mentioned that I paint these when I’m feeling the need to reconnect to art for art’s sake or when I’m in a low place creatively, but thankfully I’m not feeling that this year. The whole year has been low for obvious reasons, and I just felt like painting a portrait.
I have no interest in painting the publicity or paparazzi headshots of movie stars or celebrities. The less I know about the gossip or their personal lives, the better. Instead, I’m more interested in the characters they play. Those characters are created by skilled writers, directors, and gifted actors, including the supporting cast and professional crews that bring it all together.
When I painted Quint from Jaws, it wasn’t just the actor Robert Shaw I was painting, but the character he inhabited, written by Peter Benchley, directed by Stephen Spielberg and brought to life in a scene with Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider.
I love movies, but we’re living in an age with great television, too, with plenty of writing and acting that can easily go up against any Academy award-winning film.
One of the shows I’ve enjoyed most in recent years is Paramount Network’s Yellowstone. Written and often directed by Taylor Sheridan, Yellowstone chronicles the lives of a generational ranching family in Montana, led by the patriarch, John Dutton.
It’s simply a great show, but not for the faint of heart. If you’ve got issues with language, violence, nudity, sex, lawlessness, smoking, gambling, alcohol, and more, you should seek your entertainment elsewhere.
There are no flawless heroes here. Instead, it’s a family of broken people, each with their dark pasts and demons. One moment they’re prey, the next predators, and you’re never quite sure when they’re right or wrong. But with incredible writing, scenery, and rich characters played by a stellar cast, it’s never dull. I am fulfilled and disappointed after each episode because I must wait a week for the next one.
But I’m glad they dole it out. If they released the season all at once, we’d easily gorge ourselves on it in a few days.
I realized that I wanted to paint John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner, about the middle of last season. Tough as nails, Dutton tries to keep his ranch and family together, while outside interests plot to take it away from him, piece by piece. Even though he knows he’s fighting a losing battle against progress and the future, he won’t resign himself to his inevitable fate.
As often happens when I want to paint other characters, I won’t know what I’m looking for until I see it. Near the end of last season, there’s a scene where Dutton is sitting on his porch, and he looks off to the horizon in the fading light. The moment clicked with me, and I had found my reference, thanks to Cinematographer Ben Richardson’s lighting and cameras.
I painted the scene more sepia tone than the reference, with more contrast, making my own choices for the painting. I like to be inspired by moviemakers and their vision, but I don’t want to create a carbon copy. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I started this painting in July, and I worked on it for a couple of hours here and there whenever I could find the time. I had planned to have it done before the fourth season began this month, but the paying gigs always take priority. So this past week, I put in the last ten or so hours over a few days. With no deadline, there was no reason to rush it, but I also didn’t want this painting to last for too much longer. As much as I loved the work, the best part is calling it done.
If you’re already a Yellowstone fan, I hope you like my rendering of this great character.
If you haven’t yet seen the show, I envy you. You get to start at the beginning with almost four seasons of great storytelling ahead of you.
I haven’t done this event in a few years, but when I saw it advertised last week, it got me thinking. It’s a small local market, which makes it easy to do last minute. I have plenty of prints, coasters, calendars, aluminum art, canvas, stickers and magnets in stock. It’s a six foot table, rather than a 10 x 10 booth, so setup will be rather simple; much like my first setup years ago at the Calgary Expo, with the benefit of a lot more experience. With the new location at The Civic Centre, it will be right downtown, inviting for walk-in traffic. As they still had space for me, I think it will be well worth my time.
And it gets me out of the house.
Late last year, with no shows on the horizon, I surrendered my credit/debit machine back to Moneris to save on the monthly rental fee. With the worldwide tech shortage and shipping delays, I wondered if I’d be able to get a terminal in time. But I ordered it on Friday and it arrived on Monday. It’s incredible that not long ago, cash was king at this kind of market. But today, with plenty of companies in the mix, it’s easy for anyone to take credit cards, debit, chip-insert, tap, Apple and Google Pay, all through a separate terminal connected via Bluetooth to an app on your phone, with funds deposited directly into your bank account.
As that was the only minor hurdle, I’m back in business and looking forward to spending the weekend meeting new people and introducing them to my work.
If you’re out and about in Canmore this weekend, stop by to take a look, or to just say Hello.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.