Posted on

Continuing Crisis of Conscience

My friend Derek and I went for a morning drive up Highway 40 into Kananaskis last week. It was raining, grey and while we were initially headed up to the Highwood Pass to take pictures of the pikas, we were also keeping our eyes peeled for anything else we might find, especially bears.

Derek is an incredibly skilled painter and tattoo artist, the owner of Electric Grizzly Tattoo here in Canmore. His photography skills are pretty tight as well, so when it comes to art, we have a lot in common.

We never made it up to the Pass because it started to snow quite heavily as we gained elevation, but it was a quiet morning, very little traffic and we saw quite a few bears. Seven grizzlies and a black bear.

While we both got some very nice pictures, a few I can even paint from, the whole experience was tainted by my ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ guilt over taking the photos in the first place.
One of the most difficult parts of painting wildlife, even in my whimsical wildlife style, is the gathering of reference. Before I became proficient with a camera, I would often borrow from generous photographer friends or buy stock photos. I still do buy reference from time to time when taking the shots myself would just be unrealistic. For example, my recent underwater painting of an Orca would require a drastic lifestyle change and a lottery win to be able to gather those shots.

I’ve taken plenty of photos at Discovery Wildlife Park and at the Calgary Zoo, many of which have resulted in finished paintings. But even though I’ve made peace with the fact that both of those facilities are doing their best to aid in conservation and that the animals are receiving the best care possible, they’re still captive animals. My support of those places has drawn some criticism and I accept that. I still believe in both places and their best intentions, for lack of a perfect solution.

What many fail to understand is that when they say animals should be left to be free in the wild; there are very few places in the world where that’s still possible. Outside of national and provincial parks, sanctuaries and wildlife reserves, most animals are at constant risk from the most dangerous predator around. Us.

My friend, Serena, head keeper at Discovery Wildlife Park, is one of the most knowledgeable people I know when it comes to bears and other wildlife. She’s big on leaving bears alone in the wild, that pulling over in your car introduces people smells and habituation risks to bears, even in parks where they’re protected. Part of their bear presentation twice a day at the park is all about educating people on being bear aware in the wild, including being a responsible tourist.

Having lived in and near Canada’s most famous national park for the past twenty-five years, I’ve seen firsthand what happens when tourists forget themselves, and close in like a mob on a grizzly bear, in order to snap that pic for Facebook. If the bear defends itself, or becomes too used to humans, they sometimes have to shoot the bear.

Apparently shooting tourists is frowned upon.

I spend most of my life feeling guilty for my choices. Even with the best of intentions, trying to be an advocate for wildlife protection AND making a good chunk of my living painting whimsical wildlife portraits, there doesn’t seem to be a good answer to where I should get my reference. If I were a wildlife photographer, it would be even harder.

If I take the photos of a captive animal, no matter how well cared for or considering their circumstances, I’m a bad person for supporting that practice. If I take photos in the wild or in parks, well I’m a bad person for stopping to get a photo, even if I’m trying to minimize my impact on the animal.
Derek and I did our best to be responsible, as we always do. We both had long lenses, so we parked a good distance from all of the bears we encountered. We stayed in my car, either taking shots from our windows or out the sunroof. We were careful to limit our time with the bears we encountered, even though we would have liked to have stayed all day, especially near the grizzly and her cubs.

We even justified those pics because on the other side of those trees behind them is a campground with plenty of people smells already there. And Parks was on scene monitoring them.

That still feels hypocritical, telling myself whatever I need to, in order to justify the shots.
Basically, there is no right answer because everybody has their own opinion and judging others by the most rigid standards of hyper morality is at the core of being human. We compare our own best traits to the worst traits in others, convinced we’re better than most. (see: social media)

If another driver fails to signal a turn, they’re a stupid asshole, deserving of a long blast on the horn, shouting and obscene finger gestures. If we fail to signal, however, well we’re only human and it was an innocent mistake. Get over it.

Think on that, next time you’re in traffic.

I will continue to wrestle with this moral dilemma, convinced there is no answer that will please everyone. Just like my artwork, I am a work in progress.

Take care,
Patrick
If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

Cattle Call

In need of a getaway, I spent four nights last week at the cabin near Caroline that friends and I rent from time to time. This little slice of heavenly Alberta ranch land never fails to recharge the batteries and provide new inspiration.

I was alone at the cabin for the first night and my friend Darrel arrived Monday for the next three. Having known each other most of our lives, it’s one of those rare friendships where we can go months without seeing each other and just pick up where we left off like no time has passed.

Over the five days, we explored more of the property we hadn’t yet seen, took daily drives down gravel and dirt roads, looking for critters and anything else of interest.

On one drive west, we ventured down a rough muddy road to get to Camp Worthington, beside the Clearwater River. In recent years, it’s been used as a survival training camp for Air Cadets. In the early nineties, however, I’d been out there multiple times as an instructor with the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves. Hadn’t been back since, and was surprised how little has changed, though flooding in recent years has altered some of the landscape.

The cabins, mess hall and other structures were unlocked and in good repair, clearly maintained. Amazing how opening a door can bring back a flood of fond memories.

Of course, wherever we went, I was looking for animals.


On our drives and around the cabin, we saw plenty of birds, wild and domestic horses, deer, and I even saw a moose right outside the kitchen window at 5am one morning. By the time I got dressed, grabbed the camera, and figured out where she’d gone, however, she had made it across the pasture, out of range.

Shonna said that a real artist would have gone out au naturel to get the shot. I’m sure the mosquitoes would have loved that.

Apparently there has been a grizzly in the area, but we didn’t encounter that particular neighbour. I can’t say it wasn’t on my mind around the cabin, especially on my own the first night.

I’ve wanted to paint some more domesticated animals in my whimsical style, farm and ranch critters to add to the gallery of funny looking animals I’ve created. On recent visits to KB Trails, I’ve been fortunate to get some pretty wonderful reference for some horse paintings I’m planning.
This time around, I was going to visit the neighbours to take some reference photos of their cows, but when I arrived on Sunday afternoon, our hosts told me we’d have some new neighbours of our own at the cabin. Turns out they’d leased the adjacent pasture to a friend for his herd of cattle and I was delighted at the news.


Of all the animals I photographed this time, the majority were cows. After going through the four hundred or so I took, keeping only the best of the bunch, I ended up with a great selection of reference and I’m looking forward to painting from them soon. Little cows, big cows, a group of cows, there’s no shortage of inspiration and material there.

The rest of the trip was what you’d expect from two boring middle-aged guys. Enjoyed good food and drink, played games and guitar, listened to music, and fell into naps in our chairs, mid-conversation. Weather was good, bugs weren’t bad, and the welcome quiet was surreal. We could have easily stayed another week if not for that whole work thing.

Cheers,
Patrick

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

The Grassi Lakes Owls

For the past five years, I’ve enjoyed hiking up to Grassi Lakes here in Canmore to watch the owls.

High up on an ancient coral seabed, a popular climbing wall with locals and visitors alike, there is a cave, where each year in the spring, a mated pair of Great Horned Owls raises a couple of owlets. If you’ve got a good pair of binoculars or long zoom lens, and you get there at the right time of day, you can catch a great view of an owl family in the wild. Most of the time, it’s only one adult looking after the young while the other is out hunting, or maybe taking some me time.  Because Grassi Lakes is in a provincial park, conservation offices hang a little red sign far below the cave, warning climbers to avoid that route while the owls are nesting. Since they have no reason to hide, the owls are usually right out in the open, enjoying their view of the tourists below.

It has been my experience that anybody with a dog, large or small, attracts their attention and I’ve captured some nice expressions as a result.

Earlier this year, I hiked up there a couple of times and saw no sign of them. Great Horned Owls will typically live about 13 years in the wild, much longer in captivity. Their fertile years are shorter than that, so I always expect that each year I see them, could possibly be the last.
Last week, with only time for a short exercise hike, I went up the trail to Grassi Lakes and was delighted to see one of the adults and an owlet. This week, on a return trip, I saw a second owlet. They’re quite large, so I missed them when they were little puffballs, but I’ve taken plenty of photos of that stage of development in recent years.

I’m assuming it’s the same adults each year, but it could very well be a different pair, possibly one of the young from previous years. Regardless, it’s nice that the cave provides a recurring safe space for new owls to be born.
My painting, One in Every Family,  (shown above) was done the first year I noticed these owls and it’s not only a favorite creation, but a popular print. At Photoshop World in 2014, the image won Best in Show.

Even though I’ve already painted these critters, I still enjoy seeing them each year and taking more photos, all of the ones seen here taken this week. Who knows, maybe I’ll paint them again one day.

Cheers,
Patrick

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

California Sea Lion

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,
Patrick

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

Bearing It All

“Don’t run.”

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

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

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

Still, I have many trips under my belt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As usual, I was in my small tent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t run.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no way I was sleeping in a tent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In my underwear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,
Patrick

Posted on

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

This past weekend, I returned once again to the little cabin near Caroline that my friends and I rent from time to time, this trip booked in early December.

With one eye on the forecast, my plan was to head up Thursday morning, with Jim and Al coming up later that day when they finished work.

The owner’s son, Wilson, called me Wednesday evening to ask me what I was driving. He said there was a large section of the road covered in water and he was concerned that it might be too deep for a car. I drive a Pontiac Vibe, a modern version of a station wagon.

I thanked him for the call, and then spent the rest of the evening dealing with all of the what-ifs flooding my overactive imagination. At the darkest end of the unlikely scenarios created by my obsessive psyche, I’d try to go through the water, underestimate its depth, water would splash up into the air intake, damage the engine, and I’d have to buy a new car.

An unrealistic and foolish prediction, I know, but when my mind goes exploring these dark places, it’s like trying to talk logic to a kid throwing a tantrum in a supermarket. The pin is out, the grenade thrown.

Never mind that I had already been presented with simple solutions. Wilson has said if I got there and it wasn’t passable, I could just come back to their house, load my stuff into their truck and get to the cabin that way. The other option, wait for Jim and Al to arrive, and ferry my stuff in their truck.

The silly thing about this whole scenario is that whenever life presents me with unexpected situations, I don’t curl up in the fetal position. I’ve never shrunk from a challenge, unable to cope.
I once stopped on the side of a highway in a winter storm in northern Alberta, the first responder to a scene where a guy had hit the guardrail and was lying on the ground outside of his car. Lucky for him, I was a new EMT at the time, and handled the situation without hesitation. As a student on my EMT practicum in Calgary in the early nineties, I once pushed my way through a room full of firefighters to help a dying AIDS patient, because everyone else seemed afraid to touch him.

During the 2013 flood, when we had to evacuate our home, Shonna and I dealt with it. No tears, no freaking out, we just worked the situation.

My track record of handling unexpected situations and difficult problems is pretty solid, especially if I don’t have a lot of time to think about it.
A few years ago, while with these same friends, we were driving up a familiar dirt road to a lake we frequent in BC. It can be challenging at times, but most often, slow and careful gets the job done. Almost to the lake, we stopped to admire the view and I heard a hissing sound. Sure enough, a flat tire.

I’d barely begun unloading my gear before Al and Jim were jacking up the car, and putting my spare donut on it.

To make sure we got our preferred spot, they took half of my stuff with them up to the lake and I had to drive back down the road to the highway and then to Canadian Tire in Invermere to get it changed, about three or four hours round trip.

Now, had you told me a day or two before that I was going to get a flat tire on the road up to the lake, my mind would have turned it into a disaster, throwing up dozens of unanswerable what-if questions. What part of the road? Is the rim damaged? Will I be able to get out of there? Is the rest of the car damaged? Was the spare good enough? Can you even drive on that road on a donut? Was it really worth the risk or should I just cancel?

Even knowing the unlikelihood, my mind goes straight to the worst case scenario in a futile attempt to control it.

The irony is that I don’t remember any other specifics from that weekend other than the fact that the weather was great and we had a good time. What I remember most is the flat tire, and it’s not a bad memory, it’s just another story to tell.

The whole thing was an inconvenience. I wasn’t even that put out by it. Had a nice lunch at a café while waiting for the car to be done and I got out of gathering and splitting wood, which is the first chore to be done on arriving at the lake.

All because I didn’t know about it in advance, so I couldn’t worry about it. Every year, I worry about that road and on dozens of trips, that’s the worst thing that has ever happened to me.
Fast forward to this past weekend.

I woke up in a better frame of mind, determined to simply deal with whatever I was presented. I have winter boots and hiking boots, but never had the need for rubber boots. Given the warning call about the water, however, I stopped in Cochrane and picked up a pair.

Upon arriving at the house, Wilson met me and said it might not be as bad as he initially thought. I told him I’d head down and if it wasn’t passable, I’d come back.

On the road down to the cabin, I came to the water hazard across the road, put on my rubber boots and walked through. It was about three car lengths long, maybe six inches at the deepest. Sure, you wouldn’t want to race a car through that, but it certainly wasn’t impassable.

All of that worrying for nothing. Story of my life.

And still, in retrospect, I’m glad he called. With so much spring melt and what became three beautiful sunny days, anytime we were out of the cabin and off the deck, we had to wear rubber boots because there was water and mud everywhere. I would have destroyed my hiking boots or shoes. I even went for a hike down to the Clearwater River, which meant crossing a creek three times, something I could only do in the rubber boots.
It was a great weekend. Sunshine, lots of laughs, no politics, spent time with the horses, and got to hang with Jingles a little. Sure would have hated to have missed it over what amounted to little more than a big puddle.

This is the part where I’m supposed to say that the lesson learned is not to worry about every little thing, to let it go, to just take life as it comes, but the truth is that I’ve been presented with that lesson countless times and I still haven’t learned it. I know you can’t control everything and that it will always be the thing you DIDN’T think of that bites you in the ass.

Like angry beavers.
It’s just the way I’m wired, and as annoying as it might be to my friends and family, it’s nothing compared to how much it bothers me, because the noise of it never stops. But I’m always working on it. I still manage to face my worries, rather than hide from them. Feel the fear, and do it anyway.

I also know this…if everything always went according to plan, if nothing ever went wrong, if it was always sunshine and rainbows, it would be pretty damn boring.

And I’d have nothing to write about.

Cheers,
Patrick

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

Boston


From time to time, my buddy Jim and I will visit our friends Babe and Sue at their place in Golden, BC. In the early nineties, while still living in Banff, Babe and friends had built a small cabin high up on the property. A little later, he built his studio on the main landing and when he and Sue retired from Banff, they built a new house across from that.

In the old days (did I just write that?), the cabin was a quiet getaway. Most of the time, as they were still working, Babe and Sue wouldn’t even be there, but they’ve always been generous folks and the cabin has had a long-standing open door policy for their close friends.

No water, no power, haul the gear up the hill on a winding trail. In winter, with infrequent use, the trail had to be broken with snowshoes, first to the cabin, then to the outhouse. We had to pull the gear up by sled.

The not-so-airtight Franklin stove would smoke us out from time to time, but we had to have something to bitch about, usually while we were chopping wood to fill it.

You really earned that first beer. OK, second beer.
In recent years, however, as they’ve moved away from Banff and transitioned to retired life, the reason we visit isn’t for the seclusion, but to see our good friends. Today, it’s hardly roughing it, with fresh coffee waiting for us at the house each morning, a big breakfast in their modern kitchen and a daily shower. They’re wonderful hosts.

I can’t even guess how many times I’ve been out there in the past 23 years.

In all that time, they’ve made plenty of new friends in that area, good people we’ve come to know as well. Birthdays, holidays, or just Friday afternoon in the sun on their deck ‘hey, come on over,‘ visits.

As it’s a rural area on the mountain side, bordering the Blaeberry, all of the homes are acreages of varying size, with plenty of trees providing natural privacy. Close enough to be friendly with your neighbours, far enough to often feel like you’re alone.

Wade and his family live across the road and he’s a big fan of a certain hockey team, which is why he named his dog, Boston.
Shonna and I don’t have the lifestyle for a dog, but if we ever did, I’d want one just like him. I’ve never met a Golden Retriever I didn’t like and I imagine most people feel the same way. In the right environment with plenty of exercise, it’s such an affable breed.

On our last visit in October, the weather was still nice enough to sit outside most of the time. Boston doesn’t always visit, but on that weekend, he was there often, likely because he was getting plenty of attention.

It wasn’t long before I got the camera out of the truck and started snapping photos, something I’ve inflicted on him before. In my experience, most dogs aren’t fans of having their picture taken, and Boston is no exception. He tolerated the snapping fingers to draw his eyes, the kissing noises, the endless calling of his name, but only for so long.

Eventually, he just lay down and looked anywhere but the camera, which was still in his face as I lay down in the driveway in front of him.

If I recall correctly, the reference for this photo was him pleading to Susan, “Please, make him stop.”

Eventually I gave in and went back to throwing the stick for him.

Like most people who take photos of wildlife (or dogs), I shoot on rapid fire. That weekend, I probably took a couple hundred photos of Boston. As is often the case when I select a reference shot from which to paint, it’s not what I had initially planned.

If you’d asked me what I was looking for, before I took any photos, I would have talked about getting him to look at the camera, mouth open panting so it looked like a smile, with nice lighting, of course. Kind of like this.
When I paint a commission, that’s what the client is usually after, so that’s what I tell them to look for in the photos they send me.

As this wasn’t for a client, I had the freedom to paint what I wanted. While going through the reference, it was the “make him stop” pose that I kept considering, and I like how it turned out.

Susan sent me a text the day after I got home from the last visit and said that Boston had come back that morning looking for us. I’ll have to bring him some treats or a new toy next time, payment for being such a tolerant model.

Cheers,
Patrick

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

Hippo

My library of animal reference photos is extensive, somewhere in the thousands and all worth keeping.

Whenever I take pictures anywhere, I try to get them out of the camera that day or as soon as possible. I can take well over a thousand photos at the zoo, but after going through them, it’s rare that I keep more than fifty on that initial pass and I’m even stricter when I sort them into folders. While on Vancouver Island last month, I took over two thousand photos and kept around a hundred, not all of which were reference.

What I’m looking for is good lighting, sharp focus, nice composition and that special look that catches my eye. That’s basically the criteria for anyone who enjoys taking photos. But the big question is, “Will I ever paint from this?”

It’s a simple question and most of the time, the answer is easy. It doesn’t mean the photo is great or even good, it might even be a little blurry with poor lighting, but for reference, I can often still use it if that special something is there. In Photoshop, I can sharpen a blurry pic, adjust the lighting in Camera Raw and turn a discard into a keeper. It won’t turn it into a good photo, but I’ve salvaged many that became good reference.

True to my nature, my reference files are well organized. I don’t like clutter, whether it’s on my computer or in the rest of my life. I could never be accused of being a hoarder since I don’t hang on to stuff if it’s no longer useful. Ironic that I pack too much when I travel.

I have almost a hundred folders on my desktop for individual animals, many of which I haven’t painted yet. Some of those images will sit there for years until I get to them. They’re backed up in multiple places and I go through them whenever I ask myself, “What shall I paint next?”

A lot of the reference isn’t good enough for the large finished pieces that take many hours to complete, but are still worth keeping for what I call sketch paintings. Those are the images I’ll paint on the iPad or ones that are a little rougher, without any fine detail. These are paintings that will likely never be offered as prints, but are good practice and worth sharing on Instagram or in the newsletter.

Over the years, there have been animals I’ve seen and photographed often, but the pictures just don’t seem right for a finished piece. I’ll get plenty of decent shots, but there’s often something missing and I keep hunting for the ‘perfect’ reference.

I take photos of meerkats almost every time I go to the zoo. Next to bears, they’re the animal I’ve shot the most. I’ve done a dozen or more sketch paintings of these critters, but I’m still waiting for THE shot(s) from which to do the Totem painting.

Some of my paintings, it took me years until I finally got the shots I needed. Among those are the Red Panda, Snow Leopard, and Red Squirrel.

It was also the case for this Hippo painting.

I like Hippos. They’re herbivores, but very aggressive. They’re one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, responsible for killing around 3,000 people each year. Seems only fair, considering that the hippopotamus is listed as a vulnerable species, due to habitat loss and humans killing them for their ivory teeth.

Too many times to count, I’d visit the Destination Africa habitat at the Calgary Zoo and try to get decent shots of the two resident hippos, Sparky and Lobi. While they’re easy to see and enjoyable to watch, taking good photos proved to be quite challenging.

I tried shooting through the glass of the tank when they were in the water, but I couldn’t get any decent detail. Then I tried shooting them when they were on the surface. Nothing spoke to me.

Then one day, while shooting the meerkats nearby, I heard the hippos get out of the water. Their vocalizations are quite loud and distinctive. Almost like a honking with a lot of bass.

The keepers were spraying water into the enclosure and it became clear that both hippos were interested. I ask a lot of questions, especially of people that work with animals, and the keeper explained that the hippos enjoy being sprayed with water, particularly into their mouths.

It wasn’t long before I was getting shot after shot of that big wide mouth as each hippo invited the spray from the hose. It was exciting, knowing I was finally getting the photos I’d been looking for.

That was three years ago, and I just got around to painting the Hippo Totem over the last couple of weeks. As is often the case, I put in the final hours on Saturday morning and I’m pleased with how it turned out.

With my whimsical caricatured versions of the animals I paint, I often have choices to make about anatomy. Some hippos have extraordinarily large teeth/tusks and while I did have that reference and could have gone that route, I decided to lessen the focus on the tusks in favour of the eye and the happy expression.

The colour palette I chose was a surprise even to me. I began with a leafy green background, but in the final hours, I didn’t like how it looked and changed it to reflect the magentas and purples dominant in her body. It went from a complimentary colour scheme to an analogous one. One of the benefits of working digital over traditional is that making that change late in the game is easier, especially since I keep the background on a separate layer from the subject. That’s some nerd stuff for you art types.

Seems a little anticlimactic to finally have this one finished considering how long it’s been lying in wait. The high from finishing a painting used to last quite some time, but these days, it’s fleeting.

Nothing to do but go back to the archives and see what I’m going to paint next.

Cheers,
Patrick

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

Vancouver Island 2018

Why am I writing a blog post on my week away from the office? Because it’s pouring! But considering that the whole week on Vancouver Island was supposed to be like this, I’ve got no complaints. We lucked out on the weather, as the rain held off on all of our wildlife excursion days.

At the moment, we’re in a cabin on the harbour in Ucluelet, one of our favorite places.


While many end up on this side of Vancouver Island to visit Tofino, we’ve long preferred taking the left turn near the end of Highway 4, rather than continuing on to what to us seems like a Pacific version of Banff. No offence intended Tofino, but a busy tourist town is what we’re taking a vacation from. Ucluelet just feels more like a place you could live.


Rather than chew up four days driving to and from Vancouver Island, we’ve always flown into Comox and rented a car. If it costs more, it’s only by a small amount when you factor in the ferries, hotels, and gas. We’re not road trip people. Screw the journey, give me the destination.

On Saturday upon landing, we picked up our rental car (free upgrade to an SUV!), met up with our ex-Banffite friend Robyn for coffee, and stayed with long time family friends for a night. My buddy Darrel is my oldest and closest friend, and his parents always make us feel so welcome. Unfortunately, there are other friends we always like to see when out here on the Island, but with only a week away, after an incredibly busy summer in Canmore, we opted to be selfish and offered our regrets ahead of time.

Shonna decided we should try AirBNB and VRBO this year for our accommodations and it was a great plan. She found us a nice, albeit small, condo in a renovated historic building on the harbour in Victoria, a place called the Janion, right beside the brand new Johnson Street Bridge. An impressive piece of engineering.

Victoria has a beautiful downtown with plenty of restaurants and things to see within easy walking distance. We parked the car on arrival and didn’t use it again until we left.

The main reason for going to Victoria this time was for Orcas. Shonna has long wanted to see them. I’ve wanted to paint one as well, but this was something we’ve missed out on every previous trip to the Island so we were on a mission.

We booked with Eaglewing Tours, their floating office on Fisherman’s Wharf. A number of years ago, the owner licensed the use of my Humpback Whale Totem painting for a mural on the side of their building, and this was the first opportunity I had to see it in person. They’d combined it with another artist’s painting of orcas and whoever stitched it together did a fine job of it.

Given their reputation, we booked with them for our best chance to see Orcas.

Without subjecting you to a play by play, on our five hours in the Salish Sea, we saw over a dozen Humpbacks. At one point, with a dark sky and storm on the horizon, we could see the spray from their exhalations on all sides, an incredible and surreal sight.


On the way back, it was looking like Shonna wasn’t going to luck out on this trip, until the Captain spotted what we were after. In the end, we saw three family pods of Orcas, including two babies. One was almost a newborn, its white markings still orange.

One even swam right up to the boat, turning over to take a look at us. The experience surpassed our expectations and made the three days in Victoria well worth the drive down Island.

While in Victoria, I visited Art Ink Print for the first time, the company that supplies my digital poster prints sold in the zoos and parks. They’ve consistently exceeded my expectations when it comes to quality and service so it was nice to see where it all happens. Typical of Victoria, their shop was only a few blocks from where we were staying and I was able to see the first proof of my latest painting, Happy Baby. Prints will be available soon.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find my Otter Totem shirt in a couple of stores, those licensed and sold through Harlequin Nature Graphics in Cobble Hill. With conflicting schedules, we didn’t visit them this time, but have in the past.

After Victoria, we headed north and west to Ucluelet for four nights. For the most part, we’re creatures of habit out here. Breakfasts at The Barkley Café and dinners at the Floathouse Grill, often more than once. From the beach in front of our cabin at low tide, I was able to watching a Great Blue Heron fishing and even saw seven River Otters go by one morning.



On Wednesday, I went out on a wildlife tour with Archipelago Wildlife Tours owned by our friends Al and Toddy, on the hunt for reference pics. Shonna’s been out with them twice, so she opted to spend the day being pampered at the Black Rock Spa, but she still got to visit when we took them out to dinner Thursday night.

This was my 7th time touring the Broken Group Islands and this go round, we saw bears, seals, sea lions, sea otters, eagles, and plenty of birds, not to mention some of the most beautiful scenery to be found anywhere in the world, all from the comfort of the boat.


Thursday found Shonna and I at the Thornton Creek Hatchery on the road to Port Albion, where they’re working to increase salmon numbers in this area. We’d never been there before, but likely because we’re usually here in June and this is our first visit in September when the salmon are spawning.

One of the bonuses is that black bears frequent the river for the easy salmon meal. There is a boardwalk above the river, where for a limited time, tourists like us can see the bears without there being any danger to either species.

We headed down the dirt road through the thick growth rain forest to the gate, arriving at around 9:30, where there were already three cars ahead of us. By the time they let us in at 10, there were about a dozen vehicles waiting. Happy to pay the suggested donation of $10-$20 for the privilege, we were ushered into the enclosure where we lined up along the boardwalk rail and waited.


After about 25 minutes, the first bear showed up, plucked a salmon out of the river and went back into the woods. Over the next hour, four more bears came to visit, including two cubs. Got some great close reference photos from our vantage point, and it was wonderful to be see the wild bears feeding without any concerns.


Today is an unscheduled lazy day doing nothing in our cabin, watching the rain come down outside. Shonna and I really don’t do enough of that in our day to day. While sitting enjoying a beer in the cabin’s outdoor hot tub this afternoon, we realized we had taken no pictures of ourselves the whole trip. So looking our absolute best, we took a very rare selfie.


We’ll drive back to Comox tomorrow morning for our flight back to Calgary in the evening, back to the grind on Sunday which is when this will be posted.

Rested, inspired, and ready to draw, paint and write.

Cheers,
Patrick

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.  Cheers!

Posted on

A Bird of Prey named Sarah

This is my latest painting of a Golden Eagle, based on reference photos I took of a 32 year old beauty named Sarah.
On a Saturday in the middle of last month, I went downtown to visit one of the Town of Canmore’s WILD events at the Civic Centre. This annual event features everything from hikes, arts activities, educational talks about the environment, and much more. While this introvert is not a big participator in large group gatherings, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Live Birds of Prey Exhibit.

Knowing this was a popular annual event, I arrived while they were still setting up with the intent of gathering some reference photos. There were four different owl species and one Golden Eagle. With such easy access to take up close reference photos, I was happy to make a small donation to express my appreciation.
From spending time with the keepers at Discovery Wildlife Park, supporting the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation each month and seeking to be better informed about the work involved in these sanctuaries, I’ve learned that wildlife conservation is an expensive undertaking.

It’s not just the care and feeding of the animals that requires constant funding, it’s the building and maintaining of facilities, veterinary bills, transportation costs, and all of the little things that add up to create a big monthly bill that never seems to decrease. I read a meme online recently that said, “I do this for the money, said no zookeeper ever.”
The more questions I’ve asked of the experts this year, the more I realize how little I know. But I’m eager to find out so that I can not only pass on the information to foster more interest in wildlife conservation, but also that I can better understand how best I can help.

The Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation was started in 1982, when “wildlife rescue activity in Western Canada was almost non-existent. Centre founders Wendy Slaytor and Colin Weir approached the Province of Alberta Fish & Wildlife Division with an offer to start Alberta’s first volunteer wildlife rescue facility.”

That quote is from their History page on their website. I would encourage you to click on the link, read the rest of it, and take a look around. The work they do is admirable, rehabilitating and releasing injured birds back into the wild, participating in captive breeding programs of endangered species, studying and monitoring avian populations and educating the public and how to be better stewards of the environment.

While I haven’t yet visited their Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale, Alberta, I plan to in the coming year when they re-open for the 2018 season. It’s open to the public, yet another Alberta destination you can add to that family road-trip next year.
I enjoyed chatting with Colin Weir (above) and his daughter, Aimee, who were happy to answer all of my questions about each of the owls and Sarah. Each of these birds has their individual story about how they came to the facility and why they can’t be released into the wild. Instead, they’ve become ambassadors of the facility, allowing people to see these wonderful creatures up close. It has been my experience that these opportunities foster more empathy for the world around us and those with whom we share it.

Colin was even kind enough to let me hold Gordon, their Great Horned Owl. I’ve painted Alberta’s official bird a number of times, but this is as close as I’ve ever been.
Ever since I discovered the local owl’s nest up at Grassi Lakes some years ago, which resulted in plenty of photos and my ‘One in Every Family’ painting (below), I’ve made it a point to educate myself about these beautiful birds. And still, asking Colin some questions about that local breeding pair, I found out there’s still so much I have to learn, about this breed and the many others they care for.
As I have four owl paintings in my portfolio, I thought I was done painting them for a little while, but I believe I might be mistaken. I did a little sketch painting on the iPad of their Burrowing Owl named Basil, but I think a more detailed painting of him will be coming very soon. Seriously, look at that face.
Thanks for stopping by,

Patrick

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.  Cheers!