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Broughton Beach Memoirs

For our 25th anniversary two years ago, Shonna and I had planned a week of glamping and kayaking on Vancouver Island.

But not long ago, a friend aptly referred to 2020 as the ‘year of cancelled plans.’

Spirit of the West Adventures has an incredible reputation, and we had no doubt they’d sell out once people began travelling again. So, In July of 2021, we booked for 2022. With the worldwide shortage of vehicles, we even booked our rental car and flights nine months in advance.

We’re not road trip people. Spending four days driving to and from Vancouver Island in the middle of summer is not our idea of a vacation. That’s why we’ve taken several trips to the Island together without ever having to endure the ferry.

Right up until the day we left, I worried about the well-publicized flight delays, cancellations, airport issues, and rental car problems. I didn’t truly relax until I sat in the Comox airport parking lot.

After quick stops for lunch, groceries, and the liquor store, we hit the highway for an easy three-hour drive to the north Island.

While eating dinner on the deck of a bar and grill in Port McNeill, near our comfortable room at the Dalewood Inn, I texted my buddy, Darrel. His aunt used to teach here, and I knew he’d visited as a kid. He joked, “Don’t forget to check out the Burl!”

Say, what now?

Darrel is fascinated with oversized roadside attractions and shared that the world’s largest burl was somewhere in Port McNeill.

Shonna said we had to find it to send him a photo. It was only a block from where we sat. Gotta love Google Maps.
I captioned this with “BEST VACATION EVER!”

The following morning, we drove the ten minutes to Alder Bay Marina, met the group, and loaded our luggage on the water taxi for our ride to the Spirit of the West base camp.

We arrived on Swanson Island to a well-oiled machine. Returning guests waited on the beach to unload our gear and supplies, after which we loaded theirs. As our boat became their boat, their camp became ours. Following a guest and guide introduction, we checked into our luxurious tents and met in the dining area for a freshly prepared lunch. That afternoon, we were on the water.

For the next five days and four nights, we were now a community of ten guests, two kayaking guides, a camp staff member, and our chef.

On a trip like this, everyone must haul kayaks, load and unload supplies and gear, and follow instructions. The other guests were younger and older than we were, with more and less kayak experience. All were genuinely nice people and a pleasure to hang out with for a week. We couldn’t have asked for a better group.

We were required to wear masks on the water taxi and the crew wore them while preparing and serving food, but the rest of the time, in this outdoor environment, we were able to forget about COVID for awhile.
THE CREW

P.J. is an easy-going pro with eight seasons under his belt. A natural leader, this guy loves his job and sharing his knowledge. Even when our easily distracted (WHALE!) wide-eyed group was only half-listening to what he was trying to tell us; he patiently got us back on track with his great sense of humour.

In addition to her skills as a kayaking guide and guest wrangler, Rebecca is an unapologetic whale nerd. She gave a talk about whales one evening, and her enthusiasm was infectious

Kenna was a jill-of-all-trades on this trip. Usually she’s in the Spirit of the West office, but she was helpful in the kitchen, general duties around camp, upbeat and friendly.

Josh is a wonder in a camp kitchen. He’s a genial, funny guy and incredibly modest about his exceptional culinary skills. Though after our tsunami of compliments every time he put food in front of us, his ego might need some deflating.

THE FOOD

We started each day with delicious coffee and a big breakfast. Lunch went with us in the kayaks, served on whatever scenic rocky beach we landed on. Appetizers waited for us on our return to camp before delicious meals each evening, served with red and white wine.

We’d been encouraged to bring additional refreshments, and most did. Before our trip, I had rigged a collapsible cooler bag with an aluminum bubble wrap insulation lining. It worked so well that I still had ice for rum and coke on the third night and our beer stayed cold the whole trip.

The meals were better than a lot of restaurant fare I’ve had; fresh, tasty and abundant. For dessert one night, Josh warned us that he had never made lemon meringue pie before. It was one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
THE CAMP

Surrounded by water on three sides, this place is stunning. A wooden staircase leads from the kayak beach up to a network of boardwalks and paths to accommodation tents and support structures.

Each trapper-style tent sits on a wooden platform beneath a corrugated roof. Furnished with comfortable beds, duvets, towels, luggage racks, solar-charged electric lamps, and personal headlamps, all had a view of the ocean.

Every tent has a washing area, compost toilet, and a metal bear-bin style cabinet to ensure that toiletries don’t attract wildlife. While we didn’t see any this trip, there are plenty of black bears in this part of the world, but with plenty of food from the sea and careful camp cleanliness, they’re not a problem.

A natural stream feeds two propane showers. We never had to wait to use them, and there was always hot water.

Communal areas include a large kitchen with a covered dining area, a lounge with comfortable couches, a gas fireplace, and a woodfired hot tub.

We were not roughing it.
KAYAKING

Shonna and I have a bit of kayaking experience. We had one day in Tofino years ago, plus four days with Spirit of the West in 2019. We enjoyed our time on the water, but neither of us has ‘the bug.’ So, we won’t be buying sea kayaks or taking a trip like this every year. But what drew us to this experience was the location and a leisurely means of touring the islands, allowing us to be out in the fresh air and physically active.
Our exceptional guides taught us about the landscape, currents, tides, wildlife, and the indigenous people who first inhabited the area. Each day, a different route would introduce us to new experiences.
Vancouver Island is a coastal temperate rainforest. While we prepared for rain and even expected it, we didn’t have any on our whole trip. Every morning we were socked in with fog until after noon, and I loved it. Kayaking in calm foggy waters is a spiritual experience, the forest and rocks drifting in and out beside us as we crept into little coves and inlets.
It was quiet, often punctuated only by the sound of humpback whales surfacing nearby.

On our final afternoon, a weather system arrived earlier than forecast (surprise, surprise), and we had to cross Parson bay with 8-knot winds. It was a workout, each of us paddling hard to stay with the group to get from one sheltered beach to another. We endured wind and choppy waters all the way back but arrived on our home beach with enthusiasm. It felt like a team effort.
WILDLIFE

From the dining area one late afternoon, we saw a large orca in Blackfish Sound headed our way. Initially thought to be alone, it soon became apparent there was a pod of them close behind. They never got near the camp, but it was a thrill, especially since they stayed awhile.
Other critters included bald eagles, dolphins, seals, sea lions and plenty of seagulls.
On our last morning, the tide was out as far as we’d yet seen. Pretty soon, the whole group wandered around the shore, checking out crabs, urchins, and other tidal life, calling out the best finds so everyone could share in the wonder.

But the highlight of the whole trip was the humpback whales. I could never have predicted so many in one spot. Easily identified by their signature blow of vapour when they exhale, you couldn’t look anywhere for long without seeing one.

When closer, you could hear them, like a rapidly deflating tire, but with more depth. While lying in bed at night, it was a frequent sound in the darkness. Then, in the morning, we’d wake to that sound in the fog, right outside our tent.

Everywhere we went in camp, walking on the shore, eating a meal, sitting in the lounge or while out in the kayaks, humpbacks were the soundtrack of our experience.

But hearing them is not nearly as thrilling as seeing so many of them, sometimes incredibly close.

From our camp and in the kayaks, we saw them surge feeding, breaching, surfacing fast and slow, way out in the channel, and right inside our bay. I took this shot standing beside the hot tub one evening.
Late Wednesday evening, half the group paddled around the bay with P.J. so he could show them bio-luminescence in the water. Dry and comfortable, I’d opted out, but Shonna enjoyed the experience. Those of us who stayed on land watched them from the shore. Then, suddenly, a humpback surfaced right off camp and looked like it was going into the narrow channel between our camp and Flower Island, where our kayakers were paddling in the failing light.

When it exhaled, P.J. told everyone to back-paddle fast. The timing and distance of the blows indicated the whale was heading into their path. Fortunately, it changed course, but it was a tense moment.

Here’s Flower Island and the narrow channel from the dining area.
On our final morning on the water, we paddled across a channel in the fog, grouped for safety. Whales were blowing all around us, and while they sounded close, fog plays tricks with noises. It was creepy but exciting, paddling in a cloud with limited visibility.

I was in a kayak close behind Shonna’s when suddenly a humpback surfaced immediately to her left, parallel but heading the opposite way. P.J. told us to group closer together and paddle for the shore ahead. The whale circled and surfaced again to our right, a little further away this time.

Humpbacks don’t have the echolocation of orcas, so their spatial awareness isn’t the greatest. P.J. later told Shonna the whale had been about forty feet away, far too close. The problem with whales is they don’t always let you know where they are until the last moment.

It startled all of us but was a wonderful experience, one that several said was the trip’s highlight. I know it certainly was for Shonna and me.
LOOKING UP FROM THE CAMERA

Our next-door neighbour Chris was a kayak guide years ago in this area. He once told me that guests were often so focused on getting photos they missed out on the experience.

I left my pro camera in camp each day rather than stuff it into a dry bag in the kayak, where I’d be too afraid to take it out while on the water, anyway. I brought an older point-and-shoot in the kayak and got some good shots. While still careful, I had accepted that it was an older camera, and if something happened to it, I’d be OK.
But for most of the shots, I had a waterproof case for my iPhone and a GoPro-style suction mount to secure it to the kayak in front of me, backed up with a tether for when I handheld it. I took plenty of videos and selected screenshots from those when I got home.

Around camp, I used my Canon DSLR to take photos of any wildlife. But too often, I focused on getting a shot of a humpback or orca swimming by rather than simply watching and enjoying the moment.

Even forewarned, I fell into the same trap.

Thankfully, I downloaded a bunch of photos to my iPad the first couple of days, and when I saw that very few of those long-distance whale shots were remarkable, I spent the rest of the trip watching more with my eyes and less time looking through a lens.

While I am pleased with many photos I took, none of them come close to the experience of being there—the smell of the air, ethereal light, moisture in the fog and the quiet peace. No camera or video will capture that, certainly not with my limited skills.

It’s a lesson I’ll likely keep learning, but I intend to be more selective on when to take photos and when to simply enjoy a time and place.

COMING HOME

After the kayak portion of our trip, we spent a couple of days in Courtenay, staying with my friend Darrel’s folks, who might as well be family. Saturday evening, we enjoyed a visit with old Bow Valley friends who moved to the Island years ago, before we flew home Sunday.

While no vacation is perfect, this one was pretty darn close. After more than two years of planning and waiting, it was a relief that it went so well and that we enjoyed ourselves this much. We probably had unreasonably high expectations, and it still exceeded them.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Please visit their website for more information about Spirit of the West Adventures and the different tours they offer. These aren’t bargain tours; as in all things, you get what you pay for, and this company over-delivers. Our tour was the 5-day Whales and Wilderness Glamping.

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Back to the Drawing Board

Although I have a few paintings in progress, I have none to share right now as I’m dealing with more time-sensitive work.

Shonna and I returned Sunday from a week in the islands off northern Vancouver Island, a vacation initially booked for 2020 that we had to cancel. I shouldn’t need to explain why. But we finally got to take the trip, which was well worth the wait. It was one of the best vacations we’ve ever had, glamping and kayaking in the Broughton Archipelago.
I’m anxious to sort through my photos and write about the experience. But I’ll have to fit it in between catching up with work and taking care of the rest of this week’s duties.

But these are some quick edits.
One of the highlights of this trip was the abundance of humpback whales. They were everywhere! There’s nothing like dozing off in a comfortable bed in a large tent at night and waking up each morning to the sound of whales exhaling just offshore.

I had to draw double the editorial cartoons the week before we left to cover my newspaper clients for my week away. So this week, I’ve got the usual cartoons, month-end bookkeeping and invoicing, plus preparing for another Mountain Made Market at the Civic Centre this Saturday. I’ll be in my usual spot inside the foyer, so stop in and visit if you’re in the area.
I’ll have another post soon with more photos and thoughts on the trip. I often forget that time away from the desk, especially in a natural environment, does wonders for my state of mind. Refreshed and rejuvenated, I am looking forward to putting a lot of energy into the paintings I’ve got on the go, and excited about the ones I’ve planned for the fall.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Swimming Upstream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,
Patrick

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Special Deliveries

Art for a living is a lot more than the general assumption that I’m just drawing and colouring all day. Like any business, there is a balance between creating or producing something and selling or marketing that something.

After Expo cleaned me out of stock, an excellent problem to have, I had to re-order prints and the packaging that goes with it. In addition, I needed to fill orders for my retail clients and have stock to sell at an upcoming market and on my online store.

Even though I work with excellent vendors who deliver outstanding service, we’re all familiar with the supply chain challenges that still create delays. But over the past couple of weeks, all orders have finally arrived. I’ve spent many hours signing and packaging each print and the past week delivering them. Now I’m preparing for this Saturday’s Mountain Made Market at the Canmore Civic Centre.
Last week, I drove to Innisfail to Discovery Wildlife Park for the first time this year to deliver the largest print order they’ve ever placed and their first order of my high-quality vinyl stickers.

I had recently updated their park map and flyer for them, and It’s already printed and available for guests. In addition to financial contributions, there are always other ways to help your favourite causes and organizations, especially if you have the marketable skills they need.

Of course, there’s no point driving those couple of hours without taking reference photos and spending time with the staff and animals. Timing and luck delivered a beautiful warm day.

At Expo this year, my friend Kayla, a zookeeper at the Calgary Zoo, said that she wanted to come up and see Discovery Wildlife Park and meet their head keeper, Serena. So I told her I’d be going up soon, and we timed it for her days off. I arranged it with Serena to make sure it was convenient, gave Kayla directions, and met there on Thursday morning.

Here’s Serena on Thursday, feeding last year’s fast growing rescue cubs, Bos and Piper.
The Calgary Zoo and Discovery Wildlife Park have a great relationship. Staff from one will often visit the other, participate in educational and training days, and learn from each other’s procedures and policies.

So, I was happy to introduce Serena and Kayla and connect them for what ended up being a partial professional development day. Of course, I was delighted to tag along and eavesdrop while snapping photos.
We got to meet their new wolf pups, though only the keepers who feed them are allowed to touch them. The vet has prohibited any other contact until the pups have their vaccinations next month. But I got plenty of photos, and there will most definitely be a painting coming this year.

On Monday, I was again on the road to deliver another print order to the Calgary Zoo. In the almost ten years they’ve been selling my prints, this was their largest order, a good sign for what we’re all hoping is an economic recovery year.

I had a good visit catching up with their retail manager, Kathryn, and spent some time meeting the new staff, talking about my work, and answering their questions. Since they’re the ones presenting my art to the public and I frequently talk to people who have seen and bought my work there, I’m happy to give the staff any help they need.

Of course, no trip to the zoo would be complete without wandering and taking photos and I was granted yet another beautiful day for it.

No matter how well I plan, some animals prove to be elusive when it comes to reference photos. From poor lighting, posing, vantage point, or timing, it can be frustrating when I can’t get the photos I want. I keep trying, however, as eventually fortune does smile, and it’s always unexpected.
After years of failure, I might have finally got the reference I needed to paint an African porcupine. They had just been given food for which they had to work a little, which is a form of enrichment. The lighting was good, I could get down to eye level, and the little critter kept looking right at me. I was shooting through glass, but if there isn’t much glare and I can cup my hand around the lens hood, that often works just fine. I must have taken 300 shots. I discarded most of them on the first pass, but there are painting reference potentials in those I kept.

From the two visits, I got good reference for wolf pups, a lion, a grizzly, and that African porcupine.

Once this Saturday’s market is behind me, I’ll have a lot more time to devote to painting, and I expect to share a new one with you, already half done, by the end of next week. I have plenty of recent reference stored up and am anxious to work from them.

Just in time for this Saturday’s market, my order from Pacific Music & Art arrived on my doorstep on Monday. I’m grateful to Mike for such a quick turnaround to restock me with magnets, coasters and aluminum art for this weekend’s market. But the best surprise in the box was my first order of the 2023 “Wild Animals” calendar! That’s one of my favourite paintings on the cover, Grizzly on Grass.
The shipment arrived while I was at the zoo, so I sent a text to our next-door neighbours asking them to grab it for me off the step for the third time in recent weeks. For a guy who is home most of the time, all my recent orders have arrived while I’ve been away. My neighbours got the first calendar as a Thank-You, but you can get yours at The Mountain Made Market this weekend at the Canmore Civic Centre.

Next week, I will have the calendars available in the online store; I need to work on the calculations to keep the shipping costs as low as possible. I will let you know when you can order them.

Cheers,
Patrick

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The People That You Meet

I woke Tuesday in a foul mood.

Though tired, I’d gone to bed with a lot on my mind and couldn’t sleep, an ongoing problem over the past two years for obvious reasons. My worrying usually revolves around black-and-white, all-or-nothing, perfectionist ruminating, catastrophizing, and other cognitive biases that frequently plague overthinkers like myself.

Logically I know that every setback is just a setback, but my subconscious mind turns it into the end of all things, despite any evidence to the contrary.

I’m not going down this road again, simply explaining that a familiar dark cloud was hanging over my head when I got up at my usual 5AM.

I spent the next few hours drawing and sending an editorial cartoon before prepping my camera gear for a trip to the Calgary Zoo. I didn’t much feel like taking photos, but with a welcome print order to deliver, I’d be there already.

Although zoo attendance continues to pick up since the removal of restrictions, I happened to choose a quiet day.

From a business perspective, I want the zoo to be busy. But I’ll admit that I prefer it quiet when I’m taking pictures. I don’t have the patience for screaming children running around my feet and bumping into me while trying to hold the camera steady.

Sorry, I’m not a fan of kids. Bring on the cancel culture.

When I arrived at the Gift Shop, I asked if Kathryn, the Retail Manager was in, fully expecting them to say she wasn’t. Unfortunately, my visits earlier in the week often conflict with her days off, so most of our communication is via email. I think the last time I saw her in person might have been in 2019.

It’s a shame because Kathryn has been buying and selling my work for the past ten years. I enjoy seeing her, she always has good advice to share, and I learn a lot from her marketing experience.

So, it was a pleasant surprise to catch up in person, and we had a productive meeting. We talked about the year ahead, which paintings I’m going to retire and which ones I might consider painting soon. The first batch of stickers I had delivered a couple of months ago have almost sold out, so upon returning home, I packed up another order and dropped them in the mail yesterday.

Kathryn mentioned that Mike from Pacific Music & Art would be there the following day, so I texted him, kidding him that he was avoiding me. He said he’d be in Canmore later in the week, and he took me to lunch Thursday.

Pacific is my favourite license because I’m regularly involved in setting up my work for the various retail items, and I’m kept in the loop on upcoming plans, which is uncommon with licensing agreements. Mike’s also fun to work with, even though he regularly takes jabs at my being the stereotypical temperamental artist.

In the words of Tony Stark at the end of Iron Man 2…“Agreed.”

I left my meeting with Kathryn in better spirits. I had another large sticker order, some positive feedback and information to consider, and an upcoming meeting with Mike to look forward to.

And the zoo was still quiet.
I spent a couple of hours taking photos, but nothing was grabbing me. I’m writing this after I’ve gone through all the shots, and while I got a few I might paint from, most were unremarkable. Some days you feast, others you go hungry. But there are worse ways to spend a cool spring day than walking around with a camera.

Eventually reaching the end of the zoo, I started back the way I came and soon recognized a familiar face, my zookeeper friend, Kayla. We had a good catchup a couple of months ago at the zoo when I delivered a canvas she ordered. I didn’t want to interrupt her work again, so I hadn’t told her I was coming. I figured if I ran into her, great. If not, I’d see her at The Calgary Expo in a couple of weeks.

Kayla and I met years ago after I painted my Smiling Tiger. She had walked by my Expo booth and asked me if the painting was based on a real animal. I told her it was and that I had taken the reference at the zoo. She said the tiger’s name was Katya, that she looked after her all the time and recognized her in the painting.

Considering my style is whimsical, and I take significant liberties in exaggerating the expressions, it was an incredible compliment that she could recognize the tiger she knew in my painting.

Since then, I’ve seen Kayla at Expo and on multiple visits to the zoo. Along with the Smiling Tiger, she has bought other pieces, and I’ve learned a lot about the different animals she cares for. As Serena at Discovery Wildlife Park and Colin at the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre can undoubtedly attest, if you spend your life looking after animals, I’m going to annoy you with questions.

Now, running into Kathryn and Kayla at the zoo is not much of a coincidence. They both work there. And Kathryn telling me that Mike was coming in this week is also not too unexpected since he has family in Calgary and is out in Canmore three or four times a year to see clients. So we usually meet up if our schedules allow.

But the most bizarre turn of events happened after I let Kayla go back to work. I walked twenty feet to the red panda exhibit and started taking pictures.

Then I heard my name.

Although they follow A Wilder View, and we exchange emails occasionally, I only ever see Sheldon and Tracy at the Calgary Expo, so it took a couple of seconds for it to click.
They’re two of my favourite people to show up at my booth, not just because they’ve been great supporters of my work for several years. Here’s their collection.

I was already looking forward to seeing them in a couple of weeks, but to run into them at the zoo, on a quiet random weekday in a city of 1.3 million people, was truly strange. I don’t know how long we stood there catching up, but it was getting a little chilly, so we walked around the zoo together. I realized that what had started as a bad day had suddenly become a very good one.

It was a real treat to spend the better part of the afternoon wandering the zoo with them. I always want to, but it’s hard to visit with people at Expo while looking after others who want to talk about and buy my work. So to have that time to walk and talk with no other obligation or timeline was a privilege, and I was delighted to send them a Thank-You email when I got home. It really made my day.
One of the best parts of making art for a living, art that makes people happy, is that I’ve been able to build relationships over the years. And while I’m grateful that Tracy and Sheldon, and so many others have liked my work enough to buy it, it’s a lot more than that.

I don’t get that connection with people with the other half of my business. In fact, editorial cartooning is more likely to foster and reinforce division in our culture. But that’s a post for another time.

To all of you who’ve found some joy in my funny-looking animals, whether you’ve bought any or not, it is sincerely my pleasure, and I don’t take your support for granted.

Shonna and my close friends would likely agree that I’ve become a cynical grumpy old man before my time because I take a lot of the stuff going on in the world far too personally. It bothers me a great deal how people talk to each other, leading with outrage at the expense of empathy.

I’m a heart on my sleeve guy, so letting things go is not one of my strengths.

But if there is an antidote to this poison, personally and professionally, I find it in these paintings and how they make some people happier, if only for a short time. Meeting some of these people and hanging out with them once in a while has been an unexpected bonus.

Cheers,
Patrick

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An African Elephant

After more than two years of procrastinating, I finally finished this painting of an African elephant.

At the beginning of 2020, our friend Serena, her husband, and their son went on a long-awaited safari to Africa. Little did they know that it would be only a couple of months later that recreational travel would be all but cancelled for more than a year.

Serena takes almost no time off. As the head zookeeper at Discovery Wildlife Park, often raising and caring for orphaned baby bears, cougars, lions, and other rescues, her work requires many long days, seven days each week. So, this safari trip was many years in the planning for her family.

Before she left, she asked me if I wanted any reference pictures. Even though Serena is an excellent photographer, I said there was no way I would impose on her family trip with a laundry list of animal photos.

There are very few elephants in captivity anymore in the western world. Because of their intelligence, family dynamic, social structure, and other requirements zoos can’t meet, elephants don’t do well in isolation, so most reputable zoos don’t keep them anymore, a policy I fully support. Instead, many former zoo elephants have been surrendered to sanctuaries to live out their lives in a herd and in peace.

As it’s unlikely I’ll be going on safari anytime soon, there’s very little chance I’ll be able to take my own elephant reference photos soon.

Since Serena pressed me on it, I confessed that I really needed that specific reference. I told her I’d take whatever she gave me, but she asked for my ideal photo, just in case she had the opportunity.

In a perfect world, I wanted a ¾ view; trunk held up to reveal an open mouth, all so that I had the best chance of painting a happy smiling face.
Serena sent me dozens of photos when she returned, including exactly what I asked for. I was grateful, filed the photos, backed them up online and on portable hard drives, and spent two years painting other animals.

This happens a lot. On rare occasions, I’ll paint from reference right away, but most of the time, that animal gets added to the list, and I wait until the time feels right. I’ll admit that sometimes, however, it’s more about imposter syndrome.

I knew that the details in the skin texture would be complicated, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to paint what I saw in my head. This is familiar ground. Regardless of how many years I’ve been doing this, the thousands of editorial cartoons I’ve drawn and more than a hundred whimsical wildlife and commission pieces, I still get nervous before every painting. It just never goes away.

Eventually, I push through it, and about halfway through a piece, I realize I’m enjoying myself.

There are two reasons I finally got off my ass to paint this elephant. First, Mike from Pacific Music & Art is putting together my 2023 calendar, and in the most supportive and encouraging way, he pushed me to get the elephant done. While I’m paraphrasing, he said something like, “stop talking about it, and just paint it, already.”
Secondly, the full-size four-day Calgary Expo will return at the end of next month. I’ve had my booth booked and purchased for three years. While I’ve painted many new pieces since the last Expo, I want that elephant in my booth.

Every year, the same guy asks if I’ve painted the elephant, and I sheepishly tell him, “Not yet, but maybe next year.”

I don’t know if he’ll be at Expo this year. I don’t know if he’ll even like the elephant I’ve painted. But if he asks if I’ve got one, I can finally say, “Yes!”

While it took many hours to get the skin texture and anatomy right, it turns out that it wasn’t especially difficult. I just had to put my ass in the chair, paint a lot of brushstrokes, and enjoy the ride. When I completed it, I was happy with the result.

Right up until I sent it to Serena.

I’ve painted several of the Discovery Wildlife Park critters over the years, so I often give Serena an early look at those, a sneak peek for allowing me so much access to the animals in her care. Since she provided the reference, I extended the same courtesy for this one.

When I sent the finished painting in a text yesterday morning, she said, “I love that you did the injured one.”

Say what now?!

I called her for clarification.

As the reference she took was at an African reserve and sanctuary, Serena pointed out that this particular elephant, the one I used for my primary reference, had the end of his trunk amputated from an injury and that it was shorter than regular length.

She thought she had told me that, and I conceded that she very well might have, but it was two years ago, and it didn’t make it into my long-term memory files. So, I honestly thought it was simply the reference angle that didn’t show the tip of the trunk, and I was okay with it. I didn’t know that the elephant itself had that part of the trunk removed. And for some reason, I just didn’t see it.

So, as much as she liked the injured elephant because she looks after orphans and rescues, I explained that I had to paint a fully intact animal for a production piece, even in my whimsical style. So, I looked through the other elephant pictures she sent, found some ‘end of trunk’ reference, and got to work repairing the mistake.
I sent a couple of changes to Serena, and she helped me get it right. She felt bad for having to tell me about it after I’d finished the painting, but I told her better than after I had bought dozens of prints, and coasters, trivets, magnets, and other licensed merchandise had gone into production.

Correcting the mistake added more than an hour of extra painting to the piece, but I’m much happier with the finished result.

I can’t wait to see it in print.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Eagles and Reality TV

Late last month, a subscriber sent me a link to a live cam of a bald eagle nest on Big Bear Lake, California. She has a cabin on this lake.

These cams exist all over the place; there’s one of an osprey nest just down the road from me. I took to this one because of the story of the breeding pair, Jackie and Shadow, and the beautiful scenery in which they live. The image quality and camera placement is fantastic; it switches to infrared at night, providing a clear image without disturbing the eagles. Their nest is 145 feet high in a Jeffrey Pine Tree.
I’ve been checking in on them every day, sometimes more than once, as it lets me scan backward several hours to see if I missed anything good. I only end up watching a few minutes each time, and I’ll admit to preferring the scenes where both eagles are in the nest, which is usually only a minute or two.
Jackie laid her eggs in January, and ‘pip watch’ begins next week. Jackie and Shadow haven’t had a successful clutch the last couple of seasons, so hopefully, they will this year. But, unfortunately, nature can be pretty brutal, and life isn’t as rosy and fairy tale as we’d like to imagine. There’s no guarantee that these eggs will produce healthy offspring that survive to leave the nest, between predators, the elements, and all that can go wrong. That makes those that do even more of a wonder.

The information shared on this camera space by Friends of Big Bear Valley is extensive, as is the commentary in the sidebar chat. While I’ve not participated in that conversation, I’ve learned a lot from reading through it.

I’ve enjoyed watching the two eagles switch off incubating the eggs so the other can go eat, fending off marauding ravens, and interacting with each other. The chatter between them when one flies in is amusing and fascinating. That tree also gets rocking when the Santa Ana winds blow over the lake. A snowstorm blew in fast and heavy last week, and while the eagles certainly didn’t look like they were enjoying themselves, they handled it well.

I didn’t see them complaining about it on their phones, at least.

 


© Patrick LaMontagne

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Business and Pleasure

While driving to Calgary the other day, I realized that I hadn’t left the mountains since October. Between avoiding the holidays, COVID restrictions, and a cold snap, there wasn’t any reason to leave the Bow Valley.

After placing our Costco orders online the past couple of years, I actually set foot in one. Although I had a small list, it was quiet, so I enjoyed browsing the aisles for stuff I didn’t need. But I stuck to the list, so that’s impressive.

After leaving Costco on Stoney Trail, I drove down Beddington Trail and was surprised to see a Bald Eagle perched on a lamp post. As that’s a rarity for me around here, I parked in a residential area and walked back to take some pictures.
It was a scraggly-looking thing with uneven plumage—likely a juvenile, younger than five years old as the head feathers hadn’t yet turned white. Unfortunately, the pics aren’t anything I can use for reference, but it was still fun to see.

The real reason for the drive into Calgary was to drop off an order of prints at The Calgary Zoo. I’m pleased to announce that a selection of my vinyl stickers is now available in the Gift Shop, where I couldn’t help but be aware of many of my funny-looking animals staring back at me.
From my own prints on several shelves, plus coffee mugs, art cards, and calendars from Pacific Music and Art to T-shirts and hoodies from Harlequin Nature Graphics. Two of the staff excitedly gushed over the stickers, and a couple of prints neither had seen. That never gets old.

Of course, any visit to the zoo would be incomplete without a couple of hours taking reference photos. It was a cool, quiet day, above zero, not too windy, and overcast, making for great light. I’ve already given the photos the first pass, pleased that I got some excellent reference for another giraffe painting and a chameleon. As the gorillas were outside when I arrived at their enclosure, I took several photos I can paint from.

The best score of the  visit was a very accommodating snow leopard. I couldn’t have posed her (I think) better, as she sat in perfect light, looking right at me several times. Even her expression was already leaning toward cool and whimsical. But, of course, that could just be how I see animal faces, which is a good thing in my line of work.

I’ve already painted a snow leopard, and it’s a popular print, currently on re-order in fact. But I’m happy to paint another. After all, I’ve painted more than a dozen bears and you can’t stop me from painting more, especially a particular favorite.
It was a pleasant excursion away from my desk and office, but I also realized how much more of a hermit I’ve become the past couple of years. Even though the roads were good, traffic was light, and I wasn’t around that many people, I’m happy to be back at my Wacom display alone this morning, continuing a painting of a happy, playful dog.

Cheers,
Patrick

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One More

One of the reasons I enjoy taking my own reference photos for paintings is that the animals often surprise me.

When I began painting these critters, before I took my own photos, I’d often have a pose in mind, and I’d go looking for it on the internet. I’d eventually find something I liked, but it would often look similar to the pose I used for a previous painting of a different animal.

If it were a stock photo, I’d pay the licensing fee for reference. Failing that, I’d contact the photographer, arrange for a high-res image and pay or barter for the use.

Australian photographer Scott Portelli allowed me to use his underwater photo for my Humpback Whale painting in exchange for a rolled canvas of the finished piece. Moose Peterson allowed the use of several of his animal images in exchange for my drawing a caricature of him and a business partner for a course they taught. We already had a connection through Photoshop World, so he was familiar with my work.

I paid a U.S. park warden $100 for his photo I found online for my first Wolf painting. He confessed surprise at my offering to pay since that image had been stolen and published illegally more times than he could count.

The problem with online reference photos is that I know that no matter what I find, there’s a good chance another artist has used the same image. Certainly, I’ll paint it with my spin and style, and it won’t look the same as another artist’s work, but it will undoubtedly share similarities.

By taking my own photos, it stands a better chance of being unique.

On a recent visit to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, I had another opportunity to take photos of their black bears during their presentation to the public. As I’ve known the keepers and staff for several years, they allow me into the large enclosures with them, though I’m behind a hot-wire. It’s an electric fence about a foot off the ground that the animals avoid, for obvious reasons. The keepers, however, interact up close and personal with the bears.

These animals are all orphans and rescues who came to the facility under conditions prohibiting their release into the wild. Many of them have been raised here since they were very young. They receive exemplary care and clearly have an affectionate relationship with their caregivers.

The keepers use the bear presentations each day to educate the public about wildlife. They teach how to be bear-aware while hiking, what to do if you encounter a black bear or grizzly in the wild, how to use bear spray, and keep a clean campsite so that the local fauna doesn’t learn to associate people with food.

The hope is that by educating the public, fewer orphans will end up in captivity, remaining in the wild where they belong.

One of those rescues is a big black bear named Gruff. With a genial and gentle personality, he has been hand-raised at the park since he was a cub.

Sadly, Gruff had a rough start in life. A hunter poached his mother in the Grande Prairie area, and people passed the frightened little cub from home to home.

Fish and Wildlife eventually confiscated the sick and frightened cub, and my friend Serena, the head keeper at Discovery Wildlife Park, was asked if she could take him.

He was malnourished, in shock from his ordeal, and sick from untreated pneumonia that has since resulted in permanent left lung damage. Because he was in such bad shape, Serena didn’t know if she could save him. But with proper food, medication, round-the-clock care and a lot of patience, Gruff has grown into one of the most beautiful black bears you could ever see.

He is currently eight years old and 709 pounds at his last weigh-in.

I’ve painted Gruff several times, and I expect I’ll paint him again as I enjoy his expressions and antics. The bond between him and the keepers is evident, and he never fails to put a smile on my face.
While visiting in June, I was happily snapping pics of Gruff when he made a clumsy attempt to sit up from lying on his back. He looked right at me, with his tongue out, and immediately reminded me of a large guy trying to do a sit-up. With the camera on rapid-fire, I got quite a few shots of this funny situation and was delighted at the photos when I got home.

As none of them were quite right on their own, I used three different reference pics for this piece. One had the best head position, another one revealed a better overall pose and the third, while a bit out of focus, had some lighting I liked.

Could I have found these shots online, taken by another photographer? Unlikely. Would I have even thought to have looked for images like this? Not a chance.

I could list dozens of paintings I’ve created that have been inspired by situations and experiences I couldn’t have anticipated. It’s why taking the photos is as much a part of the finished pieces as the paintings themselves. Each of them has a story and conjures up fun memories.

Whether it’s a pose, lighting, or simply a look, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discovered future paintings while sorting through photos.

When I came across the photos of Gruff, looking like he was trying to get in shape, there was no doubt of a painting. But, before I put the first brush stroke on the digital canvas, I already knew that I would call it ‘One More.’

I imagine it 10 feet high on the wall of a gym somewhere.

Here’s a high speed video of ‘One More’, from start to finish. Prints of this piece are available NOW in the store.
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© Patrick LaMontagne

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Birds of Prey on Display

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,
Patrick