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Made in the Mountains

I signed up late for The Mountain Made Christmas Market at the Canmore Civic Centre, but since I had the stock, the time, and it was close to home, I couldn’t think of a reason not to give it a try.

As it was a six-foot table space rather than a 10 x 10 booth, and I haven’t used any of my hardware and displays since April of 2019, I set it up in my garage last week to figure out how I wanted it to look. With setup time limited on-site, you don’t want to experiment and solve problems in the final moments before the doors open.

Usually, these events have vendors packed tightly together, but with distancing rules, there were 2m between booths and a building capacity limit, including those behind the tables. So while it meant fewer vendors could attend, it didn’t feel crowded, and we had breathing room. Behind masks, of course.

If you’ve followed my work for a while, you know I’m most comfortable working on editorial cartoons or paintings in my office. I know a lot of artist introverts, seems to go with the profession. We’re good with one or two other people, but crowds sap our energy.

And yet, I didn’t realize how much I missed the interaction at these things.

The show hours were 10-4, and I had a prime corner in the main lobby. With a couple of hours setup on Saturday before opening, restocking on Sunday morning, and an hour of tear-down at the end, it was just a couple of eight-hour days. I even got some painting time in at home in the morning before heading to the venue. Some of these shows have long hours without a break, all day, every day. So I come home exhausted after five days at The Calgary Expo.

Getting to know the other vendors is usually enjoyable. Sometimes you can have a conflict, especially if a neighbour starts pushing into your space, but it’s most often a cooperative, friendly environment. When possible, we help each other out with forgotten supplies, keeping an eye on tables for bathroom breaks, taking orders for coffee runs, chatting during the slow periods, and learning about what each of us does.

Before the pandemic, I only did one or two shows a year. The daily editorial cartoon deadlines prohibit a lot of travelling. Some of these vendors make their entire living doing the gift, craft, and trade show circuit, and they’re pros at it. They’ve got setup and travel down to a science. When it comes to farmer’s markets, some of them go four or five days a week in different locations, a lot of time spent on the road.

While I only had a five-minute drive back to my house on Sunday after tear-down, one of my neighbours was still packing up before her four-hour drive back to Fernie, BC.

Halfway through Saturday, I realized I was having a good time. I’ve written about this before, but I love it when people are surprised by my wall of funny-looking animals. Even behind masks, the positive reaction is obvious.

It’s a good feeling to make people smile, especially since the past year and a half has seen so little of that.

I’ll often have to invite people to come closer, telling them it’s OK, my critters don’t bite. Their hands come up as they point out different ones to their companions. Because I had over 45 different images at the show, with no way to put them all on canvas on the wall behind me, I invite people to flip through the bin of poster prints, assuring them they’re all different.

I get the same questions all the time, and I’m happy to answer them.

“Are you the artist?”

“Did you paint all of these?

“How do you do this?”

And I hear the same comments, without complaint.

“They’ve got such personality!”

“They look cartoony…but real.”

“I love these.”

Yeah, that last one never gets old. Even if people don’t buy anything, it’s comforting that my work helped distract them from their troubles for at least a moment or two. Not a bad way to measure success.

Sales far exceeded expectations, and I couldn’t have asked for a better weekend. What people buy in different places and times of year never fails to surprise me. While prints like the Otter and Smiling Tiger always sell well, people have their favourite animals or a friend who loves owls, cows, or moose. So one person buys a rat, the next person a hippo, and the one after that a Ring-tailed Lemur who’s not quite all there.

But two popular standouts at this show were the Winter Wolf and the Sea Turtle, both newer paintings.

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8X10 aluminum prints and ceramic coasters were big sellers at this show, and I sold out of calendars. Those are all made by Pacific Music & Art, and I’ve already placed a resupply order. I’m adding the Sea Turtle, Winter Wolf and a few others to aluminum art for the next time around.

There will be another two-day Mountain Made Christmas Market at the Civic Centre on December 11th and 12th and a one-day Last Minute Market on December 18th. As this was such a positive experience, I’ve registered for both. This was an enjoyable event because the organizer, Julian, set the right tone and did a fine job of putting everything together. In addition, the Town of Canmore’s building monitor, Maurice, was ridiculously helpful and courteous, and we let him know how appreciated that was.

We’re often quick to point out when others fall short but fail to tell them when they’ve done a great job. People need to hear it, to let them know that it matters.

Now, please don’t get excited and think I’ve found my long-lost Christmas spirit or anything.

Having just endured two back-to-back elections in Alberta, plus the last year and a half of uncertainty and stress, it was nice to talk with people without the whole conversation revolving around politics, the pandemic, and polarized opinions.

Thanks to all of you who signed up for A Wilder View at the show. Chris S. won the calendar and sticker draw, and I’ve already delivered it to him. I enjoyed chatting with all of you, and I welcome your feedback, so don’t be shy about leaving a comment on a blog post or sending me an email from time to time.

Coming up next week, I’ll have a new desktop/device wallpaper download for all subscribers. I think you’ll really like this one. It’s one of my favourite paintings, and I hope it will put a smile on your face, even if I don’t get to see it in person.

Until next time, thanks for being here.

Cheers,
Patrick.

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A Smiling Lion

To see all the little painted hairs I suggest watching this full-screen. Here’s the narrative from the video…

On a recent Saturday morning, I woke with no idea what to paint, which meant going through my photo archives, looking for reference.

None of the photos spoke to me and I began to feel uneasy.

A brown bear? No I’ve done a lot of those and just finished one. I’ve painted plenty of bears. An owl or an eagle? Painted lots of those, too.

On it went. Having painted more than 80 production pieces, plus commissions and portraits of people, finding something new is a challenge. I wanted to choose an animal I’d enjoy painting but would also appeal to others.

Was it just a bad morning or worse —the beginning of a rut?

The peanut gallery of internal critics, those loudmouths in the cheap seats, they love this stuff. Whenever self-doubt finds a foothold, that chorus of cretins is ready to attack.

“You had a good run. Time to go get a real job. You weren’t that good at this stuff, anyway. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

I tend to overthink these things.  Lately, I’ve been focused a lot on trying to figure out what my audience wants to see, the people who already follow me and support my work.

What I forget, however, is I didn’t know what they wanted to see in the first place. I painted funny looking animals and the people who liked them hung around for more. The more I painted what I wanted; the more people showed up. I don’t recall taking a poll asking if I was painting too many bears.

As I looked through hundreds of reference photos, I tried to ignore those inner voices telling me why each was not good enough, that I’m not good enough. They can’t be silenced, but they don’t deserve the spotlight or center stage.

A favorite line from the movie, Dr. Strange goes, “we never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them.”

In my frustration at failing to find the one reference image that spoke to me, the one with the perfect lighting, composition, that captured a moment, I stopped looking and started writing this narrative, instead.

And in the writing, I found a little clarity. The advice I would give another artist in this situation applies to myself as well.

Paint what you like. Stop worrying about the marketing, the likes and shares, the sales, the prints, the licensing, the niche, the pressure, the noise. Stop anticipating and giving in to the critics, real or imaginary.

If you’re creative for a living, the business stuff is important, no denying it. You can’t wing it and pretend that money is just going to flow to you. You must think like a business owner, treat it like a job, and remember this is how you pay your bills.

But not all the time.  Otherwise, what’s the point of being an artist for a living?

I went back to the archives with a different goal, to paint something for me. If other people like it, great. If not, I’ll paint something for them next time.

Once I got past all the critical voices in my head, I really enjoyed this piece. I immersed myself in the long hairs in his mane, the short hairs on his muzzle, the dark shadows that defined the larger shapes, the warm colours in the fur, the bright highlights, and that contented smile on his face, which put a smile on mine.

Sure, I’ve painted lions before.

I’ll paint lions again.

That’s OK, because each will be different than the last. And all will be time well spent.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Painting Pet Portraits

Meet Wellington Bomber, a Rhodesian Ridgeback and my latest commission. Having shown it to the happy client this morning, I can now share it with you. I’ll let it sit for a day, give it one last critical eye, then send it for printing tomorrow morning. I hope to ship it later next week.

It was a privilege to paint Bomber, and I quite enjoyed this one.

This particular painting was an unusual circumstance as the commission was a gift purchase, so I only talked with the recipient after the fact. I usually don’t accept these commissions because they have created problems if the recipient isn’t familiar with my work. Assured that Bomber’s owner knew and liked my work, I took the gamble.

I need not have worried. Both the giver and recipient of the gift were ideal clients. From start to finish, this was a perfect commission experience.

Painting pet portraits is a challenging undertaking. I know plenty of artists who don’t take commissions because they can be a minefield of unwanted surprises.

When the experience is good, however, it’s usually great. I’ve had some fantastic clients, and it’s those paintings that keep me doing this work. More than one client over the years has said that I made them cry, including this one. Let me tell ya; there’s no better compliment.

For other artists, clients and the merely curious, here are some of the hurdles involved with pet portrait commissions.

Photo Reference
Given a choice, I would always take my reference photos, but since most clients aren’t local, that’s rarely possible.

It can take some time to find the right images, which means back-and-forth emails with clients. Most of the pet portraits I’ve painted have been memorials. When the animal has passed on, my only choices are what they have. I’ve turned down commissions for lack of good reference.

Are we On the Same Page?
Clients hire me for one of two styles, and I require a clear understanding of which before I begin. Do they want a portrait style or my whimsical wildlife style?

When it’s a memorial commission, the client most often wants a traditional portrait.

Sometimes the client will say they want my whimsical style, but then they attach conditions and limitations. One client had a big slobbery dog I was excited to paint because I was going to put some long stringy drool and goofy personality into that face.

The client asked that I paint my style, but make him look more dignified with no slobber at all, which are conflicting instructions. To this day, I wish I could have done my version.

When I have the freedom to paint the way I see it, the painting could end up goofy or with slightly less caricatured expression, depending on how it comes together. Clients who agree to allow me that freedom usually get something pretty special.

Price
Some bristle at the price tag, and I think it’s because we’ve become accustomed to online mass-market gimmick art, especially when it comes to pets.

No doubt you’ve seen those ads where they stick your dog’s head on the body of royalty or a military general in a renaissance-style portrait for under $100.

You choose from a handful of template options and backgrounds, upload the photo of your pet, they cut, paste, apply filters, and voila, Fido looking cute in a faux classic oil painting. Anybody with Photoshop experience can easily create that sort of image.

For a fun, inexpensive novelty item, there’s nothing wrong with that. You’ll get what you paid for, and I’m sure many people find it amusing and enjoyable. It’s also the same thing that thousands of other people got.

Hiring an artist to paint a custom painting of your pet is a whole other animal; pardon the pun. You’re buying an original piece of art that’s personal to you.

There’s a significant amount of time involved in a pet portrait, from the initial consultation to delivery of the finished painting. My price includes a ready-to-hang medium-sized canvas print and shipping, but the cost for that is more than it seems.

I have my canvases printed professionally in Calgary by ABL Imaging. Their quality standards are high, which means I never have to apologize for cracked seams, inferior quality wood on the stretcher bars, or the wrong colour. If I wouldn’t hang it in my home, I won’t expect a client to hang it in theirs.

But quality costs.

For a one-off 12″ X16″ print, it costs me around $150. Then there’s the 2.5-hour drive round trip to Calgary to get it. If I’m running other errands or going to the zoo to take photos, it’s a detour and worth it. If not, I’ll have a courier pick it up. That’s another $35.

If I’m shipping the canvas, that’s more time and materials, plus $30-$50 depending on where it’s going.

That’s just the cost of production and time, and we haven’t even got to the creative part, which is where the real value exists.

Time
Whether it’s art for a living or any other service provided by a self-employed professional, pricing needs to factor in time. You can’t create two things at once, at least not well.

There is time spent talking with the client, checking reference photos, explaining why one works and another doesn’t, having email conversations to ensure expectations are reasonable and that there’s a shared vision. That consultation time adds up.

Most importantly, when I’m working on a commission, that’s time I’m not working on editorial cartoons or paintings for prints and licensing.

Then there’s the actual painting time. A commission will usually require a minimum of fifteen hours, but most likely more, spread out over a few weeks, depending on my other deadlines. I treat the likeness and personality as I would that of a portrait of a person. It has taken me decades of training, practice and experience to create my signature style of artwork.

Just as a skilled trades-person commands a professional rate, so do creative professionals. People often think that because an artist enjoys his or her work, that they will (and should) gladly do it for free.

The work we choose to create is the work we enjoy most. The work somebody else wants us to do, that comes at a price. You are buying not just my art skills that took a lifetime to master, but also my work time, which I never get back.

This latest commission was a real challenge. I had a hard time with the personality, mainly because the dog is a senior. Goofy didn’t seem to be the right direction, so most of the character had to be more subtle, and I spent hours trying to get it right.

It was only when I stopped trying to force it that the personality showed up. I’m happy with the result, and my standards are so much higher than that of my clients.

Friends and Family
In my experience, artists are notorious people pleasers and pushovers, most often to our own detriment.

Friends, family and even total strangers often strongly suggest that they expect a discount or free painting, or they outright request one.

Most people mean well and don’t consider it a big deal, nor do they realize that they’re the 100th person who has asked you to paint their pet “in your spare time.”

Like most people, I don’t have spare time. Ever.

Live long enough, and you accumulate many friends and acquaintances, most of whom are genuinely lovely people, all of whom you want to give a discount.

But sooner or later, you’re going to lose your business because you wanted to be a nice guy.

The hardest thing people pleasers need to learn is how to say No. I’ve struggled with this my whole life. The worst part of it is when people get used to you saying Yes all the time, they’ll resent you when you say No.

Suddenly you’re not the nice person who has always been agreeable to their requests; you’re the rude person who has gotten too big for his britches.

Sometimes, it’s personal.
From time to time, I may want to paint somebody’s dog, for the same reasons I want to paint a wild animal. I see something I like, or I have a connection with the dog or cat, or I want to give a gift that only I can give.

I’ve painted my parents’ dog, who passed away last year, and I will undoubtedly paint their new dog.

Our next-door neighbours have a wonderful dog that Shonna and I adore. Running into her in the driveway never fails to brighten our day, and she gets offended if we don’t visit for even just a minute. I’ve already taken reference of her when she was still a big puppy, and I’m going to paint her eventually.

I’ve talked about the cabin north of here that friends and I have gone to in recent years. I drive by the owners’ place on the way to the cabin, and even if I know they’re not home, I stop to visit their dog, Jingles. I painted her in a portrait style simply because that’s what felt right at the time. I was happy to give them a framed print as a thank-you for always being such great hosts.
Whenever I finish these personal pieces, however, I always get messages and comments from people ‘offering’ to let me paint their dog, assuring me that their dog is adorable, cute, and has a great personality.

Almost every dog I’ve ever met matches that description, especially to their family.

But despite what most people think, art is a business, one that requires thick skin. Art for a living is finding a balance between producing work that pays the bills and making time for the work I want to do.

When I choose to paint a pet for my enjoyment, much like the portraits of people I paint, there is little to no market for that painting after the fact. People rarely want paintings of someone else’s dog to hang on their wall; they want a painting of their own dog.

Conclusion
When a client hires me to paint their pet, I take it seriously. Someone is choosing to spend a significant amount of their hard-earned money on a personal piece of my artwork. Depending on where they hang it, they might look at it every day for many years to come.

I owe every client my best work.

Whether you’re an artist thinking of offering pet portrait commissions as part of your menu of services or a client thinking of hiring me or someone else to create a piece of art personal to you, hopefully this has provided a little insight.

I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to create art for a living for many years. The artistic skills have been challenging to earn, often frustrating, featuring many course corrections and more than a few dead ends.

But by far, the hardest lessons I continue to learn have been about the business of art. People want art in their lives, but they often forget to view it the same way they do other services and products. What’s worse, artists themselves are often the worst failures at running their own businesses for the same reason.

And to those artists, I will leave you with three critical thoughts.

Creating art is easy. Selling art is hard.

If you don’t value your own work, nobody else will, either.

Trying to please everybody is a recipe for misery, in art and life.

Cheers,
Patrick

A Final Word on Commissions
From recent market consultation and after careful consideration of my work’s value, I have increased my commission rate to starting at $1900.00, which includes the ready-to-hang canvas print and shipping. That rate is effective immediately, but my newsletter subscribers can still lock in the current rate of $1100.00 by booking a commission with a non-refundable deposit by March 31st.
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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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No Small Thing

In the winter of 1998, my wife Shonna and I took a trip to Las Vegas.

It was the early days of the internet, so we booked through a travel agent, which is why we ended up at the Treasure Island hotel. A pirate ship battle in the lagoon multiple times every night? What’s not to love?

My friend Bruno took care of our cats, and I asked him if there was anything he wanted from Vegas. He said a friend of his had brought back a glass skull beer mug from the same hotel, and he wanted one of those. I was happy to oblige.

In 2010, I began going back to Vegas on my own each year for the Photoshop World Conference. After hearing my stories about great food, whining that I was always too busy to do anything while I was there, we decided to return to Vegas for a vacation in 2013.

We stayed in a suite at Mandalay Bay, I introduced my foodie wife to some restaurants, and we had a great time. We went to the shooting range, took an open cockpit biplane flight over the Hoover Dam, and went skydiving for the first time, the highlight of our trip.

One day, we took the bus to the other end of the strip and made a day of walking back to our hotel, stopping in at restaurants and attractions along the way. When I saw Treasure Island, I thought about that mug and wondered if they had skull shot glasses.

I’m not a big drinker, but my spirit of choice is amber rum. In keeping with the whole pirate-rum thing, I’d long wanted a skull shot glass, a silly but harmless indulgence.

They didn’t have them, and I was a little disappointed.

Fast forward a year or two, and we were in a gift shop on Main Street here in Canmore, with a visiting friend. While wandering the shelves, I laughed when I came across a set of four skull-shaped shot glasses, right in my hometown. I bought them on the spot.

These days, if I wanted them, I’d probably go to Amazon and yep…set of 4, less than $25.

I like my story better.

Dumpster fire, steaming pile of…er…manure, train wreck, these are just a few of the phrases I’ve heard to describe 2020. The pandemic has changed the planet.

An optimist might suggest looking for the silver lining, appreciate the little things, realize what’s truly important and learn to live with less. But it’s hard to make that shift when you’ve had your salary cut in half, your kids’ education hobbled, all plans cancelled, and the dark cloud of uncertainty steals the colour from every sunrise.

That’s even if you still have a job.

The thought of a trip to Vegas right now makes me shudder. No thanks.

Putting aside the politics and rhetoric, the armchair epidemiology summit that convenes online every day, and the pervasive rage surrounding any discussion about viruses and vaccines, we’re all hurting and miserable.

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear someone’s story of how this has affected their business, usually in a way I hadn’t considered.

The sandwich shop owner in downtown Calgary who relied on the busy lunch hour crowd that no longer exists. The event auditorium manager, one eye on the empty seats and the other on his bank account. The clothing store owner who was already competing hard with online shopping, now wonders why she opens her doors.

And the gift shop in a tourist town.

These people have families to support, mortgages, rent, debts and face the same uncertain futures as everybody else.

When one business fails, and another and another, then communities fail. For want of a nail and all that.

As a self-employed artist, a profession that has traditionally been synonymous with financial failure, this year has been the same kick in the crotch for me like everyone else. I’m fortunate that I’m still able to pay the bills, but it’s a good thing we can’t go anywhere because luxuries are not in the budget.

Every time I send out a newsletter or marketing post this year, it feels a little like panhandling. I know that many other business owners, both home occupation and brick-and-mortar, feel the same way. It’s hard to make the ask when you know money is tight.

I’m fortunate to have what I consider a large following of supporters, many of whom have been cheering me on for years. I appreciate those folks now more than ever, not just the ones who buy my artwork, but all of them. Some days, they simply give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning and keep trying. That’s no small thing.

Most business owners feel the same way about their loyal customers, clients and supporters.

I get that Amazon is cheaper, has free shipping and easy returns. I know that Costco, Walmart and similar behemoths offer a convenience you can’t find anywhere else.

I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I shop at these places, and I will continue to do so. They employ people in the community, too, but they’re not in danger of going under anytime soon. Amazon doesn’t need your money.

Small businesses and the self-employed are struggling. This year will be the last for some of them. Many of those businesses employ others, and when the closed sign goes up on the door for the last time, those people will be looking for work, where there’s no work to be found.

Communities are an intricate web of connection. When you start cutting threads, it falls apart.

Small businesses support local events, community initiatives, school programs, sports teams and a whole lot more. They are continually asked for donations of product, time and money. While Amazon does give generously to charities, they’re not going to supply the coffee or hot dog buns for your kid’s hockey tournament.

So here’s today’s pitch.

Support small business.

It’s trite, cliché; we hear it all the time. I know.

Support small business.

I’m not saying do all of your shopping locally. Paying $50 for something at a local store that you can get online for $20 when you’re already financially strapped, that’s a hard sell.

But how about one or two things, especially for this year’s holiday season? Buy a gift with a story behind it, include a note about the excellent service at the little store where you bought it. Buy a gift card from the locally-owned coffee shop, the one where the owners have greeted you by name for decades, ask about your kids, and how you’re holding up.

And not to be too obvious, but how about buying from an independent creative type? We’re all over the place.

Give a gift as you’d want to receive one, with some thought and effort. Spread some good feelings in a time when we could all use it.

To quote from Bon Jovi’s latest offering, “When you can’t do what you do, you do what you can.”

Living in Alberta, I hear many angry people talking about how Canada has turned its back on Canadian oil, buying from other countries. While I’m sure it’s more complicated than a Facebook meme (it always is), I understand that sentiment.

It’s hard not to be frustrated when Canadians choose not to support Canadians.

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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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