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Reflecting and a Raven on White

In the late nineties, I worked different jobs at a hotel in Banff for five or six years, from waterslide attendant and manager to front desk agent, night auditor and accounting clerk.

I used to doodle, sketch, and draw a lot in those days. I wasn’t very good at it, but like with any skill, you don’t produce your best work until you’ve paid for it with years of bad work. It was a hobby that I never thought would become a career.

While at the waterslides, after I’d finished cleaning, the job often meant minding the desk until guests showed up. I might spend hours alone in the slow season, so I would read or draw. The night audit position required a couple of hours running financial reports at the beginning of the shift, then babysitting the front desk all night until the day staff arrived.

More time to draw.

I filled countless sketchbooks during those years, all long ago discarded, recycled or shredded. I’m not a nostalgic person, and I don’t like clutter. Some have suggested I should have kept that stuff because it might have been worth money someday.

Ever seen American Pickers? Those outbuildings full of junk are all about people keeping useless stuff for that very reason. Most of it is worthless.

Proving we never know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone, I took all that creative freedom I now miss for granted. No deadlines, no expectations, and no need for any of that artwork to pay the bills. With no social media or website then, I didn’t have to post any of it.

Art for a living is a double-edged sword. While I certainly prefer it to that waterslide job or working midnight shifts minding a front desk, and working at home alone suits my nature; I no longer draw anything just for fun. If I’ve got time to draw, I spend it on editorial cartoons or whimsical wildlife paintings.

I used to enjoy editorial cartooning, but following politics and the news every day, especially in our increasingly toxic and adversarial culture, it’s just a job, and there’s little joy in it. But I can’t ignore that without cartoon deadlines; I wouldn’t have been as disciplined to draw almost every day for more than twenty years. That constant practice has made me a better artist. How could it not?

The wildlife paintings, however, are the antidote to the negative news cycle. I’d much rather spend every day painting fur and feathers, recording painting videos, or writing, but that’s currently just over half of my artistic income, so I need to devote equal time to the darkness and light.

The financial pressure I assign to my wildlife work often decides which animals I paint. I will avoid certain animals because they’re unlikely to be popular. I must always think about the market potential for anything I paint. Will this or that retail or licensing client be interested, will it be popular at markets, and which products might benefit from this piece?

I’ve only realized in recent years how loud those questions have become. My Otter and Smiling Tiger are two of my bestsellers, but I wasn’t thinking about that when I painted either of them nor could I have predicted their success.

But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t trying to predict and produce the next bestseller every time I plan a new painting, even knowing it’s impossible. Art isn’t an algorithm. Based on market trends, you can’t accurately predict what will resonate with people. I know because every year, the licensing industry pretends they know what people want and what will sell, and they fail more often than succeed.

Like with political polls or long-range weather forecasts, we pay attention to these poor predictions and then complain about how often they’re wrong. We’re not as bright as we like to pretend.

Several people asked me to paint a sloth a couple of years ago. I kept putting it off because I had no interest. But I finally got tired of hearing it and wondered if I was missing something. So, I put the time in and painted one. It was a worthwhile challenge, and I’m pleased with how it turned out. I learned some things in the process, but it’s not one of my personal favourites. I’ve never felt any connection with sloths. It sells well enough, but it’s not a bestseller.

Over the past year, I’ve received a bizarre number of requests for another animal, at least twice a day at the Banff Christmas markets. It’s another I wouldn’t have chosen, but I started on it this week. With the Calgary Expo on the horizon, it’s the best place to test if requests will result in actual sales, should I manage to do a good job. Rather than tell you what it is, I’ll share it in a couple of weeks.
I’ve always liked ravens, and I talked a bit about that in my last post. Because ravens are popular, this piece was a marketing decision and an animal I wanted to paint. It’s nice when it can be both, but I catch myself asking composition questions while I paint that I never would have when I didn’t do this for a living.

Will no background make the painting more or less popular? Will people want the blues and purples in the feathers to be more or less vibrant? Should I have exaggerated the whimsy more, or did I go too far already?

It also applies to writing posts like this. Am I being too negative? Will this angsty artist crap turn people off? Should I write something peppy and encouraging, even though I feel none of that right now? What do people want to hear?

These questions are pointless, but I find them impossible to ignore.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

But because this work is my livelihood, it’s nearly impossible to avoid these thoughts. My time is limited, and spending it on a painting that doesn’t sell well feels like I wasted it on the wrong painting.

Second guessing like that often leads to procrastination and self-doubt. Too long in that headspace, and I’ll ultimately paint nothing because I’m looking for impossible guarantees.

It would be nice to end a post like this with a positive affirmation or some conclusion that hints at some 11th-hour writing wisdom. But I have no clear answer to this flawed perspective. I’m still working on it.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Market Lessons


Sales were good for both Banff Christmas Market weekends, so I’ll book again next year. The weather was great, right up until a sudden snowstorm Sunday evening, just in time for load-out, but that’s life in the Rockies.

When you make art for a living, profitability is the critical metric for an event’s worthiness, but after you achieve the financial goals, there are intangible benefits, too.

At the Calgary Expo earlier this year, a new vendor introduced himself, thanked me for a couple of blog posts I’d written about the Expo, and said it helped him prepare for his first booth. I got plenty of help and advice when in his shoes, so I was pleased to pay it forward.

There are plenty more experienced vendors than I am, but I’ve done enough over the years to understand what works and what doesn’t.

Every vendor has something to teach you. From where to find a decent meal in a sea of deep-fried food trucks to when to get there on the last day for a good parking spot for load-out. Those who’ve been there before have the wisdom; most are happy to share it.

Keep good records. I have a detailed sales spreadsheet I update each day of the show, whether home or away. You may only do a particular market once, but if you do well and come back the following year, you won’t be able to remember what you sold, so you won’t know what to bring. It’s not enough that I know the Smiling Tiger or Otter were bestsellers. I need to know how the other 40 images did, too.

Be honest about your costs. You don’t make any money until you know what you’ve spent.

Because I got to come home each night, the expenses for these recent markets were low, mainly booth cost and insurance. At the Calgary Expo, once I added up booth cost, parking, power, insurance, hotel and meals, I spent $2000 before I sold one print. To make it worth my time, I must make much more there than at the Banff Christmas Market.

Then, every sticker, magnet, coaster, calendar, puzzle, and print has a cost that must be deducted from each sale before I know what I made. And every time somebody pays with a credit card, there’s a fee, too.

Shit happens. On Thursday, as I set up, I dropped the first metal print of my Blizzard Bear painting. Most wouldn’t have noticed the corner damage, and it still looked good on display, but a slip of my fingers and the profit from that piece was gone. Thankfully, another vendor, a fan of my work from Expo, was happy to buy it at cost. So, I didn’t lose money, and she got a big metal print that wasn’t in her budget at full price.Booth location and size might be inaccurate, neighbours may be challenging, organizers could be stressed out, and anything can happen. Roll with it until you can’t, and then ask for help.

Help your neighbours. It might be scissors, a hammer, or a band-aid, but somebody always forgets something. I have power at my booth, and occasionally, somebody needs to charge their phone. Keep an eye on a neighbour’s booth for a washroom break. Hold the other end of their banner while they hang it up. I get plenty of offers for help and do my best to return in kind. And it helps you make friends, too.

You won’t always connect with the people around you. I remember one Calgary Expo where none of my neighbours were interested in friendly small talk. That makes for a longer market, especially during slow periods.

In Banff, I had two fun neighbours. We were all on the same page with work ethic and professionalism, but I enjoyed their company when there was room for kidding around and chatting. I hope to share space with them again in the future.

Foam floor pads and comfortable shoes. If you do it right, you’ll stand long hours for multiple days. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be.

Don’t complain or talk politics. This past weekend, a woman started going off about world government plots and chem trails in the sky. One minute, we talked about the great weather and beautiful mountains; next, she headed down the conspiracy rabbit hole. I smiled and politely said, “It’s a strange world.” After I said it the second time, she seemed to realize I wasn’t taking the bait and moved on. Arguing politics and controversial topics with strangers is a waste of life and will do nothing good for your business.

Eat well and often. Pack small healthy items you can eat quickly between customers without stuffing your face: carrot sticks, protein bars, a pre-cut sandwich, and pieces of cheese. Drink water. Setting up and tearing down grid walls and hardware, expect to damage yourself. My hands are wrecked at the end of a show from dry skin, cracked fingertips, and chipped or split fingernails. Bring a first aid kit. Nobody wants blood on their prints or stickers. Bring hand sanitizer and moisturizer.

All these people you’re talking to, especially this time of year, several of them are spreading colds or flu they don’t even know they have yet. It’s unavoidable, but healthy habits are your best chance of prevention.

Lozenges and breath mints are a must. You’ll have to talk a lot, and foul coffee breath won’t help your sales.

You’re there to sell. One vendor told me about someone at another show complaining that he wasn’t making any money. He left his booth often to wander the show. I’ve often seen neighbours spend all their time on their phones, heads down, ignoring people who walk into their booth, failing to engage with potential customers. A vendor next to me at this market, her friends and family hung out at her booth all day long socializing. Customers came and went without a word exchanged.

Respect other vendors. If you’re chatting with a neighbour and a customer approaches, leave the conversation. If it’s their customer, they’ll appreciate it. If it’s your customer, a professional neighbour will understand.

Be positive. Slow times happen, but they can also turn around on a dime. Desperation is contagious, and customers will pick up on it.I’m a pessimist. I don’t have a lot of faith in people. It comes from following the news for a living for my editorial cartoons. I work at home and enjoy my solitude. And yet, at markets, I try to be upbeat, smile, happy and joke around. It’s part of the job. It’s not all an act; I’m genuinely pleased to introduce new customers to my art, and many have become friends over the years. I’m always happy to see them again.

You never know who you’re talking to. If you make assumptions about people, you might say something that makes you look foolish and miss a valuable opportunity. Many people ask about commissions, and I advertise them in my booth with a large metal print of my Luna painting from last year.

When they ask about pricing, I tend to soften the blow with “it’s an investment” before I tell them it’s $1900. The sticker shock is evident on most faces, but then I explain the amount of work that goes into each one, the many hours of painting, the back-and-forth photo exchanges and prep before I paint one brushstroke, and that, unlike my other work, there is no market for that piece when finished. Most people understand, but spending that amount on a painting of their dog or cat is not often a priority. I get that. It’s the reason I only get hired to do two or three of these a year.

But I also spoke to a couple this weekend who seemed genuinely interested, sharing photos and asking about timelines, shipping, and specific details. This was after they’d heard the price, which is always a good sign. They wanted it in my whimsical style, and their dog has a great face and character. I want to paint him.  Even if that possible commission never materializes, my next important client or avid collector could be standing in front of me at any time. That Luna painting? Six months after I first spoke with him, he hired me for the piece, and it was one of the best client experiences of my career.

Listen to people. Ask questions. You’ll discover why certain pieces connect with people and how to use that knowledge for future sales. I learn a lot from my customers. I’ll soon start a painting of an animal I wouldn’t have considered on my own. It must be trending because at least a dozen people (not kidding) have independently asked for it this year. I don’t get it, but I’m going to paint it because I’m clearly missing something.Ask people where they’re from, especially in a tourist town. I met people from all over the world this weekend.

One gentleman said he was from a town in Saskatchewan, and “you probably don’t know it.”But I asked, and then told him that I’m the editorial cartoonist for his local paper and have been for years. He and his wife know one of Shonna’s uncles because her large extended family is from the same area.  People like to tell you about themselves, and it’s nice to give them the opportunity, not just for the sales, but to connect with another human being, something we all missed more than we realized the last few years.

Celebrate the little things that make it fun. I reluctantly confess I found myself singing along to Christmas carols. It might have involved toe-tapping. Those who know me well…close your mouths. I know it’s shocking that this Grinch found a little holiday spirit. Damn that Mariah Carey!

Plenty of happy dogs (and puppies!) were walking around, and their people were most accommodating with requests to say Hello. It made my weekend.  Want an overdose of pure joy? A Bernese Mountain puppy. Take what you want from my booth; I’m no longer paying attention.

While this advice sounds easy, we’re human. People make mistakes. I have complained to a neighbour. I’ve allowed a problem to frustrate me instead of working on it. I’ve talked politics with someone and always wished I hadn’t. I’ve failed to ask for or declined help when it was readily available, usually out of stubborn pride. I have seen somebody who could have used my help but didn’t offer it because I was busy with my booth.

But making course corrections is easier than people think. Most of the time, it’s just a choice.

If you and I have encountered each other at a market or show, whether you’re a customer or visitor to my booth or a fellow vendor, I hope it was a good experience. And if so, I hope to see you again down the road. If you have any questions I can answer, post them in the comments. I’ll help if I can.

If you attended this year’s Banff Christmas Market and took some of my whimsical wildlife home with you, thanks for supporting a local artist. I love my work, and I hope you do, too.

Cheers
Patrick

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A Genial Grizzly

Winter reared its ugly head this week in Alberta, and I’m already feeling the blues. It happens every year, but painting a happy face usually puts me in a better mood. Grizzly Bearapy. It’s an effective prescription.

For my primary reference for this piece, I selected a few I took during a day with Berkley at Discovery Wildlife Park several years ago. It was the same day I took the reference for my Peanuts painting. But I also referenced other grizzly bears to vary the features.

Half of my business is editorial cartooning; for that work, my clients are newspapers. That’s a business model that was on shaky ground already when I got into it a couple of decades ago. Today, many papers are hanging on by their fingernails. Despite that, it’s still worth my time and effort to draw five or six syndicated editorial cartoons each week for several publications across Canada.

However, I shouldn’t need to explain why that could change tomorrow.

About thirteen years ago, anticipating the day when editorial cartooning would no longer be enough to provide a full-time income, I looked for ways to diversify. With a steady decline in newspaper revenue in recent years, it was a good call. Thankfully, my whimsical wildlife paintings became the other half of my career and business, which still has plenty of growth potential.

While neither part of my business is presently enough on its own, together, they’re my full-time job.

It can be easy to get complacent and coast when things are going well enough. But life can turn on a dime, and the things we think only happen to other people can quickly happen to any one of us.

I’m an unapologetic pessimist; there’s no sense denying it. I’ve had too many plans scuttled by someone else’s decisions, so I don’t take anything for granted. One year, I lost nine papers in one day because a newspaper chain sold. When the pandemic hit, I lost even more. I’ve had licensing and other opportunities vanish overnight when corporations changed direction or personnel.

As we’re all aware, companies are quick to talk about trust and loyalty when convenient, but their actions often walk a different path.
Though this painting was fun to do, as are most of my whimsical wildlife pieces, it was a commercial decision. It’s the first in a series of paintings I’m creating to promote my work to new licensing clients. It’s also another painting for the bear book.

If you’re a self-employed artist, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, especially relevant in today’s economy.

By the end of this week, I’ll have drawn seven editorial cartoons, finished this grizzly bear painting, worked on a pet portrait commission, written content for the book, created page layouts so my publisher can get pricing estimates, and done month-end invoicing and bookkeeping.

All are necessary to keep my business viable but also prevent monotony. By having different things on which to focus, I’ve always got something else I can be doing. Painting grizzly bear fur and features for three hours is delightful—eight hours, not so much.

So it’s nice to make progress on a painting in the morning, then switch to drawing an editorial cartoon, sort and select photo reference, read some marketing material, research and reach out to potential new licenses, plan for upcoming gift shows, or write a post like this one.

Then, when I return to the painting the next day, it’ll be with fresh eyes to correct any errors and add more life to the piece for a few more hours. I get to enjoy the work I love most without allowing it to become a yoke I resent.

Cheers,
Patrick

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New Prints and Final Prep

Despite a few last-minute details, I’ve finished most of my prep for the Calgary Expo, including some stranger preparations most people don’t think about, like spraying my tablecloths and grid wall fabric with a fresh treatment of fire retardant. It’s like any other kind of insurance or safety requirement; it seems unnecessary until somebody checks or something bad happens.
They forewarn vendors about the regulations and that the Fire Marshal is on scene at this event, so better safe than sorry. Last year they stopped at my booth and asked if my lights were halogen. Thankfully, I was using LED bulbs.

At several shows, I’ve often heard some vendors express relief at getting just enough sales to cover their booth cost. But that’s only a small part of the expense of an event like this.

The Calgary Expo sees 90,000 people over four days; it’s a big show with over 800 exhibitors. My corner retail booth costs over $1200. Electrical power is $135.00, parking for five days is $66, and my hotel for four nights is over $600.00.

Liability and booth insurance for this one event is $88. I write my mileage off over the year, so I don’t consider gas in my show expenses, but depending on whether you bring your food or eat at restaurants, that can add up.

My equipment and display hardware are multiple-year expenses, so I don’t calculate that per show. But even before I stock the booth with stickers, magnets, coasters, prints, puzzles, aluminum, canvas and metal prints, my corner retail booth in the Exhibition Hall at the Calgary Expo costs over $2100. I don’t make any money at this show until I’ve sold that much.

Even then, every item I sell has a cost. Professional printing, cellophane sleeves, backer boards, artist bios and shipping are deducted from each print sale before there is a profit—the same for other products.

But a show like this one is well worth the investment.

“What’s new this year?” is something I hear a lot at Expo.

I’m always painting new images, so I invite people to scan the walls and flip through the bins because that’s the best way to discover the latest pieces, and sometimes they’ll find one they didn’t see last time.

But with quite a few new poster prints this year, here they are. They’re each hand-signed, and 11”X14” which includes the white border. It’s an easy to find size at most stores that sell frames. The title, website and signature stamp are not on the actual print.  The following paintings were not available at last year’s Expo.


While the Tarantula and Angry Bear might not appeal to everybody, I ordered those prints specifically for this event. If there’s an audience for these paintings, it will be at The Calgary Expo. I’m looking forward to the reaction, as I like both pieces.
For many of my paintings, it takes some settling time after I complete them before I know if I really like them. Of these most recent paintings, I realized that Bugle Boy, my painting of a bull elk, might be a personal favourite. I don’t know if it’s the texture I painted in his rack, the personality or the colour, but I loved seeing this piece in print, and I hadn’t expected that.

It’ll be interesting to see if it resonates with anybody else.

I’ve only got a few canvas prints this year, but a couple of dozen matte metal in 12”X16” and 18”X24”. Because I already had a nice selection of those in my inventory, I only ordered five new ones on 12”X16” metal. I can, however, custom order any of my paintings on metal or canvas at any time, in a variety of sizes.

I’m a much better painter than photographer, so the print colour, clarity and detail are always much better in person than in photos. Here are the new 12″X16″ metal prints, ready to hang.
Many people buy four-day passes for this show, but others come for only one day. Saturday is the leader when it comes to crowd volume and sales. All four days are usually good, but I’m trying out some daily specials for the other three this year.

DAILY SPECIALS
Thursday:  A free high-quality vinyl sticker with every print purchase.
Friday:  $20 OFF any matte metal or canvas print.
Sunday:  A free gift with purchase of $25 or more.

Of course, if you’re a repeat customer, you can mention any of these specials on any day of the show, and I’ll happily reward your loyalty.

If you’ve been in my booth before, there’s an excellent chance I’ll remember you. I’m great with faces but not so much with names. So please stop by and say Hello, and (re)introduce yourself, especially if you’re a subscriber to A Wilder View and we’ve never met. I always love to say Thank You in person.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Whose Art Is It Anyway?

In 2008, I hosted the Canadian Editorial Cartoonists Conference in Banff. Several industry veterans who attended came up in a culture where busy unionized daily newspapers hired editorial cartoonists for impressive salaries, benefits, and pensions. I began my career at the end of all that.

I put a lot of work into the conference and preparing a Photoshop drawing class, trying to impress and curry favour with the more established cartoonists in this exclusive club. But, unfortunately, I realized too late that nobody cared. They were simply looking for an excuse to visit Banff, hang out and talk shop. It was about nostalgia, politics, and competitors fishing for information.

I wanted to improve my skills and artwork and learn how to adapt to a struggling industry, but many of them were focused on avoiding having to change. In fact, in the wrap-up, one of the more senior cartoonists loudly promised there wouldn’t be any Photoshop drawing classes at the next conference.

Clearly, I didn’t belong in this group.

In 2009, I attended another conference, the National Association of Photoshop Professionals in Las Vegas. I had been a member of this supportive online community for several years. Critiques were constructive, questions were answered with enthusiasm, and I learned more from that association than any before or since.

Fresh off that first Photoshop World conference,  inspired to try something new, I painted a funny looking grizzly bear, my first whimsical wildlife portrait.

I went to that conference five times between 2009 and 2014. In 2010 and 2014, I won multiple Guru Awards for my animal paintings, including two Best in Show awards. The classes and instructors, the community of friends and colleagues, it was time and money well spent.

At Photoshop World, I made valuable business connections. For a long time after, I had a welcome working relationship with Wacom, the company that makes the drawing tablets and displays I’ve used for the past 25 years. I recorded two training DVDs for PhotoshopCAFE, and NAPP helped me form a strong foundation for my creative skills.

Eventually, social media killed the forum, and the organization rebranded. As a result, NAPP no longer exists, and the Photoshop World conference is a ghost of its former self.

Time spent pining for the way things used to be is a waste. Adaptation is the most useful skill a self-employed artist can have.

While licensing and retailers are essential for my business, those customers each have their own ideas of what they want from my work. One retailer wants more bears; another wants more wolves. One agency wants me to follow seasonal trends; another client wants more realistic animals. Some products sell better with brighter, more colourful elements, and some without a background. Some items work better with a vertical layout, others horizontal.

Most artists have heard they should find their niche, the work that makes them unique and different from everybody else. It’s the key to survival in a crowd where a lot of art looks the same. But if you work hard and are lucky enough to discover the work that defines you, the next piece of advice you hear is that you need to make it appeal to everyone all the time.

Well, which is it?

How do you create work you enjoy enough to keep doing it year after year and continue to make it pay? How do you serve your customers and clients and allow their input and direction without changing your work so much that it’s no longer yours? Is it artwork or factory work?

When it becomes a grind or just about pumping out more images, it can take all the joy out of it. Lately, finishing some paintings has brought the same sense of accomplishment I get from cleaning the house. That’s a telltale sign of burnout. I’ve been here before, more than once. It’s a common experience with anyone who creates anything, especially if it’s their job, a warning that something’s got to give.

I know how to paint a single animal. I’ve put almost fifteen years into it. Each takes hours to paint, and the work I’m doing now is better than I’ve ever done, but it’s still the same style and (shudder) formula. It’s not as challenging or fulfilling as it used to be.

I’ve taken a new approach with the trio of giraffes, already titled “Long Neck Buds.” I don’t know if it will work the way I imagine it, but if it does, it will be the first of several I plan to paint this way.

This latest individual giraffe isn’t quite a finished piece, but it’s close. It will also be the middle giraffe in the painting based on the group sketch above. With the simple background, it’s a solid painting on its own. I’ll paint the other two individually, like this first one, with my usual high detail, then I’ll place them all together. Finally, I’ll paint the sky, clouds and leaves around them.

I’m a commercial artist, it’s how I make my living. I don’t pretend otherwise. But this is also supposed to be fun. I want to paint more detailed and elaborate images I’ll enjoy while also leaving options open for clients and licenses with different needs.

I want to create more paintings this way—a troop of meerkats, several burrowing owls, and a waddle of penguins. I could paint different species in an image. However, with each critter as detailed as my usual work, these will take longer than a single painting, requiring a more substantial investment in each piece.

I get nervous when spending too much time on one painting, likely due to many years of drawing editorial cartoons. Twenty years ago, when almost nobody was publishing my work, I would spend many hours nitpicking a cartoon, trying to get a caricature right or fussing with perspective. Shonna and I referred to these as Sistine Chapel cartoons. I had to train myself to say, “good enough.”

Most political cartoons have a short shelf life, so speed is essential. Get it done, get it out, and get started on the next one. My cartoon work pays monthly bills.

With a painting, however, the income can come anywhere from next week to next year. Pieces I painted ten years ago are still paying today. Paintings are an investment in future prints, products and licensing, income that often comes later.

This year, I’m making time to play and experiment.

I’ll share works in progress, sketches, and thoughts along the way, but fewer finished pieces. The ones I do complete will be bigger and hopefully worth waiting for. Of course, I expect I’ll still paint a single animal here and there if the mood strikes me.

11” X14” poster prints will come out only a couple of times a year rather than as I complete them. With higher shipping costs, I imagine that it won’t be a problem for collectors of my work to be able to order two or three new pieces at a time with one shipping cost.But I’ll still welcome custom metal and canvas special order prints. You can order those by email anytime. The above 18”x24” sloth on canvas and 20″x20” Blue Beak Raven on metal below are two custom orders that arrived this week.The puzzles I launched this year felt like a considerable risk, but I sold a lot of them and have received requests for more. I’m suddenly motivated to plan paintings that will work as prints, puzzles, stickers and more. I’m also exploring puzzle licensing opportunities.

In the meantime, my collection of more than 100 paintings will continue to pay the bills with prints and licensing, as will drawing daily editorial cartoons, for as long as newspapers hang on.

I’m not having any fun. That needs to change.

Cheers,
Patrick

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License and Destination

When I started drawing editorial cartoons in the late 90s, I drew one a week for the Banff Crag & Canyon. A little later, I tried to expand my horizons with illustrations, caricatures and other creative work. The publisher, however, figured that $30/week bought the newspaper an editorial cartoon and the right to control work I did for anyone else.

In 2001, I removed those shackles and joined a new publication launching in Canmore, and I’ve been drawing cartoons for the Rocky Mountain Outlook ever since.

In stark contrast, my new editor encouraged me to draw more cartoons and self-syndicate. At the time, many Canadian dailies had a staff cartoonist, and I wondered if one of those gigs might be in my future.

Those daily papers often had open freelance spots a couple of days a week, and I was happy to get those whenever I could, hoping a foot in the door might help me later should an in-house cartoonist retire.

A very nice former editor of the Calgary Herald, who helped me whenever he could, told me their staff cartoonist thought I was trying to steal his job because somebody had tried it before. I’m not that ruthless, but I soon learned the newspaper business and editorial cartooning profession was adversarial, paranoid, and often nasty.

As Canada’s daily newspapers were bought and sold repeatedly by larger companies, the old-guard cartoonists were laid off or forced to retire, and their positions eliminated. Today, only a handful of cartoonists are attached to daily newspapers, and their days are numbered.

I have always been a self-syndicated freelancer, keeping me working and paying the bills while many salaried cartoonists were shown the door. And since most of them never had to learn to be self-employed, that job loss ended their careers. So I am grateful I never got a staff job.

Years later, it’s no secret the newspaper industry has not recovered. While several community weeklies are still doing well, including the Rocky Mountain Outlook and many other clients, daily newspapers are struggling. I’d need a second job if I had to rely solely on my editorial cartoon revenue today.

But editorial cartooning allowed me to quit my office job in 2005 and become a full-time artist. I explored opportunities, tried new things, and improved my art and business skills while the freelance cartoons paid the bills. I increased my cartoon revenue year after year, and it didn’t seem like it would ever decline, though all industry signs pointed that way.

Though editorial cartooning was going well, I prepared for when it disappears. I tried Flash animation, but I didn’t like the work and couldn’t make it pay. I painted caricatures of people for hire. People liked the art but wanted it cheap, and I couldn’t justify the hours. I took online art courses to become a better painter and learned valuable techniques I still use today.

In 2009, I painted a grizzly bear which led me to the work I enjoy most and launched the next phase of my career.

Becoming a good artist is the easy part. Learn from other artists, create art daily, and repeat for many years.

The hard part is learning the business. There are as many roadmaps to success as there are artists trying to do it. What worked for one won’t work for another because everybody wants something different from the deal. It’s not just about making money but finding the work you love and people to pay you for it. You must love it enough to give up mornings, evenings and weekends to devote to the work and the business. When stuff inevitably gets hard, the only thing that will keep you going is loving the work.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes in this business of art. Customers, editors and licensees have screwed me over. I’ve lost time and money from bad decisions made from poor preparation. I’ve followed bad advice and put trust in the wrong people.

I’ve also made decisions that were right at the time but still went south through no fault of my own. Supportive editors retired, and their replacements chose another cartoonist or eliminated the cartoon altogether. Newspapers, art galleries, retail stores and licensing clients have closed or lost their businesses.

No matter what you do for a living, shit will happen.

As a self-employed artist, however, it’s almost routine. When one revenue source disappears, you scramble to find another. Losing one customer isn’t usually the end; it just means things get a little uncomfortable while you adjust course. Adaptation is as much a required business skill as bookkeeping.

For quite some time, my business was half editorial cartooning and half wildlife art, but in recent years, the latter has kept increasing while the former continues to decline.

I learn more about licensing my work and finding new clients each year. A company makes and markets the product and pays the artist a royalty of 4% to 15%, usually in the middle of that range, for using the images. That small percentage can become a healthy income depending on the product, the company, and reach.

I’ve acquired most of my licenses on my own. I’ve learned about contracts, red-flag clauses, and how to translate legalese. I retain copyright of all my work and never sign it away.

In 2017, I signed up with Art Licensing International in New England. A reputable agency with global reach, they represent hundreds of artists, many of them well-known. An agency typically takes 50% of royalties. However, their connection with big companies makes that sacrifice worth it, as they can often get artists’ licenses they wouldn’t usually find on their own.

I had final approval on every license they acquired for me, and their quarterly cheques arrived four times a year without fail. Amounts were never significant, but I was willing to be patient as a license can take a few years before it pays off. But last year, I considered ending the relationship. I’ve had much more success finding my own licenses, but I also wanted to explore opportunities with other agencies.

Art licensing is a tricky business. While there is plenty of advice on best practices and what to avoid, each company has their methods and focus, and you never know which business relationships will work until you’re well into them.

If I’m tied up with too many smaller licenses that don’t bear fruit, those can prevent me from signing with companies that better fit my artwork. If one company licenses my work for a product, a competing company might not want to, and that second company might have been the better choice.

In the past couple of years, it has become clear that ALI is not the right agency for me. Some artists tailor their art to follow trends each year, and the agency’s messaging supports that tack. It’s a solid business practice for many artists and companies, especially graphic designers, so I can’t fault them for it. But I am not an artist who chases trends.

Years ago, I remember a gallery owner telling me that he was glad I wasn’t painting realistic-looking wildlife because had I done so, no matter how good it was, he wouldn’t have been interested.

“Everybody’s trying to be Robert Bateman.”

I have a unique signature style, look and an established niche, so my work will never be for everybody. When I hear suggestions that I should change my work to fit somebody else’s agenda, I think of all the licenses, customers and subscribers who connect with and enjoy my art and support it year after year. So many artists struggle to find their niche, a pinnacle achievement in any art career. There is no question I have found mine.

As Seth Godin often says, “if you don’t like it, it’s not for you.”

That’s not argumentative or defensive; it’s a simple truth. I’m not fond of Celine Dion’s music. But I’m confident she doesn’t care. Trying to please everyone is a recipe for misery in life and art because you will never succeed.

I decided to end my relationship with Art Licensing International this week with no hard feelings. The owners and staff have always been professional and friendly. But after six years with little to modest income to show for it, I’ve realized that the wrong business relationship is just as bad as none at all.

There are several licenses I’ve signed with them, however, that will continue until the end of their term, a few that won’t expire until the end of next year. But I’m free to look elsewhere for better representation for my artwork. My art has been removed from their site.

When so many artists struggle to find agency representation, leaving such an arrangement voluntarily is uncomfortable. And even though it’s a little scary and always uncertain, making these choices is one of the best parts of self-employment.

One course correction, coming right up.

 

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Blame the rider, not the e-bike

The following is an opinion piece I wrote for the local newspaper, The Rocky Mountain Outlook. I’ve been their cartoonist since its beginning in 2001 and I’ve never missed an issue. This busy tourist-town community is currently involved in a heated conversation surrounding transportation infrastructure. Many municipalities are dealing with these same growing pains, or soon will be.In June last year, my wife and I stopped at a Yield sign in Calgary. A woman ran a red light and collided with another vehicle, sending it over the curb into our car.

We walked away, but the car was written off with an unreasonably low settlement from our insurance company. With supply chain issues, ridiculous prices, and questionable auto dealership ethics, we haven’t yet found a replacement, opting to share one car until we do.

Having lived in the Bow Valley for thirty years, we bought electric bikes from a local business.

Biking home one afternoon with a fender cargo crate full of groceries and an equally loaded backpack, I rode up the hill beyond the Hwy 1 underpass, headed for the lower Cougar Creek bridge. Spread across the path were a half dozen pre-teen boys on their bikes.

I rang my bell several times and finally squeezed by on the left at about jogging speed. As I passed, one of the boys yelled at me, inches from my face, “CHEATER!”

Startled, I pulled left and caught the edge of the pavement, crashing hard to the ground.

Later, I could fix the bent brakes, light and fender. However, the wrenched shoulder, bruises and scrapes on my arms and legs took longer to heal. While I had loud, angry words for the kid, we’ve all made stupid choices at that age.

Many ill feelings about e-bikes seem to revolve around what some think, but what that kid said. Some see e-bikes as cheating and resent that if they must strain to climb that hill on a bike, then everybody should.

Canmore and Banff want fewer vehicles on the road. While paid parking seems like a money grab, people will find other alternatives if it becomes more expensive and inconvenient to take your car.

For many locals, e-bikes aren’t luxuries. They’re transportation.

This isn’t Saskatchewan. We live in a community with significant elevation gain on either side of the valley. At the end of a long workday, perhaps after running errands, heading up to Three Sisters, Peaks of Grassi, Eagle Terrace, or Cougar Creek on a traditional bike is an ordeal. Add in the summer heat, torrential rain, or a chinook wind, and it becomes downright insulting.

If your bike commute to work is 15 minutes up a hill or with a headwind, it won’t be long before deodorant fails you. How much will a tourist enjoy their crisp cool green salad if delivered by a foul-smelling sweaty server?

I’m in my early fifties, physically fit, with no mobility or health issues. But I have friends with failing joints, arthritis, and other age-related ailments. E-bikes allow people who aren’t hardcore athletes to navigate our community without forcing them to buy a car, take the bus, or walk everywhere. People don’t have the time, not when many work long hours to afford to live here.

I’ve been an avid trail walker for years. I’ve been startled and grazed by fast-moving cyclists silently passing within inches. It is inappropriate to go fast on a busy trail on any kind of bike.

Canada has capped e-bike assist speeds at 32 km/h.

With a full backpack and rear cargo crate, you can bet I’m using full assist while biking up Benchlands Trail on my way home from the grocery store. That’s not about speed but help with weight and elevation.

When I need to share a road with vehicles, many riding my fender while I try to navigate the 1A roundabout or drive through Spring Creek, maintaining 30 km/h is essential for my safety.

We bought reflective vests, helmets, bright front and rear lights, and the loudest horn available on the market for when the bell isn’t enough.

Drivers don’t want e-bikes on the roads, pedestrians don’t want them on the trails, and both resent anybody who uses one.

On weekends, we’ve used them to tour around town. We slow down, give warnings, and yield to oncoming bikes and pedestrians. And still, we get flack. E-bikes are new, making them an easy target because some people don’t want to share.

Trail use requires compromise, and most people around here get that. We’re an active community; when we’re not walking, we’re biking or driving. Most often, when approaching another trail user, I thumb the bell, and the person moves to the side, saying thank you as I pass; at the same time, I’m offering my thanks for their courtesy. It’s not complicated.

Pedestrians routinely walk three abreast, forcing others into the rough to go around them, or they walk into a crosswalk without looking, comfortable in their right-of-way. Some wear earbuds, so they don’t even hear the bell of an approaching cyclist, but they still get angry when they’re surprised by one.

Many cyclists don’t wear helmets, have no lights or reflectors, fail to signal, and weave in and out of traffic, jumping from sidewalk to road and back without warning.

Vehicle drivers speed through school zones, fail to obey stop signs and traffic lights, cut people off, tailgate, and make other aggressive moves.

The modes of transportation aren’t the problem; it’s a lack of empathy for those sharing the route.

There are indeed inconsiderate e-bike riders on the trails. They’re the same people who text and drive, take two parking spots at the grocery store, talk in a movie theatre, fail to pick up after their off-leash dog and run a red light destroying somebody else’s car.

Bad apples will always draw the most attention, and it’s convenient to blame their e-bike if they happen to be riding one. There’s a guy with a loud aftermarket muffler who races down my street, his bass stereo cranked so loud I can hear it through my closed windows. Should I blame the truck?

Vehicle congestion is a problem, but you can’t simply remove cars from the roads and expect the people in them to disappear. They still need to commute, run errands, and recreate.

Our trails and roads are for all of us, and compromise is a skill that requires practice. Everybody wants problems solved, so long as they don’t have to change.
____
©Patrick LaMontagne 2023

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Added Fees, Shipping and Deceiving

In a recent issue of A Wilder View, I let subscribers know I had restocked 2023 calendars. As expected, most people ordered one or two, and I was happy to send them by regular mail.

One person ordered six. From a creator’s point of view, that’s great. Clearly, most of those will be gifts, which means more people will come to know my artwork.

To send one calendar via Canada Post qualifies as an oversized envelope under 500 grams, around $4. For two calendars, it’s still under that threshold weight, and it costs around $6.

But once you get above that weight, it becomes a small parcel and the cost jumps.

Our techy world allows me to do much of this at home. I package items, measure, and weigh them, then enter that information into the Canada Post website. I can pay for the shipping and print the label before I drop the item at the post office.

There are several benefits to this process. First, I can estimate a shipping cost and inform the customer of the charge without delay. Second, I can avoid a lineup since there’s usually a bin in which to drop prepaid items. Finally, I avoid surprises at the post office if something costs more than expected.

For the subscriber who ordered six calendars, one might assume the most efficient delivery would be together in one parcel. But when I measured, weighed and entered the data into the Canada Post site, the total came to over $24 at the most economical rate. That rate even includes a small business program discount.

More than $6 of that $24 was a fuel surcharge, an amount you don’t see until the final total.

After conferring with my understanding and patient customer, I sent six calendars in three different business-sized envelopes so that each one didn’t exceed 500 grams and qualified for regular mail.

It’s a ridiculous solution to a preposterous problem, but it saved my customer some money.

In my online store, one print sells for $28.99. Eliminating the time taken to paint the image, the cost of producing that product stems from a professional print of the image, a backer board, an artist bio, and a cellophane sleeve, plus shipping materials if sold in the online store.

Shipping just one print in a flat mailer to Calgary, about an hour’s drive from my house, now costs over $20. Before the pandemic, it was $12. As a consumer, it’s hard to justify paying almost as much to send something as it does to buy it. It only becomes worth it for customers if they want to buy two or more prints. While plenty of people do just that, sometimes they just want one.

You might have seen a recent news article where Canadian businesses are now allowed to charge a fee for paying by credit card. Small businesses must take credit cards to remain competitive, but more cards, especially cards with rewards points, charge merchants a percentage for each transaction. It can be anywhere from 2% to 5%.

When a telecommunications provider, chain grocery store, or other large corporation that boasts record profits every quarter adds this fee, it is a money grab. These companies have been working hard for years to get people to use credit cards, and it’s included in their pricing.

Small businesses are reluctant to add that extra fee to a credit card payment. Even justified, an added fee will turn people off. So, most will absorb the cost and try to factor it into the price of an item without making it noticeably more expensive.
The best we can do is suggest somebody pay by e-transfer as there’s no cost to the consumer or vendor. Debit is also preferred as the transaction fee is significantly less. Or better yet, how about cash, if you even carry that around anymore?

Online payment processing services like PayPal or Stripe have fees and take a percentage of each sale. 2.9% plus a transaction fee. That doesn’t seem like much until you factor that into larger transactions. For example, I was recently commissioned to paint someone’s pet, work I love to do. Of the 50% deposit, I gave $30 to PayPal. I’ll give another $30 for the final payment when the work is complete.

I tried an Etsy store for my vinyl stickers last year to see what would happen. After several sales, however, I shut it down. Their fees were death by a thousand cuts. I can’t even remember all of them, but every listing and sale was nickel and dimed until the result wasn’t worth my time.

On top of that, Etsy gives preferred placement and listing to people who offer free shipping on their items. They hammer that message into vendors. Their justification is that people are so used to buying on Amazon that they want free shipping on everything.
To expect a self-employed small business owner and independent artist to compete with Amazon’s pricing is ludicrous. The only reason they can do that is their sales volume gives them preferred credit card and shipping rates. Any company listing an item on Amazon accepts a much smaller profit margin per item to have a spot on the site.

It’s also no secret that Amazon employees are overworked and underpaid. The self-employed can relate.

I can’t tell you how many people scoff when a self-employed artist refers to what they do as work. Some figure it’s simply a matter of drawing something, slapping it on a website, and counting the bags of money.

Sadly, many young artists who love what they create believe selling it will be easy. Share some images on Instagram; before you know it, you’re moving out of Mom and Dad’s house into that mansion on the coast.

It’s the ‘If you build it, (they) will come’ business plan. There’s a reason that movie had ‘Dreams’ in the title.

I’ll have a booth at another Mountain Made Market at the Canmore Civic Centre this weekend. It’s a two-day event, and I always enjoy introducing my artwork to new people and reconnecting with familiar faces.

Several people will no doubt tell me they want to consider a purchase and ask if I have an online store. At this point, I’ll explain the inflated shipping costs, let them know that my best prices are always at these markets, and do what I can to try to make the sale on the spot.

Otherwise, they’ll take a business card, put it into a bag, purse, or wallet, and I never hear from these folks again. We’re busy people; it’s just what we do. And sometimes we take a card to be polite, rather than say, “no thanks, not for me.”

But hopefully, some will like one or more of my whimsical critters in a small or large print, magnet, coaster, sticker, calendar or another item and decide to pick up something for themselves or for a gift.

Then they’ll probably pay by credit card, which is fine and welcome because I’ll take that fee out of my profit to make the sale. That’s just part of the cost of creating art for a living.

Which, despite what some might think, is definitely work.

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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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Building and Stocking a Booth

The reason I’m sharing info about my Calgary Expo preparation is two-fold. First, I find the behind-the-scenes of other people’s professions interesting, so maybe some of you will, too. But more importantly, when I first began doing this show, I had generous help from practiced vendors, so if my experience can help somebody else, I’m happy to share it.

In my last post about the Expo, I talked about the costs of a booth at this show. You can read it here.

While later than I’m used to, and after an initial mistake on their part, I have my booth assignment for this year’s event. I’m pleased with the location. Booth #603 is on a main thoroughfare at the front of the show, between two sets of main doors and next to the bathrooms, which means I can expect a lot of traffic.
In addition to this floor plan, there is a second building for Artist Alley which looks to have a couple hundred more vendor tables.

Last time, I had an open concept booth. I would greet people, welcome them into the booth, then step aside so they could flip through the print bins, look at the table displays and browse the pieces on the grid walls.

I’ve changed things up this year, primarily because of the pandemic. While many of us are excited to be out and about again, it’s been a rough two years. There might be no more mask mandates or vaccine requirements in Alberta, but I’m still seeing plenty of masks in the grocery stores and people keeping their distance. Each of us has our own comfort level.

Masks have always been common at this event, but only because many arrive in various levels of costume. It’s also one of the most accepting and tolerant events you’ll ever find, where people of all walks of life can be themselves. Because of this live-and-let-live atmosphere, I don’t anticipate anyone coming to this event intent on a political disagreement over face masks. I plan to wear one, but I won’t be making an issue of it.

At the Mountain Made Markets here in the fall, people seemed more comfortable at my booth with a table between us. I know that I was. So, I’ve redesigned my booth to allow me some personal space while still offering plenty of access for people to peruse the prints and other items.

I store my extra stock under two skirted tables and on a shelving unit in a hidden corner. That’s not a lot of real estate. Last year, I had to wait or politely ask somebody to move so that I could retrieve that stock and replenish the tables. It wasn’t easy when it was busy. This time, I can do it from behind the table without disturbing anyone looking through the prints.

I’ve often done partial setups of the booth in my garage to work out any display and layout issues. This year, I made a scale layout in Photoshop instead. It took a lot less time and allowed me to shuffle the pieces without having to physically move tables and grid wall. I know my equipment well and no longer need to set it up in advance.
Because I’ve painted over 100 of my whimsical wildlife pieces, and so many of the early ones are still popular, it’s tough to know which to keep in stock and which to retire.

Writers often get too attached to characters or scenes and fail to see how eliminating them will strengthen the overall story. More experienced writers know that you need to ‘kill your darlings.’

It’s the same with retiring paintings. I’ve spent many hours on each one, and I get attached to them. Eventually, I must accept that some paintings don’t resonate with my audience or those who do like a piece have already bought it. As I’m painting new ones all the time, I need to make room for them.
I have only a few prints left of my first Grizzly painting. It has been a consistent seller for years and continues to do well in licensing. But I’m always painting more grizzlies. So it’s tough to admit that it’s time to retire the painting that started it all.

Remember that expense and inventory Excel spreadsheet I wrote about in the last post? That also tells me how much of each print, magnet, coaster, aluminum, calendar, canvas, and other items I’ve sold at previous Expos.

A detailed sales report from 2019 helped me order for 2022.

I’ve currently got prints in stock for 43 paintings. Just five of each adds up to over 200 prints if you think about it. It’s a rare year I don’t sell at least one of every print, but to bring 20 of each would not only be overkill, but I don’t have the room in the car or the booth.
Some years, I’ll sell in the double digits of a few proven pieces. But what’s popular one year might be crickets the next. For several years, my Otter has been a consistent bestseller, thriving on every retail item on which it appears. Yet, at Expo 2019, I sold only two prints of that one. But I sold nine Ostrich. Go figure.

A challenge for this year is that I’ve painted more than two dozen new pieces since the last Expo. So I had to decide what to bring based on subscriber feedback, online sales, orders from retailers and best guess.

In addition to print inventory, I had to decide which coasters, magnets and 8X10 aluminum pieces to order from Pacific Music & Art. I based that on the last Expo and the Mountain Made Markets I did here in Canmore before Christmas.

Canvas prints have a heftier price tag, so while they sell at Expo, I don’t move a lot of them. But they look great displayed on the grid wall, and it’s these well-lit pieces that bring people into the booth.

Since I’ve already got a bunch of canvas, I chose to top up those display walls with metal prints, as they’re impressive, and I’ve had positive feedback on them. So, I’ll have an equal number of those, including three large 18″ X24″ pieces.

The nice thing about all this stock is that it doesn’t expire or go bad, and I have other regular customers for this inventory. The prints are sold to the Calgary and Toronto Zoos, Discovery Wildlife Park and in my online store. The stickers are now sold in retail stores, and I’m actively looking for more of those clients. I’ll also have another booth at the May 21st Mountain Made Market at the Canmore Civic Centre.

Ordering this stuff is still a significant financial commitment and a calculated risk. But, unfortunately, it’s the nature of self-employment, and life in general for that matter. All you can do is base decisions on available evidence, weigh the odds, take a leap, and hope for the best in our current uncertain economic climate.

My next post will be the wrap-up after the event when I let you know if the show measured up to expectations or hopefully exceeded them.

Cheers,
Patrick