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Cartooning COVID

As this year has been like no other, I decided not to do a ‘Best of’ editorial cartoon selection for 2020. Instead, I’ve created a video essay.

The idea came to me just this morning. Rather than wait, I decided to power through. Selecting the cartoons from the more than 360 I’ve drawn this year, choosing the music, writing the narrative, recording and editing it all, this took about 8 hours. But it was cathartic. Whether it resonates with anyone else is beyond my control. I just wanted to do it.

It’s about a five minute watch. Let me know what you think.

Take care,
Patrick

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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To Post or Not to Post

My wife Shonna is an excellent cook. She finds recipes online, experiments with them, and usually produces something delicious, although she always feels she could do better the next time.

We’ve had a running joke in our home for as long as I can remember. When Shonna gets ready to go shopping for ingredients, or starts gathering things in the kitchen, I’ll sometimes ask, “what are we having?”

Her answer is occasionally, “(Some recipe) or pizza.”

Which means, “I’m trying something new, and if I screw it up, you are going to get pizza.”

I think I’ve had to get last minute pizza maybe three times in the 26 years we’ve lived together.

Shonna has a job she likes at a law firm, and works at Safeway part-time, because while she’s minimalist when it comes to stuff, she still has expensive tastes. Not for clothing, jewelry, or a luxury vehicle, but with most things, she consistently buys the best quality she can afford.

We budgeted more for our recent renovations, so she could get the kitchen she wanted, rather than settle for something less. She hated our old kitchen.

I can keep myself alive, and have simple skills in the kitchen, but I am not a good cook, primarily because I don’t enjoy it. I’ve had to convince Shonna that cooking is creative, that if she and I both followed the same recipe, it would be the difference between fine dining and a TV dinner. She doesn’t realize how much tinkering to taste she does, based on interest and experience.

Shonna has never had interest in cooking professionally, she just enjoys the challenge, the process, and of course, the result.

Recently, she bought a Staub Cocotte, which to me is just a heavy and expensive pot. She told me she’s had this recipe for no-knead bread for about ten years, and finally wanted to try it. I had no idea why she needed this French cooking pot, considering she has so many other cooking pots. But she lit up when telling me about it, kind of like me with a new Wacom display.

The bread was delicious.

All I needed to know was, how do I clean it, without damaging it?

When Shonna’s spent hours in the kitchen making a delicious meal, which will usually involve plenty of leftovers, it’s a foregone conclusion that the cleanup is on me.

Sure, she cleans as she goes, puts some stuff in the dishwasher, isn’t throwing food at the walls but I’m the cleanup guy, without complaint.

Since I work at home, I do most of the housework. As for most of us, it’s a boring chore, but a necessary evil. The only thing I like about it is the result.

We each do our own laundry, but I wash the bedsheets. Shonna will sometimes pick a deep-clean project, but the day-to-day tidying and cleaning is on me.

Even though I have a full plate of work right now, I found myself fuming earlier this week for no apparent reason. I got a cartoon done and sent, but I couldn’t shake the dark cloud over my head. I had already planned on sweeping and tidying, but once I got moving, I kept going.

We live in a townhouse condo. Not a big place, but three levels with two flights of stairs, and luxury vinyl plank flooring throughout. That was the second round of renovations a few years ago. It’s a great floor, but it’s dark, so it gathers and shows dust. Sweeping always takes longer than anticipated and the stairs need to be done twice. But it’s always a good feeling when it’s done.

In my grumpy mood, I needed to burn off some steam. So after sweeping, I decided to wash the floors. Not with a mop or wet Swiffer, but hands and knees washing, multiple water changes, moving furniture, shaking out area rugs. It took about 2.5 hours.

After her own difficult day, Shonna appreciated coming home to a clean house, I was able to spare her my foul mood, and I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment.

I had another opportunity to reinforce this lesson later in the week.

At the end of my work day on Thursday, something somebody said to me prompted me to write a post about how following the news and social media all day is bad for mental health. In our current global situation, increased time spent at home has more people glued to their devices and cable news.

We’ve become more afraid, anxious, and angry which keeps us going back to those poisoned wells looking for certainty, where there is none to be found. The simple answer is to turn it off, and if you can’t, then that’s likely an addiction issue.

That’s the whole post in two short paragraphs. But what I first wrote was 2000 words of ranting. It was cynical, bitter, preachy, and self-righteous.

Isn’t that what the world needs more of right now?

Rather than power through on the editing, I left it for the next day and went downstairs to make my dinner. While heating up the leftovers, I realized that I was in a pretty decent mood, and felt a little lighter.

Because the products I sell are the results of my time spent creating, anytime I draw, paint, or write something, I get stuck in the mindset that it must be quantifiable. When I make time for fun work, like painting portraits of people, it feels like skipping school or taking a sick day to go golfing.

To write 2000 words, likely 1500 after editing, and not post it, felt like wasted time, which is why it was difficult to admit there was nothing to gain from sharing it.

The Artist’s Way is a book by Julia Cameron. I read it in the late 90s, but it’s still popular today, for good reason. It’s about boosting your creativity. One of the practices in that book is called The Morning Pages; writing three long-hand pages first thing each morning, stream of consciousness stuff, no editing.

It’s not quite journaling but it accomplishes the same thing. It’s about getting all of the stuff that’s in your head out onto the page, like weeding a garden, so all that’s left is the pretty flowers or delicious veggies.

I wrote those morning pages for about a year and still have those notebooks. In the beginning, it was rambling incoherent drivel, but the later stuff had some interesting thoughts and ideas that I enjoyed reading twenty years later. That’s also the point of the morning pages. When your subconscious mind understands that this is going to be a daily thing, it seems to realize that perhaps it should come up with something worth writing about.

I eventually gave up the practice because first thing in the morning is when I do my best painting and editorial cartoon work. I’ve only got a window of about four hours from 6 – 10 when I’m at peak performance. After that, I slow down a little, run errands, do admin work, and then I’ll sketch more cartoons in the afternoon and do some writing.

Just like the housework, I didn’t enjoy that angry rant while I was writing it, but I felt better when it was done. I got all of that negative garbage out my head, making room for more positive creative ideas, stuff that might actually benefit somebody else when they read it, rather than give them shit for being human.

I no longer consider that hour of writing to be wasted time, because experience isn’t just about learning what to do, it’s also about learning what not to do. By taking out all my frustration on the keyboard, much like a punching bag, I exhausted that angry little demon in my head, giving him time for his tantrum so he could finally go down for a nap and allow me some peace.

And I learned that just because I write it, doesn’t mean I need to share it, adding even more negative energy to an already wounded world.

I’d still like people to consider turning the dial down on their news consumption. There’s an excellent 2013 article from The Guardian by Rolf Dobelli, entitled “News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier.”

It’s important to pay attention to our community news and keep informed about the world around us, but Dobelli’s article makes some excellent points for pulling the plug on most of it, and does it much better than I would have with my venting tirade.

When the world is beating us up with challenges and bad news as it has all year long, it falls to each of us to consider our role in it. Before sharing news links, divisive opinions, and angry memes, take some time to pause and reflect. Be honest and ask yourself how it will help somebody cope in this difficult time. Will it make them feel better or worse?

Sometimes not sharing something will be the kindest thing you can do.

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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Cartoons, Clichés and COVID

There’s an exhaustive list of images, references and tropes that cartoonists (over)use. I could attempt to list them all and it would still only be the tip of the iceberg. Oh, that’s one right there.

The Statue of Liberty or an eagle representing the US, a beaver for Canada, a bear for Russia, panda for China, St. Peter at the Pearly Gates greeting whichever notable figure just died, or somebody looking down from heaven. Variations of logos for the Olympics, companies, and events; broken records, road signs, going off a cliff or over a waterfall, weighing scales, talking animals…it’s a long list.

I’ve yet to meet any cartoonist who hasn’t used many of these, although most will be quick to criticize another for doing the same. I’ve been guilty of both of those, more than once. Sometimes it’s laziness, other times it’s trying to find a new angle on an old theme, and more often than not, it’s desperation.

But we’ve all used these tropes.

It’s a point of personal pride that I’ve never drawn a pearly gates cartoon, but that’s splitting hairs, because I’ve used almost all of the others.
As you can see above, I released a cartoon this week that used one of the biggest clichés in cartooning. The Titanic has been drawn often, by many. I don’t think I’ve drawn the whole ship before, but I’ve certainly drawn sunken or sinking ships and alluded to the iceberg, which is the same thing.

The Titanic represents hubris, man’s ego coming back to bite him in the ass. It’s appropriate for politics, corporate greed, and blind ambition, unchecked by reality. Sooner or later, an iceberg comes along to challenge the unsinkable claim. PLENTY of cartoonists have drawn politicians standing on the bow as it sinks.

While I would normally avoid the Titanic imagery, and I’m sure other cartoonists who see it will roll their eyes at my audacity for bringing it out of mothballs, it was a popular cartoon this week. I heard from several editors who loved it, proving once again that we’re supposed to be pleasing our customers, not each other.

In my experience, most of us are bitter and cynical ‘hey you kids, get off my lawn’ types anyway, as insecure about our work as every other artist, something a few attempt to hide with false bravado and imagined authority that everybody else sees through.

It happens in every industry, especially creative ones. Artists will spend days debating details that nobody else cares about.

When I used to attend the Photoshop World conference each year in Las Vegas, several classes I attended were for photographers. Long before I took the volume of photos I do today, I learned a lot from those classes, because what makes one image better will ultimately make another image better.

Alan Hess is a skilled concert and event photographer, author, instructor and he takes photos of other genres as well.  He’s also a friend, who helped me out with reference photos in the early days of animal work, and I wrote a guest piece years ago about digital painting on the iPad, for one of his books.

During one of his classes, Alan shared a photograph, then zoomed in to show that, seen up close, it was grainier than it looked at full size. I can’t remember the context of that lesson, but something he said has always stuck with me.

“You know who cares the most about noise in photographs? Photographers!

It still makes me smile, because that kind of quibbling over inconsequential details exists in every field, especially creative ones. Artists will obsess (!!!) over the most ridiculous things in their work. We’re miserable about it. We’ll talk each other to death about details that nobody sees or cares about, and judge each other harshly for it, almost as much as we judge ourselves.

Plenty of freelance writers who imagine themselves Hemingway or the next Woodward or Bernstein will author listicle after listicle to pay the bills. You know the articles I’m talking about. 21 Uses for Old Underwear or 10 Reasons Your Editorial Cartoons Suck!

Then they’ll judge other writers for releasing yet another listicle.

We’re all hypocrites.

While it’s still worthwhile to try to be original and not fall back on tired or overused imagery, sometimes it is indeed that imagery that works best, because it resonates with people. There’s nothing to be gained by over-complicating a simple message.

And sometimes, it’s just an off day with a deadline.

I enjoyed drawing the Titanic in this cartoon. I could have spent a couple more hours nitpicking it. But that would be obsessing over details that nobody would see, and in a deadline-driven profession, time is money.

The downside of these tropes, however, is that when other cartoonists draw on them, eventually you’re going to use the same ones, sometimes on the same day. A well-known moment in editorial cartoon culture is that many cartoonists used the same image to depict the events on 9/11, the Statue of Liberty with tears in her eyes.

I was about two weeks away from trying to become a syndicated cartoonist when that happened, so I didn’t draw a 9/11 cartoon, though I certainly wouldn’t fault any of those artists. How original can you be with such a monumental event, with no time to let it all sink in before drawing a cartoon? The deadline was as immediate as the disaster.

They call this a Yahtzee when multiple cartoonists come up with the same idea. The fact that they even have a name for it, reveals that it’s not uncommon. While idea theft does happen, it’s more often just a bad luck coincidence. None of us wants to draw the same thing and the ones who do steal ideas are usually well known for it.

In my experience, this kind of thing happens a lot in holiday seasons, whether it’s Halloween, Thanksgiving, the New Year, and especially Christmas.
I drew this cartoon yesterday afternoon and sent it out first thing this morning.

Then I went to peruse the daily papers that publish my work to see if they’d printed any of mine. In the Edmonton Journal, I saw this cartoon by Malcolm Mayes, their staff cartoonist. I will admit to uttering a four-letter word or two.
I don’t need to tell you that Rudolph is as common a Christmas image as Santa, the elves, the North Pole, a lump of coal, a stocking, a tree, lights, we don’t have all day. Malcolm and I won’t be the only ones to imagine the COVID-19 virus replacing Rudolph’s nose. It’s low-hanging fruit and if we hadn’t used it this week, somebody else would use it next week, or already has and I just haven’t seen it.

I’ve been sending out 7 cartoons a week, every week, for many years, as have all of my colleagues, especially the ones that are still managing to make a living in this profession, or part of one. With that volume of content, it’s the truly original ideas that are the exception, not the rule.

In the old days, before the internet, an editorial cartoonist with a daily staff job had all day to stew over an idea, come up with multiple angles, try to squeeze out another ounce of cleverness, and take hours to bring a cartoon to life. A very few still have that luxury, knowing that spot is reserved for them every day.

Back then, once the cartoons were published, they wouldn’t immediately see what their colleagues at other papers had drawn because it didn’t matter as much. These undesirable coincidences wouldn’t even get noticed.

But today, with instant connection, websites and social media, freelance cartoonists are often competing for the same open spaces, so it’s as much about the speed of delivery as it is about the idea. First past the post often wins the day.

What’s worse is that we’re not just competing with each other, we’re competing with viral memes and videos, too. I keep a long list of ideas for editorial cartoons and can’t tell you how often I’ll see a meme that necessitates me opening that Word file, finding the same idea and deleting it.

The holiday season will see a lot of cartoonists combining masks, sanitizer, and distancing, our now universal COVID clichés with all of the traditional Christmas ones we trot out every year, trying to be original, but ultimately failing. This dominating news story isn’t going away soon and having to find a way to draw something new about COVID-19 day after day after day after day…it’s exhausting.

I know this cliché cartoon coincidence will happen again and it will bother me as much as it did this morning, but will probably go unnoticed by most, except for other cartoonists.

Cheers,
Patrick

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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Bear Hug

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to focus on a whimsical wildlife painting. For those who follow my work specifically to see those, thank you for your patience.

Wacom hired me to create a video for them connected with a promotion they’re doing right now called “Find Your Gift.”

As many of you know, Wacom creates the tablets and displays on which I’ve created my work for more than twenty years. I’ve been their guest on webinars, created new product demo videos for them, represented them at an event in Calgary, presented at their booth at Photoshop World, and they generously allowed me to donate tablets to a local school.

My work wouldn’t be possible without Wacom.

So when my friend Pam asked me to create another video for them, there was only one answer.

What I like best about our relationship is that Pam lets me do my own thing. Of course, we have some back and forth to make sure my vision matches hers, but she knows what to expect from me, and I do my best to deliver.

In this case, I had the freedom to interpret the word gift and paint and write what I wanted, which allowed me to create my best work.

I spent the last three or four days chained to my desk, creating this painting, recording with the camera and screen capture, writing and recording the narration, and editing it all together a la Dr. Frankenstein. It was a lot of work, but I’m quite pleased with the result.

I realized that the three recent paintings I like best are ones I did for Wacom videos. Those include the Amur Tiger, the Ring-tailed Lemur and this one.

The model for this painting is one of the most handsome residents of Discovery Wildlife Park. Gruff was an orphaned black bear cub who had a rough start in life, but thanks to Serena and her staff’s tireless efforts, he has grown into a beautiful, gentle bear with a wonderful personality. The keepers try not to pick favourites, but they each have a special place in their heart for Gruff, as do I.

I’ve often written about how much I value my relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park. They allow me incredible access to the animals, for which I’m immeasurably grateful. On my most recent visit in September, I was able to sit inside the enclosure while they did their bear education presentation, where they teach people about bear safety, behaviour and conservation.

I took hundreds of reference shots and didn’t realize I’d be using ones from that session so soon.

One of the keepers, Jacob, was in Canmore last week, and I had a brief visit with him. I told him what I was painting, inspired by the poses I shot. He told me that Gruff almost always has a ball with him. It doesn’t need to be the same ball, but it’s kind of like his security blanket. He even takes a ball with him into his den when he hibernates.

On one visit to the park a couple of years ago, Serena sent me a text asking where I was. I said that I was watching a silly bear play with a ball. She responded, “Gruff.”

Gruff taught himself how to pose with the ball and because it was so endearing, the keepers used positive reinforcement to encourage that behaviour. It was this pose that inspired the painting. As the light wasn’t great in this shot, the sun beside and behind him, I had to use other reference photos for the details. Thankfully, I have hundreds of pictures of Gruff.

Even though I was pressed for time on this, more self-inflicted than not, this painting was a joy to create. It’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun painting one of my whimsical wildlife portraits. Considering the kind of year it’s been for all of us, that’s no small thing.

If you’ve got five minutes, you can see a high-speed time-lapse below of how I painted Gruff and hear some of my thoughts about the importance of finding and sharing your own gifts.

Take care of yourselves,
Patrick

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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Pit Stop

I started a new painting yesterday morning. About an hour or two in, I found myself wondering at what point I should share a work-in-progress screen shot on Instagram or maybe record another video or two of a close-up of the brushstrokes. Suddenly I wasn’t focused on the painting, I was thinking about promoting it.

In our online content-obsessed world, there’s a ton of pressure on self-employed artists to always be sharing images, works-in-progress, blogs, memes, photos, thoughts and snapshots of life in general. A lot of that pressure is self-inflicted. For most of us, there’s nobody standing at our back, cracking a whip.

Working artists are not only driven by the need to earn financial compensation for our creations, but to also get the likes and shares, new subscribers, and to expand our reach and audience. It’s an endless quest for that validation high, convincing ourselves that just a few more followers will get us closer to the carrot on the stick.

Like any addiction, it’s never enough. The dopamine hit that did the job yesterday doesn’t quite do it today.

Promotion and advertising is part of any business, there’s no escaping it. While it would be nice if there were any truth to that famous whispered line in Field of Dreams, it’s a fantasy to believe that “if you build it, they will come.”

Yes, I know the line was actually “he” will come, but I’m paraphrasing.

If you’re in it for a living, it’s not enough to create something; you have to sell it. It becomes a hamster wheel and it’s easy to lose perspective. It feels irresponsible to ease off on the gas pedal, that any momentum earned will immediately be lost. But it’s an unsustainable pace, and every machine needs maintenance.

I’m taking a summer break from the promotion.

I’ll still be drawing daily editorial cartoons, filling print and calendar orders, answering emails, shipping and delivering the masks when they arrive, basically running my business as usual, but I’m trying something new.

For the next little while, likely a month or six weeks, I’m taking a break from the blog, newsletter, and Instagram to focus on painting and writing. I need to get better at time management, and something has to give, at least in the short term.

I want to work on a piece, without having to think about how to share it, either while it’s in progress or when it’s completed. I want to finish a painting and not have to immediately write about it, size it for the site and Instagram, copy and paste the gaggle of hashtags, then check to see how many people like and comment on it over the course of that day.

It often feels like shouting in a crowded stadium, desperate to be heard above the noise.

After sharing this post (ah, the irony), I’m temporarily deleting the Instagram app from my phone and iPad. It would be too easy to tap that icon and fall back into the habit.

It’s a scary proposition, filled with what-ifs. I might lose subscribers, followers, sales, interest, but I don’t think that’s realistic. I’m simply taking a vacation from sharing everything, carving out time to regroup, to consider where I want to go with my work.

When I come back, I expect I’ll have a few new paintings, wildlife photos and stories to share. But who knows? As we’ve all learned the hard way this year, nothing is certain.

Enjoy your summer.

Cheers,
Patrick

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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Still Not Painting

I’m writing this on a Saturday morning when I had intended to start a new painting.

I’ve chosen the reference. But instead of opening a new file and putting brush strokes on a blank page, I’ve been surfing around the internet, pretending that I’m working.

At first, I checked the daily Postmedia papers to see if I was published today in any of those half dozen dailies. The Edmonton Journal printed my cartoon about a recall of the whole year of 2020.

I read a couple of articles before a little voice in my head asked, “Shouldn’t you be painting?”

“Give me a minute, OK?”

Somewhere along the line, at the bottom of something I was reading, there were suggestions for other articles. A couple of well-written headlines caught my attention, clearly based on an algorithm’s evaluation of what I’d be most likely to click.

Somewhat effective, because I right-clicked on half a dozen, opened them in new tabs and began reading.

Still not painting.

I read part of four articles. One was about celebrities pandering to issues like Black Lives Matter and social injustice. After a few paragraphs, I was no longer interested. I already know celebrities do that to boost their own profiles.

Another article asked why civilizations collapse and addressed the misconceptions surrounding that. I’ve long been interested in South American cultures, specifically the Mayan and Incan civilizations, so I went down that road for a while. It wasn’t very interesting, so I closed it halfway through.

I forget what the others were about, but the last one was called A Splash of Red, by author Gabriel Cohen. It’s about how he found a cheap apartment in New York, only to discover it had been the scene of a grisly murder. I quite enjoyed the article, and you can read it here.

At the bottom of the piece, however, it reads,

“Gabriel Cohen is the author of six books; has written for the New York Times and many other publications; teaches writing at Pratt Institute; and is about to teach a course in writing crime fiction at the Center for Fiction’s Crime Fiction Academy in NYC”

SIX books?

Son of a bitch.

My green-eyed monster leaned over my shoulder to see what woke him up and murmured, “That guy’s a real writer.”

I’ve long wanted to write more. It’s an ache, a daily itch in my psyche, complete with a ticking-clock sound effect that grows louder all the time.

The silly part is that I’m actually a prolific writer. I’ve kept an active blog since 2008. Before I was a cartoonist and long before I painted funny looking animals, I wrote two novels. But I chickened out on sending them, and twenty years later, I’m convinced they’re crap.

I’ve started another novel; I’ve got extensive notes, good ideas, plenty of inspiration and life experience to put it all onto the page. But my energy is spent finding any excuse not to write. I thought 2020 was the year I’d finally put up or shut up.

2020 had other plans.

Hey look, I found another excuse. There’s rarely a supply shortage.

I Googled “fear of writing” and came up with a couple of encouraging articles, telling me things I already know. I’ve done this search before, many times. This is a well-travelled road.

A sponsored writing course pops up, and I click on it. It tells me all of the right things, has all the right testimonials, and I think, “That’s what I need.”

I already know that it is NOT what I need. You become a better writer by writing. I tell this to students about art all the time. You want to draw or paint; you have to put your ass in the chair and do it.

Still not painting.

I’ve got a dozen books on writing on the Kindle app on my iPad, one on how to write good characters, another on language for rural settings, another for writing good dialogue, all of them as of yet, unread.

An hour and a half after I sat down this morning, before diving headfirst down this rabbit hole, I have not painted one brush stroke. Instead, I have beaten myself up about my lack of a disciplined writing routine, am now frustrated that I’ve wasted a good chunk of my morning with unproductive time on the internet, wishing that I’d got up this morning and started a new painting as planned.

Still not painting.

Procrastinating to avoid starting a new painting, I ended up writing about not painting.  Even though I create art for a living, I still begin each piece convinced that it will suck, even though the evidence of past work doesn’t support that insecurity.

Still not painting.

Still not writing.

At least not the writing I want to be doing.

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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Broken News

I follow the news for a living, and at the best of times, it wears on me. A constant diet of negative news is awful for your mental health. I have to limit it as much as I can, or my mind goes down that dark rabbit hole of despair.

Now that many of you are home all day, I know you’re spending a lot of time on the internet, surfing through the horror, continual updates on the global death toll, getting into arguments online about which information is right or wrong, and then sharing news stories to your social media that you think sound right as if your friends aren’t surfing the same news you are.

We do this because it makes us feel like we’re in control and informed, when we all know that we aren’t.  In fact, by reading this stuff and sharing it, you’re making yourself even more anxious. When you share it, you’re not making people feel better; you’re making them feel worse. This virus of anxiety we’re all spreading is more damaging than the virus itself.

I’ve been actively avoiding phone calls and conversations with people because the whole discussion just ends up being about the news, this article and that, these facts and those, what Trump said, what Trudeau said, what this doctor said, what this victim said, and the numbers. I end up leaving the phone call feeling worse than before and wished I’d never called or picked up.

I understand it’s the topic on everybody’s lips, we’re all frightened, and we think that by talking it to death, it will make us feel better. Ask any psychologist, and they’ll tell you the opposite.

The media is hurting for revenue right now; they’re fighting each other for your online attention because they’re trying to get advertisers to keep paying them. The only way they can do that is to be upping the tragedy, to find new angles to make you afraid, new headlines to get you to open their link. They will never do that by telling you, “It’s going to be OK.”
I’ve always gotten news alerts from multiple outlets; it’s part of my job as an editorial cartoonist, it’s how I know a breaking story is happening, one that I might have to comment on with a cartoon. But in recent weeks, these outlets have been abusing the privilege. I now get multiple BREAKING NEWS alerts from each outlet throughout the day.

The Prime Minister’s been offering a daily briefing from his house because he’s been in isolation since his wife was exposed to Covid-19. CTV was sending me an alert that this was happening, which was helpful. But in recent days, they’ve been sending the alert about a half-hour early, meaning I tune in and have to watch/listen to doomsday coverage I don’t want to hear before I get to the coverage I need to see.

That’s click-baiting. And while I understand it, I resent it. And so should you.

The constant apocalypse feed breeds more anxiety, contributes to depression, and when those two degenerates get a hold of you, you start thinking irrationally and make poor decisions. Spending hours on social media, surfing the news and talking about all of this is not only detrimental to your mental health, but it’s also unsustainable.

I’ve had OCD for years, ever since I was a kid, though I didn’t know it until I was in my early thirties. While I’ve always been mindful of washing my hands, not touching my face, etc., mine doesn’t manifest as germophobia. OCD is much more than that. It’s about control, worrying, ruminating, fear, and anxiety.
After I went for groceries yesterday, I mentioned to a friend over email that the fear and tension in peoples’ faces were disturbing. But when this is all over, if people ask me what OCD is like, I now have an example. Do you remember how you felt all day long during the pandemic? That’s it, except that you feel it when times are good, too.

Mine has been much better over the past couple of years, mainly because I read some excellent books, was in therapy for a while, found coping tools, meditate almost every morning and I’ve established boundaries. I still worry more than is necessary about things I can’t control, but it doesn’t consume me like it used to.

The most significant contributing factor to my feeling better than I did, however, was limiting my exposure to the news and social media. The easiest way to know if it’s a problem for you is to try and turn it off for a day.

One day.

Don’t even look at it. If you can’t, you have a problem, and the first step to solving any problem is to admit that there is one.

If you can’t go one whole day without social media or the news, you don’t need me to tell you that’s an issue.

I’m not saying to avoid the news or social media forever. While we’re in isolation, we need to be informed, but be smart about it. Pick the news outlets you trust and follow them, especially your local news. Don’t click on anything and everything your friends post just because the headline or graphic triggers your fear. That’s what it was designed to do.

It shouldn’t matter to somebody in Saskatchewan that some people in Australia aren’t following social isolation rules. That’s a problem for them to solve. The borders are closed. They can’t get to you. There are almost 8 BILLION people on the planet. Following every story of tragedy for all of those people will ruin you, especially when most of those tragic stories are embellished, spun and manipulated for maximum fear.
My wife had to tell a friend two days in a row that a “news” story she shared was inaccurate; it took her no time at all to find evidence that it was false. But then she saw the same stories shared by a bunch of other people. Nobody is even bothering to check, primarily if it supports what they already believe. I shouldn’t have to explain how dangerous that is.

But to spend our isolation with a display in our hand all day long, punching that refresh button, madly scrolling for fear of missing out, you’re making yourself miserable, along with everybody with whom you’re sharing it.

If you’re going to share stuff, why not good news stories for a change? There are still plenty of those out there, too. Videos of people on their balconies singing, applauding first responders, live concerts online for charity, and kitten videos. Come on, you can never have enough kitten videos.

Your friends and family are already scared. You can contribute to that fear, or you can help them down off that ledge.

It’s a choice.

__

© Patrick LaMontagne
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Freaking Out


Are you freaking out? So am I.

Over the past few days, I’ve been worrying about how this situation will turn out badly for me in the long run, both for my syndicated editorial cartoons and my licensed paintings.

Yes, that’s selfish.

We’re all in the same boat, dealing with this. We can still be empathetic while focusing on our own needs. Just like they say in that pre-flight briefing nobody listens to, “Secure your own oxygen mask first.”

The what-ifs have been flying fast and furious in my noggin’.

What if more newspapers close? What if retailers don’t order anything for months? What if the zoos don’t order prints for the rest of the year? What if I have to dip into my savings? What if I start going into debt? What if we get sick? What if my parents get sick? What if these restrictions get worse? What if we really do run out of toilet paper?

Yes, some of these could happen, but it’s unlikely for it to be the worst-case scenario, and even less likely I’d be unable to deal with it.

I already spend most of every day working at an accelerated pace, drawing new editorial cartoons as fast as I think of them, painting new images for licensing, fretting the details, trying to make this fiscal quarter exceed the last one.

The available information with this crisis is changing so fast that I’m ping-ponging back and forth between “I can handle this” and “I’m going to lose everything!”

I’m sure most of you can relate. And if not, I’ll have what she’s having!

This isolation home work environment isn’t as unusual for me as it is for so many. But one thing that does come with this job is too much time in my head, leap-frogging from one cognitive distortion to the next.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the behaviour. From the list of the 15 most common distortions, I engage in many of these on any given day, and that’s when times are good.

Right now, they’re lined up in a queue, waiting for their chance to occupy my present thoughts, and they’ve got no concern for social distancing.

The two ringleaders of this gang of hooligans in my own head are Catastrophizing and Polarized Thinking.

Catastrophizing means that I will always jump to the worst possible outcome in any situation I find threatening.

A weird sound in my car means the transmission is going or something equally expensive I can’t afford right now. A month where one newspaper doesn’t run my work as often as they have in previous months means all of my clients are suddenly going to decide they don’t need me anymore. The absence of thousands of followers in my newsletter or social media means nobody likes my art, and I’m going to lose my career. Gaining two pounds this week means I’m going to be 30 pounds overweight in a month.

There is no evidence to support any of this. I’ve got more evidence to support the opposite of every one of these false beliefs, but they feel true, and that’s where the struggle lies.

I had a 1994 Eagle Summit for 12 years, bought it when it was already seven years old. I loved that little car, looked after it, and it was fun to drive. I took it to the mechanic many times for regular maintenance, or when things went wrong, most of which were minor. At the end of its life, my mechanic said it was time to send it to the wrecker because this time, the transmission really was the problem, and it wasn’t worth fixing or selling it. So I donated it, got some money for the local SPCA, paid for half of my wife’s new car, and I took hers. And I love this car, too.

The worst thing in my mind actually did happen, and it worked out fine. But it only arrived at the end, not all of the other times I worried that it might.

In 2009, I lost nine newspapers in one day, when a national chain decided to get rid of all freelance cartoon submissions for weekly papers. I thought that was the end of my career. It wasn’t. The next year was better than the previous one.

I had a decent following on social media before I left the big three. A couple of months ago, I rejoined Instagram, and while my audience is growing, it seems slow. Neither decision had any impact on my income.

As for weight, I’m physically fit. As I approach 50, I’m in better shape now and weigh less than I have for most of my adult life. Even when I was at my heaviest, it was only 12 or 15 pounds more than I weigh now, that middle-age belly weight that sneaks up on everybody in their late 30s until you make healthier choices.

I catastrophized about all of it and still struggle with those and many other false beliefs to this day.

Polarized Thinking, also called Black-and-White Thinking, is the mindset that things are either all bad or all good. Logically I know that’s ridiculous. The world is one big grey area and most situations, problems and experiences fall within it.

Accepting that is hard when it seems like we’re taking one big hit after another, especially when all of the information is a BREAKING NEWS ALERT on how many people are sick or dying in the world from our latest foe.

My email alert sound should be a gunshot for how jarring it has become.

There are plenty of cognitive distortions, and I suspect anyone immune to them is a sociopath. Because cognitive distortions are all about feelings and people are feeling creatures.

This heightened level of anxiety is unsustainable, and today I find it waning a little. I’m taking a lot of deep sighs, stretching, and letting my tense shoulders relax a bit. I’m still anxious, of course, but it’s the baseline anxiety I’m already used to. Still not healthy, but I can handle it for now.

All of this makes me uncomfortable, not knowing what comes next. But I realized yesterday that I’ve been here before. When I quit my job 15 years ago, I had no idea if I could make a full-time go of this art for a living. The difference was that it was my choice, and if I failed, I could just get a job to shore up the losses.  Neither of those is true right now, but the uncertainty is the same.

How long will this last? That’s the big question.

But another question worth asking, what if this is an opportunity?

It’s tempting to fire off more editorial cartoons to try to get as many of the open freelance daily spots as possible, but all that will do is dilute my idea pool, lower how much I’m making per hour, and ultimately mean that a lot of cartoons, and effort, will be wasted. So what to do with the time? I can always paint more animals. I’m always complaining about not having enough time to paint. Part of that, however, is that I want to get as many images available for licensing as possible. But I’ve already got a sizeable portfolio; nobody’s buying right now, so why rush to get more out there during this challenging time?

I can work on painting experiments, images that might not be right for licensing now, but could open up avenues later. I now have the time for some exploration, to throw some things at the wall and see what sticks.

I can write. Not just blogs, but fiction, stories I’ve wanted to tell. I’ve already been doing that this year but it’s a struggle to make the time. I have that now.

Or perhaps I could just be bored for a while. Creativity LOVES boredom. When you slow down, turn off the TV, put down the devices, stop panic-scrolling and just sit and simmer, your mind has the freedom to wander.

I’m uncomfortable right now. I’m afraid. I’m stressed.

What if those aren’t bad things? What if there are ideas hidden behind doors in my mind that I’ve been afraid to open? What if I’ve been so focused on keeping the revenue I’ve got, chasing the next dollar, that I’m missing opportunities that might now show up? What if they’ve always been there and I’ve been too busy to notice?

It’s kind of like driving a familiar route every day, and it isn’t until you’re a passenger one trip that you get to really take a look around. Has that barn always been there? I didn’t know there was a llama in with those horses.

Unlike a localized event or disaster somewhere else, we’re all going through this. When this is over, we will all have our individual stories. Nobody’s life is the same right now as it was a few months ago before most of us had ever heard of Covid-19.

How we cope with it will be an individual choice. What changes will we each embrace when we come out the other side, things we’re forced to do without now that later we’ll decide we never needed?

I’m still going to go back and forth between moments of panic and acceptance. I know that. But I also know this storm shall pass, and it is only when things get bad that we grow. Nobody changes when things are comfortable.

A lot is going on in the world besides the coronavirus, even though its shadow falls upon everything. People are dying of things they were already dying from—heart attacks, car accidents, strokes; you name it. Diseases are being diagnosed, houses are burning down or flooding, businesses are folding, relationships are ending, and families are grieving.

And yet, babies are being born. In all this isolation, babies are definitely being conceived. Artists are creating art; musicians are playing music, writers are writing, teachers are still teaching, professionally and otherwise. Discoveries are being made, buildings are going up, and adventures are being planned.

In many parts of the world, people are still pausing to watch a sunrise with a profound sense of gratitude.

Are you still freaking out? So am I.

Take a breath. Take another.

Keep doing that.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
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Write or Wrong

As mentioned in my recent post about painting Quint from Jaws, there’s something about this time of year, I get this panicky, restless, fretting feeling that time is ticking, life is passing by too fast, and there’s so much I need to get done before I die.

There are plenty of problems with that first sentence, aside from the fact that it’s too long.

Right up until sixth grade, I got excellent marks, but then I entered French Immersion, and everything plummeted. What used to come easy suddenly required work.  I was a lazy student, didn’t pay attention, always daydreaming, class clown, none of this should surprise you considering how I make my living.

I squeaked by in high school. Even if I knew the material, I often tanked the tests. My French teacher told me at graduation that I failed my final exam, which made no sense since I was still fluent at the time. She wrote it off as a bad day and passed me with 80%.

In college, I spent a couple of years in Psychology because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I went to class, enjoyed the subject matter (still do), but was put on academic probation my second last semester and wasn’t ‘invited back’ after the last one.

Despite studying, I didn’t do well on the tests.

I suspect it was an issue I have to this day, putting pressure on myself for even the little things, so that during those tests, I would wonder, “What if it’s a trick question? What if I don’t know what I think I know? What if I make the wrong choice?”

That became a repetitive exercise in self-sabotage.

After that, I went to school to become an Emergency Medical Technician. I did well in training, enjoyed the experience, had a successful practicum in Calgary with an excellent preceptor, and despite failing the registration exam the first time (it’s like there’s a pattern here), I received my license.

In the middle of all of that, I spent five years in the Reserves, where I met Shonna. She was also in college in Red Deer, for Hospitality and Tourism, which is why she moved to Banff for her practicum and stayed for the advancement. I moved to Banff after my EMT training to save the failing long-distance relationship and realized I no longer wanted to work on an ambulance.

We were married the following year. Twenty-five years later, there’s no doubt I made the right call.

Between then and now, I worked in tourism and retail, drew my first editorial cartoon in 1998, then once a week for the next three years. I became nationally syndicated, part-time until 2005, when I was able to quit my job working as an Office Admin for a physiotherapist. I’ve been a full-time artist ever since, drawing daily editorial cartoons for newspapers across Canada and painting funny looking animals for prints and licensing.

That’s the Coles notes version, CliffsNotes for Americans.

Despite all of my shortcomings in school, however, I’ve always enjoyed writing. Essays, book reports, poetry assignments, creative prose, I not only liked the work, but I did well at it.

One English teacher in junior high even called my parents to tell them that I must have plagiarized an assignment because the writing was too advanced to be my own. She couldn’t prove it, and my folks backed me up.

To this day, that accusation pisses me off. I hang on to shit. It’s unhealthy.

What most don’t know is that I’ve written two novels. These aren’t ideas, notes, and outlines, but finished books.

I’m not saying they’re any good, but I did the work, spent countless hours for a few years, writing, re-writing, and hashing out characters. I even used up a week’s vacation one year to complete that first book, and when finished, I was pleased with it.  But just like all of those failed tests, when it came time to put up or shut up, I caved.

I only sent it out once and got a charming, encouraging rejection letter.

Rejections are part of the process; the price all writers must pay. I knew that going in, but I never sent it out again. Instead, I wrote another book, and I never even sent that one out once. Both of them have been sitting idle in a drawer and on various hard drives for close to twenty years.
A few years ago, I planned to do an art book, a collection of my animal art and portraits from the past decade or so, along with the stories behind the paintings, of which there are many. I even had a local publisher commit to producing it, one of the highest hurdles in writing a book. It was supposed to come out in 2017.

Since it’s 2019 and there’s no book available on my site, you can guess what happened. I choked.

The material is there, in a dozen years of regular blog posts, thousands of words already written, hundreds of images sketched, drawn and painted, all waiting to be edited, rewritten and put together, but for my crippling self-doubt and failure to follow through.

When I run into that publisher here in town or at the Calgary Expo, there is no small amount of shame, and it requires effort not to hide from him. I’m pretty sure he’s moved on. Who wouldn’t?

It’s basic psychology. A simple fear shared by every creative who has ever lived. If I don’t put it out there, it can’t be rejected, judged or ridiculed.

The irony is that when I started editorial cartooning, the odds were stacked against me to the same degree, if not more. And yet, I still drew three to five cartoons every week for two years, earning no money from it. I came close to quitting many times but kept at it.

The same thing happened with the painted work, albeit to a lesser degree as I was already a working artist, but it took a few years for that work to pay dividends.

There were plenty of rejections during that time, more than I can count. I still get rejections every day, whether it’s because a newspaper runs a competitor’s cartoon instead of mine or somebody picks up one of my prints at the Calgary Expo, puts it back and moves on. I can’t imagine how often that happens in retail stores with my licensed products.

I make my living in a profession synonymous with failure.

So why is writing different?

Part of it is that now that I pay my bills with my creative time, the thought of spending it on something unlikely to make money, it just feels irresponsible. I could spend two hours painting or drawing an editorial cartoon, or I could spend two hours writing. Two of those options will put food on the table.

That’s the trap of being creative for a living. When you first start, it’s just great to be creating. Then it’s thrilling when somebody wants to buy what you’ve made. When you realize you can make a living at it, well, that might as well be a lottery win.

Until one day, you reach down to scratch an itch on your ankle and realize there’s a shackle and chain around it. Suddenly it isn’t that you get to create, but that you have to create, as much as you possibly can. Otherwise, it’s back to one of those real jobs.

So when I think of writing a book, whether an art book or a novel, it feels like wasted time. It feels like risking the tangible paying creative work on a pipe dream that is only so much smoke.

The reality is that most writers never make any money from it. The stats don’t lie. For every Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Malcolm Gladwell, there are millions of others who will spend their lives writing words that nobody will read.

Over the past year, I’ve felt the urge rising again. I’ve got multiple notebooks on the go, rewrites of the first two books, one for the art book and a new one that has been rattling around in my head. I think about the last one every day.  It’s a good idea, a book I’d want to read, but aside from taking notes, I haven’t written a word.

I’m just afraid it’s gonna suck.

If somebody doesn’t like an editorial cartoon or a painting, I can easily chalk that up to preference. Hey, you don’t agree with my opinion, you don’t find it funny or resonant, or my artwork isn’t for you. That’s art for you, and I’m okay with that. I’ve got close friends and family who don’t like my work. It doesn’t bother me.

The writing is different. Even with blog posts, which I always seem to find time for, I worry that they’re too self-indulgent or narcissistic or first-person, uninteresting, too long, derivative, whiny, redundant, dull.  I could write negative, self-critical adjectives all day long.

With writing, it almost seems like I’m waiting for somebody to give me permission, some panel of experts who will deliberate and deliver their verdict.

“We’ve discussed your case at great length, read through your blog posts and newsletters, and we’ve decided that you’re just not good enough to write anything of substance. We find you guilty of hubris. Request denied.”

Even as I write this, the critic in my mind admonishes, “wait, you’re not going to post all of this bullshit, are you?”

If you’re reading this, I guess you know how that turned out.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King wrote, “If you write, or paint, or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose, someone will try to make you feel lousy about it.”

For most creative types, the loudest critical voice is usually our own. What I fear more now is not that I’ll write a lot of garbage that won’t be any good, although that fear is ever-present, but that I’ll think about it for another twenty years without writing anything.

Better to risk being a bad writer than a wannabe.

As always, finding the time for anything new is a challenge. Editorial cartooning and painting are each hard enough to make time for, let alone photography, marketing, file prep, bookkeeping, and the other trappings that go along with being self-employed. I do manage to write regular blog posts and newsletters, however, and that’s tens of thousands of words each year.

Since I don’t have kids, I should probably just shut up about not having enough time. Excuses, like opinions, are never in short supply.

One of my favourite movies is Rocky Balboa, the sixth movie in the franchise, written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. You want to talk about writing against the odds; Stallone’s success story with the original Rocky is legendary. How that industry worked at the time, the movie not only should never have been made, but Stallone should never have starred in it. It won multiple awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture.

I’ve watched the movie many times, and there’s an incredible speech about this very thing, letting your fears dictate your path. I’ve included it at the end of this post.

But there is also a scene where the character Marie says to Rocky, “Fighters fight.”

The last time I saw it earlier this year, however, I heard, “Writers write.”

I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

@LaMontagneArt
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