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Silly Monkeys


As a perfectionist workaholic with unreasonable personal expectations, my past year reflecting most often reveals that I didn’t get enough done.

I’ve wanted to create an art book of my work for years with little progress. Almost a decade ago, I recorded two training DVDs for painting and cartooning that did well, so I’ve been planning an updated online painting course.

Two years ago, right before all plans went to hell, my friend Serena and her family went on African safari for a few weeks. She brought home plenty of reference for me for an elephant I’ve wanted to paint for years. I still haven’t started it.

I’ve been procrastinating, making excuses that I’m too busy with other work. There’s no profound psychological mystery as to why.

If I never complete these things, they can’t suck.

The holidays are always a low point for me. We don’t celebrate Christmas for various reasons. While I genuinely did enjoy the three recent holiday markets, they wore me out. In addition, earlier deadlines for Christmas and New Year’s cartoons and fewer publication dates meant less revenue from the daily papers.

As I write this, I’m in a creative rut, unmotivated to draw, paint, or write anything uplifting. In recent days I’ve still been up at five and sitting at my desk before six, googling articles and watching videos about art marketing, an exercise in desperation.

There are more online listicles on how to create a successful art career than anyone could read in a lifetime, often written by those with little experience. The same regurgitated tips and tricks, all revealing the same truth, that there is no map to get there.

Not that long ago, society’s idea of a good career was picture perfect.

Go to college, university or learn a valuable trade, and get a job with a good company. Then, over the next thirty or forty years, advance through middle-management, then management, earning enough to pay off a mortgage in the suburbs, provide for your family of 2 kids, get a dog, and have BBQs on the weekends with neighbours you’d live beside for decades.

Sometime in your sixties, the company (really, we’re a family!) will throw you a party, give you a gold watch, and you’ll retire with a comfortable pension, spending your weekends playing with the grandkids on the porch. Then, one day, at a ripe old age with a smile on your face, you’ll pass away comfortably in your sleep.

That story starts with “Once upon a time” and ends with “happily ever after.”

Because it’s a fairy tale.

Before I found any direction in my early 30s, I tried a few different things. I spent five years in the Reserves, two of those as a full-time instructor, and thought I might join the military like so many in my family. I went to school for EMT training, got my license, but never actually worked on an ambulance service. Before that, I spent two and a half years in college because that’s what was expected. I moved to Banff, worked in hotels and retail, got married, moved to Canmore and here we are.

I don’t regret any of those choices, but none of it was part of any plan.

The notion that we’re supposed to decide the rest of our lives while in high school is ridiculous. We’re still children but are somehow supposed to have the foresight to know what we’ll want to be in our forties.

I was an idiot at 18, and I suspect many of you were as well, with no idea how the real world worked. I took foolish risks and did very stupid things, convinced I was immortal. I’ve often mused, “thank god we weren’t taking photos with our phones all the time and posting every moronic thought that crossed our pea-brains.”

Although frankly, plenty of people my age and older still haven’t learned that lesson.

We’re all victims of our own cognitive biases; errors in thinking, logic, and interpretation that influence how we perceive the world. We can easily spot them in others but often fail to acknowledge our own, even though we all exhibit these behaviours.

Cognitive bias is the fuel that runs the social media machine.

There are many on the list, but one is called “Rosy Retrospection.”

We remember the ‘good old days’ with a sigh, when everything was easier, cheaper, people treated each other better, and the world was a nicer place.

It’s why “Make America Great Again” worked so well as a campaign slogan. Nostalgia is powerful even though it takes minimal surface scratching to reveal that our wistful memories are largely edited and wildly inaccurate.

There has never been a golden age of sustained prosperity, freedom and peaceful coexistence in the United States, Canada, or anywhere else.

I look back on the early days of my professional art career and remember my tenacity and motivation, working mornings, evenings and weekends on the side to build up my business so that I could one day take it full-time and SUCCEED! (whatever the hell that means.)

However, my nostalgia wants to leave out that I was drawing three to five syndicated cartoons a week for only two weekly papers for a few years. Paid $10 each; I was essentially making pennies an hour, eating up all my free time.

I came VERY close to pulling the plug several times in those early years, asking myself why I bothered to work so hard for no money. I constantly wanted to quit, convinced I was wasting my life.

That was almost 20 years ago.

Following the news every day is a dangerous game when things are normal. If it bleeds, it leads is the very foundation of news media. We might be at the top of the food chain, but we’re still animals, barely out of the trees on an evolutionary timeline. We say we want to hear good news, yet we focus all our attention on the bad. Our actions speak louder than our words.

We are emotional, scared little monkeys who react to anything remotely threatening with a fight, flight, or freeze response. We imagine ourselves incredibly intelligent, but the evidence doesn’t support our hubris.

For example, everybody knows the basic rule of investing. Buy low, sell high. And yet, all it takes to throw the market into a tailspin of frantic trading and panic is one billionaire tech mogul to tweet something silly while he’s sitting on the john.

And it’s not just those Wall Street types. One need only look to the rest of us glued to our screens and devices, slaves to social media, eating garbage food, drinking too much, failing to exercise, and wasting our lives watching forgettable TV for hours on end every night.

This past year, I’ve found myself skimming the employment section of our local paper more than once. I’ve been here before, walking this familiar territory. It doesn’t take a leap of logic to realize this behaviour comes from fear.

But I also know that the greener grass is simply a trick of the light.

There’s a severe staff shortage in this valley. If I did get a job, it wouldn’t be the one advertised. It would be longer hours covering the other positions they can’t fill, for less money than the job is worth. The cost of living in this community is one of the highest in the country, even though wages are not.

Logically, I know that leaving this long art career experiment and going back to a ‘real job’ won’t solve any problems, financially or otherwise. And further down that well, I also know that taking the difficult steps toward worthwhile change never happens until you’re really uncomfortable.

Because otherwise, why would you change?

My business has suffered the last couple of years. Newspapers were already struggling before the pandemic, still operating under last century’s business model. The other half of my business depends on tourism and people with disposable income, both in short supply.

I don’t write this to gain your sympathy because everybody is suffering right now, in one fashion or another. We’re all dealing with a whole lot of unexpected, uncomfortable shit.

You can blame the media, politicians, bureaucrats, or run down the long list of ridiculous conspiracy theories. However, it still doesn’t change that we must deal with the circumstances before us, and complex problems rarely have simple solutions.

Our nostalgia filter might tell us otherwise, but the normal we yearn for wasn’t the utopia we pretend it was. We took for granted all that we now pine for, complained about everything, and blamed whatever we could find for our lives not living up to our expectations. We did it before, and we will do it again. It’s our nature.

We spend a lot of time wishing other people would change, but the only thing we can ever change is ourselves.

I’m very uncomfortable right now; professionally, emotionally, financially, and spiritually, which means I’ve got to change. My focus for the next year is on diversification, making my income dependent on more revenue streams so that when one suffers, it doesn’t threaten the foundation. Some of those projects are underway. For others, I need to stop procrastinating and light fire to kindling.

I’m no longer willing to accept poor treatment simply because somebody doesn’t agree with my perspective. I don’t need everybody to like me. It’s a fool’s errand because it won’t ever happen.

I will put less energy into trivial pursuits and more time into riskier endeavours that may or may not work. That’s what got me here and what will move me beyond. Unplanted trees don’t bear fruit.

I will try to treat myself better, stop beating myself up over every stumble, perceived shortcoming, and soften that hard-edge perfectionism. Because I will never live up to my own ridiculous unattainable standards, making me miserable.

I will likely fail at some or all these things because I have failed before. But you know what they say about trying again.

Life is tough. It will still be tough when this pandemic is over, just as it was before.

So rather than pretend that turning a calendar will solve our problems, I’m going with a more realistic view of the new year.

2022. Shit will happen. Deal with it.


© Patrick LaMontagne

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A Light on the Darkness

Sometime in the late 90s, my grandmother and her husband were clearing out some things, and my Dad acquired a Nazi flag that John had brought back from World War II. My father thought it was an interesting artifact, but it spent the next several years in a plastic Hudson’s Bay shopping bag in their basement.

Years later, it came up in conversation while visiting my folks. As Shonna and I are both interested in the period, and I had been reading Richard J. Evans’ Third Reich Trilogy, we asked if we could see it.

I volunteered to do some research and eventually try to find a place for it in a museum. My mother was glad to have it out of the house. For the past few years, it sat in our basement, tucked away on a shelf, folded up in the same Hudson’s Bay bag.

It’s a square flag made of canvas, well stitched, 2 feet on each side. It’s red with a white circle in the middle, containing a black swastika, the traditional Nazi flag with which we’re all familiar. Three sides have gold collared braided fringe. The top edge has three sets of evenly spaced canvas ties.

There are dark stains on one side. It would be easy to imagine that it’s blood, making for a better story, but I suspect it’s likely grease or rust.

I’ll only share a photo of the corner of the flag. I don’t want somebody to Google my name and have a Nazi swastika come up in the images, alongside my editorial cartoons and whimsical wildlife paintings.

In our current online culture of ‘shoot first, ask questions never,’ my art career would likely be damaged or concluded faster than I could say, “wait a minute, I can explain.”

So you’ll have to use your imagination.

My research revealed that this flag was most likely a banner tied to a fanfare trumpet or bugle. There were similar banners online, but I failed to find an exact match.

When I came to the end of my desire for specifics, I turned my attention to finding an appropriate place for it. There is a brisk online trade in these items, but for reasons I hope I don’t have to explain, I didn’t want to make any money on this artifact, given its dark past. Nor did I wish to keep it.

It’s a cliché to say that those who forget their past are doomed to repeat it, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate.

If we discard these artifacts, it makes it easier to forget. The sacrifices made to stop Hitler and the Third Reich, the millions murdered in concentration camps, and the lives destroyed in World War II become statistics, without other means of refreshing our collective memory.

Despite the historical weight of this banner, it’s not a rare piece. Soldiers bring home war souvenirs, and their children and grandchildren find themselves the inheritors of these items, with no idea what to do with them.

I offered this piece to the Holocaust Museum in Ontario, the Military Museums in Calgary and the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta. Unfortunately, each declined the offer because they either didn’t have space or had enough similar artifacts.

If I couldn’t find a place for it, I was ready to burn it, but that presented another problem. We live in a townhouse condo complex with no firepits. I could take it with me to the cabin we occasionally rent or on a camping trip, but my overactive imagination doesn’t have to work hard to picture it found in my belongings after a collision. Or perhaps somebody walks by while I’m unfolding the banner at a campsite, quick to record a video on their phone.

A couple of weeks ago, while browsing the morning news stories looking for cartoon ideas, I came across an article. Someone discovered that an Ontario man had displayed several Nazi artifact images on Facebook some years ago. He was in a position of authority on a hospital board and was called upon to explain the photos. His motives unclear, the conclusion was that he showed poor judgment for a person in his position, resulting in his dismissal.

The journalist sought the opinion of Valerie Hébert, Ph.D., an associate professor of history with Lakehead University in Orillia. Dr. Hébert is an expert in Holocaust education.

Figuring she would have some solid advice for me, I sent her an email explaining my dilemma.

Dr. Hébert provided links and options for me but also cautioned that there are “expenses that go along with authenticating, restoring, accessioning, and storing items. If what you offer duplicates something they already have or doesn’t fit with the goals of their collection, they may turn it down. It seems strange to us that historical artefacts would be refused, but so it goes.”

However, at the end of her reply, she presented me with an option I hadn’t considered.

“Should these places decline the donation, but you still wish for it to be preserved, I could use it in my teaching. I teach a 2-semester course on the Holocaust, and a 2-semester course on the Hitler state in alternating years. I would not display the banner in my office but would bring it out in the classroom. Few of my students have personal connections to this period in history and I know from my use of other artefacts that the item itself can make this history come alive in compelling and constructive ways.  I think the banner would also work well to prompt discussion around what we should do with sensitive historical artefacts, particularly those which symbolize such terrible human suffering.”

It didn’t take long to decide that this would be the best use for the banner, and I told Dr. Hébert that I would be happy to send it to her at my expense. It arrived this week.

History is replete with examples of monuments, artifacts and valuable manuscripts destroyed by conquering armies and short-sighted governments. While one might look at the atrocities committed by the Nazis and think it best to wipe it clean from our memory, there is no better teacher than our past mistakes.

One need only look to the rise of the Trump administration in the United States, the misinformation tactics, the artful sowing of division and hatred to see how a culture can become quickly divided and pit against each other. The events of World War II did not happen because of one man’s ambition for conquest and genocide; it happened because the populace not only allowed it, but supported it.

We see it on Facebook, Twitter and in the Comments sections of myriad news and fake news sites, polarized opinions turning people against each other. We surround ourselves with those who agree with us and paint everybody who doesn’t as the enemy, defining ourselves by our politics at the expense of our humanity and empathy.

My father served 31 years in the Canadian Armed Forces. His three brothers served, as did their father. My mother’s parents both served, as did her three brothers.

I grew up as a base brat, spending ten years of my youth in West Germany. I spent five years in the Reserves, and Shonna was in for three, which is where we met.

You could say that the military was the family business, though I decided on a different path. It says a lot about Canada that I grew up in a family where we followed orders, and my Dad worked for the government, but my profession involves calling out that government for its current failures.

I can draw an unflattering caricature of the Prime Minister, criticize his decisions and leadership, without worrying that thugs in jackboots might break down my door in the middle of the night and take me away for re-education. Or worse.

That’s freedom. And we take it for granted.

I visited Dachau concentration camp on a school trip. I have looked upon the ironwork sign that reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” I have seen the hundreds of boots and shoes preserved behind glass, the photos of real people so emaciated it was a wonder they were still alive. I have seen the ovens.

It had a profound effect on me and still gives me chills. It’s supposed to.

Words on a page do not carry the same weight as seeing the evidence in person, holding it in your hands, considering its history, allowing it to make you uncomfortable so that it is never allowed to happen again.

That’s why I didn’t want the banner destroyed.

That’s why we remember.

__

© Patrick LaMontagne

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Whoever Fights With Monsters

(If you’re easily offended by profanity or negativity or just don’t want to deal with somebody else’s crap today, turn back now.)
I’m prone to rumination; deep, dark swan dives into the abyss. It’s a byproduct of my particular brand of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I’m not going to go into a long boring history of it because people have seen too many movies, and most think it’s just about germs, lining up stuff in the fridge and avoiding cracks in the sidewalk. I have none of those traits.

The reason Hollywood has perpetuated that stereotype is that they can SHOW it. But anybody who lives with this nasty roommate will tell you that the worst of it plays out in their head. It’s a constant internal argument between a rational, logical realist and a batshit crazy lunatic.

The short version is that every so often, I’ll backslide into a period of doom, gloom, and depression.

Artists. We’re all so fucking mercurial.

Last night, I spiralled for most of the evening, went down the Google rabbit hole, looking for some relief from the dark thoughts, regret, and pervasive shame. When Shonna went to bed, I grabbed spare sheets, my pillow and made up the couch. No reason for the both of us to be tossing and turning all night.

I’ve slept on the couch more in the past two years than in the rest of my life. Before you read anything into that about my marriage, I do this voluntarily. With the constant barrage of pandemic news porn, my brain doesn’t easily shut down.

While lying awake most of the night, frustrated by insomnia, my mind went to all sorts of things, none of them good. Were I to detail the endless list of irrational fears and worries, you’d quickly get bored if you’re not already.

This morning, I woke at 4 am with no motivation to draw or paint. Thankfully, I have a cartoon ready to send that I finished late yesterday afternoon.

In an exercise in distraction, I decided to clean up my website and went through old blog posts. There are more than 600 posts from as early as 2008, detailing my focus at that time. I barely remember much of that work, and a lot of it is tough to look at since my skills have significantly improved.

There were posts about illustrations I did for board/card games, caricatures of celebrities and commissions, and several on a Flash animation series I created when it looked like editorial cartooning was heading in that direction.

There were even more irrelevant posts about new releases of Photoshop and videos I shared that no longer exist online, so they’re just broken links. I wrote posts about new business cards, websites, projects, and my complicated relationship with social media.

It’s not like anybody is going through my blog posts from more than a decade ago and spending weeks reading them. There is no good reason to keep this digital history.

But on more than a few posts, I lingered and gave them a quick scan. I’m a much better writer today than I was then. I’ve written many thousands of words between the first post and this one, so I’ve had plenty of practice.

While I deleted the first year of posts with barely a thought, I got a little pickier around the time I painted that first grizzly bear in 2009, and the posts revealing many of the animal paintings that followed. I’m not ready to get rid of those yet. There’s some relevant history there and fodder for the book I’m not writing fast enough for my liking. (cue the chorus of self-loathing).

I found some other posts that could use a rewrite, words of advice for other artists, warnings about dealing with disreputable people and how to recognize and avoid being scammed. I’ve learned a lot in the decade since then, and if I can spare some newbie some harsh lessons of experience, I’d like to.

I’ve got many more blog posts to go through and discard, but just like spring cleaning, it needs doing.

On days like this, the really dark days, I would much rather just curl up on the couch and zone out on Netflix, but it’s not in my nature. I’ll just feel worse at the end of the day for being lazy. So, I’ll spend it cleaning up my office closet, bookkeeping or on some other mindless chore that needs doing but doesn’t require any creativity.

I’m fully aware that this post is not inspirational, celebratory or positive. I almost didn’t share it, but that’s part of the bullshit we feed each other online that makes so many miserable. Everybody shares their best days and hides their worst, putting a false front out into the world. And even though we all know the warning about comparing your behind-the-scenes to somebody else’s highlight reel, we still play the game and fall for it. It doesn’t take much mindless scrolling through the social media curated gallery of somebody else’s greatness to end up feeling like garbage.

This is where I’m supposed to end the post with a cheery, upbeat turnaround, say ‘oh well’ and acknowledge that things could be worse and others in the world are having a much rougher time and, and, and…

Any psychologist worth their salt will tell you that failing to feel the bad shit, dismissing it, and shoving it aside will just make it worse, as will making yourself feel guilty for expressing it.

Over the years, I’ve talked with therapists, read a whole library of self-help books, listened to hours of podcasts, politely listened to unwanted advice about essential oils, mindfulness practices, apps, vitamins, medication and every suggestion under the sun, including the oh-so-helpful, “Hey, cheer up!”

The truth is, from time to time, you just find yourself travelling through hell. And over the past year and a half, we’re each experiencing our own personal brand of it.

So yeah, this too shall pass.

But probably not today.

__

© Patrick LaMontagne

P.S. While looking for an image in my archives to go with this post, I discovered that this is Mental Illness Awareness Week. Well, at least that gave me a chuckle.

 

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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
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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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
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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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

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© 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

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© 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

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© 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.

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© Patrick LaMontagne
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