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Kayaking With(out) Whales

After a trying year of challenges, both business and personal, Shonna and I had been eagerly anticipating our vacation this past week. Booked in early May, it was the light at the end of the tunnel of our still as yet uncompleted kitchen renovations which occupied our entire summer.

That light didn’t turn out to be as bright as it first appeared.

We wanted to see orcas and other wildlife from a kayak and we did a fair bit of research to not only choose the best time of year to go, but the ideal place to see them. We researched different companies and were confident that we had put our best foot forward in advance.

We had only kayaked once before a few years ago in Tofino and liked it enough that we wanted to try a longer trip.
Because of my workload and commitments to my newspaper clients, I can only take a week off at a time, rarely more than once a year. Whenever possible, I try to have it be a working vacation and since Shonna loves wildlife like I do, it’s usually easy to do on Vancouver Island.

To drive to Vancouver Island would be a total of four extra days on the road, hotel stays, ferry crossings and delays, so we always choose to fly from Calgary to Comox and rent a car. We’ve taken our Island trips like this for years.

On Tuesday of last week, we drove up to Campbell River from the Comox airport, took the ferry over to Quadra Island, and checked into a wonderful little B&B called Chipperfield Hollow, where we stayed on our first and last night on Quadra. We’d highly recommend it.

That evening, we had a pre-trip meeting at a local inn, just a short walk down the road, where we met with our guides from Spirit of the West Adventures. They operate a number of different tour options, but the one we selected was the Johnstone Strait Ultimate. Four days, three nights with a base camp. This company was suggested by a neighbour who used to guide in that area and our research supported that recommendation.

The next morning, we boarded a water taxi for the 2.5 hour trip up to the camp in Johnstone Strait.

Rather than give you an itemized itinerary, let’s just jump to the pros and cons.

First, the good…

The company was top notch. From our initial booking and advance emails we got all summer, our experience with their service couldn’t have been better. While on the trip, the three guides were professional, friendly, safe…I could just go on with positive adjectives.
Shonna and I rented rain gear and sleeping bags from them which were better than expected. The tent we slept in on a solid wood platform was equipped with comfortable Thermarest mattresses, and had an incredible view. The camp in the Johnstone Strait was in a perfect spot, the tents and platforms well laid out, a covered dining and kitchen area, camp toilets, even a propane heated shower in the trees and a wood-fired hot tub.
The food they provided exceeded expectations. From the appetizers and meals at the camp to the lunches and snacks they brought with us while kayaking, we certainly didn’t go hungry. They accommodated all dietary restrictions, confirmed well in advance. I can’t eat salmon or shellfish; so on the first night when they BBQ’d salmon for everyone, I got ling cod fillets that were delicious. Gluten free options, dairy free options, all were available for those who needed them.
The kayaks were in great condition, as was all of the other equipment. Safety was their top priority, not only while on the water, but in camp as well. This included briefings about possible bear encounters, keeping food out of the tents, etc.
Our kayaking trips were enjoyable. Shonna and I shared a tandem kayak the first couple of days, and then we each had a single kayak on the last full day. We kind of had to put our foot down with the other guests the evening before, explaining that we had done our time in the double, and just because we were a couple, didn’t mean we didn’t want to use the single kayaks.

For the first time ever, I checked two bags on the flight. The weather on Vancouver Island can turn on a dime and if it starts raining, it can go on for some time. Even when it stops, good luck in getting anything to dry because of the high humidity out there. So we brought plenty of clothing for that eventuality. We left our extra bags at the B&B on Quadra, but took plenty of clothing with us.

With perfect weather the whole time, we didn’t need most of it. It wasn’t even that cold at night. It didn’t start to rain until we were on the beach on our last day loading our gear to go home. We felt bad for the incoming group arriving in the rain because the forecast wasn’t good.
Each morning, we were socked in with fog, which made for an ethereal dreamy kayaking experience that I consider the best part of the trip. Eventually it lifted and we’d have beautiful sunshine and blue sky for the rest of the day. Better still; the water was a flat calm most of the time, unusual for that area.
When it came to the parts of the trip we were promised by Spirit of the West Adventures, we had no complaints.

The key word, however, is promised, because there are certain things they can’t control, and that’s what took the shine off of the rest.

Here’s what was lacking…

Including Shonna and I, there were 13 people on our trip. I was the only guy. Most of these women were older than we were and it created a strange dynamic. Even Shonna said that a balance of men and women would have been much more preferable. While it’s always nice to hear other people’s perspectives on things and everyone was friendly and nice, it often felt like we were on vacation with our mothers’ friends. It would have been just as weird had it been all guys and Shonna the only woman.

True, our lead guide was male, but he was there to work and run the tour, so that doesn’t really count.
It’s not like it was planned that way, and only a few of the women knew each other before the trip. There was a balance of genders on the trip before and a balance on the trip after, just not on ours. It should be noted, however, that all of these women were fit and up to the trip. When it came time to haul kayaks and gear, everybody pulled their weight. I even learned a few useful tips from some of the more experienced paddlers.

On one day, with the currents looking like the afternoon might not be ideal for kayaking, we were told to bring some WALKING shoes as we would be going on an easy hike instead. Since we were told to make sure we always had dry shoes in camp, we had our water socks for kayaking, and I had a pair of Keen sandals for this walk.

Turned out that the hike was downright vertical in places, up a winding roller coaster of rainforest trail with criss-crossing roots to navigate. What made it more difficult was that I was carrying my expensive camera in one hand the whole time. The pace was brisk and at one point some of the other guests began asking how much further. The guide told a white lie and said we were at the halfway point when we were actually about a third or less. Four women decided to turn back to the beach and a guide went with them. Had Shonna and I known how much further to the top and how anti-climactic it would be when we got there, we would have done the same.

We had no time to stop and look at the forest around us and it felt a little like a forced march when she and I were in the Army Reserves years ago. Shonna does Cross-Fit every morning and I regularly hike here at home, but the pace and terrain kicked our asses. I don’t know how the guide did it in Crocs.

For our efforts on the return, we were drenched in sweat, I had two very large blisters on one foot from wearing shoes in which I would never do a hike like that, and felt we’d been a little ripped off. We didn’t pay for a kayaking trip to waste an afternoon hiking, something we can do at home.

Needless to say, we both arrived back at the beach pissed off and fuming, biting our tongues. We would have much rather paddled around the sheltered bay or relaxed at the beautiful location of our camp if we couldn’t kayak, perhaps wandering the shore, looking for wildlife.

Shonna and I have lived in the Canadian Rockies for more than 25 years and the main business here is tourism, just as it is for many parts of Vancouver Island. When it comes to seeing animals, there’s a saying in both locales… “Wildlife doesn’t punch a clock.”

That means you can try your best to find the animals you came to see, but sometimes they just don’t show up. We were in the right place, at the right time, and pretty much got skunked.

Technically, we saw two or three orcas. On the trip up in the water taxi, way off in the distance, there were some blows and dorsal fins. Then while at camp, we saw some blows even further away one day, but couldn’t tell if they were humpbacks or orcas. One night, Shonna and I thought we heard blows in the water outside of our tent and figured it must be orcas, but it was so dark we couldn’t see anything.

We think it’s fair that we don’t count these.
We did see a black bear on our beach a couple of times, then later while kayaking in the fog another morning and on another beach nearby. We’re pretty sure it was the same bear and surprisingly, I was just fine with him being that close, despite my earlier bearanoia tale while camping this past May.

Other than that, we saw some white-sided dolphins go by from our camp a couple of times, a seal and sea lion, a blue heron, and countless ravens and seagulls. The only reference pic I got that I can paint from, however, is the blue heron, and the photos I took at Point Holmes in Comox a couple of days ago might be a better choice.

No orcas, no humpbacks, no otters, no eagles. On all of our visits to the Island, this was the trip where we saw the least wildlife of any kind.

At the end of our trip, we spent a couple of extra days in Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland visiting with a few friends we don’t get to see often enough. We kept trying to put our finger on exactly why this trip was a disappointment, and it pretty much came down to the reasons above. We still got to spend some time off together away from work, which is always a plus.
Just as somebody can end up spending days in their hotel room in Mexico from drinking the water, or luggage can get lost, or a hotel reservation can be screwed up, it was simply bad luck. That doesn’t really take the edge off of the disappointment, however, or that our hard-earned money is gone, or the fact that we really needed a good vacation and it didn’t measure up, or that I didn’t come away with any reference photos or inspiration for paintings.

As in all things, shit happens.

Cheers,
Patrick

Some of these pics were taken by iPhone in a waterproof plastic case or are stills from GoPro video, so not as sharp as I’d like. But I wasn’t about to take my good camera out of the dry bag on open water if I didn’t have to. An orca or humpback would have been worth the risk.

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Wolves in Progress

One of the most common questions I get about my painted work is, “how long does it take to do one of these?”

The glib Picasso rip-off answer is, “a lifetime,” most often hauled out when people question an artist’s pricing.

For one of my whimsical wildlife portraits, the answer is usually somewhere around 15 or 20 hours which is just a ballpark. I don’t really keep track because I don’t paint something in one sitting. There’s always other work being done at the same time, the daily editorial cartoons, admin work, and the like.

Something that took me 15 hours a decade ago, however, would likely take me less than half that, now, because I’ve become a better artist in that time. Concepts I found difficult then are routine techniques now, allowing for more detailed work in the same amount of time. This is why many artists don’t offer hourly rates, because the better you get, the quicker you get something done, meaning you’d make less money. It doesn’t make any sense that I should be paid more as a beginner than as an accomplished professional.

Because my licensing clients and customers like them, and I’ve now got a large portfolio that sells well, I’ll still continue to create the somewhat caricatured single head-shot style animal paintings. Like most artists, however, I get bored with my own work and want to try new things. That’s what led to my funny looking animal pieces in the first place, an experimental painting ten years ago.

From gathering the reference, to sorting through them, looking for the one or two that sparks an idea, to sketches and false starts, paintings take time. Posting a new piece every week would only be realistic if I didn’t have editorial cartoons to draw each day.

With that in mind, here is the beginning of a new painting, just started this morning. When I still had a social media presence, this is the kind of thing I would share just to have something to post, in the mad scramble for likes and shares. Now that I know that sort of thing doesn’t really translate into anything more than a higher level of anxiety, I hadn’t thought of posting work-in-progress shots on the blog. Since somebody told me recently that they missed seeing them, well why not?

Besides, it’s humbling to post stuff like this, because it has barely begun, which leaves me feeling exposed. I guess that’s the whole point, to illustrate (wink wink) that a painting doesn’t just happen. It starts with the broad strokes, the roughest of layouts, with many hours working alone, before ending with fine little hairs under the eyes and droplets of moisture on the gums. That moment when the personality shows up, that’s many hours down the road.

Incidentally, at the beginning of every painting, which is what you see here, I always(!) think that my best work is behind me, that there is no way my skills will be good enough to match the vision I have for the piece, and that it’s just going to suck. Go get a real job, you imposter hack, you’re not fooling anybody.

Every painting starts with this fear, and almost every artist I know suffers from this same panicky self-doubt. This is why dealing with internet trolls has always felt like amateur hour to most of us. The trolls who live in our heads are so much nastier, and unlike Twitter, you can’t block them.

All that said, these initial steps on a new painting, it’s a familiar wasteland of unfinished work and I’ve traversed it many times before. Turning back just isn’t an option and I’m looking forward to seeing how this piece turns out.

I’ll keep you posted.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Cattle Call

In need of a getaway, I spent four nights last week at the cabin near Caroline that friends and I rent from time to time. This little slice of heavenly Alberta ranch land never fails to recharge the batteries and provide new inspiration.

I was alone at the cabin for the first night and my friend Darrel arrived Monday for the next three. Having known each other most of our lives, it’s one of those rare friendships where we can go months without seeing each other and just pick up where we left off like no time has passed.

Over the five days, we explored more of the property we hadn’t yet seen, took daily drives down gravel and dirt roads, looking for critters and anything else of interest.

On one drive west, we ventured down a rough muddy road to get to Camp Worthington, beside the Clearwater River. In recent years, it’s been used as a survival training camp for Air Cadets. In the early nineties, however, I’d been out there multiple times as an instructor with the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves. Hadn’t been back since, and was surprised how little has changed, though flooding in recent years has altered some of the landscape.

The cabins, mess hall and other structures were unlocked and in good repair, clearly maintained. Amazing how opening a door can bring back a flood of fond memories.

Of course, wherever we went, I was looking for animals.


On our drives and around the cabin, we saw plenty of birds, wild and domestic horses, deer, and I even saw a moose right outside the kitchen window at 5am one morning. By the time I got dressed, grabbed the camera, and figured out where she’d gone, however, she had made it across the pasture, out of range.

Shonna said that a real artist would have gone out au naturel to get the shot. I’m sure the mosquitoes would have loved that.

Apparently there has been a grizzly in the area, but we didn’t encounter that particular neighbour. I can’t say it wasn’t on my mind around the cabin, especially on my own the first night.

I’ve wanted to paint some more domesticated animals in my whimsical style, farm and ranch critters to add to the gallery of funny looking animals I’ve created. On recent visits to KB Trails, I’ve been fortunate to get some pretty wonderful reference for some horse paintings I’m planning.
This time around, I was going to visit the neighbours to take some reference photos of their cows, but when I arrived on Sunday afternoon, our hosts told me we’d have some new neighbours of our own at the cabin. Turns out they’d leased the adjacent pasture to a friend for his herd of cattle and I was delighted at the news.


Of all the animals I photographed this time, the majority were cows. After going through the four hundred or so I took, keeping only the best of the bunch, I ended up with a great selection of reference and I’m looking forward to painting from them soon. Little cows, big cows, a group of cows, there’s no shortage of inspiration and material there.

The rest of the trip was what you’d expect from two boring middle-aged guys. Enjoyed good food and drink, played games and guitar, listened to music, and fell into naps in our chairs, mid-conversation. Weather was good, bugs weren’t bad, and the welcome quiet was surreal. We could have easily stayed another week if not for that whole work thing.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Stretching Style

A new Wolf painting and some new ideas.

One of the hardest things for artists to do when they’re first starting out is find their niche, that style of work for which they’ll be recognized and stand out from the crowd.

For those who’ve not yet found it, it can be frustrating to go looking for something so elusive that one might only recognize it in hindsight. It often comes from trying different mediums, tools or subject matter until something resonates, but you have to dig a lot of empty holes before you find treasure.

Once you find it, and realize it, there’s relief. A sense of traction, that time can now be better spent focusing and becoming really good at that one thing that defines YOUR art.

Twenty years ago, I fell into editorial cartooning. An ad in a local weekly paper in Banff, draw a cartoon once a week, did that for three years, joined a better newspaper where the editor encouraged me to self-syndicate, and before I knew it, it was a good part-time income. In 2006, however, supplying many newspapers across Canada, but with no more room to grow the business, I quit my job and it became my full-time career.

At that time, I would have said my niche was editorial cartooning and I had developed my own recognizable style. I’ve been drawing editorial cartoons for more than 20 years and I still draw seven a week, sometimes more, but it’s only one part of my business.

In 2009, I painted a funny looking Grizzly Bear. It wasn’t long before I realized that I had found my other niche.

With that side of my business continuing to grow, it’s been ten years developing and painting pretty much the same style of whimsical wildlife portrait.  A lightly caricatured head-shot, a goofy grin, sneer, or some sort of amusing expression, coupled with realistic detailed painting of fur, feathers, and features.

I have cultivated a recognizable and marketable style that lends itself to prints, products, and licensing. And while my cartoony critters aren’t for everybody, there are plenty of people who like them and hang them on their walls.

After ten years painting these portraits, and working hard to get them seen and sold, contemplating change is frightening. Once you’ve found a recipe that people enjoy, messing with the ingredients could just as easily make a dish worse instead of better. But a bored creative is an uninspired creative and it will eventually show in the work.

This isn’t about moving away from painting animals, but allowing them to evolve. These paintings often provide the brightest lights in my life, especially when the real-life shadows get a little too dark and threatening. I’ll still be doing the same painted portraits, because I’ve now got plenty of clients that depend on this style for the products in which they’ve invested. I’m a commercial artist. It’s my job.

But like this wolf, here, I’ll be painting more experimental pieces, compositions that deviate from my normal.  I think this one worked well.


My One in Every Family painting is a popular piece and that was quite different, as was my recent painting of Boston, the forlorn looking dog. They’re not the usual head and shoulders, but they’re still recognizable as my work, in my style.

I’ve got some more ambitious pieces in mind for the coming year. More animals in one image, more full bodied scenes, more story-telling in the paintings. At the risk of sounding arrogant, the head-and-shoulders paintings, they aren’t very challenging anymore. It’s just a matter of putting in the hours, but I know I’ll get there. It’s pretty safe and comfortable.

In art and life, however, there’s no growth when you’re comfortable.

Cheers,
Patrick

Technical stuff: I started this piece on the iPad Pro using the procreate app, then moved into Photoshop on my desktop with my Wacom Cintiq 24HD display. The finished piece is 30” x 40” at 300ppi.

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9 Things About Pet Portrait Commissions

An artist friend of mine recently told me she heard someone balking about my commission prices. She backed me up and explained to them how much work goes into an original painting. Based on questions and experiences over many years, here are some things I often have to address with regard to commissions.

1) I need good reference. If someone wants me to paint their dog when he was two years old on a sunny day in the park, and all they have are blurry photos of him in his senior years under gloomy skies looking sad with his eyes closed, I’ll be politely declining the opportunity. I’m going to hate the work, and they’re going to hate the painting.

2) Just because a client can’t afford it, doesn’t mean my rates are too high. I’m being asked to paint an original, personal painting, that will unlikely be of any interest to anyone else. It will take me 10-15 hours MINIMUM, which doesn’t include the time spent talking with the client, having the canvas printed, going to Calgary to get it, packaging and shipping it or delivering it personally, which is all included in the price of $1100.00 (Canadian funds).

3) Yes, I require a deposit of 50% up front. It’s non-refundable. Why? Because over the weeks it’ll take for the painting to be done, the client is more likely to have a change of heart if they’ve got nothing invested in it. Some will also try to renegotiate the price of the painting at the end of the job. Amazon doesn’t ship stuff until it’s paid for. Neither do I.

4) When a client says they “only want a small painting,” “something simple,” or it “doesn’t have to be as detailed as my other stuff,” what they’re after is a cheaper painting. I work digitally. It’s all the same size; it’s only the printing that’s large or small. Even if I worked traditionally, a small detailed painting is much more difficult than a large one. I don’t know how to do a half-assed job and they wouldn’t like it even if I did. Otherwise, they’d have asked somebody else.

5) If a man owns a hardware store, he might offer a friend or family member a discount. It’s inventory on the shelf, so he’ll just order another and it didn’t cost him anything. With somebody whose product is ALL labour, they’re losing money on any cut in their rate because they can only work on your thing instead of other work that pays their bills. That goes for artists, plumbers, mechanics, hairstylists, and anybody who makes their living from their time, our most valuable non-renewable resource.

I’ve long been a pushover on this point, actually offering deals before they’re even requested. It’s a common problem that many artists have and it’s nobody’s fault but our own. At this stage in my career, I would rather not get the gig than do it for peanuts.

Every professional artist I know has often heard, “I wish I could draw,” and other compliments that express an appreciation for the skills that have been acquired through decades of hard work and practice. But when it comes to paying for art, people expect it to cost a hair more than the paper on which it’s printed, or nothing at all.

6) Someone else’s procrastination is not my emergency. The fact that a birthday is next week and they kept meaning to get in touch with me doesn’t change the fact that I won’t have time to get it done, even if I didn’t have all of the other work I’ve committed to already. I’m not always available. Commissions are the smallest part of my business and I’ve got a lot of other work on the go. Always! Often I know I won’t be able to meet the deadline and I won’t accept the commission because of it.

7) From time to time, I will donate prints for charity auctions, but I get asked so often, that I’ve restricted donations to causes that support animals or wildlife conservation. I’ve also been asked to donate commissions, but that’s a hard NO. That’s how I end up with clients that provide the worst photos, the shortest deadlines, make the most unreasonable demands and if I don’t meet them all to the letter, I’m accused of lying about the donation.

8) I will often get people wanting to hire me after their pet has passed and only then do they realize they don’t have any good photos. Take lots of photos! Even if you never hire me to paint your pet, you’ll want those photos after they’re gone. Taking photos of your pets is fun. They’re all nuts, in the best possible way.

I’ve had the privilege of working for and with many wonderful clients over the years, some of whom have hired me more than once to paint their pets. This somewhat rant of a list should in no way diminish all of the great experiences I’ve had with so many people who’ve trusted me with painting an image of their adopted loved ones, whether those furry friends are still around or have passed on. In all of those cases, having lots of photos to choose from made the difference.

9) Because they’re often memorials, most people commission me to paint their pets in a portrait style rather than in my whimsical wildlife style, which is the work I enjoy most. So when I’m working on a traditional look portrait, it’s not work I would have done anyway. I don’t have the creative freedom to distort the expression, make the face goofier, add big strings of drool, and have fun with it, because that’s not what the client wants. Paintings in a portrait style are work, so while I’ll still put my best effort into it, I’d rather be painting the funny looking animal version. That’s my niche, what makes my work unique, and for what I want to be known.

Lastly, just like any other skilled professional, I’ve spent many years working on my craft. I’ve become very good at what I do and I keep raising the bar for what I’ll accept from myself. My best keeps getting better because I invest a lot of my life into my art.

If you want my best work, you have to pay for it.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Flamingo


This painting took longer than most. I started it on the iPad and would work on it whenever I went to hang out at Electric Grizzly, the tattoo shop I’ve mentioned often over the past nine or ten months. In fact, it had become a running gag.

“What are you working on?”

“Guess.”

“The flamingo.”

In fact, on Thursday, while at the shop, both tattoo artists in the shop that day said “the flamingo” in unison.

For some reason, I just couldn’t find my groove. I had great reference that I’d taken up close at The Calgary Zoo, but as happens with some paintings, I just wasn’t feeling it.

When I first started this painting, my initial composition was just the head, neck and part of the body, as is the look of my signature style whimsical wildlife portraits that I call Totems. This time, however, I thought I should include the whole body. When I asked Derek at the tattoo shop his opinion (he’s an excellent wildlife painter), he suggested going with the full body. I asked my friend Kathryn, the retail manager at the Calgary Zoo, her opinion and she concurred. I don’t always follow suggestions and advice on paintings, but clearly going with a different approach was interesting to others, not just to me.

I also decided to go with a more elaborate background, even though what I chose was more of a suggestion of the scene. It’s not very detailed as the flamingo is still supposed to be the main focus.

Saturdays are often my favorite day to paint. With no editorial cartoon deadlines, I can get up at my usual 5am, shower, grab some coffee, put some tunes in the earbuds and I’m painting by 530 or 6, depending on whether or not I get distracted by email or something else on the internet.  This morning, I found that groove I’d been missing and six hours later, I put the finishing brushstrokes on the painting.

I’m quite pleased with this one. It’s bright, colourful, I like the expression on her face and while it’s still a whimsical wildlife painting, there’s some artistic growth in here, which is always welcome.

Thanks for taking a look.

Cheers,
Patrick


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A Bird of Prey named Sarah

This is my latest painting of a Golden Eagle, based on reference photos I took of a 32 year old beauty named Sarah.
On a Saturday in the middle of last month, I went downtown to visit one of the Town of Canmore’s WILD events at the Civic Centre. This annual event features everything from hikes, arts activities, educational talks about the environment, and much more. While this introvert is not a big participator in large group gatherings, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Live Birds of Prey Exhibit.

Knowing this was a popular annual event, I arrived while they were still setting up with the intent of gathering some reference photos. There were four different owl species and one Golden Eagle. With such easy access to take up close reference photos, I was happy to make a small donation to express my appreciation.
From spending time with the keepers at Discovery Wildlife Park, supporting the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation each month and seeking to be better informed about the work involved in these sanctuaries, I’ve learned that wildlife conservation is an expensive undertaking.

It’s not just the care and feeding of the animals that requires constant funding, it’s the building and maintaining of facilities, veterinary bills, transportation costs, and all of the little things that add up to create a big monthly bill that never seems to decrease. I read a meme online recently that said, “I do this for the money, said no zookeeper ever.”
The more questions I’ve asked of the experts this year, the more I realize how little I know. But I’m eager to find out so that I can not only pass on the information to foster more interest in wildlife conservation, but also that I can better understand how best I can help.

The Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation was started in 1982, when “wildlife rescue activity in Western Canada was almost non-existent. Centre founders Wendy Slaytor and Colin Weir approached the Province of Alberta Fish & Wildlife Division with an offer to start Alberta’s first volunteer wildlife rescue facility.”

That quote is from their History page on their website. I would encourage you to click on the link, read the rest of it, and take a look around. The work they do is admirable, rehabilitating and releasing injured birds back into the wild, participating in captive breeding programs of endangered species, studying and monitoring avian populations and educating the public and how to be better stewards of the environment.

While I haven’t yet visited their Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale, Alberta, I plan to in the coming year when they re-open for the 2018 season. It’s open to the public, yet another Alberta destination you can add to that family road-trip next year.
I enjoyed chatting with Colin Weir (above) and his daughter, Aimee, who were happy to answer all of my questions about each of the owls and Sarah. Each of these birds has their individual story about how they came to the facility and why they can’t be released into the wild. Instead, they’ve become ambassadors of the facility, allowing people to see these wonderful creatures up close. It has been my experience that these opportunities foster more empathy for the world around us and those with whom we share it.

Colin was even kind enough to let me hold Gordon, their Great Horned Owl. I’ve painted Alberta’s official bird a number of times, but this is as close as I’ve ever been.
Ever since I discovered the local owl’s nest up at Grassi Lakes some years ago, which resulted in plenty of photos and my ‘One in Every Family’ painting (below), I’ve made it a point to educate myself about these beautiful birds. And still, asking Colin some questions about that local breeding pair, I found out there’s still so much I have to learn, about this breed and the many others they care for.
As I have four owl paintings in my portfolio, I thought I was done painting them for a little while, but I believe I might be mistaken. I did a little sketch painting on the iPad of their Burrowing Owl named Basil, but I think a more detailed painting of him will be coming very soon. Seriously, look at that face.
Thanks for stopping by,

Patrick

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All About The Jags

One of the unexpected, but welcome consequences of painting my whimsical wildlife images is my growing interest in learning more about the animals I paint.

Initially, my first concern was finding enough reference. For that I relied on generous photographer friends and stock photos. As time has worn on, I’ve found that I quite enjoy taking my own photos as it makes me feel more connected to the painting from start to finish.

In keeping with that theme, I’ve been spending more time on wildlife excursions, at the Calgary Zoo and at Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail.

Last year, I went on two behind-the-scenes…well, I’m just going to call them adventures…with their lion cubs Griffen and Zendaya. I’ve painted Zendaya, but have yet to paint Griffen and might wait until his full mane comes in. Right now, he looks a little like a teenager with awkward hair issues.

This year, the focus of my park visits has been on black bears and I’ve had two memorable behind-the-scenes visits. I’m saving that part of this story for another post.

I’ve been getting to know the keepers pretty well and I am obviously not making too much of a nuisance of myself or doing the wrong things, because after my time with the bears, I’ve twice been invited behind the scenes with their jaguars. It was great to get closer than usual to take pictures and to learn more about their care. Who’s going to say No to an offer like that?
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smmagnumposeDiscovery Wildlife Park is home to two jaguars, Mia and Magnum, brothers born and raised at the Park. Magnum is black, Mia has the stereotypical spotted pattern, and both are beautiful animals.

In July, I got to see how the jags are trained and witnessed their claws being trimmed. Training any animal with positive reinforcement requires plenty of patience and skill. With auditory signals and clickers, verbal commands, repetition and reward, I watched as each jaguar ran over to a specific spot by the fence, and put his paw through a small opening for inspection. When the behaviour was performed correctly, he’d be given a reward of a piece of meat on the end of a stick.

smmagnumclawsThe keepers can go into the enclosures with many of the animals, including the lions and bears, but nobody goes in with the jaguars. All of the training is done through a chain link fence, which I find even more impressive.

While you might think the purpose of learning tricks is to entertain people, the real benefit of training is best seen when it comes to the health and well-being of the animals. Teaching them new tricks, hiding things for them to find, and changing up their environment is all part of their enrichment. This kind of stimulation keeps them mentally fit.

But it also makes caring for their physical well-being much more efficient. Rather than tranquilizing an animal on a regular basis for a health checkup, they’ve made showing up for inspection another learned behaviour, a routine they get used to. This leads to a long and healthy life because any problems can be caught early and remedied.
smmiaclawsWhile his claws were being trimmed on my first visit with them, I noticed that Mia had a broken tooth. The head zookeeper, Serena, has explained to me that the jaguars have to open their mouths for inspection twice a day just to make sure everything is OK. In early April, it was not. There were no indications that he was in any pain, but Mia was scheduled for a root canal in July.
smtoothproblemI had planned to write this post after that first experience, but got sidetracked and never got around to it. In hindsight, I’m glad I waited, because I get to share how it all turned out.

Last week, I had an exciting time taking more pictures for my upcoming Black Bear Totem but also got to go behind the scenes with the jaguars again!

I had forgotten about the broken tooth until Serena produced a toothbrush on the end of a stick while training Mia. He had been taken to The Calgary Zoo during the summer and that’s where the root canal had been performed. Everything went well, but now Mia must have the area around that tooth brushed three times each week in order to keep food, hair and other debris from causing any problems.
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The benefit of training is clearly evident in that Mia will open his mouth for Serena to get in there with the toothbrush and then another keeper will reward the behaviour with a piece of meat. From Mia’s perspective, he’s just learned another trick. As they had allowed me to get right up next to the fence, I was able to watch this procedure closer to a jaguar’s mouth than will ever be comfortable, but it was thrilling.
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smmiarewardNo word on whether or not Mia will learn to floss anytime soon. I’ll keep you posted.

As anybody who has ever had a sick pet knows, you usually see a positive change in their demeanor once they’ve been treated. I asked Serena about this, and she said the vet had forecast that as well, but Mia hadn’t shown any initial behaviour changes, so they appear to have caught it before it had given him any real pain in the first place. All thanks to the training.

It’s true that my relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park over the past year and a half has been out of the ordinary and you might think the best result of that would be all of the up close and personal reference photos I’ve been able to get for my paintings. Yes, that has been great.

But what I’ve enjoyed most about visiting the Park is all that I’ve learned. The keepers have been generous with their time and while I’ve been respectful, I’ve asked plenty of direct questions about animals in captivity, why the need for training, the meaning of different behaviours and their overall care. With every question I’ve asked, I’ve been given straightforward answers, ones that satisfy not only my curiosity, but also give me the confidence that I’m supporting a facility that has the best welfare in mind for the animals in their care.

If you haven’t been, I would recommend a visit. I plan to return often.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the individual zookeepers for generously sharing their time and knowledge with me. Serena, Mari, Denise, you’re aces. Thanks so much.
smmagnumfaceIf you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.  Thanks!

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The Ultimate Bear Experience

SunshineIn December of last year, I received an email from Discovery Wildlife Park telling me about the Ultimate Bear Experience. A rare opportunity to “spend 4 hours with our black bears and our zookeepers. Feed, train and get to know each bear personally!”

For adults only, a limit of five spots, I booked quickly and was confirmed for the date seven months later. I have been looking forward to it ever since.

As of last year, I’ve become a regular visitor to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, Alberta. I did the behind the scenes tour with the lion cubs twice last year as I knew it wouldn’t be offered again once they’d grown. Having seen them again this week, I’m glad I took advantage of it as those kitties got big! In October, I was granted a short photo shoot with GusGus the beaver and those photos resulted in my latest painting, which is already proving popular. My prints are now available in their gift shop this year as well.

Incidentally, I showed GusGus his painting on Thursday. Clearly, not a fan.
GusGusWhile I was sure the bear experience was going to be enjoyable and educational, I didn’t know what would be involved and was pleasantly surprised that it exceeded my expectations. Not only did we get close access to the bears, but one of the keepers was snapping photos the whole time, so in addition to my own pics, I was given theirs as well, a nice record of the day. Considering some of the great things we got to do, my camera would have been in the way during those times I wanted my attention on the bears.
BearShitWe began with raking and shoveling bear poop, something that is done every day by the keepers. After that, we stuck fresh cut branches of varying sizes into the ground around the enclosures while the bears were ‘loaded up.’ This means they were in their adjacent pens, a substitute for a den and safe place for them, much like how your dog feels safe in his kennel.
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Planting01We were given peanut butter and honey that we smeared on logs, leaves and branches around the enclosure. Just a little bit, enough to pique the bears’ interest. The purpose of this exercise is enrichment. By introducing new things into the enclosures on a regular basis, it gives the bears something to do. In the wild, a bear’s time is consumed with finding food. In captivity, enrichment provides them with stimulation through interesting things to explore, directly contributing to their overall mental and physical health.
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LittleBear01After we left the enclosure, the bears were released and we were able to see the results of our efforts. Sure enough, they were eager to check out the new digs. They manipulated the branches, sniffed out the little food smears, and were genuinely interested and engaged with what we had done. I had plenty of time to take pictures of the results.
GroupFor the rest of the time, we moved from one bear to the next. A couple of them live together, others on their own. I had expected to only be exposed to them with a chain link fence between us, so I was pleasantly surprised when we were able to step inside a few times. The only separation between our group and the bear was an electric fence, similar to one you’d find around a cattle pasture. Nothing that can hurt the bear, just annoying enough to create a barrier they learn to avoid.
ToesWe had a chance to reinforce some of their training, spoon feed a favorite treat of avocado, and when I mentioned that a large reason for doing this was to challenge my bear phobia, the head zookeeper decided to ‘take it up a notch’ and brought out the apple pieces. The result you can see below, a wonderful experience I won’t ever forget.
RenoPat01smDuring our time with the keepers, I asked a lot of questions about captivity, the training, and the overall health of the bears living the way they do. I’ve had the back and forth arguments of conscience that many animal lovers have when it comes to wildlife in captivity. Is it cruel? Is it necessary? Would these animals be better off in the wild?

Some people have asked me how I can support zoos with my artwork and accuse me of selling out at the expense of the animals. In our social media ‘judge first, ask questions later’ culture, I’m used to this and dismiss that sort of thing. It’s not worth my time to argue with people who are more interested in telling you their opinion than having an intelligent discussion.

What people often fail to do is ask questions, in order to examine both sides of the argument. From what I’ve learned so far, I believe that animals in captivity, with the proper oversight and safeguards in place, offer valuable insight, especially when it comes to research, conservation and species at risk. Exposure to wildlife fosters empathy, especially in children. That empathy will hopefully later translate to a greater consideration for the world around us, something of which is currently in short supply.

Without going into great detail, I am personally satisfied that Discovery Wildlife Park is doing right by the animals in their care. Most are orphans or rescues and the only life they’ve known is at the park. Had they remained in the wild, they would have died. Returning them to the wild would have the same result. The life expectancy of an animal in captivity receiving top notch care and enrichment far exceeds that of one in the wild.

One thing is clear to me about this facility. These animals are loved. While the chain link fence separated us from the bears, the keepers were able to move about freely with them. In many cases, they’ve raised them and all of the training has been through positive reinforcement. I’d like to talk more about the reason for the training, but will save that for another post.

The facilities are clean, well maintained and the enclosures are large. For some of their animals, their spaces appear smaller, but from asking questions, I found out that there’s a good reason for that.

I’m a sucker for animals and when I see one hurt, injured or abused, it bothers me a great deal. I would not be able to support this park if I thought any of their practices were harming the animals that live there.

I plan to return often.
BearPose
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You are your own guide

LodgeViewThe view from our deck at He-Tin-Kis Lodge in Ucluelet

My wife and I don’t travel a lot, but when we do, we like to stay in unique accommodations and take a lot of half-day or day tours and excursions. While at dinner the other night in Ucluelet, we were laughing as we talked about the travelers we’d like to imagine we could be and the ones we really are.

You’re unlikely to find us hiking the Inca Trail in Peru. At one time, that was a serious discussion, but we’ve stopped kidding ourselves. It’s just not us. Same goes for reaching the top of Kilimanjaro, a week on the Amazon River or living off the land in deepest darkest Borneo. We’d like to go on African Safari one day, but it’s unlikely we’ll be roughing it much when we do.

We all like to have this image of who we could be but at some point you must realize that you can still stretch your boundaries without becoming Indiana Jones. I know some of those people and I admire their sense of adventure. Preparing for months in advance to climb Everest or hiking the Appalachian Trail? Good on ya. I think that’s cool. But it’s not my cup of tea.

On the other side of the coin, we are not cruise ship people, going from port to port with thousands of others, sticking to a rigid schedule. While we have stayed at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and Costa Rica and that works for us from time to time, we are also not lie on the beach for two weeks people. We’re usually bored of that after Day 1 and have to get out and do something.

A highlight of a past vacation was a private tour to the Mayan ruins in Coba, something we booked with Edventures in Tulum, ‘cause the guy’s name is Ed. And while he didn’t offer the specific tour we wanted, he said, “My Mom will take you.”

That’s how we ended up spending the day with Judy, who drove us out there in her own SUV, and got us a private walking tour with the oldest guide who had been with the original National Geographic survey of the site. Shonna and I love history, so this was quite special, especially since he talked to us more like we were university students than tourists. Talking to Judy for three hours in the car about real life in Mexico was fascinating, too. You want to learn about life somewhere else, talk to the locals, not the information centre.

Add to that jet skiing in Costa Rica, an open cockpit biplane flight over the Hoover Dam and Shonna’s out of the blue “let’s go skydiving” over lunch one day in Vegas and this is our best selves on vacation. We’re not testing the boundaries of adventure or blazing new trails. We’re not doing anything that hasn’t been done before. Pretty much everything is rather safe, but it’s usually just different enough that we’re living a little more of life than we’re used to, and having a good time doing it. A couple of workaholics seeing and trying new things while still making paying off the mortgage a priority.

BrokenGroupThe Broken Group Islands with Archipelago Wildlife Cruises

This past week was pretty close to our idea of a perfect vacation. I booked this trip in January, a repeat of my artist retreat two years ago. The goal was to go out to Vancouver Island, take a ton of reference shots for future paintings and get out of the office for a week. Full stop.

But as the year wore on, we planned some home renovations, and a loosely planned trip to Europe in the fall was cancelled because neither of us is feeling it this year. Shonna was able to get the time off work, but to her credit, she gave me the option of continuing to go away alone to get what I needed, without any bad feelings. She’s never been the guilt trip stereotype, so I knew if I chose to go away on this trip by myself, she’d be fine with it. We’d do something else together later. I enjoy her company more than anybody else’s, however, so the idea of her coming along added to my trip and I was happy to have her join me. In fact, she’s probably the only person with whom I could do this trip.

Driving to Vancouver Island is also something that we have never felt inclined to do. We’re not really road trip people. So we flew to Comox from Calgary.

SphereSpirit Sphere near Qualicum Beach

As this was no longer just my trip, we started looking for some extra things to do. She wanted to see if we could find the elusive white ravens in Qualicum Beach, an idea I was on board with, since we were already staying nearby in the Spirit Spheres for one night. We never found any, but it was fun wandering around forest trails in places they’d been spotted and photographed before.

On the other side of the island, the accommodation I’d booked in Ucluelet was fantastic and we were both quite happy at He-Tin-Kis Lodge. With an incredible view, it was a great place to wake up and come back to each day.

SalamandersSalamander Eggs in their gelatinous casing on Meares Island

Something I hadn’t planned on doing this week was sea kayaking in Clayoquot Sound out of Tofino. We added that when Shonna decided to come along. Quite a pleasant surprise as it was one of the highlights of the week. A four hour tour, we ended up on Meares Island walking along a rough looking boardwalk through an old growth forest among massive cedars and other natural wonders.

The next morning we ended up bear watching in Clayoquot Sound at low tide for a few hours. It gave me a ton of reference photos I hadn’t expected to get and was still a fun excursion for both of us. Seeing black bears in the wild, doing their thing on the beaches, oblivious to the silly tourists snapping shutters just meters away on boats was really quite special. We weren’t bothering them and they showed no sign that we were intruding on their day at the office.

ShonnaShonna looking for marine life in a tide pool.

Back in Ukee, we spent the afternoon hiking along the Wild Pacific Trail, looking at anemones and little crabs in the tide pools, snapping photos and enjoying the area. I’ve hiked the trail a few times before but enjoyed it most this time around. Pretty sure it was the company.

Finally, on our last full day in Ucluelet, we went out for a wildlife tour with Archipelago Wildlife Cruises through Barkley Sound and the Broken Group Islands. Five and a half hours on the water, we saw bears, eagles, grey whales, seals, sea lions, deer, raccoons and more birds than I can name.

I can’t say enough about this tour. Shonna and I took it on our first visit to the area in 2011. Then I went out with them three times on my artist retreat two years ago. This time around, I had planned to go twice but they were fully booked for most of the week and Thursday was the only day available. Had that not been the case, we would have missed out on the bear tour in Tofino, so it worked out very well.

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CalifSeaLion

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It sounds cliché, but if you’re ever out in that area and can only do one tour, Archipelago is the one to do. I could go on at great length about why, but trust me on this. There’s a reason they’re ranked the number one wildlife tour in Canada on Trip Advisor, and they don’t take it for granted. Al and Toddy are still working hard to make sure everybody has a great experience.

Having just come home from a great vacation, I would offer a bit of unsolicited advice. Figure out who you are and what you want from your limited time off. If your idea of a perfect vacation is camping in an RV with power and a swimming pool, then do that. If you’re more at home visiting theme parks, do that. If it’s Napa Valley vineyards, mountain biking in Moab or backpacking through Thailand with no reservations but the plane ticket, then do that.

Find the experiences in life that make you feel like you’re living it well. Stretch your limitations when you can, sure, but be who you are, too. This is a limited time experience, so make it your own.

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