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Selling Out Selling Art

A student from the Alberta College of Art and Design recently asked to interview me for an assignment. I was happy to oblige. While in Calgary to drop off prints at the zoo and take some photos, I made time to meet her for coffee last week.

It got me thinking about the road traveled.

My first paying gig as an artist was as the editorial cartoonist for the Banff Crag & Canyon newspaper. I drew my first cartoon in May of ’98, so it’s been just over twenty years. I’ve been a full-time artist since 2006.

Over my career, it has always been easy to find resources in order to become a better artist. While I started with books and magazines, no matter what style of art you want to learn today, there are talented teachers on the internet willing to share their skills, often for a very reasonable price.

Google: “How do I learn to draw?”

While you can peruse countless lessons, videos, books, articles, buy all of the best materials, tools and hardware, unless you practice, you will never become good at anything.

People want the skills, but a relative few are willing to invest the countless lonely hours drawing and the years of bad artwork, most of which will be incredibly unsatisfying and unpaid. I have a hard time looking at my earlier work, but all of that led to all of this.

Creating art for fun can be a great hobby and escape. I’ve encountered many skilled artists with no designs on becoming pros. They are content to draw, paint, sculpt, or play simply for the joy of it, with no illusions.

As for me, I am a commercial artist. It’s how I make my living.

I’ve encountered plenty of artists over the years who’ve told me that I was selling out by selling art, that they wouldn’t dare sully their creative process by putting a dollar amount on it, that real art is made for creativity’s sake alone and not for financial compensation.

That’s bullshit.

I enjoy being an artist, but it’s my job, and just like any other. There are many necessary parts of my job that I do not enjoy.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had to reformat paintings to conform to multiple templates for a new licensing contract. Sixteen images had to be resized, cropped, and uploaded in eleven different formats each, many of which were uncomfortable compromises. Over two days, it took about fifteen hours, during which I still had to meet my daily editorial cartoon deadlines for my clients across Canada.

Prior to that, I was in contract negotiation with that company, back and forth, making changes to the wording, all amicable and professional, but time consuming.

On Sunday, I drew three cartoons to send out Monday because I spent that day reconciling my books for the past three months so that I could file my GST remittance with the government. The day after that was month end invoicing for all of my editorial cartoon clients across Canada.

And still, editorial cartoon deadlines had to be met.

Tomorrow afternoon, I have a meeting with the owner of the aforementioned company as he will be driving through town. If I’m sending mixed signals, let me clarify. The setup work and contract stuff was tedious, but the license itself is exciting and I’m looking forward to sharing the details very soon.

My point is that I have spent as much time this week on the administration and promotion of my art as I have creating art, and that art was all cartoons.

I’ve only squeezed in a couple of hours of painting in this week. That’s it. But I’m hoping to find time for it this weekend, which is why I still get up at 5am on Saturdays even though I don’t have a cartoon deadline that day.

I painted my first funny looking animal in 2009 as an experiment, to try something different that might end up being a more marketable print than the caricature portrait commissions I was doing. Ironic that it was looking to sell more art that led me to the work I enjoy most and a whole new product that changed my whole direction. Commercial art led me to photography as I knew I could paint better images if I took my own reference. It is unlikely I would have found either of those if I wasn’t trying to grow my business.

None of this is complaining, I assure you. Everybody has parts of their job they dislike. That’s why it’s called work.

Quite often over the years, I’ll get emails or questions from young artists asking me for advice on how to create art for a living, which I’m happy to answer.

They become less enthusiastic when I tell them the single most important thing they can do is learn the business of art. Bookkeeping, contracts, licensing, customer service, meet deadlines, keep regular hours, pay your taxes, stop wasting time on social media, be polite to your customers, under-promise and over-deliver. Be accountable and professional.

It’s tedious and you’ll spend all of that time wishing you were drawing or painting instead. You’ll make so many mistakes, but you’ll learn from them and be better for the lessons. Whenever I work with somebody new, especially when it comes to licensing, a voice in the back of my head is always asking, “How is this person trying to screw me?”

Cynical? Yes.

Appropriate? Absolutely.

People take advantage of artists because we not only allow it, we encourage it. Artists are the biggest pushovers around. We not only want you to like our work, we want you to like us, too. Here, just take it for free.

These days, I have enough experience that the warning signs are easier to spot, but I don’t imagine myself immune to more lessons down the road.

I have been screwed more than once in this business. I will get screwed again, but hopefully not in the same ways, because then I won’t have learned anything.

Most of the time, however, the person on the other end of a negotiation is fair, professional, accommodating and a pleasure to work with. But most of the people in your neighbourhood are probably nice, too, and yet you still lock your doors at night.

This business of art is always challenging and the learning is never over. It’s hard work, all the time, and it’s not for everybody.

Creating art is easy. Selling art? That’s the hard part.


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This past weekend, I finished another memorial commission for a little dog named Sonora. She passed away at the end of May this year.
Not the first time I’ve been commissioned by Donna, a freelance photographer in Connecticut. You can check out her work here. I painted her horse Mocha five years ago in my more whimsical style. It’s one of my favorite commission pieces and I’d love to paint more horses. She also made some horse reference available to me and I painted another of her horses, but not as detailed.
Donna was on vacation in Texas thirteen years ago and found this little pup at a rest stop in Sonora, nearly lifeless. She was only 4 or 5 weeks old. They couldn’t leave her and were going to find a rescue organization to take her.

Not hard to guess what actually happened, as often does in these cases. Sonora had already found her home.
When Donna commissioned me to paint her, she was having a hard time finding reference of her without the cataracts Sonora had developed in her senior years, but she wanted me to try and paint her with more youthful eyes. I agreed with her and we’re both pleased with the result. My goal is not to just recreate what I see in the reference, but to find the personality in these paintings, even when I’m not painting them with a caricature look like my whimsical wildlife paintings.
This painting will go to print soon, but it isn’t yet known on what surface. I had suggested the new acrylic print, but Donna said it doesn’t really go with her house, which is an important consideration when choosing the type of print. With plenty of options available, I’m sure we’ll come up with something that will be appropriate for Sonora’s portrait.

It’s always a privilege to be trusted with one of these memorial paintings, knowing that this will be part of how somebody remembers their furry family member for years to come.

Thanks for reading,

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Red Panda Totem

redpandatotemI’ve been gathering reference photos of red pandas for a few years now at The Calgary Zoo, and while I’ve taken plenty of shots, I never seemed to get the ones that felt right for this latest addition to my series. Like so many other Totem paintings in recent years, I knew it would happen when the time was right.

Earlier this summer, I was in a pretty deep funk. Down in the dumps, stressed out, pissed off at the world with a black cloud hanging over my head. This happens to me sometimes, but rarely in the summer and not for this long. Part of it stemmed from too many obligations and the pressure I was putting on myself to get more work done.

I was having frequent bad dreams. A few were downright nightmares from which I’d wake up startled and sweating. Shonna even had to wake me up a couple of times.

Even though I’m usually looking for any excuse to paint, I wasn’t at all interested in drawing, painting, writing or any creative work. It was just work to get done.

Then I had a rather surprising dream. In it, I was sitting on a couch, leaning on one end with my legs out over the rest of the cushions. It was in the middle of a deciduous forest in the fall. All of the leaves were yellow, plenty on the ground, a familiar setting. I was brooding about something, feeling low.

Suddenly, a red panda crawled up over the back of the couch, walked up my legs, and put his paws on my chest, very much like a cat or dog does. I picked him up, put him further down the couch past my feet and said something like, “not now, I’m busy.”

He did it again, walked over my legs, crawled up and started putting his face close to mine. I moved him again, saying, “I said not now! Later.”

Finally, on his third attempt, I sighed heavily, said something like, “fine,” and started rubbing my fingers in his fur. He nuzzled my neck, squirmed around happily, curled up against my chest and suddenly I felt better. I woke up in a good mood for the first morning in quite a long time.

Most of my dreams over the years have seemed rather random, easily picked apart on examination. “Oh, that element is from a movie I watched, that part is because I was doing my bookkeeping this morning, and I can blame that weirdness on the chili peppers I added to the pizza last night.”

But animal dreams have always had a unique feel, a quality I can’t quite define. They’re just different. For example, that fall forest setting has shown up a number of times in past dreams. I recall one in particular; many years ago where I dreamt of walking through the same forest and was surrounded by a dozen or more black bears. None of them were threatening; they were just there, doing their thing. This forest is always well lit, the leaves vibrant and the scene is filled with a diffuse and pleasant light. It’s always fall.

I can trace back my entire menagerie of animal paintings to one dream I had in Banff, long before I had ever painted anything, before I’d even drawn my first editorial cartoon. It only makes sense in hindsight, but the symbolism is unmistakable. I wrote it down the following morning and still have it. Dreams like these are the reason my paintings are called Totems.

redpandacloseIf all of this sounds flaky to you, that’s OK. I don’t need you to share my beliefs. We all seem to experience ‘the other’ in the manner that makes the most sense to us. We just need to pay attention.

Because I’ve followed animal symbolism for many years, and the same ones show up time and time again, I don’t always need to look them up anymore to know what each represents. When I do, I have a few different books that have served me well; most notably one by the late Ted Andrews called Animal Speak. I bought it in a mall in Anaheim in 1995, at a time when I was having frequent dreams about whales.

This is the first time, however that a red panda has shown up and it wasn’t in any of my books. When that happens, I can usually figure out the symbolism if I sit with it a while, but this one was easy, about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

I wasn’t making any time to play, and I’d forgotten why I chose this profession in the first place. I’m supposed to be freed by my artwork, not shackled by it. Sure, it’s work, but a lot of this stuff is supposed to be fun, too.

So I decided I might as well go through my reference and at least do a sketch painting of a red panda. Call it a thank you for the wake-up call, and I hoped it would help me climb out of the dark hole.

I found the right reference, came up with a pose and began to work on a sketch painting.  Very soon after starting it, I realized I was painting the Totem. Every day I worked on it, I felt a little better. Yesterday morning, I cranked up the tunes, spent a thoroughly enjoyable few hours finishing it, and it made me happy.

I guess that was the point.


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Young and Hungry


“…So my question to you is, do you have any advice, or tips, for a young artist who wants to make it a way of life? Especially without a degree under my belt.”

I often get questions from young and hungry creatives who want insight into becoming a professional artist. In this case, his focus is on writing. As I’d like to keep things anonymous, I’ve met (let’s call him Brian) a couple of times where my work and his job have crossed paths. It doesn’t matter that I don’t write for a living. Art is art.

There are plenty of ‘you can do it, Nicky!’ posts out there that say if you want it and wish hard enough, your dreams will come true. This isn’t one of those. Motivation is important, but so are reality checks.

I sent questions and emails to artists when I was young and hungry, too, and I always appreciated responses, so I try to pay that forward. The edited version of my response…

We’re all just winging it, Brian. I’ve never met an artist (writer, musician, photographer, creative type) who has it all figured out.

We’re all products of the talents we’ve been given, the drive to do something with them, the skills that come from constant practice and the backgrounds that put us in front of the right opportunities at the right time.

The only thing we can control is whether or not we recognize and take advantage of those opportunities.

I didn’t realize I wanted to create art for a living until my late twenties and it seemed to happen by accident. There was an ad in the Banff Crag and Canyon newspaper for an editorial cartoonist. Once a week, draw a cartoon on local politics and current events for $30. I was working at a hotel at the time and it seemed like an easy way to get some extra beer money, especially since nobody else applied. I had always been a doodler, but never went to art school, had no training and was simply willing to fail publicly.

I spent five years in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, I took Psychology in college and then was an Emergency Medical Technician who never worked for an actual ambulance service after my training. And I have no degree. At the time, I worked in tourism.

Those first cartoons were pitiful and took so many hours, but for three years I did it and never missed a deadline. Without even realizing it, I was putting in the practice time for what would become my career. When another local newspaper started up in 2001, they asked me to be their cartoonist.

One of the owners, who was the editor and is now a good friend, asked me why I wasn’t syndicated. She told me to start doing cartoons on national topics and just start sending them out to papers across Canada. For the first two years, I had two papers, each paying me $10 a week. It was pitiful. I was working so hard, evenings, early mornings before work, and weekends drawing cartoons and sending them out, getting almost no bites at all, while still working a full-time job to pay the bills.

I often thought of giving up. Hours and hours and hours drawing cartoons that never got published. And in hindsight, it was just more of the necessary practice it took to help me become the artist I am today. I just didn’t know it at the time. I felt taken advantage of and tremendously foolish, as if I was kidding myself to think that I could make a career of it.

When things finally started to click, however, it happened pretty quickly. I started getting more and more papers and a little over ten years ago, my wife and I had a serious discussion about my quitting the full-time job. I was 34 years old, but I felt like I was too old to be taking such a risk. I now know different. You can take risks at any age and nothing great ever comes without one.

But for each person, the sacrifice will be different, greater or less depending on your personal circumstances.

The only way I could quit my job was if my business could still pay half of our mortgage and bills. While those first two or three years were pretty damn lean, we managed, and these days I don’t have to refer to myself as a struggling artist.

I’ve had good advice from unexpected sources, bad advice from others. I’ve made mistakes that have cost me time and money, something that still happens occasionally but a whole hell of a lot less. I’ve planted and cultivated new ideas and pursuits that have withered and died on the vine. Other crops have flourished. My career has shifted from solely focused on editorial cartoons to including my paintings of whimsical wildlife. Each year that part of my business shows positive growth and I plan for that trend to continue.

But there’s no secret that only successful artists know. It’s the same requirement for anybody who wants to be self-employed in any field.

You have to work your ass off.

When your friends are going out partying on a Friday night, you have to consider that Saturday will be wasted if you’re hungover. Every leisure activity you do has to be reconsidered. You must sacrifice.

Those two years when I wasn’t getting any newspapers but was still working what seemed like a full-time job on top of a full-time job, I was giving up time with friends and family, I quit skiing because I could no longer afford it, we got by on one car and vacations were few and far between. We rarely went out for lunch or dinner.

I’ve heard stories of photographers who had to sell expensive lenses to pay the rent, writers who write all day and then go work night jobs while the only thing showing up in the mail is rejection after rejection after rejection, not to mention artists who paint on anything they can find because they can’t afford canvas or other materials.

I think that’s the universe’s way of making you prove how bad you want it. It’s an old cliché, but it applies…if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.

Paying the bills isn’t as hard as it used to be, but I still expect it to be all taken away tomorrow, by some unexpected calamity. It feels like I’m always living on borrowed time and I’m days away from having to go back and get a real job, even though I’m not. I am always working. Even when I’m camping or on vacation, I’m thinking about projects or cartoon ideas, following the news, etc. Success in self-employment means having to remind yourself to stop and smell the roses, but you’ll still only budget a small amount of time for it. I force myself to take afternoon hikes as often as possible just to stay healthy and get out of the office, but I’m still thinking about cartoon ideas and paintings while doing it.

That young guy in the picture above was not thinking about work that whole weekend. I guarantee it.

You want to be a writer? Write. All the time, even when you don’t feel like it. Waiting for inspiration is for independently wealthy trust fund babies. Success only comes to the creatives who treat their gifts like tools, just like a plumber, electrician, or other skilled trades-person. He or she worked hard for their expertise, artists have to as well.

Write about the dirt on the window, the dust on the desk, the clouds in the sky, that rude barista at Starbucks (wait, you can’t afford Starbucks anymore), the guy who cut you off in traffic, the ridiculousness of Apple iTunes agreements, the first blade of green grass you saw in the Spring. Just write!

Making a living at it isn’t for everybody. For some artists, the thought of soiling their talents with money and sales is as distasteful as dining on raw sewage. There’s nothing wrong with that. They can still create and have a job on the side to pay the bills. That works for a lot of people. Their creative pursuits are what make their job bearable.

So you have to decide what you want, and what you’re willing to give up to get it.

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What I Didn’t Know Then

Last week, I got an email from a fellow in Germany. He complimented me on my work, and asked, “Imagine you had a time machine and could meet the younger version of yourself. What would the number one advice be, in regards to art?”

My wife and I were making dinner at the time and I read the email to her off my phone. While Shonna is not an artist, she’s been on this ride with me since the beginning, and she knows what I know when it comes to this business.

We took turns rattling things off and within minutes came up with twenty or thirty different nuggets of truth and I wrote them all down on a scrap of paper.

Experience will always be the best teacher. If you’re an amateur artist looking for wisdom, you’ve got to earn it. But here is a small sampling from that list, some of the things I’ve learned so far.

1) Don’t work for exposure. When is the last time you saw an image, a logo, a website, design or anything creative and then thought, “I’m going to find that person and hire them.”

That’s what this type of client is promising. They want something for nothing and anybody they refer you to will want the same. I have worked for exposure more than once. I never will again.

2) Don’t work for spec. Spec work is often disguised as a contest, a call for entries or an audition piece. It often means a company asks many people to submit designs and the winner gets prizes or prize money. The company then owns whatever the winner created and gets it at a fraction of a cost they would have had to pay a professional. The company usually owns everything else submitted to the contest as well.

Spec work is for suckers. Work disguised as a contest is for suckers. I have been that sucker, more than once, and it feels dirty.

3) Don’t try to be everything to everybody. Don’t follow trends. Don’t copy someone else’s success. It just won’t work. Unless you have the exact same background as that person, started from the same place, with the same opportunities, jumped the same hurdles, had the same skills, influences, inspirations, environment, training, experiences, talent or luck, you will not duplicate another person’s success. You can still BE a success, but it’ll be YOUR success, not a poor copy. By trying to mimic another artist or ride his coattails, you are depriving yourself of discovering your own niche or voice.

Learn from everybody. Copy nobody.

4) Figure out the difference between trolls, constructive criticism and just plain bad advice. There will always be those who tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Some of them will be competitors who are threatened by you or other artists that are just plain jealous. The view has always been clearest from the cheap seats. People that never try will criticize those who do. Social media often seems to be based entirely on that premise.

Some people are genuinely supportive, want to help you, want to see you succeed and have nothing but the best of intentions. If they aren’t in your business, however, don’t know what’s involved, haven’t got more experience than you, or just don’t know what your goals are, you need to find a way to smile and say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Good people with good intentions can still give bad advice.

5) Do what you love for a living and you’ll never work a day in your life.

That is one large steaming pile of manure.

Turning your art into a business may ruin everything you love about art. You can live a satisfying creative life without ever making it your livelihood.

I’ve been self-employed full-time for over a decade now. I haven’t been a struggling artist for many years and I’m making a good living at it. The mortgage gets paid; we’re not living in debt, and have never borrowed money from our parents. And while I take nothing for granted, I haven’t had to worry about getting a real job for years.

But every day I draw something I don’t want to. Sometimes I spend my whole week drawing things I don’t want to. This is not a complaint. This was a choice. I still make my own schedule. I get to go for my hikes in the afternoon, grab some time to take photos at the zoo and myriad other activities and diversions I wouldn’t get to enjoy if I had to report to a desk during specific hours assigned by somebody else. And I’m still drawing every day, which means I’m getting better at it every day.

I work longer hours for myself than I ever did for anybody else, very early mornings, evenings, weekends, statutory holidays and have done so for twenty years. I don’t know how to live any other way now. Art for a living is hard work.

You must invoice, keep your books and accounting in order, pay your taxes first and yourself last. You need a website, social media, keep up on industry news and advances. You need to contact clients, sell whatever you produce, figure out what works, what doesn’t, read articles, read books, make phone calls. When an invoice isn’t paid, you have to track it down. When equipment breaks down, you have to pay to fix it, when your internet crashes; you have to call your provider. There is no I.T. department, no human resources, and often no immediate help in a crisis. You must make time for training and improving your skills. I could write a thousand more words without once mentioning creating anything.

All of this is time away from doing the actual work you need to do in order to get paid. I’m writing this post, I’m not getting paid. That’s OK. This sort of thing has become a small part of my brand and I enjoy writing. It is good practice, too, and a little payment forward.

Honestly, I didn’t think much about whether or not I should turn my love of drawing and painting into a business, I just ended up doing it. But we never had kids and my wife told me in no uncertain terms that she could not support us both. Not in Canmore, Alberta where the paradise tax is high. The minute I couldn’t pay my half of the bills, I had to get a job, an ultimatum to which I agreed.

This business was part-time for ten years before it was full-time. Had I tried to do it too early, I might not be doing it today. Most of the things I thought I wanted, I’m glad I didn’t get, like a full-time job with a daily newspaper, which would have meant being laid off by now. Timing matters and that leap of faith is frightening, because you have to burn a lot of security when you jump. While it was pretty tight those first couple of years, I have no regrets and can’t imagine doing anything else.

As for the best advice I would give my younger self if I had the opportunity?

He did just fine without it.


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Gorilla Totem

GorillaTotemFinalHere’s my latest painting and newest addition to the Totem series.

I started this at the end of October but didn’t get far on it, as I had pet portrait commissions and editorial cartoons taking priority. The bulk of that logjam was cleared last week and I was happy to get back to working on one of my own paintings. As much as I welcome and enjoy commission work, my own work has a lot more freedom to it, as there are no client instructions or details to keep in mind.

If I had nothing else to do, I’m pretty sure I could get one of these done in a couple of days. In fact, I’d love to have a year with nothing to do but paint the animals I enjoy most. But, I guess that’s everybody’s dream, isn’t it? No obligations but the bills still paid would certainly be the ideal. That’s likely why so many hope for retirement one day.

On that front, I often think of one of my favorite artists, Drew Struzan, who has painted some of the most iconic movie art of our time. If memory serves, he has tried to retire a few times, but he keeps doing work when his favorite clients come to call, if he feels like it. I like that. I don’t run well on idle and likely won’t ever retire. I’ll just paint what I like.

GorillaTotemCloseI took a lot of reference photos this year, some in the wild, but most at The Calgary Zoo and Discovery Wildlife Park. Some of the shots were sought out for upcoming paintings, others were happy accidents where an opportunity presented itself and I got the photos I needed. This Gorilla Totem is the result of the latter.

Had I planned ahead for this painting, I might have chosen the classic Silverback to paint. An imposing figure with great presence, I’ve no doubt I would have been pleased with the result. But this lady was looking at me through the glass one day and when I brought the camera up, she appeared even more interested. Whether it was her own reflection in the lens or mere curiosity, I happily snapped away until she moved on. The glass was dirty and at an odd angle, the light was poor with annoying reflections, but I managed, and was pleasantly surprised with the results.
GorillaTotem13HDI’ve said before that I might hang on to reference for some time before getting around to painting an animal, waiting for the moment to seem right. That’s why I chose the gorilla over others currently waiting in the wings. It was just the right time. This was painted on the Wacom Cintiq 13HD, 24HD in Adobe Photoshop CC, with photos only used for reference.

Starting another Totem today as there are a few I’d like to get done before the end of the year.

Thanks for stopping by.

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My latest painting, a lion cub named Zendaya.

At the end of May, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a couple of lion cubs at Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail. It’s a wonderful place I’d driven by on many an occasion but had never made the time to stop in.

I’m wary of supporting zoos if they don’t have a mandate or reputation for existing for the right reasons and for treating the animals well, so I did a little research before attending. I was pleased with what I found out and if you’re curious, I’d encourage you to visit their site to read a little about the work they do.

I’ve been fortunate to enjoy the generosity of many of my photographer friends who’ve been willing to let me use their images for reference on a number of my paintings. Some of my most popular pieces wouldn’t have been possible without their assistance. In other cases, I’ve purchased stock photos online. The common thread in both of those options is trying to find the right photos to work with that will get me close to the vision I see in my head. Often, I find that even though the photos might be excellent, I’m working with what I’ve got and have to settle a little. This should in no way be seen as a criticism of the photographs, just a missing element, namely my own experience with the animal I’m painting.

In recent years, I’ve been taking my own reference pics and that has quickly become the preferred option. Having won a high end camera along with my Best in Show Award at Photoshop World last year, I’ve been working to become a better photographer. Between that camera and the one I already had, each with their own uses, more and more often I’m using my own reference pics for paintings.

Discovery Wildlife Park offers behind-the-scenes experiences with some of their animals, under the vigilant supervision of their keepers. This year, with the arrival of two lion cub siblings, they offered an opportunity for very small groups of people to get up close and personal with the cubs, for an additional fee, as would be expected. This will only last as long as the cubs are enjoying it and while they’re small enough that it doesn’t expose guests to any risk.
LoungingTwo trainers, two other guests and I were brought into an area outside of the cubs’ main enclosure, but still in a controlled area. The two cubs were each brought out on a leash by a trainer. Initially, the female, Zendaya, the subject of this painting, didn’t seem to want to come out and be sociable and they had told us earlier that it was up to the cubs. If they didn’t feel like participating, they wouldn’t be forced. I quite liked that.
CubCuddleGriffin, the boy, seemed to love the attention and exploring outside of his enclosure. He was also clearly enjoying the physical interaction with the keeper and there was an obvious bond there. When Zendaya finally decided she was missing out on her brother’s fun, she wanted to come out as well and was just as affectionate with her keeper.
WalkWe had plenty of opportunity to ask questions and for much of the time; I was within arm’s reach of either cub. When the keeper felt that one of the cubs was relaxed enough, we were allowed to touch them, specifically told to keep our hands away from their heads as they didn’t know us. I was allowed to take plenty of pictures and the whole experience was a real thrill.

When I got home, I had so many great shots to choose from, I knew I was going to paint one of the cubs and will very likely paint the other in the near future. I’m also planning to return to the Park very soon to get some more photos of the other animals for similar painting reference. They have a very cooperative beaver there that I’m dying to get some good shots of as I’ve wanted to paint one for a while.
ZendayaCloseI had initially intended this first lion cub piece to be more of a sketch painting, but the more I worked on it, the less I wanted to stop, so I carried it through to a completion. I’m very happy with the result and I’m looking forward to seeing it on canvas.

This was my first painting done with the recent upgrade of Photoshop CC 2015 and it worked flawlessly. As usual, no photos or textures are used in the actual painting, just for reference. Everything is brush work, using both the Wacom Cintiq 13HD and the Cintiq 24HD displays.

Thanks for reading.

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Out Among the Living

IMGP5319The key to being creative is to find a way to break out of your routine.  By staying where you are, by taking comfort in the walls you build around you, you don’t free your mind, you enslave it.

Working at home, I feel safe.  This is my domain, the place I own and control, even if it’s only an illusion.  I can turn off the phone, close the blinds, lock the doors, and cut myself off from the world.  In that environment, I can create in complete solitude and safety, uninterrupted, exploring my imagination.  And I like that.  Most of the time, it works for me, especially when the goal is to get work done.

But even though silence and isolation can bring peace to a busy mind, allowing the elusive quiet thoughts to be heard and explored, imagination needs stimulation, too.  For that, one needs to go out into the world.

Draw from life.  I’ve heard that so many times from so many artists that I can’t even give credit to any one person.  If you ask me to draw a tree, a dog, a building, a lamppost or anything else, you’ll probably get a rendering that will look pretty much like what you ordered.  Everybody knows what a tree looks like.  But no two trees are the same.  The only way to see that is to go look at them.

Draw from life.  That means going out among the living.

I like coffee shops, especially ones with corner booths or seats.  If I can put my back to the wall, make myself small, become unremarkable and unnoticed, then I can sketch people as they go about their business, natural and unaware.  Propped up on elbows, heads in hands distorting faces, scowls or smiles while they read, backs hunched, faces quiet in thought, legs crossed or up on chairs, heavy sighs, changing positions, settling out of their routine.  No posturing.  No posing.  Just there.  That’s life.

Shopping malls, especially in the food court.  Up high, looking down on the unsuspecting masses walking by.  On a bench removed from the crowds, but still on the periphery, able to observe without being observed.  Laughing, talking, tired, driven, meandering, texting,  kids tugging on parents, parents clinging to that last nerve, couples holding hands,  husbands sitting on benches looking bored as they wait for their wives to come out of a store.   Sketches have to be quick in a mall.  People don’t stand still for long.  It’s all about catching the feel of what you’re looking at, not so much the details of every fold of clothing, every wisp of hair, but the shapes and structure, the lights and darks, the hard lines.  You see them, take a mental snapshot, sketch and they’re gone.

Airports are wonderful.  People are just waiting and most often they don’t really want to be there.  No matter what people say about the journey vs. the destination, few people enjoy killing time in airports.  But they sit, they stand, they drink coffee, they read, they doze off, they browse in little shops for things they don’t need and they watch the time.  And artists draw them.

Parks, lakes, hiking trails, campgrounds, people hold themselves differently in natural places.  A little less rigid, time to think.  You’re less likely to see them texting or talking on their phones, at least you hope so.  Ties and collars loosened, jackets open.  Bagged lunches open on a picnic table, eyes a little glassy.  Heavy sighs releasing the tension, enjoying the sunshine.   Throwing a ball for the dog.   Arm draped over a bench, legs crossed.  Lying on blankets.  People use natural places to escape, sometimes only for a few minutes.  But it’s better than nothing.

I like zoos, too.  Where else do you get to see animals from the other side of the world?  A lion basking in the sunshine, his face suddenly erupting in a yawn as he falls over for a nap.  There’s a feel to that scene you don’t see in a photo and it helps to sketch that live, in person, breathing the same air and trying to share the same feeling.

My buddy has a cabin in British Columbia.  For years, he has allowed his friends to use it and it never fails to inspire me, even if sometimes I don’t realize it until after I’ve returned home.  Up in the woods, rustic and most importantly, quiet.    Little curiosities and knick knacks adorn the place, gifts left by guests, photos tucked into mirrors, half melted candles stuck into wine bottles that were probably opened and enjoyed in that very place many years ago.  I love being there because it’s a change of scenery and it’s peaceful.  When I draw there, it’s almost always something different than I would draw at home.  So a change of scene is sometimes all that’s required to reveal those hidden creative alleyways and roads less traveled.

I’m rarely without a sketchbook. Many times it may stay in my pack or in the car, but too many times to count, I’ve been able to steal five minutes in one place or another to draw what I see.   It’s just not the same thing to snap a photo with a smart phone.  Later, when you download the photo and try to sketch it, you won’t be able to put yourself back into the place, and feel what you felt that compelled you to take the photo in the first place.  You might come close, but it won’t be the same.

The trick to drawing from life is to try to be removed from the scene.  If the person you’re sketching sees you and has even the slightest inkling that you’re focused on them, they will change and you will have lost the natural posture that drew your attention in the first place.   When that happens, move on.  The moment is gone, but another is close by.

Sketching is practice and need not be shown to anyone else, and it certainly doesn’t need to be finished.  Different perspectives, capturing moments, opening yourself up to possibilities you might not have considered.  You can’t do that by existing in the same place day after day.  It’s not always easy.  I’m just as guilty as the next guy of being too busy to take an hour or two to just sketch.   It takes effort to change habits, and if at first you don’t succeed.  Well, you know.

Gestures, sketches, drawings, paintings.  All of these can be done in the studio.  But if the studio doesn’t change or grow, neither will your art.

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Fear and loathing of photo-painting

Anybody who knows me in professional circles knows that I’ve never been a fan of photo-painting.  While I don’t go out of my way to rant and rave about it, I’ve been pretty clear that I don’t like the practice of painting on top of a photo, that I’ve always felt it had a cheat quality to it, very much like paint by numbers.  I’ve had to bite my tongue and hold my anger in check whenever somebody has suggested that my paintings are just photos that I’ve painted over or manipulated.  It happens often enough that I have a chip on my shoulder about it.

I’ve always felt that if you’re going to learn how to use paint brushes in Photoshop, how to make them work for you, why not go all the way and just start with a blank canvas?  Use the photo for reference, but don’t go sampling the colours and painting on top of it.  I’ve pretty much dismissed it as something not worth my attention, resigning myself to loathing the practice, and making a concerted effort to ignore it.  People are going to do it, regardless of what I think, so why bother wasting my energy on it?

Now, I’ll admit to thinking twice (three, four times) about writing this piece, because it reveals flaws in my character.  While we all have them, of course, most of us don’t like to out ourselves when it comes to the things we keep hidden under the image we like to project.  But, there is rarely an opportunity to grow when you lie to yourself and as someone who follows the antics of politicians for a living, I can only stomach so much hypocrisy without pointing a finger at it, even when it comes to my own.

This week, I had occasion to throw open the door to my feelings on photo-painting for three reasons, all of which were revealed through posts on social media.

The first, was a link posted by a friend, an article by a vegetarian who had to deal with some of her ‘friends’ shunning her when she chose not to eat meat anymore, even though she wasn’t expecting them to do so as well.  I went looking for the article to include here, but I couldn’t find it.  Suffice it to say, it spoke a lot about our innate fear of change and how often the things we hate (strong word, there) are things we fear.

The second, was a piece written by Sam Spratt,  a guest on Scott Kelby’s blog this week.  While I enjoyed the whole blog entry about his thoughts on digital painting, the part that resonated most with me, was about artists who fear technology and how people skilled in one medium will often look down on those who work in a different medium.  I’ve talked about the latter myself in previous blog entries.

Third, and finally, Russell Brown, one of the pioneers of Photoshop and somebody who continues to look for new ways to push the technological and creative envelopes, revealed an add-on extension for Photoshop called the “Adobe Painting Assistant Panel” which is designed to help turn photos into paintings.  To be clear, I have nothing but the utmost respect for Russell.  In fact, I even painted his portrait recently.

I’ll admit that if somebody ever told me that I feared technology, I’d be taken aback.  My tools of the trade are all about technology.  Photoshop, Wacom tablets, my computer, laptop, painting on the iPad, I am a digital artist.   But after being exposed to those three sources this week, I began to ask myself, “Is it possible that I might be afraid of technology?”

The answer, it turns out, is No.  It’s not technology that I’m afraid of.  What I am afraid of, is obsolescence.

I know a lot of photographers who lament the fact that anybody can buy a DSLR camera these days, set it on automatic, take a photo and call themselves a photographer.  If you go looking for them, you’ll have no trouble finding MANY discussions online, often heated, that complain about people who are being hired to shoot weddings, portraits, and events, who are mediocre at the craft, essentially taking money away from ‘real’ photographers.

This is clearly a case of anger motivated by fear.  If the paying public can’t tell the difference between somebody with a point-and-shoot and a dedicated professional photographer, then how is anybody expected to continue making a living at it?

I’m not a photographer, so whenever I see this fear being played out in arguments and discussions, it’s pretty easy for me to see what’s going on.  It’s easy for me to pass judgment.

And yet, I didn’t see it in myself until just this week.

The reason I don’t like photo-painting is because I’m afraid that the paying public can’t see a difference between painting over a photo and the work that I have devoted years of my life to becoming skilled at.

That wasn’t easy to admit.  In fact, it’s downright humbling.

I’ve also realized that the same thing applies to how I feel about similar practices playing out in editorial cartooning.  I’ve seen competitors take a photo they found on the net, apply a few filters to it, slap on a caption and it gets published in a major daily newspaper.  This is happening quite often these days and I’ll admit to being pretty angry about it, upset that they were cheating.  The reality is that I’ve been afraid that if that’s all it takes to get published, then anybody can call themselves a cartoonist and they won’t need me, that the time I spend drawing is wasted, because some editors just don’t see the difference, or they don’t care.

My wife, Shonna, always a sobering voice in discussions where my emotions get the best of me, spelled it out quite well when I broached the subject with her this week, about my realized fear of photo-painting.

While I can’t recall her exact words, she basically suggested that it doesn’t matter how somebody creates their work.  If they take a photo, apply a few filters to it and call it a painting, it doesn’t really affect me at all.  They still have to sell it.

That was my moment of clarity in all of this and what will finally enable me to put it behind me.

Art isn’t about how it’s done.  Art is about how you feel when you experience it.  That applies to photography, sculpture, painting, music, performance, etc.  If you take a photo-painting that somebody has done and put it beside one of my paintings, the viewer most likely won’t care how it was created.  They’re just going to care if they like it or not.  If both pieces are for sale, they’re going to buy it based solely on that.  That’s how it has always been with art.

Some people really like my whimsical animal paintings and some don’t like them at all.  Some people buy them, some people don’t.  The fact that there are folks out there painting on top of a photo in Photoshop doesn’t change that in the slightest.

I’m still afraid of obsolescence.  I can freely admit it.  But I can use that, because fear is a great motivator.  It makes me try harder and scramble, eagerly seeking out opportunities to further my business and to ensure that I remain self-employed doing what I love to do.  While I have no intention of doing any photo-painting myself,  I’ve decided to no longer fear it.   As a consequence of that, I choose to no longer despise it, either.  It’s just another method for creative people to express themselves and that’s a good thing.  That’s art.

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Whose life are you living?

Art is a weird job.  Whether you’re a musician, painter, photographer or any other professional in a creative field, your job is largely going to be one where you’re flying by the seat of your pants.  When you’re first starting out, you spend a lot of time looking to the people who’ve come before you to see how they got where they were going and that’s a good thing.  Most success stories start that way.  If you’re lucky, as I have been, you’ll find a few mentors along the way, people who might see your potential and give you a helping hand.  It’s important to listen to those people because they just may save you from making some mistakes.  Oh, you’ll still make lots of mistakes, but if you’re smart, you’ll skip a few, too.

While you’ll always have something to learn as an artist, eventually it’ll dawn on you that you’re no longer a student.  You’ll start to realize that not only are you really uncomfortable at the kids table, but you’ve felt that way for some time.  Getting up from that table will be uncomfortable as well, because you may not be sure that you’re entitled to.  There are some who may turn to look at you with distrust and stern expressions when you do so.  Resist the urge to sit back down.

Deferring to your elders will eventually reveal itself to be a double edged sword.  While their experience and expertise should be respected and admired, their course is not your course, and in an artistic career, modeling yourself after someone else’s successful career will not propel you forward.  It will, in fact, keep you prisoner.  At some point, you’ll begin to realize that what worked for somebody else is not going to work for you, based on nothing more than your gut instinct and the knowledge gained from your own experience.  Chances are that some who’ve come before you won’t see what you see, and they’ll tell you that you’re doing it wrong.  Some will even resent you for your audacity.  To move forward, you have to learn to make peace with that and hopefully won’t turn around to see smoke rising from any bridges behind you.

We get caught up in following every little trend and bit of advice, flailing about to hop onto the coattails of others because they may appear to be more successful, and we feel that if they’re doing it, it must be right, even if everything in our being tells us its wrong for our own path.  Successful people don’t become so by copying someone else’s dance steps.  Photographers that try to be Annie Liebowitz, painters that try to mimic Van Gogh, and actors that pattern themselves after Tom Hanks are eventually going to realize they have no identity of their own and that their life’s work is a poor copy.

Learn from your predecessors, evaluate their methods, and admire their successes, but be yourself.   Someone else’s judgment should not supersede your own, simply because they appear to be more successful or have had a longer career.  If you only get this one go round, and you’re fortunate enough to be able to do so as an artist, don’t waste it living someone else’s life.