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Write or Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That became a repetitive exercise in self-sabotage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I make my living in a profession synonymous with failure.

So why is writing different?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m just afraid it’s gonna suck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better to risk being a bad writer than a wannabe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

@LaMontagneArt
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Instagram? But you said…!

Late last month, I attended the Calgary Tattoo Show to support my friends at Electric Grizzly Tattoo, the shop I frequent here in Canmore.

I spend most of my working life alone, which can be unhealthy at times, so to have somewhere I can go to hang out with other working artists, commiserate on the bullshit inherent in this business of self-promotion, to decompress and share a few laughs, it’s a wonderful thing. Shonna still jokingly refers to it as my artist support group.

Add to that the constant flow of inspiration watching these people work, these past two years getting to know these artists has been all positive. One of the side benefits from hanging out at the shop is that I get to meet many of their clients as well. These folks are from all walks of life, with diverse backgrounds, from different places, who’ve had myriad experiences, with unique perspectives.

More than a few of them have become my clients, since my work is hanging in the shop as well.

The group discussions in that place have not only been enjoyable, but enlightening. Just recently, one client on one table used to work for CN Rail while another on the next table currently does oil pipeline maintenance. In the midst of a political maelstrom of promises, disinformation and the online outrage of the election, that was one of the most informative (and civil) discussions I’ve had about media spin and partisan politics vs. the reality of natural resource safety, economics and transportation.

It gave me a new perspective and further reinforced that the world isn’t black and white, and the truth in most things is only revealed in the subtle shades of grey.

I’ve met more open-minded and tolerant people at Electric Grizzly Tattoo than I have almost anywhere else in my life. Organized religion and the political party faithful could learn a lot from tattoo culture.

Back to the tattoo show…

I had considered getting a booth at this show to sell my work, with the encouragement of my friends in the business, but I’m glad it didn’t work out. With the pressure of the election, getting cartoons drawn and sent, what it would have involved with stock ordering, prep and prints, the expense of it all, it was too much. I still went to check it out to decide if I might do it next year.

It was a good plan. While I enjoyed the experience, it really wasn’t the right place to sell my stuff, despite all of the talented artists in attendance. It just wasn’t my audience and it was a much smaller show than the Calgary Expo.

One side benefit, however, is that I got to hang out with an incredibly talented landscape photographer I’ve met through the shop. Wes isn’t a photographer for a living, but his landscape photos are some of the best I’ve seen. Wes heads out to the mountains and takes road trips on a whim, regardless of weather, and captures incredibly beautiful scenes.

They’re surreal, moving, ethereal…basically just choose an adjective that says, “this guy’s work is unique.”

While standing in front of a stage for a good half hour, waiting for one of the many contest events at the show, Wes and I caught up. I showed him my latest stuff and he showed me his latest work and I realized how much I missed seeing it.

I left social media quite some time ago because it felt like I was spending more time promoting my paintings than creating them, without having much to show for the time invested. I got sucked into the culture that says you have to be constantly posting CONTENT, even when you have nothing to post, just so that the people who follow you will see you pop up in their feed every day, because the all-seeing, all-knowing algorithm says so.

The likes were never enough, the shares were never enough, and it just made me miserable. When you see some kid posting his lunch every day and he gets a million followers, you kind of wonder if you’re even in Kansas anymore.

I also dislike being on my phone.

But in my hiatus, I’ve realized a couple of things. One, the likes and shares will NEVER be enough. If I get 10,000, I’ll soon be shooting for 20,000, then 100,000, then…well, you get the idea.

The second thing I learned, which is more of a reminder, is that there is no rulebook for being an artist for a living, or for life in general. You just do your best, try to be a decent person, make your choices and see what happens. And you can change your mind.

While I’m confident that I’ve closed the book on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve been mulling over the idea of giving Instagram another shot because of something I didn’t anticipate when I left it in February.

Basically, I miss seeing the work of many artists I admire and that’s how they choose to share it. I’m missing out on seeing work that inspires me. As for my own posts, I’m simply going to share stuff when I have stuff to share, just like on this blog or in my newsletter. I won’t be creating content just to have stuff to post, nor will I be paying to promote anything, because that requires a business account and a Facebook profile in order to pay for it. I might post a painting, then nothing else for two weeks until the next one.

This will mean less people will see my posts, I’ll get fewer likes and shares, but honestly, that kind of thing rarely generated any revenue for me in the first place. When I left Instagram the first time, only a handful of those followers signed up for my newsletter as a result, which speaks volumes about how invested many of those nameless, faceless followers were really interested in seeing what came next.

Everybody talks a good game online.

An art career is constantly changing and when the wind shifts, you adjust your sails and try to hold course, waiting for it to inevitably shift again. Sometimes you seek safe harbour from the storm for a while, other times you stand on the deck shaking your fist, hands tied to the helm, daring the tempest to sink you.

Why do I like nautical metaphors so much? I don’t even sail!

If I find in six months that my first instincts about leaving Instagram were correct, well then I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.

I remain, as always, a work in progress.

Cheers,
Patrick
@LaMontagneArt
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Artist Q&A

From time to time, I’ll receive emails from art students or aspiring artists who have questions about my process or my road from there to here. I remember doing the same thing when I was first starting out. You never know when a kind word or tidbit of information might make a big difference, as it often did for me when more experienced artists took the time to respond to my own inquiries.
 
Hi Patrick!

My name is **** and I am a senior at UC Berkeley studying Biology and Art Practice – I stumbled upon your website while learning how to draw on my own Wacom tablet using photoshop!

I love drawing animals and the detail in all your work is truly stunning – I especially love the shine and depth of the eyes.
I was just wondering – what size canvas do you usually work with in Photoshop to have such high quality? Is all of your work on display digitally or have you ever printed them out for a physical show, etc.?

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions! I’d love to cite your work as some of my inspiration for my senior thesis.

 
Hi ****:
 
Thanks for the compliments about my artwork. I do enjoy creating my funny looking animal paintings. People often mention the eyes as being the part they like most about my work and I would agree. If I don’t get the eyes right, there’s just no life in them.
 

My digital process hasn’t really changed much over the years, even though it sprang from technology shortcomings. I begin a painting at 9″X12″ at 300ppi, or sometimes at 12″X16″. The reason is that I want to get the ‘bones’ of the work done before I work on the detail. A mistake amateurs often make is focusing on detail too soon. It’s a lesson I had to learn myself after much frustration. If the likeness or character isn’t right, painting in a ton of detail won’t fix it.

Once I have the general look right, painting the broad strokes, playing with different colour choices, experimenting with expressions, then I’ll bump up the size. Early on, I used to start with a smaller canvas because my computer and Photoshop would start to lag if I was trying make broad brush strokes on a big canvas. But these days, my hardware/software is plenty fast enough that I could start on a large canvas without any issues, but I still start small for the reasons mentioned above.
 
As I create more and more detail, I’ll bump up the size of the image. 12″X16″ becomes 15″X20″, 18″X24″, 21″X28″…until eventually I’ve been topping out lately at 30″X40″, so my Master files are very versatile for sizing, whatever the need. With each bump up in size, the detail ends up blurring a little, so I’ll sharpen sections as I go, by painting in more detail at that size. It adds to a layered look, especially on fur, which is how it looks in real life. That was initially just a happy accident, but it’s now a critical part of my process.
 
Most importantly, I save multiple versions of a painting as I go. While it’s rare that I experience a crash these days while painting, it was common enough in the early days that I risked losing whole paintings or files if I wasn’t expecting it. Again, it was because the technology couldn’t keep up with the demand I was placing on it. Photoshop would freeze and I’d have to do a reboot, sometimes losing the file in the process. I’ve also got into the habit of saving often, even have an Express Key on my Wacom tablet set so I can one-click it at any time. By the time a painting is done, I’ll have seven or eight working files in different stages of progress. That way, if the most recent file ever gets corrupted, I’ll have only lost two or three hours of work instead of ten or twelve. It still hurts, but not as much.
 
When a painting is done, the first thing I do is upload a Master file to Dropbox. I’ve also got multiple backups on external hard drives. Failing all off that, my licensees and printers have full-res files, so I’m confident my bases are covered. I’ve heard far too many stories from artists who have lost everything because of a failed hard drive at just the wrong time, sometimes years of work because they weren’t diligent in their backups.
 
As for the second question…
 
Because my work is licensed and I sell prints, I usually keep most of it to the same size and ratio. I personally hate buying a print for $25 and then having to spend $100 or more to frame it. So I keep my prints at a uniform size where frames can be easily bought off the shelf. The majority of my consumer prints are 11″X14″, an easy size to find. That helps with sales, too, because people are more likely to buy if they know it won’t cost them a fortune to frame it.
While my work looks best on canvas, I don’t print a lot of those these days, because they’re more of an investment both for me and my customers. They don’t move as fast as the paper prints so I end up hanging on to a lot of inventory. When I do print canvas, it’s usually 12″X16″, the sides are printed black and include hanging hardware on the back. This creates a free hanging look so people don’t have to frame it at all. Looks pretty sharp as is. Any canvas sales are usually done in person at a trade show I do each year, The Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, or by special order. From time to time, people will commission me to paint their pets and a canvas print is included. I don’t print large canvas very often because my type of art doesn’t usually define a big room, like a landscape or modern art piece does.
 
I once had a customer at a trade show tell me that they had two of my pieces in their bathroom. His wife gave him a light punch and said, “Don’t tell him they’re in the bathroom!”
 
To which I replied, “Hey, you had to buy them to hang them there.”
 
I’m under no delusion that my art will someday be in a book of great masters. The paintings make people happy, provide me with a good income, and that’s enough.
I consider myself a commercial artist. I make my living at it so I’ve got no dreams of having my work hang in a prestigious art gallery somewhere. I sell prints at zoos, online and at the occasional trade show. But the largest market for my animal art is through licensing. I’ve got over sixty paintings licensed globally through Art Licensing International. They act as my agent for a number of licenses, mostly for print on demand websites. I’ve also got my work licensed on T-shirts through Harlequin Nature Graphics and on a number of different retail products (magnets, coasters, trivets, art cards…) through Pacific Music and Art, both based on Vancouver Island. Those two licenses wholesale my work to retailers across Western Canada and in a number of States. It’s strange and gratifying to visit somewhere I’ve never been, walk into a gift store, and see my own work staring back at me from a rack or shelf.
The other half of my business is editorial cartooning. I’m nationally syndicated across Canada, providing daily editorial cartoons to many weekly and daily newspapers. I create a minimum of seven cartoons each week, often more, especially during elections. We’re in a federal election campaign right now in Canada.
 
It’s a tough balance sometimes. While both sides of my business involve artwork, they’re very different in theme and audience. There are plenty of people who know me as either an editorial cartoonist or a painter of whimsical wildlife, often unaware of the other work.
 
As is the case for most self-employed folks, it’s an ongoing challenge to adapt to the ever increasing pace of a changing market, but for the most part, it’s work I enjoy.
 
Good luck with your thesis and feel free to quote any parts of this email. Now that I’ve written this much, it occurs to me that this would make a good blog post, for anyone else who might have similar questions. Your name and details will be kept confidential, of course.
 
Cheers,
Patrick
 
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Tiger Trouble

It used to be that the happy afterglow of finishing a painting would last a day or two. These days, it’s usually a couple of hours, and then I’m thinking about the next piece.

On my latest white tiger painting, this piece felt ruined almost immediately after it was done. I found out some information about white tigers that changed everything about the painting.

The worst part was that I had recorded the process for Wacom. When you factor in camera setup, changing my office around, my painting routine,  writing and recording the narration, editing, all of that work on the painting, plus the time on the video, it all seemed about to be wasted.

Thankfully, my friend Pam at Wacom is great to work with, is very supportive and has an open mind. I offered to do another painting from scratch, but we decided to turn the whole situation into a teaching moment about art, ethics, and wildlife conservation.  Then my wife, Shonna offered a suggestion that allowed me to salvage the painting and turn it into something else.

The following video link not only shows my painting technique, the new Wacom Cintiq 16 display (which was a joy to work with) but explains the problem with white tigers and the solution that allowed me to save the painting.

Cheers,
Patrick


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Sasquatch

From time to time, my retail clients will offer up subject matter if their customers have asked for a specific animal or if it’s popular in a region where my work is sold.

That doesn’t mean they’ll end up being popular paintings,but I’m usually willing to take a chance, especially if I think it’ll make a good image. Some that come to mind are the Elk and Ground Squirrel paintings, suggested by the first gallery that sold my work in Banff. Neither of those paintings ended up being bestsellers, but to be honest, I’ve never liked my elk painting and will likely take another crack at one soon.

The Panda and Hippo were suggestions by the Calgary Zoo, the Beaver and Black Bear by the former owners of About Canada in Banff, and a few others were random suggestions by friends and customers.

Regular readers will know that I recently signed a license with Pacific Music and Art on Vancouver Island. So far, I’m pleased with how this relationship is progressing. The owner, Mike, had asked for an Orca during our initial conversations. That painting was already in the works, but I bumped it to the top of the list and finished it just over a week ago.

But when he asked for a Sasquatch, that gave me pause. I told him I’d never painted a mythical creature before.

He joked, “But is it?”

At least I think he was joking.

The Sasquatch, he explained, is a popular theme among his customers in Western Canada and he thought it would do quite well for me. The more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued by the idea. The whole challenge would be finding reference to paint from.

Of course, I couldn’t very well use the most popular photo in Bigfoot lore, the lumbering dark blurry shape with which we’re all familiar.My buddy Darrel has a theory that the reason nobody can get a clear shot of a Sasquatch is that they actually look blurry in real life. Who am I to argue?

I thought of doing a more animated pose in an elaborate forest scene, but this was supposed to look similar to my other whimsical wildlife portraits, so it’s the head and shoulders image where the expression and detail take center stage. While it’s nice to stretch boundaries and try new things, art for a living means you often have to paint commercial pieces as well.

Gathering the reference for this was a fun effort. I used a couple of dozen images with different subject matter. A few actors’ expressions and features were used as inspiration, including Ron Perlman, Kurt Russell, Vincent D’Onofrio and one stock photo of a random older man with a funny expression. I didn’t want any suggestion of the actual likeness of any of these people, however, so I just used their images for reference for eye wrinkles, skull structure, teeth and lips, and then exaggerated them all how I saw fit.

For animal reference, I used gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and grizzly bears, taking inspiration from each to create the facial structure,textures and hair.

And finally, I was well aware that the most famous Bigfoot characters in media are from Harry and the Hendersons , the Jack Link’s Sasquatch and even Chewbacca from Star Wars. I made conscious choices to deviate from their anatomy as much as I could so that I couldn’t be accused of copying those designs.

For example, both Harry and the Jack Link’s Sasquatch have prominent conical foreheads with dramatic receding hairlines. I deliberately structured the anatomy of mine to avoid that. What resulted was a bit of a salon hairstyle in my painting, but I think that just makes it funnier.

I also chose to paint in prominent white eyebrows, a higher cuter nose and frankly, impossible depth around the lower jaw. All in all, I’m pretty pleased with the result and it contributed a little more to my growth as an artist. Whether it will be a popular image, remains to be seen.

Here’s hoping the real Bigfoot isn’t an art critic.

Cheers,
Patrick

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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.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Sonora

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,
Patrick

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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.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Young and Hungry

YoungHungry

“…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

PatPainting
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.

Cheers,
Patrick