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Bear Wonder

I’m not big on tradition, but I came up with an idea for one on New Year’s Day.

To start the year off on the right foot, I decided to get up early as usual and begin a new painting. Looking through my reference pic library, I came up with quite a few that would be good subjects, but none felt right for the first one of the year.

I kept coming back to the Berkley folder, containing hundreds of photos. Part of me thought that I should paint something else since I’ve painted her six times already.

But who am I kidding? I could paint her many more times without getting tired of it. And for those who aren’t as enamoured with bears as I am, especially THIS bear, I’ll get to other animals soon enough.

Since the world often seems like it’s going to hell in a handcart these days (it’s really not, you know), starting the year off with a painting of Berkley seems like a tradition I can wrap my head and heart around. She always makes me happy.

She’s in deep sleep hibernation right now, but I’m looking forward to seeing her again in the spring, to take new photos to add to the library.

For the artists and technical folks, the full-size file is 40”x30” at 300ppi, painted in Photoshop on a Wacom Cintiq 24HD. No photos are ever part of my art; it’s all brushwork. As for how long it took to paint, as people always ask, I have no idea. I’m working on other stuff in the same period I’m working on a painting. More than 10 hours, less than 20, that seems like a reasonable guess.

Prints will be available soon.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
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Roar

This painting began on the iPad in procreate as a sketch exercise. Playtime, if you will. I liked where it was heading, however, so I brought it into Photoshop and continued painting at a larger size. A departure from my style, but it was a fun experiment.

I called it ‘Roar’ but bears don’t really roar. They might make loud noises from time to time, but not the kind you hear in movies. That’s all Hollywood magic, the roaring sound added in editing.

Whenever I go to Discovery Wildlife Park, I usually watch the bear show, even though I’ve seen it quite a few times.

The bear show is kind of a misnomer and a big head fake. While people think they’re coming to see the bears just do a few tricks, they’re actually there for an education. The keepers use the opportunity to talk to people about bears in the wild.

Involving everything from how to tell a black bear from a grizzly, what to do when you happen upon either animal and how best to avoid any negative encounters, especially when camping or hiking. They also explain that the reason bears become orphaned in the first place (like all of the bears they care for) is most often a consequence of their encounters with people. By getting too close, directly feeding them, or leaving food out for them to find, we teach them bad behaviours that are difficult to break.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Park, you might think that having the bears do tricks is kind of cruel, like they’re in a circus or something. The reality is the opposite. It would be cruel NOT to teach them, as this keeps them active. It’s called enrichment.

In the wild, animals have three big priorities…finding food, procreating and avoiding predators, each requiring large expenditures of energy and attention.

The animals at Discovery Wildlife Park aren’t driven by the same priorities. They receive a well balanced diet of healthy food, have no concerns with predators, and they’re not being actively bred.

So the tricks, for lack of a better word, are designed to keep their minds working. It gives them problems to solve, tasks to complete, and they actively participate, all with positive reinforcement. There is no punishment for failing to do a trick. They can just walk away if they don’t feel like it.

One of the challenges for the keepers is coming up with new and interesting things to teach the animals. They’re so smart (the animals, not the keepers…wait, that didn’t come out right) that they learn things very fast and it becomes too easy for them. Some of the tricks serve double purpose, too.

By learning to present their paws, blood can be drawn without having to sedate them. They can also check their claws to see if there is any damage in need of intervention. They will urinate on command for samples, step up onto scales for weighing and a number of other behaviours designed to ensure they stay healthy.

One of the tricks the bears are taught at Discovery Wildlife Park is to “Be scary!”

Not only is it a standard trick of actor bears, it gives the keepers an opportunity for a dental inspection. A number of their animals have needed dental intervention, just like your own pet.

I find the “Be Scary” trick especially amusing, because I was there a couple of years ago when Berkley was just learning it and her scary bear was pathetic. If you’d like to see it, the video is available here, about the 1:15 and 3:25 marks. She now does a very impressive scary bear impression, gets her treat and then instantly reverts back to her regular adorable self.

This painting, however, is Gruff. He was raised at the park and his scary bear is top notch. Gruff is one of my favorite bears. As you can see below, I’ve painted him as a cub and as an adult, and have painted a number of roughs of him as well.

When he was first surrendered to the park, Serena wasn’t sure she could save him. He was pretty far gone, having been mistreated by a number of people who had initially found him as a cub, then traded him around. But thanks to Discovery Wildlife Park’s excellent care, he has become a wonderful gentle six-year old bear with a great personality.

On a recent visit to the park, I was invited to step inside the outer enclosure fence while the keepers and bears did the show. Sitting on a log beside one of the other keepers, I managed to get some very nice photos of the black bears, including the reference for this one.
As you can see, the painting is intentionally rough. A loose, large stroke style, with plenty of artifacts, errant brush strokes and I got creative with an analogous colour scheme. Each time I found myself starting to focus on painting finer detail, I forced myself to stop, erring instead on the side of discovery.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Continuing Crisis of Conscience

My friend Derek and I went for a morning drive up Highway 40 into Kananaskis last week. It was raining, grey and while we were initially headed up to the Highwood Pass to take pictures of the pikas, we were also keeping our eyes peeled for anything else we might find, especially bears.

Derek is an incredibly skilled painter and tattoo artist, the owner of Electric Grizzly Tattoo here in Canmore. His photography skills are pretty tight as well, so when it comes to art, we have a lot in common.

We never made it up to the Pass because it started to snow quite heavily as we gained elevation, but it was a quiet morning, very little traffic and we saw quite a few bears. Seven grizzlies and a black bear.

While we both got some very nice pictures, a few I can even paint from, the whole experience was tainted by my ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ guilt over taking the photos in the first place.
One of the most difficult parts of painting wildlife, even in my whimsical wildlife style, is the gathering of reference. Before I became proficient with a camera, I would often borrow from generous photographer friends or buy stock photos. I still do buy reference from time to time when taking the shots myself would just be unrealistic. For example, my recent underwater painting of an Orca would require a drastic lifestyle change and a lottery win to be able to gather those shots.

I’ve taken plenty of photos at Discovery Wildlife Park and at the Calgary Zoo, many of which have resulted in finished paintings. But even though I’ve made peace with the fact that both of those facilities are doing their best to aid in conservation and that the animals are receiving the best care possible, they’re still captive animals. My support of those places has drawn some criticism and I accept that. I still believe in both places and their best intentions, for lack of a perfect solution.

What many fail to understand is that when they say animals should be left to be free in the wild; there are very few places in the world where that’s still possible. Outside of national and provincial parks, sanctuaries and wildlife reserves, most animals are at constant risk from the most dangerous predator around. Us.

My friend, Serena, head keeper at Discovery Wildlife Park, is one of the most knowledgeable people I know when it comes to bears and other wildlife. She’s big on leaving bears alone in the wild, that pulling over in your car introduces people smells and habituation risks to bears, even in parks where they’re protected. Part of their bear presentation twice a day at the park is all about educating people on being bear aware in the wild, including being a responsible tourist.

Having lived in and near Canada’s most famous national park for the past twenty-five years, I’ve seen firsthand what happens when tourists forget themselves, and close in like a mob on a grizzly bear, in order to snap that pic for Facebook. If the bear defends itself, or becomes too used to humans, they sometimes have to shoot the bear.

Apparently shooting tourists is frowned upon.

I spend most of my life feeling guilty for my choices. Even with the best of intentions, trying to be an advocate for wildlife protection AND making a good chunk of my living painting whimsical wildlife portraits, there doesn’t seem to be a good answer to where I should get my reference. If I were a wildlife photographer, it would be even harder.

If I take the photos of a captive animal, no matter how well cared for or considering their circumstances, I’m a bad person for supporting that practice. If I take photos in the wild or in parks, well I’m a bad person for stopping to get a photo, even if I’m trying to minimize my impact on the animal.
Derek and I did our best to be responsible, as we always do. We both had long lenses, so we parked a good distance from all of the bears we encountered. We stayed in my car, either taking shots from our windows or out the sunroof. We were careful to limit our time with the bears we encountered, even though we would have liked to have stayed all day, especially near the grizzly and her cubs.

We even justified those pics because on the other side of those trees behind them is a campground with plenty of people smells already there. And Parks was on scene monitoring them.

That still feels hypocritical, telling myself whatever I need to, in order to justify the shots.
Basically, there is no right answer because everybody has their own opinion and judging others by the most rigid standards of hyper morality is at the core of being human. We compare our own best traits to the worst traits in others, convinced we’re better than most. (see: social media)

If another driver fails to signal a turn, they’re a stupid asshole, deserving of a long blast on the horn, shouting and obscene finger gestures. If we fail to signal, however, well we’re only human and it was an innocent mistake. Get over it.

Think on that, next time you’re in traffic.

I will continue to wrestle with this moral dilemma, convinced there is no answer that will please everyone. Just like my artwork, I am a work in progress.

Take care,
Patrick
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Sleepy Bear

It was tough to call this one finished as I was really enjoying it, especially over the last few days. I started it in the middle of October, but with editorial cartoons, a commission on deadline, and all of the other obligations of art for a living, it was tough finding the time to sit down and get lost in this piece.

The model for this painting was Manuka, a seven year old “white” black bear who lives at The Calgary Zoo. She’s a beautiful bear, a favorite of mine.

Manuka was a rescue from Elkford, BC in 2014 where she had become a nuisance bear, too familiar with people. It’s sadly a common tale; we see it in Canmore and Banff all the time. People leave food out on their decks, fail to keep clean campsites or tourists will actually feed bears on the side of the road, despite the many warnings from conservation officials or locals.

When a bear becomes habituated, associating people with food, there are usually only a few options. The bear can be relocated, which doesn’t have a high success rate, or it will be destroyed as it becomes a danger to people. Sadly, there are usually no consequences for the people who are responsible for the bear becoming habituated in the first place.

In rare cases, the bear might find a home at a rescue facility, like The Calgary Zoo or Discovery Wildlife Park, where their dependence on humans isn’t a problem. The bears then provide an opportunity for folks who work in conservation to educate the public on why we need to protect these animals, and be responsible while enjoying the great outdoors.

Manuka lives with two other black bears and they seem to get along quite well. They’ll often be seen chasing each other and playing in their large enclosure, which includes water and rock features, logs, trees and dens.

There is a massive prominent tree in that enclosure, and while all of the bears like climbing on it, often scaling it incredibly fast with ease, there is a large green platform about 30 feet up. Manuka can often be found up there napping, which is the reference I used for this painting. She looked right at the lens, slowly opening and closing her eyes, and I was thrilled when I got home and saw the photos I knew would inspire a painting.

I took the reference pics for this piece in August of last year, but when I started working on it last month, we were surrounded by fall colours. With the sleepy nature of the pose, the fact that the bears around here were getting ready to bed down for the winter, it seemed an appropriate palette and theme. I also expected to have it done before the season turned, but for reasons I mentioned above, it just didn’t happen.
Above is a practice piece I did of Manuka a couple of years ago, in the spring when she and her roommates were just waking up, but I hadn’t done a fully rendered painting of her until now. I’m glad I waited because I’m quite pleased with the results. Painting that fur while looking at that happy sleep face, I was reminded how fortunate I am to do this for a living.

This was painted in Adobe Photoshop on a Wacom Cintiq 24HD display. As always, photos are never part of my paintings, only used for reference. The finished file is 30″X40″. Prints should be available sometime in the New Year, both in my online store and at The Calgary Zoo.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Happy Baby

The difference between art for a hobby and art for a living, is that whenever I start a new painting, I often have to weigh the enjoyment of the image I plan to paint vs. the marketability of the finished piece. Regardless of the outcome, I’m always going to get some level of satisfaction from the work, because I’m still drawing and colouring, but I’ve also got bills to pay and a career to think about, so there are business concerns to consider.

I’ve done a couple of fully rendered paintings of Berkley already and both are prints that sell quite well. I’ve also done quite a few sketch paintings of her. It would probably be the smarter move to paint another wolf, or a different bear, or another big cat or an animal I haven’t painted yet, to further round out the portfolio and upload to my licensing agency.

While this will still end up as a print, there are times I just want to paint something for me, and Berkley just makes me happy.

I won’t rehash our entire history here, but the short version is that Berkley is a rescued Kodiak cub who lives at Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, Alberta. She’s been living there since early spring of 2017 and is thriving in her environment. As I’m friends with the head keeper, who is essentially Berkley’s Mom, I was able to visit her a number of times during her first year.

Discovery Wildlife Park sits on almost 100 acres and in addition to their large enclosures for their rescued and orphaned animals, they have a large wooded area on their property. As it is still a fenced enclosure, Serena used to take Berkley for walks every night in the woods where she could freely climb trees, eat berries and run around being a bear cub. Joining them on a few of those walks was an experience that changed me. Berkley has the most wonderful playful personality and I took thousands of photos of her, which left me with hundreds of reference pics to paint from. I will most likely paint Berkley for years to come, because that little face just makes me smile, especially because of the memories it conjures up. My wife, Shonna got to know her as well and we both have a special place in our hearts for that little bear.

Now that Berkley has become a bigger bear, well over 200 pounds and growing still, those close contact opportunities for anyone but the keepers are over. It’s a safety thing, for both Berkley and others, but I still like to visit her with a fence between us, and she knows me, which never fails to surprise me.

Regular followers will already have seen this photo more than once (twice, three times), but it’s one of my favorite pictures of my life, so I’m sharing it again for anyone who hasn’t seen it. It just sums up how special that whole experience was. I knew how rare it was while it was happening.

I named this painting Happy Baby for the obvious reason, but also because of a yoga pose by the same name. Shonna and I have been going to yoga each week for many years and it’s an awkward, vulnerable, unattractive pose, but Berkley seems to do just fine with it. Or at least her version of it.

On one of Shonna’s and my excursions with Berkley in the woods last September, Serena was horsing around with Berkley and telling us how much she loves bear feet. The following short video explains it pretty well, and is the reason I painted Berkley in this pose.

If you’d like to see a little longer version of that evening’s antics, here’s that one, too.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Bear Belle (3 of 3)

(This is the third part of a three part post. Here’s a link to Part 1 and to Part 2.)

Walking back to the main building after taking pictures of the wolves, Serena said that I was welcome to join her and Berkley on their evening walk. I really felt I’d taken advantage of their generosity enough and told her so, but she said she was taking her anyway, so it was no imposition.

How could I say No? More importantly, WHY would I say No?I went to the main building for fifteen minutes while Serena and Denise put away the raccoons for the night and took care of some other end of day chores. I’d been told that when I next saw her, Serena would have Berkley with her and she would not be on a leash. Most likely I could expect Berkley to come and check me out and that she might put her nose on my legs, maybe even open her mouth as she did it, but that I shouldn’t be concerned as that’s all it would be.

Sure enough, I saw Serena coming and she asked, “Ready?”
When Berkley saw me, she did indeed come over and check me out. While I didn’t ignore her, I also didn’t make a big deal about it as I wanted her to feel comfortable with me. I was wearing shorts, so I felt a cold wet bear nose bump my leg a couple of times.

I told Serena that I knew not to run, as it would trigger Berkley’s instinct to chase. Even at her small size, she can likely outrun me now. While people think bears are big and lumbering, they are incredibly fast when they want to be. A bear can run up to 40mph in short bursts, faster than a race horse, uphill or downhill. That’s why you’re never advised to run from a bear.

But I asked what else I shouldn’t do.

Serena told me not to ruffle her fur back and forth on her back like you might do to a dog as it’s a signal for aggression, or rough play. A bear cub is very strong and even without meaning to, Berkley could hurt me. So while I didn’t need to be afraid of her, I did need to respect her space.

“But I can still touch her?”

Serena said that I could.
When I first met Berkley, she was about 12 pounds and very small as you can see in the above photo. That was mid-April. When I saw her again last week, she was 54 pounds. The difference is startling, because while she’s still a cub, you can see the adult bear she’s going to become, especially in the way she walks.

I had already doused myself once again in bug spray before they arrived. I had asked if it would bother Berkley, but Serena said the keepers wear it, so the animals are used to the smell. We headed for the tall grass and trees and I instantly realized the spray wasn’t going to cut it. Again, still worth it, but I was scratching for days afterward.

At first, she stuck with Serena and I walking along the path, but eventually Berkley took off into the tall grass, as she often likes to make her own route.
We came to the creek and I was told to sit down on a rock close to the water. Berkley usually crossed a log there and sitting where I was, I might get some good shots. Of course, that didn’t quite work out when Berkley came right to me and started climbing up my shoulders and back. I’ll admit to being quite nervous at this point, but Serena told her to get down and she did.

It should be noted that while Berkley has sharp claws, I’ve never felt them when she’s crawled on me. Not once.

Serena apologized because she suddenly remembered my recent fear of bears, but I was just startled more than anything. Berkley had already found other things to explore, anyway.

Serena told me not to be offended, but that Berkley really wouldn’t be that interested in me. I can’t remember her actual words, but it became clear that I was simply another piece of forest furniture. I was fine with that, because it made following her around and taking photos much more enjoyable and natural.

As we walked, Berkley went this way and that, just having a great time being a bear. She must have climbed more than half a dozen trees and it was amazing to see how easily she did it, scrambling up a trunk as if it was a ladder, then crawling back down to check out something else. She’d dig in the ground, chew on a stick or leaves, eat some grass, whatever caught her interest.
I asked plenty of questions, as I always do, and eventually I realized how comfortable I was walking through the woods with a bear. She never strayed far from Serena, but still did her own thing while we happily snapped photos of her.

We came to one of many large logs across the creek and Serena crossed first, leaving me on the other side with Berkley. She took a few photos of us with her camera but I knew I’d never get to see them until the fall. Summer is so busy for the park staff that any pictures and video you see on their active Facebook page have been taken with Serena’s phone, although they sure don’t look it.

She just hasn’t the time to download and sort through photos from her DSLR during peak season. So I asked if she’d mind taking a few of Berkley and I with my camera. It warrants mentioning that a lot of my photos from the walk are only good because Serena gave me some tips on shooting in the woods in low light.

I leaned across the creek and nervously handed my camera across to her, remembering my broken lens last month when I fell on some rocks on Vancouver Island.
My standing up and then sitting back down attracted Berkley’s attention, which made for a great photo. But then she decided I was worth checking out again and she crawled up on my shoulder. This time, I wasn’t so nervous until she started snuffling my hair, which is when Serena called her off.
Berkley crawled off and crossed the log, once again letting me know that know I’m not THAT interesting.

On the other side of the creek, Serena was looking at the photos in her camera, when Berkley came up behind her, started pulling on the string of her backpack. Serena leaned back so Berkley could crawl up on her and I got this shot.
This kind of photo can be misleading and people might think Berkley is as tame as their dog or cat. She’s not.

Berkley is a cub and only six months old and they’re still getting to know her and how she reacts to other people. One bear’s personality will be different from the next. Still, the most unpredictable ingredient in these encounters will be the person, not the bear. They can’t risk somebody thinking she’s so cute and reaching out to cuddle her or push her around. People might have the best of intentions, but she’s still a bear with wild instincts.

This experience of walking with her in the woods is not something they can make available to most people. I honestly didn’t expect to be offered this opportunity again after the first time because she’s getting bigger. Serena told me that the keepers have been around me enough to know that I’m not going to do anything to endanger the animals, staff or myself. It’s gratifying to know that I’ve gained their trust, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly.
Serena knows Berkley best as she still takes her home every night. It’s a lengthy process getting Berkley used to being alone for extended periods of time. She has a small barn on the property where she goes to sleep during the day and that’s a comfortable space for her. Eventually, she will have a very large enclosure all of her own, and it’s there waiting for her. But to introduce her to such a large space all at once would be frightening so it will be done carefully and gradually. Until then, she demands a lot of Serena’s time, with the nightly walks and constant care, but as she said, “that’s the commitment I made when we adopted her.”

When you see photos and videos of Berkley playing or cuddling with Serena on Discovery Wildlife Park’s Facebook page, it’s because she might as well be her Mom. Berkley trusts her completely. She’s also that comfortable with Serena’s Dad, Doug. At the end of the evening when she saw him in a golf cart, she went right over and climbed up the front of it to see him, putting her face right up to his. Serena’s husband and kids are used to having all sorts of little animals at home, too.

This family knows bears. And lions, tigers, wolves, ostriches, beavers, raccoons…it’s a long list.

I’m sure they’re getting sick of me thanking them for the opportunities they’ve made available to me at Discovery Wildlife Park. It has been a great privilege to be granted such access to their animals and to continue to build relationships with the staff. Learning about the animals and their behaviour has been as rewarding as taking the photos.
Just like many of the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park, Berkley is an ambassador for her species. Post-secondary Biology students are getting the opportunity to visit with her and watch her explore, just like I did. She is providing baseline health stats for a healthy Kodiak bear cub and will do so her whole life. She has already been trained to give urine and has started the training to give blood. That data is shared with universities and researchers to give them a better understanding of bear physiology, which will in turn help with populations in the wild.

I look forward to many more visits to the park and if you’ve not yet had the pleasure, I would highly recommend it. It’s a great place for families and there are education opportunities for all ages. Ask questions, even the uncomfortable ones, but please do so with respect. The keepers are more than willing to answer them.

Responsible wildlife sanctuaries offer many benefits. They provide homes for orphaned animals whose unfortunate circumstances prevent reintroduction into the wild. They provide valuable insight into behaviour and physiology that is often too difficult or unsafe to observe in the wild. And when people have an opportunity to see wildlife up close, it fosters more empathy, and instills in many a desire to protect them.

It certainly has in me.

Cheers,
Patrick
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