Winter reared its ugly head this week in Alberta, and I’m already feeling the blues. It happens every year, but painting a happy face usually puts me in a better mood. Grizzly Bearapy. It’s an effective prescription.
For my primary reference for this piece, I selected a few I took during a day with Berkley at Discovery Wildlife Park several years ago. It was the same day I took the reference for my Peanuts painting. But I also referenced other grizzly bears to vary the features.
Half of my business is editorial cartooning; for that work, my clients are newspapers. That’s a business model that was on shaky ground already when I got into it a couple of decades ago. Today, many papers are hanging on by their fingernails. Despite that, it’s still worth my time and effort to draw five or six syndicated editorial cartoons each week for several publications across Canada.
However, I shouldn’t need to explain why that could change tomorrow.
About thirteen years ago, anticipating the day when editorial cartooning would no longer be enough to provide a full-time income, I looked for ways to diversify. With a steady decline in newspaper revenue in recent years, it was a good call. Thankfully, my whimsical wildlife paintings became the other half of my career and business, which still has plenty of growth potential.
While neither part of my business is presently enough on its own, together, they’re my full-time job.
It can be easy to get complacent and coast when things are going well enough. But life can turn on a dime, and the things we think only happen to other people can quickly happen to any one of us.
I’m an unapologetic pessimist; there’s no sense denying it. I’ve had too many plans scuttled by someone else’s decisions, so I don’t take anything for granted. One year, I lost nine papers in one day because a newspaper chain sold. When the pandemic hit, I lost even more. I’ve had licensing and other opportunities vanish overnight when corporations changed direction or personnel.
As we’re all aware, companies are quick to talk about trust and loyalty when convenient, but their actions often walk a different path.
Though this painting was fun to do, as are most of my whimsical wildlife pieces, it was a commercial decision. It’s the first in a series of paintings I’m creating to promote my work to new licensing clients. It’s also another painting for the bear book.
If you’re a self-employed artist, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, especially relevant in today’s economy.
By the end of this week, I’ll have drawn seven editorial cartoons, finished this grizzly bear painting, worked on a pet portrait commission, written content for the book, created page layouts so my publisher can get pricing estimates, and done month-end invoicing and bookkeeping.
All are necessary to keep my business viable but also prevent monotony. By having different things on which to focus, I’ve always got something else I can be doing. Painting grizzly bear fur and features for three hours is delightful—eight hours, not so much.
So it’s nice to make progress on a painting in the morning, then switch to drawing an editorial cartoon, sort and select photo reference, read some marketing material, research and reach out to potential new licenses, plan for upcoming gift shows, or write a post like this one.
Then, when I return to the painting the next day, it’ll be with fresh eyes to correct any errors and add more life to the piece for a few more hours. I get to enjoy the work I love most without allowing it to become a yoke I resent.
Here’s a time lapse drawing video of my little friend Berkley when she was a cub. You may listen to the voice-over or read it below.
Most artists will experience an inspirational drought where the creative well appears to have dried up, often several times in a career. Get to the bottom and start digging, you may only find more dry dirt.
That’s some scary shit, especially when hauling that water is how you make your living.
The pandemic was a wake-up call for many. Some changed careers because they had to. Others considered returning to their pre-lockdown jobs and realized they’d rather be unemployed.
We were all confronted with hard questions.
One I keep returning to is, “What do I want?”
The easy answer is often ‘more money’ as many imagine that would solve our problems. I don’t want a sports car, a big truck, or a huge house. I’m not a ‘buy more stuff’ guy. More money means safety and security, not having to fret about the finances, now or in my senior years.
Retirement doesn’t appeal to me. To keep my existential angst at bay, I need to have something to do. Idle time is not my friend. Barring any injury, illness or a cognitive decline, a prospect that honestly scares the hell out of me, I plan to work for the next twenty-five-plus years.
But what work do I want to do?
Parents used to tell their children to get an education and have something to fall back on, but those safety jobs have become rare. The days of thirty or forty years with a company followed by a healthy pension are long gone. We read daily about massive layoffs from corporations with names that used to be synonymous with stability.
That’s one reason I opted to sail my own ship rather than shovel coal on a larger vessel where the captain can throw you overboard on a whim, most likely into shark-infested waters during a hurricane.
But even working for yourself, you must still answer to customers. The art you want to create and the art your clients want you to create are often two different things.
At my market or gift show booth, people often ask for their favourite animal. Do you have an iguana, a hedgehog, or a kangaroo? If I don’t, I’ll add it to the list and might eventually paint it. If they follow my work, they might even still be around when I complete it. It could become a bestseller but likely won’t because most people want popular animals like lions, tigers, bears, and wolves.
At one event earlier this year, somebody asked if I had a sloth. I had just painted one, so I plucked it from the bin, put it in her hands and proudly said, “Why yes, I do.”
The woman looked at it briefly, put it back in the bin and started flipping through the others, asking, “Do you have a platypus?”
I wished I had so that I could find out what she’d ask for next. When I said I didn’t, she said, “Oh, too bad, I would have bought one,” and she walked away.
This is often what it’s like working for clients.
Several licensing companies rent the rights to put my work on their products. Occasionally, one will ask for a painting of a specific animal. If I can, I’ll try to accommodate the request. But without fail, as soon as I do, the client has a list of other images they want me to create.
Suddenly, licensing my catalogue has turned into their ordering custom pieces, but without commission rates or guarantees that the time spent will generate revenue. It’s somebody else gambling with my money or, more importantly, my limited time.
I recently negotiated with a puzzle company to create a few designs for them. The first was a detailed painting of three giraffes. It was my idea, but one they approved. Shortly after I finished it, the owner told me they couldn’t add any new artists this year due to unforeseen circumstances. No big surprise in this economy.
I’m disappointed but have no hard feelings because I got some valuable experienced advice about what makes a good puzzle, and I stretched my skills to create something new. And I’m also happy with the finished piece. Once I complete a couple more puzzle-minded pieces, I’ll be shopping that first painting and new designs to other puzzle companies. Failing that, I’ll produce my own.
When companies are your clients, your needs are not their needs. If your art resonates with their customers, then it’s mutually beneficial. But the moment it doesn’t, you’re yesterday’s news. They’ll work with the artist who makes them the most money. They’re in business to promote their company, not your work.
On the reverse of all my prints, there is an artist bio. The last line invites people to subscribe to A Wilder View on my website, a regular email where I share news, paintings, and the stories behind them. One retailer will only sell my prints if I remove that line from the bio, as they don’t want their customers going to my website.
I’ve had a website for over two decades, and I’m easy to find, so I’m not concerned. But I am reminded of my value every time I prepare to deliver new prints because I must slice off that last line from each bio before sticking it to the backer board.
I recently severed ties with an art licensing agency that kept asking me to create new work to follow whatever trend was popular this quarter, whether it was the type of work I did or not. It wasn’t personal; they wanted all their artists to do the same thing.
If you’re a graphic designer or illustrator, following trends is often part of the job and what you signed up for. But if you’ve found that rare jewel of an established niche as I have, changing what you do every few months because somebody read a post on Facebook that robot plumbers wearing figure skates are in this year, you might as well be panhandling. The artist takes all the risk, creating new work in the faint hope the licensing agency might find a buyer for it. If they don’t, too bad.
If you won’t do it, they can find thousands of young desperate artists who will.
That’s no way to sustain a career. Nobody wins a race to the bottom.
Customer service, professional behaviour and sound business practices are essential, as is compromise and accommodating your clients’ needs and wishes. People pay you to supply what they need, and delivering that often builds lasting relationships beneficial to both parties. All boats rise with the tide. Fail to realize these things, and you’ll soon be out of business.
But if you don’t write your own story, you’re just a bit player in somebody else’s. When you spend all your creative energy trying to please your clients and customers at the expense of the things that made you want to be an artist in the first place, you become bitter and resentful.
At least I have. But I’m working through it by redefining my boundaries in work and life.
An old maxim cautions, “Don’t kill yourself working for an employer that would advertise your job before anybody sees your obituary.”
If I suddenly dropped dead, my licensing clients would (hopefully) send my royalties as usual and negotiate any future licensing with my wife. Everybody else would move on.
Newspapers continue to struggle, and the question of how long I’ll be an editorial cartoonist has been front and center for over a decade.
These are things I can’t control.
So I ask again, “What do I want?”
I enjoy creating my animal art, but lately, whenever I go to paint something, I think, “Will this animal be popular? Have I painted too many of these? Not enough? Will this make me any money?”
Every art decision has become about revenue. And when money is the prime motivator, the creative light dims. That leads to burnout and no joy left in the work. When the economy is down, costs are up, interest rates rising, and companies are laying people off, it’s hard to invest time in projects that might bear fruit later when other short-term work is more likely to generate income now.
Payments from clients and licensing companies are taking increasingly longer to reach my mailbox, despite their tight deadlines and demands for quick delivery.
Below the surface of every current piece of art is an undercurrent of desperation. Doom and gloom valley is not the preferred habitat for happy-looking animals.
Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
But then he also said, “The people who make art their business are mostly imposters.”
I’m gonna focus on the first quote and conveniently ignore the second one.
So while I’m trying to answer the question of what I want to do, I’m working on my art book about bears. Not promising to work on it like I’ve been doing for more than six years, but working on it, as I’m well and truly sick and tired of my own procrastination and bullshit excuses.
A very patient publisher recently told me to write the kind of art book I like to buy and read. The art books I like have smaller drawings, sketches, and unfinished pieces among the fully rendered paintings.
So, I’ve been alternating between writing the bear stories and drawing accent pieces like the ones you see here. I enjoy drawing them and expect one or two will inspire future paintings, as sketches often do.
While working on these images, I realized that whenever I’m lost and trying to navigate this ridiculous profession of art for a living, I always seem to come back to bears.
Here’s a painting I did late this week. Not a fully rendered piece, just something I did for fun. I’m still working on another bear, a more finished piece and video. I hope to have that one done in a week or so.
It’s not unusual to see bears in this valley, but it has been a strange season for encounters. The berry crop was poor this year, and bears have been spotted all over town for weeks.
When people fail to pick the ripe fruit from the trees in their yards, it attracts bears. Dog food, bird feeders, dirty BBQs, and garbage will too. Bears have an incredible sense of smell, and they’re attracted to anything that gives off an interesting odour. Dirty diapers will attract bears.
All it takes for a bear to become spoiled and dangerous is too many opportunities to associate people with food.
Shonna and I bought our townhouse condo in 2001. It’s in a well-defined complex with single road access and a couple of other walking entries on the opposite end. We’ve occasionally had elk inside the complex, but in the 21 years we’ve lived here, I’ve never seen a bear on the property.
A couple of weeks ago, while checking the mail, I noticed a sizeable pile of scat six feet from our front door. If you’ve never seen bear poop, it’s unmistakable.
At the end of our street, nowhere near a wilderness area, a well-used gravel path passes beside a daycare. A week before, as I rode my bike around the building heading for downtown, I was surprised to see a mother black bear and two cubs in my way. I hit the brakes, breathed something like “oh shit,” and slowly backed up, wondering what she would do.
She and her cubs looked right at me, but I got away without a confrontation. It was only a half block from home, so I called the Bear Report Line, as did several others.
Still on the phone when I got home, I stepped onto our kitchen balcony to see the Mom and cubs walking by on the street below. It was just after noon.
Many in town have seen this bear and her two cubs, another black bear and her three cubs or several other single black bears looking for food in suburban neighbourhoods.
I recently had a cable internet issue requiring a service call. The tech who came to sort it out lives in an apartment-style condo building near the other end of our street. While walking his dog one evening, he saw a grizzly in his parking lot. Others in his building have seen it too, and warnings are now posted around the property.
Last Sunday, our next-door neighbour Chris sent me a text warning at about 9:15 pm that the black bear and three cubs were spotted walking down a long road that leads to the top of our condo complex. Shonna would be biking home an hour later from her part-time job at Safeway.
Here’s a late-night photo Chris took from his balcony at the end of August.
I called Shonna to warn her and said I’d keep an eye out. She takes well-lit main roads to get home, away from the current bear sighting. But this year, they can be anywhere, including downtown.
A half-hour later, Mom and cubs were walking down the road inside our complex, straight toward our front door. Four people stood in front of our place, taking pictures and videos with their phones. I warned them from my open living room window that they were in a dangerous spot and should leave.
They were dismissive and waved me off, a typical tourist response. But I think these were locals who should have known better. Shortly afterward, my neighbour was more blunt when he warned them about their poor choices.
Chris and I were more concerned about harm coming to the bears. When stupid people trigger an encounter that forces a bear to defend itself, the authorities shoot the bear and orphan her cubs. All for an Instagram post.
Fortunately, this bear was more intelligent than those people. She turned around and went back the way she came. The four humans finally left as well, their departure significantly increasing the average IQ of our neighbourhood.
Though the bears were no longer in sight, I knew they’d still be close.
Shonna called before she left Safeway, and I told her I’d be waiting. Bear spray in hand, I stood at the open front door until I heard her repeatedly hitting her bike bell as she drove into the complex. I opened the garage door as she turned the corner so she could go right in, ending our evening’s excitement.
I have a complicated love-fear relationship with bears.
The first whimsical wildlife critter I painted in 2009 was a grizzly bear, and I’ve painted more bears than any other animal. I’ve spent countless hours at Discovery Wildlife Park, having close encounters with their rescued orphan bears, especially a favourite named Berkley. I’ve painted her quite a few times. On the flip side of that coin, I am unreasonably terrified of bears. For years, I’ve tried to get used to camping in a tent in bear country.
Bears are more likely to avoid people than seek them out. I know that if you keep a clean campsite, don’t bring any strong smells into the tent with you, and sleep away from where you cook, you’re unlikely to attract bears.
I know what to do if I encounter a black bear or grizzly. I make noise while out in the woods, carry bear spray and know how to use it. I know that bears have far more to fear from us than we ever do from them, that bear attacks are almost unheard of and usually defensive, prompted by a human doing something foolish.
Bears don’t kill people. People kill bears.
And even with that knowledge, I’ve never been able to shake the phobia while camping or hiking in bear country. Every noise is a bear, especially from dusk ‘til dawn. My camping companions have taken great delight in mocking my bearanoia, despite having phobias of their own.
Am I having fun yet?
After countless camping trips, not sleeping well, annoying others with my nervousness, and living with the shame of not being able to talk myself out of it, I’ve given up camping in tents in the Rockies. I return home more pissed off than relaxed.
Besides, a cabin is much more comfortable, especially when it rains.
Strange that I had no concerns on our recent kayaking adventure on Vancouver Island, living in a tent in an area with a dense population of black bears. I slept great every night. Is my fear geographical?
The most remarkable recent bear encounter was at the September 3rd Mountain Made Market when a black bear tried to walk into the Civic Centre in the middle of the day, about forty feet from my table. Fortunately, the Town building monitor, Maurice, a genial and helpful gentleman, stood at the door waving his arms and making noise, convincing the bear to seek a different path. There’s a man who’s good under pressure.
I’ve enjoyed my market experiences over the past year. Decent sales, close to home, and I get the same great location in the Civic Centre each time. Connecting with other vendors and my customers, I always learn something new.
This market was especially fun because Alexander Finbow occupied the next table. He owns Renegade Arts Entertainment here in Canmore. Alex has been ready to publish an art book of my work since 2016. He has been very patient, is still interested and we talked more about it.
Alex figured out that I’ve been making too big a deal out of it, trying to put together one big book instead of a smaller one. He suggested that rather than try to cram my whole career into one volume, I make it more specific, and pick stories and artwork that fit a theme. Then if the first book does well, there will be more books on other parts of my work in the future. That not only relieves a lot of pressure, but it’s a sound business plan as well.
Sometimes you just need somebody to point out the obvious.
The first art book is about bears. Perhaps it always has been.
Before I became a full-time artist almost twenty years ago, I worked at a local sign shop here in Canmore. Some of the valuable skills I learned still contribute to the work I do today. One of those skills was printing and cutting vinyl. I worked on vehicles, signage, and vinyl application on different materials.
A little while ago, my friend Darrel mentioned that he had noticed vinyl stickers on the rear windows of vehicles, some fun and colourful designs. He suggested that might be something I could do with my animal paintings.
As diversifying revenue streams has become essential for freelancers and self-employed artists, I’m always looking for new markets and opportunities. So it seems odd, given my sign shop experience, that I’d never considered vinyl stickers.
While I have an ongoing license with DecalGirl, a company that produces decals for mobile devices and laptops, phone cases and sleeves, their designs are specific to that market.
Some quick online research revealed that stickers are trendy, especially among millennials and younger generations. For the right theme and designs, it’s big business for many artists, especially on craft and sales marketplaces like Etsy.
On a recent visit to the tattoo shop where I hang out from time to time, I asked my buddy Derek about it. He’s fifteen years younger than I am, and his metal supply cabinets at the shop are covered in different stickers of varying size, quality, and theme. It’s a big part of that culture. He agreed that I’d probably do well to offer my work on vinyl stickers.
Since then, I’ve researched several companies, figured out sizing, and ordered the Orca test you see above. The order arrived this week from Jukebox Print. I couldn’t be happier with the vinyl quality and printing, so I’m moving forward on creating more of them.
Derek stuck the first one on a cabinet at Electric Grizzly Tattoo.
To begin with, I’ll be offering a selection of 4 bear stickers, though I’ve not yet chosen which ones will be in the first pack. It’ll be free shipping for Canada, and hopefully, I can offer the same for the U.S., but that’s yet to be determined. Each 4-pack will retail for $15.95 (CDN). The stickers are around 4” X 5”, depending on the design. Each will vary a little in size, but they’re all in that neighbourhood.
I’m still experimenting with the composition and cut-lines, but these are a few I’m working on.
If the first pack is popular, I plan to regularly release new stickers, eventually having several packs in the online store. With my ever-growing menagerie of critters, there’s potential for sticker packs in a variety of themes and species.
DISCLAIMER: Don’t EVER approach bears, bear cubs or animals in the wild.
Earlier this week, Shonna and I were thrilled to be invited to Discovery Wildlife Park to meet their latest adoptees.
Bos and Piper are two Kodiak cubs from the US who needed a new home. While they’re not siblings, they are the same age, three months old today. The amount of paperwork and regulatory hurdles required to rescue these cubs from an unsustainable situation, especially during this unprecedented time of COVID, was monumental.
Our friend, Serena, the head keeper at DWP, has been around animals her whole life. With her staff’s help, she has raised quite a few bears, wolves, and other animals in need of rescue, ones that couldn’t be rehabilitated and returned to the wild.
We would like to believe that this could be a world where no animal would ever need to live in captivity, but that would require sacrifices most of us aren’t willing to make. Our addiction to excess is one of the main reasons for disappearing wildlife habitats around the world.
With almost 8 billion people on the planet, each with our own opinions, vices, and levels of acceptable compromise, nothing is ever as black and white as we would like to believe.
Co-existing with wildlife is a never-ending discussion. There are strong opinions on both sides of the argument, from the average person on the street to nature and conservation experts, each speaking from their own experience and perspective. And those experts rarely agree. Unfortunately, there’s often more talking than listening, and the middle ground is mainly unpopulated and devoid of footprints.
I’ve personally wrestled with the issue for many years and will continue to do so. I’ve asked the hard questions from the dedicated people who work in these places. While the answers aren’t always the ones I’d like to hear, I believe they’re doing the best for these animals in their care and that their intentions and motivations are honourable.
I’ve seen how the animals interact with the park staff for years now, their evident trust and affection. I wouldn’t support any facility that didn’t treat its animals with respect and kindness or contradicted my wildlife protection values.
It’s with no small amount of gratitude that I enjoy such a close relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park. Their allowing me close contact with the animals over the past several years is a profound trust I don’t take lightly.
I’ve taken thousands of reference photos at the park, which has allowed me to create some of my best work. But I’ve also learned an incredible amount about wildlife, their behaviour, medical and dietary challenges and their profound intelligence.
Discovery Wildlife Park sits on 91 acres, fenced and double-fenced in places. There is a forested shallow ravine on the western edge of the property, complete with a flowing creek. As this area is inappropriate for any structures, it’s largely untouched and remains natural. This is one of my favourite photos of Berkley from one of our excursions in this little forest a few years ago.
When they’re small, many of the animals spend plenty of time in these woods, where they can run, explore, climb trees, eat berries, and play.
On the day that Shonna and I visited, the cubs were teething, as traumatic for animals as humans. Along with the physiological problems that accompany teething, there’s not much that can be done for the pain and discomfort.
We watched Piper have a full-on meltdown for about a half-hour, bellowing and bawling her way through the woods. She was cranky and having a bad day, reminding me of a child throwing a temper tantrum in a supermarket. It was just as uncomfortable to watch, but Serena wasn’t concerned, as it’s all part of being a baby. Piper eventually exhausted herself and went about exploring, playing and climbing trees.
The following morning, I sent Serena a text asking how Piper was doing.
“She is a happy girl today.”
Bos was much more subdued, a little lazier, but curious and seemed to be enjoying himself as he chewed on trees, dug in the dirt, and wrestled with his adopted sibling.
Just like people, they have their own unique personalities. As my only other experience with a brown bear cub is Berkley, the differences are remarkable. Berkley rarely vocalized, whereas these two are talking all the time. Piper was so named because she’s got a real set of pipes on her.
Though she’s always had an overall genial way about her, Berkley went through a bit of a rebellious teenage phase where she would push Serena’s buttons to test her boundaries. It’ll be interesting to see how these cubs grow into their personalities.
Presently, they require constant care, familiar territory for Serena and the staff. It will be some months before the cubs can spend any significant time alone. There’s little time off for those who care for animals, but I’ve never heard them complain. It’s a demanding but rewarding lifestyle.
In the hour and a half we were out in the woods with the cubs, I took just under 1500 photos. With bright sunshine and dark shadows, the lighting wasn’t ideal. The bears were often between me and the sun, so I didn’t get as much light on their faces as I would generally like. Hard to complain, though, since I was watching bear cubs play in the woods. I wanted to take some video, but it was too much to handle and would have ruined the experience.
As I don’t like hoarding photos, I’ve already gone through them all and kept just over 100. Most are shots I simply liked, the ones you see here. But I did get about a dozen that I think will be the seeds for future work; there are two paintings in there for sure.
We didn’t get to visit Berkley this time around for a couple of reasons. Her large enclosure is on the far side of the park, and they’re doing a lot of work right now getting ready for their season-opening. Most importantly, the animals thrive on routine, and right now, visitors aren’t part of that, so there’s no need to confuse her.
I’ll have to return often this spring and summer to spend some time with her.
If you’d like to watch the cubs grow up, you can follow Discovery Wildlife Park on Facebook and Instagram, where they regularly post photos and videos. They can only care for these critters thanks to the generosity of donors and visitors during the summer season, so if you’re in the Innisfail area, consider stopping in to check it out. It’s easy to keep your distance from others with plenty of outdoor space while still enjoying all that the park has to offer. They open May 1st, and annual memberships are available.
I’m not breaking any news here when I point out that most businesses have had to adjust to operational difficulties during the past six months. Many had to close, some permanently. For the ones that survived, the opening came with severe restrictions, reduced hours and a strange new reality.
Discovery Wildlife Park began its late-season start as a drive-thru. People could visit the park, but had to stay in their vehicles, while staff did their best to ensure a worthwhile experience. It proved to be quite popular, especially since there were few options elsewhere for a family outing at the time.
Once allowed to fully open, they had reduced hours, but visitors could roam freely while keeping their distance from other guests. The park itself is a well-manicured open-concept venue, and just walking around the place is relaxing. Add in the rescued and orphaned animals, and it’s a unique experience.
Their season ends typically on Thanksgiving, but this year the last day is September 30th. With that date looming and the fantastic fall weather this year, I made the time on Monday to drive up and spend the day taking photos. As always, my first stop was to see Berkley, a brown bear I’ve known since she wasn’t much bigger than a cat. She has a massive enclosure all to herself, complete with a pond, big fallen trees on which to climb and plenty of daily attention from staff and guests alike. In August, Berkley weighed in at 388 pounds. As she’s been preparing for her long winter’s nap by eating a lot more, I suspect she’s well over 400 now. She’ll turn four years old this coming January and still isn’t full grown. Given the excellent care the animals receive at the park, Berkley is one of the healthiest brown bears you’ll ever see. Her thick, luxurious coat sometimes makes her look like she might be carrying a little extra weight, but she’s fit and lean.
It never fails to make me smile when I call her name, and she ambles down to see me, even if she’s at the other side of her enclosure. It’s such a privilege to sit on the grass and look into those beautiful brown eyes. Serena (the head keeper and Berkley’s Mom) and the staff have become friends over the years. I’m ever grateful for the behind-the-scenes access they give me when I visit. During the bear presentation, I was able to take up-close unobstructed photos and got some nice reference pics of the black bears. I tried to hide a little during Berkley’s part of the presentation. She tends to get distracted if she sees people she knows. In the middle of the day, I drove ten minutes down the road to have a visit with my folks and meet their new little animal; a Yorkie named Lily. Once again, the first favoured LaMontagne child has four legs and a fur coat. She’s a skittish little thing, but she seemed to like me. A baggie full of dog treats helped.
Upon my return to the park for the lion presentation, I got another nice batch of photos. I’ve wanted to paint their male lion, Griffin, for some time. While I still don’t have THE shot I’ve been looking for, I did get plenty to paint other images. While nobody knows what the future holds, I expect a winter with even more time indoors than usual. With a topped-up stock of new photo reference, I’ll be using that time to paint and write.
As of this morning, I’ve added five new prints to the online store, the first time these paintings have been offered. They are, in order of appearance below, the Clearwater Calf, Sire, Ring-tailed Lemur, Roar and Snow Day.
My 2021 calendar from Pacific Music and Art has launched and I received my first shipment last week. This year’s theme is BEARS, an animal I greatly enjoy painting, and have done so often.
For the launch of this calendar, I’m offering a limited time special promotion.
It’s very simple…Buy any TWO prints in the store and receive the 2021 calendar FREE. That’s a $12.99 value. You don’t even need to let me know that you want the calendar. I will automatically include ONE calendar in any order of two or more prints. There are 43 different prints available, you can check them out here.
For those who just want to purchase the calendar, I’ll have that option available once this promotion has ended.
IMPORTANT: Due to the COVID-19 restrictions and safety measures, shipping takes more time these days, even with tracked packages, so please be patient with delivery.
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.
The owner, Derek Turcotte, and I have gone on drives into Kananaskis looking for wildlife from time to time, and both of us like taking our own wildlife reference photos. I’m always up for taking photos at the park, especially when it’s an official photo shoot. Derek was into it too, so I booked it. $150 each, which was well worth it, since the money goes to support the park.
We drove up on Saturday, leaving just after 3:00 as Derek was tattooing a client all day. Thankfully traffic worked out with no delays en route, because we were cutting it close. We just made it for the 5:30 start. Serena, Belinda and Nadia met us at the main building and took us down to the photo shoot area in their ‘limo,’ which is just a golf cart with extra bench seats.
Discovery Wildlife Park has created a staged area in the woods on their property. It was already a natural area, but they’ve added some rock and water features and the backdrop is the side of the gully in which it sits. Running along one side of the area is a long, tall fence. This is designed specifically for photo shoots and the mesh of the fence is large enough that you can put a lens through it.
Derek and I were joined by two women who had also booked the shoot and with only four of us along the fence, we had plenty of room to move about, didn’t have to worry about getting in each other’s way and the opportunities for great photos were limited only by our own skills.For the first part of the shoot, the wolves Nissa and Lupé were let loose in the large enclosure. Through positive reinforcement with treats and praise, they would pose on marks, run around together, play and explore. The light kept changing as it shone through the trees, creating natural spotlights which was wonderful when the wolves would be caught in one.
After the wolves returned to their own large enclosure in the park, it was time for Berkley to join us.
I last saw her in July and she has grown bigger still. She’s now just shy of 350 lbs and is really showing her adult features. While she still has her wonderfully expressive childlike face and lovable personality, it is easy to see the big bear she will eventually become.
As I’ve mentioned before, it is always a pleasant surprise when she recognizes me and wants to visit. At first, she ran into the enclosure and I could see her coming around the top on the other side of the trees. She moves really fast when she wants to and came barrelling down the path beside the fence. When she got to where I was standing, she slowed right down and did a double take as if to say, “Hey, it’s you!”
That never gets old. Of course, it did present a little bit of a problem when it was time to take pictures, because Berk just wanted to visit. Telling her to go see her Mom didn’t work, and Serena basically had to scold the four of us to stop talking to her, or we wouldn’t get any pictures.
We had to ignore her so that she would go to Serena, but once she did, she had a great time. From attacking trees, to playing on the large rocks, following Serena around and doing tricks for treats, my camera shutter just kept going rapid fire. Sure, Berkley would occasionally look my way and then come over, but I just had to stand up and turn away for her to forget the distraction and go back into the middle of the enclosure. I felt bad for doing it, but I still got plenty of visiting time with her a little later on and before we left.
Derek was pretty thrilled to be that close to a grizzly bear, as were the other two photographers. I realized that I’ve gotten a little too used to having so much time with Berkley, that I forget what a unique privilege it is to have a (not-so) little bear friend. There’s nothing like looking into those eyes and that wonderful face.
Derek told me he wasn’t sure if I’d been exaggerating how much Berkley ‘knew’ me or not, so he got to see that first hand. He said it was great to finally see the place and meet some of the people I often talk about, and now he knows why.
With the light in the sheltered photo area fading enough that it was getting difficult to get any more good photos, Berkley left us and Serena offered us the opportunity to take some photos of Gruff, as his enclosure is up on the main flat area of the park, so we still had ten minutes of light to work with. Derek was primarily looking for tattoo reference and for his own painted work, so Gruff performing his scary bear impression was something he was excited to get. Even though I just painted that very expression, I took some more photos and think I got even better reference of that than the last time. Might be another painting coming one day.
Although it required a four hour round trip drive for two hours at the park, both Derek and I felt it was well worth our time and we’ll do it again next year when the opportunity comes up. The fading light and sometimes fast motion of the wolves and Berkley created some photography challenges that resulted in more lost shots than we would have liked, but that’s part of photography, and life in general. You learn more from the mistakes and failures than the successes. Whether it’s taking the photos or painting from them, there’s more to learn than I will ever have time for in this life.
I took over 2600 photos, and after a few hours of going through them yesterday, ended up with about 100 worth keeping, including quite a few that will work as wonderful reference pics for future paintings. I don’t know if it’s the last time I’ll see Berkley before she goes down for hibernation, but if it is, it was a nice visit on which to end the year. Discovery Wildlife Park closes for the season after Thanksgiving, so if you’re in the area, there’s still time to see the animals before that.
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.