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The Stories Behind The Work

When I plan to paint a funny looking animal, the goal is usually to create a finished piece, something destined for print. That’s what I’m thinking when I go through my extensive archive of reference, selecting photos to help me create the next painting. As such, there are many images that don’t make the cut.

I’ve recently been going through those files with a different goal in mind, finding reference I still like, from which to practice sketching and drawing.

The first three I tackled, the ones throughout this post, ended up being painted pieces. Still not the level of detail you’ll find in my production prints, but images I enjoyed bringing to life. Unlikely to become prints on their own, I painted them for fun, knowing that one of these might inspire other ideas.

Years ago, while learning to create on the iPad, I painted a practice piece of an Ostrich. At my wife’s insistence, I later developed it into a fully rendered painting and it became one of my bestsellers.

While painting these three pieces, however, I began to think of another use for them.

It doesn’t seem like four years ago, but I had intended on producing a book of my artwork. I had a local publisher lined up and the plan was to have it ready for 2017. But at the end of 2016, life got complicated.

With no desire to dig through old ground, or drag any of you through it again, the short version is that I went through a bout of severe depression. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the experience was a necessary evil and I’m now grateful for that catharsis. Real change never happens when you’re comfortable.

I came out the other side with a better perspective on things, not the least of which is a much lower tolerance for toxic bullshit. Leaving Facebook and Twitter was a good first step in eliminating quite a bit of it.

It took a long time to right that capsized ship, however, and one of the casualties of that dark night of the soul was the art book.

As I’ve been doing a lot more writing this year, the blog, newsletter and fiction, thoughts have returned to that dormant project.

The kind of art book I’ve always enjoyed from other creatives, whether it’s photography, painting, or sketching, is one that talks about the stories behind the work. That’s the kind of book I wanted to produce then, and four years later, I still have the same desire.

Many of my paintings have stories behind them. Hell, just the stories, sketches and paintings about my time spent with Berkley the Bear from Discovery Wildlife Park could fill a large volume.

The thought of such a project fills me with doubt. Anyone who has ever created anything, let alone a book, has experienced imposter syndrome. Who am I to write a book and assume anyone will want to buy it?

I can easily come up with a long list of reasons why publishing an art book is a bad idea.

It’ll cost a lot to produce. Even though I may or may not have to publish it myself, there’s a significant expense involved, and books don’t sell as well as people think they do. It has long been my experience that for every twenty people who say they will buy something, only one actually does.

It’s so easy for someone to post a supportive casual comment on Instagram or drop me a line saying they can’t wait until prints of a new painting are available. And while many of my supportive, generous, loyal customers do indeed follow through, most people don’t, despite their good intentions.

If you’re a creative starting out on this journey and happen to be reading this, that’s Lesson #1 in life and in business. People talk a good game.
So, what about Kickstarter or Patreon? For those to be successful, creatives have to offer different tiers of incentives to entice backers, or people will simply wait until the book comes out to buy it. Suddenly, all of the work involved with writing the book, laying it out, hiring an editor, and having it professionally produced is now paired with coming up with added incentives for the different tiers.

As I am a one man operation, already using most of my limited hours in a day, there’s no more water to draw from that well.

There are plenty of people who’ve done all of the work, launched a book, did the promotion, put in the hours and still ended up years later with boxes upon boxes of them gathering dust in their garage. I recently heard of one author who took most of her leftovers to the landfill as she couldn’t bear to look at them anymore. That must have been a hard day. I would imagine the drive home would have involved a stop for chocolate, ice cream, alcohol, or all three.

While it’s easier than ever to self-publish and produce a book today, it becomes the duty of the creator to do the lion’s share of promoting and selling it. That means gift and trade shows, events, readings, book store signings, not to mention all of the online promotion to ensure people are even aware that you have a book to sell. That’s difficult when things are normal, even tougher now that many of those opportunities aren’t possible due to COVID-19.

At this point, I wouldn’t approach the same publisher again without a finished book in hand. I’ve already abused that faith once before. While it’s a common tale in the publishing trade for well-intentioned would-be authors to fizzle out before launch, that personal failure weighed heavy on me. I wasted another self-employed person’s time, a crime I will not repeat.

As you can tell, talking myself out of this project is easily done. I have no shortage of excuses. I can come up with many more reasons why creating an art book is a bad idea.

I can also give you many reasons why creating art for a living is a bad idea, not to mention self-employment or starting any business. But that didn’t stop me or the millions of other people who’ve done the same thing, and succeeded against the odds.

Nothing good comes without risk.
I’m going through the stories behind the paintings again, with fresh eyes. I’m looking through all of the work I’ve done, both the production paintings and ones like those you see here, deciding which would be good candidates for inclusion. The art books I enjoy have smaller pieces peppered throughout, and I have plenty of those from which to choose.

But I plan to paint a lot more of them as well.

Despite all of the arguments I gave against the idea, and many more that I didn’t, I still want to create an art book, whether it makes any money or not.

One thing I do know for sure, is that I can’t sell one if I don’t write one.

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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2019 in the Rearview

My fuel gauge approaches empty when December rolls around, so I spend it in hermit mode, a little more than usual. We attend Shonna’s office Christmas party, but that’s about it because I don’t have the energy to play the festive role. Celebrating Christmas seems like one more obligation, so I opt out.

In the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day, however, I do get reflective in my seasonal melancholy.  I spent some time last week going through the 2019 blog posts to remind myself of the year that was.

In February, I checked out of social media entirely but then went back to Instagram a couple of months ago. I missed seeing art from those whose work I admire, but I’m still on the fence about that decision.

On the promotion and sales front, there were two significant developments this year.

The first was watching my work spread to many new places, thanks to the license with Pacific Music and Art. Seems a regular thing now for somebody to say they saw my stuff in a store in Oregon, or Alaska, all over B.C. and Alberta, not to mention the calendars and notepads in so many Save-On stores. I had lunch with a friend on Saturday, visiting from Vancouver Island and she said it’s strange walking by the gift store on Mt. Washington where she works, seeing a whole floor to ceiling corner of my art. It’s looking like 2020 will see more of that migration, but it’s my nature to be cautious. Those chickens ain’t hatched yet.

Secondly, the revival of my relationship with Wacom was a welcome surprise. With so many talented digital artists in the world to choose from, I enjoy the ego boost that comes with being a Wacom influencer. I’ve already agreed to another project with them shortly, but there’s a reason they make you sign a non-disclosure agreement.  Must keep secrets.

I painted 11 finished funny looking animal pieces this past year, the latest one above. I called it ‘Sitting Pretty,’ and she’s based on a black bear named Angel, who lives at Discovery Wildlife Park. I’d like to have painted more critters, but I’ll always say that. If I had painted 15, well, it should have been 20.

While there’s something about each painting that I enjoy, if I had to pick a favourite from this year, it would be Snow Day with the three cougar cubs. That was the best of both worlds, a real challenge and a lot of fun. I should have prints of this one available soon.
I painted a couple of dogs for fun, but no commission work this year until just recently. I’m not disappointed by that because I had plenty to do and wanted to focus on more images for licensing. The two dogs I’m currently painting in my whimsical style are for the same client, hoping to finish in a few weeks. They contacted me about the commissions after seeing my work in a BC Ferries terminal gift shop, a side bonus from my license with Pacific.

Two portraits of people this year, John Malkovich and Quint from Jaws, both of which I enjoyed a great deal. I’d always like to have more time for those, but wouldn’t we all like more time for the fun stuff?
Taking into account all of the syndicated cartoons I did this year, plus the custom local ones I draw each week for the Rocky Mountain Outlook, I drew 419 editorial cartoons in 2019. That might be an annual record for me. I have mixed feelings about that. I wonder how many paintings I could have done with all of those hours.

As for the coming year, I’m not big on resolutions. Well, maybe just one. I intend to write a lot more. There’s undiscovered country there and I need to explore it.

There are other things I want to accomplish, both personal and professional, growth I’d like to achieve, and skills I’d like to learn. Try to keep moving forward, best I can, just like everybody else.

Of course, none of this would be possible were it not for those of you who follow and support my work, read my ramblings, and tolerate my eccentricities. We all have limited time and attention in this life, and I appreciate that you spend some of yours with me.

Happy New Year,
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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A Day of Discovery (1 of 3)

Thursday was a really good day, so much so that I’m splitting it up into three blog posts. This is the first.

I’d already had high hopes, as I was dropping off a $525.00 donation to Discovery Wildlife Park, made possible by followers of my work who took advantage of the first offering of the matted giclée prints of my painting of Berkley. Not only was painting that image a lot of fun, but selling the first twenty (ended up being twenty-one) with proceeds going to the park made it even more special.

Charitable giving is probably one of the most selfish things a person can do, because it just feels so darn good. Now this donation isn’t exactly hard-core philanthropy, but that is where I’d like to end up one day, supporting animal causes with as many big donations as I can muster. If I have to exploit those who like my work in order to do it, I’m OK with that.

Hopefully you are, too.

I wanted to get to the park when it opened, but some email issues delayed my departure from Canmore, so I didn’t arrive until after 11. By that time, special programs are underway and the place is getting busy, so I knew not to expect to be able to have any time visiting with the staff as their work day was in full swing.

I delivered the first poster prints of Berkley to Debbi, one of the owners, along with the cheque and a framed matted Berkley print, the one I used for the donation. I sent Serena, the head zookeeper, a text letting her know I was there, but she was out with the kids’ camp, a Zookeeper for the Day program. Told her I’d be around taking photos, but I knew they’d all be busy. If I didn’t see any of them on Thursday, I was fine with it.

I stopped by the Tiger presentation that was just starting, then went over to check out the wolves, the ostriches, deer, and of course, the black bears.

It was a HOT day, I was sweating under the sun, and figured the black bears would be trying to stay as cool as possible. Dark fur on a sunny day, they really should know better.

Imagine my surprise when I saw Gruff actively playing with an orange ball in his enclosure. He’s the bear I used as the model for my Black Bear Totem painting. I was fortunate to be able to spend time inside his enclosure with him to get the reference shots for that, an experience I won’t ever forget.

He’s a wonderful bear with a great temperament and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him throw the ball in the air and chase it when it hit the ground. He has this habit of covering his eyes when he throws it up, likely had it land on his face more than once, I think. As I was taking shots zoomed in through a double fence, I couldn’t get a good enough shot of him standing up when he threw the ball, but here are a few of his antics on the ground.
Given that he must have been getting warm with such activity, I wasn’t surprised when he went for a swim in the pond inside his large enclosure. I’ll admit to being envious.
. . I heard one woman say to another, something about how great it was to see the bear so happy and playful, clearly well looked after. It’s nice when other folks recognize what I already know from my experiences here. These animals are loved.

When he finally did come out of the water, he went back to his ball, but he seemed to have used up most of his energy prior to his swim and lay down in the sun.

At this point, having been there for an hour, I was thinking I might leave, go see my folks who live just ten minutes down the road, and then head into Red Deer to deliver the last of the Berkley prints, with plans to come back the next morning before heading home.

But I got a text…

Serena picked me up in a golf cart, and said I had a ten minute photo shoot before she had to get back to her duties. I asked what I would be shooting and she simply said, “a baby.”

“A baby what?”

She wouldn’t tell me, said it was a surprise, but that I should change lenses on the way. I wouldn’t need the zoom lens.

She drove me back to the keepers’ area where some of the smaller animals are kept at night and I told her I hoped it would be a skunk because the Alberta Institute of Wildlife Conservation (another facility I support) keeps posting pictures of skunks they’re rehabilitating and I want to paint one. The problem is that AIWC re-introduces animals back into the wild, so they don’t allow visitors to come and take photos, which is completely understandable.

Sure enough, I was introduced to Tunk, one of three baby skunks they’ve recently adopted when a farmer decided he didn’t want them around. Oreo and Flute are the other two, who I saw, but they’re not quite socialized yet, so Tunk was my model. Serena placed him in the grass surrounded by yellow flowers. While it was a great setting, and I was lying down, taking rapid fire photos, he was rambunctious and I couldn’t get any good pics.

So we took him to a nearby broken tree and let him run around a bit on top of that for a very fast photo shoot. I’m glad he’s had his scent glands removed, because I found myself looking at the business end of this little critter more than once and the possible consequences crossed my mind.

Baby skunks. What a treat.
Had the day ended there, I would have been quite pleased. But then I was invited to return that evening for…

Well, that’ll be in the next post.

Cheers,
Patrick

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The Black Bear Totem


Right up until the end of 2009, my art focus had primarily been on syndicated editorial cartoons and caricatures of people. Along the way, I’d also done illustration for businesses and board games, had tried my hand at some editorial Flash animation, and experimented here and there with creative off-shoots I thought might eventually yield some fruit.

Keeping a somewhat regular blog for the past nine years has served to become a business diary of sorts. It’s interesting to look back and read about my best laid plans. With the benefit of hindsight, some now make me cringe, knowing that had I gone further down some of those roads, I would have been disappointed. I’m also surprised at the blind optimism and enthusiasm in some of the posts, an elixir I wish I’d been able to bottle for mid-life.

The time I spent working on caricatures was excellent practice. I’m much better at drawing likenesses in my editorial cartoons today than I was then and it takes less time to get there. As I wasn’t interested in going that route, I never developed the skill to draw caricatures live. But people used to hire me to create them for birthday presents, wedding invitations, and other occasions. I can’t imagine I’d enjoy still doing that now, but it was all grist for the mill.

I was also getting pretty good at detailed caricature paintings of celebrities, but navigating the legal minefield of likeness rights, the large number of artists already doing that kind of work, and the awareness that my heart wasn’t going to be in it for long, I was a little lost.

This brings me to November 2009, right after my first trip to Photoshop World in Vegas. That summer, I had painted a caricature of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley with her holding one of the Aliens on a leash. The whole reason I painted it was to try to win a Guru Award and I didn’t get nominated. I didn’t enjoy the work, the finished piece felt wrong and I wished I’d never done it.

While disappointed at the time, it was a turning point in my career. I learned not to create something just to win awards and it lit a fire under me to find something new.

Upon returning home with the realization that caricatures of people was no longer where I wanted to focus, I painted a grizzly bear. Although it didn’t start out to be a caricature, it definitely ended up as one.
By February, I had a gallery in Banff willing to hang canvas prints of the Grizzly and subsequent Raven and Elk Totems on consignment. And then people started to buy them. I’ll never forget something the gallery manager told me about my whimsical style of painting. He said that no matter how well I painted, if I’d brought him realistic wildlife, he wouldn’t have been interested, because that’s what everybody else was doing. I’ve heard that a lot over the years.

On my next trip to Photoshop World later that summer, my Moose Totem won the Guru Award for the Illustration category and my Wolf Totem took Best in Show. While I didn’t paint them to try and win awards, it was that event and those chunks of plastic that introduced me to some great people at Wacom, and helped open some other doors that might have remained closed.

Since then, these whimsical wildlife portraits have become a defining part of my life. There are now over thirty paintings in the Totem series, several other whimsical prints, dozens of pet portrait commissions, and hundreds of sketch paintings.

There are now three kinds of prints sold in the Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary Zoos, Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, About Canada Gallery in Banff, and Reflecting Spirit Gallery in Ucluelet. The images are currently internationally licensed on T-shirts through two different companies, and on decals and cases. I’ve written articles for magazines, have recorded a couple of training DVDs, taught webinars and run an event booth for Wacom, and am coming up on my fifth successful year with a booth at The Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo.

I’ve also discovered a love of photography as a result of this work. While I’ve often relied on generous photographer friends for reference photos, I now take my own reference photos whenever possible. This has led me to new friends and experiences that have helped me get up close and personal with these critters I enjoy so much, sometimes face to face.
It is my belief that the next chapter in this work is calling me to get more involved with conservation, to give back to the wildlife that has given me so much. It might have taken me most of my life to find it, but I believe there’s work for me there, although I don’t yet know how it will manifest. I’ve already been looking for and taking advantage of those opportunities.

As all of this started with a grinning funny looking bear, it seems appropriate to reflect and bookend this chapter with another bear, eight and a half years later. The Black Bear Totem, modeled from a wonderful gentle bear named Gruff who lives at Discovery Wildlife Park, although that’s Reno in the photo above. I admire Gruff from a little farther away.

In writing this and checking my facts, I found the following in my blog post from November 2009 when I revealed the Grizzly Bear Totem, which incidentally is still one of my best selling prints.

“I recently found myself inspired to do a series of wildlife paintings, but I wanted them to have personality and life to them. Something different, something fun…I really think I’ll enjoy working on this series.”

I had no idea.