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A Different View on The Calgary Expo

Although it was a miniature version of the usual event, I spent Sunday at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo. I have no regrets about passing on a booth this year as I still think it would have been more expense than revenue, but a day at the Expo made me realize how much I miss it.

When I’m a vendor, there’s little opportunity to walk around to meet and talk with other artists, aside from my immediate neighbours.

The best I could hope for in previous years is showing up a little early to take a quick tour, but it’s tough to chat with other vendors while they’re trying to set up for the day. Shonna has occasionally worked my booth with me on the busier days, and she’s a big help, but people want to talk to the person who created the artwork, so I stay close to my own customers.

This time, free to wander, I met some talented artists, asked questions about their setup and advice on products they sold, and enjoyed talking shop without having to rush back to my booth. But, of course, when potential customers stepped up, I quickly moved aside and let the vendor go to work.

In my experience, fellow vendors are always willing to share information. At my first show in 2014, I didn’t know anything, so I was grateful for the constructive criticism and advice that came my way. Now that I’ve gained my own experience, I try to help newbies when they show up at my own booth with questions.

I spoke with quite a few vendors who sell vinyl stickers along with their prints and other products. When I showed them my first sticker pack and asked their advice/opinions, all agreed that I was selling them for too little. For the size of my stickers, the vinyl and design quality, a four-pack for $15.95 is a lot less than the current market price.

So, after careful research and consideration, I’ll soon be increasing the price of those stickers in the store to $20.95. As I learn more about the sticker market, I’m optimistic and excited about the possibilities. They’ll undoubtedly be prominent products in my Expo booth in April.

It was also great to reconnect with Alexander Finbow, the owner of Renegade Arts Entertainment, a growing publishing house right here in Canmore. Alex has published several award-winning graphic novels, comic and children’s books by international authors and artists. It seems they’re well known in the industry but still a well-kept secret here in the Bow Valley.

Having arrived on Sunday at 9:30 that morning, I had plenty of time to accomplish my own goals before my buddy Derek arrived with his daughter and her friend around 1:00. The owner of Electric Grizzly Tattoo here in Canmore, he’s an accomplished tattoo artist and skilled painter, so it was nice to walk around with somebody who’s as much into the art as I am. Also, even though I’m not a ‘kid person,’ I will admit that seeing a couple of nine-year-olds excited about comic and cartoon characters I didn’t know or recognize was fun.

And if it weren’t for the kids’ excitement about a booth full of snakes and lizards, I might have missed the opportunity to face up to one of my phobias.

Hairy spiders have always given me the creeps, but I don’t like being afraid of them since they’re such fascinating creatures. So when I realized that I could hold one, courtesy of Calgary Reptile Parties, I had a quick argument in my head. I knew that if I chickened out, I’d beat myself up all the way home and likely wake up the next morning regretting it.
So, I stepped up and let a hairy tarantula crawl around my hands and arms. She was delicate, fragile, light and gentle, and after a few seconds, I was more afraid of flinching and maybe hurting her. While not quite the same as close contact with a bear cub, a wolf, or an owl, it was an exciting critter experience, and I’m glad I did it.

The fear in our heads is usually so much worse than reality.

I also bought some art, something I rarely do at this event, since I never have the time to look.
Edmonton artist Sabrina O’Donnell does more than 25 shows a year (pre-Covid) and gave me some of the best advice on selling stickers. She based this little Canuck Crow piece on a news story she read about a Vancouver crow who stole a knife from a crime scene. I liked her rendering and that the work tells a story.
I bought a couple of books from Toronto cartoonist Scott Chantler. Both are graphic novels/stories about real people and histories. I’m not big on comics or graphic novels, but I like his art and the subject matter and found his work inspiring. Always worth it to explore another’s approach.
Finally, I bought a piece of art to hang in my office, something I’ve not done for a long time. Regular readers know that I’m a movie fan and will paint character portraits from time to time. I enjoyed the 2019 Joker movie, especially Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, so when I saw this piece by Alberta artist Sheldon Bueckert, I wanted it.

Even still, I waited a couple of hours before pulling the trigger to ward off any buyer’s remorse from an impulsive purchase. But right before I left the Expo, I went back for it. Whether it’s Sheldon’s choice of pose, colour, or his style of brushwork that drew me in, there’s just something about the piece I like.

That’s art for you. When it speaks to you, go with it.

I had an enjoyable day, better than expected. It was nice to be a bit of a fan again, rather than working the whole event. I’ve confirmed with the organizers that my booth is good for April, and I can expect to have the same spot I had in 2019. It’s a placement I worked hard to get over several years, earned through seniority.

To all of you I used to see at the event, I’ve missed you, and I’m already looking forward to seeing you again in 2022.

In the meantime, a day with all that inspiring art has filled the creative tank, and I’m anxious to paint. Anybody up for a cute and cuddly painting of a tarantula? ?

Cheers,
Patrick

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Playing the Hand I’m Dealt

Rounders, Molly’s Game, 21. I’ve always loved movies about card games and gambling, even though the limit of my experience has been playing low stakes Blackjack at the Photoshop World conference. The most I’ve ever lost is $300 over five days, which is nothing for Vegas. I had budgeted to lose that money from the start, since I’ve got no delusions about my skills.

With about a half dozen obvious tells, likely more, I’ve often said that I would be the worst poker player, so I’ve never bothered. I’m a bad actor; I wear my heart on my sleeve.

So this week, I’m not even going to pretend to have it all together. I haven’t got the bandwidth, and I’m confident most of you can relate. The pandemic has been going on for longer than any of us expected, and regardless of where you stand on the whole thing, I’m sure you’re as tired as I am.

I’m struggling.

My motivation is deep in the red, I’m easily distracted, I don’t want to talk to people, and I’ve got a short fuse. If one more person tells me to hold on just a little while longer, especially a politician, well, I’m just gonna…

…well, I’m just gonna hold on a little while longer.

Because what else is there?

In keeping with my current short attention span, and complete lack of inspiration to write anything motivational or upbeat, here are simply some updates.

Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo

Despite that they moved it from the usual April date to the August long weekend this year, Expo has once again been cancelled.

I know they made the right call, but it’s still one more gut punch in a long series of them.

It wouldn’t have been a good year even if they had gone ahead. With the U.S. border likely to remain closed, or perhaps just opening by then, the big celebrity guests they need to draw people in won’t be showing up.

Expo boasts close to 100,000 people over four days on a good year, moving between multiple convention halls. A few years ago, it was the sixth biggest Comic-Con in North America. But it is mainly an indoor event, and I don’t think people are ready for that yet.

Shonna and I are three weeks past our first vaccine shots and likely will have our second by then, but like many others, I’m pretty shell-shocked by this whole experience. After running my booth all day, I’d probably spend the first hour back at my hotel room having a Silkwood shower.

It would be a significant investment of time and funds in a year when both are in short supply. I wouldn’t expect to recoup my costs, let alone make a profit. Now, that’s not always the goal because I enjoy seeing many of you each year. While I’ve talked to quite a few of my favourite Expo people over email during this lock-down, it’s hardly a substitute for seeing them in person.

And I also love introducing new people to my funny-looking animals. So I will miss not being there again this year.

Fingers crossed for next year.

Continuing Education

I’ve been taking a marketing course over the past couple of months, which has been pretty damn impressive. I’ll be happy to tell you about it soon, but it has been hands-down one of the best investments of my time in a lot of years. It granted me a new perspective on promoting my work and a new appreciation for those of you who’ve come along for the ride.

Continuing education is always a good investment, and when you’re self-employed, it’s an absolute necessity. Technology changes so fast that it’s hard to keep up, but it’s worth the effort.

I gave a video presentation to a Grade 7 class here in Canmore this week. They’re doing a module on editorial cartooning, and I was asked to talk to them about that side of my work. I’ve done several of these in person at local schools over the years, but this was a new experience. While many people are having regular meetings over Zoom and Google Meet, I haven’t. I enjoyed becoming familiar with the technology, and it went smoothly.

After my twenty-minute presentation, sharing some cartoons and talking about the work, there was one question about drawing and digital art. I explained to the students that they were fortunate to live in one of the greatest times in history for learning to do anything they want. It’s all out there on the internet waiting to be discovered.

But they have to be willing to put in the work, always the most essential ingredient. There are no cheats or shortcuts around it.

What’cha working on?

Of course, I’m always drawing daily editorial cartoons.

But I’m also working on a new painting of a Bighorn Sheep, something I hadn’t planned. It began from a frantic rough sketch when I just needed to put something (anything!) onto a blank page to keep the demons at bay. This Bighorn has attitude and a little sarcasm, might have a screw or two loose, but sometimes those are the most fun. My Ring-tailed Lemur comes to mind. He’s not all there, is he?I’ve also started a character portrait from a streaming series and have gathered references for another character portrait from a movie. Many of you already know that when I’m feeling lost and overwhelmed, I’ll paint portraits of people to try and reset things. Those don’t contribute to my bottom line, but they usually do help my mental health. Usually, I paint one of these in late fall or winter, but there is nothing usual about this time in which we’re living.

Here’s one I did in November 2019 of Quint from the movie Jaws.
I’m trying something new, writing the story behind one of my favourite paintings. It’ll be a small e-book, a free downloadable pdf for followers of A Wilder View. It’ll feel like a chapter of the art book I’ve always wanted to write. I figure if it works out, and I write a few more, I’ll have enough of them to actually populate a book and won’t have any more excuses for not publishing one.

Sometimes I have to trick myself.

Housekeeping

I’m planning to design a new website, but in the meantime, I’m making improvements to the existing one.

I’ve added some new payment options to the online store to make it easier for you to add one of my whimsical wildlife prints to that bare section of wall you’ve got. You really should put some artwork there, y’know, maybe a Smiling Tiger or a family of Owls. I’ll let you choose.

In addition to the existing credit card payments and Paypal, I’ve added Stripe and Apple Pay as additional payment options. That’s right; if you’re an Apple user, you can buy with a thumbprint.

And if you live in Canmore, I’m always happy to take payment by e-transfer, and I’ll deliver free of charge. Just send me an email for those orders instead of going through the store.

Wrap it up, LaMontagne!

Live video presentations, streaming TV, buying stuff from our phones, we’re living in a sci-fi movie. We should be saying “Wow” a whole lot more often, instead of complaining when the Wi-fi gets slow. A lesson we’ve all learned this year is how much we’ve been taking for granted.

I got nothing else.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Fear, Panic and Calgary Expo


In the wake of the rapidly changing (over)reaction to the Covid-19 virus, I’ve been thinking about the Calgary Expo next month.

It’s the only show I do, but it’s a big one. Close to 100,000 people attend each year. With the Alberta economy doing so poorly, my expectations for this year are already low. People don’t have a lot of money for luxuries, of which art is undoubtedly one.

But I was optimistic it would still be worth my time to connect with my regular customers, hold my booth space until things improve and hopefully make some money.

In recent days, however, with conferences and events being cancelled all around the world as people shy away from crowds, it’s now looking like the Calgary Expo could be twice cursed.

The Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle was postponed yesterday until sometime in the summer, a week away from their event, about the same size as Calgary’s. Leading up to it, the list of cancelled guests was huge. The organizers offered refunds to advance ticket holders nervous about attending because of the virus, and 10,000 people took them up on it. That’s a significant number.

The SXSW (South by Southwest) event in Austin, Texas, which draws 400,000 people, was cancelled yesterday.

So I find myself facing a dilemma. If I cancel, I lose my booth fees, $1200 in a year where my revenues are already taking a hit because of the economy.

I’m reminding myself of the sunk cost fallacy, which makes people do something against their best interest because of money already spent. We’re emotional, irrational creatures and will often tend to double down on a bad bet because of money or time we’ve already lost.

If I continue on this present course, I will spend more money on three nights in a hotel, electrical fees, parking, insurance, ordering more stock, only to potentially have a large corner booth in the middle of a ghost town for four days.

If the guests and celebrities don’t show up, people don’t show up. With the economy down and folks staying away out of fear, the odds of making enough sales to make a profit this year goes beyond optimism. It’s naïve wishful thinking, bordering on delusion.

If I cancel, I lose the booth cost and my preferred booth space, which is based on seniority. There’s a good chance I’d no longer do this event.

I’m not worried about getting sick. I have a healthy immune system and most people who get this particular coronavirus have mild symptoms and recover well. Seniors with existing medical conditions are the most vulnerable to this illness, and the Calgary Expo is just not their scene.

It’s not a question of fear or pessimism, but surveying the land and deciding if there’s a reasonable expectation of growing any crops there. I still want to do the Expo, but it’s a LOT of work, before, during and afterward. It seems foolish to invest that time and money only to be standing there for four days, stinking of desperation.

Ideally, it would be great if the Calgary Expo cancelled the event and issued refunds, but if that happens, I don’t see it coming for another month. They’d have a hard time postponing the event until the summer as Emerald City Con did because that would require a vacancy at the BMO Centre for a five day event, and that’s unlikely. If they cancelled the event this year and bumped everybody’s booth and fees to next year, I’d be okay with that, too.

A lot of people will be affected by cancelling Expo. This event is a big moneymaker for many, including me. For some, it’s part of the foundation of their annual income, especially those putting the con together. People have booked flights, rental cars, ordered stock and planned their big book, art, and product launches around this event. The local economy counts on this event, the largest in Calgary each year, second only to Stampede.

To lose it will hurt a lot of people.

To go ahead with it could be just as bad.

I’m an obsessive worrier by nature, and even I’m not worried about getting sick. Since the symptoms of coronavirus are mild for MOST people, I expect there are thousands worldwide who’ve had it, recovered from it, and nobody even knows. How often does the average person go to the hospital for the flu? Most will assume that’s just what they had.

But if one person dies or catches it at Calgary Expo and infects somebody else who dies, that could likely be the end of the whole event. The mass hysteria, finger-pointing and unreasonable fear that’s currently infecting the world are far worse than the virus itself. The court of public opinion, on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere else would descend en masse on the organizers.

When we become gripped by unreasonable fear, we start looking for an enemy to blame.

The SARS outbreak in 2003 would have been far worse for the world and economy if we’d had social media. Daily updates on where the virus has shown up are incredibly bad for your mental health. What’s worse is that people aren’t only absorbing the panic; they’re spreading it on their own social media feeds.

This is new. We’re freaking out, and losing all perspective. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 1.25 million people die in road crashes each year, on average, 3,287 deaths a day. An additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled. In the United States alone, 37,000 people DIE in car crashes each year.

Could you imagine being updated EVERY TIME somebody dies in a car accident, let alone gets hurt in one? We’d never get in our cars.

But we’re so used to it; we ignore it to the point where we have to be told not to use our phones while we drive.

Despite the assertions of everyone and anyone on Facebook, Twitter and the News Comments sections who have suddenly become virology experts in the past five minutes, there are no easy answers. There rarely are for complicated issues.

At present, I will wait on a decision, evaluate the situation as it unfolds, expect the worst, but hope for the best. Eventually, I’ll have to decide whether it’s worth it to go ahead or pull the pin, take the loss and accept the consequences.

In the meantime, I won’t be buying any masks, hoarding toilet paper or running and screaming every time I see an Asian person. It’s stupid, dangerous, and if it goes unchecked, it won’t be long before we’re turning on each other. Because when things get scary, that’s what people do.

To illustrate that point, I’ll leave you with this short scene from the movie, The Mist.

Take a breath,
Patrick

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Calgary Expo – The Wrap-Up 2019

The Calgary Expo wrapped up on Sunday and it was one of the most unique and unexpected results in the six years I’ve done this show.

At the beginning of the weekend, I was thinking this might be my last one and said as much in my previous blog post. While I stand by all I said in the most recent post, and there is a lot of room for improvement on the part of the organizers, I had great sales. With just a couple more prints out the door, I would have beaten 2017, which was my best year.

So, on that front, I’m very pleased with the results.

Let’s start with what I didn’t like about this year’s event.

Informa, the company that now owns the Calgary Expo cast out the soul of this show, in my opinion. Plenty of people I spoke with, both vendors and attendees had choice words to describe the shortcomings. The attendees weren’t happy with the guests this year. Sure, they had Michael J. Fox and the Back to the Future cast, but they had them last year, too, except Fox had to cancel, so it was almost a repeat. Other than that, only one or two I spoke with were excited to see some of the other guests.

Communication in the run-up to the show was poor, especially compared to their predecessors. I could elaborate at length, but it would be boring. Let’s just say they’ve got nowhere to go but up. Clearly efforts to slash costs, a lot of little corners were cut.

There were quite a few empty booths at the show this year, so much so that I know quite a few vendors who got to expand their own space into the empty areas beside them. That’s unheard of for this show, but since I was one of those who got to add two feet to my booth and have some storage beside it, I was happy to take advantage. A number of vendors told me that this was their last year. Some attendees said the same.

The weather. This one is just bad luck, nobody’s fault, springtime in Alberta, what are you going to do? Saturday is traditionally the busiest day and we got walloped by a BIG snowstorm. Shonna usually drives in from Canmore for the day to help me out on Saturday, but since the weather was accurately forecast, I called her that morning from the hotel and told her not to come. It just wasn’t worth the risk.

It was a good call.

She would have been driving home right around the time that buses, semis and cars were careening into the ditch on the Trans-Canada. They closed the highway as a result. Walking the six blocks back to my hotel that evening was an adventure, horizontal snow and stinging wind, right in the face. I took a cab back the next day as I couldn’t roll my little suitcase through the snow and the sidewalks were skating rinks.

With people heading home to beat the storm, it got real quiet the last couple of hours on Saturday. That no doubt hurt sales, but they were still quite good.

The upside? There was plenty of that, too.

My booth location was the best I’ve had. I was right by a main entrance to the other building, a perimeter thoroughfare close to the exit from the Corral where the events were held. I really couldn’t have picked a better spot. No doubt that contributed to my great sales. Last year, some of my regular customers had a hard time finding me. This year, quite a few said I was one of the first booths they saw.

The vendors around me contribute a lot to the experience. When setting up, tearing down, when it’s slow, or you just need someone to talk to, the people around you can make it very dull or really fun. This year, it was most definitely the latter. My neighbours were all talented artists, each with their own unique styles. More than a few times, we were crying from making each other laugh.

It’s always great to see vendors I’ve known for years as well. When they found out I was alone, one couple came by a few times on Saturday and Sunday to watch my booth so I could take quick bathroom breaks. I had brought plenty of good food and could steal quick bites at the booth, but getting away was tough. So that thoughtful courtesy was greatly appreciated.

Patrick, Dani, Jamie, Marvin, Sebastian, Brock, April, if you’re reading this, thanks for making a tiring weekend a lot more fun.

The new product was well received and it was great to have such a variety to share. In addition to the usual prints and canvas, quite a few magnets, coasters, calendars and aluminum art pieces went home with customers and many remarked on the great quality of the goods from Pacific Music and Art. Quite a few people mentioned they’re seeing my stuff in different places, too, a result of that new license. One man said he recently saw a display of my work in The Banff Springs Hotel. I’m looking forward to checking that out.

Last, but certainly not least, I enjoy the people who come to see my funny looking animals.

There are so many return customers who buy my prints year after year, some who rival my parents in how many prints they have and they keep coming back. Many of them follow my newsletter and gave me positive feedback about videos I’ve recorded, stuff I’ve written about, told me animals they’d like me to paint, and were just great to talk with, often more than once over the weekend. More than a few of them greeted me with warm handshakes, hugs and big smiles.

It’s a pet peeve of mine that I’m so good at remembering faces, but not names, even though they all forgive me for it every year. As they’re fresh in my mind right now, I could run down a list of people I was happy to see again, but that might invade their privacy and I would invariably leave some out.

If any of you are reading this, hopefully I adequately conveyed my great appreciation for your continued support when I saw you in person. And even when you run out of wall space, as some of you have and many are close, please continue to come by and say Hello. A purchase is not required.

You are the best part of my Calgary Expo experience.

As the price of booth rental only went up a little, and I was guaranteed my same booth space if I renewed at the show, I put down the deposit for next year with hopeful, but realistic expectations.

My neighbour Jamie put it well when he said that our current Expo grievances, while well founded, might also be a simple case of resistance to change. Nothing stays the same and even though there’s plenty with which we’re not happy, there’s still good reason to hang on a little longer and see how it turns out, give Informa and Fan Expo the opportunity to listen to the complaints and try to make things right.

I’m willing to take that chance, at least one more time.

Cheers,
Patrick

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The Start of Calgary Expo 2019

If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you already know that the Calgary Expo has been my biggest undertaking of the year for the past six years. For people who do trade or gift shows on a regular basis, this sort of thing is routine, so the big deal I make about it each year seems like nothing to them. If I did these sort of shows a lot, I would easily see it from their perspective, but it’s not just the show that’s a challenge, it’s getting away FOR the show.

As half of my business is editorial cartooning, which requires following the news for  a living and producing satirical illustrated commentary almost every day, taking five days away to focus on this show is more difficult than getting away for a vacation. My newspapers still have to be covered and when I get home exhausted late Sunday night, I’ll still be up at 5am on Monday morning drawing cartoons.

Managing the logistics to prep for this show is a lot of work because I also have to keep my papers supplied with cartoons while I’m away, which means drawing more in the week before and hoping no news of great importance breaks while I’m gone, because I can’t just abandon my booth or drive back to Canmore to get a cartoon done in between the show hours.

I’m also an introvert who spends most of time working alone in the comfort of my home, so this event takes a lot out of me, having to be ON for five days, surrounded by a lot of people.

That being said, it’s usually a fun show. Once I’m there, I really do enjoy it, even though Sunday will be a very long slog of a day. I rarely encounter somebody at this show who doesn’t want to be there and few who aren’t having a good time. Each year, my booth gets better, I learn something new for the next go ’round and streamline the process.

I recorded a video this past weekend which showed the booth set up in my garage, offered some thoughts on why I set things up the way I do, and shared it with my newsletter audience. You can watch it here if you like.

Here are some images of the prep this week. Beginning with the two sides of the booth set up in the garage, this is something I do every year to make things easier when I’m on site. With no time pressure, I’m free to leave it set up for a couple of days, nitpicking print placement and trying different things. Then I take photos of the setup and refer to it when I’m on site.


Once I’m happy with it, I pack it all up, go over the checklist and have it all together in one pile, ready to load. The snowshoes stay home.

My trusty Pontiac Vibe may not be the most flashy or cool car around, but you can sure put a lot into it. The cargo capacity on this thing is impressive. There are two six foot tables in here, four 2′ X 6′ pieces of gridwall, two 1′ X 6′ pieces of gridwall and everything you see above. That being said, there is no room for anything else.

“Is there a problem, Officer?”

Once on site Wednesday, I set it all up, made everything nice and tidy, ensured the lights were working, in order to leave as little work for myself as possible when I returned on Thursday.

All that remained was to hang the canvas and aluminum, put the prints in the bins, the magnets on the board, the floor down and turn on the lights. It took about an hour yesterday to finish getting it show ready, the result below.

As I’m writing this in my hotel room Friday morning after the first evening, I was pleased with the first day’s sales, all things considered.

On the positive side of things, quite a few of my repeat customers I’ve gotten to know over the years came by to add to their collections and just to chat and catch up. That really is my favorite part of this show. Some of these people have been buying my work since my first year and I’m always grateful for their support. When more than a few customers greet you with a hug, you’re doing something right.

That being said, there is initially a different feel this year, confirmed by my fellow vendors and some attendees I know pretty well. It doesn’t appear that they sold out of exhibitor space this year which is a bad sign. Usually this show is FULL early on. There used to be a long waiting list.

This year, there’s actual empty space between some booths, you can see that in my above photo. When I arrived on Thursday, my neighbour on the right side of the pic had moved closer to me and said I could take advantage of it as well. I moved my far wall another two feet.

Having extra space at Expo is bizarre. We’re usually fighting for every inch. I know a couple of other vendors in the hall who had the same luxury.

Fan Expo bought the Calgary Expo a couple of years back and while changes were evident last year, the old familiar faces were still around and on the team. I haven’t seen anyone in administration that I recognize this year, so clearly they were obligated to be part of last year’s transition. In my opinion, it was those hardworking folks who made this con what it is and set the tone for the culture.

While clearly a commercial venture on all sides, there was always a feeling that we were all in this together, vendors and organizers. I’ve seen no evidence that exists any longer. Even the announcers sound bored.

Fan Expo (a subsidiary of Informa Exhibitions) doesn’t seem to be popular with the fans. At one time, I had considered doing the Edmonton, Regina and Vancouver Expos, but vendors talk with each other and there’s no incentive for me to give that any more thought. Many have become dissatisfied with those experiences and are abandoning them.

While my sales Thursday night were good, comparable with last year, I credit that to my great location on a main thoroughfare near an entrance, because there were noticeably fewer people in attendance. Thursday is usually quieter anyway, but this was the quietest I’ve ever seen.

Rumblings among the vendors is that the best days of the Calgary Expo might be behind us. One of my close friends, Michelle, a loyal Expo attendee, decided to skip this year. I’ve heard a couple of my neighbouring vendors say that this is their last year and depending on how the weekend goes, we’ll see how I feel about rebooking when Sunday comes.

If this good thing does come to an end and I bid farewell to the Calgary Expo, I’ll be disappointed, just as I was when I stopped attending Photoshop World for very similar reasons. But hanging on, expecting it to become what it used to be would be myopic, foolish and just bad business.

That being said, I still plan to have a good time this weekend, try my best to help others do the same, and I look forward to meeting and greeting my customers, both old and new.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Showing Up

eaglepat At this weekend’s Calgary Expo Holiday Market, a neighbouring vendor mentioned that it’s probably healthy for us to get out of our own orbits, to network with new people, actually talk face to face with customers. While my instinct is to shy away from that, I know she was right.

She added, “Besides, it’s nice to listen to people tell you how much they like your stuff for an entire weekend.”

Over the course of this weekend, I found myself questioning the value of trade shows, mostly because I’ve gone from doing only the one each year, adding another and am considering more.

So you don’t mistake the following mixed feelings with a misconception that this here hermit artist just doesn’t know how to talk with people, I’ve worked more years in customer service than I have as an artist. I know how to play the sales game.

I was in retail and hotels for years before I became self-employed. I managed a waterslide facility full of screaming children and worked a hotel front desk over multiple Christmas holidays and sold out summers in one of the busiest tourist towns in the world. I’ve smiled through a guest check-in while they’ve told me everything had better be perfect, and again during their check-out when it wasn’t.

I didn’t sit down while in my trade show booth, not once through the entire weekend. Sitting down tells people they’re bothering you and most will just move on. I wasn’t on my phone all the time, or sketching, or standing with my arms crossed. When somebody walked by the booth, I smiled, said Hello, engaged them in conversation, made small talk. If I noticed people looking, but they hadn’t approached, I invited them over to take a look. They most often did and often bought as a result. No sales pressure, just being friendly.

I tell you this not to sound like a martyr. Most people who work customer service know they must do the exact same thing, or at least the successful ones do.

As this Holiday show was put on by the same people who do the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo in the spring, they marketed it to their regular attendees. From this vendor’s perspective, that was great as I’ve gotten to know a number of customers over the four years I’ve been doing Expo. Many have purchased more than once and have become collectors of my work. I do look forward to Expo each year, because prior to being a vendor, I was an attendee. It’s an event I enjoy.

There were a number of familiar faces that approached me, asked what was new and bought some more prints. One gentleman, who owns a few of my prints already, bought his first canvas print. A couple of my Facebook followers came by to visit and both bought prints. Up until now, they’ve been names I recognize from likes/comments. It was a real pleasure to talk to them in person and I was flattered that they made the time to come down and see me.

I was able to chit chat with my neighbour in the next booth and as she’s a regular Expo vendor and sells at many other shows, her insight was valuable.

These are the benefits that are hard to quantify. There is no specific dollar value, nothing that can be put on a balance sheet, but the information and connections you gain from networking will most definitely contribute to the bottom line in the future.

As for the cons, those are more personal. I’m a results oriented person, which often isn’t associated with people in the arts. If I’m not using my time well, then I view that time as wasted.

When I go for a hike, it’s because I know that my senior years will be painful and difficult if I don’t stay fit. Most days, I’d rather just stay in and work, but I force myself to get out and walk those 6-10km, often with a 20 pound backpack which includes a couple of cameras. If I see a squirrel, bird, or something larger, I can take a photo that might end up being used for reference. I also come up with cartoon ideas on my walks. I’ll walk downtown on an errand, rather than drive, not because I’m being environmentally conscious, it’s just multi-tasking.

I don’t do idle well. So while I’m standing in the booth in a slow period, saying Hi to people that walk by, just looking ready to engage, I’m thinking that I could be writing on my iPad, or drawing a cartoon in my sketch book, or perusing the news on my phone. But that would make me look unapproachable and that’s bad for sales.

While some can relax for days on end while on vacation, lying on a beach doing nothing for longer than an hour is torture for me. Let’s go tour a ruin, learn something new or have a new experience. Thankfully, my wife has the same outlook.

boothThe trade show experience, as a result, feels like I’m wasting a lot of time that could be spent producing more work. It took me almost four hours to set up my booth on Friday and two hours to tear it down and pack the car Sunday evening. There was also the drive time to and from, which amounted to three hours total for Calgary.

I could have gotten a lot of painting done in that time, a blog post, or a few editorial cartoons.

The idea of doing multiple Christmas shows fills me with dread. I don’t set foot in a shopping mall between now and January to avoid the madness and festival frenzy. The idea of going on tour to different cities to experience that very thing seems horrific to me. Luckily the weather was great this weekend, but I thought about what it would be like doing this sort of thing when there’s a whiteout on icy roads in a packed car, sharing the road with aggressive Alberta drivers looking at their phones. Sugar plums dancing? More like animal prints littering the ditch.

We canceled our Thanksgiving plans this year because the roads were treacherous. Canceling a booth with all of the associated costs would be pricey.

A period of evaluation lies ahead of me. How much of this do I want to do? How much of my best energy (the stuff I rely on to create!) do I spend on this sort of thing, especially at a time of year when that energy is in shortest supply? Psychologically, winter is when I struggle most, when I am much closer to the bottom than the top, for months at a time.

There is a certain amount of self-doubt about this where I think, “Am I just shying away from this because it’s different, out of my comfort zone, or a foreign experience?” But then there is also the confidence that comes with age where you also know who you are and that what works for one person might not work for you. I’m an atheist, but the serenity prayer comes to mind.

Living your life by somebody else’s playbook, especially in a profession where being unique is the ideal, doesn’t make any sense.

On the surface, sales were decent, but if I factor in everything from my print costs, hotel, food, parking, booth rental and power, then my end profit amounted to less than a minimum hourly wage for all of the prep, setup, time on site, tear down and post-work at home.  When I looked at that final number after calculating all of the expense, I thought, “That’s it? For all of that work?”

I don’t feel that way when I get my payments for editorial cartoons, licensing royalties, commissions from the galleries or payments from the zoos. Because when somebody else is selling my work, I’m producing more work.

I’ll be overthinking this for some time. It will factor into whether or not I add more shows or commit to a season of the Canmore Market next spring, summer and fall. I lost money on the first Expo I did and barely made any money on the second, but if not for those first two, I wouldn’t have made money on the next two and this past spring Expo was a really great year. But I also like doing that show, and that matters, too.

As with most decisions in self-employment, there are no easy answers. There’s no map. Most of the time, it’s just feeling around in a dark room looking for a light switch. And when you finally find one, it illuminates a very small area and you’re once again squinting into the dark, looking for the next light switch.
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Calgary Expo 2014 – The Wrap Up!

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This year’s Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo has come and gone.  Much more than a ‘Comic-con,’ the event attracts some of the biggest names on the circuit and with attendance approaching 100,000 this year; it has become one of the largest of its kind in North America.

Many types of vendors flock to the Expo, including artists.  2013 was my first year with a booth and it was an incredible learning experience.  I spent a fair bit of money on display hardware, retail walls, print bins and other equipment you don’t think about until you have to, so the first year wasn’t a money maker.  I brought far too many prints with me, so with what I brought home, I just ended up with inventory that eventually sold throughout the year at About Canada in Banff, the Calgary Zoo, and my online store.

Armed with a little experience (a dangerous thing?), I started my 2014 prep early, bought fewer prints, added postcards to the mix (btw: VERY successful), and tweaked my plans to streamline things a little before setting up my booth for my second year.

Between the daily editorial cartoons, illustration gigs, and the paintings that I never seem to have enough time for, adding even one trade show to an already busy schedule is a frantic juggling act. Talking with other artists who do this sort of thing, seems we’re all just two seconds away from panic and padded rooms.

GollumWEBThe addition of a fourth day this year, really just four hours, was an unwelcome fly in the ointment.  While the Stampede grounds in Calgary are only an hour and half drive from Canmore, the odds this time of year that the weather could turn foul (especially this year) meant that commuting every morning and night was unwise.  Long days in the booth without a break were exhausting, which made falling asleep at the wheel a real possibility.  Adding a fourth day meant taking an extra day away from my office last week in order to set up, plus another night in a hotel, an expense that wasn’t justified by Thursday “just looking today” sales.

I figured I could handle Thursday and Friday by myself and it really wasn’t difficult.  The time went by fast and when I needed a bathroom break, my next door neighbours were happy to mind my booth for me. For the most part, there’s an atmosphere of camaraderie among the vendors.  We’re all in this together.

My wife, Shonna, arrived on Saturday.  Our friend Michelle was attending the event and graciously agreed to bring my lovely assistant to my aid.  On Saturday and Sunday, the two busiest days of Expo, I really did need help at the booth and I couldn’t have asked for better.  I wouldn’t have done so well had it not been for Shonna’s support, and that pretty much applies to my whole life in general.

While traffic ebbed and flowed, it was busy most of the time.  People wanted to talk, asked a lot of questions about the work and seemed genuinely interested.  Most artists want to stand out from the crowd, and many told me they’d never seen anything like my paintings, sweet music to my ears.   One woman said that they looked like, “cartoon animals who found a way to come into the real world.”

I really liked that.

It was a great feeling to recognize a common reaction to my paintings.  Folks would be walking down the aisle, scanning their surroundings, and when their eyes settled on my booth, they’d suddenly stop and smile.  It happened more times than I could count and most didn’t even know they were doing it.  It got so that Shonna started mentioning it to them.  They’d smile, give a nudge to whomever they were with and then they’d come over.

It made me think of Kermit the Frog in the Muppet Movie.  Dom Deluise’s character gets Kermit to consider leaving the swamp only when he tells him that he could ‘make millions of people happy.’  There are worse aspirations.

While there isn’t a lot of opportunity for networking when the event is in full swing, I did have some good conversations with nearby vendors.  I couldn’t really leave my booth to wander and look around, but one thing about staying in one spot, eventually everybody walks by, so I did get to see some of the great outfits.  Many enthusiastic people dress up (cosplay) as favorite characters from TV,film, comic books and video games, putting a lot of effort into their costumes.

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Costumes02WEBOne of the great surprises this year was repeat customers.  People who bought a print or two last year came back to buy more.  Best of all, we recognized many of them.  I had plenty of people who said they’d seen my work before but couldn’t figure out where.  When I mentioned the Calgary Zoo and About Canada in Banff, light would dawn in their eyes.  Many needed no prompting at all, they just told me where they’d seen it, and some had even bought my prints at those venues.

This face to face connection and recognition isn’t something I get while working alone at home or through interaction on social media.  It was very gratifying.

While I’m comfortable talking to people and public speaking doesn’t faze me, I’m a very private person and spend most of my time alone.  Being ‘on’ for four days in customer service mode was mentally and physically exhausting.  I was so drained on Monday that I managed to get one cartoon out and spent the rest of the day in a daze, interrupted by a few naps.

There is no doubt in my mind, however, that I want to repeat and improve upon the experience in 2015, especially since it will be a milestone 10th year for the show.  I’ve already booked my booth again and even asked for the same spot.  Each year teaches me something new and I learned a lot this time around.  I’ll be going into my third year with a more solid foundation and a better idea of how to streamline things, knowing what works, what doesn’t, and with some new ideas I’d like to try.

Even though I cut back from last year’s order and did very well, I still came home with more prints than I wanted, mostly from fear of not having enough for the whole weekend.  So once again, I’m having a big post-Expo print sale and everything in the store is up to 30% off.

One of these days I’ll figure the inventory right.  Until then, I’ll just keep trying.

PostExpoSaleSITEBANNER

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Calgary Expo – The Wrap Up

Booth001This weekend found me running my first retail booth at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo.  All day Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I was selling my wares to attendees of the second largest event of its kind in Canada, along with many other artists and vendors.  As this was my first ‘con’, here’s a bit of a review to show how the reality of the experience met with my expectations.

At this event, I was selling prints of ten of my original creations, my Totem paintings.  I prepared as best I could by reading blog entries and articles online by those in the know.  A talented animator friend, Jennifer Llewellyn has had a booth at this Expo six times now and she graciously shared a lot of information with me both before and during the event.  There’s a distinct culture at this sort of show and as I’d requested a booth beside hers when I registered, Jenn served as my guide throughout and was a big help to me.

The first year is where you’re going to spend the most amount of money if you want to do it right.  I wasn’t content to have a booth that looked bargain basement as many will do to save on expenses, so I put my best foot forward.  I bought retail grid walls that stand on their own, had a professional banner printed, bought bins to hold my prints, and other assorted retail hardware.  For product, I offered poster prints for $15.00 apiece, with backer board, artist bios and cellophane sleeves.  I also offered the usual matted giclée prints for a discounted show price of $35 (regular $44) and my limited edition 12″X16″ canvas giclée prints at a discounted show price of $220.00 (regular $295.00).  As this was my first foray into the show, I had no idea how much inventory I would need.  Considering that I regularly keep prints on hand for online sales and supplying the local retailers who sell my work, I figured I should aim high, so that anything I didn’t sell would just become part of my regular inventory, stock I would need anyway.

Last year, this Expo experienced some significant growing pains.  The Fire Marshall essentially shut it down on the Saturday of the 2012 event, as there were far too many people inside the venue.  Many who had bought tickets and waited in line weren’t allowed in and others who had just stepped outside for some lunch or some air were locked out for the duration.  I was on a research trip to this event last year, and I experienced the lockout firsthand.  Our weekend passes became null and void early Saturday afternoon.  This year, they capped the number of tickets at close to 60,000 and sold out well before the Expo itself, increased the size of the venue, and vowed to fix all that went wrong with last year’s event.

So how did it go?  Well, lets start with the cons of the con, from this vendor’s point of view.

My only reference to how things should have gone was from other artists who had done this event before.  As the weekend wore on, a number of them said that this was one of the slowest years for sales.  Saturday is supposed to be one of the biggest and best selling days, and yet even though I was in a good location, there were hours on Saturday afternoon (yes, hours) where it felt like a ghost town in our corner of the world.  The first two hours of Sunday morning were exactly the same.  Quite discouraging as I was looking at the many prints still sitting in bins in my booth, wondering how many of them I was taking home with me.  Speculation seemed to be that because they had spread the celebrity guest signings and panels out to other buildings and with the limited ticket sales, many people didn’t make it to the vendor booths in the small press section (where I was located) or if they did, they didn’t make it back when it came time to make their purchases.

A big question mark was whether or not I was even in the right place to sell my particular brand of artwork.  Here was a typical situation my wife and I noticed throughout the weekend.  A person would walk up the aisle in front of my booth, scanning left and right as they walked.  When they saw my work, they’d smile or laugh, say something like, “Oh, cool!” or “These are great!”  They’d come over to the booth, look through my book, ask questions, and appear thoroughly engaged with the work and have many complimentary things to say.  Then they’d often say “Thanks” and wander off to the next booth or say, “I’ll be back later on.”  Both my wife and I have worked in retail years ago and have experience with the ‘just looking’ crowd but when the reactions seemed very genuine, we couldn’t figure out the reluctance to buy by many of the enthusiastic visitors.  Money didn’t seem to be the issue as our pricing was comparable to the wares of many other artists.  One of the most common comments we got was that my work looked like nothing people had ever seen before.  As an artist, that’s a great thing to hear, but whether or not it also prevented them from buying it because they didn’t know where to put it, who knows?

One quirk of this con is that when people had multiple day passes, they didn’t want to be carrying their purchases around with them all day, so they said they’d come back later in the day or on Sunday to buy.  Anybody who has ever worked in retail knows how that goes.  One way around that was we offered to hold on to their purchases until they came back for them and that did work for a few of them, especially one woman who bought a canvas print of the Ostrich Totem.  Others, however, just never came back.

Something that really began to annoy us as the weekend wore on was cellphones.  We easily had half a dozen potential good sales ruined by somebody getting a text or phone call while they were talking to us.  The phone would distract them and they would wander off while taking the call.  Or if they stayed at the booth,  following the call or text, their entire demeanor changed, as if that distraction had broken the spell of their interest.  Cell phones are not your friend when you’re trying to make a sale.

These were the less than ideal parts of this show, but now I’ll talk about all of the positives that came from this event.

There was a noticeable difference in the organization level of this event this year.  There were a lot of volunteers, all of whom were exceptionally helpful, friendly and receptive to feedback.  We heard nothing but good things from attendees and vendors with how well the folks at the Expo handled everything this year.  They really should be commended on how they turned lemons into lemonade following last year’s event and I personally made a point of thanking a few volunteers for their efforts and I noticed a number of other vendors did the same.

Booth002First and foremost, there is no substitute for experience, and the amount I learned about trade shows and expos this weekend is immeasurable.  It was truly an education, one that was quite enjoyable.  One of the best parts of this event was that my wife, Shonna worked it with me.  She even wore her two Ostrich Totem shirts proudly on Friday and Saturday.  The pic at left was Sunday.  Her opinion and insights are always of value to me and the fact that I didn’t have to come home and try to explain everything to her is a relief.  She went through it all with me, saw and heard everything I did and worked just as hard.  Her help and support was incredibly valuable to me at this event.  I could have done this without her, but I wouldn’t have done it nearly as well and it wouldn’t have been as much fun, because yes, as hard as we worked, it really was a good experience for both of us.

One of the benefits of having a booth at the con is that even though we didn’t get to see as much around the venue as I would have had I been an attendee, eventually a lot of the people came wandering down to our end.  So, we still got to see many of the creative and elaborate costumes, a highlight of this show for many.

Neither Shonna nor I are big on crowds at the best of times.  While I have plenty of experience in sales and working with people, having worked in retail and hotels before I was a full-time artist, these days I spend the majority of my working time alone in my office and I quite enjoy my solitude.  But having a booth at a show, you have to be ON all the time.  Smiling, laughing, saying Hello and making eye contact, inviting people in, being friendly and engaging, making people feel welcome to come and look at your wares, answering the same questions and telling the same stories over and over again for three days straight.  I wondered if I still had it, and thankfully I did.  Best of all, I really enjoyed myself and so did my wife.  The people were the best part of this Expo because they were all there to have a good time.  Even if they weren’t buying, it was fun to talk with them, hear their thoughts, and explain my work to them.  Everybody I talked to seemed to really like my paintings and style of artwork, which was a nice boost.  Every artist wants to find their own look and I’ve successfully done that.

Commissions!  We couldn’t believe how many people asked about commissions of their pets.  While many seemed content to just take a card, Shonna had the bright idea to start taking email addresses from those who made inquiries and today I’ll be sending a lot of personal messages to people with the blog entry link that explains all of the information about commission work.  If even a small percentage of those who inquired take the plunge, I’ll be busy painting custom pet portraits for a long time.

Suggestions! It is very clear that a panda and giraffe need to be added to my Totem list.  A number of people asked if I had those paintings.   Others I found intriguing were a Hedgehog, Alpaca or Llama, and a Lizard.  All of these would be enjoyable to paint and add to my funny looking menagerie.

Networking!  We spoke to many other experienced trade show and expo artists who were very happy to share the information they’ve gathered.  One couple who attend many of these shows as vendors stood at our booth when it was slow and took Shonna and I to school.  They told us which shows were profitable, which ones were not, which ones were expensive and vice versa.  We honestly didn’t meet anyone who was in a bad mood or wasn’t genuinely willing to share information with us and we tried to do the same.  There is a thriving community of professionals and amateurs on the show circuit and we were welcomed into it.

Validation!  Everybody is warned to have cash on hand to purchase items at the show.  Most vendors will not have the ability to take credit cards.  I went with the Kudos system, however, so I could take credit card payments on my iPad and I’m glad I did.  More than half of my sales were credit card transactions.  I would not have sold the canvases I did had I only taken cash.

People really did seem to like my work.  We got used to seeing big smiles and exclamations of, “Oh, look at these!” and “These are wonderful!” from people.  They would also say things like , “they look real, but cartoony.  How do you do that?”  And best of all, the adjectives.  Everybody sees something different in the expressions of my Totems and since I have no idea where the personality comes from as I paint, nobody is wrong.  The same Totem would be called, ‘sarcastic,’ ‘angry’, ‘scary,’ ‘mischievous,’  ‘happy,’ and ‘goofy,’ among other things.  They would tell me and others what the Totem was thinking.  “Oh he’s thinking, don’t worry, I’ll eat you quickly,’ and ‘what are you lookin’ at?”  I loved it.

On Sunday, a gentleman approached me about licensing my Totems for a specific line of products (that’s all I’ll say for now), took me to his booth, showed me what he was talking about and I was very interested.  I’ll be talking to him again today via email.  Best of all, some of the work on his products was that of another artist at the show, so I went to her booth and asked her opinion of the arrangement.  She gave a ringing endorsement, so I can go into these negotiations with a better understanding of the person and company I’m dealing with.  Apparently this sort of thing happens at a lot of these events as well.  And the reason I was approached?  He had never seen anything like my work before.

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To sum up, having a booth at this Expo was a LOT of work and expense, both in prep and at the venue, but it was well worth my time.  Because the Internet and social media is so much PR and hard to tell where the truth lies, I’ll be honest.  While I still came away with good sales, I did not make money at this event, but both Shonna and I are fine with that.  The reason is that the first year is the most expensive and costs range from buying the prints and retail hardware to food and lodging and other expenses, all of which have to be considered on the balance sheet.  I brought WAY too much inventory, but only because I had no way of knowing where to draw the line, having never done this before.  I’m so glad I didn’t try to sell T-shirts and postcards as well this first time out.  The great thing is that none of the inventory goes bad.  It sells at the Calgary Zoo, About Canada in Banff and in my online store on a regular basis.  All it means is that I have plenty of stock for awhile and I don’t have to buy anything in the near future.  So I didn’t really lose any money, especially because I didn’t go into debt for this show.  All of my expenses have been paid, so this wasn’t a hardship.

In the end, this was an investment in experience.  The knowledge we now have could not have been learned without taking the risk and it was well worth it.  Was this the right venue for my work?  I still don’t know.  Will I do this particular Expo again next year?  I’m still thinking about it, leaning toward the affirmative, but I still don’t know.  Sometimes a first year or two is required just to get people to know your work and develop a following.  Will I be doing other trade shows like this to test the waters?  Most definitely, especially since I already have the booth fixtures at hand.  We’re already looking at a number of possible venues and figuring out our next move.

We came away from this event with a lot to think about and I’ve taken a new step in marketing my work.  Best of all, I took another risk and that’s the only way to move forward.  In the next couple of weeks, I’ve got a fair bit of post-con work to do from emailing potential clients about commissions and negotiating a licensing deal, not to mention reassessing the inventory I have in stock and figuring out the best way to make use of it.  It was a really good weekend and I’m glad I did it.

Even before this show, I had a lot on my plate, so right now, it’s back to drawing and painting, which is what got me into all of this in the first place.

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Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo 2013

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Only a few days left before I haul this banner and everything else into Calgary to set up my booth.  Having been to the Calgary Expo as a ticket-buying attendee a couple of times, including during last year’s ‘if something could go wrong, it did,” event, this will be my first year as an exhibitor.  With a mixture of paranoia and excitement, I’ve spent the last four or five months obsessing about every last detail, trying to anticipate anything and everything that could go wrong and preparing for it.  As the scorpion said to the frog, “It’s simply my nature.”

You could pretty much divide my career into two professions.  I’m a cartoonist, editorial and otherwise, but I’m also a digital painter.  While they both rely on the same artistic skills and the styles do intermingle, they’re actually quite distinctive in their differences.  As a cartoonist, I create and sell daily editorial cartoons and do custom cartoon style illustrations for clients.  As a painter, I create my Totem artwork, those whimsical funny looking animals that are printed and sold online, in galleries, retail outlets and licensed on T-shirts through The Mountain.  I also regularly paint commissions of pets for people.  They’re almost two different businesses.  And while the learned experts would say that an artist or business should focus on one thing and be good at that, they’re both large parts of how I make my living.  I enjoy them both equally, and at the risk of sounding arrogant, I’m good at both and would have a hard time letting one of them go.

For the Expo, however, the two styles don’t belong together in the same booth.  So for this event, I am a digital painter first and foremost and this is the work I’ll be selling.  If the animals I painted were in the realistic style of Robert Bateman, this venue might not be the right choice to sell my work, but because of the nature of my Totems, their caricature look that borders on the fringes of other artistic styles, I think this will be a good fit.  There are a lot of people looking to buy art at this event and I’m optimistic that mine will generate some interest with this crowd.  The fact that my Eagle Totem made it into the Calgary Expo Art Book this year would seem to support that theory.

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A survey this year of those folks who follow me on my Facebook page revealed my Top Ten Totems and I’ve been busy ordering, signing, assembling, and pricing the three types of prints I’ll be offering when the Expo kicks off on Friday.  There are 11″X14″ Poster prints, the quality you would expect to find in a book or on a poster (funny how that works).  I’m also offering 11″X14″ matted giclée prints.  These are exceptional quality, printed on high end paper with archival ink and materials.  These are the prints I regularly sell in galleries, the ones in the above image.  And finally, 12″X16″ giclée stretched limited edition canvas prints, complete with certificates of authenticity, gallery quality as well.  A couple of 18″X24″ framed canvas prints will be also be available.

OstrichWhen planning this booth, I went back and forth on which items to offer, how much of each image to print, how much stock to bring, what prices to assign to each, and what retail hardware and support equipment to buy as well.  I could end up bringing home a lot of prints, or selling out too early and have nothing to offer on the last day.  Both would be undesirable, although to be honest,  selling out wouldn’t be so bad.  There are so many variables to consider the first year and I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘best guess’ is the final say on almost every decision made.  I’ve had friends give me advice based on their experience, I’ve read articles online, in books, and magazines, but in the end, it will come down to not how somebody else has done at this sort of event, but whether or not my images will sell at this venue.  The only way to know that is to put my best foot forward, then wait and see.  Of course, having a very supportive wife who is taking a couple of days off to work the booth with me does make it a lot easier.  Fail or succeed, at least I’m not doing this alone.  She’s even going to wear an Ostrich Totem shirt.

I’ve always done well in my career by taking risks, especially ones that make me nervous and require me to stick my neck out.  The financial investment for this venture has been significant because I can’t bring myself to do anything half-assed.  If I’m going to take a shot, I need to be proud of the effort, win or lose.  I’ve spent the money, I’ve got more inventory in my possession right now than I’ve ever had, and now I just have to show up and put on a smile.

The Expo sold out of tickets a couple of weeks ago, and 60,000 people are expected to show up between Friday and Sunday.  It’s going to be a zoo, but also a lot of fun.  Some of the most interesting people you could ever want to meet will be invading the BMO Centre in Calgary this weekend, a number of them in costume.  This time next week, I’ll be exhausted, but it’ll be worth it.

If you’ve got tickets, you can find me in the Small Press section, Booth R 08.  See you there!

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Survey Says!

Preparing for the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo at the end of April is proving to be an exercise in anxiety.  I already know that my work sells well in the right venues.  I’ve had my Totem prints in four different galleries and retail outlets and while some are better than others, the response has been quite favorable.  Five of the designs are currently licensed to The Mountain and I’m always working on a commission piece for somebody.  While confidence in the work is usually one difficulty faced by newbies to Cons and Expos, that’s not the problem I’m facing.  Even if my work isn’t popular with the crowd that shows up to the Calgary Expo, I’ll still be OK with the work, and just know that it wasn’t the right venue.  I’m not even uncomfortable running the booth, talking to people, or selling, which is something else artists often have difficulty with.  For many years, I worked in the tourism and retail industries,  I ran Wacom‘s booth on my own for a full day at a training seminar, worked a trade show booth on my own up at Fort McMurray for a Banff hotel I used to work for, and have done live painting and training demos quite a few times in the last four or five years.  While public speaking scares a lot of people, it’s honestly not a problem for me.  In fact, the trick is getting me to shut up.

Where the challenge lies is knowing how to stock my booth.  I could spend many thousands of dollars selling everything from cartoon prints, illustrations, paintings, portraits, cards, prints, t-shirts, posters, canvas…it’s  a long list of possibilities.  The key to a successful booth it would seem, is focus.  And, of course, not overextending myself.  I’ve got three full days to sell merchandise at an event that has become so big that with 600 vendors and artists, and 50,000+ attending, there are a lot of things to consider.  I already know that I’m just going to focus on my Totem paintings, for the sake of continuity.  But I don’t want to run out of stock on Saturday morning, nor do I want to be packing up a lot to bring home on Sunday afternoon.

There’s a lot of advice online from people who attend expos like this, telling artists to balance ‘fan art’ with their own work.  Use the fan art to get people to your booth.  That doesn’t work for me.  Fan art is basically just copying somebody else’s popular characters and selling them.  While illegal, most of these offenses go without prosecution, so artists keep doing it.  Considering how many artists complain about being ripped off online, I’m surprised at how many still condone the practice.  I intend to find out if I can support my booth on my own work alone.

As this is my first booth, I will do a number of things wrong, I’m sure.  How can you learn from experience until you have some?  But in an effort to put my best foot forward, I created a small survey earlier in the week to ask people their opinions on a few questions I’m faced with.  Two winners were chosen from the respondents to receive 11″X14″ matted Totem prints of their choice.  I received 100 responses, which was the survey limit, but the results were pretty clear when it came to ranking which of my Totem paintings people liked best, along with opinions on matted prints vs. unmatted.  In an effort to perhaps help somebody else prepare for a show like this, here are my results and how I choose to interpret them.

I asked respondents to rank my Totem paintings in order of preference.  While I have 16 Totems in my portfolio, I’ll only be selling 8-10, so here are the Top 10 in the order the survey indicated.

Results001Some surprises here.  The Humpback Whale is one of my favorites, and even though a few people agree with me, most do not.  But for this survey, I would have included it in my print run for the booth.  Many people did say in their comments that it was tough to choose and that they had a hard time ranking them because they liked them all.  While I can understand that, and appreciate the compliment, the ranking was very clear for the first five, not so much for the last five.  The Bighorn Sheep could have easily been shown instead of the Penguin as they were neck and neck.   But I chose the Penguin because the venue will be in Calgary and with the addition of the penguins at the zoo last year, it’s a safe bet some will buy it based solely on where it’s being sold.

The Wolf Totem has long been a favorite among people who like my work.  It’s a big seller and very popular.  But it was done over two years ago and I’m pleased to see that my two most recent pieces are in the Top 3.  Thankfully, it would appear my best work isn’t behind me, something many artists fear.

Matted prints and cost.  78% of people would prefer a matted print to an unmatted one and 73% said cost didn’t affect that decision.  That was very revealing, however the people who follow me online aren’t necessarily the same demographic as those who will be shopping at the Expo.  A lot of people go to the Expo to buy inexpensive prints and even at a reduced price of $30.00, it will be too much money for some, when they could buy two or three prints for the same amount of money, which means more art from different artists.  If this were a Christmas trade show with an older crowd, I would go entirely matted at regular price with a lot of canvas as well, but at this venue, I’ll be doing a mix of matted and unmatted prints.  But this was very helpful in helping me decide the balance.

The majority of people were interested in a discount on buying two prints, rather then three or four.

Results002When it comes to the T-shirts available from The Mountain, the Wolf was the clear winner, the Ground Squirrel second, but it was an even balance between the other three.  If I do decide to include T-shirts in my inventory, and that’s still undecided, it is obvious that I should include all five.  The large majority of respondents would buy one for themselves or somebody else.  One commenter suggested that she still liked the T-shirts, but wouldn’t buy one because her family just doesn’t wear shirts with designs on them.  Personally, neither do I, so I was curious to see how many thought the same.  Selling T-shirts as well as prints might be a little too much this year as it would require a lot of inventory in different sizes and might make for a very crowded booth.  This first year, I might just stick with prints and have one of each design on hand to let people know that they’re available online from The Mountain.

Finally, more than half of the respondents left comments, which I found very valuable.  Many were complimentary of my work, which I appreciated.  Others told me that ranking the Totems was very difficult and a couple even seemed to worry that they were hurting my feelings by doing so, telling me I shouldn’t think they hated the last one they picked.  No worries, I’ve got thick skin.  Still, others were just very nice words of encouragement and nobody gets tired of hearing those, so thanks for that.  Some suggested that other animals should be on T-shirts.  As they are licensed and not produced by me, it’s actually up to The Mountain which ones end up on T-shirts.  So while these five are the only ones at the moment, who knows what the future will hold?

Here are some other comments I found helpful, and my thoughts on each.

“Your pricing, I would do the multiples on the $10 mark… so $40, $50 etc. Just keeps things simpler.”  This is good advice and something I’m going to seriously consider.

“Would it be too much work to get more mat colors than black? Black looks nice, but can take away from some pieces depending on color. A color mat can really enhance the work. Good luck!!”  and another comment in the same vein “White matte and $40. I don’t like black mattes. Too heavy. Your prices are too low.”  Matting is always tough.  With lighter colour work or black and white, a white mat usually looks best.  With darker work (such as mine), a black mat usually looks best.  And you’ll easily find people who will disagree with both statements.  In a perfect world, a painting looks best when matted to reflect colours in the painting and matches the decor of a room.  How do you do that for every customer?  Well the simple answer is that you can’t.  White or black are the choices and as in all things, people prefer one or the other.  For continuity in an artist’s work and to minimize cost and inventory, it isn’t advisable to offer both, because hanging together on a wall or display, they will actually look bad beside each other.  As for choosing a coloured mat, that’s a minefield.  A number of people said they didn’t like the purple of the Wolf T-shirt, even though it did draw out colours from the painting itself.  Honestly, purple wouldn’t have been my first choice, either.  But it was still the most popular shirt in the survey.

I trust the advice of my printer, as he does both white and black mattes for many different artists.  After seeing these comments, I asked him what he thought and he said he thinks my work looks better with a black mat.  My wife agrees and I think so, too.  Art is a such a tricky business, because everybody likes different things for different reasons, and you can’t please everybody.  So I’m sticking with the black mats, but wouldn’t tell somebody they were wrong if they swapped it out for a white or coloured mat.  Even still, with the choice of only the black mat, the vast majority still preferred to have a print sold with the mat.

“A set of postcards of your totems on a special paper would be pretty cool.”  That’s a great idea.  While I was going to have postcards for promotional reasons, I hadn’t considered doing that for each animal as a little collector piece on their own.  Might sell them for $1.00 or $2.00 each or two or three for $5.00.  I already have art cards licensed through Island Art Publishers, but promotional postcards for the show might be a nice addition.

“Would like to see your totems on ball caps and mugs.”  That’s a licensing thing and while I wouldn’t produce them myself, you never know what might come around in the future.  I’m always talking to other companies and if I find the right one, you may get to see both.

A lot to consider with this survey and I would like to thank everyone who participated.  The expense of this show is significant, thousands of dollars to prep the booth and stock inventory, so I really wanted to put my best foot forward.  The input was very helpful and I imagine there will be other opportunities in the future for me to ask for your opinion and offer prints as prizes.  As always, however, you can always share your thoughts with me  on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.