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One More

One of the reasons I enjoy taking my own reference photos for paintings is that the animals often surprise me.

When I began painting these critters, before I took my own photos, I’d often have a pose in mind, and I’d go looking for it on the internet. I’d eventually find something I liked, but it would often look similar to the pose I used for a previous painting of a different animal.

If it were a stock photo, I’d pay the licensing fee for reference. Failing that, I’d contact the photographer, arrange for a high-res image and pay or barter for the use.

Australian photographer Scott Portelli allowed me to use his underwater photo for my Humpback Whale painting in exchange for a rolled canvas of the finished piece. Moose Peterson allowed the use of several of his animal images in exchange for my drawing a caricature of him and a business partner for a course they taught. We already had a connection through Photoshop World, so he was familiar with my work.

I paid a U.S. park warden $100 for his photo I found online for my first Wolf painting. He confessed surprise at my offering to pay since that image had been stolen and published illegally more times than he could count.

The problem with online reference photos is that I know that no matter what I find, there’s a good chance another artist has used the same image. Certainly, I’ll paint it with my spin and style, and it won’t look the same as another artist’s work, but it will undoubtedly share similarities.

By taking my own photos, it stands a better chance of being unique.

On a recent visit to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, I had another opportunity to take photos of their black bears during their presentation to the public. As I’ve known the keepers and staff for several years, they allow me into the large enclosures with them, though I’m behind a hot-wire. It’s an electric fence about a foot off the ground that the animals avoid, for obvious reasons. The keepers, however, interact up close and personal with the bears.

These animals are all orphans and rescues who came to the facility under conditions prohibiting their release into the wild. Many of them have been raised here since they were very young. They receive exemplary care and clearly have an affectionate relationship with their caregivers.

The keepers use the bear presentations each day to educate the public about wildlife. They teach how to be bear-aware while hiking, what to do if you encounter a black bear or grizzly in the wild, how to use bear spray, and keep a clean campsite so that the local fauna doesn’t learn to associate people with food.

The hope is that by educating the public, fewer orphans will end up in captivity, remaining in the wild where they belong.

One of those rescues is a big black bear named Gruff. With a genial and gentle personality, he has been hand-raised at the park since he was a cub.

Sadly, Gruff had a rough start in life. A hunter poached his mother in the Grande Prairie area, and people passed the frightened little cub from home to home.

Fish and Wildlife eventually confiscated the sick and frightened cub, and my friend Serena, the head keeper at Discovery Wildlife Park, was asked if she could take him.

He was malnourished, in shock from his ordeal, and sick from untreated pneumonia that has since resulted in permanent left lung damage. Because he was in such bad shape, Serena didn’t know if she could save him. But with proper food, medication, round-the-clock care and a lot of patience, Gruff has grown into one of the most beautiful black bears you could ever see.

He is currently eight years old and 709 pounds at his last weigh-in.

I’ve painted Gruff several times, and I expect I’ll paint him again as I enjoy his expressions and antics. The bond between him and the keepers is evident, and he never fails to put a smile on my face.
While visiting in June, I was happily snapping pics of Gruff when he made a clumsy attempt to sit up from lying on his back. He looked right at me, with his tongue out, and immediately reminded me of a large guy trying to do a sit-up. With the camera on rapid-fire, I got quite a few shots of this funny situation and was delighted at the photos when I got home.

As none of them were quite right on their own, I used three different reference pics for this piece. One had the best head position, another one revealed a better overall pose and the third, while a bit out of focus, had some lighting I liked.

Could I have found these shots online, taken by another photographer? Unlikely. Would I have even thought to have looked for images like this? Not a chance.

I could list dozens of paintings I’ve created that have been inspired by situations and experiences I couldn’t have anticipated. It’s why taking the photos is as much a part of the finished pieces as the paintings themselves. Each of them has a story and conjures up fun memories.

Whether it’s a pose, lighting, or simply a look, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discovered future paintings while sorting through photos.

When I came across the photos of Gruff, looking like he was trying to get in shape, there was no doubt of a painting. But, before I put the first brush stroke on the digital canvas, I already knew that I would call it ‘One More.’

I imagine it 10 feet high on the wall of a gym somewhere.

Here’s a high speed video of ‘One More’, from start to finish. Prints of this piece are available NOW in the store.
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© Patrick LaMontagne

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Close Encounters of the Bear Cub Kind

DISCLAIMER: Don’t EVER approach bears, bear cubs or animals in the wild.

Earlier this week, Shonna and I were thrilled to be invited to Discovery Wildlife Park to meet their latest adoptees.

Bos and Piper are two Kodiak cubs from the US who needed a new home. While they’re not siblings, they are the same age, three months old today. The amount of paperwork and regulatory hurdles required to rescue these cubs from an unsustainable situation, especially during this unprecedented time of COVID, was monumental.

Our friend, Serena, the head keeper at DWP, has been around animals her whole life. With her staff’s help, she has raised quite a few bears, wolves, and other animals in need of rescue, ones that couldn’t be rehabilitated and returned to the wild.

Discovery Wildlife Park, the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre and the Calgary Zoo, are places I support and the Alberta Institute of Wildlife Conservation, which rescues, rehabs, and releases animals back into the wild. I have no real interaction with the last one, aside from a monthly donation. To be released back into the wild, the animals need as little human contact as possible.

We would like to believe that this could be a world where no animal would ever need to live in captivity, but that would require sacrifices most of us aren’t willing to make. Our addiction to excess is one of the main reasons for disappearing wildlife habitats around the world.

With almost 8 billion people on the planet, each with our own opinions, vices, and levels of acceptable compromise, nothing is ever as black and white as we would like to believe.

Co-existing with wildlife is a never-ending discussion. There are strong opinions on both sides of the argument, from the average person on the street to nature and conservation experts, each speaking from their own experience and perspective. And those experts rarely agree. Unfortunately, there’s often more talking than listening, and the middle ground is mainly unpopulated and devoid of footprints.

I’ve personally wrestled with the issue for many years and will continue to do so. I’ve asked the hard questions from the dedicated people who work in these places. While the answers aren’t always the ones I’d like to hear, I believe they’re doing the best for these animals in their care and that their intentions and motivations are honourable.

I’ve seen how the animals interact with the park staff for years now, their evident trust and affection. I wouldn’t support any facility that didn’t treat its animals with respect and kindness or contradicted my wildlife protection values.
It’s with no small amount of gratitude that I enjoy such a close relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park. Their allowing me close contact with the animals over the past several years is a profound trust I don’t take lightly.

I’ve taken thousands of reference photos at the park, which has allowed me to create some of my best work. But I’ve also learned an incredible amount about wildlife, their behaviour, medical and dietary challenges and their profound intelligence.

Discovery Wildlife Park sits on 91 acres, fenced and double-fenced in places. There is a forested shallow ravine on the western edge of the property, complete with a flowing creek. As this area is inappropriate for any structures, it’s largely untouched and remains natural. This is one of my favourite photos of Berkley from one of our excursions in this little forest a few years ago.

When they’re small, many of the animals spend plenty of time in these woods, where they can run, explore, climb trees, eat berries, and play.

On the day that Shonna and I visited, the cubs were teething, as traumatic for animals as humans. Along with the physiological problems that accompany teething, there’s not much that can be done for the pain and discomfort.

We watched Piper have a full-on meltdown for about a half-hour, bellowing and bawling her way through the woods. She was cranky and having a bad day, reminding me of a child throwing a temper tantrum in a supermarket. It was just as uncomfortable to watch, but Serena wasn’t concerned, as it’s all part of being a baby. Piper eventually exhausted herself and went about exploring, playing and climbing trees.
The following morning, I sent Serena a text asking how Piper was doing.

“She is a happy girl today.”
Bos was much more subdued, a little lazier, but curious and seemed to be enjoying himself as he chewed on trees, dug in the dirt, and wrestled with his adopted sibling.

Just like people, they have their own unique personalities. As my only other experience with a brown bear cub is Berkley, the differences are remarkable. Berkley rarely vocalized, whereas these two are talking all the time. Piper was so named because she’s got a real set of pipes on her.


Though she’s always had an overall genial way about her, Berkley went through a bit of a rebellious teenage phase where she would push Serena’s buttons to test her boundaries. It’ll be interesting to see how these cubs grow into their personalities.

Presently, they require constant care, familiar territory for Serena and the staff. It will be some months before the cubs can spend any significant time alone. There’s little time off for those who care for animals, but I’ve never heard them complain. It’s a demanding but rewarding lifestyle.
In the hour and a half we were out in the woods with the cubs, I took just under 1500 photos. With bright sunshine and dark shadows, the lighting wasn’t ideal. The bears were often between me and the sun, so I didn’t get as much light on their faces as I would generally like. Hard to complain, though, since I was watching bear cubs play in the woods. I wanted to take some video, but it was too much to handle and would have ruined the experience.



As I don’t like hoarding photos, I’ve already gone through them all and kept just over 100. Most are shots I simply liked, the ones you see here. But I did get about a dozen that I think will be the seeds for future work; there are two paintings in there for sure.

We didn’t get to visit Berkley this time around for a couple of reasons. Her large enclosure is on the far side of the park, and they’re doing a lot of work right now getting ready for their season-opening. Most importantly, the animals thrive on routine, and right now, visitors aren’t part of that, so there’s no need to confuse her.

I’ll have to return often this spring and summer to spend some time with her.

If you’d like to watch the cubs grow up, you can follow Discovery Wildlife Park on Facebook and Instagram, where they regularly post photos and videos. They can only care for these critters thanks to the generosity of donors and visitors during the summer season, so if you’re in the Innisfail area, consider stopping in to check it out. It’s easy to keep your distance from others with plenty of outdoor space while still enjoying all that the park has to offer. They open May 1st, and annual memberships are available.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Grizzly on Grass

Yet another painting of Berkley, but for marketing reasons and the potential implication of that goofy grin, I’m calling it Grizzly on Grass.

Aside from their efforts to rescue and take in orphaned animals, one of the things I love about Discovery Wildlife Park is their focus on enrichment. In the wild, animals are kept busy searching for food, defending their territory, and making miniature versions of themselves.

While captivity is never ideal, the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park would likely have been destroyed due to the circumstances that brought them there in the first place. Those circumstances are usually us, people who have either directly or indirectly prevented them from surviving and thriving in the wild.

The animals at the park can’t be rehabilitated and released, either because laws prevent it or they were too habituated already, which is why they needed to be here.

With 91 acres on the property, the park can provide the animals with large enclosures, complete with natural structures, clean ponds and water features. The black bears and Berkley can dig their own dens each year, or they’re given structures they can use if they choose the artificial route. It’s incredible how each bear has a different preference.
They’re provided with as much hay as they want to pad the dens for warmth and comfort. I remember Serena (the head keeper and good friend) sending me pictures and videos the first year Berkley dug her den. Berkley took the hay inside, then came out and dropped a little at Serena’s feet, asking for more, which of course, they gave her. Some bears do get up during the winter, even in the wild, but Berkley has always slept straight through.

If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you’ll know I have a special place in my heart for Berkley. I was able to get to know her when she was weeks old and had many visits with her in the first couple of years. Discovery Wildlife Park has a large, wooded area where she could climb trees, splash around in a creek, play in the snow and wander around as she liked without any danger.

The personal contact I had with her when she was a cub created a lasting bond, and when I visit her now, she knows me. If I go to one end of her considerably large enclosure and call her, she’ll come from the other end to visit, and we’ll hang out together on either side of the fence. We can’t have close contact these days because even though she’s a very gentle bear, I’m intimidated by her size. My nervousness creates an unknown safety issue.

The park staff are incredibly dedicated and care a great deal for the animals in their care. You need only talk to them and watch their interactions to realize the trust between them. When an animal dies from medical complications or old age, it hits them all hard. They work hard to give the animals the best life they can, despite their captivity.

Survival is no longer a concern for these animals. Their diets and health are continually monitored, and they receive top vet care. The problem with captive animals, however, is that without constant stimulation, they will get bored. As a result, the animals get plenty of enrichment opportunities.

The structures in their enclosures are often changed around, diversions hidden in strange places, along with additional food. It gives them something to explore and dig out. There is a large forested fenced amphitheatre area that acts as another natural playground. The bears and wolves are taken in often and allowed to run around as they like. Not together, of course. There are many rock structures and ponds for them to play around in, with room to run. This new environment gives them plenty of stimulation, and they seem to enjoy it a great deal.

There is a high cost to maintain this type of facility, and they’re always looking for new revenue streams to help. In addition to the gift shop, campground, and winter RV storage, they rely on donations and sponsorships to keep the doors open. If you’ve ever seen the vet bill for a jaguar’s arthritis stem-cell transplant or a root canal, you’d understand.

“I’m in it for the money,” said no zookeeper ever.

When they built the amphitheatre area, they had the foresight to install a fence along one side, with large enough holes along it for camera lenses to poke through. They regularly host small groups of photographers to come and take photos of the bears and wolves in their playground. It’s an opportunity for the animals to play and for the park to raise funds to care for them.

In September of 2019, my buddy Derek, a skilled tattoo artist and painter, and I went up to Innisfail to participate in one of these photo sessions. While I enjoyed taking photos of the wolves, as I always do, I’ll confess that my main focus was Berkley. I just can’t get enough time with her.

The problem is that because she knows me, she kept coming over to the fence to say Hi, which means nobody could get any photos. Serena kept having to call her back. She finally gave me shit and said I was never going to get any pictures if I kept talking to her. I had to turn my back and retreat so Berkley would go back to enjoying the natural playground.
Once she did, we were able to get some great photos. She has a natural smile and brightness in her eyes. People often remark on the personality I create in my paintings. It’s almost like I don’t have to add any with Berkley because it’s already there. She remains my favourite subject to paint, and I can’t imagine I’ll stop anytime soon. There’s just something in that face that makes me happy.

Even though she played in the water, scratched and climbed on trees (she’s tough on trees), Berkley looked over often, and I had to be careful not to distract her. But it meant that I got some great pics of her looking right into my lens, including the reference for this painting.
I didn’t want to stop working on this image because I enjoyed it so much. Even though the finished painting is a horizontal composition, I painted it vertically to get the expression right. I’ll confess that if I get this printed for myself, a distinct possibility, I’d hang it vertically above my desk, so that goofy grin can greet me every morning.

I’m looking forward to seeing Berkley again soon. She’s up from hibernation and gaining back the weight lost during her winter slumber. Every year I wonder if she’ll still know me, but she always does, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world.

If you’d like to support Discovery Wildlife Park, you can donate or buy an annual membership on their site. They open for the season on May 1st and will be happy to see you. You can buy my prints in the gift shop and see some of my artwork around the park. Be sure to take part in their daily education talks about how to be safe in bear country and help contribute to wildlife conservation, no matter where you live. Ask plenty of questions. Education is a big part of why they do what they do.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Another Berk in Progress

Here’s a sneak peek at a new painting of Berkley that I started this morning. I took the reference for this one in September 2019 at Discovery Wildlife Park but didn’t see the potential in it until just recently.

She was lying in the grass, looking right at me, so it’s actually a horizontal image, but I’m painting it vertically so that I can get the expression right. When it’s finished, people can hang the print whichever way they want, so that’s a fun little twist.

As the painting develops, I’ll paint in blades of grass in the foreground on the right side. It will partially obscure that side of her face but give the whole image a sense of place.

Yesterday, my friend and head keeper Serena sent me a personal video and a couple of photos to let me know that Berkley has woken up from hibernation. While it’s already warming up around here, seeing that sleepy 4-year-old brown bear’s face certainly makes it feel like spring might finally be around the corner.

Having raised her from a weeks-old cub, Serena and Berkley have a special bond, and I don’t know who was happier to see the other.

I’ll share more work-in-progress shots with my newsletter followers as this painting progresses, but I don’t think this one will take long. There’s no other face I like painting more than Berkley’s.

Almost all of the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park are orphans and rescues; many are brought to them from Alberta Fish and Wildlife. These are animals they can’t release back into the wild and would otherwise have to destroy.

While animals in captivity are never ideal, people have made many bad choices, and there are very few places in the world where animals are truly wild outside of protected regions.

I live in an area where trains, highways and tourists are the biggest threat to bears, wolves and other wildlife. By leaving food in easy reach, approaching wildlife, and even deliberately feeding them, we teach them to associate people with a free meal. When they eventually become too comfortable or even aggressive, they often must be euthanized.

Hazing and relocation to other areas will occasionally work, but most often, the damage has already been done and is irreversible.

Discovery Wildlife Park works to educate guests and visitors about coexistence and conservation, which is why I support their efforts.

But without financial support, they wouldn’t be able to do the work they do.

Discovery Wildlife Park is closed for the season right now, but they’ll be open May 1st. With 90 acres of space in which to move around, it’s a great place to get outside and spend time with the animals while still being able to social distance. While you’re there, make time for their daily scheduled presentations to learn how you can help keep wildlife wild.

Memberships are currently on sale for almost 50% off, granting unlimited admission all season.
© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Bear Hug

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to focus on a whimsical wildlife painting. For those who follow my work specifically to see those, thank you for your patience.

Wacom hired me to create a video for them connected with a promotion they’re doing right now called “Find Your Gift.”

As many of you know, Wacom creates the tablets and displays on which I’ve created my work for more than twenty years. I’ve been their guest on webinars, created new product demo videos for them, represented them at an event in Calgary, presented at their booth at Photoshop World, and they generously allowed me to donate tablets to a local school.

My work wouldn’t be possible without Wacom.

So when my friend Pam asked me to create another video for them, there was only one answer.

What I like best about our relationship is that Pam lets me do my own thing. Of course, we have some back and forth to make sure my vision matches hers, but she knows what to expect from me, and I do my best to deliver.

In this case, I had the freedom to interpret the word gift and paint and write what I wanted, which allowed me to create my best work.

I spent the last three or four days chained to my desk, creating this painting, recording with the camera and screen capture, writing and recording the narration, and editing it all together a la Dr. Frankenstein. It was a lot of work, but I’m quite pleased with the result.

I realized that the three recent paintings I like best are ones I did for Wacom videos. Those include the Amur Tiger, the Ring-tailed Lemur and this one.

The model for this painting is one of the most handsome residents of Discovery Wildlife Park. Gruff was an orphaned black bear cub who had a rough start in life, but thanks to Serena and her staff’s tireless efforts, he has grown into a beautiful, gentle bear with a wonderful personality. The keepers try not to pick favourites, but they each have a special place in their heart for Gruff, as do I.

I’ve often written about how much I value my relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park. They allow me incredible access to the animals, for which I’m immeasurably grateful. On my most recent visit in September, I was able to sit inside the enclosure while they did their bear education presentation, where they teach people about bear safety, behaviour and conservation.

I took hundreds of reference shots and didn’t realize I’d be using ones from that session so soon.

One of the keepers, Jacob, was in Canmore last week, and I had a brief visit with him. I told him what I was painting, inspired by the poses I shot. He told me that Gruff almost always has a ball with him. It doesn’t need to be the same ball, but it’s kind of like his security blanket. He even takes a ball with him into his den when he hibernates.

On one visit to the park a couple of years ago, Serena sent me a text asking where I was. I said that I was watching a silly bear play with a ball. She responded, “Gruff.”

Gruff taught himself how to pose with the ball and because it was so endearing, the keepers used positive reinforcement to encourage that behaviour. It was this pose that inspired the painting. As the light wasn’t great in this shot, the sun beside and behind him, I had to use other reference photos for the details. Thankfully, I have hundreds of pictures of Gruff.

Even though I was pressed for time on this, more self-inflicted than not, this painting was a joy to create. It’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun painting one of my whimsical wildlife portraits. Considering the kind of year it’s been for all of us, that’s no small thing.

If you’ve got five minutes, you can see a high-speed time-lapse below of how I painted Gruff and hear some of my thoughts about the importance of finding and sharing your own gifts.

Take care of yourselves,
Patrick

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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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Another Day of Discovery

I’m not breaking any news here when I point out that most businesses have had to adjust to operational difficulties during the past six months. Many had to close, some permanently. For the ones that survived, the opening came with severe restrictions, reduced hours and a strange new reality.

Discovery Wildlife Park began its late-season start as a drive-thru. People could visit the park, but had to stay in their vehicles, while staff did their best to ensure a worthwhile experience. It proved to be quite popular, especially since there were few options elsewhere for a family outing at the time.

Once allowed to fully open, they had reduced hours, but visitors could roam freely while keeping their distance from other guests. The park itself is a well-manicured open-concept venue, and just walking around the place is relaxing. Add in the rescued and orphaned animals, and it’s a unique experience.

Their season ends typically on Thanksgiving, but this year the last day is September 30th. With that date looming and the fantastic fall weather this year, I made the time on Monday to drive up and spend the day taking photos.
As always, my first stop was to see Berkley, a brown bear I’ve known since she wasn’t much bigger than a cat. She has a massive enclosure all to herself, complete with a pond, big fallen trees on which to climb and plenty of daily attention from staff and guests alike.
In August, Berkley weighed in at 388 pounds. As she’s been preparing for her long winter’s nap by eating a lot more, I suspect she’s well over 400 now. She’ll turn four years old this coming January and still isn’t full grown. Given the excellent care the animals receive at the park, Berkley is one of the healthiest brown bears you’ll ever see. Her thick, luxurious coat sometimes makes her look like she might be carrying a little extra weight, but she’s fit and lean.

It never fails to make me smile when I call her name, and she ambles down to see me, even if she’s at the other side of her enclosure. It’s such a privilege to sit on the grass and look into those beautiful brown eyes.
Serena (the head keeper and Berkley’s Mom) and the staff have become friends over the years. I’m ever grateful for the behind-the-scenes access they give me when I visit. During the bear presentation, I was able to take up-close unobstructed photos and got some nice reference pics of the black bears. I tried to hide a little during Berkley’s part of the presentation. She tends to get distracted if she sees people she knows.
In the middle of the day, I drove ten minutes down the road to have a visit with my folks and meet their new little animal; a Yorkie named Lily. Once again, the first favoured LaMontagne child has four legs and a fur coat. She’s a skittish little thing, but she seemed to like me. A baggie full of dog treats helped.

Upon my return to the park for the lion presentation, I got another nice batch of photos. I’ve wanted to paint their male lion, Griffin, for some time. While I still don’t have THE shot I’ve been looking for, I did get plenty to paint other images.
While nobody knows what the future holds, I expect a winter with even more time indoors than usual. With a topped-up stock of new photo reference, I’ll be using that time to paint and write.

Lions, tigers, and bears…oh my.

And an elephant.

Cheers,
Patrick

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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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Walking with Wolf Pups

If you’d asked me how I was doing during the past couple of months, I might have answered that I’ve had OK days and not-so-OK days, for reasons I need not explain.

This past Sunday, however, was the first good day in a long while. And it was a really good day.

Discovery Wildlife Park is open as a drive-thru right now, an Alberta Health Services approved method for people to still come and see the animals, but they must stay in their vehicles. It’s proving very popular and they’ve been busy, with a steady stream of cars winding through the park on their well-manicured gravel pathways. The staff helps the animals be seen, they answer questions and do their best to make it an enjoyable experience for their guests, despite the distancing measures.

While I think it’s great they have this option, it’s not one I’d planned on experiencing. I’ll admit to being spoiled by my connection to the park, and the access they’ve given me. I just don’t want to see Berkley from my car, especially given the drive time to get there.

Shonna and I have been very good at following the isolation rules in all of this. She still goes to work at the law office each day, but it’s closed to the public and they have the appropriate safety measures in place. I’ve stayed home, only going out once a week for groceries, completing all of my errands in as few days a week as possible.

Alberta relaxed a number of restrictions on Friday, allowing people to get together in small groups. Some more businesses have been allowed to open and people are venturing out of their homes, though still being advised to wash their hands, keep their distance, and exercise caution.

Serena and I were texting Saturday night as we sometimes do, as I’m always curious to see how the animals are doing. She often sends behind-the-scenes pictures and videos for us. I made the off comment that it’s too bad I wouldn’t be able to see the wolves while they were pups, to which Serena replied, “Why not?”
As she did with their Brown bear Berkley when she was a cub, Serena takes 8-week-old Sassenach and Highlander for a walk each evening in the large fenced wooded area at the park. She lets them explore, play, and get into trouble, without having to worry that they’ll go anywhere.

We’ve had the privilege of many walks in the woods with Berkley. So it was exciting when Serena invited us to come up Sunday evening and meet the wolf pups in the same way.

Shonna later said she was impressed at how I jumped at the chance without overthinking it. Spontaneous is not my default setting.

We couldn’t have asked for a better day. With warm temperatures, sunny and cloudy skies, very little traffic on the highways, we headed up that afternoon, a little over two hours’ drive one way.

I talk with my parents often enough on the phone and via FaceTime, but we hadn’t had an in-person visit since they left for Arizona in the fall. As they live ten minutes from the park, we made time for a short visit on their deck beforehand, keeping our distance, of course.

We met Serena at the park at 6, drove over to the wooded area and before long; the wolves were doing their thing while we took pictures.
Part of the reason we have such a good relationship with the park is that we’ve always given the animals their space. There’s no chasing, lunging, grabbing, yelling, basically any behaviour that’s going to freak them out. We were content to watch, let them get comfortable with our presence and it was up to them to come to us.



Thankfully, once they did, both pups did check us out, but their primary focus was on each other, exploring, playing and attacking.
As Serena said, “It’s Fight Club, every night.”

We spent about two hours with them, visiting and catching up with Serena and taking a lot of pictures. I had my camera, but also my phone. Shonna and Serena took pictures with their phones and I got copies of all of them. So most of these pictures are mine, but some are theirs, too. And we don’t really know which are which.
The funny thing is that like most young animals, they were just bundles of energy, until they weren’t. Once they crashed, they crashed hard. Serena then told us we could pick them up, because at that point, they didn’t care. Holding a snoozing wolf pup is a real treat.
As always, we are forever grateful for our connection with Discovery Wildlife Park. Their orphaned and rescued wildlife critters receive the best care, and you need only look to how the keepers and animals behave around each other to realize how much love there is between them.
We were happy to make another donation to the park while we were there, as they really need it right now. In a regular year, they’re only open from May to October, but they still need to feed and care for the animals the other six months of the year. Maintenance of the facilities, upkeep of the grounds and enclosures, veterinary bills and a long list of accessory expenses, not to mention the salaries of the dedicated staff, makes for an expensive undertaking.

I came home with about two thousand photos. After hours of weeding out the ones I can’t use, I still ended up with dozens of reference shots. I’m so glad to have taken photos while they were little, because they certainly won’t remain that way for long. Their eyes are already changing from blue to yellow. There’s no doubt I’ll eventually create paintings of both of them.

After more than two months of being locked down, that was the perfect break from isolation. And to top it all off, Shonna and I drove back into the mountains that night under a brilliant red sky, one of the prettiest sunsets we’ve seen this year.

Cheers,
Patrick
___

© Patrick LaMontagne
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Snow Day

When I started this painting, I had a vision in mind. Three cougar cubs, mouths open, looking like they were having a good time. I even had a title for it, Caterwauling. That could mean they were singing, shouting, or just kids making noise.

I had plenty of reference to work from as the models for this painting were Quora and Tavo, the two cougar kittens adopted by Discovery Wildlife Park last year. They’ve grown quite a bit, but are still juveniles. As is my artist’s prerogative, I decided I wanted a trio in this painting, rather than a duo.

In the beginning, it had kind of a rocky looking background, and it was going to be bushes and leaves in the front, intentionally blurred a little to suggest a depth of field effect.

I’d done a good rough painting of the cats, but I hadn’t yet added in any detail. When I started roughing in the leaves, I found little enthusiasm for it, so I deleted the layers and wondered what else I could do.

I live in cougar country. There’s a running inside joke in this valley about how stealthy these animals are,  that you may have never seen a cougar, but a cougar has seen you. So even though I can see a cougar’s home environment by looking out my window, I googled cougar photos for ideas.

A lot of the photos I found showed cougars in the snow, and I realized none of my paintings suggest that environment. Even my Polar Bear and Snow Leopard paintings only have simple blue icy looking backgrounds.

Once I started experimenting with the snow, the painting took on a whole new life. Not only did that environment make the image look brighter and more vibrant, but it became a lot more enjoyable to paint. I smiled a lot while working on this because the cougar cubs just seemed to be having so much fun. I realized that Snow Day was a much better title.

It was a challenge to add the snow on their faces and make it look like it belonged. I found images of golden retrievers playing in the snow to help me with that. It required experimenting with different brushes and shadow techniques to get it to look right, and I’m pleased with how it turned out.

This might not be the most fun I’ve had working on one of my whimsical wildlife paintings, but it’s a contender.

Cheers,
Patrick
@LaMontagneArt
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Fall Photos at Discovery Wildlife Park

An opportunity recently came up to do a fall photo shoot at Discovery Wildlife Park. I got the text while hanging out at Electric Grizzly Tattoo here in Canmore, which Shonna calls my artist support group.

The owner, Derek Turcotte, and I have gone on drives into Kananaskis looking for wildlife from time to time, and both of us like taking our own wildlife reference photos. I’m always up for taking photos at the park, especially when it’s an official photo shoot. Derek was into it too, so I booked it. $150 each, which was well worth it, since the money goes to support the park.

We drove up on Saturday, leaving just after 3:00 as Derek was tattooing a client all day. Thankfully traffic worked out with no delays en route, because we were cutting it close. We just made it for the 5:30 start. Serena, Belinda and Nadia met us at the main building and took us down to the photo shoot area in their ‘limo,’ which is just a golf cart with extra bench seats.

Discovery Wildlife Park has created a staged area in the woods on their property. It was already a natural area, but they’ve added some rock and water features and the backdrop is the side of the gully in which it sits. Running along one side of the area is a long, tall fence. This is designed specifically for photo shoots and the mesh of the fence is large enough that you can put a lens through it.

Derek and I were joined by two women who had also booked the shoot and with only four of us along the fence, we had plenty of room to move about, didn’t have to worry about getting in each other’s way and the opportunities for great photos were limited only by our own skills.For the first part of the shoot, the wolves Nissa and Lupé were let loose in the large enclosure. Through positive reinforcement with treats and praise, they would pose on marks, run around together, play and explore. The light kept changing as it shone through the trees, creating natural spotlights which was wonderful when the wolves would be caught in one.

After the wolves returned to their own large enclosure in the park, it was time for Berkley to join us.

I last saw her in July and she has grown bigger still. She’s now just shy of 350 lbs and is really showing her adult features. While she still has her wonderfully expressive childlike face and lovable personality, it is easy to see the big bear she will eventually become.

As I’ve mentioned before, it is always a pleasant surprise when she recognizes me and wants to visit. At first, she ran into the enclosure and I could see her coming around the top on the other side of the trees. She moves really fast when she wants to and came barrelling down the path beside the fence. When she got to where I was standing, she slowed right down and did a double take as if to say, “Hey, it’s you!”

That never gets old.
Of course, it did present a little bit of a problem when it was time to take pictures, because Berk just wanted to visit. Telling her to go see her Mom didn’t work, and Serena basically had to scold the four of us to stop talking to her, or we wouldn’t get any pictures.

We had to ignore her so that she would go to Serena, but once she did, she had a great time. From attacking trees, to playing on the large rocks, following Serena around and doing tricks for treats, my camera shutter just kept going rapid fire.
Sure, Berkley would occasionally look my way and then come over, but I just had to stand up and turn away for her to forget the distraction and go back into the middle of the enclosure. I felt bad for doing it, but I still got plenty of visiting time with her a little later on and before we left.

Derek was pretty thrilled to be that close to a grizzly bear, as were the other two photographers. I realized that I’ve gotten a little too used to having so much time with Berkley, that I forget what a unique privilege it is to have a (not-so) little bear friend. There’s nothing like looking into those eyes and that wonderful face.

Derek told me he wasn’t sure if I’d been exaggerating how much Berkley ‘knew’ me or not, so he got to see that first hand. He said it was great to finally see the place and meet some of the people I often talk about, and now he knows why.

With the light in the sheltered photo area fading enough that it was getting difficult to get any more good photos, Berkley left us and Serena offered us the opportunity to take some photos of Gruff, as his enclosure is up on the main flat area of the park, so we still had ten minutes of light to work with.
Derek was primarily looking for tattoo reference and for his own painted work, so Gruff performing his scary bear impression was something he was excited to get. Even though I just painted that very expression, I took some more photos and think I got even better reference of that than the last time. Might be another painting coming one day.

Although it required a four hour round trip drive for two hours at the park, both Derek and I felt it was well worth our time and we’ll do it again next year when the opportunity comes up. The fading light and sometimes fast motion of the wolves and Berkley created some photography challenges that resulted in more lost shots than we would have liked, but that’s part of photography, and life in general. You learn more from the mistakes and failures than the successes. Whether it’s taking the photos or painting from them, there’s more to learn than I will ever have time for in this life.

I took over 2600 photos, and after a few hours of going through them yesterday, ended up with about 100 worth keeping, including quite a few that will work as wonderful reference pics for future paintings.
I don’t know if it’s the last time I’ll see Berkley before she goes down for hibernation, but if it is, it was a nice visit on which to end the year. Discovery Wildlife Park closes for the season after Thanksgiving, so if you’re in the area, there’s still time to see the animals before that.

Cheers,
Patrick

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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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