Posted on

Selling Out Selling Art


A student from the Alberta College of Art and Design recently asked to interview me for an assignment. I was happy to oblige. While in Calgary to drop off prints at the zoo and take some photos, I made time to meet her for coffee last week.

It got me thinking about the road traveled.

My first paying gig as an artist was as the editorial cartoonist for the Banff Crag & Canyon newspaper. I drew my first cartoon in May of ’98, so it’s been just over twenty years. I’ve been a full-time artist since 2006.

Over my career, it has always been easy to find resources in order to become a better artist. While I started with books and magazines, no matter what style of art you want to learn today, there are talented teachers on the internet willing to share their skills, often for a very reasonable price.

Google: “How do I learn to draw?”

While you can peruse countless lessons, videos, books, articles, buy all of the best materials, tools and hardware, unless you practice, you will never become good at anything.

People want the skills, but a relative few are willing to invest the countless lonely hours drawing and the years of bad artwork, most of which will be incredibly unsatisfying and unpaid. I have a hard time looking at my earlier work, but all of that led to all of this.

Creating art for fun can be a great hobby and escape. I’ve encountered many skilled artists with no designs on becoming pros. They are content to draw, paint, sculpt, or play simply for the joy of it, with no illusions.

As for me, I am a commercial artist. It’s how I make my living.

I’ve encountered plenty of artists over the years who’ve told me that I was selling out by selling art, that they wouldn’t dare sully their creative process by putting a dollar amount on it, that real art is made for creativity’s sake alone and not for financial compensation.

That’s bullshit.

I enjoy being an artist, but it’s my job, and just like any other. There are many necessary parts of my job that I do not enjoy.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had to reformat paintings to conform to multiple templates for a new licensing contract. Sixteen images had to be resized, cropped, and uploaded in eleven different formats each, many of which were uncomfortable compromises. Over two days, it took about fifteen hours, during which I still had to meet my daily editorial cartoon deadlines for my clients across Canada.

Prior to that, I was in contract negotiation with that company, back and forth, making changes to the wording, all amicable and professional, but time consuming.

On Sunday, I drew three cartoons to send out Monday because I spent that day reconciling my books for the past three months so that I could file my GST remittance with the government. The day after that was month end invoicing for all of my editorial cartoon clients across Canada.

And still, editorial cartoon deadlines had to be met.

Tomorrow afternoon, I have a meeting with the owner of the aforementioned company as he will be driving through town. If I’m sending mixed signals, let me clarify. The setup work and contract stuff was tedious, but the license itself is exciting and I’m looking forward to sharing the details very soon.

My point is that I have spent as much time this week on the administration and promotion of my art as I have creating art, and that art was all cartoons.

I’ve only squeezed in a couple of hours of painting in this week. That’s it. But I’m hoping to find time for it this weekend, which is why I still get up at 5am on Saturdays even though I don’t have a cartoon deadline that day.

I painted my first funny looking animal in 2009 as an experiment, to try something different that might end up being a more marketable print than the caricature portrait commissions I was doing. Ironic that it was looking to sell more art that led me to the work I enjoy most and a whole new product that changed my whole direction. Commercial art led me to photography as I knew I could paint better images if I took my own reference. It is unlikely I would have found either of those if I wasn’t trying to grow my business.

None of this is complaining, I assure you. Everybody has parts of their job they dislike. That’s why it’s called work.

Quite often over the years, I’ll get emails or questions from young artists asking me for advice on how to create art for a living, which I’m happy to answer.

They become less enthusiastic when I tell them the single most important thing they can do is learn the business of art. Bookkeeping, contracts, licensing, customer service, meet deadlines, keep regular hours, pay your taxes, stop wasting time on social media, be polite to your customers, under-promise and over-deliver. Be accountable and professional.

It’s tedious and you’ll spend all of that time wishing you were drawing or painting instead. You’ll make so many mistakes, but you’ll learn from them and be better for the lessons. Whenever I work with somebody new, especially when it comes to licensing, a voice in the back of my head is always asking, “How is this person trying to screw me?”

Cynical? Yes.

Appropriate? Absolutely.

People take advantage of artists because we not only allow it, we encourage it. Artists are the biggest pushovers around. We not only want you to like our work, we want you to like us, too. Here, just take it for free.

These days, I have enough experience that the warning signs are easier to spot, but I don’t imagine myself immune to more lessons down the road.

I have been screwed more than once in this business. I will get screwed again, but hopefully not in the same ways, because then I won’t have learned anything.

Most of the time, however, the person on the other end of a negotiation is fair, professional, accommodating and a pleasure to work with. But most of the people in your neighbourhood are probably nice, too, and yet you still lock your doors at night.

This business of art is always challenging and the learning is never over. It’s hard work, all the time, and it’s not for everybody.

Creating art is easy. Selling art? That’s the hard part.

Cheers,
Patrick

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

Red Deer Advocate Cover Story

Cover
The Red Deer Advocate interviewed me last week for a feature piece. I had no idea it was going to be on the cover above the fold. My Dad sent me the photo.

Here’s the story…

Doodling for fun, profit
by Susan Zielinski

Patrick LaMontagne can’t escape politics.

But the syndicated editorial cartoonist said that luckily many politicians have interesting faces he can play with.

“Rachel Notley is pretty fun to draw. Her hair frames her face well. She also has very expressive eyes and when she smiles she has good lines in her face,” said the former Red Deerian.

“Ed Stelmach was really tough. I hated drawing him. Jim Prentice was kind of fun to draw. I really loved Ralph Klein. As a cartoonist, I miss him a great deal.”

LaMontagne, whose work has appeared regularly in the Red Deer Advocate since 2007, said he usually collects ideas to draw five to seven cartoons each week.

“This week it’s the Olympics, the Senate scandal, one on extreme weather that I’m working on that right now. The U.S. election is pretty big. I just did a caricature of Hillary Clinton this morning and sent it out.

“At this point I can usually know if there’s a cartoon in a story. Sometimes a cartoon just pops out, then I try and make it a little more original because I know another cartoonist might be making the same connections.”

LaMontagne, 45, of Canmore, said he never intended to pursue a career in the arts.

“I make the majority of my living from my syndication and the rest from my painted work.

“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else now, but this was never the plan. I never thought of going to art school.”

LaMontagne said he was basically a doodler from way back, including in class at Camille J. Lerouge Collegiate in Red Deer.

“I really remember Mr. Molesky, my physics teacher, always giving me trouble for doodling in class when I was suppose to be paying attention.”

LaMontagne was born in Red Deer when his father was posted at CFB Penhold. He returned for high school and attended Red Deer College when his family came back to Penhold for his father’s last posting in 1986. His parents Peter and Maureen eventually made Springbrook (edit: actually Penhold) their permanent home.

LaMontagne first started drawing for Banff’s Crag and Canyon newspaper in 1997 and became editorial cartoonist with The Rocky Mountain Outlook in 2001, the same year he became nationally syndicated.

In 2006, he quit his full-time job as an administrative assistant for a physiotherapy clinic and became a full-time cartoonist.

His work appears in 60 to 75 newspapers across Canada.

Each week LaMontagne aims to tell stories without words. He said some days are more difficult than others.

“Right now coming up with new ideas for the Olympics is tough because I have to do it every couple of years and you can only make so many jokes about the Olympics.”

But the political ups and downs in Alberta is something he can rely upon.

“Alberta politics is something that everyone in the country watches because of the economic engine here, when it sputters, it hurts everybody.”

He said every editorial cartoonist quietly roots for certain politicians, not for their policies, but because they’ve become a favourite to draw.

“I have no party loyalty whatsoever.”

For more information on LaMontagne visit www.cartoonink.com.

Inner

I’ll have more on how this came about in my next newsletter. follow this link to the sign up form.  Thanks!

Posted on

Death and Cartoons

Last Friday, I was out in Golden, BC for a guys weekend at a buddy’s cabin.  When I first started going out there, it was just the cabin itself on this plot of wooded land, but now, my retired friend and his wife have an art studio and a new home on the land as well.  But that cabin up the hill is still there and he generously allows his friends to use it.  I don’t take a lot of time off, but as that Friday was my birthday and Sunday was my friend Jim’s birthday, it was a great excuse to get away with no work.  Set up on the deck of the house, the three of us enjoying the sunshine, I decided to grab my bedding and gear and hike it up the hill early so I didn’t have to do it in the dark later.  On my way back down the trail, enjoying being in the woods with great weather and just starting to relax, I got an email alert on my phone.  I stopped and already had an idea what it was.  My suspicion was confirmed when I read that former Premier of Alberta Ralph Klein had died.

Continuing down the hill, I opened up a beer, sat down in my chair on the deck and began working on my phone.  My buddies gave me grief that I was supposed to be relaxing, but I explained the situation, told them I needed a half hour and I began sending emails to the daily newspapers across Canada that would want a cartoon on this breaking news.  You see, the cartoon was already done.  The files had been on my phone for about a week, ever since the news came out that Ralph Klein was close to the end after years of suffering a debilitating illness.  Once the cartoons were sent, I spent another half hour answering emails from editors either thanking me for getting the cartoon out so quick or a couple of others asking if I had a Ralph Klein cartoon for them.

KleinToon

Yes, it’s morbid that from time to time, I make my living from a product that is derived from someone’s death.  When I hear that someone of note, whether political or cultural, is close to death or has died, I often feel like a vulture, sitting on a fencepost, waiting to take advantage of the situation.  It’s not a great feeling.  And it’s very difficult to be genuine and not come across as maudlin.  There’s a lot of ‘bandwagon grief’ and crocodile tears on social media these days and I try to walk a fine line between honest respect and overt false sentimentality.  There are few things I dislike more than hypocrisy and social media is ripe soil for that particular crop.

What’s even more morbid is that when I find out somebody has died, I have to decide if it’s cartoon worthy or not.  I must ask myself if newspapers will find it newsworthy enough to write stories or editorials on this person.  In some cases, it’s quite obvious.  In the case of Ralph Klein, he was one of the most charismatic and popular provincial Premiers in Canadian history.  He was beloved by many and not just in Alberta.  Personally, I was saddened by his death, largely because his debilitating end seemed so unfair, given how he lived.  I felt the same for former NDP leader Jack Layton when he passed, one of the few politicians I genuinely liked, even though I didn’t agree with a lot of his politics.  Those cartoons aren’t as difficult because I actually feel something for who the person was, for the life they lived.   While I wouldn’t call it grief, there’s a small connection and a desire to honour them appropriately,  to do right by them in the cartoon.

Then there are the cartoons I must do about death that are newsworthy, but are regarding people for whom I feel little.   This is not a comment on their character, their impact, or their value as a human being, simply that they are strangers to me.  A recent example would be former Premier of Alberta Peter Loughheed who passed away last year.  A respected leader, a man of vision whose footprints are all over the province I call home, and whose death was mourned by many.  But Lougheed ended his run as Premier in 1985.  I was 14 years old, living overseas in West Germany and I didn’t even start following federal politics until my late twenties, let alone that of any province.  I’ve never felt a connection to the man.

Loughheed

The same could be said for former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who passed away this morning at the age of 87.  While her influence was definitely felt on my generation, I feel little connection to her.  While it’s unlikely that I would have shared her obviously right wing views while she was in office, her legacy is undeniable.  Her impact on the UK and the world is clear.  Up at 5:00 this morning, I was working on a cartoon about her death by 5:30 as it was obvious newspapers would be reporting and editorializing on her life and times.

Both of these previous mentions are examples of situations where my profession dictates that I must observe the contribution of these two people even though I feel nothing for them on a personal level.  So, how do I do that without being cliché, falsely sentimental or hypocritical.  The simple answer is that I can’t, not completely.  But I do my best.

StompinTom

Then there are the many more people who die whose lives are not of interest to the editorial page.  Annette Funicello died today as well.  Roger Ebert died a few days ago.  I did not feel their deaths warranted the drawing of a cartoon.  There was no money in it.  That’s the distinction I have to make.  Can you believe that?

Often there will be a natural disaster where a lot of people have died and I have to draw a cartoon on that because there is nothing else to do.  Trust me, nobody is going to print something funny or political on their editorial page when more than 200,000 people have died from a tsunami on Boxing Day.  It was horrible, a tragedy and a nightmare for so many.  The last thing I wanted to do was draw anything about it, because I didn’t feel my illustrative voice could possibly make anything better.  My solution was to guilt people into giving.

Tsunami

I also have a difficult time with Remembrance Day, which is an annual cartoon about death.  I’ve drawn a cartoon each year for November 11th for more than a decade, and each year it gets more and more difficult to create fresh imagery.  Poppies, cenotaphs, senior citizen soldiers talking with children, military iconic images, memorials, passages and quotes about 11:11, In Flanders Field, Lest We Forget, and We Remember.  Each year, I do my best to summon up hackneyed images to appear genuine, but feel like a fraud doing it.  What’s worse is that I come from a military family on both sides, I grew up a base brat, and spent five years in the Reserves.  Heck, I even met my wife there.  But saying ‘Lest We Forget’ feels like a routine, kind of like saying Bless You when somebody sneezes.  We say it, but how many really mean it?

Remembrance

One of the all time cliché death cartoons is that of the pearly gates.  Cartoonists the world over have been showing the deceased either talking with St. Peter or being greeted by somebody who has passed away before them.  There are many variations on the theme.  I can honestly say that I have never drawn a pearly gates cartoon and never will.  It’s an image that has been done to death, pardon the pun.  But that’s not to say that mine are terribly original, either.

When I approach this sort of cartoon, if you could call it that, I’ve now developed what could easily be called my signature ‘tribute’ image, examples you can see above.  Usually a painted portrait, rendered as well as I can in the short amount of time I’ve got, with either a quote, the name of the deceased, the dates they lived, or anything else I can think of.  Having done a number of these over the years, even this now feels trite.  Give me a week or more and I might be able to come up with something more original, but that’s not how the 24 hour news cycle works.  Because I have a knack for portraiture and people seem to like and publish them, I continue to do these cartoons when appropriate and then I move on as quickly as I can.

Regrettably, it’s part of this business of being a freelance editorial cartoonist in Canada.  The bills get paid by getting that spot on the editorial page earmarked for images rather than text.  If I choose not to draw these memorial or tribute cartoons, somebody else will and I’ll be out of a job.  Most of the time, I get to draw and colour and make smartass comments for a living. It involves long hours, it’s competitive, and it’s non-stop, even on a weekend off in the woods on my birthday.  I thrive on the pace, I enjoy the work and it’s rarely boring.  But while it’s a great gig and a great way to make a living,  no job is perfect.

From the tone of this post, you can probably deduce that drawing another death cartoon this morning did little for my mood, today.  Drawing cartoons about people dying is part of this gig I could really do without.