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If It’s Broke, Fix It

Taking the summer off from promoting my business was an uncomfortable decision.

Covid-19 was the catalyst, but this period of reflection was overdue. I’ve been uninspired, bored with my own art and writing, unable to maintain the pace.

In 2005, I had been working as an Office Admin for a small physiotherapy clinic here in Canmore, spending early mornings, evenings and weekends drawing editorial cartoons. Eventually, that part-time side hustle allowed me to quit my job and become a full-time artist.

It seemed like a big risk, but not massive. We decided that if I couldn’t pay my half of the bills, I’d just get a part-time job. There were plenty of them available.

I’ve had a pretty good run as an editorial cartoonist for the past two decades. It afforded me the ability to try other art-related avenues, one of which became the evolution of my career, painting my funny looking animals.

I’ve never lost sight of the fact, however, that the foundation of my profession for the past twenty years has been an industry afflicted by a slow and terminal cancer. To expect that I will be drawing editorial cartoons in ten years is almost fantasy.

Then again, I said the same thing in 2001, so what do I know?

We pretend to be masters of our own fates, but we’re notoriously bad at predicting the future. Who had Global Pandemic on their schedule for 2020?

As one might expect, those first years were a struggle. I often went into overdraft on my business account and couldn’t afford many luxuries. I did get a part-time job working at a local DVD rental place (remember those?) but not because of the money. I needed to get out of the house and one of the perks was free movie rentals. This was in the dark ages, kids, before streaming video.

I enjoyed the experience for a year, but working until 11:30 some nights, then getting up at 5:00 to draw quickly lost its appeal.

There were some in my profession who figured the next evolution in the craft would be animated editorial cartoons.  I invested in Flash software, training courses, royalty free music, learned how to record audio, and spent countless unpaid hours creating those things. During a federal election one year, all of the big Canadian media outlets wanted to run my animations on their websites, but in a sign of things to come, almost none were willing to pay for them.

I even had a weekly series called Big Plans, where a cartoon beaver in a suit and tie, talked about the week’s political events, complete with cutaway scenes. It was an animated version of the Daily Show or Rick Mercer Report, without interviews and not nearly as funny.

It took about twenty hours a week to create each one, and I only got paid a small amount for a handful of them.

I didn’t like the work much and wasn’t a very good animator. I was more relieved than distraught when it came to an end. But I took the risk, and invested the time, on the off chance that it might pay off.

There have been a few ventures like that, but I’ve learned something from each, lessons for the next idea. Eventually, one of those tries became my whimsical wildlife paintings, changing the course of my life and career. As Steve Jobs once said, you can only connect the dots in hindsight.

When COVID-19 landed on us, a lot changed for most people in a short amount of time. All in the same week, several of my newspapers told me they could no longer afford to pay any freelancers. A temporary layoff, but nobody could say for how long. That was at the end of March. Only one of those papers has hired me back.

This year was supposed to be a big one for my painted work, building on the momentum of my newest license with Pacific Music and Art. I was beginning to see (and hear about) my work being sold in stores all over the place. With multiple re-orders, more retailers signing on and word getting out, 2020 should have been a leap forward.

I don’t need to explain why it wasn’t.

Thankfully, Mike at Pacific Music and Art had the foresight to see the coming demand for face masks and that my paintings would work well on them. I put in late nights, even earlier mornings, and long days preparing the images while still drawing the same number of cartoons for about half the clients.

Promoting, packaging and shipping the masks, plus the paperwork and bookkeeping, it was exhausting. Add in the uncertainty of the pandemic, both the health and financial repercussions, and burn-out was inevitable.

Thanks to my newsletter followers, I filled two large mask orders, and a third smaller one, the revenue helping to shore up my other losses. Pacific Music and Art is now selling the masks wholesale to retailers and individual customers can order directly from their site. I’ve received photos from people who’ve bought my masks at The Calgary Zoo. They’re also available at Shopper’s Drug Mart here in Canmore, stores in Banff, plus a bunch of other places in Western Canada and in the Pacific Northwest.

Those sales now will mean revenue later this year.

I did a couple of successful print promotions, launched my 2021 calendar, and have gotten used to this new reality. You thought I was going to say normal, didn’t you? I think we can all agree, that ship has sunk. We need to build a new one.
This frenzy of activity, adapting daily to more potholes than road, I had no gas left in the tank. I was still meeting my cartoon deadlines, but painting was a slog, and it felt like anything I’d write would be crap, even before I put my fingers to the keys. My past work seemed like garbage and I was circling the drain.

When you spend year after year creating art, promoting it, trying to sell it and come up with something better every day, taking time off from promoting it feels irresponsible.

I like to work. I don’t do well with too much time off. I’ve got a friend who has been talking about his retirement for years and finally managed to do it before he was 60. Unless something radical changes in me in the next ten years, the thought of not working does not appeal to me.

At this stage in my life, looking down the road, retirement to me would mean the freedom to only do the work I want to do. But I still want to work.

My biggest fear is that something will happen that will prevent me from being able to create, paint, and write. I dread the thought of an injury, an illness, a cognitive deficiency, something that will rob me of my abilities or mental faculties.

On report cards when I was a kid, common teacher comments were “doesn’t pay attention in class” and “not living up to his potential.”

It’s ironic that I’m now wary of not having enough time to reach that full potential.

Last year, my friend Jim and I were sitting on a deck of a cabin we rent, looking out at the pasture. In front of us, there were two windows in the covered section, but to the immediate left, the deck is wide open. A wasp was repeatedly bouncing off the glass, trying to get through.

I don’t recall if I said it or if Jim did, but we both connected with the message. “Boy, if that’s not a metaphor for life.”

All that wasp had to do was back off, turn left and fly six inches to freedom. Instead, it just kept bouncing off the glass.

Jim credits that moment with his decision to finally retire.

I took it as a message to rethink where I’m putting my energy.

There are many ways to reach your goals but beating your head against an immovable object isn’t one of them.

I’m already getting up early every day, working hard. I rarely take a day off and when I do, I still somehow manage to squeeze in something related to my business. It might be taking photos, doing some writing, reading trade articles, but that’s only because I enjoy my work and the creative pursuit. I don’t know how to separate the two, so I don’t try.

That also means there is no extra time to do more. It’s such a cliché, to work smarter, not harder, but clichés have longevity because they contain simple wisdom.

Maybe it’s because he was younger, with seemingly more time ahead of him than I’ve got. But, there’s a lot of water under the bridge between me and the guy who said, “well, if I don’t make enough money, I’ll just get a part-time job.”

I feel like I have a lot more to lose than he did.

He didn’t know that editorial cartooning would provide him with a good living for the next fifteen years. I know for a fact that it won’t provide me with another fifteen. Failing to course correct for that reality would be short-sighted.

I remember somebody telling me once to cup my hands together as if I were holding some water within them, then to squeeze my hands into fists and asked, “what happened to the water?”

When you hold onto something too tightly for fear of losing it, you lose it anyway.

During the past two months of promotional hiatus, I completed a few paintings, wrote quite a bit in a fiction novel I started this year, drew the usual editorial cartoons, listened to podcasts, read books and articles and I worked. My computer died suddenly one night, which I’ll talk about in another post, and I had to get a new one built. I got away to the cabin for a few days, took some pictures, and hid from the tourists who have flooded this valley all summer.

And I asked myself some hard questions.

“Where do I want to be in a couple of years? Five years? Ten?”

“On what am I wasting a lot of time and effort that doesn’t get me there?”

“What marketing opportunities am I missing out on?”

“If I stopped banging into the glass, backed up, took a breath, and looked around, what might I see?”

For the first couple of weeks, I felt like I’d forgotten something, that nagging feeling like I’d left the stove on. I’d become so used to posting on Instagram, sharing stories, scrolling through other people’s stuff. It ate up a lot of creative time.

When I finished a painting, it felt strange not to immediately size it for the blog, create a closeup, write a post about it, share it on Instagram with all of the hashtags, tell a story, write a newsletter, share that, then wait to see what kind of reaction I might get.

Promotion and marketing, it’s part of working for yourself. It’s necessary if you want to make a living with your art or whatever you create. You must sell it. But taking this break made me think about how I’m doing that.

Do I need to share it as soon as it’s done? Would it matter if I waited a day? Maybe two? Do I have to immediately write about it? Does it have to be immediately shared on Instagram?

The answer to these last questions is No.

One marketing opportunity I’ve decided to explore is to offer an audio version of some of my blog posts, starting with this one.

I’ve had several people tell me they like my writing, but some get the newsletter and realize they haven’t the time to read it, They put it aside for later and never get back to it.

I hear ya. Happens to me all the time. But if there’s an audio version, it can be downloaded and listened to at your leisure.

An audio version allows followers to consume the content the way they want to. From what I’ve read, it increases followers and site interaction, which directly translates to sales.

Will that kind of marketing work for me? I have no idea, but I’ll give it a try.

As for those other questions, they’ll require a longer view, some percolation in the old melon. Not quite as deep as “Why am I here?” but not so shallow as, “Peanut butter? Or jam, too?”

The break was worth it and I will do it again.

Whether you read this, or listened to it in the new format, thanks for making the time. One thing I’ve never forgotten in this roller coaster life of being creative for a living…it wouldn’t happen without you. 

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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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Cartoons, Masks and a Canvas Print

Cartooning Corona

Whenever he’s frustrated or facing a difficult choice for which there is no clear answer, my buddy Jim has a saying.

“Heavy sigh, mixed emotion.”

Such is life under the umbrella of COVID-19.

Every cartoon I’ve done for quite some time has revolved around one topic, so I went back and counted them. I drew my first coronavirus cartoon on January 25th. Other topics on which I was doodling that week included the Australia fires, the weather, Ontario teachers’ strike, and the Conservative Party leadership race.

From then on, the frequency of cartoons on the virus has increased so that now, every other topic orbits around it. The only deviation in the past month has been the two cartoons I did on the Nova Scotia shooting, definitely not a welcome diversion.

How many cartoons have I drawn on this wonderful little virus that changed the world forever?

Seventy-One.

And counting.

At the best of times, I keep a running list of ideas for cartoons. When I come up with a Thanksgiving cartoon idea in May, I simply write it down for later. I’ve kept that list for many years on Dropbox, able to access it from all of my devices.

That Word file is currently nine pages long, with over two hundred ideas on it. About forty of them are for the coronavirus. Scanning the others, they now seem like they belong in a parallel world in which we no longer live.

Cartoons about summer vacations, Halloween, Christmas, politics, they don’t make sense anymore because when I wrote them down, there was no allowance for today’s Coronaclimate. Many of the ideas can be re-written to allow for the ever present shadow of the virus, but some about life as we used to know it will just be discarded.

They no longer apply.

About the masks

This mask situation has been incredibly frustrating.

First, thanks to so many of you who replied to last Saturday’s newsletter update about the delay. Your support and patience is appreciated. It seems I’m holding myself more responsible for this than most of you are.

They’re not shipping this week, but hoping for next week.  I could write another long post about why, but it’s simply different shades of the same problem. Shipping delays and the logistics of doing business in the time of COVID.

I have a customer in Illinois still waiting on coasters I shipped at the beginning of the month. Tracking shows they’re ‘in transit’, two weeks after the expected delivery date. Thankfully he’s willing to wait.

Uncertainty? Check!

Expediency? Not a chance.

I’m seeing plenty of online stores and retail outlets switching their focus to masks in the past week and it compounded my own frustration at not having my own yet, until I looked closer at those other offers. Almost all of the ones I saw were pre-orders or listed as back-ordered. Nobody else seems to have them ready to ship, either.

It seems like the only masks you’re guaranteed to get quickly right now are the ones you make yourself. From what I’ve read, even those ambitious creatives with sewing skills are overwhelmed by orders they can’t fill for their friends and neighbours.

Costco announced yesterday that everybody entering their stores must wear masks. Wal-Mart had already done that for many of their locations and it would appear that we’re going to be wearing these for a long time while we try to re-emerge into a reasonable facsimile of our former economy.

So all I can ask (again) is for your patience. As soon as I have them, I will let you know and I will get them in the mail or deliver them to you as quickly as I can.

A Very Big Print

I am still working on a new painting, hoping to have it completed this weekend. I’ll look forward to sharing it with you when it’s done. Hint, it’s a large African cat, one I haven’t painted before.

Speaking of big cats, a customer ordered a print from me last week, a 32”X32” canvas of my recent ‘Sire’ painting.

That big painting of a lion has become of one of my favorites, so I was pleased with the order. I came very close to grabbing one for myself at the same time, but with an uncertain financial future, I’m deferring my own purchase until later.

ABL Imaging in Calgary prints my canvas and thankfully they’re still open and working. Even though it wasn’t required, they did a quick turnaround of this piece. Usually, I’d drive into Calgary to get these orders and combine the trip with other errands, but it should be obvious why I didn’t. A courier delivered it yesterday and I was thrilled with how it turned out.

Sometime down the road, I will definitely be getting one of these for my office.

One of the most nerve-wracking parts of a new canvas is signing it. Paint pens are great most of the time, but early in my career, I ruined a couple of canvases when the paint either spurted from the pen or simply decided to stop, then start, then stop…mid-signature.

These days, I do a bunch of test signings, cross my fingers, hold my breath and sign as quickly as possible. A 32”X32” canvas, the largest I’ve ever printed, is expensive. Had I ruined it while signing it, I guess that would have been the one for my office.

The client will meet me on the highway near Cochrane in a couple of weeks, a clandestine exchange of art, which will look very much like a drug deal, I’m sure.

I’m hoping it’s not a windy day when I throw it at him from six feet away.

Fingers crossed that my next post will include a photo of a big pile of masks, telling you they’re on the way.

Thanks,
Patrick

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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
Sign up for my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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A Local Cartoonist

Although I have syndicated clients across Canada and produce cartoons each day for them, I also draw one local cartoon each week for The Rocky Mountain Outlook, the paper of record for Banff, Canmore, Lake Louise and area.

I’ve been their cartoonist since they opened their doors in 2001 and I’ve never missed an issue. In the early days of The Rocky Mountain Outlook, one of the owners, also the Editor, encouraged me to self-syndicate, which meant draw my own cartoons and send them out to other papers in the hopes they publish them. At the time, I’d only drawn one cartoon each week for the Banff Crag & Canyon for a few years and was very new to the Outlook.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook was destined to fail. The cheap seats were full of people who said so.

I was thirty years old, and I had never envisioned a career as an artist. Not even a little. Carol Picard changed my life and it’s hard not to say Thank You every time I see her around town.

For the next five years, I drew cartoons on the side while working a full-time job to pay the bills. Early mornings before work, evenings after work and weekends, with very little money to show for it. I almost quit half a dozen times in those five years. Sometimes I drew five cartoons in a week and made $10 from the one weekly paper that ran one. That kind of thing went on for a couple of years, but it was great practice. I was finally able to become a full-time artist in 2006.

With a lot of experiments in between, eventually the editorial cartooning led to the other half of my business painting funny looking animals, which are licensed and sold in zoos, parks, retail stores and other venues across Canada and internationally. Having been a full-time professional artist for the past 13 years, I’m pretty sure I’m now unemployable in a real job.

Without The Rocky Mountain Outlook, none of that would have happened.

My editor, Tanya Foubert, delighted in calling me today to tell me that the Canadian Community Newspaper Awards were announced for 2019 and I won 1st and 2nd for Best Local Cartoon in our class. While we all know it’s not about the awards, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this feels pretty good. It’s the first win for me, although I think I got third one year.

I’ve never submitted to the National Newspaper Awards. Maybe once in the early 2000s. The Outlook submits to the CCNAs on my behalf. Since I have many clients for my cartoons, it’s always been more important to me to keep my editors and publishers supplied, happy (and paying me!) than it was to win an award.

But this one is different, because it’s the Outlook. It’s my local paper. I’ve known these people for almost twenty years. I know what the original owners went through to keep it afloat, against all odds. I know how hard the current staff and leadership work to hold to that original vision.

Once again, I am reminded of Roosevelt and The Man in the Arena.

From the official announcement of the awards on News Media Canada’s site, the first highlight was, “The Rocky Mountain Outlook from Canmore/Kananaskis/Banff/Lake Louise in Alberta picked up the most wins (five), including first place for General Excellence.”

How could I not be happy to be a part of that?

Thanks, Carol.

Cheers,
Patrick

Here are the cartoons that won. The first was about the contentious issue of Calgary’s failed bid for the 2026 Olympics. While not an official tally, half the community seemed to want it more than anything, the other half were opposed.

Second was our ongoing issue with parking in this area. My first cartoon for the Banff Crag and Canyon in 1998 was on paid parking. Everybody’s got an opinion and a solution, but nobody wants to pay for it, or stop driving whenever they want.

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10 Lessons in Art and Life

Have you ever seen those memes with four to six images depicting different perspectives? There’s one for almost every profession or creative pursuit, mildly amusing but with a grain of truth. The headers are often variations of What My Friends Think I Do, What My Mom Thinks I do, What Society Thinks I do, etc.

Most people feel unappreciated in their job and that the world doesn’t understand them. The uncomfortable truth is that if we really don’t want to be doing what we do, we can always quit and go do something else, with corresponding consequences, of course. But it’s a still a choice we pretend we don’t have, to release ourselves from the responsibility.

Before going on, let me offer a disclaimer. None of the following is me complaining about being an artist for a living. Given every other job I’ve ever had, it’s still the only thing I want to do, warts and all. This list is for those people who might be considering that leap; quitting their job to follow their creative dream, thinking it will solve all of their problems.

It won’t.

Whoever said, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” should be placed over a dunk tank full of manure while every self-employed dreamer takes a free throw.

“You want the truth?! You can’t handle the…” Sorry. Movie quotes. I can’t help myself.

Here we go.

1) Some people will like your work, most will not.

Whether you’re a painter, cartoonist, musician, writer, photographer, or basket weaver, the vast majority of people won’t buy your stuff. In fact, most won’t even care enough to hate it. They’ll just be indifferent.

My friends and family pay little attention to my art. Even my wife wouldn’t buy one of my funny looking animals if she saw it in a store and didn’t know me. I don’t think my parents would, either, though they have a lot of my prints. Really, it’s an excessive amount, but that’s because they’re my parents.

It doesn’t mean most of the people close to me aren’t supportive; it’s just that the art I want to create and art that resonates with them are two different things.

I guarantee that Celine Dion doesn’t care that I don’t like her music. She’s earned her millions by catering to the people that have loved and supported her work for many years, her audience.

There are plenty of people who do like my work. They subscribe to my newsletter, buy my prints and products, and share my work with their friends. There are 7.5 billion people on the planet. Relatively speaking, I need very few of them to support my work in order to make a good living.

These people, they’re my audience, and I’m grateful for them.

2) It’s a long game.

The work that’s worth sharing is the stuff that takes many hours, days, weeks, and years to create. And when you do share those pieces, often compressed into a three minute time lapse work-in-progress video, people are immediately asking where the next one is.

Good work takes time. Great work takes a lifetime.

You will most likely never be truly happy with anything you create. Given an equal measure of praise and criticism, you will always give the latter more weight. I used to think that was just me and the neurotic little hamsters running around the wheels of my own mind.

It’s not. Artists be whack, yo!

3) If you do it for a living, you’ll always worry about money.

Gaining and losing newspapers has been a part of my editorial cartooning job for almost twenty years. If I have fifty newspaper clients, lose one, but gain three, it will be the one I lost that keeps me awake at night, fretting over the future. That’s human nature. It’s the lizard brain part of our makeup that forces us to focus on the worst case scenario so that we are prepared to survive threats, real or imagined.

With a fridge, freezer and pantry full of food, you’ll still worry about where your next meal is coming from.

4) Frustration is part of the gig.

Why did a competitor get that cartoon spot instead of me? Why didn’t that newspaper run a cartoon today? Why doesn’t this new editor like my work as much as the last one did? Why weren’t my trade show sales as good as last year? Why do people like that painting I did five years ago better than the last ten I’ve done?

I could write a thousand why questions and they would all still equal the same one.

What am I doing wrong?!

There are often no satisfactory answers for why things don’t go the way you want them to, especially if clients are at arm’s length, as so many of them are in our digital world. I’ve worked with some of my editors for many years and will likely never meet them face to face. The same goes for the majority of people who license and sell my paintings.

When it’s doable, I will call or email an editor and ask why the change and the reason is often much less Machiavellian than I imagine. A lot of the time, it boils down to the first point in this list. The new editor likes somebody else’s work better.

But then, I’ve also gained newspapers for the same reason when a new editor likes my work better than the previous guy they were using. Of course, focusing on that positive angle would be a healthy choice, but artists don’t do that.

5) There are moments of joy.

When I first went to college, I majored in Psychology, which basically meant, “I have no idea what I want to do. I’ll do this until I figure it out.”

I didn’t do well on the graded portion of the experience, but I did enjoy the subject matter and still do today.

While most famous for his Hierarchy of Needs, Abraham Maslow had a theory called Peak Experience, which boils down to “moments of highest happiness and fulfillment.”

Often compared to the feeling of falling in love, a person holding their first child, a sunrise on a mountain top, something personal and profound, a euphoric mental state, they can also occur in day to day life, depending on the person. I’ve never taken LSD, but from what I’ve read, it sounds like many have reached peak experience while on acid.

The way I understand it is that it’s an experience where you feel you are right where you’re supposed to be in that moment, that everything is connected, a profound sense of meaning and transcendence where the stuff that doesn’t matter (which is almost everything) falls away and you’re at your very best in that moment.

I have been fortunate to have experienced many of those moments, often in nature, but the vast majority of them have been while painting. The right music in the headphones with the right painting on the screen at the right stage of progress, a hot cup of coffee, it all comes together and feels perfect. More than once, I’ve had to wipe away tears. It’s a profound rush that only lasts a moment or two, is a little depressing to come down from, but is unmistakable when it happens.

I’m always chasing that feeling.

6) Everybody has two cents to offer.

“You know what you should do!”

This is a running gag with every creative I know. People with no stake in the game, with no background in the field, with no filter between their brain and mouth, telling me in which direction to take my business.

My favorite, of course, is, “you should write children’s books.”

If I had wanted to, I would have.

As advice costs people nothing, they’ve always got an abundance to give away. Ignore most of it.

Of course, if an incredibly famous and wealthy children’s book author tells me I should write children’s books, I’m going to take her to lunch to hear her out. I’m nothing if not a sellout.

7) Most of it will still feel like work you don’t want to do.

Bookkeeping, taxes, packaging, licensing contracts, phone calls, image prep, travel to places you otherwise wouldn’t go. It’s a job. It requires compromise and often creating stuff you don’t want to for clients who don’t want the stuff you most like to create.

A lot of the time, it’s this business stuff that takes priority over the creative stuff. Often, I’d rather be painting, but instead I’m reconciling my bank statements in order to pay my quarterly GST on time, because the government gets bitchy when you’re late with their money.

8) Creating art is the easy part. Selling it is hard.

“I don’t feel like doing Expo this year. It’s just a lot of work,” I joked to my wife yesterday morning.

“You sound like a Millennial,” she replied.

Sorry, Millennials. You hard working ones are being dragged down by those refusing to leave their parents’ basement and get a job that’s beneath them.

Next weekend, I’ll be setting up my entire Calgary Expo booth in my garage to make sure I’ve got it right before disassembling it the next day, packing it into the car only to reassemble it three days later in Calgary.     

To paraphrase that voice in the corn from Field of Dreams, it would be nice to believe that if you build it, they will come.

Sadly, that ain’t the case.

Production, assembly, promotion, marketing, networking, collaboration, delivery, the back-end admin, all of that stuff is a trial by fire. As every creator is as different as the things they create, selling enough of it to make a decent living is much more difficult and much less enjoyable than the work itself.

Worse, there is no map. There are examples from those who’ve successfully done something similar before, but luck and timing both play their parts. What worked for one person will not work for you. Everyone has a unique foundation from which they start, the ingredients they have access to at crucial crossroads, and the mentors or opportunities presented at different times.

You do your best with what you’ve got and wait to see if it pans out. Failure should not only be expected, but it’s required.

How many authors have you heard proudly recount the list of rejection letters they endured before they got published? That’s worth boasting about because they stuck it out when everybody told them to quit. They earned those bragging rights.

Everybody talks a good game, but it’s those who put their asses in the chair and get to work who find success. Even then, this comic tragedy can still end without ever producing life-changing rewards.

The statistics are clear. Creative professions are synonymous with failure. Most people who try it, will fail, which also makes being in it a long time a little sweeter, having beaten the odds. So far.

In the words of Han Solo, “Great, kid! Don’t get cocky.”

9) Focus, Young Jedi.

Likes and shares don’t pay the bills.

Quitting social media was frightening because so many people will tell you that it’s a necessity. (See #6). I’ve been asked in recent weeks how it’s been, by people considering the same move.

The first couple of weeks, coming down off the drug was tough. But now, I wish I’d done it sooner. I’m getting much more work done. The scramble to get editorial cartoons out doesn’t seem as tight anymore. I’m not so stressed watching the clock. I seem to have more time to draw, paint, write and have found more clarity of thought than I’ve had in years.

Social media is not the necessary evil that creatives have been led to believe. Well, not necessary, anyway.

10) It’s all worth it.

A friend recently commented that my wife and I were weird, because we don’t place much importance on birthdays or traditional holidays, etc. He meant it as an insult, but I chose to take it as a compliment.

Normal is overrated. Normal is boring. Normal is what keeps people in the same place for decades at a time wishing they were somewhere else. Normal is hiding your true self for fear of being judged by people whose opinions really shouldn’t matter to you.

It’s deviation from the norm, from the accepted, where life is lived. Be weird. Be different.

Fall in line with the mob simply to fit in? No thanks. To paraphrase Kennedy, we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

With limited time on this earth, with seemingly no real meaning, many at odds with their apparent lack of purpose, frustrated with the futility of it all, what else are you going to do with your time?

TV, Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram? This is how we spend our most precious resource? On our phones?!

We create things because we can. We better ourselves because we have the luxury of doing so. Even if it results in more struggle, bad feelings, disappointment, frustration, depression, anxiety, it’s far better than simply watching the clock, waiting to die.

When I used to teach and do painting demos, I’d often tell people that it might take you ten years to become good at something you’ve never done, but those years are going to pass anyway. Wouldn’t you rather arrive on the other side of it looking back at a body of creative work, or a new skill you’ve developed?

If you get that far, you might even want to do it for a living.

Even if you don’t, you’d at least have the choice.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Kartooning Kenney

When I first started editorial cartooning twenty years ago, I would spend hours nitpicking details, trying to get everything just right. I wasn’t a very good artist then, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

Obsessing over the details, often with one eye on the clock before I had to get to my day job, my wife would often caution me about trying to turn every cartoon into The Sistine Chapel.

To this day, whenever I spend a lot of time on a cartoon, we refer to it as a Sistine Chapel.

I realized quite some time ago that many of my competitors and colleagues became editorial cartoonists because they were political animals who enjoyed drawing, whereas I was the opposite. I liked to doodle in my spare time and stumbled upon the gig that would change the course of my life because of an ad in the weekly Banff paper. I was 27 years old. Before that, I paid very little attention to politics or the news.

While learning to be a better artist, I was also learning to follow politics and the news.

In the days when many newspapers had their own in-house cartoonist, that artist could spend an entire day on a cartoon, coming up with the idea, drawing the sketch, presenting the editor with a rough, and delivering the finished cartoon at the end of the day by deadline.

He (they were almost always men) didn’t have to worry that another cartoonist was going to take his spot in the next day’s paper.

These days, with so many newspapers having laid off their staff cartoonist, many use syndicated freelancers, so it’s a dog eat dog world of not only coming up with the cartoon, but getting it drawn fast in order to meet a much earlier deadline.

Quite a few of my weekly newspapers want their cartoons before 9 o’clock on Monday morning in their own time zone. I work weekends.

On top of that, with clients in many provinces, I also have to consider that even though the Alberta election has an impact on the entire country, a cartoon on that topic might not resonate with a weekly paper in Ontario. While I will still send them those cartoons, I will make sure I send them other cartoons so they have more options from which to choose.

What all of that means is that a part of my brain is perpetually on the lookout for cartoon ideas, I am always planning the next day’s (week’s, month’s…) cartoons, and trying to come up with the best use of my time so that the cartoon will still consist of a number of ingredients. It should be funny, but sometimes intentionally not funny. It should be an insightful comment on an issue, but sometimes just a joke about dog poop thawing in the spring. It should be well drawn, but often a simple drawing will suffice to get the message across.

I’m supplying not only an artistic comment for an editorial page, but also a product for my client, and they won’t wait until I’m ready to send it if they’re up against deadline and other cartoonists have already sent in submissions.

I rarely take days off, but that serves my nature. I’m always working on the next cartoon, the next painting, the next blog post, or preparing files for my licensing clients. When I hear friends talk about looking forward to their retirement, I’m just trying to work as long as I can, hoping my eyesight and dexterity hold out before age robs me of both.

Add to that the tenuous nature of a daily deadline for a struggling industry in a gig economy and there are days when I feel more like a factory worker pushing out widgets than an artist. I don’t often get to put as much into a cartoon as I’d like.

Every so often, however, I make time for a Sistine Chapel.

A little background…

The province of Alberta was ruled for 44 years by the Progressive Conservative Party.

In the last election, they managed to anger Albertans so much that people voted for the New Democratic Party en masse and they won a majority, which for this province was a huge upset, a dramatic swing from right to left. I figure people voted for them out of protest in order to give the Conservative Party a spanking to remind them who they worked for.

I don’t think anybody expected the NDP to win. I sure didn’t.

In 2017, the two right wing Progressive Conservatives and Wild Rose parties merged and now the new United Conservative Party is trying to take Alberta back from the NDP in our current election.

Many who support the UCP blame the NDP for anything and everything that has ever been wrong with Alberta, which is ridiculous because the whole reason they got elected was that the previous government had screwed everything up so badly having been corrupted by their sense of entitlement. Since the Wild Rose was made up of former PCs, nobody trusted them either.

Of course, when I say stuff like this, people think I support the NDP, which I don’t. I’ve drawn plenty of cartoons critical of the current government, but when it comes to the lesser of evils, they most certainly are, for one reason.

Because the UCP is led by Jason Kenney.


Jason Kenney was a career federal politician, whose past positions on some pretty important social issues weren’t very popular. Having followed federal politics for many years, I’ve formed the opinion that Jason Kenney’s primary interest is Jason Kenney and if the UCP doesn’t get elected, it’ll be because he’s in charge.

I don’t trust him. A lot of people don’t trust him.

My impression is that Kenney realized he was never going to be the Prime Minister of Canada, so he came back to Alberta, said all of the right things to get people angry, pointed a finger at the NDP, said they’re to blame for everything and thank heavens he showed up just in time to save us from ourselves.

All he’s missing is Make Alberta Great Again embroidered on his fresh off the rack cowboy hat, to go with his pristine blue pickup truck.

The current Premier, Rachel Notley, has a lot of hard work to do. She’s made some unpopular choices with Albertans and there’s plenty of room for improvement. I’m not a fan of hers, either. The primary goal of every party anywhere is to get re-elected and the NDP are shoveling hard.

But Jason Kenney is irresponsible, reckless and dangerous. He is preying on fear and outrage, and will divide Alberta even more than it already is. He is not the solution to what ails us.

So when I decided to draw this cartoon, I allowed more time than I’m used to. I spent hours on the sketch and drawing, painted in little details that nobody will see, tried some stuff that worked, discarded other stuff that didn’t and probably sacrificed a second cartoon that could have been completed had I rushed this one through.

Regardless of where (and if) it gets published, it was well worth my time.

Because it was fun.

Cheers,
Patrick

To see the rest of my current cartoons, here’s the link to that page, updated each week.

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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

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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

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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.