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Two Wolves

     It was with great pleasure and relief that I finally got another painting finished this morning. I started this piece over a month ago and it was a struggle to find the time to work on it.

With the daily editorial cartoon deadlines, ongoing kitchen renovations, a number of other obligations, side issues and unexpected distractions, each day that I couldn’t find the time to paint was frustrating.

This year’s new license with Pacific Music and Art has introduced my work to a lot more places. Hardly a week goes by without somebody sending me an email from somewhere telling me they saw my work in a store or bought one of my images on a product. My buddy Darrel was just on a road trip out to Vancouver Island and sent me a photo of my Bald Eagle image on some notepads in Harrison Hot Springs, BC.
A woman from Florida sent me an email yesterday telling me how much she loves the Smiling Tiger image she bought on a trivet while on vacation in Canada this summer.

It’s a little overwhelming, but also exactly what I’ve asked for.

I’ve been an editorial cartoonist for more than twenty years, self-syndicated since 2001 and a full-time artist since 2006. But newspapers have long since reached their peak and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t often looked down the road and wondered how much longer that will be a part of my career. I’m not ready for the end yet, but I’m preparing for it.

Over the last few years, I’ve lost more papers than I’ve gained, most often because some newspapers have stopped running cartoons, have reduced how often they publish or have shut down. Most daily newspapers have sacked their in-house cartoonists and are using freelancers like myself and others. I’m sometimes surprised that the ride has lasted this long for that part of my business.
While I still need that income and it’s an important part of my business, that first funny looking Grizzly Bear I painted in 2009 has led to my still being able to live and thrive in this artist life, ten years down the road. During that time I’ve created more than 60 production pieces. They’re sold as prints in zoos and parks, and licensed through a handful of companies here in Canada and in other parts of the world.

The foundation for this part of my business was laid ten years ago and has turned out better than I could have imagined, all started with a simple experiment, painting this bear.
In all of that time, the daily deadline of editorial cartoons has been priority one, because that’s the monthly income, the clients I supply each day and invoice at the end of each month. I’ve always put the painting on the back burner, to get to when I have the time away from the cartoons. Over the past year, with my painted work spreading faster and further, it has become clear to me that they are both of equal priority; because the painted work I do now will be what pays the bills down the road.

Just as that Grizzly Bear is still one of my bestsellers (and one of my favorite paintings), none of the current licensing would be possible had I not built the portfolio to offer to these clients in the first place.

It’s also tempting to stick to the formula, to paint the head-shot animal composition time after time, because that’s where it started, that’s what initially got these pieces noticed and those are proven sellers.

But that’s not where the magic happens. We too often worry so much about keeping what we’ve got that we fail to imagine what else might be possible.

With that first painting, I tried something new, took a risk on being different, and it led to the work I most enjoy. I love my whimsical wildlife critters. I am at my best when painting them, both in my skill level and how they make me feel. If the politics of editorial cartooning is the poison, these animals are the antidote.

For years, people have been telling me that what makes these images special is the eyes. It’s always how I paint the eyes, I hear this constantly. Then I painted the Smiling Tiger with her eyes closed and it’s one of my bestselling pieces. Had I paid too much attention to what I’d been told and not enough to what I wanted to paint, this image would never have happened.
I feel the same way about this latest piece. It’s a different composition, two wolves who might be sharing an inside joke. A couple of buddies or a romantic couple? It tells a story and while I’ll always be my worst critic, I really like this painting. I hope it’s popular, because right now, it’s already one of my favorite pieces. It’s different from the usual head-shot composition but a risk worth taking.

And it was fun, something I don’t make enough time for.

I took the reference for this painting at the Calgary Zoo a while ago and I felt that I had captured something when I looked at the shots. I knew instantly I would be painting this image. That doesn’t often happen.

As a professional artist, I have to keep in mind that if I don’t produce any commercial images, I don’t make a living. But I have a feeling about this direction, more animals in an image, telling a story, and still in my style. I think there’s something here.

Only time will tell.

Cheers,
Patrick
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The Black Bear Totem


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had no idea.

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Grizzly Ride Into K-Country

HighwoodPassHighway 40 into Kananaskis is one of the prettiest drives around here. From Canmore to the Highwood Pass (the highest paved road in Canada), it takes about an hour, although most people make time to stop along the way for photos of the scenery or if they’re lucky enough to see wildlife.

This time of year, it’s a busy place, especially on weekends. Almost all of the campgrounds stay full the whole summer. For that reason, I’m not a big fan of camping in K-Country, but I do like to make the drive once in a while.

Wednesday mornings are usually one of my busier days as I have two cartoons to get done and sent, one syndicated and the local cartoon for the Rocky Mountain Outlook. This week, I worked a little longer beforehand so that I could take this morning to go for an early drive, hopefully to get some photos of grizzly bears. A photographer friend told me that I’d have the best chance of finding them on that highway just as the sun was coming up before the tourists got going. As he’s got some beautiful bear pics and makes his living as a wildlife photographer, sounded like good advice to me.

The wildlife around here becomes scarce in the middle of the day and traffic is quite heavy all summer long. I got up before 5, sent out the cartoon I’d already drawn, grabbed a coffee, a quick bite and was on the road by 6:30.

While I had my heart set on animal pics, I know that’s always hit and miss and critters don’t punch time clocks, so I was optimistic but realistic. With only a few other cars on the highway, especially the last half of the climb, the scenery was spectacular as always. Happened across a red pickup truck pulled over to the side of the road and with nobody else around, I pulled up beside him and asked if he’d seen any bears. He said he hadn’t, but that’s what he was after. I think he was listening to radio collar frequencies, but I can’t be sure.
PikaI drove off up to the Pass without any wildlife sightings. After a few moments enjoying the stillness, I got back in the car and started back. Just two minutes from the Pass, I stopped at a spot well known for pikas and had some fun chasing the little buggers around the rocks with my camera, hoping I’d get some that would turn out. For you photographers out there, I was shooting with a 24-70mm lens. Pikas are fast and small, so I was relying a lot on luck, that one would just happen to run past me, close enough to get a decent shot. Managed about five keepers and I’m honestly surprised I got that many.

That bigger lens is still on my wish list. Someday.

On the way back, I decided to take the Smith-Dorian Trail back to Canmore, a 60km gravel dirt road. Not really a shortcut, just a different route. After about 5km, however, I turned back to Hwy 40. The road has become a severe washboard and I didn’t want to shake my car apart.

Kicking myself a little for turning back, I was rewarded for the decision. Not long after turning onto Highway 40, I came around a corner and sure enough, there was a large grizzly bear by the side of the road. Parked beside her, that same red pickup truck.

I pulled over and started clicking away.
Bear152As she munched away on bushes, moving down the ditch, red pickup truck guy moved around me for a better angle. When she had moved past me, I did the same and he and I played a little bit of a game of leapfrog as we kept pace with her, both of us shooting from our vehicles. At one point I asked him if I was in his way, and he waved it off with a smile, both of us trying not to hurt the other’s chances at the best shots.

I will admit that I was suffering from lens envy. His was bigger.

She eventually wandered off into the bush and I headed home, anxious to see if I’d gotten any shots. I got about three good ones I want to keep. Nothing that I’m likely to paint from, but I finally got to see my first grizzly in the wild. She had a radio collar on her, so I could see that she has been designated Bear 152. She sure is pretty.

Looking her up online, I’m pleased to see that she is not a nuisance bear, and plenty of other folks have had the same great experience to have come across her in their travels. I’m hoping to again.
Bear152_2If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.  Thanks!

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Why They’re Called Totems.

CoyoteTotem
Having just finished listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’, I realize I’ve been betraying myself. I have a book deadline in July of next year; it’ll be a book of my animal work. In it, I plan to talk about the painting process, what I think about while I’m working, stories about certain paintings and what brought about their existence.

I have been wrestling with one part of the larger story, however, most importantly deciding whether or not I want to include it. The reason is because it is deeply personal, it is the whole reason I paint these animals, especially the way in which I paint them, and it leaves me open to harsh criticism. I’ve only shared this story with a handful of people.

I’ve realized in recent days, however, that not to include it would be removing the very soul of the book. It would be robbing it of any honesty, and would genuinely be the worst kind of selling out, simply because I am worried about what people might think.

That’s not the book I want to write, and I wouldn’t be happy with it. Just as I’d rather give somebody a hug than shake their hand, you got to be who you are. So here goes.

In the mid-nineties, I worked at The Douglas Fir Resort in Banff, running the waterslide facility. A decent job, worked with some wonderful people, many of whom are still good friends. While I can’t be sure of the sequence of events, I do remember that my friends Michelle and Jeremy introduced me to Shamanism, which is a spiritual belief involving the natural world around us and most often associated with Native American culture, as I understood it. The general belief in communion with the natural world, however, is shared by many cultures on the planet. While I won’t go into it in great detail, I enjoyed the exploration.

I should mention that the only mind altering drugs I’ve ever done in my life was that I’ve smoked pot a few times. Let’s just say it didn’t agree with my naturally guarded nature, so none of this is related to illegal substances. Also, none of us was doing moonlight rituals or dancing naked under the stars in meadows, calling ourselves Running Deer or pretending we were in any way connected with a Native tribe. It was merely an investigation, just as I’ve done with many other supposedly fringe beliefs during that time.

One day, Jeremy and I were hanging out at the pool on days off and he gave me a drumming tape, which is just a rhythmic beating drum track that, when coupled with meditation, can often induce an altered perception called a journey. So I went into the sauna with my Walkman (remember those?) by myself, leaving Jeremy out by the pool and figured I’d give it a shot. When in your mid-twenties, you’ll believe anything, including that you’re invincible.

To spare you the detailed play by play, I’ll just say that it was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. In the journey, I met a coyote, as vivid as if he was standing in front of me right now, more real than any dream, and he led me on a walk. In the simplest terms, I had met my personal Totem.

To even write this is daunting, because my instinct says, “right now, people are rolling their eyes and thinking, ‘wow, another flaky artist. What a shock.’”

If that’s you, feel free to stop reading. I won’t be offended.

Over the next few years, I was suddenly flooded with more animal dreams than I can count. I still have three or four volumes of journals I wrote at the time, complete with sketches of scenes and descriptions of the things I saw. These were incredibly vivid dreams and more journeys with the drumming tracks.

At our wedding the next year, one of Shonna’s friends gave me medicine cards. I still have them twenty years later. While in Anaheim in 2006, Shonna and I went to a mall and I found the book Animal Speak by the late Ted Andrews. I still open that book weekly and use it as a reference for the wildlife I often see. I was drawn to this stuff, it just seemed to show up everywhere, or I was suddenly just noticing it. I’m as much a skeptic as the next guy, so I’ll concede that point, as you often find what you’re looking for.

Over time, however, I lost interest in it. The flighty indulgence of youth has time for these things, but I became busy with my editorial cartooning career. Sure, I thought about those dreams once in a while and revisited it occasionally. When cleaning up my office, I might come across those journals and read a few pages, but as time past, it drifted away.

Around 2009, right after my first Photoshop World, I’d been looking for some painted work I could do that I could actually market. Up until then, I’d been doing a lot of painted caricatures of celebrities, but realized I wasn’t enjoying it much and that selling these likenesses would also present legal issues in the future and I didn’t like doing it enough to bother with that hassle.

So I thought about what I could paint. Given where I live, I figured I’d give wildlife a try. I’d done some renderings of animals for editorial cartoons, but wanted to see if I could paint them as well. A bear seemed like a good start. I made time for this experiment and the finished result looked sort of like a real bear, but it was definitely caricatured, which hadn’t been my original plan. It just ended up that way. The response was good, people liked it and most importantly, so did I. It just felt right. It was fun. I loved that bear and it’s still one of my favorites today, and one of my best sellers.

GrizzlyTotem
It was my first Totem painting, of which I’ve done almost thirty since, among many other animal paintings that aren’t considered part of that group. In February of 2010, with three of them done, I got into my first art gallery in Banff, seemingly by accident, and now my animal work is a large part of my career. With three galleries, two zoos and international licensing on apparel and other products, this part of my life is still growing. Best of all, it is still the most enjoyable work I have ever done and continue to do. It feels like a calling, like this is where I’m supposed to be.

Now here’s the spooky part.

About a year after I started painting these animals, I was getting rid of some books in my office. I came across those journals and got sucked into reading one of them. I discovered an entry that described a detailed dream I’d had right around the time I’d been introduced to the concept of animal spirits, about twenty years ago. In the dream, I was at a party in one of the chalets at the Douglas Fir Resort. I had gone into the bathroom to relieve myself but had been distracted by a noise outside. I looked out the small window and saw a grizzly bear walking toward the chalet on the path outside.

The bear approached the chalet, put its front paws up onto the wall, looked right up at me and grinned. The bear had human eyes. That was twelve years before I’d painted my first Totem, and I’d forgotten all about it.

It might surprise you to read that I’m an atheist. I was raised Catholic and know a lot about religion, but if I ever had faith in it, I certainly don’t now. In the simplest terms, I believe we get one shot at this life and I don’t believe in an afterlife. Or if I’m wrong, I don’t think we have the reference required to comprehend what a continued existence might entail, so I don’t give it much thought. I also don’t try to dissuade anyone who believes otherwise. Faith is faith, no matter where you place it. To each their own.

And yet, my personal paradox is that I do believe that there is a mysterious other level that parallels and interacts with our own. Something we can often feel and sometimes see and touch. I don’t try to define it, nor do I believe it’s the same for everybody; we might each experience it in terms we can understand. Whether through intuition, dreams, premonitions or just that gut feeling you have that tells you to turn left instead of right, there’s something indefinable that has an influence on our material world.

In every painting I do, and I’ve mentioned this often, there is a moment where the personality just seems to ‘show up.’ I’m not kidding. The technical brushwork might be to the best of my ability, but to me, it appears lifeless until that moment. When it happens, it is my glimpse into that other, because it’s so profound. It is a real experience to me. When it comes, there is often a sense of relief, that the work was worthy of it, but more often, it’s like greeting an old friend. I’ve even said aloud on more than one occasion, “there you are.”

It’s as if I did the work to create the painted body, and when it was ready, something else gave it life. That’s the best I can explain it. It moves me every time.

In June of 2013, I finally painted the Coyote Totem, and it was worth the wait. It was if I didn’t have the skills to do it justice until then. It is the only painting I have printed for myself and it’s framed in my office. It is not one of my bestsellers, but it is my favorite. My wife suggested I hang it where I could see it easily from my desk. I look at it often, especially when I realize I’ve learned something important or when a perceived failure yields unexpected dividends later on, the connection only apparent in hindsight.

His grin is all knowing and it always makes me smile, as if telling me to have faith in the process or simply to say, “told you so.” From Animal Speak, The Coyote is the wise fool, the trickster. “There is always hidden wisdom when the coyote is concerned. Its energies are tied to simplicity and trust.”

Recently, I mentioned on social media that I was thinking of getting my first tattoo for my 45th birthday in the spring. I’d finally realized that Wile E. Coyote would be appropriate, a frustrated, grumpy looking version that just suits my mercurial personality, and it’s a cartoon. Shortly after sharing that, my mother sent me this picture of me at 19 months old.
Coyote

Seems he has always been around for me.

What I’ve learned from studying this Totem is that the best lessons are often learned in a roundabout way. When you’re failing at one thing, you’re probably succeeding at something else and you don’t even know it. While I was frustrated for years at not getting to where I wanted to be with the artwork I was pursuing, what I was really doing was getting better at drawing and painting, putting in those requisite 10,000 hours. Eventually everything came full circle until I found the work I love to do best, or rather it found me. I didn’t develop the skill until later to create these animals that make me so happy, but I’d always been working toward it, even if I didn’t know it.

So now you know. This is why I paint these animals, why they’re called Totems, and why I can never take full credit for them. It is a powerful gift, one I continually have to earn.

It’s my own brush with big magic, and I’m grateful.