Winter reared its ugly head this week in Alberta, and I’m already feeling the blues. It happens every year, but painting a happy face usually puts me in a better mood. Grizzly Bearapy. It’s an effective prescription.
For my primary reference for this piece, I selected a few I took during a day with Berkley at Discovery Wildlife Park several years ago. It was the same day I took the reference for my Peanuts painting. But I also referenced other grizzly bears to vary the features.
Half of my business is editorial cartooning; for that work, my clients are newspapers. That’s a business model that was on shaky ground already when I got into it a couple of decades ago. Today, many papers are hanging on by their fingernails. Despite that, it’s still worth my time and effort to draw five or six syndicated editorial cartoons each week for several publications across Canada.
However, I shouldn’t need to explain why that could change tomorrow.
About thirteen years ago, anticipating the day when editorial cartooning would no longer be enough to provide a full-time income, I looked for ways to diversify. With a steady decline in newspaper revenue in recent years, it was a good call. Thankfully, my whimsical wildlife paintings became the other half of my career and business, which still has plenty of growth potential.
While neither part of my business is presently enough on its own, together, they’re my full-time job.
It can be easy to get complacent and coast when things are going well enough. But life can turn on a dime, and the things we think only happen to other people can quickly happen to any one of us.
I’m an unapologetic pessimist; there’s no sense denying it. I’ve had too many plans scuttled by someone else’s decisions, so I don’t take anything for granted. One year, I lost nine papers in one day because a newspaper chain sold. When the pandemic hit, I lost even more. I’ve had licensing and other opportunities vanish overnight when corporations changed direction or personnel.
As we’re all aware, companies are quick to talk about trust and loyalty when convenient, but their actions often walk a different path.
Though this painting was fun to do, as are most of my whimsical wildlife pieces, it was a commercial decision. It’s the first in a series of paintings I’m creating to promote my work to new licensing clients. It’s also another painting for the bear book.
If you’re a self-employed artist, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, especially relevant in today’s economy.
By the end of this week, I’ll have drawn seven editorial cartoons, finished this grizzly bear painting, worked on a pet portrait commission, written content for the book, created page layouts so my publisher can get pricing estimates, and done month-end invoicing and bookkeeping.
All are necessary to keep my business viable but also prevent monotony. By having different things on which to focus, I’ve always got something else I can be doing. Painting grizzly bear fur and features for three hours is delightful—eight hours, not so much.
So it’s nice to make progress on a painting in the morning, then switch to drawing an editorial cartoon, sort and select photo reference, read some marketing material, research and reach out to potential new licenses, plan for upcoming gift shows, or write a post like this one.
Then, when I return to the painting the next day, it’ll be with fresh eyes to correct any errors and add more life to the piece for a few more hours. I get to enjoy the work I love most without allowing it to become a yoke I resent.
Here’s a time lapse drawing video of my little friend Berkley when she was a cub. You may listen to the voice-over or read it below.
Most artists will experience an inspirational drought where the creative well appears to have dried up, often several times in a career. Get to the bottom and start digging, you may only find more dry dirt.
That’s some scary shit, especially when hauling that water is how you make your living.
The pandemic was a wake-up call for many. Some changed careers because they had to. Others considered returning to their pre-lockdown jobs and realized they’d rather be unemployed.
We were all confronted with hard questions.
One I keep returning to is, “What do I want?”
The easy answer is often ‘more money’ as many imagine that would solve our problems. I don’t want a sports car, a big truck, or a huge house. I’m not a ‘buy more stuff’ guy. More money means safety and security, not having to fret about the finances, now or in my senior years.
Retirement doesn’t appeal to me. To keep my existential angst at bay, I need to have something to do. Idle time is not my friend. Barring any injury, illness or a cognitive decline, a prospect that honestly scares the hell out of me, I plan to work for the next twenty-five-plus years.
But what work do I want to do?
Parents used to tell their children to get an education and have something to fall back on, but those safety jobs have become rare. The days of thirty or forty years with a company followed by a healthy pension are long gone. We read daily about massive layoffs from corporations with names that used to be synonymous with stability.
That’s one reason I opted to sail my own ship rather than shovel coal on a larger vessel where the captain can throw you overboard on a whim, most likely into shark-infested waters during a hurricane.
But even working for yourself, you must still answer to customers. The art you want to create and the art your clients want you to create are often two different things.
At my market or gift show booth, people often ask for their favourite animal. Do you have an iguana, a hedgehog, or a kangaroo? If I don’t, I’ll add it to the list and might eventually paint it. If they follow my work, they might even still be around when I complete it. It could become a bestseller but likely won’t because most people want popular animals like lions, tigers, bears, and wolves.
At one event earlier this year, somebody asked if I had a sloth. I had just painted one, so I plucked it from the bin, put it in her hands and proudly said, “Why yes, I do.”
The woman looked at it briefly, put it back in the bin and started flipping through the others, asking, “Do you have a platypus?”
I wished I had so that I could find out what she’d ask for next. When I said I didn’t, she said, “Oh, too bad, I would have bought one,” and she walked away.
This is often what it’s like working for clients.
Several licensing companies rent the rights to put my work on their products. Occasionally, one will ask for a painting of a specific animal. If I can, I’ll try to accommodate the request. But without fail, as soon as I do, the client has a list of other images they want me to create.
Suddenly, licensing my catalogue has turned into their ordering custom pieces, but without commission rates or guarantees that the time spent will generate revenue. It’s somebody else gambling with my money or, more importantly, my limited time.
I recently negotiated with a puzzle company to create a few designs for them. The first was a detailed painting of three giraffes. It was my idea, but one they approved. Shortly after I finished it, the owner told me they couldn’t add any new artists this year due to unforeseen circumstances. No big surprise in this economy.
I’m disappointed but have no hard feelings because I got some valuable experienced advice about what makes a good puzzle, and I stretched my skills to create something new. And I’m also happy with the finished piece. Once I complete a couple more puzzle-minded pieces, I’ll be shopping that first painting and new designs to other puzzle companies. Failing that, I’ll produce my own.
When companies are your clients, your needs are not their needs. If your art resonates with their customers, then it’s mutually beneficial. But the moment it doesn’t, you’re yesterday’s news. They’ll work with the artist who makes them the most money. They’re in business to promote their company, not your work.
On the reverse of all my prints, there is an artist bio. The last line invites people to subscribe to A Wilder View on my website, a regular email where I share news, paintings, and the stories behind them. One retailer will only sell my prints if I remove that line from the bio, as they don’t want their customers going to my website.
I’ve had a website for over two decades, and I’m easy to find, so I’m not concerned. But I am reminded of my value every time I prepare to deliver new prints because I must slice off that last line from each bio before sticking it to the backer board.
I recently severed ties with an art licensing agency that kept asking me to create new work to follow whatever trend was popular this quarter, whether it was the type of work I did or not. It wasn’t personal; they wanted all their artists to do the same thing.
If you’re a graphic designer or illustrator, following trends is often part of the job and what you signed up for. But if you’ve found that rare jewel of an established niche as I have, changing what you do every few months because somebody read a post on Facebook that robot plumbers wearing figure skates are in this year, you might as well be panhandling. The artist takes all the risk, creating new work in the faint hope the licensing agency might find a buyer for it. If they don’t, too bad.
If you won’t do it, they can find thousands of young desperate artists who will.
That’s no way to sustain a career. Nobody wins a race to the bottom.
Customer service, professional behaviour and sound business practices are essential, as is compromise and accommodating your clients’ needs and wishes. People pay you to supply what they need, and delivering that often builds lasting relationships beneficial to both parties. All boats rise with the tide. Fail to realize these things, and you’ll soon be out of business.
But if you don’t write your own story, you’re just a bit player in somebody else’s. When you spend all your creative energy trying to please your clients and customers at the expense of the things that made you want to be an artist in the first place, you become bitter and resentful.
At least I have. But I’m working through it by redefining my boundaries in work and life.
An old maxim cautions, “Don’t kill yourself working for an employer that would advertise your job before anybody sees your obituary.”
If I suddenly dropped dead, my licensing clients would (hopefully) send my royalties as usual and negotiate any future licensing with my wife. Everybody else would move on.
Newspapers continue to struggle, and the question of how long I’ll be an editorial cartoonist has been front and center for over a decade.
These are things I can’t control.
So I ask again, “What do I want?”
I enjoy creating my animal art, but lately, whenever I go to paint something, I think, “Will this animal be popular? Have I painted too many of these? Not enough? Will this make me any money?”
Every art decision has become about revenue. And when money is the prime motivator, the creative light dims. That leads to burnout and no joy left in the work. When the economy is down, costs are up, interest rates rising, and companies are laying people off, it’s hard to invest time in projects that might bear fruit later when other short-term work is more likely to generate income now.
Payments from clients and licensing companies are taking increasingly longer to reach my mailbox, despite their tight deadlines and demands for quick delivery.
Below the surface of every current piece of art is an undercurrent of desperation. Doom and gloom valley is not the preferred habitat for happy-looking animals.
Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
But then he also said, “The people who make art their business are mostly imposters.”
I’m gonna focus on the first quote and conveniently ignore the second one.
So while I’m trying to answer the question of what I want to do, I’m working on my art book about bears. Not promising to work on it like I’ve been doing for more than six years, but working on it, as I’m well and truly sick and tired of my own procrastination and bullshit excuses.
A very patient publisher recently told me to write the kind of art book I like to buy and read. The art books I like have smaller drawings, sketches, and unfinished pieces among the fully rendered paintings.
So, I’ve been alternating between writing the bear stories and drawing accent pieces like the ones you see here. I enjoy drawing them and expect one or two will inspire future paintings, as sketches often do.
While working on these images, I realized that whenever I’m lost and trying to navigate this ridiculous profession of art for a living, I always seem to come back to bears.
On Wednesday, I delivered a large print order to the Calgary Zoo. A zookeeper friend had ordered a couple of canvases, so I was also happy to deliver those to her.
It poured rain all day, and I was not complaining. After our unusually dry spring, all the wildfires, smoke, and extreme fire hazard risk, the water and cool temperatures were welcome.
But I figured it would be a quiet day, allowing me to take some reference photos. I prefer a cool, overcast day for pictures rather than a hot sunny one. Not only is the light better, but the animals are more active. How much would you want to move around in 30C wearing a fur coat?
I failed to realize that many school groups visited the zoo in June, and the place was infested with loud, screaming, unruly children. They had filled the interior spaces on this rainy day, so I couldn’t take any pictures inside the Asia or Africa pavilions.
I know many kids and their parents like my artwork, so I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me. Zoos are great places for kids to learn to appreciate animals and foster empathy for them. Kids that love and learn about animals might become adults who want to protect them in the wild.
I also know that I was a hyperactive, rambunctious, loud kid, and I undoubtedly annoyed plenty of adults around me. So, payback’s a bitch, I guess. People talk about getting in touch with their inner child. Given the opportunity, I would tell mine to please, calm down and be quiet. Go draw something.
I realize that my lack of patience for children is entirely my own character flaw. Working alone at home all day, I thrive in a solitary quiet environment.
And you wonder why I don’t write or illustrate children’s books.
Since I couldn’t tolerate the little people inside the buildings, and finding unobstructed space to take photos was impossible, I decided to cut the day short.
But on my way back to the car, I figured it would be foolish not to visit the bears in the Canadian Wilds, at least.
I was pleasantly surprised to find them all active, moving about and playing. Skoki, a famous grizzly bear around here, seemed to be having a good day. At 34 years old, he’s a special ambassador bear whose story has been quoted countless times to educate tourists on why feeding and harassing bears for photos in Banff National Park doesn’t end well for the bear.
Rather than rewrite it, I’ll encourage you to read Colleen Campbell’s recent retelling of Skoki’s story.
Nobody wants to see animals in captivity, but as I’ve written countless times before, we are unwilling to sacrifice to keep that from happening. Everybody wants that sharable photo of a grizzly and her cubs on the side of the highway, and if one person stops, a dozen others stop. Soon, the bears are harassed and stressed, and if the mother defends herself or her cubs, she gets relocated or put down.
People leave food out while camping which attracts wildlife. When a bear associates people with food, it’s game over for the bear. I’ve lived in this valley for almost thirty years, and I don’t want to count how many times I’ve read about bears who’ve been euthanized because of selfish and careless people.
The more people repeat Skoki’s story, the more they educate young people to want to protect them in the wild and prevent them from being put in a zoo or destroyed.
One pet peeve I have at the zoo is the many times I’ve heard parents saying to their kids, “Watch out for the scary bear. He’s gonna get you. Rawrrrrrrr!”
I know they’re just fooling around and playing with their kids, but the message is clear — bears are frightening monsters, and you should be afraid of them. When you’re scared of something, it’s easy to justify killing it. There’s a big difference between respect and fear, and they have a lot more reason to fear people.
I must have taken about 700+ shots of Skoki on Wednesday. He gave me so many beautiful poses. At one point, he walked across a log, sat up and straddled it, then hung out there. The wind came up, and he was sniffing the air, clearly enjoying the rain, and I ended up with many great references. Look at those little feet.
He gave me a great idea for a painting. I imagine several bears lined up at a log, like a bunch of friends hanging out at a bar. With his multiple poses and expressions in the same spot, I can paint five or six different bears using him as the reference. I’ll paint the faces and bodies differently for variety, making one thinner, another heavier, taller, and shorter; there are plenty of options. By varying the colours, the finished bears will look like their own characters, but the primary reference will still be one bear.
One of the best things about taking photos for painting is that even though almost all my photos are poor shots, they’re still excellent reference. I was shooting behind very wet plexiglass windows from inside two different shelters. He was a good twenty or thirty feet away, so I could focus past all the water drops and spots, but it was still like shooting through a dirty lens. None of my images are sharp focus.
But I’ve painted so many bears and have taken thousands of photos of them that I only need the pose and the idea to craft a painting from these shots. I have enough experience with bear anatomy and painting hair that bad photos are still a good reference.
Plus, I know enough Photoshop tricks to sharpen them to give me more detail. They’re still bad photos but good enough for my purposes.
Resuming my walk back to my car about an hour and a half later, it struck me funny that I began the day hoping to get photos of animals I hadn’t yet painted or only painted once but left the zoo with a camera card full of grizzly bear photos. I have more pictures of bears than any other animal.
But I was happy once I saw them, armed with an idea for another painting.
I’ve lost track of how many animals I’ve painted since that first grizzly bear in 2009, but I know it’s more than a hundred.
Each animal I paint comes with its challenges and rewards because I always learn something new. That’s a big part of why I enjoy the work so much. I’ll never know enough, and there will always be room for improvement.
Though there are many species in my portfolio, I’ve painted more than 30 bears.
And then there’s Berkley. This new piece is the eleventh time I’ve painted her, plus all the sketches and unfinished renderings.
If you’ve followed my work for longer than five minutes, you’ll know all about her. An orphan rescued from the US in 2017 by my friend Serena at Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, I’ve known Berkley since she was a few months old and have been painting her ever since. Here’s the first one.I sometimes get flack for supporting places like Discovery Wildlife Park, the Calgary Zoo and the Birds of Prey Sanctuary because they house captive animals.
Ideally, no animal would live in captivity, but we’re not the intelligent species we pretend to be. There are few places left in the world where animals can truly be wild. Even then, they’re likely national and provincial parks, sanctuaries, and conservancies. And of those places, the ones that admit tourists wage a constant battle against our bad behaviour.
Unless those places are fenced, animals don’t know about park boundaries. Their migration routes and natural habitats may take them in and out of protected areas. Once they leave those places, they easily fall victim to hunters and trappers. Sometimes, it’s reluctant ranchers protecting their herds from predation; other times, the animals have been lured out of parks by bait.
So while it’s easy to sermonize on social media that all animals should live in the wild, we’re not willing to sacrifice what it would take for that to happen. We’re the biggest threat to pretty much everything on the planet.
Even without people in the equation, we like to imagine that life in the wild is a happy ending Disney matinee. But nature is often violent, brutal and cruel, and survival is anything but a passive exercise for most species.
Animals are often orphaned and need rescuing. While some facilities exist that minimize human contact and release them back into the wild, truly noble work by dedicated individuals, many animals are rescued too late.
Once an animal has been fed by people or has found too many opportunities to get into unsecured garbage at homes or campsites, they can’t unlearn that lesson. So relocating animals rarely works as they will almost always find their way back to reliable food and familiar territory. Or animals that have already claimed the region will kill this new intruder.
So the choices left to deal with a spoiled bear are a home in a wildlife park or zoo, or they’re destroyed.
I know; I started this post with a happy-looking brown bear, then things got dark. Not my intent to bring you down, simply an explanation of why I support reputable zoos and parks that take care of animals.
Serena regularly sends Shonna and I texts and photos of the animals, and we visit Discovery Wildlife Park as often as possible. Not so much the past few years, for obvious reasons, but I intend to change that once the warmer weather arrives.
I’ve painted several animals Serena has raised, often those who had a rough start in life. Some haven’t made it past infancy, others have had challenging health issues, and many have died after living much longer than they would have in the wild. Serena and her staff have often raised these animals from cubs, pups, and kittens. Saying goodbye to them is always painful, often after expensive preventative or emergency veterinary care. Some of the stories have been heartbreaking, and I don’t know how they do it.
Supported by dedicated staff, Serena works seven days a week, often spending late hours at the park when an animal needs extra care. It’s rare when she gets a day off to spend with her husband and family, let alone take a real vacation. A T-shirt and sticker I’ve seen in a few places reads, “I do this for the money, said no zookeeper ever.”
Getting to know Berkley and spending close contact time with her the first couple of years, she always seems happy, though she did go through an amusing terrible-twos phase. I’ve watched her race up trees in a natural area on the grounds, splash through the creek and puddles, and gorge herself on berries in the fall. A favourite memory is Berkley helping herself to Shonna’s water.
It’s a wonderful feeling that Berkley still knows me each visit and comes to say hello, no matter where she is in her large enclosure.
Whenever I paint one of the animals Serena has raised, I send her the first look. When I sent her this finished Laughing Bear painting, this was part of our text exchange. Even in my whimsical style, she knows her own bears.
Bos and Piper are two other brown bear cubs the park rescued in 2021, and I’ve taken plenty of photos of them, too. I’ve painted Bos once already, but more will be forthcoming, as they both have big personalities and are natural hams.
But it’s obvious I have a favourite.
I’ve joked with Serena that she rescued her, raised her, nursed her through illness, fed her, trained her, played with her, and sacrificed all her free time for her.
Here’s my latest piece. I call it ‘Staring Contest.’ This is another painting of Berkley from Discovery Wildlife Park. I took the reference a couple of years ago, the same day I did for one of my favorite pieces, Grizzly on Grass. I love painting this bear. Spending time with her was, and continues to be, a highlight of my life. I’m forever grateful to Serena and her staff for that privilege. Below is a time lapse video of this piece, from start to finish, along with narration to go with it. The text for the voice-over is below the video if you’d rather read than listen to it. Thanks for being here.
Every artist is familiar with imposter syndrome. It has now become a cliché that’s right up there with the overshared quote about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
We compare ourselves to other artists and not only feel like we don’t measure up but that we never will. It’s easy to fall into the headspace that an art career is a zero-sum game, that when another artist wins, you lose. It can be somebody you’ve never met with whom you have no connection, but when they’re making headlines and you’re not, it feels like you’re failing.
Worse, news of other people’s successes is front and center all the time. As a result, we now compare ourselves to everyone else on the planet.
So-and-so exceeded their Kickstarter funding by $50,000. And there’s the guy who makes his entire living from his Patreon subscribers. That woman over there makes six figures from YouTube videos, and that other person has thousands of followers on Instagram.
That artist made millions on NFTs. Somebody else just published their 4th book. His course went viral. She’s featured at Comic-Con. That big company sponsored this guy, and that girl scored a five-figure art grant.
Some kid’s painting video goes viral, and now he’s making movies with James Cameron? He’s 18. That girl’s not even out of art school and got a gig with Disney?
Suddenly I have to start dancing on TikTok to sell my art.
What the hell?
That’s the problem with attention. You’ve got to keep coming up with something new to get more of it and find a way to stand out in a crowd of millions doing the same damn thing.
When you’re not chasing the spotlight, you need to pay the bills.
I’ve been making my full-time living as an editorial cartoonist, illustrator and digital painter for nearly twenty years, plus several years part-time before that.
And yet, I wonder if I’ll still be able to do this for a living in six months.
I’ve had that worry every month since I quit my full-time job in 2005. It has never gone away. Good stuff has happened in my career, a lot of it. But when it does, that little voice always reminds me not to get comfortable. Because as soon as you stop and smell the roses, you get a thorn up your nose.
There are plenty of articles that try to talk you down from the comparison ledge. I know, I’ve read them. Hell, I’ve written some, though I felt like a fraud while doing it.
The worst part is the longing, that feeling that you could be so much more than you are, but you somehow missed that critical memo everybody else got because they seem to know what they’re doing, and you’re the idiot still looking for the light switch in a dark room. It’s that failure to live up to your own perfectionist personal potential, that dark cloud of not being good enough that will rob you of most of the joy of creating art.
Then there’s the shame that comes from not being more successful, feeling like a joke to your friends and family, as if they’re reluctantly indulging this phase you’re going through, just waiting for you to come to your senses and get a real job.
I can’t tell you how many acquaintances I’ve run into, people I hadn’t seen for years, who ask, “Oh, you still doing that art thing?”
“Good for you.”
All that’s missing is the pat on the head.
Now, this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you to let it all go, enjoy the ride, stop trying so hard and making yourself miserable. Comparison is the thief of joy. But then I’d be a hypocrite because I’m 51 years old, and I haven’t figured out how to accept any of that.
Not long ago, I watched that ‘Light and Magic’ series about the creative minds behind ILM. For a movie and art nerd like me, it was exciting stuff. The contrast between what they created in the ‘70s and what it has become today is remarkable. From little plastic spaceship models and whole camera systems they had to invent to bring Star Wars to life to later making dinosaurs real in Jurassic Park, it’s practically sorcery.
On the one hand, it was incredibly inspiring that they just made stuff up, and it worked. But, on the other, it triggered a sense of desperation that nothing I’ll ever create will ever be that good.
I paint funny-looking animals. How important is that? It’s not! But you know what? Neither is modelling toys and playing with space aliens. But those people changed movies forever. Those people changed the world
What I liked best about the story was how those people talked about each other 40 years later. They were like family. It was the kind of workplace everybody wants but is ultimately very rare. They gambled on a dream and turned it into reality.
It’s easy to quote, “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
But chances are better than average that they won’t. For every ILM lightning-in-a-bottle story, there are a hundred others we’ll never hear about, featuring creative types who dreamed just as big and worked just as hard.
This artist’s life delivers more than its fair share of torment, uncertainty, and feeling unoriginal like it’s all been wasted time. I wonder if I’ll still be able to draw when I’m older or if age will rob me of my dexterity and eyesight. I worry I haven’t saved enough for retirement because I’ve invested more into this creative life of risk than my financial security.
And yet, for all the fear I feel every single day, and the shame for not knowing how to make all the right business moves, it’s still one of the very few places in my life where I’m allowed to touch something magical and unexplainable. In the work is a sense of connection to something greater than myself, even though I can’t define it. It’s a feeling outside the five senses, a well I’m allowed to draw from but not one I own.
It doesn’t come in the first moments I sit down to paint, nor does it show up even an hour into it. I’m still distracted by random thoughts, checking emails, and going to YouTube to answer a question that just popped into my head, leading to three more videos. And finally, an hour later, I must remind myself to get back to painting.
Once immersed in the work, a couple of hours into a session, something happens that reminds me why I’m spending so much of my limited time on the planet painting little hairs around a silly little grizzly bear’s ear.
It just feels right, that it’s where I’m supposed to be. It quiets the angry, critical, unkind voices in my head. It’s an escape, something good in a world I’m convinced is not. It’s a fleeting thing, only sticks around for a little while, but it comes and goes in waves.
Over the years, chasing those moments, that connection, those little hairs became a painting, then another, then a portfolio, and a body of work. Before I knew it, it was a career and life as an artist.
If you are lucky in a creative profession, you never stop learning and trying to become a better version of the artist you were yesterday, which is the only comparison that matters. I thought this painting was done, but then I realized that the bear’s muzzle wasn’t long enough. Most people wouldn’t care one way or the other, but once I’d seen it, I knew I’d forever look at the painting and wish I had changed it.
So I did some cutting and pasting, a little warping and nudging, and spent a couple more hours repainting that section. It was frustrating, but I’m more content with the finished result and glad I didn’t rush it. And though it’s done, it’s still not quite good enough. I can do better, and I’ll try again on the next one.
Because that is the hardest part of being a professional artist, making peace with the fact that you will never be good enough for your own expectations and will spend a lifetime reaching for that carrot on the stick, knowing you will never get it. Even if you did, it wouldn’t be what you thought it was.
Part of living in bear country is knowing how to be safe when hiking or exploring. It’s important to learn how to react should you encounter a black bear or a grizzly in the woods, and sometimes even in your neighbourhood.
While bear spray within easy reach is more than just fashionable, the best policy is to avoid an encounter, making noise to alert any bears to your presence. Most of them don’t want to encounter humans, so they’ll scurry off before you even see them.
Certain times of the year, however, it’s not so simple. If she’s got curious cubs, Mom will stick around to protect them because they don’t yet know to avoid people. In the fall, bears are eating as much food as possible, preparing for hibernation, and it’s not easy to distract them or get them to leave a bush full of berries.
You can buy bear bells all over the place around here, but they’re ineffective. The noise doesn’t carry; it’s too soft to be heard over the wind or through trees. The same goes for banging sticks or rocks, as those sounds occur naturally.
The best noise is the unmistakable human voice. A conversation among a group of friends will usually convince a bear to seek life elsewhere. Sure, constant yapping goes against the pursuit of natural peace and quiet, but ambulance sirens are worse. Pick your poison.
When it’s tough to get a group of people together for a hike, or you just don’t like that many people in the first place, you can sometimes identify solitary hikers by their familiar call of, “Hey Bear!”
I’ve heard this call more times than I can count in the 20+ years I’ve lived and hiked in this area and have used it myself. But it always strikes me funny because, last I checked, bears don’t speak English.
As far as they’re concerned, you could yell anything, and it would still accomplish the same goal. To a bear, there’s really no difference between yelling “Cleanup Aisle 4” or “Flip Flop Hula Hoop” or “Blah, Blah, Frickety, Blah Blah!”
You might amuse other hikers, though.
And if you happened to yell, “Hey, Elk” or “Yo, Squirrel,” it’s not like a grizzly will continue to go about her business, thinking, “oh, that’s for somebody else.”
I don’t know why this occurred to me while painting this bear, but it made me snicker. I thought of walking through the woods, getting that familiar ‘it’s quiet, too quiet’ feeling and calling, “Hey, Bear!” only to have a massive grizzly pop its head up out of a nearby bush and answer, “Hey!”
Whenever there was a turning point in an 80s movie, you could expect a music montage. Whether it was rebuilding a classic car, a group of rebellious teens learning to dance, or the karate tournament advancing to the final match, an upbeat song helped the story jump through time without making the viewer watch all the actual hard work.
Did you really want to see the protagonist standing in line at the auto parts store to get an air filter for the ’67 Camaro he’s restoring?
It often takes many days or weeks to complete one of my whimsical wildlife pieces, and I enjoy most of it. Drinking hot black coffee, tunes in my earbuds, I’m quite content to spend hours at a time painting tiny little hairs on a wolf’s muzzle or adding texture detail so the sea turtle’s skin looks real.
But if you were watching this work over my shoulder, I guarantee you would be bored out of your mind.
My buddy Derek is one of the most incredible tattoo artists you’ll ever see. When I hang out at the shop, I’ll often lean over his shoulder to watch. His linework is ridiculously precise, and I’m fascinated at the silky-smooth colour gradients he achieves with a tattoo machine. But eventually, it gets boring. He’ll often have clients that sit for hours all day for three days straight.
I just want to see some of the work in progress and the finished piece.
I’ve been creating time-lapse videos off and on for many years, and even though they can add hours of extra work to a painting, they’re fun to put together.
Sometimes I’ll record a voiceover, something inspirational for other artists, or relevant thoughts on the piece. Over the years, I’ve done a few of those for Wacom, the company that makes the tablets and displays I’ve been using since the late 90s. While I still love their products and will continue to recommend them, the best days of that working relationship are likely behind me now.
Most corporations are still chasing the likes and shares on social media, whereas I am not. I have no designs on becoming an Instagram influencer. I’d rather spend that time creating more art.
The time-lapse videos I enjoy most are the short ones with a musical accompaniment. These days I have a monthly subscription to Epidemic Sound, and it allows me to find the right track to go with a painting, regardless of the mood I’m trying to set.
I record the first part of the video over my left shoulder with my DSLR camera. I must keep in mind that the camera is beside me on the tripod, careful not to bump it. Because I’m recording a digital screen with a digital capture device, it also creates lighting problems.
Movies and TV shows will often add device and monitor screens after the fact in editing because it’s so difficult and time-consuming to record them with a camera.
But people like to see my hand holding the stylus, moving around the display.
For the rest of the video, I use Camtasia‘s screen capture software. I’ve been using it to record and edit since I created my DVDs ten years ago, and it works well.
But when I get down to the smallest of hairs in the painting, making subtle shading changes, and applying catchlights to the wet skin of the nose or around the eyes, it eventually becomes difficult for the viewer to follow the cursor.
And finally, our attention spans keep getting shorter. With slot machine scrolling on our phones, multiple tabs open on our desktops and pinging alerts going off all around us, holding somebody’s interest is a challenge.
I used to record four- or five-minute time-lapse videos, but most people won’t sit through those anymore, so I try to keep them under two minutes. Of course, it means there are significant jumps in the painting’s progress and detail, but it works.
People just want to see some of the work in progress and the finished piece.
P.S. As always, feel free to share the video, with my thanks. That goes for anything else I post on this site as well.
One of the most challenging parts of marketing is playing the game.
We’re emotional creatures, not as evolved as we like to think, prone to gimmicks, triggers, fear of missing out, limited time offers, inflated prices on sale for regular price. We are prey to an overabundance of cognitive biases, fall for the same stuff repeatedly, voluntarily share our personal information to save a few bucks, and forever fail to learn from our past mistakes.
Even though everyone knows that salespeople have a spiel or massage the details to put the best possible spin on things, we still buy into it. Marketing works because it understands all of this. And even when you know these things, we still fall for them.
Everybody who has ever invested in anything knows that the cardinal rule is to buy low and sell high. So why does the stock market have a seizure every time somebody in power sneezes or runs and hides when the wrong person says, “Boo?”
We’re emotional creatures, even though we like to pretend that we’re not.
Every so often, it’s nice to point out that elephant in the room. Not just mention it, but shine a light on it, display those wonderful big ears, beautiful tusks, enormous feet, pretty eyes and most importantly, the fact that it just sat on the buffet lunch.
Yes, I’m painting an elephant soon. Stay tuned.
(Get to the point, Cartoon Boy!)
I’m tired. You’re tired. We’re all a little testy, impatient, worried, uncertain, choose your own less than ideal emotional state.
So I thought I’d try something different for today’s marketing—brutal honesty.
The Calgary Zoo is usually one of my largest print clients. They’ve been supportive of my work for many years and a great customer. Like every other business this year, especially ones where the public gathers in groups, they’re facing extraordinary challenges right now.
I was taking photos at the zoo recently, and they’re taking the safety measures seriously. The animals are still well cared for, and the staff are doing their best under difficult circumstances. I would encourage Albertans to visit the zoo, support wildlife conservation, and a local business that keeps those hardworking people employed.
They also sell my face masks in their gift shop, made in Canada by Pacific Music and Art, so that’s one more place you can get them.
One of the many unforeseen casualties of this pandemic has been the Panda Passage at the Calgary Zoo. The pandas themselves are fine, but they must go back to China and are leaving soon. They were supposed to be in Calgary for a couple more years, but the daily flights that brought their bamboo diet have ceased. The zoo has been doing its best to source the bamboo from other places, like British Columbia, but winter is coming, and the supply has run out.
As nothing goes unconnected these days, here’s a strange way this affected your friendly neighbourhood cartoonist and whimsical wildlife painter.
The Calgary Zoo used to sell a lot of my Panda prints. They sold almost all of them. Popular in their gift shops, I made it a habit to keep plenty on hand so that when they ordered, there was no waiting. At the end of last year, I ordered more than 50 of them. The Zoo did not place their usual large spring order. I need not explain why.
With the closing of the Panda Passage, it’s beginning to look like it will take me a very long time to sell these particular prints, even at a discount. With that in mind, I’m offering that print at a substantial discount.
Regularly $24.95, I’ve reduced the price of the above panda print to $6.95.
Another print I’m offering at the same price is the Sasquatch. This is a weird one. Mike from Pacific Music and Art suggested I paint this image a year ago because many of his retail customers are in British Columbia, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest. That’s Sasquatch country!
The image does very well on magnets, coffee mugs, art cards, T-shirts from Harlequin Nature Graphics and plenty of other products. It’s one of the best sellers on face masks. But whether it was at the Calgary Expo or on my online store, it does not do well on prints. So, I’m going to blow out that stock, too—regular $24.95…now $6.95.
No Promo Codes, no new sign-ups, no hoops through which to pirouette. It’s just the price in the store.
Here’s a bonus to entice you. If you buy THREE or more prints, no matter which ones, I’ll throw in something extra. Could be a calendar, a magnet, face mask, who knows? It’ll be a surprise, but there will definitely be an added gift product in there.
Also, all of my prints are 11″X14″. That’s a common frame size you can buy in many stores that sell them, no need to spend a bundle having them professionally framed.
I’m fortunate that prints and other products aren’t perishable. Someday this will end, and I’ll be ready to supply my customers with the stock I have on hand. But I keep painting new pieces, and if I want to stock new stuff, I must make room for it. When sold, the Panda and Sasquatch prints will be retired, as will several other pieces. It’s the only way to keep releasing new images.
Speaking of which, here’s a Grizzly bear I finished last week, not yet available. Hopefully, that candor is a refreshing change from the sleight of hand sales gimmicks we often get. I try not to make my blog posts and newsletters all about selling you stuff because I don’t like to receive too much of that either. But I’m a self-employed artist, and it’s the nature of the gig.
Stay well, be safe, and try to be patient with each other. Things are tough all over.
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.
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.”