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Bear Hug

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

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

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

My work wouldn’t be possible without Wacom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care of yourselves,
Patrick

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© Patrick LaMontagne
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Another Day of Discovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lions, tigers, and bears…oh my.

And an elephant.

Cheers,
Patrick

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© Patrick LaMontagne
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Roar

This painting began on the iPad in procreate as a sketch exercise. Playtime, if you will. I liked where it was heading, however, so I brought it into Photoshop and continued painting at a larger size. A departure from my style, but it was a fun experiment.

I called it ‘Roar’ but bears don’t really roar. They might make loud noises from time to time, but not the kind you hear in movies. That’s all Hollywood magic, the roaring sound added in editing.

Whenever I go to Discovery Wildlife Park, I usually watch the bear show, even though I’ve seen it quite a few times.

The bear show is kind of a misnomer and a big head fake. While people think they’re coming to see the bears just do a few tricks, they’re actually there for an education. The keepers use the opportunity to talk to people about bears in the wild.

Involving everything from how to tell a black bear from a grizzly, what to do when you happen upon either animal and how best to avoid any negative encounters, especially when camping or hiking. They also explain that the reason bears become orphaned in the first place (like all of the bears they care for) is most often a consequence of their encounters with people. By getting too close, directly feeding them, or leaving food out for them to find, we teach them bad behaviours that are difficult to break.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Park, you might think that having the bears do tricks is kind of cruel, like they’re in a circus or something. The reality is the opposite. It would be cruel NOT to teach them, as this keeps them active. It’s called enrichment.

In the wild, animals have three big priorities…finding food, procreating and avoiding predators, each requiring large expenditures of energy and attention.

The animals at Discovery Wildlife Park aren’t driven by the same priorities. They receive a well balanced diet of healthy food, have no concerns with predators, and they’re not being actively bred.

So the tricks, for lack of a better word, are designed to keep their minds working. It gives them problems to solve, tasks to complete, and they actively participate, all with positive reinforcement. There is no punishment for failing to do a trick. They can just walk away if they don’t feel like it.

One of the challenges for the keepers is coming up with new and interesting things to teach the animals. They’re so smart (the animals, not the keepers…wait, that didn’t come out right) that they learn things very fast and it becomes too easy for them. Some of the tricks serve double purpose, too.

By learning to present their paws, blood can be drawn without having to sedate them. They can also check their claws to see if there is any damage in need of intervention. They will urinate on command for samples, step up onto scales for weighing and a number of other behaviours designed to ensure they stay healthy.

One of the tricks the bears are taught at Discovery Wildlife Park is to “Be scary!”

Not only is it a standard trick of actor bears, it gives the keepers an opportunity for a dental inspection. A number of their animals have needed dental intervention, just like your own pet.

I find the “Be Scary” trick especially amusing, because I was there a couple of years ago when Berkley was just learning it and her scary bear was pathetic. If you’d like to see it, the video is available here, about the 1:15 and 3:25 marks. She now does a very impressive scary bear impression, gets her treat and then instantly reverts back to her regular adorable self.

This painting, however, is Gruff. He was raised at the park and his scary bear is top notch. Gruff is one of my favorite bears. As you can see below, I’ve painted him as a cub and as an adult, and have painted a number of roughs of him as well.

When he was first surrendered to the park, Serena wasn’t sure she could save him. He was pretty far gone, having been mistreated by a number of people who had initially found him as a cub, then traded him around. But thanks to Discovery Wildlife Park’s excellent care, he has become a wonderful gentle six-year old bear with a great personality.

On a recent visit to the park, I was invited to step inside the outer enclosure fence while the keepers and bears did the show. Sitting on a log beside one of the other keepers, I managed to get some very nice photos of the black bears, including the reference for this one.
As you can see, the painting is intentionally rough. A loose, large stroke style, with plenty of artifacts, errant brush strokes and I got creative with an analogous colour scheme. Each time I found myself starting to focus on painting finer detail, I forced myself to stop, erring instead on the side of discovery.

Cheers,
Patrick

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A Day of Discovery (1 of 3)

Thursday was a really good day, so much so that I’m splitting it up into three blog posts. This is the first.

I’d already had high hopes, as I was dropping off a $525.00 donation to Discovery Wildlife Park, made possible by followers of my work who took advantage of the first offering of the matted giclée prints of my painting of Berkley. Not only was painting that image a lot of fun, but selling the first twenty (ended up being twenty-one) with proceeds going to the park made it even more special.

Charitable giving is probably one of the most selfish things a person can do, because it just feels so darn good. Now this donation isn’t exactly hard-core philanthropy, but that is where I’d like to end up one day, supporting animal causes with as many big donations as I can muster. If I have to exploit those who like my work in order to do it, I’m OK with that.

Hopefully you are, too.

I wanted to get to the park when it opened, but some email issues delayed my departure from Canmore, so I didn’t arrive until after 11. By that time, special programs are underway and the place is getting busy, so I knew not to expect to be able to have any time visiting with the staff as their work day was in full swing.

I delivered the first poster prints of Berkley to Debbi, one of the owners, along with the cheque and a framed matted Berkley print, the one I used for the donation. I sent Serena, the head zookeeper, a text letting her know I was there, but she was out with the kids’ camp, a Zookeeper for the Day program. Told her I’d be around taking photos, but I knew they’d all be busy. If I didn’t see any of them on Thursday, I was fine with it.

I stopped by the Tiger presentation that was just starting, then went over to check out the wolves, the ostriches, deer, and of course, the black bears.

It was a HOT day, I was sweating under the sun, and figured the black bears would be trying to stay as cool as possible. Dark fur on a sunny day, they really should know better.

Imagine my surprise when I saw Gruff actively playing with an orange ball in his enclosure. He’s the bear I used as the model for my Black Bear Totem painting. I was fortunate to be able to spend time inside his enclosure with him to get the reference shots for that, an experience I won’t ever forget.

He’s a wonderful bear with a great temperament and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him throw the ball in the air and chase it when it hit the ground. He has this habit of covering his eyes when he throws it up, likely had it land on his face more than once, I think. As I was taking shots zoomed in through a double fence, I couldn’t get a good enough shot of him standing up when he threw the ball, but here are a few of his antics on the ground.
Given that he must have been getting warm with such activity, I wasn’t surprised when he went for a swim in the pond inside his large enclosure. I’ll admit to being envious.
. . I heard one woman say to another, something about how great it was to see the bear so happy and playful, clearly well looked after. It’s nice when other folks recognize what I already know from my experiences here. These animals are loved.

When he finally did come out of the water, he went back to his ball, but he seemed to have used up most of his energy prior to his swim and lay down in the sun.

At this point, having been there for an hour, I was thinking I might leave, go see my folks who live just ten minutes down the road, and then head into Red Deer to deliver the last of the Berkley prints, with plans to come back the next morning before heading home.

But I got a text…

Serena picked me up in a golf cart, and said I had a ten minute photo shoot before she had to get back to her duties. I asked what I would be shooting and she simply said, “a baby.”

“A baby what?”

She wouldn’t tell me, said it was a surprise, but that I should change lenses on the way. I wouldn’t need the zoom lens.

She drove me back to the keepers’ area where some of the smaller animals are kept at night and I told her I hoped it would be a skunk because the Alberta Institute of Wildlife Conservation (another facility I support) keeps posting pictures of skunks they’re rehabilitating and I want to paint one. The problem is that AIWC re-introduces animals back into the wild, so they don’t allow visitors to come and take photos, which is completely understandable.

Sure enough, I was introduced to Tunk, one of three baby skunks they’ve recently adopted when a farmer decided he didn’t want them around. Oreo and Flute are the other two, who I saw, but they’re not quite socialized yet, so Tunk was my model. Serena placed him in the grass surrounded by yellow flowers. While it was a great setting, and I was lying down, taking rapid fire photos, he was rambunctious and I couldn’t get any good pics.

So we took him to a nearby broken tree and let him run around a bit on top of that for a very fast photo shoot. I’m glad he’s had his scent glands removed, because I found myself looking at the business end of this little critter more than once and the possible consequences crossed my mind.

Baby skunks. What a treat.
Had the day ended there, I would have been quite pleased. But then I was invited to return that evening for…

Well, that’ll be in the next post.

Cheers,
Patrick