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Ukee Locals

SeagullsFINALI titled this painting, ‘Ukee Locals’ as that’s how residents in Ucluelet refer to their town.  Having lived in two tourist towns (Banff and Canmore) for the past twenty years, I often feel a kinship with locals in other tourist towns, knowing what it’s like to make your living from visitors.  It’s a love-hate relationship with the tourists sometimes so I have to fight the urge to tell every server, tour operator or staff member, “It’s OK,  I’m not one of them, I’m with you!” which I’m really not, since I don’t live there.

When you think of wildlife paintings, a seagull is hardly the first animal that comes to mind.  The fact that we’re so used to seeing them in urban environments makes many of us think they’re practically domesticated.  Expert scavengers, opportunists and thieves, they’re not usually someone’s favorite animal.  I kind of like ’em.

While out on my wildlife cruises in that area in June, something you’re likely getting sick of hearing about I’m sure, I saw plenty of different species of wildlife and took a lot of photos.  I’ll be painting animals from that trip for quite some time and each one I do just makes me want to go back for more.  While pulling into the dock one day, literally seconds before Al (with Archipelago Wildlife Cruises) cut the engines, I noticed two gulls perched on one of the many posts around the harbour.  What I was really aiming for was a shot of one of them flying, but when I got home and started sorting through my photos, I realized that this was the scene I wanted to paint and I used three different pics as reference, not including the one you see here.

GullPicOriginally this was just going to be a sketch painting, but the more I worked on it, I just couldn’t put it away.  Even when it was finished, I found myself still wanting to work on minute detail that nobody was going to see.  The wood on the posts, the aluminum caps, the feathers, the light…each presented another challenge and I had a lot of fun with this painting.  It turns out that I learned a little about the birds themselves, too.

Closeup01As I was painting them as a couple, I realized that I didn’t know if males and females of this species looked alike or not.  Birds of different gender will often have different plumage.  It would be embarrassing to paint them as male and female only to have somebody point out that females look completely different.  Keep in mind that I’d already done a lot of work on these when this popped into my head.  Fortunately I found out that the only visible difference in this particular type of gull is that the female is a little bit smaller, which also worked for the painting.  I also found out that the type of gulls in the Ucluelet area, all up and down the northern west coast actually, are called Glaucous-winged Gulls, something that isn’t going to matter to most people.  They’re seagulls.

For the technically minded, this was painted in Adobe Photoshop CC on a Wacom Cintiq 24HD display.  Photos were only used for reference and all of the detail was achieved using relatively simple brushes without any texture overlays.

Incidentally, I did get the shots I needed of one of them taking off from the post,  so there might be another seagull painting in my future.

Closeup02If 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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The Owls of Grassi Lakes

FinalHere’s my latest painting, entitled, “One in Every Family.”   In this case, it’s a family of Great Horned Owls that I had the privilege of watching for a few weeks in June.

Grassi Lakes here in Canmore is a short hike and easily accessible. It’s usually quite busy on weekends and during the summer, but if you get there early and take the difficult route (not that difficult), you meet relatively few people on the way up. If memory serves, it’s about a 20 minute hike one way, at a brisk pace.

The lakes themselves aren’t large, two connected ponds really. The attraction is their emerald colour. Seemingly iridescent blues and greens make for a very nice scene and it’s a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. Some benches, bridges and reinforced paths, and on one side of the far lake, you find a large rock face which is actually a fossilized Devonian coral reef. It’s also a popular climbing wall.

From the Wikipedia entry, the lakes “are named after Lawrence Grassi, an Italian miner who emigrated to Canada in 1912. After working with the Canadian Pacific Railway for several years he worked in the Canmore coal mines. Grassi also become a well-respected climbing guide as well as building many trails in the area including one to the Grassi Lakes which also bear his name.”

Grassi Lakes is great when I don`t have a lot of time, but still want to get some exercise. It’s picturesque, an interesting trail and at the lakes themselves, there is plenty of opportunity to take photos of Golden Mantle Ground Squirrels, a favorite critter of mine.

In the middle of last month, I was up at the lakes happily snapping pics of a ground squirrel when a woman came over to me and asked quietly, “Have you seen the owls?”

When I said that I hadn’t, she pointed across the lake to the rock wall. About 40 feet up is a little cave and sitting atop one of the rocks was a big Great Horned Owl. I thanked her and moved around the lake for a better look and with my camera at full zoom, I was able to see the owl very clearly. I could also see an owlet that until then had just looked like another rock. The camouflage was perfect.
003As it’s a provincial park, I wasn’t surprised to see an obvious red sign chained into the wall at ground level below the cave. I never actually went to read it, but somebody told me it was a warning that this particular climbing route was closed for the protection of the owls. Climbers were on the wall, but all were giving the nest a wide berth.

Over the next few weeks, I went back up to Grassi Lakes with a pair of binoculars (that I happily shared with interested tourists) and a tripod for the camera.   I took well over a thousand photos, most of them at full zoom, and probably ending up keeping a couple of dozen. Great for reference, not so much for print, but since I hadn’t planned on that; I was very pleased with the results.  The owls seemed to have no concern at the people watching from below and it usually took a raven or other bird flying by to capture their interest, although the little ones did seem fascinated by a couple of dogs splashing in the lake on one occasion.
002While I’ve painted a Great Horned Owl before, I honestly didn’t know much about them. With plenty of information online, I learned a great deal about what I was seeing, including the family dynamic, the breeding season, how long the owlets would stay with the parents…the info is easily found if you Google it.

During my visits, I was able to watch their behavior, saw both the male and female parents (the female is larger) and the two owlets. Both of them grew very fast and by my fifth visit, they looked quite a bit larger and their feathers had changed to look more like their parents and less like the fuzzy little balls of fluff that they are in the painting. They grew braver and started venturing out further along the rocks away from the cave, were actively hopping and flapping their wings, practicing their calls and mimicking their father, who seemed to spend the most time with them. A real joy to watch.

004On my sixth visit, I didn’t see them at all. A friend had said she didn’t see them the day before, either. Judging by what I’d read, my assumption is that they had learned to fly and although they do stay near the nest until the fall, my guess is that they’re also exploring their surroundings and learning to hunt. I don’t think I can expect to see the whole family hanging about the nest any longer, so I stopped going to see them.

Some locals have mentioned that the mating pair returns to that cave each year, as Great Horned Owls mate for life. The fact that I’ve never seen them before means I probably just wasn’t paying attention to that part of the wall on previous visits and they’re not obvious. I’m looking forward to next spring to see if they return and raise new young. A family of owls in the wild was a treat.

Initially, I was just going to do a few sketch paintings and move on. I started out with one of the adult male looking angry at some ravens that were harassing the nest, then another of one of the owlets trying out his lungs. The noise was truly pitiful and I laughed out loud while watching it.  Finally, I added the sibling to the initial owlet sketch painting, looking surprised. After that, I knew I was going to paint the whole family and that it would be a finished piece.  All of the sketch paintings and the final painting were done in Photoshop with a Wacom Cintiq display.

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007Maybe it’s because I’m a cartoonist and have this need to imbue animals with human characteristics, but watching the family interaction, I could imagine what was being said between the owlets and the parents. At one point, all of them sleeping in the sunshine, one of the owlets suddenly fluffed up and excitedly ruffled his wings. The father woke up suddenly, turned sharply to the owlet, and made some noises. I could have sworn he was saying, “Hey! Stop screwing around!”

I like to think that’s also his expression in the painting.

This whole experience was a real thrill and I think I’ll try painting more scenes like this, featuring other animals.  I’ve already got one in mind but likely won’t get to it right away. I’ve already got the reference, though, so you never know.

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Pre-orders are available for an 11″X14″ matted giclée print of “One in Every Family” until August 30th and they will be shipped in the latter half of September.  For more information or to order, follow this link.  Exshaw, Banff, and Canmore residents, please order by email for free delivery.

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A Little Death and Darkness

SkullTopHatFBEvery once in a while, it’s nice to explore new challenges.  It was an exercise doing that very thing which led me to create my popular series of Totem paintings, which are still my favorite pieces to paint.  Recently I painted my first landscape, and while it was different for me, a worthwhile exercise and something I’ll repeat again, I doubt that landscapes will be one of the foundations of my future work and business.  Feel free to call me on that statement if years from now, I’m painting more landscapes than anything else.  As somebody who had never planned on being an artist for a living, I’m well aware that today’s plans are often replaced by tomorrow’s happy accidents.

Recently, a commercial opportunity was put in front of me to paint some images that are a departure from anything I’ve done before, some paintings with a little death and darkness to them.  Still encouraged to use my own style in the renderings, which means they’re unlikely to steal any sleep from anybody, this pending series of paintings will definitely look like a matched set.  I have no plans to abandon my Totem paintings, but for the next little while, you’ll be seeing the sort of image shown here, while I explore this genre.

While I can’t say anything right now about the intended use for these paintings, I plan to have a little fun with it, stretch myself a bit, and see if I can’t poke a little fun at the darker side of life.

This was painted on both the Wacom Cintiq 13HD and the 24HD displays using Adobe Photoshop CC.  It began as a concept sketch that you see below, with the finished piece beside it for comparison.  You can click on the image to see it larger.
SkullHatSketchComparison

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Commission – Cows

CowsFinalPostMy commission work to date has been dogs and cats (and one beautiful horse), but a friend of ours recently tasked me with painting this gift for his wife.  As she loves cows and is now pregnant with twins, he wanted a painting of a mother and two calves to hang in the nursery.  I cautioned him that comparing his pregnant wife to a cow at a time when most women’s sensibilities are heightened, might be a recipe for disaster, but he assured me more than once that it would be fine.  The canvas is still in the proofing stage, but he showed her the digital image of the piece this past weekend and she loved it.  Apparently there were happy tears.  So, with his permission, I’m able to share it now.

This was one of my most challenging paintings to date.  The hairs on a cow are very small and short and the features aren’t as malleable as I’d first imagined.  When painting one animal, I can usually find reference that will allow me to see all sides of the subject to decide which will lend itself best to my Totem style of painting.  First, I had to find multiple reference photos of the right breed of cow (Holstein Friesian), which was not an easy task.  I bought twice as many photos than I used as I couldn’t play around with the composition without the full resolution files.  There ended up being three different comps and thankfully my wife helped me decide which was best for the painting. With three subjects in the image, it became a juggling act to try and show the best sides of all of them, in the correct proportions with the right lighting.   Then I had to make them look cozy, cute and comfortable, but not crushed together.  Finally, I had to lay down all of the right conditions to allow all three personalities to show up after many hours of painting, something I’ve often said never seems to be quite my doing, or under my control.  When it comes to the life in these paintings, I’m often surprised (and grateful) when it arrives.

CowsClosePostWhile I don’t consider this part of my Totem series, it is definitely painted in that style.  Even though it was a commission piece, I will be offering prints of this image in the store in the coming weeks as well.  The commission piece will be printed at 18″ X 24″ as a giclée on canvas with a black shadowbox frame.  I’m hoping to be able to deliver it next week.

I honestly have no idea how long this took to paint as I worked on it during a very busy time, while juggling other deadlines.  There was at least one session where I worked through the night on it.  I’ll admit to being very frustrated with this piece at times when things weren’t going as well as I wanted them to, but to be honest, that happens a lot and it always turns around.  I learned a lot from this painting and had to experiment and adjust brushes and technique to get the look I needed in places.  So there was artistic growth here, too, which is always welcome.

Click on either image to see a larger version.  This piece was painted in Photoshop CC on my Wacom Cintiq 24HD.

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The Highlights of 2013

All things considered, I’m pretty happy with the work I accomplished in 2013.  I wanted to focus more on painting, so I turned down more illustration gigs than I accepted this year and about that, I have no regrets.  Along with the daily editorial cartoons, I worked on a number of pet portrait commissions, added more Totem paintings to my portfolio and managed to squeeze in a couple of portraits of people, too.  Regardless of subject, each painting was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and as soon as I finished one, I was itching to start another.

If I were to choose the top three personal highlights of this year, they would be two portraits and one Totem.

MartinSheenAt the very end of 2012, my painting of Martin Sheen as Tom from the movie, The Way, had come to the attention of his son, Emilio Estevez, who wrote and directed the movie.  I had tagged him on Twitter, but didn’t really expect anything from it.  Much to my surprise, he contacted me the same morning asking about buying a print, then the original.   He said, “…the image is gorgeous and you have captured my father in a way that few have.”

Over the next few weeks of back and forth and having the canvas produced, it was delivered to Estevez at the beginning of February and he gave it to his father as a gift.   I had asked them both to sign a paper print for me as well, which I’ve now framed and have hanging in my office.   I was pleasantly surprised to later receive a copy of their co-written book ‘Along the Way,’ personally signed by both of them and a ‘Thank You’ note from Estevez.  The card is still tacked to my bulletin board.  What can I say, I’m a fan.

While the story received some attention in a number of media outlets, that sort of thing is fleeting and in the long run, just another blip in a rapidly changing entertainment news cycle.  But, what I enjoy most about the experience is that each time I come up the stairs into my office, the first thing I see is the signed painting and it frequently makes me smile.  It is still one of my favorite pieces both for the enjoyment I had painting it and the story that goes with it.  And I still love that movie.

ChrisHadfieldIn the Spring of this year, astronaut Chris Hadfield became the first Canadian to command the International Space Station.  With his daily tweets and seemingly endless supply of jaw dropping photos taken from a place few have ever been, he captured the imagination and excitement of the world, including me.  I was inspired to paint his portrait and was thrilled when I received a complimentary tweet from space from Hadfield himself.  If that weren’t enough, I drew an editorial cartoon about his taking command and in the toon, I mentioned Flin Flon, Manitoba.  This prompted an interview from that town’s local paper which again caught the attention of Hadfield and I received a second short message from the I.S.S..  Apparently all it takes to make a 43 year old man feel like a ten year old kid again is getting messages from an astronaut in space.  That was just cool.

CoyoteTotemFinally my favorite painting from this year was the Coyote Totem, because it’s one that’s been waiting to be painted for 20 years, even before I knew how to paint.  For reasons I don’t wish to share publicly, and couldn’t even explain if I did, this is the most personal of all of the Totems I’ve painted and the only one I’ve had printed on canvas and framed for myself.  It hangs in my office on the wall to my right, where I can easily see it.  I look at it often and it reminds me how fortunate I am and how I got from there to here.

I just wasn’t skilled enough to do it justice until this year, but of any image I’ve created, it’s the painting I love most.  And I’m grateful that the personality showed up.

BillParrish

I would like to give honourable mention to my most recent portrait of Anthony Hopkins as Bill Parrish from ‘Meet Joe Black.’  This was another personal painting because I did it just for me.  I started the year focused on a painting of a character and actor I admire, an image that got a lot of attention and ended the year with a painting of a character and actor I admire, an image that got very little.  And yet, I loved working on both portraits equally, the work itself brought me the most joy.

That’s the lesson I learned this year and the one I’m taking into the next.

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Giraffe Totem

GiraffeTotemThe latest in my Totem series, this giraffe was a lot of fun to work on.  Well, not the whole time.  Mostly at the end, if I’m being honest.

The reason this one was a little different is that I recorded much of the process.  While I’ve done that a number of times before, the previous videos were done with screen capture software which runs in the background and you don’t really have to pay attention to it.  There’s always a fair bit of editing work after the fact, but that doesn’t affect the painting itself.  With the current video, it’s a mix of screen capture and footage from my GoPro on a tripod, which was sitting just off my left shoulder while I worked.  I’ve often shown the software, Photoshop CC in this case, but wanted to show the hardware this time as well, since the Wacom Cintiq 24HD is such a great display.  What this meant was that I couldn’t shift position and had to constantly be aware that this camera was there.  The lighting was also different than what I’m used to working with.   This changed how I felt about the painting process, but I really wanted to record this video, so sacrifices had to be made.  I’ll be editing it this week and hopefully the footage I got was worth the effort.  As always, photos are only used for reference in my paintings.  It’s all brush work.

RecordingIn a perfect world (hey, it could happen!), my painting sessions involve a hot cup of coffee, music in my headphones and a darkened room with no distractions, allowing me to get lost in the work.  With having to think about the camera all the time, I could never quite get all the way into it until I neared the end.  That’s when I forgot to recharge the GoPro for that session and the battery was dead.  Rather than ruin a perfect Saturday morning painting session by waiting, I decided to just do screen capture for the end of the painting and I had a blast!

GiraffeBlogCloseupI know I say this whenever I finish a painting, but this is one of my favorites.  I just love the expression on his (or her, your call) face.  Anybody who has followed my work on these critters for any length of time knows that I don’t take all the credit for the personality.  It just seems to show up and the funny thing is, it showed up twice while painting this one.  I thought it did a couple of days ago, it was the same great moment that always happens, but then there was another moment in the final hours of painting when something just popped and it seemed to come even more alive.  It was a bonus.

Prints will likely be available for the Giraffe Totem in the next month after I’ve done my proofing and I can’t wait to see them.

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Lizard Sketch in Painter 12

LizardSketchFBIn my ongoing efforts to incorporate Painter 12 into my workflow, this is another painted sketch.  As is my style, I’ve taken a lot of creative liberties with the anatomy of our lizard friend, here.

For this one, I used only the Chalk Brushes in Painter.  While I fully expect to incorporate a mixture of the available mediums in the future, restricting myself to only one at a time right now is forcing me to get used to and judge each on its own merits.  I really enjoyed working with chalk, especially since there are a number of different types to choose from.  One of the great features I found with Painter 12 is the availability of adding paper textures while painting.  In real life, the texture of the paper would be universal over the entire image, but not so in the digital realm, at least not in Painter.  I can change paper textures so it only affects the brush strokes I’m making at the time, and then change again without affecting the ones I’ve already made.  Adds a texture element when I need it but doesn’t restrict me when I don’t.  Great feature!

Something else I’m enjoying a great deal in is the Brush Tracking feature.  I’m painting on the Wacom Cintiq 24HD and even though my pen pressure is pretty consistent and I’ve got the Tip Feel set to how I like it in the Tablet Properties, different mediums in Painter require a lighter or softer touch.  Brush tracking on the fly allows me to change the pressure sensitivity as often as I’d like.  It’s really easy to do and takes very little time away from the canvas.

I’m really enjoying discovering all that Painter has to offer this Photoshop artist and I plan to keep at it.  I have a feeling I’ve just scratched the surface.

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Coyote Totem

CoyoteTotem

This painting of a Coyote is the latest in my Totem series.  The most recent before this one was the Bald Eagle Totem, finished in November of last year.  If you do the math, that’s almost seven months, which is far too long, especially if you consider that these are my favorite paintings to work on.  With the daily editorial cartoons, the portraits of people, the pet commissions, and the great deal of time spent on the preparation for the Calgary Expo this year, I’ve been busy and otherwise occupied, so the Totems were temporarily on the back burner.  The next one will be coming a lot sooner than December, I assure you.

I painted my first animal in this style in November of 2009, the Grizzly Bear Totem.  Hard to believe that it’s been over three years.  The funny thing is that the Coyote was one of the first animals I wanted to paint but for some reason I kept shuffling it down the line, painting other animals instead.  As is often the case, I may have the reference photos ready to go for months before I get to the actual painting, but this one has easily waited the longest.  It also took the longest to paint if you consider that I started it in February and it sat idle for months until I started back on it last week.  I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out, but as always, I’m already looking to the next one.

CoyoteClose

 

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Commissions: Lion-O and Gaia

Liono

For anybody that reads my random ramblings here on the site, it’s pretty clear that my favorite work is painting animals.  Whether they’re my signature Totem style of whimsical caricatured portraits, or the more traditional portrait look, I’m having my most fun when working with furry or feathered critters.  Once in awhile, I’ll even paint one that hasn’t got either (see Humpback Whale).

One of the great surprises of recent months is that more and more people want me to paint their pets, and in both styles.  While the portrait style is just as enjoyable, it’s a little more of a challenge.  When I painted my Wolf or Bald Eagle Totems, nobody was holding up a reference photo of one they know really well and deciding if I got the likeness right.  While a tabby cat very often looks just like a tabby cat, there are specific markings and features that have to be right or it just isn’t YOUR tabby cat.  Just as failing to capture the likeness of a person will collapse a portrait, the same can be said for missing the personality or likeness of a cat or dog.  Their owner (family member, companion, staff) will know the difference, even with the Totem style.

This past week, I finished these two paintings of Lion-O and Gaia, in order that you see them.  Each has different markings, fur textures, bone structure and personalities, so they presented their own challenges.  But both live in the same household, so the paintings needed to look like they belonged together on the wall.  The clients had choices to make.  Separate paintings or both cats together in one?  Totem style or traditional portrait style?  They chose the former of both options and I’m pretty happy with how they turned out, as are they.

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These clients were VERY patient.  We’ve been talking about this for quite awhile and they decided to go ahead with the paintings in January.  As you can figure out, it’s now May, so these paintings have taken awhile to get finished, but thankfully they weren’t in any rush, which gave me free reign to do my best work.  Much of that time was back and forth finding the right photos and they certainly did their part, giving me a great variety to choose from.  But even still, with the preparation for the Calgary Expo last month, my daily editorial cartoon deadlines and other commitments, I spent most days wishing I was working on these paintings but otherwise occupied with other parts of my business.

While I’m always taking commission work, lately I’ve been telling people that rush jobs just aren’t possible right now.  I would not be as happy with these paintings had I barreled through them and I would imagine the clients would not have been as well.  Currently I have a number of other clients waiting their turn for commissions and I’m booked up until at least the Fall.  I’ll be getting back to work this week on the Coyote Totem I started earlier this year and beginning my prep for the next commission of a dog portrait, this time in traditional style.  More animal cartoons, sketches, and rough paintings are planned in addition to putting the focus on more Totems.  It was a genuine shock to me recently when I realized that I have not painted a new one this year, despite the fact that I’ve got six of them waiting to be done, reference photos and all.

If you are interested in a commission and are willing to wait your turn, I promise I will make it worth the wait by doing the best job I can for you.   Here’s a link to the information and if you have any questions, feel free to send me a message via the Contact page.

Here’s a little bit of how it’s done, too.

 

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Calgary Expo – The Wrap Up

Booth001This weekend found me running my first retail booth at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo.  All day Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I was selling my wares to attendees of the second largest event of its kind in Canada, along with many other artists and vendors.  As this was my first ‘con’, here’s a bit of a review to show how the reality of the experience met with my expectations.

At this event, I was selling prints of ten of my original creations, my Totem paintings.  I prepared as best I could by reading blog entries and articles online by those in the know.  A talented animator friend, Jennifer Llewellyn has had a booth at this Expo six times now and she graciously shared a lot of information with me both before and during the event.  There’s a distinct culture at this sort of show and as I’d requested a booth beside hers when I registered, Jenn served as my guide throughout and was a big help to me.

The first year is where you’re going to spend the most amount of money if you want to do it right.  I wasn’t content to have a booth that looked bargain basement as many will do to save on expenses, so I put my best foot forward.  I bought retail grid walls that stand on their own, had a professional banner printed, bought bins to hold my prints, and other assorted retail hardware.  For product, I offered poster prints for $15.00 apiece, with backer board, artist bios and cellophane sleeves.  I also offered the usual matted giclée prints for a discounted show price of $35 (regular $44) and my limited edition 12″X16″ canvas giclée prints at a discounted show price of $220.00 (regular $295.00).  As this was my first foray into the show, I had no idea how much inventory I would need.  Considering that I regularly keep prints on hand for online sales and supplying the local retailers who sell my work, I figured I should aim high, so that anything I didn’t sell would just become part of my regular inventory, stock I would need anyway.

Last year, this Expo experienced some significant growing pains.  The Fire Marshall essentially shut it down on the Saturday of the 2012 event, as there were far too many people inside the venue.  Many who had bought tickets and waited in line weren’t allowed in and others who had just stepped outside for some lunch or some air were locked out for the duration.  I was on a research trip to this event last year, and I experienced the lockout firsthand.  Our weekend passes became null and void early Saturday afternoon.  This year, they capped the number of tickets at close to 60,000 and sold out well before the Expo itself, increased the size of the venue, and vowed to fix all that went wrong with last year’s event.

So how did it go?  Well, lets start with the cons of the con, from this vendor’s point of view.

My only reference to how things should have gone was from other artists who had done this event before.  As the weekend wore on, a number of them said that this was one of the slowest years for sales.  Saturday is supposed to be one of the biggest and best selling days, and yet even though I was in a good location, there were hours on Saturday afternoon (yes, hours) where it felt like a ghost town in our corner of the world.  The first two hours of Sunday morning were exactly the same.  Quite discouraging as I was looking at the many prints still sitting in bins in my booth, wondering how many of them I was taking home with me.  Speculation seemed to be that because they had spread the celebrity guest signings and panels out to other buildings and with the limited ticket sales, many people didn’t make it to the vendor booths in the small press section (where I was located) or if they did, they didn’t make it back when it came time to make their purchases.

A big question mark was whether or not I was even in the right place to sell my particular brand of artwork.  Here was a typical situation my wife and I noticed throughout the weekend.  A person would walk up the aisle in front of my booth, scanning left and right as they walked.  When they saw my work, they’d smile or laugh, say something like, “Oh, cool!” or “These are great!”  They’d come over to the booth, look through my book, ask questions, and appear thoroughly engaged with the work and have many complimentary things to say.  Then they’d often say “Thanks” and wander off to the next booth or say, “I’ll be back later on.”  Both my wife and I have worked in retail years ago and have experience with the ‘just looking’ crowd but when the reactions seemed very genuine, we couldn’t figure out the reluctance to buy by many of the enthusiastic visitors.  Money didn’t seem to be the issue as our pricing was comparable to the wares of many other artists.  One of the most common comments we got was that my work looked like nothing people had ever seen before.  As an artist, that’s a great thing to hear, but whether or not it also prevented them from buying it because they didn’t know where to put it, who knows?

One quirk of this con is that when people had multiple day passes, they didn’t want to be carrying their purchases around with them all day, so they said they’d come back later in the day or on Sunday to buy.  Anybody who has ever worked in retail knows how that goes.  One way around that was we offered to hold on to their purchases until they came back for them and that did work for a few of them, especially one woman who bought a canvas print of the Ostrich Totem.  Others, however, just never came back.

Something that really began to annoy us as the weekend wore on was cellphones.  We easily had half a dozen potential good sales ruined by somebody getting a text or phone call while they were talking to us.  The phone would distract them and they would wander off while taking the call.  Or if they stayed at the booth,  following the call or text, their entire demeanor changed, as if that distraction had broken the spell of their interest.  Cell phones are not your friend when you’re trying to make a sale.

These were the less than ideal parts of this show, but now I’ll talk about all of the positives that came from this event.

There was a noticeable difference in the organization level of this event this year.  There were a lot of volunteers, all of whom were exceptionally helpful, friendly and receptive to feedback.  We heard nothing but good things from attendees and vendors with how well the folks at the Expo handled everything this year.  They really should be commended on how they turned lemons into lemonade following last year’s event and I personally made a point of thanking a few volunteers for their efforts and I noticed a number of other vendors did the same.

Booth002First and foremost, there is no substitute for experience, and the amount I learned about trade shows and expos this weekend is immeasurable.  It was truly an education, one that was quite enjoyable.  One of the best parts of this event was that my wife, Shonna worked it with me.  She even wore her two Ostrich Totem shirts proudly on Friday and Saturday.  The pic at left was Sunday.  Her opinion and insights are always of value to me and the fact that I didn’t have to come home and try to explain everything to her is a relief.  She went through it all with me, saw and heard everything I did and worked just as hard.  Her help and support was incredibly valuable to me at this event.  I could have done this without her, but I wouldn’t have done it nearly as well and it wouldn’t have been as much fun, because yes, as hard as we worked, it really was a good experience for both of us.

One of the benefits of having a booth at the con is that even though we didn’t get to see as much around the venue as I would have had I been an attendee, eventually a lot of the people came wandering down to our end.  So, we still got to see many of the creative and elaborate costumes, a highlight of this show for many.

Neither Shonna nor I are big on crowds at the best of times.  While I have plenty of experience in sales and working with people, having worked in retail and hotels before I was a full-time artist, these days I spend the majority of my working time alone in my office and I quite enjoy my solitude.  But having a booth at a show, you have to be ON all the time.  Smiling, laughing, saying Hello and making eye contact, inviting people in, being friendly and engaging, making people feel welcome to come and look at your wares, answering the same questions and telling the same stories over and over again for three days straight.  I wondered if I still had it, and thankfully I did.  Best of all, I really enjoyed myself and so did my wife.  The people were the best part of this Expo because they were all there to have a good time.  Even if they weren’t buying, it was fun to talk with them, hear their thoughts, and explain my work to them.  Everybody I talked to seemed to really like my paintings and style of artwork, which was a nice boost.  Every artist wants to find their own look and I’ve successfully done that.

Commissions!  We couldn’t believe how many people asked about commissions of their pets.  While many seemed content to just take a card, Shonna had the bright idea to start taking email addresses from those who made inquiries and today I’ll be sending a lot of personal messages to people with the blog entry link that explains all of the information about commission work.  If even a small percentage of those who inquired take the plunge, I’ll be busy painting custom pet portraits for a long time.

Suggestions! It is very clear that a panda and giraffe need to be added to my Totem list.  A number of people asked if I had those paintings.   Others I found intriguing were a Hedgehog, Alpaca or Llama, and a Lizard.  All of these would be enjoyable to paint and add to my funny looking menagerie.

Networking!  We spoke to many other experienced trade show and expo artists who were very happy to share the information they’ve gathered.  One couple who attend many of these shows as vendors stood at our booth when it was slow and took Shonna and I to school.  They told us which shows were profitable, which ones were not, which ones were expensive and vice versa.  We honestly didn’t meet anyone who was in a bad mood or wasn’t genuinely willing to share information with us and we tried to do the same.  There is a thriving community of professionals and amateurs on the show circuit and we were welcomed into it.

Validation!  Everybody is warned to have cash on hand to purchase items at the show.  Most vendors will not have the ability to take credit cards.  I went with the Kudos system, however, so I could take credit card payments on my iPad and I’m glad I did.  More than half of my sales were credit card transactions.  I would not have sold the canvases I did had I only taken cash.

People really did seem to like my work.  We got used to seeing big smiles and exclamations of, “Oh, look at these!” and “These are wonderful!” from people.  They would also say things like , “they look real, but cartoony.  How do you do that?”  And best of all, the adjectives.  Everybody sees something different in the expressions of my Totems and since I have no idea where the personality comes from as I paint, nobody is wrong.  The same Totem would be called, ‘sarcastic,’ ‘angry’, ‘scary,’ ‘mischievous,’  ‘happy,’ and ‘goofy,’ among other things.  They would tell me and others what the Totem was thinking.  “Oh he’s thinking, don’t worry, I’ll eat you quickly,’ and ‘what are you lookin’ at?”  I loved it.

On Sunday, a gentleman approached me about licensing my Totems for a specific line of products (that’s all I’ll say for now), took me to his booth, showed me what he was talking about and I was very interested.  I’ll be talking to him again today via email.  Best of all, some of the work on his products was that of another artist at the show, so I went to her booth and asked her opinion of the arrangement.  She gave a ringing endorsement, so I can go into these negotiations with a better understanding of the person and company I’m dealing with.  Apparently this sort of thing happens at a lot of these events as well.  And the reason I was approached?  He had never seen anything like my work before.

Booth003

To sum up, having a booth at this Expo was a LOT of work and expense, both in prep and at the venue, but it was well worth my time.  Because the Internet and social media is so much PR and hard to tell where the truth lies, I’ll be honest.  While I still came away with good sales, I did not make money at this event, but both Shonna and I are fine with that.  The reason is that the first year is the most expensive and costs range from buying the prints and retail hardware to food and lodging and other expenses, all of which have to be considered on the balance sheet.  I brought WAY too much inventory, but only because I had no way of knowing where to draw the line, having never done this before.  I’m so glad I didn’t try to sell T-shirts and postcards as well this first time out.  The great thing is that none of the inventory goes bad.  It sells at the Calgary Zoo, About Canada in Banff and in my online store on a regular basis.  All it means is that I have plenty of stock for awhile and I don’t have to buy anything in the near future.  So I didn’t really lose any money, especially because I didn’t go into debt for this show.  All of my expenses have been paid, so this wasn’t a hardship.

In the end, this was an investment in experience.  The knowledge we now have could not have been learned without taking the risk and it was well worth it.  Was this the right venue for my work?  I still don’t know.  Will I do this particular Expo again next year?  I’m still thinking about it, leaning toward the affirmative, but I still don’t know.  Sometimes a first year or two is required just to get people to know your work and develop a following.  Will I be doing other trade shows like this to test the waters?  Most definitely, especially since I already have the booth fixtures at hand.  We’re already looking at a number of possible venues and figuring out our next move.

We came away from this event with a lot to think about and I’ve taken a new step in marketing my work.  Best of all, I took another risk and that’s the only way to move forward.  In the next couple of weeks, I’ve got a fair bit of post-con work to do from emailing potential clients about commissions and negotiating a licensing deal, not to mention reassessing the inventory I have in stock and figuring out the best way to make use of it.  It was a really good weekend and I’m glad I did it.

Even before this show, I had a lot on my plate, so right now, it’s back to drawing and painting, which is what got me into all of this in the first place.