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Do You Have a Sloth?

I’ve had so many requests for a sloth over the years that I decided to make it my first painting of 2023.

As with most paintings, it came with unique challenges and choices.

A sloth’s fur is coarse and wiry, with a bad-hair-day look, rather than the soft and smooth fur I enjoy painting most. I chose an entire body pose rather than a closeup of the face and a full-foliage scene over a nondescript background.

I could have painted the sloth in warmer colours for more contrast with the background or added more leaves in front and behind. Even though sloths are light brown, they move so slowly that algae and fungi grow in their fur, giving them a green tint. They use the algae to feed their young, and it provides camouflage. Moths and beetles live in their hair as well.

Many photos I found showed a lot of green, but some almost none. Some sloths have shorter fur, some longer. Some have smooth-looking heads; others look like they’re sporting a bob cut.

I won’t get into boring technical jargon, but there is a much wider range of colours available on a screen than in print, and green is one of the most temperamental colours to print. So even though I would like to boost the greens in a piece like this, I must account for colour shift.

Thankfully, Photoshop provides several methods to detect areas where print problems might occur. However, I can still push it a little because I have years of experience with my printer in Victoria and know what to expect.

When the art is for commercial prints and products, that also affects my composition choices. Most of my paintings are 3:4 aspect ratio because that works best for my needs.

I tell market and Expo customers that every print is 11” x 14”, a typical off-the-shelf frame size you can buy at most stores and that often helps make the sale. It’s annoying to buy a $30 print only to spend $100 or more to frame it because it’s a weird size, so I keep mine consistent.

Painting on a fast and powerful computer, my final pieces are 30” x 40” at 300 pixels/inch. That creates a huge file but allows me to print large sizes without sacrificing detail.

When it comes to Pacific Music & Art products, a painting must work for a long template of a coffee mug design and a square layout for a coaster or trivet. Most licenses don’t require the artist to create format files, but I volunteer to do the layouts for Mike, so I’m happy with how they look.

Here’s a shot I took this weekend at About Canada on Main Street in Banff of some of those products.
I can separate the sloth from the background and foliage for my own use to make a vinyl sticker. As I’m currently working on layouts for my first puzzles, I thought about those while painting this piece and wondered what composition choices would make it more enjoyable to assemble.

Most of the time, I’ll use one primary photo reference for a painting and additional ones for detail. Ideally, they’re photos I take myself. In some cases, I’ve relied on generous photographer friends or purchased reference I want to use. I bought stock photos for this one and used about a dozen images.

With no vacation plans this year and unlikely I’ll be going back to Costa Rica soon, stock photos were my best option for this sloth. Some photos were good for the pose, others for the face, and others for anatomy clarity and colour. Some sloths are cute; others are downright unattractive, so I looked for common features for accuracy. My versions of these critters might be caricatured and whimsical, but I still need to know what the actual animal looks like to make it believable.

A happy irony with this piece is that my buddy Derek Turcotte and his family went to Panama for Christmas, and he saw protected sloths in the wild. He generously offered some of his photos for reference, and one shot, in particular, was a perfect closeup of a cute sloth. I was halfway through this piece when I got it, and it helped a lot.

Critique is helpful when creating art if it’s asked for and given with goodwill. To have people you trust who can look at your work and offer constructive advice is priceless. Of course, it’s essential that if you ask for critique, be ready to accept it with gratitude.

Avoid asking the opinions of those likely to tell you, “That’s stupid. Looks like crap.”

That won’t help you become a better artist, and that kind of nasty cheap-seats criticism is usually more about them than you.

I’ll occasionally bounce editorial cartoon ideas off Shonna or my friend, Darrel. Most of the time, it’s to confirm that the message comes through. Does it make sense? I’ve been doing this long enough that I usually know, but occasionally, I’ll wonder if an idea is too vague or obscure.
I often spend ten to twenty hours on a painting. Though I have a few tricks to reset my brain so I can notice an issue, like flipping the canvas and reference horizontally, or looking at it on my phone or iPad, sometimes trouble spots escape me.

Shonna has an excellent eye for problems in my painted work. I’ll admit that even though I ask her opinion on almost every painting, when she points out an issue, I occasionally resist and must bite my tongue. Sometimes I argue against her view, but if I set aside my ego and seriously consider the suggestion, it’s most often correct.

By the time I ask her opinion, she’s seeing the piece with fresh eyes, knows my work very well and sometimes, it’s a small change that makes a big difference, even though most people wouldn’t notice. But once it’s pointed out, I can’t unsee it.

Derek is another valuable critique resource. He’s an exceptionally skilled tattoo artist and traditional painter. He has often asked me for my opinion on works in progress. Most of the time, however, I see nothing wrong. Like most perfectionist artists, he’s already obsessed over it himself. Nevertheless, when I have seen an area I think could stand some improvement, he’s been receptive and often made the change.

Twice this week, I asked Derek for his thoughts on this painting. Both times, he pointed out a couple of clunky composition issues I had failed to notice. Once seen, it was obvious he was correct, and I repainted those sections.

Even after it was finished, I called him and asked about something small that was bugging me. He could see my concern and suggested an easy way to fix it, but it wasn’t a big deal and Derek told me I was probably overthinking it.

That kind of help from another artist is invaluable.

In other cases, criticism is an opinion that might not align with your vision for a piece. For example, I’ve had plenty of people suggest I paint more realistic animals instead of the caricatured or cartoony personalities that define my work.

That’s their preference. My work isn’t for them.

I’ve had gallery owners and other retailers tell me that if I did create traditional wildlife paintings, no matter how good they were, they wouldn’t want them because that’s what everybody else is selling. My ‘cartoony but real’ animals are my signature look, and that niche has allowed me to continue to create art for a living.

As with every painting, my audience and customers will decide if this sloth becomes a popular piece. That’s something over which I have no control. All I can do is paint the critter, have some fun with it, and release it into the wild.

Then it’s on to the next one.

Cheers,
Patrick

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The Professional, Personal, and Paintings of 2022

Keeping a blog is handy when I write a year-end wrap-up because I don’t have to remember what happened. So here are some of the standouts from this year.

Sticker Surprise
While on a cabin trip last year, my buddy Darrel suggested my work might lend itself well to vinyl stickers people put on vehicle windows. So, I designed a few, sourced a production company, and realized he was onto something.

The ten designs have done well with regular re-orders at the Calgary Zoo, Discovery Wildlife Park, and Stonewaters in Canmore. They were also popular at Calgary Expo and the Mountain Made Markets. This week, I reordered a bunch and added two new designs. In the upcoming year, I’ll be working to get these into more stores.

The NFT boom goes bust
Earlier this year, I thought there might be a market selling NFTs of some of my paintings. I read a lot of information, entertained offers from online galleries, and eventually signed with one. They were professional and good to work with, but then the entire crypto art market fell apart.

Thankfully, I lost no money on the experiment. I never bought any cryptocurrency or paid for my own NFT minting. The time I lost was an educational experience, and I have no regrets. You will never have any success without risk. Kevin Kelly once said, “If you’re not falling down occasionally, you’re just coasting.”

Will NFTs come back into favour? I doubt it.

Cartoon Commendation
I don’t usually enter editorial cartoon contests, but I made an exception this year for the World Press Freedom Competition. I’d already drawn the cartoon above that fit the theme, and the top three prizes included a financial award. Though I hadn’t expected much, I won 2nd place and the prize money paid for most of my new guitar.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook is our local weekly paper. I’ve been their cartoonist since it began in 2001, and I’ve never missed an issue. National awards matter to weekly papers as they lend credibility to the publication, especially when soliciting advertisers who pay for it. The Outlook enters my work into the Canadian Community Newspaper Awards each year.The CCNAs didn’t happen last year because of the pandemic, so they awarded two years at once this time. For Best Local Cartoon, I won First, Second and Third for 2020 and Second and Third for 2021 in their circulation category.

Given there are fewer local papers each year and even fewer local cartoonists, I wonder if the multiple awards say more about the lack of competition than the quality of my work.  Regardless, the recognition is still welcome.The problem with local cartoons  is that you kind of have to live here to understand most of them. So the ones I’ve shared here are a random selection of local and national topics.
Between the five or six syndicated editorial cartoons I create each week, plus the local cartoon for The Outlook, I drew 313 editorial cartoons this year.Calgary Expo and the Mountain Made Markets

I know artists who do the gift and market circuit all year long. For some, it’s their entire living, and they do well. Others try it for a few years, don’t make any money, and move on to something else. It can be a real grind.

More than once, I’ve considered getting a bigger vehicle, a tent and the display and booth hardware I would need to do the fair and market circuit in the warmer months and the holiday shows in November and December.

But with daily editorial cartoon deadlines, long days away and travelling each week are next to impossible. I enjoy working in my office every day and have no desire to spend a lot of my time driving and staying in hotels.

The one big show I look forward to each year is the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo at the end of April, five long days, including a full day for setup. So when the full event reemerged from its two-year pandemic hiatus, I was excited to return.

Not only was 2022 my best year of sales to date, but it was also great fun. I’m already looking forward to the 2023 event, though I’m tempering my expectations with a possible looming recession. Then again, I didn’t think this year would be good, and I was happily proven wrong.

There were several Mountain Made Markets this year, with weekend events every month from May to December. Held indoors at the Canmore Civic Centre, it’s an easy setup close to home, so it’s worth my time.

Each market was profitable, and I enjoyed introducing new people to my work, meeting subscribers in person and visiting with customers, vendors and friends. Significant changes are coming for that event this year. Whether good or bad remains to be seen, but I hope to do more of them in 2023.

Licensing

If you’ve ever bought a face mask, magnet, coaster, or calendar from me, those come from Pacific Music & Art, just a handful of the many items they sell. I often hear from people who’ve bought a trivet in Banff, a coffee mug in Alaska, or an art card in Washington.

Licensing allows me to spend my time painting and still reach new markets and audiences. I signed a few new deals this year with Art Licensing International agency, a company that has represented my work for several years. Agencies might have many more contacts, but they take a big chunk of the royalties, so it’s a double-edged sword. I prefer to find most licenses on my own.

Sometimes companies cold call me. When Diamond Art Club contacted me about licensing my work, I had barely heard of diamond art kits.

Though there was a lead time of many months, the Otter kit finally launched this summer and sold out in days. Producing these kits involves more than simply printing the image on an item, so it took a few months for them to restock that first piece, but it’s again available on their site.

More diamond art kit designs are coming in 2023, but I’m not allowed to share which ones yet.

I signed a new contract last week for ten of my images with an overseas company for another product, but that, too, will be something I can’t share until the middle of next year. Licensing usually involves quite a bit of time between signing contracts and actual production, so it’s work now that pays later.

Come to think of it, that’s a good way of looking at commercial art in general. Every piece I paint is an investment in future revenue.

Special Projects

As I wrote about my latest commission earlier this week, here’s the link if you’d like to see and read about the pet portraits I painted this year.

Every year, I begin with great plans and expectations, but things go off the rails or new opportunities show up, and the whole year becomes a series of course corrections. All I can do for delayed projects important to me is try again.

I tend to slip into a fall melancholy or winter depression most years. When it happens, I often throw my efforts into a personal project, usually painting a portrait of a screen character. I’ve painted several portraits of people, and many result in great stories to go with them. Here’s the John Dutton character painting I did last year.I realized earlier this month that I wouldn’t get to one this year, even though I had already chosen someone to paint. While disappointed, not having the time was likely due to the work I put into the markets, something I hadn’t done in previous years. However, my latest commission of Luna almost felt like a personal piece because I so enjoyed that painting.

I still had down days this fall, especially with our brutally cold November and December. But September and October were beautiful and right before the weather turned, I had a great cabin trip with my buddy, Darrel.

So the seasonal depression wasn’t as dark as it has been in recent years, and for that, I’m grateful.

The Personal

On a sunny June day in Calgary, a woman ran a red light and wrote off Shonna’s car. While we had no immediately apparent injuries, we’ve been sharing one vehicle ever since and likely will until sometime in the middle of next year. Unfortunately, everything we can find, used or new, is overpriced, and we’ve heard many stories of fraudulent car dealers adding extra fees and playing bait-and-switch games. As if the near criminal behaviour of our own insurance company wasn’t bad enough.

But we bought Pedego Element e-bikes and love them. Canmore is easier to get around by bike than car, and it has become a necessity since they brought in paid parking. So we were both disappointed when winter arrived with a vengeance in November, and we had to put them away. While we had planned to get studded tires and ride the bikes all winter, as many around here do, 20″ studded fat tires are just one more item on the long list of global supply problems.

We had a wonderful vacation in August, glamping and kayaking for a week off northern Vancouver Island, a 25th-anniversary trip we had postponed at the beginning of the pandemic. It was one of the best adventures we’ve ever had.

I bought a silent acoustic guitar this year and began to play music again. It’s always within arm’s reach of my desk, and I’ve been playing it almost every day, sometimes for ten minutes, but most often for an hour or more. With regular practice, I’m a better musician now than I’ve ever been, and it’s a lot of fun, especially bringing it on a couple of cabin trips.Best of all, there is no chance I will ever play guitar for a living. It’s a purely creative escape with no responsibility to pay my bills.

Painting

Including the two commissions, I completed nine full-resolution production pieces this year. I wanted to paint more.

Best I can figure, preparing for and attending the additional Mountain Made Markets this year ate up a lot of time and energy, especially on weekends when I do a lot of my painting. I still had to create the same number of editorial cartoons each week but sacrificed painting time. That’s valuable information to have when considering future markets and shows. While those might give me more opportunities to sell the work, they steal from time creating it.

I’ve put together another video to share this year’s painted work. Most of these are finished paintings, with a few works in progress.

Hundreds of new people subscribed to A Wilder View in 2022. My sincere thanks to you who’ve been with me for years and those who just joined the ride. Whatever challenges you face in the coming year, I hope the occasional funny-looking animal in your inbox gives you a smile and makes life a little bit easier, if only for a moment or two.

Good luck with whatever you work toward in 2023.

Happy New Year!

Patrick.

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Painting Luna

While commissions are a small part of my overall work and business, I’ve enjoyed the pet portraits I’ve painted over the years. All have been challenging, either the artwork or managing client expectations. Though I have my personal favourites, I’ve learned something valuable from each.

A couple of years ago, my friend and marketing guru David Duchemin suggested my rates were too low. Artists are notorious for undervaluing their skills, often attracting the wrong clients, those more interested in a bargain than the artwork.

A commission is a custom portrait requiring consultation, preparation, printing, and shipping/delivery, plus many hours of actual painting. Unlike my whimsical wildlife portraits, which can be sold as prints and licensed, a commission is an original work created for one client.

David asked me to consider whether I would rather have more clients at a lower rate or fewer clients at a rate more appropriate to the years I’ve put into my skills and the unique look of my critters.

I took that to heart and raised my rate because when I’m painting a commissioned piece, that’s time that can’t be spent painting anything else.

On my site, I’m upfront about pricing, the photos I need for reference, and the details a client needs to make an informed decision without making it awkward if the price is out of their range. I’m happy to answer inquiries, but with my daily editorial cartoons and new whimsical wildlife pieces, the commission work is welcome when it comes in, but I don’t actively market it.

My first and last paintings of 2022 were pet portraits, both thoroughly enjoyable experiences with great clients, nice bookends for the year.
Santé was a memorial piece. Suzanne wanted my whimsical style and a full-body action pose, something I hadn’t yet painted in a commission. She wanted the painting to portray the active and joyful full life that Santé led and had the photo reference to back it up. While difficult, it stretched my skills, and I was pleased with the result. Click here to read more about that experience in the original post.

Near the end of October, I got an email from a man in Calgary asking me to paint his dog Luna, a gift for his wife. He’d read the Commissions page, knew what he wanted, and even included some initial reference photos. Talk about a good start.

We’d briefly discussed a possible commission at the Calgary Expo in April, but while I get several inquiries at that event, this is the first one that has resulted in a hire.

Given the time of year, I assumed this was a Christmas present. However, when I asked, he replied, “not a huge rush, if we got it for Christmas it would be a great surprise, but I’m not overly concerned if we don’t get it until the new year.”

I thought that if we could reach an agreement quickly, I would make that surprise happen.

I asked if he could take more photos for me, offering a little guidance on what would be ideal. He got right to it and I ended up with great bunch of reference. In one of them, I noticed she had a little brandy keg around her neck, and I asked him if I could paint her in a winter scene with that keg. Sure, it’s a cliché image of a St. Bernard, but it was too perfect a fit, and I could see the painting in my head. Jeremy liked the idea and said that Luna loves the snow.
At the beginning of December, I sent him the finished piece for approval before it went to the printer. Of the options I offer, he had initially chosen an 18X24 canvas, and while that would have looked great, I talked him into going with the same size matte metal piece instead. With the bright, vibrant colours in this painting, I knew it would pop a lot more on metal.

I’ve been having my metal and canvas prints done by Posterjack for over a year now. Everything is always well-packed, and this was no exception. The colours and quality of the Luna print were stunning.

But you can imagine my disappointment when I noticed some slight damage in the bottom right corner. There was no damage to the box and it was wrapped well inside. In their busy season, somebody likely knocked it during production and failed to notice before packing it. It was a tiny dent, only noticeable on close inspection.

I put some foam wrapping around the corner and gently bent it back into place with some pliers. Then I took a white paint pen, blended it with a little blue and smudged over the corner with a Q-Tip, blending it as best I could into the sky and snow background. It was the only corner of the painting where this could have worked. I did a pretty good job of it, too, but I could still see the damage.

While setting up and working at markets, no matter how careful I’ve been, I’ve dinged a couple of these myself in the same way. I might bump one, and it falls off the gridwall, that sort of thing. In those cases, I’ll offer a discount to anyone interested in that piece, which is usually acceptable. It’s almost always barely noticeable and this was the same type of subtle damage.

But this was a custom commission.

I told the client about it; said I’d still drive it in the next day and see what he thought. He wasn’t too concerned, but I wasn’t comfortable with his settling for a damaged print. But at least he’d have the piece to give to his wife for Christmas, and I could replace it afterward.

I sent Posterjack a photo of the damage, and they immediately offered a replacement. However, since I wasn’t sure it would arrive before Christmas, I delivered the print I had.

Of course, while preparing to deliver the piece, I had to ask, “do I get to meet Luna?”
She’s exactly as you’d expect, a big slobbery friendly St. Bernard with the sweetest face and lovable eyes. I would have liked to have taken a better photo with her, but Jeremy and I met in their enclosed front porch, with Luna and her Newfoundland sister, Sally, between us. As they’re both BIG dogs, it was a little cramped, but Jen was home, so there was a risk of ruining the surprise.

The replacement print arrived five days later. I inspected it and wrapped it back up right away to keep it safe. I sent my Posterjack contact an email thanking them for standing by their product. Nothing secures my loyalty more than great service. Too many companies have forgotten that.

In ideal conditions, I could have gone to Calgary again to replace it before Christmas, but our weather turned incredibly nasty, temperatures between -30 and -40C every day all week, right after the starter in my car began to grind intermittently. Not the safest set of circumstances for a trip into the city.

With the starter replaced last week and this cold snap departed, I’ll soon arrange to make the exchange. I plan to display the original print at Expo in April, a full-size example to point to for any commission inquiries. In the meantime, I’ll hang it in my office because I do love it; such a fun piece to paint.
As for Jenny’s reaction, Jeremy sent me some pictures Christmas morning. Let me tell you, tears are the best compliment I ever get.

Click here for more information about pet portrait commissions. If you have any questions, drop me a line at patrick@nulllamontagneart.com

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Goofy Grizzly


Here’s a painting of one of the younger bears at Discovery Wildlife Park. I took the reference in September of last year, but because there were two bears the same age, and I don’t know them as well as I do Berkley, I didn’t know which one I was painting.

I sent the finished piece to my friend Serena, the head keeper at the park, and she immediately said it was Bos (rather than Piper), which I took as a compliment that she could identify the bear from my painting. Another keeper also knew which as well, so it felt pretty good that even with my whimsical style, I got the personality and likeness right.

Serena reluctantly mentioned an anatomy issue with one of the paws/claws and said the claws looked more like a black bear than a brown bear. I asked for more clarification and spent some time repainting the problem area.

When it comes to unsolicited criticism, the kind most people offer is a glib comment that costs them nothing, so they speak before thinking. Unfortunately, it can often be unkind, malicious, or personal, which usually says more about the critic than that being criticized.

One of the pillars supporting social media is that we’re all so sure of our clear view from the cheap seats. It has always been easier to tear somebody down than build them up.

Constructive criticism, however, is a valuable resource, and artists need to cultivate relationships with people who genuinely want to see them create better work. For example, my buddy Derek and I have often sent each other paintings in progress, asking for critique.

Another tattoo artist friend sent me a beautiful sea turtle painting he’d completed the other day and asked my opinion. I loved the piece and enjoyed seeing it but had no suggestion for improving it, which isn’t unusual.

Most of the time, we’ve each scrutinized our work to death already before we request a second look.

But staring at a painting too long, sometimes you miss what’s right in front of you until a trusted friend and colleague points it out. Then you wonder how you ever could have missed it. Or you make the suggested change to see the results and agree it was a better choice.

When you do get an honest critique from someone whose intentions are genuine, be grateful. That person took the time to help you improve your work.

Serena’s not a painter, but when it comes to animal anatomy, I trust her eye, and I’m glad she saw what I missed. Better still, I’m happy she said so, rather than worry that I would take it personally.

From time to time, however, the creator of a piece might consider a critique and still disagree. That’s fine, too. Every artist sees things differently, and ultimately it comes down to making your own choices. I’ve had plenty of well-intentioned suggestions over the years, both on specific pieces and my business in general, that I decided weren’t right for me.

You never know, however, when somebody might offer a solution to a problem you didn’t know you had. For example, my buddy, Darrel, casually suggested vinyl stickers a while back because he saw a few on vehicles and thought my work would lend itself to those. I’m glad he did because my stickers are now doing well in a few retail stores, and I’m actively seeking more resellers.

But then, I also get a lot of people suggesting I create children’s books, and it’s just not something that interests me.

This painting was supposed to be a practice sketch. But my obsessive nature and perfectionist tendencies don’t seem to allow me to stop if I can just paint in a little… more… detail. So, this became a finished piece. I think it will make a nice sticker, too, and possibly a print later.

Regardless of where it ends up, I consider any time painting bears to be time well spent.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Swimming Upstream

Here’s a little duckling I finished painting this morning. The duckling itself wasn’t difficult, but the water certainly was. Ironic that I began this year with a commission piece where water was also the hardest part of that painting. There will always be room for improvement in any artistic pursuit, so I welcome these unexpected challenges. The work might become boring without them.

When I first began creating digital art more than 20 years ago, there was a common misconception that if you used a computer, then the computer was doing all the work. Press a few buttons, apply a filter or two and anybody can do it. There was also a ‘look’ to a lot of digital art. It was far too smooth, with a blurry airbrushed look, and it all looked the same. Plenty of amateur artists still make this mistake when they get started. After hearing more than enough of this (anything but constructive) criticism, I worked hard to make my work look more like traditional acrylic or oil textures. That effort paid off because I developed a textured brush style evident in all of my work today. People are still surprised to find out my medium of choice and will often say that it doesn’t look digital.

For the water in this painting, however, I had to go backwards, and paint with that smooth, airbrushed look I have deliberately avoided for so many years. Texture in the water would not only have looked wrong, it would have distracted from the subject of the piece. It’s the contrast between the detailed hair-like feathers of our little friend and the water in which he’s swimming that makes the duck stand out.

This is the final cropped composition for this painting, but I painted more water than you see here. As most of my paintings end up on licensed products, I painted more of the background to allow for different Pacific Music and Art templates. On some of my older pieces, I’ve had to repaint entire sections to accommodate items like coffee mugs and different-sized aluminum prints.

These days, I keep that in mind while painting a piece. It means more work that most people won’t see but less of a headache when I format the painting for more than a dozen different items in their catalogue. Art (and artists) must be flexible when the work is destined for commercial products.
I took the reference for this painting four years ago from the boardwalk that winds through the Policeman’s Creek wetlands here in Canmore. Easily accessible for people of all fitness levels, it’s located in the middle of town and might as well be an urban park. It’s a pretty walk, a nice shortcut from where we live to downtown Canmore, and preferable to walking on the sidewalk of a busy street.

You might think I’d be happier taking photos of bears, wolves, eagles or other more exciting animals, but I’m just as content to spend an hour chasing around a family of ducks with my camera. You never know what critter might end up in a painting.

Only a couple of days ago, I realized just how few paintings I’ve completed this year. I painted the commission of Santé in February and finished my elephant painting in March. In addition, I’ve painted a couple of burrowing owls that are part of a larger piece, but this duckling is only the third finished painting, and the year is almost half over.

Considering I usually produce 10 to 15 pieces each year, I’m well behind where I’d like to be. Of course, one could argue quality vs. quantity, but as this work is a big part of how I make my living, I try to balance them.
The reason for fewer paintings is no mystery. Despite the dramatic decline in the newspaper industry, it’s still a big chunk of my income, and I’m unable to put off or set aside my daily editorial cartoon deadlines. As a result, those take priority every day and painting time is often sacrificed for the cartoons.

On the animal art side of things, I’ve been more occupied this year creating new products, filling and delivering print orders, planning and attending Expo and more local markets, all things that have been on hold the past couple of years. I’m not complaining that I have more sales and increased opportunities to put more work into the world, but it illustrates that art for a living is an illusion.

I don’t spend as much time creating the work as I do promoting and selling the work.

We all struggle with finding enough time to get it all done, whatever ‘it’ is, and most often fail in the attempt. Unfortunately, knowing the solution is simple doesn’t make it any easier.

Saying ‘No’ a lot more often than ‘Yes’ to requests and demands goes against most of our instincts to be friendly, help people out, and put others’ needs ahead of ours. But when it means sacrificing what is most important to us, whether time with our family, the pursuit of hobbies, recharging and relaxing, or time to paint more funny-looking animals, nobody else will make that time for us.

These paintings are a lot of work, but it’s work that I love a great deal, so it makes sense that I’d want to spend more time doing it. I’ll try to remember that for the second half of this year.

Cheers,
Patrick

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A New Marshal in Town

In November of last year, I finished this painting of Kevin Costner as John Dutton from the top-rated Paramount show Yellowstone. Like many of the portraits I paint, it was a personal project, something I did for my own enjoyment. You can read about that piece here.

I don’t attach any expectations to these portraits, but sometimes they either reach the people I’ve painted or attract some attention after the fact that I couldn’t have anticipated. But I learned long ago that if you try to make stuff like that happen, it rarely works. All I can do is complete the painting, put it out there and move on to the next one.

I have a couple of favourite unexpected results, like when Emilio Estevez wanted to buy the original canvas of a painting I did of his father, Martin Sheen. That was almost ten years ago, so I won’t rehash it again. However, if you’re not familiar with that story, you can read about it here. The print signed by both of them hangs in my office.
Another was when I painted Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield while he was in command of the International Space Station. He saw the painting online and sent me an appreciative tweet from space, which was a special moment.

This week, the Calgary Stampede announced that Kevin Costner would be this year’s parade marshal. I’m a fan, or I wouldn’t have painted the portrait in the first place. But I’m not big on crowds, and it’s unlikely I’ll attend the parade or Stampede. Still, the event is a big deal for Calgary. After the last two years, here’s hoping an unrestricted Stampede is a welcome economic boost for the city and surrounding communities, mine included.

As the Calgary Herald has been running my syndicated cartoons regularly for almost 20 years, I emailed the editor and suggested the painting as a cartoon for the announcement, with the caption you see below. He liked the idea, and it appeared in Wednesday’s edition.
As it also made national news, and Yellowstone is a wildly popular show, I sent it out to my other papers this morning, in case there’s more interest in it. For context outside of Calgary, I added “Calgary Stampede:” before the caption for those other papers.

I’ve done portraits for cartoons before, but most often, it’s for memorials, and they’re never as detailed as I would like. It took more than 20 hours to paint this portrait, so it’s not something I would have done specifically for this purpose. There wouldn’t be a decent return on the investment, and I couldn’t get it done on a tight deadline anyway. To have had the painting done and ready to use for this announcement was a nice moment of serendipity.

Newsprint is unfortunately a muddy medium. Publications use different colour profiles and printers, so a cartoon that might look bright and crisp in one paper might look too bright or dark and desaturated in another. I can do nothing about that, so I adjust the image to find the middle ground for all papers. I put a lot of time into getting the colour right in my work, so I’m most often disappointed when I see it in newsprint, but I’ve had to make peace with that.
The Costner portrait file is 30” X 40” with a lot of detailed brushwork. To shrink it down and prepare it for newsprint, I had to boost the contrast, oversharpen it, and make other Photoshop adjustments to mitigate a poor result. So while I was happy to see it printed in the Calgary Herald (digital edition above), I couldn’t help but see all the flaws in the reproduction, even though I know that most people won’t notice or care.

As always, I just hope people like it.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Levelling Up

Here’s the fourth burrowing owl in the series, which will be part of a larger piece featuring multiple owls in different poses. I don’t know how many owls yet, and I only have a rough vision of it.

Though I’ve only been to the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale a couple of times, spending two days on each visit, I’ve also seen them on several occasions here in Canmore.

Before the pandemic, The Town of Canmore used to host a WILD event at the Civic Centre. It featured everything from hikes, art activities, educational talks about the environment, etc. Colin Weir and his daughter Amy would bring their ambassador birds to the event, featuring four different owl species and a golden eagle named Sarah.

It allowed the public to get up close and personal with these owls, learn about the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation’s great work and raise funds for the non-profit organization.

I’ve taken thousands of photos of these birds over the years, and even though I’ve only kept the best of these shots, I still have hundreds in my well-organized archive. Every time I go through these photos looking for my next painting, I often think it a waste to have so much reference that I’ve yet to use.

While most of my whimsical wildlife paintings are single animals in a portrait-type pose, I enjoy the challenge of putting multiple animals in a composition and creating a scene.

There’s the Two Wolves painting where it looks like they’re sharing an inside joke. Another is the three cougar cubs laughing together in Snow Day. One of my favourites and still a very popular painting is One in Every Family, a scene I painted in 2014 featuring four great horned owls.
Part of the reason I love that painting is the story behind it. That painting won the Best of Show award at Photoshop World that year, but the prize for that win was my Canon 5D Mark III camera that has become like an old friend. I baby that thing because it has helped me take the reference that allowed me to paint my best work in the years since.

That owl piece began as a practice experiment. I took several photos of the family up at Grassi Lakes over multiple days, and the experience was more about seeing these wonderful birds in the wild than creating a painting.

I did some individual sketch paintings from better shots than I expected to get. Eventually, I put those rough paintings together and invested the time to render the finished piece above.

Having painted more than 100 production pieces since 2009, I’ll often go through my photo archive and have difficulty deciding what to paint next. Lion? I’ve painted a few of those. Wolf? Several of those. Eagle? Raven? Black Bear? Many of each.

I could quite happily paint Berkley the brown bear repeatedly for a year, and I have more than enough references. But a variety of popular animals is more desirable, to find something new that will be appealing to me and be of interest to my customers and licensing clients.

There’s the difference between art for a hobby and art for a living.

So, when I repeatedly came across dozens of burrowing owl photos, many of which are the same owl, this little fella named Basil, I wondered what I could do with them.
And that’s how I ended up creating a folder called Next Level Projects. About a year ago, I spent a whole weekend going through my photos looking for animals for which I had plenty of reference; that would also look good in a painting featuring a group of them.

The first is going to feature these burrowing owls. I’ll paint several of them individually, like the one at the top of this post. Then, when I have enough, I’ll move them around on a larger digital canvas, come up with a scene, and spend time painting over them, ensuring the light matches up and they look like they belong together.

From a business perspective, each one of the owls will lend itself to an individual painting on different items. For example, Pacific Music & Art could have a set of six burrowing owl coasters, all of which are also part of the same painting in a print. It would work for stickers and magnets as well. But the larger painting, featuring all of them, would work well on a coffee mug, as it’s a longer horizontal layout.

Because I’ve been painting these animals for thirteen years, many in the same popular format of the headshot composition, the routine has started to creep in, and it’s a little concerning. I’m not tired of this work; I still enjoy it immensely. But as the recent commission piece taught me, and the latest elephant painting, it needs to continue to be challenging, or I’ll get bored of my work.

Paintings featuring multiple animals feels like the next step, and I’m focusing on creating more of those this year.

I’ve long wanted to do a painting featuring several meerkats. There’s one I keep coming back to with multiple ring-tailed lemurs, too. I’ve already got titles for both and a lot of reference. And I have so many baby pictures of Berkley and the new cubs at Discovery Wildlife Park that I’ve long wanted to put multiple brown bear cubs in one painting.

I’ll still paint the single animal pieces because I have several in mind as well, but these multiple-animal pieces will present an ongoing challenge to keep me excited about painting.

So instead of sharing as many finished paintings with you this year, I’ll likely be sharing pieces of finished paintings and the stories behind these next-level projects.

In the meantime, I’m always open to suggestions. So, if there’s an animal you’d like to see me paint, let me know in the comments. There is always the chance you’ll come up with something I haven’t considered. Or if you’d just like to tell me which one of my many paintings is your personal favourite(s), that helps me decide on future paintings, too.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Peaks and Valleys

Last month, I finished what could easily be called my favourite commission piece to date. For those who’ve hired me for commissions in the past, don’t take that personally. I’ve enjoyed almost all the pet portraits I’ve painted. But this last one represented some notable artistic growth, which has become a rare thing.

When I first started drawing and painting, it was easy to take large leaps. Looking back on my earlier work, I can see considerable improvement over time as short as six months. Because I wasn’t very good at it, was hungry for new skills, and had no shortage of exceptional artists to learn from, I couldn’t help but get better if I kept putting in the hours.

Over time, however, my skills became more and more refined, as any creative should expect, and my work, especially in my style, reached a plateau. I had found the look that identifies my art, something most artists chase. People who know my work can easily spot it, even if they don’t see my name, just as I can spot the work of artists I follow.

I’m still always seeking to get better, but any improvement is often most noticeable to me. I get better at light and shadow, the way fur and hair flows, subtle shaping of features to reinforce the balance between whimsy and realism without straying too far into that phenomenon known as the uncanny valley.

People often say that my work looks “cartoony, but real.”

I’ve heard it said so often that I’ll occasionally use it myself when somebody tries to describe it but can’t find the right words.

I’m always trying to push the realism, mostly to challenge myself, without going so far that it becomes creepy and unappealing.

So, it isn’t just about painting better hair, fur, skin textures and personality in my funny-looking animals, but knowing when to stop. I suspect I’ll find that out the hard way one day and need to dial it back. I’m confident that Shonna will let me know.

This recent commission taught me I (thankfully) still have plenty of room for improvement. As I wrote about in that post, the client requested a full-body action pose because that’s how she wanted to remember her dog, Santé.

She didn’t insist on it, but it was her preference. And the last thing I want is for a client to be mostly happy with a finished painting but still think, “it’s good, but not what I really wanted.”

It was something I wanted to try but was afraid of because I didn’t think I was good enough to pull it off.

In every painting, there are peaks and valleys. The spark of the idea, taking and choosing reference photos, and imagining different options are always high points. But once the first brush strokes hit the digital canvas, so begins a slow decline. I find that the first half of a painting is simply putting in the hours, and there isn’t a lot of enjoyment there.

But somewhere in the middle, the fun starts when it starts to reveal what it might become. Sometimes it peaks again and then crashes when something doesn’t work, which can take hours to repair. The more time it takes to get through that valley, the more I think the whole piece sucks, I’ve lost it, and there’s no saving it.

But a brush stroke here, some light and shadow there, I solve the issue and again find the joy in it.

The best part of any painting is the last two hours. I have a playlist on Spotify reserved just for this period in a painting. It’s called ‘Pick Me Up,’ With that playing in the earbuds, drinking hot black coffee, often in the early morning hours, I’ll finish the piece and feel good about it.

That euphoria lasts a few hours, but I’m heading back down to the next valley by that evening, wondering what to paint next. Or I’ve shifted back into editorial cartoon mode and following the news, which can be like dark clouds ruining a sunny day.

Of course, there are other peaks for most paintings. The feedback I get from readers and subscribers is gratifying; those who follow my work and are kind enough to post a comment or send an email telling me how much they like the new piece. And if a new painting isn’t one they especially like, they’re usually kind enough to keep that to themselves.

I’m under no illusion that every painting is a winner.

Another peak is the first time I get a print because it never feels real or complete until I see it in real life. Most of the time, it’s when the first poster print proof arrives from Art Ink Print. Proofing with that company has become just a formality. I know how to prepare an image for their press, and they know what my work is supposed to look like, so I can’t remember the last time I had to reproof an image because the first one didn’t look right, but it’s been several years.

When the 18”x24” matte aluminum print of the latest commission arrived, it was a very good day. I checked it for flaws and couldn’t find any. However, I discovered that while the white background was smooth, the painted area was slightly raised with a noticeable texture. This was an unexpected but welcome happy accident that added even more to the print.

And there is the valley of apprehension of packaging and shipping the piece, waiting for it to arrive, or driving to deliver the work to the client. Finally, after more than two months of back and forth, sourcing the photos, discussing the approach, many hours of painting, sending periodic progress updates, her financial investment in the piece, it all comes down to the delivery and reveal.

No pressure.

Suzanne had already seen the image via email, but as I said, it’s not quite real until you see it in print.

Thankfully, she was pleased with it. We had earlier discussed some of her other artwork, and she generously showed me other pieces in her collection, including the first piece she bought of mine online from Wayfair. While I’ve had this license for some time, I’ve never actually seen one of the canvases in person, and I was pleased with the quality.
It’s always flattering to see my work in somebody’s home, especially a canvas of one of my personal favourites, my Berkley painting called “Peanuts.”

Even before I got home to Canmore, Suzanne had hung the print and sent me photos she generously allowed me to share.

As much as I love meeting clients in person, especially one who was such a pleasure to work with, and while delivering the painting is the pinnacle of all those peaks and valleys, there was an unexpected bonus to the day that can’t be minimized.
I got to meet Suzanne’s new little wonder, River, a black lab puppy, who is in that lovable, awkward, too small for her big paws stage.

From the dark valley of having to say goodbye to her best friend, Suzanne now gets the peak experience of providing a home to a new dog and introducing her to adventures around every corner.

Under Santé’s watchful eye.
_____

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An African Elephant

After more than two years of procrastinating, I finally finished this painting of an African elephant.

At the beginning of 2020, our friend Serena, her husband, and their son went on a long-awaited safari to Africa. Little did they know that it would be only a couple of months later that recreational travel would be all but cancelled for more than a year.

Serena takes almost no time off. As the head zookeeper at Discovery Wildlife Park, often raising and caring for orphaned baby bears, cougars, lions, and other rescues, her work requires many long days, seven days each week. So, this safari trip was many years in the planning for her family.

Before she left, she asked me if I wanted any reference pictures. Even though Serena is an excellent photographer, I said there was no way I would impose on her family trip with a laundry list of animal photos.

There are very few elephants in captivity anymore in the western world. Because of their intelligence, family dynamic, social structure, and other requirements zoos can’t meet, elephants don’t do well in isolation, so most reputable zoos don’t keep them anymore, a policy I fully support. Instead, many former zoo elephants have been surrendered to sanctuaries to live out their lives in a herd and in peace.

As it’s unlikely I’ll be going on safari anytime soon, there’s very little chance I’ll be able to take my own elephant reference photos soon.

Since Serena pressed me on it, I confessed that I really needed that specific reference. I told her I’d take whatever she gave me, but she asked for my ideal photo, just in case she had the opportunity.

In a perfect world, I wanted a ¾ view; trunk held up to reveal an open mouth, all so that I had the best chance of painting a happy smiling face.
Serena sent me dozens of photos when she returned, including exactly what I asked for. I was grateful, filed the photos, backed them up online and on portable hard drives, and spent two years painting other animals.

This happens a lot. On rare occasions, I’ll paint from reference right away, but most of the time, that animal gets added to the list, and I wait until the time feels right. I’ll admit that sometimes, however, it’s more about imposter syndrome.

I knew that the details in the skin texture would be complicated, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to paint what I saw in my head. This is familiar ground. Regardless of how many years I’ve been doing this, the thousands of editorial cartoons I’ve drawn and more than a hundred whimsical wildlife and commission pieces, I still get nervous before every painting. It just never goes away.

Eventually, I push through it, and about halfway through a piece, I realize I’m enjoying myself.

There are two reasons I finally got off my ass to paint this elephant. First, Mike from Pacific Music & Art is putting together my 2023 calendar, and in the most supportive and encouraging way, he pushed me to get the elephant done. While I’m paraphrasing, he said something like, “stop talking about it, and just paint it, already.”
Secondly, the full-size four-day Calgary Expo will return at the end of next month. I’ve had my booth booked and purchased for three years. While I’ve painted many new pieces since the last Expo, I want that elephant in my booth.

Every year, the same guy asks if I’ve painted the elephant, and I sheepishly tell him, “Not yet, but maybe next year.”

I don’t know if he’ll be at Expo this year. I don’t know if he’ll even like the elephant I’ve painted. But if he asks if I’ve got one, I can finally say, “Yes!”

While it took many hours to get the skin texture and anatomy right, it turns out that it wasn’t especially difficult. I just had to put my ass in the chair, paint a lot of brushstrokes, and enjoy the ride. When I completed it, I was happy with the result.

Right up until I sent it to Serena.

I’ve painted several of the Discovery Wildlife Park critters over the years, so I often give Serena an early look at those, a sneak peek for allowing me so much access to the animals in her care. Since she provided the reference, I extended the same courtesy for this one.

When I sent the finished painting in a text yesterday morning, she said, “I love that you did the injured one.”

Say what now?!

I called her for clarification.

As the reference she took was at an African reserve and sanctuary, Serena pointed out that this particular elephant, the one I used for my primary reference, had the end of his trunk amputated from an injury and that it was shorter than regular length.

She thought she had told me that, and I conceded that she very well might have, but it was two years ago, and it didn’t make it into my long-term memory files. So, I honestly thought it was simply the reference angle that didn’t show the tip of the trunk, and I was okay with it. I didn’t know that the elephant itself had that part of the trunk removed. And for some reason, I just didn’t see it.

So, as much as she liked the injured elephant because she looks after orphans and rescues, I explained that I had to paint a fully intact animal for a production piece, even in my whimsical style. So, I looked through the other elephant pictures she sent, found some ‘end of trunk’ reference, and got to work repairing the mistake.
I sent a couple of changes to Serena, and she helped me get it right. She felt bad for having to tell me about it after I’d finished the painting, but I told her better than after I had bought dozens of prints, and coasters, trivets, magnets, and other licensed merchandise had gone into production.

Correcting the mistake added more than an hour of extra painting to the piece, but I’m much happier with the finished result.

I can’t wait to see it in print.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Wilder Stickers


With the growing interest in my large vinyl stickers, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve released seven more designs into the wild.

Based on feedback at the recent gift shows and online, people wanted the option of buying them individually, so the four-pack of brown bear stickers has been discontinued. Instead, all designs are now offered individually in the shop. Adaptation is a cornerstone of self-employment.

When I first moved to Canmore in 2001, I worked for a sign shop for a few years. Every place I’ve worked taught me skills I’ve applied to my own business. From that job, I learned design techniques, colour theory and how to create vector art. I still use vector paths and Bezier curves for clean ink lines in my editorial cartoons, a skill I learned at Canmore Sign Co.

With many different jobs done for multiple repeat clients, their computer filing system was simple, efficient, and well-organized, especially when searching for reprints or creating variations of older designs. As a result, I adopted the same system for my own files and still use it 20 years later.  

While it’s not something I often need in my current work, I also learned about vinyl printing, cutting and application.

So, when designing and producing these stickers, I was unwilling to compromise on quality.
These are larger die-cut stickers than you will generally find, each around 4” X 5”. I didn’t want to shrink them down and lose the personality for which my whimsical critters are known. I also wanted people to have the option of putting them on vehicle windows, so they’re made from long-lasting, weather-resistant, high-quality vinyl. Finally, I chose a matte finish over glossy for better visibility in changing light.

Stonewaters here in downtown Canmore is a great store with a unique quality inventory of furniture, décor and artwork. They placed their first order for the four bear stickers at the end of September, and they did so well that they placed a second order not long after. After dropping off samples this week, they placed a third order that has already been delivered, so all the current designs are available there as well.

But if you’re not visiting Canmore anytime soon, you can get all these designs in my online store. They’re $8 each, with free shipping in Canada, regardless of how many you order. Unfortunately, shipping to the US is $9, and nothing I can do about that, so maybe add them to an order for prints or my 2022 calendar, while supplies last.

Too subtle? 😉

Cheers,
Patrick