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Hippo

My library of animal reference photos is extensive, somewhere in the thousands and all worth keeping.

Whenever I take pictures anywhere, I try to get them out of the camera that day or as soon as possible. I can take well over a thousand photos at the zoo, but after going through them, it’s rare that I keep more than fifty on that initial pass and I’m even stricter when I sort them into folders. While on Vancouver Island last month, I took over two thousand photos and kept around a hundred, not all of which were reference.

What I’m looking for is good lighting, sharp focus, nice composition and that special look that catches my eye. That’s basically the criteria for anyone who enjoys taking photos. But the big question is, “Will I ever paint from this?”

It’s a simple question and most of the time, the answer is easy. It doesn’t mean the photo is great or even good, it might even be a little blurry with poor lighting, but for reference, I can often still use it if that special something is there. In Photoshop, I can sharpen a blurry pic, adjust the lighting in Camera Raw and turn a discard into a keeper. It won’t turn it into a good photo, but I’ve salvaged many that became good reference.

True to my nature, my reference files are well organized. I don’t like clutter, whether it’s on my computer or in the rest of my life. I could never be accused of being a hoarder since I don’t hang on to stuff if it’s no longer useful. Ironic that I pack too much when I travel.

I have almost a hundred folders on my desktop for individual animals, many of which I haven’t painted yet. Some of those images will sit there for years until I get to them. They’re backed up in multiple places and I go through them whenever I ask myself, “What shall I paint next?”

A lot of the reference isn’t good enough for the large finished pieces that take many hours to complete, but are still worth keeping for what I call sketch paintings. Those are the images I’ll paint on the iPad or ones that are a little rougher, without any fine detail. These are paintings that will likely never be offered as prints, but are good practice and worth sharing on Instagram or in the newsletter.

Over the years, there have been animals I’ve seen and photographed often, but the pictures just don’t seem right for a finished piece. I’ll get plenty of decent shots, but there’s often something missing and I keep hunting for the ‘perfect’ reference.

I take photos of meerkats almost every time I go to the zoo. Next to bears, they’re the animal I’ve shot the most. I’ve done a dozen or more sketch paintings of these critters, but I’m still waiting for THE shot(s) from which to do the Totem painting.

Some of my paintings, it took me years until I finally got the shots I needed. Among those are the Red Panda, Snow Leopard, and Red Squirrel.

It was also the case for this Hippo painting.

I like Hippos. They’re herbivores, but very aggressive. They’re one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, responsible for killing around 3,000 people each year. Seems only fair, considering that the hippopotamus is listed as a vulnerable species, due to habitat loss and humans killing them for their ivory teeth.

Too many times to count, I’d visit the Destination Africa habitat at the Calgary Zoo and try to get decent shots of the two resident hippos, Sparky and Lobi. While they’re easy to see and enjoyable to watch, taking good photos proved to be quite challenging.

I tried shooting through the glass of the tank when they were in the water, but I couldn’t get any decent detail. Then I tried shooting them when they were on the surface. Nothing spoke to me.

Then one day, while shooting the meerkats nearby, I heard the hippos get out of the water. Their vocalizations are quite loud and distinctive. Almost like a honking with a lot of bass.

The keepers were spraying water into the enclosure and it became clear that both hippos were interested. I ask a lot of questions, especially of people that work with animals, and the keeper explained that the hippos enjoy being sprayed with water, particularly into their mouths.

It wasn’t long before I was getting shot after shot of that big wide mouth as each hippo invited the spray from the hose. It was exciting, knowing I was finally getting the photos I’d been looking for.

That was three years ago, and I just got around to painting the Hippo Totem over the last couple of weeks. As is often the case, I put in the final hours on Saturday morning and I’m pleased with how it turned out.

With my whimsical caricatured versions of the animals I paint, I often have choices to make about anatomy. Some hippos have extraordinarily large teeth/tusks and while I did have that reference and could have gone that route, I decided to lessen the focus on the tusks in favour of the eye and the happy expression.

The colour palette I chose was a surprise even to me. I began with a leafy green background, but in the final hours, I didn’t like how it looked and changed it to reflect the magentas and purples dominant in her body. It went from a complimentary colour scheme to an analogous one. One of the benefits of working digital over traditional is that making that change late in the game is easier, especially since I keep the background on a separate layer from the subject. That’s some nerd stuff for you art types.

Seems a little anticlimactic to finally have this one finished considering how long it’s been lying in wait. The high from finishing a painting used to last quite some time, but these days, it’s fleeting.

Nothing to do but go back to the archives and see what I’m going to paint next.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Happy Baby

The difference between art for a hobby and art for a living, is that whenever I start a new painting, I often have to weigh the enjoyment of the image I plan to paint vs. the marketability of the finished piece. Regardless of the outcome, I’m always going to get some level of satisfaction from the work, because I’m still drawing and colouring, but I’ve also got bills to pay and a career to think about, so there are business concerns to consider.

I’ve done a couple of fully rendered paintings of Berkley already and both are prints that sell quite well. I’ve also done quite a few sketch paintings of her. It would probably be the smarter move to paint another wolf, or a different bear, or another big cat or an animal I haven’t painted yet, to further round out the portfolio and upload to my licensing agency.

While this will still end up as a print, there are times I just want to paint something for me, and Berkley just makes me happy.

I won’t rehash our entire history here, but the short version is that Berkley is a rescued Kodiak cub who lives at Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, Alberta. She’s been living there since early spring of 2017 and is thriving in her environment. As I’m friends with the head keeper, who is essentially Berkley’s Mom, I was able to visit her a number of times during her first year.

Discovery Wildlife Park sits on almost 100 acres and in addition to their large enclosures for their rescued and orphaned animals, they have a large wooded area on their property. As it is still a fenced enclosure, Serena used to take Berkley for walks every night in the woods where she could freely climb trees, eat berries and run around being a bear cub. Joining them on a few of those walks was an experience that changed me. Berkley has the most wonderful playful personality and I took thousands of photos of her, which left me with hundreds of reference pics to paint from. I will most likely paint Berkley for years to come, because that little face just makes me smile, especially because of the memories it conjures up. My wife, Shonna got to know her as well and we both have a special place in our hearts for that little bear.

Now that Berkley has become a bigger bear, well over 200 pounds and growing still, those close contact opportunities for anyone but the keepers are over. It’s a safety thing, for both Berkley and others, but I still like to visit her with a fence between us, and she knows me, which never fails to surprise me.

Regular followers will already have seen this photo more than once (twice, three times), but it’s one of my favorite pictures of my life, so I’m sharing it again for anyone who hasn’t seen it. It just sums up how special that whole experience was. I knew how rare it was while it was happening.

I named this painting Happy Baby for the obvious reason, but also because of a yoga pose by the same name. Shonna and I have been going to yoga each week for many years and it’s an awkward, vulnerable, unattractive pose, but Berkley seems to do just fine with it. Or at least her version of it.

On one of Shonna’s and my excursions with Berkley in the woods last September, Serena was horsing around with Berkley and telling us how much she loves bear feet. The following short video explains it pretty well, and is the reason I painted Berkley in this pose.

If you’d like to see a little longer version of that evening’s antics, here’s that one, too.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Burrowing Owl – iPad Painting


This little guy was painted on the iPad Pro in the Procreate app using an Apple Pencil. I took the reference for this painting while visiting the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in June. For their small size, they certainly do cop an attitude. But then again, my perception of expression and personality in the animals I encounter just might be a little skewed toward the comical and caricature.

Burrowing owls are an endangered species in Canada and there are a number of conservation groups working to protect them, including the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation and The Alberta Birds of Prey Centre, both of which I’m proud to support.

From the latter’s website…“Offspring from our Burrowing Owl breeding program have been released in all four western provinces.”

While my more finished work is painted in Photoshop on my Wacom Cintiq display, I’ll often sketch or begin a painting on the iPad Pro, using an Apple Pencil and the Procreate app. The advances in both hardware and software in recent years has come so far that the portable device experience now far exceeds the desktop painting I was able to do when I was first starting out.

Having been a digital artist for the past twenty years, I’m very comfortable with the desktop tools I’ve been using. I’ve been forcing myself to draw more with the iPad Pro and Procreate lately because I feel there’s a lot of room to improve my painting skills using the portable tools. The more time I spend working with these tools, the greater the detail and painting quality I’m able to achieve, which only makes sense. It’s also nice to be able to take them with me when I want to work at the tattoo shop, or draw at the cabin or on vacation.

An impressive feature of the Procreate app on the iPad Pro is that it will record every brush stroke you make, allowing you to play it back at high speed to see an image from start to finish. While I edited this one myself, the video below gives you a look at the progress behind the painting.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Flamingo


This painting took longer than most. I started it on the iPad and would work on it whenever I went to hang out at Electric Grizzly, the tattoo shop I’ve mentioned often over the past nine or ten months. In fact, it had become a running gag.

“What are you working on?”

“Guess.”

“The flamingo.”

In fact, on Thursday, while at the shop, both tattoo artists in the shop that day said “the flamingo” in unison.

For some reason, I just couldn’t find my groove. I had great reference that I’d taken up close at The Calgary Zoo, but as happens with some paintings, I just wasn’t feeling it.

When I first started this painting, my initial composition was just the head, neck and part of the body, as is the look of my signature style whimsical wildlife portraits that I call Totems. This time, however, I thought I should include the whole body. When I asked Derek at the tattoo shop his opinion (he’s an excellent wildlife painter), he suggested going with the full body. I asked my friend Kathryn, the retail manager at the Calgary Zoo, her opinion and she concurred. I don’t always follow suggestions and advice on paintings, but clearly going with a different approach was interesting to others, not just to me.

I also decided to go with a more elaborate background, even though what I chose was more of a suggestion of the scene. It’s not very detailed as the flamingo is still supposed to be the main focus.

Saturdays are often my favorite day to paint. With no editorial cartoon deadlines, I can get up at my usual 5am, shower, grab some coffee, put some tunes in the earbuds and I’m painting by 530 or 6, depending on whether or not I get distracted by email or something else on the internet.  This morning, I found that groove I’d been missing and six hours later, I put the finishing brushstrokes on the painting.

I’m quite pleased with this one. It’s bright, colourful, I like the expression on her face and while it’s still a whimsical wildlife painting, there’s some artistic growth in here, which is always welcome.

Thanks for taking a look.

Cheers,
Patrick


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A Bird of Prey named Sarah

This is my latest painting of a Golden Eagle, based on reference photos I took of a 32 year old beauty named Sarah.
On a Saturday in the middle of last month, I went downtown to visit one of the Town of Canmore’s WILD events at the Civic Centre. This annual event features everything from hikes, arts activities, educational talks about the environment, and much more. While this introvert is not a big participator in large group gatherings, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Live Birds of Prey Exhibit.

Knowing this was a popular annual event, I arrived while they were still setting up with the intent of gathering some reference photos. There were four different owl species and one Golden Eagle. With such easy access to take up close reference photos, I was happy to make a small donation to express my appreciation.
From spending time with the keepers at Discovery Wildlife Park, supporting the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation each month and seeking to be better informed about the work involved in these sanctuaries, I’ve learned that wildlife conservation is an expensive undertaking.

It’s not just the care and feeding of the animals that requires constant funding, it’s the building and maintaining of facilities, veterinary bills, transportation costs, and all of the little things that add up to create a big monthly bill that never seems to decrease. I read a meme online recently that said, “I do this for the money, said no zookeeper ever.”
The more questions I’ve asked of the experts this year, the more I realize how little I know. But I’m eager to find out so that I can not only pass on the information to foster more interest in wildlife conservation, but also that I can better understand how best I can help.

The Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation was started in 1982, when “wildlife rescue activity in Western Canada was almost non-existent. Centre founders Wendy Slaytor and Colin Weir approached the Province of Alberta Fish & Wildlife Division with an offer to start Alberta’s first volunteer wildlife rescue facility.”

That quote is from their History page on their website. I would encourage you to click on the link, read the rest of it, and take a look around. The work they do is admirable, rehabilitating and releasing injured birds back into the wild, participating in captive breeding programs of endangered species, studying and monitoring avian populations and educating the public and how to be better stewards of the environment.

While I haven’t yet visited their Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale, Alberta, I plan to in the coming year when they re-open for the 2018 season. It’s open to the public, yet another Alberta destination you can add to that family road-trip next year.
I enjoyed chatting with Colin Weir (above) and his daughter, Aimee, who were happy to answer all of my questions about each of the owls and Sarah. Each of these birds has their individual story about how they came to the facility and why they can’t be released into the wild. Instead, they’ve become ambassadors of the facility, allowing people to see these wonderful creatures up close. It has been my experience that these opportunities foster more empathy for the world around us and those with whom we share it.

Colin was even kind enough to let me hold Gordon, their Great Horned Owl. I’ve painted Alberta’s official bird a number of times, but this is as close as I’ve ever been.
Ever since I discovered the local owl’s nest up at Grassi Lakes some years ago, which resulted in plenty of photos and my ‘One in Every Family’ painting (below), I’ve made it a point to educate myself about these beautiful birds. And still, asking Colin some questions about that local breeding pair, I found out there’s still so much I have to learn, about this breed and the many others they care for.
As I have four owl paintings in my portfolio, I thought I was done painting them for a little while, but I believe I might be mistaken. I did a little sketch painting on the iPad of their Burrowing Owl named Basil, but I think a more detailed painting of him will be coming very soon. Seriously, look at that face.
Thanks for stopping by,

Patrick

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Sonora

This past weekend, I finished another memorial commission for a little dog named Sonora. She passed away at the end of May this year.
Not the first time I’ve been commissioned by Donna, a freelance photographer in Connecticut. You can check out her work here. I painted her horse Mocha five years ago in my more whimsical style. It’s one of my favorite commission pieces and I’d love to paint more horses. She also made some horse reference available to me and I painted another of her horses, but not as detailed.
Donna was on vacation in Texas thirteen years ago and found this little pup at a rest stop in Sonora, nearly lifeless. She was only 4 or 5 weeks old. They couldn’t leave her and were going to find a rescue organization to take her.

Not hard to guess what actually happened, as often does in these cases. Sonora had already found her home.
When Donna commissioned me to paint her, she was having a hard time finding reference of her without the cataracts Sonora had developed in her senior years, but she wanted me to try and paint her with more youthful eyes. I agreed with her and we’re both pleased with the result. My goal is not to just recreate what I see in the reference, but to find the personality in these paintings, even when I’m not painting them with a caricature look like my whimsical wildlife paintings.
This painting will go to print soon, but it isn’t yet known on what surface. I had suggested the new acrylic print, but Donna said it doesn’t really go with her house, which is an important consideration when choosing the type of print. With plenty of options available, I’m sure we’ll come up with something that will be appropriate for Sonora’s portrait.

It’s always a privilege to be trusted with one of these memorial paintings, knowing that this will be part of how somebody remembers their furry family member for years to come.

Thanks for reading,
Patrick

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Berkley and the Bug

For more than twenty years, I’ve lived and camped in bear country. I’ve made it a point to be well educated about them, I carry bear spray and make noise while hiking, I know what to do should I see a grizzly or black bear and I keep a clean site when out camping in the mountains. I have never had a negative encounter with a bear and it bothers me a great deal when I hear of one being fed by tourists, hunted for a trophy, or killed on the highway or train tracks.

While bears have long been one of my favorite animals, I’ve also been afraid of them. When camping, I’ll most often end up lying awake in my tent for an hour or two before falling asleep, and if I wake up in the middle of the night to answer nature’s call, I’m in and out of that tent pretty fast, and might lie awake for another hour listening to every little noise outside. Even though I’m well aware that if something wants to get me, a thin layer of nylon isn’t going to make much of a difference, but I’ve been operating under the, “if I can’t see it, it can’t see me,” perspective. Anxiety is rarely rational. Statistically speaking, I’m more likely to be injured by a distracted driver on the highway than I am by wildlife.

Despite this bear phobia, which is an amusing annoyance to my fellow campers, I still go out and enjoy the woods often.

This past May, on an annual first camping trip of the season at a favorite secluded lake in B.C., I slept soundly in my tent for three nights without worrying about bears at all, an unexpected surprise. Oh, they were out there, I’m sure, but my common sense seems to have finally overridden my bearanoia, and I credit that largely to my recent experiences at Discovery Wildlife Park.

I don’t like phobias. We’ve all got them, but I try to challenge mine whenever possible. So, over the past couple of years, I’ve paid for two behind-the-scenes bear encounters with their black bears and they were two of the best experiences of my life. These aren’t wild bears, they’re orphans who’ve been raised at this sanctuary. But they’re still bears, and to be inside the enclosures with them, to learn about them, to touch one of them, and even to feed one from a spoon and then a piece of apple from my mouth was exhilarating. My fascination displaced my fear.
As my prints are sold at Discovery Wildlife Park and I’ve gotten to know a number of keepers and staff over successive visits, I’ve developed a nice relationship with the park, one that I hope continues to grow for many years to come.

Earlier this spring, when their new Kodiak cub arrived, I was kidding/complaining over text messaging with the head keeper that with my schedule so busy at that time, I wouldn’t have been able to come up and take pictures of Berkley for at least a month or more after they opened a couple of weeks later. Much to my surprise and delight, I was invited to come up the next day so that I could take some photos of her, for a donation I was more than willing to pay. I wasn’t about to pass that up.
I’ve talked about that encounter in another blog post, so I won’t rehash it here, but it was wonderful. Even though Berkley crawled over me and played in the woods while I snapped photos, I know that it was a rare opportunity I won’t get again. She’s grown so much already that now only the keepers can interact directly with her, both for her safety and that of the guests of the park.
I wanted to paint her the way I got to see her that day, curious about everything, wide-eyed and playful, checking out all of the little wonders this new world has to offer her. There really wasn’t a ladybug there, of course, but I already take a lot of artistic license with my whimsical wildlife paintings, and it just seemed to fit this little bear cub.
Because the park has been so kind to me, granting me access to take photos so that I may paint many of their critters in my own style, I’m going to take this opportunity to give something back to them. This will be the first of what I hope will be many conservation donations in the future, to them and to other animal sanctuaries and facilities I’d like to support.

My initial plan was to do a limited edition print run and no others, but as I’ve already received interest about this painting from my retailers and licensees, I’d be shooting myself in the foot if I didn’t offer this painting as a regular print and licensed image. To be blunt, the more money I make as an artist, the more I can support the wildlife causes that matter to me.

With that in mind, this Berkley painting has gone for proofing and I’ll be ordering the first prints next week. From the first order, I’ll be offering TWENTY (20), 11″X14″ matted giclée prints at a special price with the lion’s share (bear’s share?) of the sales going to Discovery Wildlife Park.

And because I couldn’t support these causes without the people who support me, my newsletter subscribers will get the details first and an opportunity next week to place their orders. You can subscribe via this link.

In the meantime, if you’d like to see more of Berkley’s antics (and why wouldn’t you?!), you can follow Discovery Wildlife Park on Facebook where they’re posting regular videos and photos as she grows. If you’re in the Innisfail area or plan to be, you can visit the park and see Berkley in person, along with all of their other critters. She’s still young and sleeps a lot, but she appears at the bear show each day, where the head keeper Serena and her staff offer some valuable education about their bears and bears you might encounter in the wild. It’s also a great opportunity to see all of their bears up close.

Thanks for being here.

Patrick

EDIT: All twenty prints mentioned in this post have been sold.

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Dabbling in Something New

Before I became self-employed full-time, I was the admin assistant for a physical therapy office here in Canmore. For a lot of the time, it was just my boss Shane (the physiotherapist) and occasionally a massage therapist working there in the small clinic. If I recall, Shane and I are close to the same age, both into technology, and he was well aware of my eventual plans to work for myself, as my business was thriving part-time on the side. I only worked for him for a little over two years, I think, and I often tell people that it was the best last job to have. That was more than ten years ago. I left on good terms and when I run into Shane on the street once in a while, I’m always happy to see him.

Because we talked about our mutual interests a fair bit when it was slow, he knew that I had been looking into 3D modeling. I had no designs on getting into it hard-core, but just enough so that I could occasionally add some 3D to my editorial cartoon work. At the time, I wasn’t painting more than the occasional caricature for a client and definitely no animals. I was still exploring my options, however, dabbling in Flash animation, trying new things to see where my career might take me.
boardgameMy first year working for Shane, he ended up buying me one of the earlier versions of Carrara by Daz3D as a Christmas bonus. He and I had talked about the software earlier and I remember thinking that was quite thoughtful. Instead of just a cash bonus, he bought me something I wanted but really couldn’t prioritize as a valid expense as I was still very much a struggling artist and it wasn’t cheap.

Shane now has a much larger clinic in another location, with a number of physiotherapists, massage therapists and staff working for him and I’m glad his business is such a success. Both Shonna and I have gone there for physiotherapy since.

I loved working with Carrara and bought a supplement for it called Hexagon, which was a basic modeller. Stuff I created in those programs ended up being part of a number of editorial cartoons. Rather than search for reference or work out difficult perspective on some things, I just built basic models of what I was envisioning, brought them into Photoshop, traced over the bones and moved on from there.

Sometimes, I just built the whole cartoon in 3D, like the chess pieces below. It was a real time saver. It also allowed me to move models around to get better angles, more interesting perspectives and revealed possibilities I might not have considered. Four of those cartoons you can see in this post, all built in 3D, with some drawing in Photoshop after the fact. A few of these were way more complicated than they needed to be, but I was also experimenting.
checkmateThis Checkmate cartoon was for the Alberta PC Leadership race. Not knowing the outcome, I was able to create three different versions, with the names changed to reflect all three possible winners. When the result was in, I just sent out the correct one you see here.

Over time, I stopped using 3D because I wasn’t interested in doing more than I was doing with it, every new release of the software involved learning new things I didn’t need, and a simple process I enjoyed became a complicated mess as they often fixed software that wasn’t broken. Eventually, the software wasn’t being supported anymore and I just let it go. I had also moved on to doing a lot of painting and the animal work that is now such a big part of my life.

Every so often, however, I’ll start drawing an editorial cartoon and think, “this would be so much easier if I just built a 3D model first.”

That’s been popping up in my head more often the last couple of years. I’ve also thought that it might be fun to build some 3D caricatures of both people and animals. To be honest, it’s been some time since I’ve yearned to learn something new, even though this would actually be revisiting an old interest with new tools and a new perspective.

I’ve investigated other 3D software here and there and it’s often too expensive to justify and too complicated for my needs. It would be like learning to fly a Boeing 747 when all I need is to drive to the grocery store. I have limited time to learn new things and keep up with everything else I do. I also knew that I would lose interest in it fast if I had to essentially follow stereo instructions just to create a flower pot.
blocksOne of the best programs out there, however, is one called ZBrush. A lot of professionals use it in conjunction with other software and some of the results I’ve seen are incredibly impressive. But for the cost and learning curve, it looked like the same story. Too big.

In recent months, however, I’ve been hearing a lot about the recently released ZBrushCore, which is a trimmed down version of ZBrush. I’ve watched a number of videos and it reminds me a great deal of Hexagon and Carrara, those early pieces of software I enjoyed so much. The difference is that it’s more sophisticated, streamlined and offers more functionality without being a complicated mess. Few artists are programmers and when it goes so far toward the tech that it no longer feels like creating, then I’m lost.

After watching a number of tutorials the past couple of days, I bought ZBrushCore this morning for $200 Canadian, which I consider very affordable.

I’m a little excited about this, and while the challenge will still be to make the time to learn it, use it, and have fun with it, I’m optimistic. Learning something new this winter might also be a partial antidote to my usual seasonal doldrums. So, it’s likely I’ll be adding some 3D elements to my editorial cartoons in the coming year, and might even try out a funny looking animal or two. If nothing else, I hope to have a little fun sculpting.

My animal Totems started as an experiment, painting a funny looking grizzly bear. Who knows where this might lead?
electionbox

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John C. McGinley – A Portrait

mcginleyfinalIf somebody had asked me a few months ago what I remembered about the television show ‘Scrubs,’ I would have likely said that it was good, a funny show. I was a regular watcher during its initial run and had fond, albeit non-specific memories of it.

In recent months, I have rediscovered the show on Netflix. As each episode is just over twenty minutes, it’s something I’ve been able to watch while having breakfast or lunch, and I found myself enjoying it even more the second time around. I’d forgotten how much heart it had. It could take you from laughing out loud at over-the-top ridiculous story lines to breaking your heart in the final two or three minutes.

The story arc featuring Brendan Fraser as a guest star just killed me, as one example. Another wonderful rediscovery was the music. I bought a few albums in the last couple of months, just because I heard songs on that show that I’d forgotten; Jeremy Kay, Colin Hay and Fountains of Wayne, if you’re curious.

One of the characters I most identified with was Dr. Perry Cox, played by the incredibly talented (and underrated) actor, John C. McGinley. His portrayal of the character could make you hate and love him in the same episode. Without a detailed dissection, I’ll just say that Cox was damaged, protecting himself by putting up walls and keeping everybody at a distance. But every so often, you’d get a look inside at a caring individual who just wanted to make a difference, despite knowing he was fighting a losing battle.

No more was that evident than in the 5th season episode, “My Lunch.”

McGinley’s performance in that episode was profound. Without shame, I’ll admit that it moved me to tears. Not just a single tear down the cheek, but hitching my breath crying. I bought it completely and was at a bit of a low point in my own life at the time. It was cathartic.

I just felt the urge to paint that moment, the moment Cox shattered. When he finally reaches his broken and beaten mentor in the following episode, J.D. tells Cox how proud he is of him that “after twenty years of being a doctor, when things go badly, you still take it this hard.”

While I’m not a doctor, I get that, for so many reasons. It hit me deep. That’s what happens when you combine exceptional creators, writers, and performers, all delivering at the top of their game. Magic.

I worked on this in between the deadlines, so it was painted here and there when I had time. When it wasn’t working, when I didn’t feel it, I went back and watched that scene again and it refilled the tank, reminding me why I’d started it in the first place. I just watched it again before writing this and as I do, the painting is still not done. But it’s close. I could nitpick it for another week, I’m sure, and while it’s not as polished as other portraits I’ve done, that’s probably a good thing. It’s time to let it go.

Just as with every other portrait of a person that I’ve painted, this was a personal project. No deadline, no pressure, not something I’ll have to sell. I painted it for me, and it was well worth my time. I hope others like it, but if not, that’s OK, because I improved my own skills, took a break from the paying gigs, enjoyed myself and am now ready to move on to something else.

And I’m feeling pretty good.

Cheers,
Patrick
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Red Panda Totem

redpandatotemI’ve been gathering reference photos of red pandas for a few years now at The Calgary Zoo, and while I’ve taken plenty of shots, I never seemed to get the ones that felt right for this latest addition to my series. Like so many other Totem paintings in recent years, I knew it would happen when the time was right.

Earlier this summer, I was in a pretty deep funk. Down in the dumps, stressed out, pissed off at the world with a black cloud hanging over my head. This happens to me sometimes, but rarely in the summer and not for this long. Part of it stemmed from too many obligations and the pressure I was putting on myself to get more work done.

I was having frequent bad dreams. A few were downright nightmares from which I’d wake up startled and sweating. Shonna even had to wake me up a couple of times.

Even though I’m usually looking for any excuse to paint, I wasn’t at all interested in drawing, painting, writing or any creative work. It was just work to get done.

Then I had a rather surprising dream. In it, I was sitting on a couch, leaning on one end with my legs out over the rest of the cushions. It was in the middle of a deciduous forest in the fall. All of the leaves were yellow, plenty on the ground, a familiar setting. I was brooding about something, feeling low.

Suddenly, a red panda crawled up over the back of the couch, walked up my legs, and put his paws on my chest, very much like a cat or dog does. I picked him up, put him further down the couch past my feet and said something like, “not now, I’m busy.”

He did it again, walked over my legs, crawled up and started putting his face close to mine. I moved him again, saying, “I said not now! Later.”

Finally, on his third attempt, I sighed heavily, said something like, “fine,” and started rubbing my fingers in his fur. He nuzzled my neck, squirmed around happily, curled up against my chest and suddenly I felt better. I woke up in a good mood for the first morning in quite a long time.

Most of my dreams over the years have seemed rather random, easily picked apart on examination. “Oh, that element is from a movie I watched, that part is because I was doing my bookkeeping this morning, and I can blame that weirdness on the chili peppers I added to the pizza last night.”

But animal dreams have always had a unique feel, a quality I can’t quite define. They’re just different. For example, that fall forest setting has shown up a number of times in past dreams. I recall one in particular; many years ago where I dreamt of walking through the same forest and was surrounded by a dozen or more black bears. None of them were threatening; they were just there, doing their thing. This forest is always well lit, the leaves vibrant and the scene is filled with a diffuse and pleasant light. It’s always fall.

I can trace back my entire menagerie of animal paintings to one dream I had in Banff, long before I had ever painted anything, before I’d even drawn my first editorial cartoon. It only makes sense in hindsight, but the symbolism is unmistakable. I wrote it down the following morning and still have it. Dreams like these are the reason my paintings are called Totems.

redpandacloseIf all of this sounds flaky to you, that’s OK. I don’t need you to share my beliefs. We all seem to experience ‘the other’ in the manner that makes the most sense to us. We just need to pay attention.

Because I’ve followed animal symbolism for many years, and the same ones show up time and time again, I don’t always need to look them up anymore to know what each represents. When I do, I have a few different books that have served me well; most notably one by the late Ted Andrews called Animal Speak. I bought it in a mall in Anaheim in 1995, at a time when I was having frequent dreams about whales.

This is the first time, however that a red panda has shown up and it wasn’t in any of my books. When that happens, I can usually figure out the symbolism if I sit with it a while, but this one was easy, about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

I wasn’t making any time to play, and I’d forgotten why I chose this profession in the first place. I’m supposed to be freed by my artwork, not shackled by it. Sure, it’s work, but a lot of this stuff is supposed to be fun, too.

So I decided I might as well go through my reference and at least do a sketch painting of a red panda. Call it a thank you for the wake-up call, and I hoped it would help me climb out of the dark hole.

I found the right reference, came up with a pose and began to work on a sketch painting.  Very soon after starting it, I realized I was painting the Totem. Every day I worked on it, I felt a little better. Yesterday morning, I cranked up the tunes, spent a thoroughly enjoyable few hours finishing it, and it made me happy.

I guess that was the point.

Cheers,
Patrick

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