No, this is not déjà giraffe, but another addition to the ‘Long Neck Buds’ work in progress. From the original mock-up sketch, the first one I painted was the middle giraffe. This is the one on the right of the image.The challenge with this piece is to make each character different from the others but with the same level of detail and colour palette.
Each giraffe is an individual painting, and both are pretty much finished pieces. I could print them individually as they are. But I also know that once they’re placed in the scene, after painting the sky, clouds and treetops, I will add more on each giraffe to make them blend into the environment.
So, after the whole painted scene is finished, each giraffe will look a little different than their individual paintings.
I’m enjoying this piece because each stage of the painting brings a new challenge, and I’m in no rush.
One evening when Shonna and I were first dating, we watched the fun comedy horror movie Arachnophobia with her mom and stepfather. The movie over, I sat in front of the TV to rewind and remove the rented VHS tape. Yes, it was a long, long time ago.
With my back to the room, I didn’t notice Shonna’s cat, Princess, walking up behind me, looking for attention. After two hours of spiders on the brain, I jumped when her whiskers touched my bare arm. To this day, Shonna swears I levitated. Her late stepfather Ivar was crying from laughing so hard, and the cat looked at me as if to say, “what’s your problem?”
Spiders. They certainly push the phobia button for many people, including me.
Multiple legs propel them at seemingly impossible speeds as they find their way under shirt collars or up pant legs. They lie in wait, between sheets and sleeping bags, hiding in dark corners and crevices, waiting to sink their dagger-like fangs into our flesh and inject their killer poison. Or worse, they can’t wait to lay their eggs in our ears.
At least, that’s the nightmare we imagine.
Reality is a lot less frightening, though not for them. Many households have a designated spider killer. But, like most natural creatures, they have much more to fear from us than we from them.
Spiders are fascinating creatures. They keep more invasive insect species in check, including aphids and caterpillars that can decimate crops. They help control the populations of other insects that spread disease.
According to the Boston Children’s Hospital, “It is estimated that less than three deaths per year occur from spider bites. However, most victims are children. Most of the 20,000 species of spiders found in the United States are poisonous, but their fangs are too short or too fragile to break through human skin. The bites of most spiders cause only minor, local reactions.”
Mosquitoes kill a million people each year. While they’re annoying, we hardly fear them to the extent we do spiders. The bite from a tarantula is comparable to a bee sting in both pain and repercussions. If you’re not allergic, it’s unlikely even to make you sick.
The other day, Shonna came home from work and mentioned she’d seen a little spider on the wall inside our front door and wondered what had happened to it. I had seen the same spider earlier in the day and told her it was too cold to put it outside, so I left it alone. It was likely still in the house somewhere. Yet, miraculously, we both keep waking up each morning. Surely we should be dead by now.
For many of us, our first reaction is revulsion and shivers. But, just like with every other animal that scares me (BEARS!), knowledge rarely cancels out irrational fear.
In the fall of 2021, the Calgary Expo had a much smaller mid-pandemic version of the event. Like it was for many people, it had been a financially challenging year, and I didn’t think paying for a booth would be worth the investment, given the reduced attendance.
As a vendor, I usually only have a limited time to look around if I arrive early each day before the doors open. So, it was fun to buy a ticket and attend the event with my buddy, Derek, who brought along his daughter and her friend.
For a small fee, I had the opportunity to hold a tarantula. Of course, I had visions of this hairy little beast running up my arm and sinking its fangs into my neck (why my neck?!) or crawling across my face (OK, that one comes from Aliens), but I knew that in the real world, I had little to fear.
Once in my hands, I was amazed at how light she was. They’re quite fragile, so I knew the spider would die if I dropped it. Suddenly, my biggest concern was not to hurt this delicate creature, and I loved the experience, one I would repeat without hesitation.
Derek took some photos for me, and I’ve wanted to paint this tarantula ever since, though I doubt it will be a popular print. I just wanted to try it.
But how would I make this hairy little nightmare appealing? I know it’s possible because animator Joshua Slice did it several years ago when he created Lucas the Spider, a character based on a Jumping Spider.
As an aside, those two words together are terrifying for anybody with even a little arachnophobia.
Lucas the Spider is adorable and became a series of animated shorts and eventually a show on the Cartoon Network. However, a large part of his appeal was his movements, toddler’s voice and that he blinks. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to achieve any connection with a painting.
A tarantula’s mouth is on the underside of its body, so I couldn’t very well have it smiling. The character had to be in the eyes. But with no eyelids or bone structure to help with expression, I wasn’t sure if any personality would appear.
And yet, the natural features below his eyes suggested a moustache and maybe the illusion of a mouth. Humans are geared to see patterns. It’s called Pareidolia, just one of the weird ways our brains are wired. It’s why we see shapes in clouds, the man in the moon, or a religious figure in a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s suspected to be tied to survival and recognizing environmental threats.
I didn’t see the imagined face in this spider until the last few hours, but once I did, I couldn’t unsee it.
I showed the finished painting to Shonna yesterday morning, convinced she wouldn’t like it. But the first thing she said was, “he’s cute.”
When I started drawing editorial cartoons in the late 90s, I drew one a week for the Banff Crag & Canyon. A little later, I tried to expand my horizons with illustrations, caricatures and other creative work. The publisher, however, figured that $30/week bought the newspaper an editorial cartoon and the right to control work I did for anyone else.
In 2001, I removed those shackles and joined a new publication launching in Canmore, and I’ve been drawing cartoons for the Rocky Mountain Outlook ever since.
In stark contrast, my new editor encouraged me to draw more cartoons and self-syndicate. At the time, many Canadian dailies had a staff cartoonist, and I wondered if one of those gigs might be in my future.
Those daily papers often had open freelance spots a couple of days a week, and I was happy to get those whenever I could, hoping a foot in the door might help me later should an in-house cartoonist retire.
A very nice former editor of the Calgary Herald, who helped me whenever he could, told me their staff cartoonist thought I was trying to steal his job because somebody had tried it before. I’m not that ruthless, but I soon learned the newspaper business and editorial cartooning profession was adversarial, paranoid, and often nasty.
As Canada’s daily newspapers were bought and sold repeatedly by larger companies, the old-guard cartoonists were laid off or forced to retire, and their positions eliminated. Today, only a handful of cartoonists are attached to daily newspapers, and their days are numbered.
I have always been a self-syndicated freelancer, keeping me working and paying the bills while many salaried cartoonists were shown the door. And since most of them never had to learn to be self-employed, that job loss ended their careers. So I am grateful I never got a staff job.
Years later, it’s no secret the newspaper industry has not recovered. While several community weeklies are still doing well, including the Rocky Mountain Outlook and many other clients, daily newspapers are struggling. I’d need a second job if I had to rely solely on my editorial cartoon revenue today.
But editorial cartooning allowed me to quit my office job in 2005 and become a full-time artist. I explored opportunities, tried new things, and improved my art and business skills while the freelance cartoons paid the bills. I increased my cartoon revenue year after year, and it didn’t seem like it would ever decline, though all industry signs pointed that way.
Though editorial cartooning was going well, I prepared for when it disappears. I tried Flash animation, but I didn’t like the work and couldn’t make it pay. I painted caricatures of people for hire. People liked the art but wanted it cheap, and I couldn’t justify the hours. I took online art courses to become a better painter and learned valuable techniques I still use today.
In 2009, I painted a grizzly bear which led me to the work I enjoy most and launched the next phase of my career.
Becoming a good artist is the easy part. Learn from other artists, create art daily, and repeat for many years.
The hard part is learning the business. There are as many roadmaps to success as there are artists trying to do it. What worked for one won’t work for another because everybody wants something different from the deal. It’s not just about making money but finding the work you love and people to pay you for it. You must love it enough to give up mornings, evenings and weekends to devote to the work and the business. When stuff inevitably gets hard, the only thing that will keep you going is loving the work.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes in this business of art. Customers, editors and licensees have screwed me over. I’ve lost time and money from bad decisions made from poor preparation. I’ve followed bad advice and put trust in the wrong people.
I’ve also made decisions that were right at the time but still went south through no fault of my own. Supportive editors retired, and their replacements chose another cartoonist or eliminated the cartoon altogether. Newspapers, art galleries, retail stores and licensing clients have closed or lost their businesses.
No matter what you do for a living, shit will happen.
As a self-employed artist, however, it’s almost routine. When one revenue source disappears, you scramble to find another. Losing one customer isn’t usually the end; it just means things get a little uncomfortable while you adjust course. Adaptation is as much a required business skill as bookkeeping.
For quite some time, my business was half editorial cartooning and half wildlife art, but in recent years, the latter has kept increasing while the former continues to decline.
I learn more about licensing my work and finding new clients each year. A company makes and markets the product and pays the artist a royalty of 4% to 15%, usually in the middle of that range, for using the images. That small percentage can become a healthy income depending on the product, the company, and reach.
I’ve acquired most of my licenses on my own. I’ve learned about contracts, red-flag clauses, and how to translate legalese. I retain copyright of all my work and never sign it away.
In 2017, I signed up with Art Licensing International in New England. A reputable agency with global reach, they represent hundreds of artists, many of them well-known. An agency typically takes 50% of royalties. However, their connection with big companies makes that sacrifice worth it, as they can often get artists’ licenses they wouldn’t usually find on their own.
I had final approval on every license they acquired for me, and their quarterly cheques arrived four times a year without fail. Amounts were never significant, but I was willing to be patient as a license can take a few years before it pays off. But last year, I considered ending the relationship. I’ve had much more success finding my own licenses, but I also wanted to explore opportunities with other agencies.
Art licensing is a tricky business. While there is plenty of advice on best practices and what to avoid, each company has their methods and focus, and you never know which business relationships will work until you’re well into them.
If I’m tied up with too many smaller licenses that don’t bear fruit, those can prevent me from signing with companies that better fit my artwork. If one company licenses my work for a product, a competing company might not want to, and that second company might have been the better choice.
In the past couple of years, it has become clear that ALI is not the right agency for me. Some artists tailor their art to follow trends each year, and the agency’s messaging supports that tack. It’s a solid business practice for many artists and companies, especially graphic designers, so I can’t fault them for it. But I am not an artist who chases trends.
Years ago, I remember a gallery owner telling me that he was glad I wasn’t painting realistic-looking wildlife because had I done so, no matter how good it was, he wouldn’t have been interested.
“Everybody’s trying to be Robert Bateman.”
I have a unique signature style, look and an established niche, so my work will never be for everybody. When I hear suggestions that I should change my work to fit somebody else’s agenda, I think of all the licenses, customers and subscribers who connect with and enjoy my art and support it year after year. So many artists struggle to find their niche, a pinnacle achievement in any art career. There is no question I have found mine.
As Seth Godin often says, “if you don’t like it, it’s not for you.”
That’s not argumentative or defensive; it’s a simple truth. I’m not fond of Celine Dion’s music. But I’m confident she doesn’t care. Trying to please everyone is a recipe for misery in life and art because you will never succeed.
I decided to end my relationship with Art Licensing International this week with no hard feelings. The owners and staff have always been professional and friendly. But after six years with little to modest income to show for it, I’ve realized that the wrong business relationship is just as bad as none at all.
There are several licenses I’ve signed with them, however, that will continue until the end of their term, a few that won’t expire until the end of next year. But I’m free to look elsewhere for better representation for my artwork. My art has been removed from their site.
When so many artists struggle to find agency representation, leaving such an arrangement voluntarily is uncomfortable. And even though it’s a little scary and always uncertain, making these choices is one of the best parts of self-employment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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.
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.