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One More

One of the reasons I enjoy taking my own reference photos for paintings is that the animals often surprise me.

When I began painting these critters, before I took my own photos, I’d often have a pose in mind, and I’d go looking for it on the internet. I’d eventually find something I liked, but it would often look similar to the pose I used for a previous painting of a different animal.

If it were a stock photo, I’d pay the licensing fee for reference. Failing that, I’d contact the photographer, arrange for a high-res image and pay or barter for the use.

Australian photographer Scott Portelli allowed me to use his underwater photo for my Humpback Whale painting in exchange for a rolled canvas of the finished piece. Moose Peterson allowed the use of several of his animal images in exchange for my drawing a caricature of him and a business partner for a course they taught. We already had a connection through Photoshop World, so he was familiar with my work.

I paid a U.S. park warden $100 for his photo I found online for my first Wolf painting. He confessed surprise at my offering to pay since that image had been stolen and published illegally more times than he could count.

The problem with online reference photos is that I know that no matter what I find, there’s a good chance another artist has used the same image. Certainly, I’ll paint it with my spin and style, and it won’t look the same as another artist’s work, but it will undoubtedly share similarities.

By taking my own photos, it stands a better chance of being unique.

On a recent visit to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, I had another opportunity to take photos of their black bears during their presentation to the public. As I’ve known the keepers and staff for several years, they allow me into the large enclosures with them, though I’m behind a hot-wire. It’s an electric fence about a foot off the ground that the animals avoid, for obvious reasons. The keepers, however, interact up close and personal with the bears.

These animals are all orphans and rescues who came to the facility under conditions prohibiting their release into the wild. Many of them have been raised here since they were very young. They receive exemplary care and clearly have an affectionate relationship with their caregivers.

The keepers use the bear presentations each day to educate the public about wildlife. They teach how to be bear-aware while hiking, what to do if you encounter a black bear or grizzly in the wild, how to use bear spray, and keep a clean campsite so that the local fauna doesn’t learn to associate people with food.

The hope is that by educating the public, fewer orphans will end up in captivity, remaining in the wild where they belong.

One of those rescues is a big black bear named Gruff. With a genial and gentle personality, he has been hand-raised at the park since he was a cub.

Sadly, Gruff had a rough start in life. A hunter poached his mother in the Grande Prairie area, and people passed the frightened little cub from home to home.

Fish and Wildlife eventually confiscated the sick and frightened cub, and my friend Serena, the head keeper at Discovery Wildlife Park, was asked if she could take him.

He was malnourished, in shock from his ordeal, and sick from untreated pneumonia that has since resulted in permanent left lung damage. Because he was in such bad shape, Serena didn’t know if she could save him. But with proper food, medication, round-the-clock care and a lot of patience, Gruff has grown into one of the most beautiful black bears you could ever see.

He is currently eight years old and 709 pounds at his last weigh-in.

I’ve painted Gruff several times, and I expect I’ll paint him again as I enjoy his expressions and antics. The bond between him and the keepers is evident, and he never fails to put a smile on my face.
While visiting in June, I was happily snapping pics of Gruff when he made a clumsy attempt to sit up from lying on his back. He looked right at me, with his tongue out, and immediately reminded me of a large guy trying to do a sit-up. With the camera on rapid-fire, I got quite a few shots of this funny situation and was delighted at the photos when I got home.

As none of them were quite right on their own, I used three different reference pics for this piece. One had the best head position, another one revealed a better overall pose and the third, while a bit out of focus, had some lighting I liked.

Could I have found these shots online, taken by another photographer? Unlikely. Would I have even thought to have looked for images like this? Not a chance.

I could list dozens of paintings I’ve created that have been inspired by situations and experiences I couldn’t have anticipated. It’s why taking the photos is as much a part of the finished pieces as the paintings themselves. Each of them has a story and conjures up fun memories.

Whether it’s a pose, lighting, or simply a look, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discovered future paintings while sorting through photos.

When I came across the photos of Gruff, looking like he was trying to get in shape, there was no doubt of a painting. But, before I put the first brush stroke on the digital canvas, I already knew that I would call it ‘One More.’

I imagine it 10 feet high on the wall of a gym somewhere.

Here’s a high speed video of ‘One More’, from start to finish. Prints of this piece are available NOW in the store.
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© Patrick LaMontagne

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Learning, Listening, and Rising Together

Early in this editorial cartoon profession, somebody once told me that editorial cartoons are supposed to make you laugh, think, and hopefully do both. I think it was Terry Mosher (Aislin).

I have repeated that line often. In interviews, blog posts, talks to school kids or simply as an explanation when somebody challenges me on the content of a cartoon.

As we’re all now attuned to our individual offensensitivity meters, convinced that if something makes us uncomfortable, it must be inappropriate; I’ll often get emails chastising me for drawing a cartoon, telling me, “that’s not funny.”

Cartoons aren’t always meant to be.

Several times a year, I’m required to draw cartoons for tragedies, recurring events, serious moments and on topics where any levity would indeed be inappropriate by any metric.

Nobody drew funny cartoons the day after 9/11. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a knee-slapper in any newspaper in Canada on Remembrance Day. And there’s nothing funny about what went on for decades in Canada’s Residential School System.

When the federal government announced that September 30th would mark the first annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I knew I’d have to draw something.

An editorial cartoon isn’t unbiased. I don’t consider myself a journalist. While I do try to consider all sides of an issue, my cartoons are my illustrated opinions. So when you see them on the editorial page, it means the editor shared my opinion or at least thought that many of their readers might.

I can’t just spout off and draw something about whatever might cross my mind. I must consider whether it’s fair comment, reasonably concluded, and if it might get myself or my client in trouble. The standards for your local newspaper are a lot higher than Facebook or Twitter.

When it comes to residential schools, the last thing an indigenous person needs is yet another colonial descendant analyzing their history, whitesplaining it and offering up his conclusions. So, I won’t.

But I still had to draw a cartoon because it’s my job.

I’ll admit that my more serious cartoons have a distinct look to them. Often a more painted illustration, rather than a crisp ink line cartoon, accompanied by some text. Sometimes I’ll use a quote, especially if the cartoon is about a notable person who has just died, some of their own words or song lyrics.

But I prefer to use my own words, a couple of lines to complement the artwork so that the entire piece is my own creation. And these always take a lot longer to draw.

I’ve drawn cartoons about this topic before and wanted to avoid the same imagery. I avoided using the recently revealed Survivor’s Flag, as it felt like I would be appropriating the artwork painstakingly created by those who directly experienced this dark history.

We all have our own ways of connecting to what I call ‘the other.’ For some, it’s through organized religion, or it might be an individual faith and relationship with their god, whatever that means to each person. For others, it might be the connection they feel when they volunteer, do charitable works, or anything that makes them feel that there’s more to the world around them than what they see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

While I don’t believe in a god, heaven or hell, or practice any organized religion, I frequently feel connected to something I can’t define. I most often feel closest to that when I’m painting, and I’m grateful to that something else for granting me the ability and the means to create.

I feel it most when I’m painting my whimsical wildlife paintings. It’s what I imagine Maslow meant when he defined the peak experience.

When I first created my animal art, I called them Totems but stopped the practice a few years ago.

About the change in 2018, I wrote, “What (totem) meant to me was paying homage to the animal spirit meaning of the word. The personality and character I paint in these animals make them feel alive to me. I’ve had some unique and special experiences with animals in recent years and can’t help but feel a connection with them, so it’s for personal reasons that I decided on that name.”

But as I explained in the post, having read and learned more about the difficult conversations surrounding cultural appropriation, I didn’t want the work I enjoy most to be tainted by misunderstanding. I didn’t want to imply or claim any connection to native culture, so I no longer refer to my animal paintings as Totems.

And yet, it’s through this work and these animals where I feel the most tethered to that something I can’t explain.

When I had the opportunity to create this cartoon, I felt that the sincerest offering I could make to this difficult discussion was to combine all my skills into one image.

In much of First Nations culture, the eagle is a sacred image. In my most basic understanding, it represents the closest connection to the creator, and it’s a conveyor of messages and prayers.

To illustrate just how sacred the beliefs surrounding this animal spirit are, it is illegal in Canada and the U.S. for any non-indigenous person to own any eagle parts, including feathers. I’ve learned more about this from my visits to the Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale, Alberta, where they rescue and rehabilitate eagles, among other species. It’s also where I took the photo reference for this eagle image.

Any eagle feathers dropped by the birds at their facility are collected and sent to Alberta Fish and Wildlife. After examination for conservation research and screening for disease, they’re distributed to different tribal councils.

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is about honouring the children who died in residential schools, healing for the survivors and promoting understanding and education about our history. So the eagle image seemed the best fit for what I wanted to say.

Whether it resonates with my editors or their readers is beyond my control. But hopefully, I did my job.

 If not, then I will try harder next year.

___
© Patrick LaMontagne
To find out more about The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, please begin here.

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A Different Kind of Canada Day

Drawing an editorial cartoon or illustration for Canada Day is usually fun, and most of the time, without controversy.

This year, however, with all we’ve been through living with the virus and coming to terms with the darkest parts of our nation’s history, July 1st will no doubt be a day of reflection for many.

With the discovery of more unmarked graves at former sites of Indian residential schools, Canadians are once again coming to terms with our past.

We have long pretended that we walk the high road, especially when comparing ourselves to other countries. We have prided ourselves in being polite, friendly, and first to come to the aid of others in need, even when we weren’t any of those things.

But we were never on firm ground while walking that road because we’ve always known our own history, even when we chose to ignore it. These graves might be new physical evidence, but what went on at residential schools was never a secret.

In 1922, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce wrote a whistle-blowing book entitled “The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice for the Indians of Canada.” He had submitted a report in 1907 to the Department of Indian Affairs that was largely ignored.

It wasn’t until 1958 that Indian Affairs regional inspectors recommended the closure of all residential schools. The last one didn’t close until 1996.

One of the most overused clichés surrounding Remembrance Day in Canada, when we remember our fallen service members on November 11th, is the phrase ‘Lest We Forget.’

It has become more of a tagline, something companies can put on their ads, and individuals can share online because they’re supposed to. It almost feels like saying ‘Bless You’ when somebody sneezes, a courtesy without meaning. It’s just something you say.

But Lest We Forget is important. It’s about remembering your past so that you don’t repeat it.

Despite our bad habits on social media, where we are quick to point out the failings of others, comparing our best traits to their worst, there isn’t one of us who would have all of our past sins laid bare for public scrutiny. We are fallible and damaged; we are human.

We tear down statues and spit on the ground when we say the names of the architects of the residential school system, but we conveniently forget that Canadians elected these people. Many of those native children are alive today, and they’re not as old as you might think.

This is not ancient history. It happened in our lifetime, much more recently than the world wars we remember each year without fail.

We point the finger at our past leaders and say that they should have done something, but that’s the easy way out. It’s also easy to blame the current leadership and say that it’s their fault, but most of the time, that’s simply partisan politics. We switch political parties in this country more than we switch vehicles.

A hundred years from now, our descendants will not look kindly on our inaction. Such is the luxury of hindsight.  Our behaviour during the pandemic, how we treat our most disadvantaged citizens, our obsession with moral grandstanding on social media, and our disregard for the threat of climate change, the ground on which we stand is indeed shaky.

But we can change. We can have more empathy for our fellow travellers. We can try and put ourselves in another’s shoes before passing judgment on the narrow snapshot we might see of them. These are choices.

Some municipalities have cancelled their Canada Day events, others are going ahead with the party, and more are still on the fence. Individuals must decide for themselves.

I don’t agree with scrubbing away our history, nor do I support daily self-flagellation. Neither accomplishes much of anything. We should know our nation’s past, reflect on it, and learn from it.

Remembrance is not just about the wars we won, but our collective history as a nation, the good and the bad.

Lest we forget.

© Patrick LaMontagne

 

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A Smiling Lion

To see all the little painted hairs I suggest watching this full-screen. Here’s the narrative from the video…

On a recent Saturday morning, I woke with no idea what to paint, which meant going through my photo archives, looking for reference.

None of the photos spoke to me and I began to feel uneasy.

A brown bear? No I’ve done a lot of those and just finished one. I’ve painted plenty of bears. An owl or an eagle? Painted lots of those, too.

On it went. Having painted more than 80 production pieces, plus commissions and portraits of people, finding something new is a challenge. I wanted to choose an animal I’d enjoy painting but would also appeal to others.

Was it just a bad morning or worse —the beginning of a rut?

The peanut gallery of internal critics, those loudmouths in the cheap seats, they love this stuff. Whenever self-doubt finds a foothold, that chorus of cretins is ready to attack.

“You had a good run. Time to go get a real job. You weren’t that good at this stuff, anyway. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

I tend to overthink these things.  Lately, I’ve been focused a lot on trying to figure out what my audience wants to see, the people who already follow me and support my work.

What I forget, however, is I didn’t know what they wanted to see in the first place. I painted funny looking animals and the people who liked them hung around for more. The more I painted what I wanted; the more people showed up. I don’t recall taking a poll asking if I was painting too many bears.

As I looked through hundreds of reference photos, I tried to ignore those inner voices telling me why each was not good enough, that I’m not good enough. They can’t be silenced, but they don’t deserve the spotlight or center stage.

A favorite line from the movie, Dr. Strange goes, “we never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them.”

In my frustration at failing to find the one reference image that spoke to me, the one with the perfect lighting, composition, that captured a moment, I stopped looking and started writing this narrative, instead.

And in the writing, I found a little clarity. The advice I would give another artist in this situation applies to myself as well.

Paint what you like. Stop worrying about the marketing, the likes and shares, the sales, the prints, the licensing, the niche, the pressure, the noise. Stop anticipating and giving in to the critics, real or imaginary.

If you’re creative for a living, the business stuff is important, no denying it. You can’t wing it and pretend that money is just going to flow to you. You must think like a business owner, treat it like a job, and remember this is how you pay your bills.

But not all the time.  Otherwise, what’s the point of being an artist for a living?

I went back to the archives with a different goal, to paint something for me. If other people like it, great. If not, I’ll paint something for them next time.

Once I got past all the critical voices in my head, I really enjoyed this piece. I immersed myself in the long hairs in his mane, the short hairs on his muzzle, the dark shadows that defined the larger shapes, the warm colours in the fur, the bright highlights, and that contented smile on his face, which put a smile on mine.

Sure, I’ve painted lions before.

I’ll paint lions again.

That’s OK, because each will be different than the last. And all will be time well spent.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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The Musing Meerkat

Many artists I know have multiple shelves full of art books. I only have about a dozen of this type of book. Any more than that and some would probably never get opened more than once. As it is now, the ones I have only leave the shelves about once a year. But I’m still tempted to buy every time I see a new one.

Some notables include The Art of Tangled, a favourite animated movie, Drew Struzan’s Oeuvre, and Sebastian Kruger’s Stones. And I’m not even a Rolling Stones fan, I just enjoy Kruger’s study of them.

One of the things I love is the sketches and smaller illustrations peppered throughout these books. They’re usually unfinished doodles, sometimes chicken scratches, often looking like last-minute additions to fill up too much white space. But this accent art is deliberately and carefully chosen to compliment an illustration or story.

I enjoy seeing the bones of an illustration, the gestures, the rough idea, where the artist might have begun and what changed between the concept and finished piece. You can learn quite a bit from what the artist discarded.

I’ve long wanted to do an art book, but it’s always over the next hill.  You readers that have been with me for years (thank you!) will recall my mentioning this once or twice (probably more). I could make any number of excuses, but it’s a pretty easy truth to admit — I haven’t made it a priority. There are plenty of stories in my more than a decade of blogging about my art, and I’ve got much more finished work than I need to fill a book. Hell, I even have a publisher who wants to make it happen.

So the failure to launch is all mine, a victim of fear, perfectionism and procrastination. I have visions of boxes of books in my garage, gathering dust for years.

However, even if I conquer the imposter syndrome, one ingredient that is still missing is all of those little sketches and rough illustrations that I enjoy so much in other art books. I barely have any.

Even though sketching for fun, drawing from life and for practice has long been proven to make an artist’s skills better, I haven’t been in the habit of doing so for many years.

Almost all my work ends up being a finished painting. I spend a lot of time beforehand planning it out and choosing the correct reference. I experiment while I’m painting, but all of it leads to having a fully rendered piece done at the end of each beginning.

One of the reasons I bought an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil was that I wanted to do more digital sketching. The procreate app is an incredible bit of software. It’s better for digital drawing and painting than Photoshop was for most of my early career. Plenty of artists are doing finished work on it, some impressive stuff.

But I haven’t been using it as often as I thought I would, at least not for drawing.

I recently went through my photo archives and grabbed a bunch of reference I liked, but not enough to contribute to a finished production print. I uploaded many of these to the iPad and promised myself that I would make more time for sketching, drawing and painting that I may or may not show to people, but eventually, they might be good accent pieces for an art book.

I started on this meerkat earlier this week. I got it to a point where it was a decent sketch, and I could have put it away and started something else. But I was having so much fun with it (dammit!), I didn’t want to stop.

Before I knew it, I was painting in little hairs around the ears and muzzle, adding finer detail work,  and experimenting with a different brush style. While not quite as refined as some of my other work, this could be a production piece.

And because procreate has a great feature where you can record every brushstroke, I could export that, edit it, add some music and voila — a high-speed short video with some fun music to go along with the brush strokes.

Once again, I have failed at creating some rough sketches but succeeded in having some more fun rendering a funny-looking animal painting. I’ll call that a win.

As for sketching, I’m probably going to have to set a time limit — 10, 20, or 30-minute sessions, and I have to stop when the buzzer goes off.

Otherwise, I’m just going to keep painting.

Cheers,
Patrick
© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Grizzly on Grass

Yet another painting of Berkley, but for marketing reasons and the potential implication of that goofy grin, I’m calling it Grizzly on Grass.

Aside from their efforts to rescue and take in orphaned animals, one of the things I love about Discovery Wildlife Park is their focus on enrichment. In the wild, animals are kept busy searching for food, defending their territory, and making miniature versions of themselves.

While captivity is never ideal, the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park would likely have been destroyed due to the circumstances that brought them there in the first place. Those circumstances are usually us, people who have either directly or indirectly prevented them from surviving and thriving in the wild.

The animals at the park can’t be rehabilitated and released, either because laws prevent it or they were too habituated already, which is why they needed to be here.

With 91 acres on the property, the park can provide the animals with large enclosures, complete with natural structures, clean ponds and water features. The black bears and Berkley can dig their own dens each year, or they’re given structures they can use if they choose the artificial route. It’s incredible how each bear has a different preference.
They’re provided with as much hay as they want to pad the dens for warmth and comfort. I remember Serena (the head keeper and good friend) sending me pictures and videos the first year Berkley dug her den. Berkley took the hay inside, then came out and dropped a little at Serena’s feet, asking for more, which of course, they gave her. Some bears do get up during the winter, even in the wild, but Berkley has always slept straight through.

If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you’ll know I have a special place in my heart for Berkley. I was able to get to know her when she was weeks old and had many visits with her in the first couple of years. Discovery Wildlife Park has a large, wooded area where she could climb trees, splash around in a creek, play in the snow and wander around as she liked without any danger.

The personal contact I had with her when she was a cub created a lasting bond, and when I visit her now, she knows me. If I go to one end of her considerably large enclosure and call her, she’ll come from the other end to visit, and we’ll hang out together on either side of the fence. We can’t have close contact these days because even though she’s a very gentle bear, I’m intimidated by her size. My nervousness creates an unknown safety issue.

The park staff are incredibly dedicated and care a great deal for the animals in their care. You need only talk to them and watch their interactions to realize the trust between them. When an animal dies from medical complications or old age, it hits them all hard. They work hard to give the animals the best life they can, despite their captivity.

Survival is no longer a concern for these animals. Their diets and health are continually monitored, and they receive top vet care. The problem with captive animals, however, is that without constant stimulation, they will get bored. As a result, the animals get plenty of enrichment opportunities.

The structures in their enclosures are often changed around, diversions hidden in strange places, along with additional food. It gives them something to explore and dig out. There is a large forested fenced amphitheatre area that acts as another natural playground. The bears and wolves are taken in often and allowed to run around as they like. Not together, of course. There are many rock structures and ponds for them to play around in, with room to run. This new environment gives them plenty of stimulation, and they seem to enjoy it a great deal.

There is a high cost to maintain this type of facility, and they’re always looking for new revenue streams to help. In addition to the gift shop, campground, and winter RV storage, they rely on donations and sponsorships to keep the doors open. If you’ve ever seen the vet bill for a jaguar’s arthritis stem-cell transplant or a root canal, you’d understand.

“I’m in it for the money,” said no zookeeper ever.

When they built the amphitheatre area, they had the foresight to install a fence along one side, with large enough holes along it for camera lenses to poke through. They regularly host small groups of photographers to come and take photos of the bears and wolves in their playground. It’s an opportunity for the animals to play and for the park to raise funds to care for them.

In September of 2019, my buddy Derek, a skilled tattoo artist and painter, and I went up to Innisfail to participate in one of these photo sessions. While I enjoyed taking photos of the wolves, as I always do, I’ll confess that my main focus was Berkley. I just can’t get enough time with her.

The problem is that because she knows me, she kept coming over to the fence to say Hi, which means nobody could get any photos. Serena kept having to call her back. She finally gave me shit and said I was never going to get any pictures if I kept talking to her. I had to turn my back and retreat so Berkley would go back to enjoying the natural playground.
Once she did, we were able to get some great photos. She has a natural smile and brightness in her eyes. People often remark on the personality I create in my paintings. It’s almost like I don’t have to add any with Berkley because it’s already there. She remains my favourite subject to paint, and I can’t imagine I’ll stop anytime soon. There’s just something in that face that makes me happy.

Even though she played in the water, scratched and climbed on trees (she’s tough on trees), Berkley looked over often, and I had to be careful not to distract her. But it meant that I got some great pics of her looking right into my lens, including the reference for this painting.
I didn’t want to stop working on this image because I enjoyed it so much. Even though the finished painting is a horizontal composition, I painted it vertically to get the expression right. I’ll confess that if I get this printed for myself, a distinct possibility, I’d hang it vertically above my desk, so that goofy grin can greet me every morning.

I’m looking forward to seeing Berkley again soon. She’s up from hibernation and gaining back the weight lost during her winter slumber. Every year I wonder if she’ll still know me, but she always does, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world.

If you’d like to support Discovery Wildlife Park, you can donate or buy an annual membership on their site. They open for the season on May 1st and will be happy to see you. You can buy my prints in the gift shop and see some of my artwork around the park. Be sure to take part in their daily education talks about how to be safe in bear country and help contribute to wildlife conservation, no matter where you live. Ask plenty of questions. Education is a big part of why they do what they do.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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The Big Picture

Late last spring, on top of everything else 2020 dished out, my computer’s motherboard died. I remember thinking, “Not now! I haven’t the time or money to deal with this.”

I called up Memory Express in Calgary to design the new build, put down my deposit and waited. There was a shortage of PC cases at the time, but it only took about an extra week as I wasn’t picky about that. My computer sits under my desk; I don’t much care how it looks.

The new computer is incredibly fast, I can work on massive image files with no issues, and it has exceeded my expectations.

One of the first things I do at my desk in the morning is sift through news stories looking for cartoon ideas. I usually know the night before what I’m drawing, but sometimes big news breaks overnight, and I need to change course.

According to one story that caught my eye, more people are playing video games during the pandemic, the kind that requires a lot of speed and power from a computer. Besides the occasional diversion on the iPad and perhaps an online game of Scrabble with my buddy Jim, I’m not a gamer. I haven’t got the time.

But my new PC could easily be called a gaming rig. When it starts up, the initial screen graphic is a Republic of Gamers logo.

All of the requirements for a gaming PC are the same as those for a graphics PC. Illustrators and digital painters require the same hardware as gamers, especially when working on large files. Without that hardware, brush strokes would lag while I’m painting, Photoshop would crash often, and it would be near impossible to complete my detailed paintings.

I’m pretty adept at software, but I have a basic understanding of hardware, which is why I get professionals to build my computers. One thing I do know, however, is that for any high-end graphics requirements, whether it’s gaming, video editing, 3D design, or digital painting, a top-of-the-line graphics card is necessary.

It’s not a nice-to-have; it’s a need-to-have.

The gaming news story’s main thrust was that there is currently a global shortage of graphics cards. You can’t find them on Amazon or other retail sites, and the wait measures in weeks and months. That’s if there’s even an ETA at all. Some are selling for three times their value on eBay.

Though I didn’t know it then — and lamented my bad luck — my computer broke down at the best possible time. Had it hung on for another 8-10 months, I wouldn’t be able to replace it right now.

When stuff’s going bad, it’s difficult to see the big picture, to realize that what seems like a stumble might be just one step on the path to something better. As Steve Jobs famously said, “we can only connect the dots in hindsight.”

There’s no doubt that we’re all struggling. While some deal with the worst tragedy, having a loved one in the hospital or succumbing to the virus, others have caught it. I have a friend who is a COVID long-hauler, and he’s been dealing with the lingering health effects for months.

Even if we aren’t infected, we’re all affected. Financial loss through decreased revenue or losing an actual job or business, homeschooling your children and feeling woefully unqualified, new mental health challenges or worsening existing ones.

The circumstances are as diverse as we are, unique to our situation. No big deal to one person might be devastating to another.

When I’m not reading about COVID numbers, political scandals, protesters, and all of the other bleeding leads I see in the news; occasionally I’ll stumble across a hidden gem of a story.  Peppered in along the conveyor belt of tragedy news are occasional inspirational personal interest stories.

Believe it or not, quite a few people have seen their businesses thrive in this new climate. Some have started new jobs they like much better than the ones they lost. Parents enjoy more time with their kids, spouses getting to know each other again, and a much slower pace.

We’re realizing that some friendships are long past their best-before date, while others are more appreciated than ever.

I’m not going to try and sugar coat this whole pan-dammit experience and say that it’s a good thing because that would be naïve, and frankly, insensitive. But peering into that rusty pan of mud, dirt, and gravel, I’ve been able to see a few shiny specks of gold.

When all of this ends–and it will end–we’ll see countless articles, books, and documentaries that analyze the data, compile the experiences and offer a bird’s eye view of this moment in history.

Despite having so many things in my life for which to be grateful, I’m a glass-half-empty type of guy. I hope for the best but expect the worst in almost all things. My skewed perspective is the result of a combination of things. I follow the news for a living, which is about the worst thing you can do for your mental health. But I’m also a product of my personal wiring, my brain’s chemical composition, and the stew of my experiences, just like everybody else.

Even with my negative bias, I believe we will come out of this better than we expect, with a clearer picture of what’s important to each of us.

We just might not be able to see it yet.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Painting Pet Portraits

Meet Wellington Bomber, a Rhodesian Ridgeback and my latest commission. Having shown it to the happy client this morning, I can now share it with you. I’ll let it sit for a day, give it one last critical eye, then send it for printing tomorrow morning. I hope to ship it later next week.

It was a privilege to paint Bomber, and I quite enjoyed this one.

This particular painting was an unusual circumstance as the commission was a gift purchase, so I only talked with the recipient after the fact. I usually don’t accept these commissions because they have created problems if the recipient isn’t familiar with my work. Assured that Bomber’s owner knew and liked my work, I took the gamble.

I need not have worried. Both the giver and recipient of the gift were ideal clients. From start to finish, this was a perfect commission experience.

Painting pet portraits is a challenging undertaking. I know plenty of artists who don’t take commissions because they can be a minefield of unwanted surprises.

When the experience is good, however, it’s usually great. I’ve had some fantastic clients, and it’s those paintings that keep me doing this work. More than one client over the years has said that I made them cry, including this one. Let me tell ya; there’s no better compliment.

For other artists, clients and the merely curious, here are some of the hurdles involved with pet portrait commissions.

Photo Reference
Given a choice, I would always take my reference photos, but since most clients aren’t local, that’s rarely possible.

It can take some time to find the right images, which means back-and-forth emails with clients. Most of the pet portraits I’ve painted have been memorials. When the animal has passed on, my only choices are what they have. I’ve turned down commissions for lack of good reference.

Are we On the Same Page?
Clients hire me for one of two styles, and I require a clear understanding of which before I begin. Do they want a portrait style or my whimsical wildlife style?

When it’s a memorial commission, the client most often wants a traditional portrait.

Sometimes the client will say they want my whimsical style, but then they attach conditions and limitations. One client had a big slobbery dog I was excited to paint because I was going to put some long stringy drool and goofy personality into that face.

The client asked that I paint my style, but make him look more dignified with no slobber at all, which are conflicting instructions. To this day, I wish I could have done my version.

When I have the freedom to paint the way I see it, the painting could end up goofy or with slightly less caricatured expression, depending on how it comes together. Clients who agree to allow me that freedom usually get something pretty special.

Price
Some bristle at the price tag, and I think it’s because we’ve become accustomed to online mass-market gimmick art, especially when it comes to pets.

No doubt you’ve seen those ads where they stick your dog’s head on the body of royalty or a military general in a renaissance-style portrait for under $100.

You choose from a handful of template options and backgrounds, upload the photo of your pet, they cut, paste, apply filters, and voila, Fido looking cute in a faux classic oil painting. Anybody with Photoshop experience can easily create that sort of image.

For a fun, inexpensive novelty item, there’s nothing wrong with that. You’ll get what you paid for, and I’m sure many people find it amusing and enjoyable. It’s also the same thing that thousands of other people got.

Hiring an artist to paint a custom painting of your pet is a whole other animal; pardon the pun. You’re buying an original piece of art that’s personal to you.

There’s a significant amount of time involved in a pet portrait, from the initial consultation to delivery of the finished painting. My price includes a ready-to-hang medium-sized canvas print and shipping, but the cost for that is more than it seems.

I have my canvases printed professionally in Calgary by ABL Imaging. Their quality standards are high, which means I never have to apologize for cracked seams, inferior quality wood on the stretcher bars, or the wrong colour. If I wouldn’t hang it in my home, I won’t expect a client to hang it in theirs.

But quality costs.

For a one-off 12″ X16″ print, it costs me around $150. Then there’s the 2.5-hour drive round trip to Calgary to get it. If I’m running other errands or going to the zoo to take photos, it’s a detour and worth it. If not, I’ll have a courier pick it up. That’s another $35.

If I’m shipping the canvas, that’s more time and materials, plus $30-$50 depending on where it’s going.

That’s just the cost of production and time, and we haven’t even got to the creative part, which is where the real value exists.

Time
Whether it’s art for a living or any other service provided by a self-employed professional, pricing needs to factor in time. You can’t create two things at once, at least not well.

There is time spent talking with the client, checking reference photos, explaining why one works and another doesn’t, having email conversations to ensure expectations are reasonable and that there’s a shared vision. That consultation time adds up.

Most importantly, when I’m working on a commission, that’s time I’m not working on editorial cartoons or paintings for prints and licensing.

Then there’s the actual painting time. A commission will usually require a minimum of fifteen hours, but most likely more, spread out over a few weeks, depending on my other deadlines. I treat the likeness and personality as I would that of a portrait of a person. It has taken me decades of training, practice and experience to create my signature style of artwork.

Just as a skilled trades-person commands a professional rate, so do creative professionals. People often think that because an artist enjoys his or her work, that they will (and should) gladly do it for free.

The work we choose to create is the work we enjoy most. The work somebody else wants us to do, that comes at a price. You are buying not just my art skills that took a lifetime to master, but also my work time, which I never get back.

This latest commission was a real challenge. I had a hard time with the personality, mainly because the dog is a senior. Goofy didn’t seem to be the right direction, so most of the character had to be more subtle, and I spent hours trying to get it right.

It was only when I stopped trying to force it that the personality showed up. I’m happy with the result, and my standards are so much higher than that of my clients.

Friends and Family
In my experience, artists are notorious people pleasers and pushovers, most often to our own detriment.

Friends, family and even total strangers often strongly suggest that they expect a discount or free painting, or they outright request one.

Most people mean well and don’t consider it a big deal, nor do they realize that they’re the 100th person who has asked you to paint their pet “in your spare time.”

Like most people, I don’t have spare time. Ever.

Live long enough, and you accumulate many friends and acquaintances, most of whom are genuinely lovely people, all of whom you want to give a discount.

But sooner or later, you’re going to lose your business because you wanted to be a nice guy.

The hardest thing people pleasers need to learn is how to say No. I’ve struggled with this my whole life. The worst part of it is when people get used to you saying Yes all the time, they’ll resent you when you say No.

Suddenly you’re not the nice person who has always been agreeable to their requests; you’re the rude person who has gotten too big for his britches.

Sometimes, it’s personal.
From time to time, I may want to paint somebody’s dog, for the same reasons I want to paint a wild animal. I see something I like, or I have a connection with the dog or cat, or I want to give a gift that only I can give.

I’ve painted my parents’ dog, who passed away last year, and I will undoubtedly paint their new dog.

Our next-door neighbours have a wonderful dog that Shonna and I adore. Running into her in the driveway never fails to brighten our day, and she gets offended if we don’t visit for even just a minute. I’ve already taken reference of her when she was still a big puppy, and I’m going to paint her eventually.

I’ve talked about the cabin north of here that friends and I have gone to in recent years. I drive by the owners’ place on the way to the cabin, and even if I know they’re not home, I stop to visit their dog, Jingles. I painted her in a portrait style simply because that’s what felt right at the time. I was happy to give them a framed print as a thank-you for always being such great hosts.
Whenever I finish these personal pieces, however, I always get messages and comments from people ‘offering’ to let me paint their dog, assuring me that their dog is adorable, cute, and has a great personality.

Almost every dog I’ve ever met matches that description, especially to their family.

But despite what most people think, art is a business, one that requires thick skin. Art for a living is finding a balance between producing work that pays the bills and making time for the work I want to do.

When I choose to paint a pet for my enjoyment, much like the portraits of people I paint, there is little to no market for that painting after the fact. People rarely want paintings of someone else’s dog to hang on their wall; they want a painting of their own dog.

Conclusion
When a client hires me to paint their pet, I take it seriously. Someone is choosing to spend a significant amount of their hard-earned money on a personal piece of my artwork. Depending on where they hang it, they might look at it every day for many years to come.

I owe every client my best work.

Whether you’re an artist thinking of offering pet portrait commissions as part of your menu of services or a client thinking of hiring me or someone else to create a piece of art personal to you, hopefully this has provided a little insight.

I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to create art for a living for many years. The artistic skills have been challenging to earn, often frustrating, featuring many course corrections and more than a few dead ends.

But by far, the hardest lessons I continue to learn have been about the business of art. People want art in their lives, but they often forget to view it the same way they do other services and products. What’s worse, artists themselves are often the worst failures at running their own businesses for the same reason.

And to those artists, I will leave you with three critical thoughts.

Creating art is easy. Selling art is hard.

If you don’t value your own work, nobody else will, either.

Trying to please everybody is a recipe for misery, in art and life.

Cheers,
Patrick

A Final Word on Commissions
From recent market consultation and after careful consideration of my work’s value, I have increased my commission rate to starting at $1900.00, which includes the ready-to-hang canvas print and shipping. That rate is effective immediately, but my newsletter subscribers can still lock in the current rate of $1100.00 by booking a commission with a non-refundable deposit by March 31st.
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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Winter Raven

Before it debuted in 2010, nobody was asking for an iPad. Even after it launched, people made fun of it. There were plenty of articles criticizing it for not having a keyboard or a stylus. Even the name was fodder for ridicule. Who would want this when they could have a laptop or a home computer?

Years later, you’ll be hard-pressed to find somebody with a tablet device who doesn’t see the value.

While I’m not creating technical marvels or something the masses line up for, whenever I’m deciding on a new painting, I have to fight the urge to try to figure out what people want. Most of the time, we don’t even know.

When I painted my first funny looking Grizzly Bear in 2009, nobody was asking me for animal paintings. Like a lot of art, it was an experiment, borne out of boredom with the work I’d been doing.

There are times I will paint something purely for commercial reasons, to satisfy demand.  Most of my pet portraits are client commissions, I’ve painted pandas for the Calgary Zoo, and my Sasquatch and recent T-Rex painting were market suggestions from a licensing client.

It’s a nice thought to believe that you can create art for a living, and people will throw money at you, but the real world doesn’t work that way.

If I thought too hard about each piece’s outcome and marketability before I painted it, I would have never created some of my most popular pieces.

I’ve painted more bears than any other animal, and I’ll continue to paint more because I enjoy them so much. I’ve also painted multiple wolves, lions, tigers and owls. This is my third or fourth raven.

I paint some animals more than once because there will always be room for improvement and new approaches to try. You never know when the same animal, painted differently, will suddenly resonate with people the way a previous version didn’t.

My Smiling Tiger painting is one of my best-selling pieces. Had I failed to paint it simply because I had painted tigers twice before, I would have missed out on an image that many people love, including me.
In September of this year, I gave my wife a photo of a raven for her birthday, printed on aluminum with a clear coating. It’s easily one of the best gifts I’ve given her because she loves it. Shonna hung it opposite the kitchen entry so that when you walk in, it never fails to catch your eye.

Over the past few months, I’ve fallen in love with the image as well. Because of the print medium, the different light throughout the day changes the photo. Sometimes it’s devoid of colour; other times, it’s shades of gold, and on an overcast, gloomy day, it has hints of blue. Both Shonna and I often stop to look at it.

My friend Darrel and I remain fans of the 90s television show Northern Exposure. The fictitious tales from Cecily, Alaska, often incorporated First Nations beliefs and symbolism. On one holiday episode, the radio DJ, Chris Stevens said, “You know, twinkling coloured lights are nice, and so are plastic Santas and reindeers and manger scenes, but I’ll tell you something, friends… nothing like the sight of a beautiful black-as-pitch raven to get you in the Christmas spirit.”

I doubt there’s a December since that Darrel and I haven’t recited the last part of that quote to each other.
So it’s no wonder I’ve had ravens on my mind. It’s also likely why I chose such stark contrasts in this painting, inspired by the same quality in that photo.

I’ve had to remind myself often of the lesson I learned a long time ago. If I paint what I think people want to see, the image rarely captures the attention I expect. It’s likely those paintings won’t be ones I enjoy much either. It’s the ones I paint without any expectations that end up being the most fun and often become surprising hits.

So here’s another raven, whether you wanted one or not. And here’s to the next one I’ll no doubt paint somewhere down the road, whenever the mood strikes me.

Cheers,
Patrick

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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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T-Rex


One of the things I’ve learned about licensing is that I need to be open to suggestions, especially from my licensing partners. Mike from Pacific Music & Art has more than once asked that I paint a dinosaur, but I didn’t want to.

The first time I considered it, earlier this year, my biggest concern was that the only available reference  is scientific illustration based on the fossil record for an extinct animal. That means I would need to reference the work of other artists. Having been a victim of it myself, I’m hyper-sensitive to artistic theft. To use another artist’s work feels wrong.

Since the obvious subject choice was the Tyrannosaurus Rex, I thought perhaps if I got the reference from Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, I could ease my conscience a little, even though the animatronic dinosaurs are still the collective work of artists. I’ve used scene references for all of my portraits of movie characters.

I watched Jurassic Park, realized that all the closeup shots were in darkness and while raining. Since I didn’t want to paint my dinosaur like that, that was the first problem. Recent discoveries have shown that the T-Rex likely had feathers, some theorizing they had brighter colouring rather than that of a giant lizard. I couldn’t decide whether to paint the classic T-Rex we all know and love or go with a more up-to-date scientific version.

I gave up on the whole idea because it pushed all of my ‘this isn’t right for me’ buttons.

I started to think about it again in recent months and went on a deeper dive for reference.

While talking to a friend recently, I mentioned I was painting a T-Rex. I joked that taking the photo reference involved a DeLorean and a lot of running.

I watched all of the Jurassic Park movies on Netflix, found a couple with some potential reference scenes, and bought two of the films so that I could get some screen capture shots.

The best reference was still in darker scenes, again with rain, but I managed to find some useful scenes. That still didn’t get me everything I needed, so I went scouring the internet to see what others had done. I found 3d models, photos of dinosaur sculptures from zoos and parks, and scientific illustrations.

And I made peace with the idea that I’d be painting the traditional lizard looking T-Rex.

While preparing for this painting, I found an interview where Steven Spielberg revealed that he knew that some of his dinosaurs, including the T-Rex, weren’t accurate. He said that he was making an adventure movie, not a documentary and wanted to go with scary.

That convinced me to go with what felt right for my art style, and if some took exception to the scientific inaccuracies, then clearly it’s not for them.

I once had somebody angrily comment about my painting that “a fox’s eyes don’t look like that!” I invited him to look at my other art. None of my animals look precisely like the real thing.

Cartoonist Gary Larson, of The Far Side fame, once had a reader take issue that one of his cartoons had a penguin and a polar bear in it. He had pointed out to Larson that penguins and polar bears do not live in the same climate. Larson responded, “But it’s OK that they’re talking, right?”

Because I used so many different reference images and it would be impossible to say which one was the most significant contributor to the finished piece, I felt comfortable that I have not ripped anyone off in my depiction of the T-Rex.

I wanted to go big on the exaggerated mouth, a toothy grin with an equal mix of menace and fun. I think I achieved that.
I was prepared for this to be a difficult piece, and it was. The skin texture proved incredibly challenging because I wanted to convey the reptilian skin, but I didn’t want to go in and map it so that it was hyper-accurate. The overall feel of the painting was more important to me.

I did create a couple of new brushes for this, something I haven’t done in some time. I’d forgotten how much fun that can be. The background is not the focus of the piece, but it took a long time to paint, though it’s mainly out of focus to suggest depth of field. I deliberately didn’t include the little arms for which the T-Rex is well known because I wanted the face to be the focus, and it would have required a different composition.

Earlier this year, I had to replace my computer. When the motherboard failed, at least I think that’s what failed; I knew it was time for a whole new machine, rather than replacing parts. My computers are custom built and not inexpensive, so it’s money I didn’t want to spend this year, but on the other side of it, I’m glad I did.

This piece really put it through its paces. The final image size was 30”x40” at 300ppi, and the working file size was 1.4GB. This new computer had no perceptible lag or hiccups, and I’m confident the old computer would have struggled. I would have had to have babied it at the end of the piece, careful not to crash it.

I’m glad that I revisited this idea and am pleased with the finished piece. I learned a few new tricks and techniques out of necessity, and that’s always well worth my time.

Best of all, Shonna really likes this one, and she’s my harshest critic. She had some excellent advice when I asked her opinion, most notably to tone down the saliva. I had initially painted several strands between the teeth, and her critique was accurate; less was more. Whenever she likes a painting, that’s a nice bonus.

When I released my last two paintings, Bear Hug and Winter Wolf, I immediately had newsletter followers asking to buy prints. While I would have liked to have had them available right away, I won’t be having those proofed until the new year, along with this one. I’ll be sure to announce it when they’re all available.

Cheers,
Patrick

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© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
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