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If It’s Broke, Fix It

Taking the summer off from promoting my business was an uncomfortable decision.

Covid-19 was the catalyst, but this period of reflection was overdue. I’ve been uninspired, bored with my own art and writing, unable to maintain the pace.

In 2005, I had been working as an Office Admin for a small physiotherapy clinic here in Canmore, spending early mornings, evenings and weekends drawing editorial cartoons. Eventually, that part-time side hustle allowed me to quit my job and become a full-time artist.

It seemed like a big risk, but not massive. We decided that if I couldn’t pay my half of the bills, I’d just get a part-time job. There were plenty of them available.

I’ve had a pretty good run as an editorial cartoonist for the past two decades. It afforded me the ability to try other art-related avenues, one of which became the evolution of my career, painting my funny looking animals.

I’ve never lost sight of the fact, however, that the foundation of my profession for the past twenty years has been an industry afflicted by a slow and terminal cancer. To expect that I will be drawing editorial cartoons in ten years is almost fantasy.

Then again, I said the same thing in 2001, so what do I know?

We pretend to be masters of our own fates, but we’re notoriously bad at predicting the future. Who had Global Pandemic on their schedule for 2020?

As one might expect, those first years were a struggle. I often went into overdraft on my business account and couldn’t afford many luxuries. I did get a part-time job working at a local DVD rental place (remember those?) but not because of the money. I needed to get out of the house and one of the perks was free movie rentals. This was in the dark ages, kids, before streaming video.

I enjoyed the experience for a year, but working until 11:30 some nights, then getting up at 5:00 to draw quickly lost its appeal.

There were some in my profession who figured the next evolution in the craft would be animated editorial cartoons.  I invested in Flash software, training courses, royalty free music, learned how to record audio, and spent countless unpaid hours creating those things. During a federal election one year, all of the big Canadian media outlets wanted to run my animations on their websites, but in a sign of things to come, almost none were willing to pay for them.

I even had a weekly series called Big Plans, where a cartoon beaver in a suit and tie, talked about the week’s political events, complete with cutaway scenes. It was an animated version of the Daily Show or Rick Mercer Report, without interviews and not nearly as funny.

It took about twenty hours a week to create each one, and I only got paid a small amount for a handful of them.

I didn’t like the work much and wasn’t a very good animator. I was more relieved than distraught when it came to an end. But I took the risk, and invested the time, on the off chance that it might pay off.

There have been a few ventures like that, but I’ve learned something from each, lessons for the next idea. Eventually, one of those tries became my whimsical wildlife paintings, changing the course of my life and career. As Steve Jobs once said, you can only connect the dots in hindsight.

When COVID-19 landed on us, a lot changed for most people in a short amount of time. All in the same week, several of my newspapers told me they could no longer afford to pay any freelancers. A temporary layoff, but nobody could say for how long. That was at the end of March. Only one of those papers has hired me back.

This year was supposed to be a big one for my painted work, building on the momentum of my newest license with Pacific Music and Art. I was beginning to see (and hear about) my work being sold in stores all over the place. With multiple re-orders, more retailers signing on and word getting out, 2020 should have been a leap forward.

I don’t need to explain why it wasn’t.

Thankfully, Mike at Pacific Music and Art had the foresight to see the coming demand for face masks and that my paintings would work well on them. I put in late nights, even earlier mornings, and long days preparing the images while still drawing the same number of cartoons for about half the clients.

Promoting, packaging and shipping the masks, plus the paperwork and bookkeeping, it was exhausting. Add in the uncertainty of the pandemic, both the health and financial repercussions, and burn-out was inevitable.

Thanks to my newsletter followers, I filled two large mask orders, and a third smaller one, the revenue helping to shore up my other losses. Pacific Music and Art is now selling the masks wholesale to retailers and individual customers can order directly from their site. I’ve received photos from people who’ve bought my masks at The Calgary Zoo. They’re also available at Shopper’s Drug Mart here in Canmore, stores in Banff, plus a bunch of other places in Western Canada and in the Pacific Northwest.

Those sales now will mean revenue later this year.

I did a couple of successful print promotions, launched my 2021 calendar, and have gotten used to this new reality. You thought I was going to say normal, didn’t you? I think we can all agree, that ship has sunk. We need to build a new one.
This frenzy of activity, adapting daily to more potholes than road, I had no gas left in the tank. I was still meeting my cartoon deadlines, but painting was a slog, and it felt like anything I’d write would be crap, even before I put my fingers to the keys. My past work seemed like garbage and I was circling the drain.

When you spend year after year creating art, promoting it, trying to sell it and come up with something better every day, taking time off from promoting it feels irresponsible.

I like to work. I don’t do well with too much time off. I’ve got a friend who has been talking about his retirement for years and finally managed to do it before he was 60. Unless something radical changes in me in the next ten years, the thought of not working does not appeal to me.

At this stage in my life, looking down the road, retirement to me would mean the freedom to only do the work I want to do. But I still want to work.

My biggest fear is that something will happen that will prevent me from being able to create, paint, and write. I dread the thought of an injury, an illness, a cognitive deficiency, something that will rob me of my abilities or mental faculties.

On report cards when I was a kid, common teacher comments were “doesn’t pay attention in class” and “not living up to his potential.”

It’s ironic that I’m now wary of not having enough time to reach that full potential.

Last year, my friend Jim and I were sitting on a deck of a cabin we rent, looking out at the pasture. In front of us, there were two windows in the covered section, but to the immediate left, the deck is wide open. A wasp was repeatedly bouncing off the glass, trying to get through.

I don’t recall if I said it or if Jim did, but we both connected with the message. “Boy, if that’s not a metaphor for life.”

All that wasp had to do was back off, turn left and fly six inches to freedom. Instead, it just kept bouncing off the glass.

Jim credits that moment with his decision to finally retire.

I took it as a message to rethink where I’m putting my energy.

There are many ways to reach your goals but beating your head against an immovable object isn’t one of them.

I’m already getting up early every day, working hard. I rarely take a day off and when I do, I still somehow manage to squeeze in something related to my business. It might be taking photos, doing some writing, reading trade articles, but that’s only because I enjoy my work and the creative pursuit. I don’t know how to separate the two, so I don’t try.

That also means there is no extra time to do more. It’s such a cliché, to work smarter, not harder, but clichés have longevity because they contain simple wisdom.

Maybe it’s because he was younger, with seemingly more time ahead of him than I’ve got. But, there’s a lot of water under the bridge between me and the guy who said, “well, if I don’t make enough money, I’ll just get a part-time job.”

I feel like I have a lot more to lose than he did.

He didn’t know that editorial cartooning would provide him with a good living for the next fifteen years. I know for a fact that it won’t provide me with another fifteen. Failing to course correct for that reality would be short-sighted.

I remember somebody telling me once to cup my hands together as if I were holding some water within them, then to squeeze my hands into fists and asked, “what happened to the water?”

When you hold onto something too tightly for fear of losing it, you lose it anyway.

During the past two months of promotional hiatus, I completed a few paintings, wrote quite a bit in a fiction novel I started this year, drew the usual editorial cartoons, listened to podcasts, read books and articles and I worked. My computer died suddenly one night, which I’ll talk about in another post, and I had to get a new one built. I got away to the cabin for a few days, took some pictures, and hid from the tourists who have flooded this valley all summer.

And I asked myself some hard questions.

“Where do I want to be in a couple of years? Five years? Ten?”

“On what am I wasting a lot of time and effort that doesn’t get me there?”

“What marketing opportunities am I missing out on?”

“If I stopped banging into the glass, backed up, took a breath, and looked around, what might I see?”

For the first couple of weeks, I felt like I’d forgotten something, that nagging feeling like I’d left the stove on. I’d become so used to posting on Instagram, sharing stories, scrolling through other people’s stuff. It ate up a lot of creative time.

When I finished a painting, it felt strange not to immediately size it for the blog, create a closeup, write a post about it, share it on Instagram with all of the hashtags, tell a story, write a newsletter, share that, then wait to see what kind of reaction I might get.

Promotion and marketing, it’s part of working for yourself. It’s necessary if you want to make a living with your art or whatever you create. You must sell it. But taking this break made me think about how I’m doing that.

Do I need to share it as soon as it’s done? Would it matter if I waited a day? Maybe two? Do I have to immediately write about it? Does it have to be immediately shared on Instagram?

The answer to these last questions is No.

One marketing opportunity I’ve decided to explore is to offer an audio version of some of my blog posts, starting with this one.

I’ve had several people tell me they like my writing, but some get the newsletter and realize they haven’t the time to read it, They put it aside for later and never get back to it.

I hear ya. Happens to me all the time. But if there’s an audio version, it can be downloaded and listened to at your leisure.

An audio version allows followers to consume the content the way they want to. From what I’ve read, it increases followers and site interaction, which directly translates to sales.

Will that kind of marketing work for me? I have no idea, but I’ll give it a try.

As for those other questions, they’ll require a longer view, some percolation in the old melon. Not quite as deep as “Why am I here?” but not so shallow as, “Peanut butter? Or jam, too?”

The break was worth it and I will do it again.

Whether you read this, or listened to it in the new format, thanks for making the time. One thing I’ve never forgotten in this roller coaster life of being creative for a living…it wouldn’t happen without you. 

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
Sign up for my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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Face Masks


Medical professionals and officials have recently changed their messaging about wearing fabric masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19. While they still agree that a non-medical mask won’t prevent you from getting the virus, they admit that it’s possible that a cotton or other fabric mask could prevent the wearer from infecting others, especially if you have the virus but aren’t showing any symptoms. Since coughing, sneezing and talking spreads droplets from your mouth and nose, wearing a mask could prevent those droplets from being inhaled by others.

Of course, nothing is a substitute for staying at home, hand-washing and keeping a distance of 6ft/2m or greater if you have to go out and run errands. Some medical professionals have also said that a side benefit of people wearing masks is a visual reminder to each other of the need for diligence, to keep our distance while out in public.

Even when we’re allowed back out into the world,  it now appears that masks will be a part of our culture for the foreseeable future and Pacific Music and Art is launching a line of masks featuring my artwork. I spent most of Saturday going through my images, playing with the template and designs and the production is now underway. I’ve got fifteen different designs, nine of which you can see below.

I’ve been told these will be available soon, but won’t know the exact date for a little while. I also don’t know what the price will be for each of these, but all of that information will be available as soon as I know it. Newsletter subscribers will be the first to know and have a chance to purchase. So if you’re not a subscriber, here’s the link.

As with all of my posts, feel free to share and stay healthy.

Cheers,
Patrick

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
Sign up for my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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Instagram? But you said…!

Late last month, I attended the Calgary Tattoo Show to support my friends at Electric Grizzly Tattoo, the shop I frequent here in Canmore.

I spend most of my working life alone, which can be unhealthy at times, so to have somewhere I can go to hang out with other working artists, commiserate on the bullshit inherent in this business of self-promotion, to decompress and share a few laughs, it’s a wonderful thing. Shonna still jokingly refers to it as my artist support group.

Add to that the constant flow of inspiration watching these people work, these past two years getting to know these artists has been all positive. One of the side benefits from hanging out at the shop is that I get to meet many of their clients as well. These folks are from all walks of life, with diverse backgrounds, from different places, who’ve had myriad experiences, with unique perspectives.

More than a few of them have become my clients, since my work is hanging in the shop as well.

The group discussions in that place have not only been enjoyable, but enlightening. Just recently, one client on one table used to work for CN Rail while another on the next table currently does oil pipeline maintenance. In the midst of a political maelstrom of promises, disinformation and the online outrage of the election, that was one of the most informative (and civil) discussions I’ve had about media spin and partisan politics vs. the reality of natural resource safety, economics and transportation.

It gave me a new perspective and further reinforced that the world isn’t black and white, and the truth in most things is only revealed in the subtle shades of grey.

I’ve met more open-minded and tolerant people at Electric Grizzly Tattoo than I have almost anywhere else in my life. Organized religion and the political party faithful could learn a lot from tattoo culture.

Back to the tattoo show…

I had considered getting a booth at this show to sell my work, with the encouragement of my friends in the business, but I’m glad it didn’t work out. With the pressure of the election, getting cartoons drawn and sent, what it would have involved with stock ordering, prep and prints, the expense of it all, it was too much. I still went to check it out to decide if I might do it next year.

It was a good plan. While I enjoyed the experience, it really wasn’t the right place to sell my stuff, despite all of the talented artists in attendance. It just wasn’t my audience and it was a much smaller show than the Calgary Expo.

One side benefit, however, is that I got to hang out with an incredibly talented landscape photographer I’ve met through the shop. Wes isn’t a photographer for a living, but his landscape photos are some of the best I’ve seen. Wes heads out to the mountains and takes road trips on a whim, regardless of weather, and captures incredibly beautiful scenes.

They’re surreal, moving, ethereal…basically just choose an adjective that says, “this guy’s work is unique.”

While standing in front of a stage for a good half hour, waiting for one of the many contest events at the show, Wes and I caught up. I showed him my latest stuff and he showed me his latest work and I realized how much I missed seeing it.

I left social media quite some time ago because it felt like I was spending more time promoting my paintings than creating them, without having much to show for the time invested. I got sucked into the culture that says you have to be constantly posting CONTENT, even when you have nothing to post, just so that the people who follow you will see you pop up in their feed every day, because the all-seeing, all-knowing algorithm says so.

The likes were never enough, the shares were never enough, and it just made me miserable. When you see some kid posting his lunch every day and he gets a million followers, you kind of wonder if you’re even in Kansas anymore.

I also dislike being on my phone.

But in my hiatus, I’ve realized a couple of things. One, the likes and shares will NEVER be enough. If I get 10,000, I’ll soon be shooting for 20,000, then 100,000, then…well, you get the idea.

The second thing I learned, which is more of a reminder, is that there is no rulebook for being an artist for a living, or for life in general. You just do your best, try to be a decent person, make your choices and see what happens. And you can change your mind.

While I’m confident that I’ve closed the book on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve been mulling over the idea of giving Instagram another shot because of something I didn’t anticipate when I left it in February.

Basically, I miss seeing the work of many artists I admire and that’s how they choose to share it. I’m missing out on seeing work that inspires me. As for my own posts, I’m simply going to share stuff when I have stuff to share, just like on this blog or in my newsletter. I won’t be creating content just to have stuff to post, nor will I be paying to promote anything, because that requires a business account and a Facebook profile in order to pay for it. I might post a painting, then nothing else for two weeks until the next one.

This will mean less people will see my posts, I’ll get fewer likes and shares, but honestly, that kind of thing rarely generated any revenue for me in the first place. When I left Instagram the first time, only a handful of those followers signed up for my newsletter as a result, which speaks volumes about how invested many of those nameless, faceless followers were really interested in seeing what came next.

Everybody talks a good game online.

An art career is constantly changing and when the wind shifts, you adjust your sails and try to hold course, waiting for it to inevitably shift again. Sometimes you seek safe harbour from the storm for a while, other times you stand on the deck shaking your fist, hands tied to the helm, daring the tempest to sink you.

Why do I like nautical metaphors so much? I don’t even sail!

If I find in six months that my first instincts about leaving Instagram were correct, well then I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.

I remain, as always, a work in progress.

Cheers,
Patrick
@LaMontagneArt
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2020 Calendar & New Prints

I can finally announce that by the end of April, my first calendar will be available in more than 50 Save-On-Foods stores in Western Canada. More than once over the years, I’ve walked into a store somewhere and have been surprised to see my own art staring back at me, whether on a T-shirt in Victoria or on a coffee mug in Banff. Now I can look forward to seeing my funny looking Otter in a display rack at my local grocery store.

This  2020 calendar is now available for purchase from me directly. These will retail for $12.99, but I’m offering them for $12.00 (plus tax and shipping). If you’re local, I’ll even deliver free of charge. If you’d like to order one (or two, or three, or…), send me an email with your address and I’ll be happy to make that happen. I’ll accept e-transfer or Paypal for mail orders. In person, I can take debit, credit, or Apple Pay. Cash works, too.
There are also three new prints available in the online store. Happy Baby, Peaceful Panda and Walking Wolf. Hard to believe I’ve painted more than 60 production pieces, with just over 40 currently available as prints.

Back to the brush strokes.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Peaceful Panda

One of the things I value most in my profession is the relationships I’ve formed over the years.

Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, The Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation in Coaldale, Archipelago Wildlife Cruises in Ucluelet, and of course, The Calgary Zoo. I’ve made friends at all of these places and remain grateful for their generosity in allowing me to get close to so many critters.

Some of my best work wouldn’t have been possible without their assistance in gathering the reference I need to paint my whimsical wildlife paintings. Whenever possible, I’ve tried to ensure these relationships are quid pro quo. I’ve created artwork for them, made donations, or have simply tried to promote the conservation work they do whenever I can.

My prints have been sold in the various gift shops at The Calgary Zoo for more than five years, along with licensed images on other products. During that time, I’ve become friends with the Retail Manager. Kathryn has given me invaluable marketing advice and has always been supportive of my work, helping me put my best foot forward.

In the spring of last year, the Calgary Zoo received four pandas from The Toronto Zoo. The two adults had been there for five years, on generous loan from China, with two cubs born during that time. As per the agreement with China, the remaining five years of the loan, they’ll live in Calgary, although the cubs will be returned to China sometime next year.

While I’m not a professional photographer, I take some decent photos from time to time and she needed some for her own marketing purposes to promote the pandas. The deal was, I could get into the habitat early, in exchange for some of my photos.

The Calgary Zoo is strict about no behind the scenes photography, so I should clarify that I was still only allowed in the public areas, just a couple of days early.
Early one morning at the end of April, Kathryn took me over to the brand new Panda Passage habitat and aside from a couple of keepers, we had the place to ourselves for a couple of hours. Of the four residents, I only saw Da Mao that morning, the adult male. He was active and accommodating, which is a rare treat when it comes to pandas. They spend a lot of their time sleeping.
I ended up with a LOT of nice photos, a couple of dozen I shared with Kathryn, and many others that will serve as good reference for paintings. I’ve already done one painting from that session (above) , and it became a popular acrylic magnet that sold well at the zoo. My previous Panda painting has been a best seller over the past year in their gift shops and I’m hoping this new one does equally well.

While I don’t often share the reference photos I use for paintings, I’m making an exception here to show that my work is more of an interpretation of the reference rather than a copy. This photo wasn’t one of the best quality I took that day and would have been of no use for promotional purposes for the zoo.
It was shot through glass, with a bit of a glare I couldn’t compensate for, not even with a polarizing filter. But with Da Mao climbing up on the log and looking right at me, the pose was a gift I couldn’t pass up. I used other reference for some lost detail, especially in the face.
This is one of the reasons I like to take my own reference. The pose is the same in both photo and painting, but both images are mine, so a photographer can’t say I copied their composition. When I buy stock photos for animals to which I can’t gain access, I try to create an image different than what the photographer took, but when it’s my image in the first place, it hardly matters.
This won’t be the last panda I paint; there might even be another this year. I’m pleased with how this turned out because it’s a full body image but still has that whimsical quality inherent in the rest of my work.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Newsletter

Want to keep up with new paintings, blog posts, special print offers, cartoons and other news? Sign up for my newsletter, delivered directly to your email. I don’t keep a regular schedule, but it’s usually 1 – 3 per month, depending on how busy I am. You can read the latest edition by clicking on the image above. Sign up within or by clicking on this link.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Selling Out Selling Art


A student from the Alberta College of Art and Design recently asked to interview me for an assignment. I was happy to oblige. While in Calgary to drop off prints at the zoo and take some photos, I made time to meet her for coffee last week.

It got me thinking about the road traveled.

My first paying gig as an artist was as the editorial cartoonist for the Banff Crag & Canyon newspaper. I drew my first cartoon in May of ’98, so it’s been just over twenty years. I’ve been a full-time artist since 2006.

Over my career, it has always been easy to find resources in order to become a better artist. While I started with books and magazines, no matter what style of art you want to learn today, there are talented teachers on the internet willing to share their skills, often for a very reasonable price.

Google: “How do I learn to draw?”

While you can peruse countless lessons, videos, books, articles, buy all of the best materials, tools and hardware, unless you practice, you will never become good at anything.

People want the skills, but a relative few are willing to invest the countless lonely hours drawing and the years of bad artwork, most of which will be incredibly unsatisfying and unpaid. I have a hard time looking at my earlier work, but all of that led to all of this.

Creating art for fun can be a great hobby and escape. I’ve encountered many skilled artists with no designs on becoming pros. They are content to draw, paint, sculpt, or play simply for the joy of it, with no illusions.

As for me, I am a commercial artist. It’s how I make my living.

I’ve encountered plenty of artists over the years who’ve told me that I was selling out by selling art, that they wouldn’t dare sully their creative process by putting a dollar amount on it, that real art is made for creativity’s sake alone and not for financial compensation.

That’s bullshit.

I enjoy being an artist, but it’s my job, and just like any other. There are many necessary parts of my job that I do not enjoy.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had to reformat paintings to conform to multiple templates for a new licensing contract. Sixteen images had to be resized, cropped, and uploaded in eleven different formats each, many of which were uncomfortable compromises. Over two days, it took about fifteen hours, during which I still had to meet my daily editorial cartoon deadlines for my clients across Canada.

Prior to that, I was in contract negotiation with that company, back and forth, making changes to the wording, all amicable and professional, but time consuming.

On Sunday, I drew three cartoons to send out Monday because I spent that day reconciling my books for the past three months so that I could file my GST remittance with the government. The day after that was month end invoicing for all of my editorial cartoon clients across Canada.

And still, editorial cartoon deadlines had to be met.

Tomorrow afternoon, I have a meeting with the owner of the aforementioned company as he will be driving through town. If I’m sending mixed signals, let me clarify. The setup work and contract stuff was tedious, but the license itself is exciting and I’m looking forward to sharing the details very soon.

My point is that I have spent as much time this week on the administration and promotion of my art as I have creating art, and that art was all cartoons.

I’ve only squeezed in a couple of hours of painting in this week. That’s it. But I’m hoping to find time for it this weekend, which is why I still get up at 5am on Saturdays even though I don’t have a cartoon deadline that day.

I painted my first funny looking animal in 2009 as an experiment, to try something different that might end up being a more marketable print than the caricature portrait commissions I was doing. Ironic that it was looking to sell more art that led me to the work I enjoy most and a whole new product that changed my whole direction. Commercial art led me to photography as I knew I could paint better images if I took my own reference. It is unlikely I would have found either of those if I wasn’t trying to grow my business.

None of this is complaining, I assure you. Everybody has parts of their job they dislike. That’s why it’s called work.

Quite often over the years, I’ll get emails or questions from young artists asking me for advice on how to create art for a living, which I’m happy to answer.

They become less enthusiastic when I tell them the single most important thing they can do is learn the business of art. Bookkeeping, contracts, licensing, customer service, meet deadlines, keep regular hours, pay your taxes, stop wasting time on social media, be polite to your customers, under-promise and over-deliver. Be accountable and professional.

It’s tedious and you’ll spend all of that time wishing you were drawing or painting instead. You’ll make so many mistakes, but you’ll learn from them and be better for the lessons. Whenever I work with somebody new, especially when it comes to licensing, a voice in the back of my head is always asking, “How is this person trying to screw me?”

Cynical? Yes.

Appropriate? Absolutely.

People take advantage of artists because we not only allow it, we encourage it. Artists are the biggest pushovers around. We not only want you to like our work, we want you to like us, too. Here, just take it for free.

These days, I have enough experience that the warning signs are easier to spot, but I don’t imagine myself immune to more lessons down the road.

I have been screwed more than once in this business. I will get screwed again, but hopefully not in the same ways, because then I won’t have learned anything.

Most of the time, however, the person on the other end of a negotiation is fair, professional, accommodating and a pleasure to work with. But most of the people in your neighbourhood are probably nice, too, and yet you still lock your doors at night.

This business of art is always challenging and the learning is never over. It’s hard work, all the time, and it’s not for everybody.

Creating art is easy. Selling art? That’s the hard part.

Cheers,
Patrick

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A Visit To Harlequin Nature Graphics

This trip to Vancouver Island has almost become an annual thing, and I always return home with plenty of reference photos and renewed inspiration for painting. Back at the desk, having gathered another collection of pics, but an added bonus on this trip was being able to pay a visit to Harlequin Nature Graphics Ltd. in Cobble Hill.

This is my first year working with Harlequin and they came highly recommended by current clients. While shopping around for a new licensee for my work on apparel, both the Calgary Zoo and Discovery Wildlife Park spoke well of Harlequin’s quality and service. When I was first considering licensing my images with Harlequin last fall, the fact that they are Canadian, primarily focused on wildlife and that they support wildlife causes were all high on my list of pros.
As this trip is a working vacation, we included in our plans a drive down to Cobble Hill on Monday, from where we were staying near Qualicum Beach. Unless you’re moving from one end of the island to the other, we never seem to have to travel long distances to get where we need to go. Since we’ve always planned our visits for early June, before school is out and vacationing families pack the highways, we usually don’t have much in the way of heavy traffic.
Kevin and Gillian were very welcoming and spent more than an hour giving us a tour of the facility, showing us the shirts, their printing operation, talking about the history of the company and where their future plans might take them. They’re working on a new website at present that I’m looking forward to sharing.
I’d already had a good feeling about Harlequin from the beginning, which is why I signed with them. They initially took on a lot more of my images than I expected and time will tell which designs generate the most interest among their many clients across Canada.

It’s not always reasonable or economical to meet face to face when licensing is concerned. I’ve got licensees in the U.S. with whom I don’t expect I’ll ever be able to sit down and have a chat, but given the option, I’ll always choose to. The opportunity to meet with Kevin, Gillian and their staff was well worth the drive to Cobble Hill and we came away from the meeting with a better understanding of the operation and an even greater confidence in our shared vision for my whimsical wildlife paintings.
Of course, since we were there, I managed to beg a few more shirts in my size, too. Thanks, Kevin!

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The Black Bear Totem


Right up until the end of 2009, my art focus had primarily been on syndicated editorial cartoons and caricatures of people. Along the way, I’d also done illustration for businesses and board games, had tried my hand at some editorial Flash animation, and experimented here and there with creative off-shoots I thought might eventually yield some fruit.

Keeping a somewhat regular blog for the past nine years has served to become a business diary of sorts. It’s interesting to look back and read about my best laid plans. With the benefit of hindsight, some now make me cringe, knowing that had I gone further down some of those roads, I would have been disappointed. I’m also surprised at the blind optimism and enthusiasm in some of the posts, an elixir I wish I’d been able to bottle for mid-life.

The time I spent working on caricatures was excellent practice. I’m much better at drawing likenesses in my editorial cartoons today than I was then and it takes less time to get there. As I wasn’t interested in going that route, I never developed the skill to draw caricatures live. But people used to hire me to create them for birthday presents, wedding invitations, and other occasions. I can’t imagine I’d enjoy still doing that now, but it was all grist for the mill.

I was also getting pretty good at detailed caricature paintings of celebrities, but navigating the legal minefield of likeness rights, the large number of artists already doing that kind of work, and the awareness that my heart wasn’t going to be in it for long, I was a little lost.

This brings me to November 2009, right after my first trip to Photoshop World in Vegas. That summer, I had painted a caricature of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley with her holding one of the Aliens on a leash. The whole reason I painted it was to try to win a Guru Award and I didn’t get nominated. I didn’t enjoy the work, the finished piece felt wrong and I wished I’d never done it.

While disappointed at the time, it was a turning point in my career. I learned not to create something just to win awards and it lit a fire under me to find something new.

Upon returning home with the realization that caricatures of people was no longer where I wanted to focus, I painted a grizzly bear. Although it didn’t start out to be a caricature, it definitely ended up as one.
By February, I had a gallery in Banff willing to hang canvas prints of the Grizzly and subsequent Raven and Elk Totems on consignment. And then people started to buy them. I’ll never forget something the gallery manager told me about my whimsical style of painting. He said that no matter how well I painted, if I’d brought him realistic wildlife, he wouldn’t have been interested, because that’s what everybody else was doing. I’ve heard that a lot over the years.

On my next trip to Photoshop World later that summer, my Moose Totem won the Guru Award for the Illustration category and my Wolf Totem took Best in Show. While I didn’t paint them to try and win awards, it was that event and those chunks of plastic that introduced me to some great people at Wacom, and helped open some other doors that might have remained closed.

Since then, these whimsical wildlife portraits have become a defining part of my life. There are now over thirty paintings in the Totem series, several other whimsical prints, dozens of pet portrait commissions, and hundreds of sketch paintings.

There are now three kinds of prints sold in the Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary Zoos, Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, About Canada Gallery in Banff, and Reflecting Spirit Gallery in Ucluelet. The images are currently internationally licensed on T-shirts through two different companies, and on decals and cases. I’ve written articles for magazines, have recorded a couple of training DVDs, taught webinars and run an event booth for Wacom, and am coming up on my fifth successful year with a booth at The Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo.

I’ve also discovered a love of photography as a result of this work. While I’ve often relied on generous photographer friends for reference photos, I now take my own reference photos whenever possible. This has led me to new friends and experiences that have helped me get up close and personal with these critters I enjoy so much, sometimes face to face.
It is my belief that the next chapter in this work is calling me to get more involved with conservation, to give back to the wildlife that has given me so much. It might have taken me most of my life to find it, but I believe there’s work for me there, although I don’t yet know how it will manifest. I’ve already been looking for and taking advantage of those opportunities.

As all of this started with a grinning funny looking bear, it seems appropriate to reflect and bookend this chapter with another bear, eight and a half years later. The Black Bear Totem, modeled from a wonderful gentle bear named Gruff who lives at Discovery Wildlife Park, although that’s Reno in the photo above. I admire Gruff from a little farther away.

In writing this and checking my facts, I found the following in my blog post from November 2009 when I revealed the Grizzly Bear Totem, which incidentally is still one of my best selling prints.

“I recently found myself inspired to do a series of wildlife paintings, but I wanted them to have personality and life to them. Something different, something fun…I really think I’ll enjoy working on this series.”

I had no idea.

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A Tale of Two Paintings

My usual routine is to write a little blog post after each painting I do, to provide a close-up and maybe share a little bit of relevant info. Given the fact that I’ve been working on two commissions at the same time recently and finished them quite close together, I thought I’d share them both in the same post. It gives me an opportunity to show the difference between the two styles of commission paintings I do.

Loki

The first painting I recently finished was Loki, a beautiful old boy who passed away a little while ago. This is the second memorial painting I’ve done for this client; the first was Odin a couple of years ago. The client is very familiar with my work and chose a portrait style, which is quite often the case with memorial paintings I’m commissioned to do. With plenty of photos to choose from, I had the freedom to go with whichever pose I wanted to use. As usual, one photo spoke to me clearly and I got to work.

LokiCloseI usually only have a rough idea of what a painting will look like before I get started, but it’s usually enough. The background colour might change in the middle of a painting, but this one was orange and yellow from the beginning. The reference pic was taken in the fall and I knew those colours would just bring out his eyes. For me, it’s all about the eyes. If I get the eyes right, the rest of the painting will always come together. And if they’re wrong, nothing looks right.

Having lost a pet of my own this summer, there was a little more gravitas for me with this one. This old boy was loved a lot and I thought of that often while working on it. What a privilege.

SaxonThe next painting was in my Totem style, which is a whimsical caricature look, the same way I paint my wildlife paintings. The clients saw my paintings for sale in About Canada Gallery in Banff while on vacation and looked me up to see if I did commissions.

Saxon was described as a “beautiful drooling mastiff” and when I saw the photos, I was inclined to agree. His personality was evident in many of the pics and again, I found one that I thought would best represent what the client wanted him to look like.

SaxonCloseAs is the case in many of my whimsical paintings, I found myself smiling a lot while painting this big fella, and even laughed out loud a few times. I really wanted to paint in long strings of drool coming from those jowls, but the client didn’t want that. A commission is a significant investment, and while most of my clients give me carte blanche to paint what I want, I’m willing to take direction if it makes for a happier client.

Case in point, when this piece was finished yesterday, I had intentionally made the body a little narrow to draw attention to his big head, but the client thought I made him too skinny and wanted me to bulk up the body a bit. I spent another hour on the painting last night and delivered a final that pleased everybody, including me.

No matter what style my clients choose for their paintings, portrait or whimsical, memorial or just because, it’s such an honour to be trusted with the task. I enjoy these a great deal and each one challenges and teaches me something new. These two were no exception.

These will both be sent for proofing tomorrow and I intend to have them printed, framed and shipped in a couple of weeks.

Thanks for stopping by,

Patrick

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