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The Hardest Part of Professional Art

Here’s my latest piece. I call it ‘Staring Contest.’ This is another painting of Berkley from Discovery Wildlife Park. I took the reference a couple of years ago, the same day I did for one of my favorite pieces, Grizzly on Grass. I love painting this bear. Spending time with her was, and continues to be, a highlight of my life. I’m forever grateful to Serena and her staff for that privilege. Below is a time lapse video of this piece, from start to finish, along with narration to go with it. The text for the voice-over is below the video if you’d rather read than listen to it. Thanks for being here.

Cheers,
Patrick


Every artist is familiar with imposter syndrome. It has now become a cliché that’s right up there with the overshared quote about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

We compare ourselves to other artists and not only feel like we don’t measure up but that we never will. It’s easy to fall into the headspace that an art career is a zero-sum game, that when another artist wins, you lose. It can be somebody you’ve never met with whom you have no connection, but when they’re making headlines and you’re not, it feels like you’re failing.

Worse, news of other people’s successes is front and center all the time. As a result, we now compare ourselves to everyone else on the planet.

So-and-so exceeded their Kickstarter funding by $50,000. And there’s the guy who makes his entire living from his Patreon subscribers. That woman over there makes six figures from YouTube videos, and that other person has thousands of followers on Instagram.

That artist made millions on NFTs. Somebody else just published their 4th book. His course went viral. She’s featured at Comic-Con. That big company sponsored this guy, and that girl scored a five-figure art grant.

Some kid’s painting video goes viral, and now he’s making movies with James Cameron? He’s 18. That girl’s not even out of art school and got a gig with Disney?

Suddenly I have to start dancing on TikTok to sell my art.

What the hell?

That’s the problem with attention. You’ve got to keep coming up with something new to get more of it and find a way to stand out in a crowd of millions doing the same damn thing.

When you’re not chasing the spotlight, you need to pay the bills.

I’ve been making my full-time living as an editorial cartoonist, illustrator and digital painter for nearly twenty years, plus several years part-time before that.

And yet, I wonder if I’ll still be able to do this for a living in six months.

I’ve had that worry every month since I quit my full-time job in 2005. It has never gone away. Good stuff has happened in my career, a lot of it. But when it does, that little voice always reminds me not to get comfortable. Because as soon as you stop and smell the roses, you get a thorn up your nose.

There are plenty of articles that try to talk you down from the comparison ledge. I know, I’ve read them. Hell, I’ve written some, though I felt like a fraud while doing it.

The worst part is the longing, that feeling that you could be so much more than you are, but you somehow missed that critical memo everybody else got because they seem to know what they’re doing, and you’re the idiot still looking for the light switch in a dark room. It’s that failure to live up to your own perfectionist personal potential, that dark cloud of not being good enough that will rob you of most of the joy of creating art.

Then there’s the shame that comes from not being more successful, feeling like a joke to your friends and family, as if they’re reluctantly indulging this phase you’re going through, just waiting for you to come to your senses and get a real job.

I can’t tell you how many acquaintances I’ve run into, people I hadn’t seen for years, who ask, “Oh, you still doing that art thing?”

“Good for you.”

All that’s missing is the pat on the head.

Now, this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you to let it all go, enjoy the ride, stop trying so hard and making yourself miserable. Comparison is the thief of joy. But then I’d be a hypocrite because I’m 51 years old, and I haven’t figured out how to accept any of that.

Not long ago, I watched that ‘Light and Magic’ series about the creative minds behind ILM. For a movie and art nerd like me, it was exciting stuff. The contrast between what they created in the ‘70s and what it has become today is remarkable. From little plastic spaceship models and whole camera systems they had to invent to bring Star Wars to life to later making dinosaurs real in Jurassic Park, it’s practically sorcery.

On the one hand, it was incredibly inspiring that they just made stuff up, and it worked. But, on the other, it triggered a sense of desperation that nothing I’ll ever create will ever be that good.

I paint funny-looking animals. How important is that? It’s not! But you know what? Neither is modelling toys and playing with space aliens. But those people changed movies forever. Those people changed the world

What I liked best about the story was how those people talked about each other 40 years later.  They were like family. It was the kind of workplace everybody wants but is ultimately very rare. They gambled on a dream and turned it into reality.

It’s easy to quote, “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.”

But chances are better than average that they won’t. For every ILM lightning-in-a-bottle story, there are a hundred others we’ll never hear about, featuring creative types who dreamed just as big and worked just as hard.

This artist’s life delivers more than its fair share of torment, uncertainty, and feeling unoriginal like it’s all been wasted time. I wonder if I’ll still be able to draw when I’m older or if age will rob me of my dexterity and eyesight. I worry I haven’t saved enough for retirement because I’ve invested more into this creative life of risk than my financial security.

And yet, for all the fear I feel every single day, and the shame for not knowing how to make all the right business moves, it’s still one of the very few places in my life where I’m allowed to touch something magical and unexplainable. In the work is a sense of connection to something greater than myself, even though I can’t define it. It’s a feeling outside the five senses, a well I’m allowed to draw from but not one I own.

It doesn’t come in the first moments I sit down to paint, nor does it show up even an hour into it. I’m still distracted by random thoughts, checking emails, and going to YouTube to answer a question that just popped into my head, leading to three more videos. And finally, an hour later, I must remind myself to get back to painting.

Once immersed in the work, a couple of hours into a session, something happens that reminds me why I’m spending so much of my limited time on the planet painting little hairs around a silly little grizzly bear’s ear.

It just feels right, that it’s where I’m supposed to be. It quiets the angry, critical, unkind voices in my head. It’s an escape, something good in a world I’m convinced is not. It’s a fleeting thing, only sticks around for a little while, but it comes and goes in waves.

Over the years, chasing those moments, that connection, those little hairs became a painting, then another, then a portfolio, and a body of work. Before I knew it, it was a career and life as an artist.

If you are lucky in a creative profession, you never stop learning and trying to become a better version of the artist you were yesterday, which is the only comparison that matters. I thought this painting was done, but then I realized that the bear’s muzzle wasn’t long enough. Most people wouldn’t care one way or the other, but once I’d seen it, I knew I’d forever look at the painting and wish I had changed it.

So I did some cutting and pasting, a little warping and nudging, and spent a couple more hours repainting that section. It was frustrating, but I’m more content with the finished result and glad I didn’t rush it. And though it’s done, it’s still not quite good enough. I can do better, and I’ll try again on the next one.

Because that is the hardest part of being a professional artist, making peace with the fact that you will never be good enough for your own expectations and will spend a lifetime reaching for that carrot on the stick, knowing you will never get it. Even if you did, it wouldn’t be what you thought it was.

So is it all worth it? I don’t know.

Ask me in another twenty years.

____
©Patrick LaMontagne 2022

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Artist Q&A

From time to time, I’ll receive emails from art students or aspiring artists who have questions about my process or my road from there to here. I remember doing the same thing when I was first starting out. You never know when a kind word or tidbit of information might make a big difference, as it often did for me when more experienced artists took the time to respond to my own inquiries.
 
Hi Patrick!

My name is **** and I am a senior at UC Berkeley studying Biology and Art Practice – I stumbled upon your website while learning how to draw on my own Wacom tablet using photoshop!

I love drawing animals and the detail in all your work is truly stunning – I especially love the shine and depth of the eyes.
I was just wondering – what size canvas do you usually work with in Photoshop to have such high quality? Is all of your work on display digitally or have you ever printed them out for a physical show, etc.?

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions! I’d love to cite your work as some of my inspiration for my senior thesis.

 
Hi ****:
 
Thanks for the compliments about my artwork. I do enjoy creating my funny looking animal paintings. People often mention the eyes as being the part they like most about my work and I would agree. If I don’t get the eyes right, there’s just no life in them.
 

My digital process hasn’t really changed much over the years, even though it sprang from technology shortcomings. I begin a painting at 9″X12″ at 300ppi, or sometimes at 12″X16″. The reason is that I want to get the ‘bones’ of the work done before I work on the detail. A mistake amateurs often make is focusing on detail too soon. It’s a lesson I had to learn myself after much frustration. If the likeness or character isn’t right, painting in a ton of detail won’t fix it.

Once I have the general look right, painting the broad strokes, playing with different colour choices, experimenting with expressions, then I’ll bump up the size. Early on, I used to start with a smaller canvas because my computer and Photoshop would start to lag if I was trying make broad brush strokes on a big canvas. But these days, my hardware/software is plenty fast enough that I could start on a large canvas without any issues, but I still start small for the reasons mentioned above.
 
As I create more and more detail, I’ll bump up the size of the image. 12″X16″ becomes 15″X20″, 18″X24″, 21″X28″…until eventually I’ve been topping out lately at 30″X40″, so my Master files are very versatile for sizing, whatever the need. With each bump up in size, the detail ends up blurring a little, so I’ll sharpen sections as I go, by painting in more detail at that size. It adds to a layered look, especially on fur, which is how it looks in real life. That was initially just a happy accident, but it’s now a critical part of my process.
 
Most importantly, I save multiple versions of a painting as I go. While it’s rare that I experience a crash these days while painting, it was common enough in the early days that I risked losing whole paintings or files if I wasn’t expecting it. Again, it was because the technology couldn’t keep up with the demand I was placing on it. Photoshop would freeze and I’d have to do a reboot, sometimes losing the file in the process. I’ve also got into the habit of saving often, even have an Express Key on my Wacom tablet set so I can one-click it at any time. By the time a painting is done, I’ll have seven or eight working files in different stages of progress. That way, if the most recent file ever gets corrupted, I’ll have only lost two or three hours of work instead of ten or twelve. It still hurts, but not as much.
 
When a painting is done, the first thing I do is upload a Master file to Dropbox. I’ve also got multiple backups on external hard drives. Failing all off that, my licensees and printers have full-res files, so I’m confident my bases are covered. I’ve heard far too many stories from artists who have lost everything because of a failed hard drive at just the wrong time, sometimes years of work because they weren’t diligent in their backups.
 
As for the second question…
 
Because my work is licensed and I sell prints, I usually keep most of it to the same size and ratio. I personally hate buying a print for $25 and then having to spend $100 or more to frame it. So I keep my prints at a uniform size where frames can be easily bought off the shelf. The majority of my consumer prints are 11″X14″, an easy size to find. That helps with sales, too, because people are more likely to buy if they know it won’t cost them a fortune to frame it.
While my work looks best on canvas, I don’t print a lot of those these days, because they’re more of an investment both for me and my customers. They don’t move as fast as the paper prints so I end up hanging on to a lot of inventory. When I do print canvas, it’s usually 12″X16″, the sides are printed black and include hanging hardware on the back. This creates a free hanging look so people don’t have to frame it at all. Looks pretty sharp as is. Any canvas sales are usually done in person at a trade show I do each year, The Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, or by special order. From time to time, people will commission me to paint their pets and a canvas print is included. I don’t print large canvas very often because my type of art doesn’t usually define a big room, like a landscape or modern art piece does.
 
I once had a customer at a trade show tell me that they had two of my pieces in their bathroom. His wife gave him a light punch and said, “Don’t tell him they’re in the bathroom!”
 
To which I replied, “Hey, you had to buy them to hang them there.”
 
I’m under no delusion that my art will someday be in a book of great masters. The paintings make people happy, provide me with a good income, and that’s enough.
I consider myself a commercial artist. I make my living at it so I’ve got no dreams of having my work hang in a prestigious art gallery somewhere. I sell prints at zoos, online and at the occasional trade show. But the largest market for my animal art is through licensing. I’ve got over sixty paintings licensed globally through Art Licensing International. They act as my agent for a number of licenses, mostly for print on demand websites. I’ve also got my work licensed on T-shirts through Harlequin Nature Graphics and on a number of different retail products (magnets, coasters, trivets, art cards…) through Pacific Music and Art, both based on Vancouver Island. Those two licenses wholesale my work to retailers across Western Canada and in a number of States. It’s strange and gratifying to visit somewhere I’ve never been, walk into a gift store, and see my own work staring back at me from a rack or shelf.
The other half of my business is editorial cartooning. I’m nationally syndicated across Canada, providing daily editorial cartoons to many weekly and daily newspapers. I create a minimum of seven cartoons each week, often more, especially during elections. We’re in a federal election campaign right now in Canada.
 
It’s a tough balance sometimes. While both sides of my business involve artwork, they’re very different in theme and audience. There are plenty of people who know me as either an editorial cartoonist or a painter of whimsical wildlife, often unaware of the other work.
 
As is the case for most self-employed folks, it’s an ongoing challenge to adapt to the ever increasing pace of a changing market, but for the most part, it’s work I enjoy.
 
Good luck with your thesis and feel free to quote any parts of this email. Now that I’ve written this much, it occurs to me that this would make a good blog post, for anyone else who might have similar questions. Your name and details will be kept confidential, of course.
 
Cheers,
Patrick
 
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