Posted on


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was also the case for this Hippo painting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

Panda Totem

PandaTotemHere’s one that I’ve wanted to paint for quite some time. There have been times where I’ve had galleries and others asking me to add a Totem to the series for marketing reasons and it hasn’t always worked out the way I’ve wanted it to. On a couple of occasions, the painting ended up feeling forced and I didn’t have much fun with it, because it seemed like I was painting it at the wrong time.

At other times, however, the request coincides nicely with the desire to paint that animal and I’ve been pleased with the result. This is one of those times.

The Toronto Zoo has a couple of pandas on a five year loan from China and they are proving to be very popular. This year, they were successfully bred and two panda cubs are currently being well cared for. Panda cubs are delicate and they won’t be available to the public for some time, although the zoo has been posting some pretty adorable photos.

I approached the Toronto Zoo to add my Totem prints to their retail program this year and they are eager to place a large order in January, which will include animals in my current portfolio and a few I’ve yet to paint. The Panda Totem was one they requested.
PandaCloseupI’m pleased with how this one turned out, especially since it was one of the easier paintings I’ve done. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t able to take my own reference photos on this one, so I relied on stock footage. My friend Scott had some credits that were about to expire and he graciously offered them to me, for this painting and a few others I’ll paint in the future.

With those new photos and some of the others I’d already bought, I used about four different head-shots for this one and three different bodies, each offering me detail and anatomy that wasn’t available in the others.

Some paintings I’ve done have been arduous, where I had great difficulty getting the anatomy right, or the expression, personality, lighting. My Bighorn Sheep Totem is especially memorable for being a real slog. But this painting flowed nicely, was quite fun and didn’t take nearly as long as many of the others. It was nice to have such a smooth painting experience this time.

I’ll be printing this one in January and it will be available in the online store by the end of next month. The Calgary Zoo has already expressed interest in it as well, as the pandas at The Toronto Zoo will be moving there in 2018. Early speculation is that the cubs will be joining them.

This was painted on the Wacom Cintiq 24HD display in Photoshop CC, photos were only used for reference.


If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.  Thanks!

Posted on

Tiger Totem

TigerFinalThe latest in the series, this is the Tiger Totem. Specifically a Malaysian Tiger, but most people won’t be too concerned over the species.

It’s funny how these always turn out. I start with a vision in my head of what I think it will look like but every Totem always becomes something different than what I’d expected. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because the final image is usually a pleasant surprise. For example, with this painting, I rather expected the tiger to look stern and a little menacing along the lines of my Cougar Totem. Clearly it didn’t end up that way, but I kind of like it.

I’ve often said that the personality just shows up at some point in each of these paintings and this one was no different. Many artists will speak of their muse, that ‘other’ that contributes to their work, provides a spark that isn’t entirely their own. Define it how you will, but it’s that which infuses these animals with something that doesn’t quite feel like it was mine to begin with. So when the personality shows up and is different than what I’d envisioned, I just go with it.

When I posted this online yesterday, one person said that this one looked a little more anthropomorphized than my others. That’s basically a ten dollar word (one I’ve always liked) to describe a human quality or character in something that isn’t human. It definitely fits for my work. As for there being more or less in this one, that’s up to the viewer and I would refer you back to the previous paragraph.

A couple of other people said that it looked like the tiger was taking a selfie. Likely it’s because of the lighting and the way I painted the body below the head, making it look like his front legs are outstretched. In point of fact, the tiger was resting on his front legs in the reference image and I decided to keep that pose. Did I get it wrong? Maybe. Do I wish I could change it? No.

TigerCloseEach of these paintings comes with a decision tree where one choice leads to another and so on. I thought about putting foliage in the foreground, might have added more depth. I thought of putting a darker and lighter background. The reference featured the entire body of the tiger and I thought about putting more of that in as well. But my Totems are all about the detail and I can only show that in a close-up of the face on a larger animal. Somebody else might have chosen differently.

Just as I paint what I see, everybody sees something different as well. If to some it looks like he’s taking a selfie, then that’s what it looks like, and they’re not wrong. I’ve learned that with signature or niche pieces, creations that aren’t done for a client or somebody else, an artist just has to paint what they see and separate themselves from the result and how others will interpret it.

Some will love my work, some will downright hate it, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s a constant struggle to be at peace with that and every artist I know has been through it.

TigerCintiq13HDThis was painted in Adobe Photoshop CC using both a Wacom Cintiq 13HD and Cintiq 24HD displays. Photos were only used for reference and the painting was done entirely with brush work. On a personal note, a big thank you to Alan Hess, a photographer friend who gave me the main reference photo I used for this piece, a shot he took at the San Diego zoo. I’ve had the photo for many months, but it finally felt right to paint this Totem.

Alan is a talented professional photographer, author and instructor. I would recommend taking a look through the images on his website as you’ll find some great shots on a wide range of subjects.

Thanks for stopping by.

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form. Thanks!

Posted on

Gorilla Sketch Painting (sort of)

GorillaSketchFBIn my continuing efforts to paint more, I decided to do another rough painting sketch of a gorilla this afternoon.  I just couldn’t stop, however, so I took it further than I had intended.  I was having fun, dammit!  While I think I might compose it a little differently, maybe show a little more of the body, this may end up a Totem painting.

Posted on

Raccoon Totem

RaccoonTotemHere’s the last painting of the year and another addition to my Totem series.  At present, I’ve got about eight to ten animals waiting in the wings to be painted.  I’ve had the reference photos for a number of them for quite some time and even though I don’t have an order in mind, it just seems that each gets their turn whenever it feels right.  I had not expected to be painting the Raccoon Totem this year, but when choosing which would be my last painting of 2013, I went through the different folders and reference images, and it just seemed the right time to paint this one.

Whenever I try to manipulate which Totem I’ll paint, whether it’s for commercial reasons or a request from the gallery, I never feel completely good about it.  I learned a while ago to just paint whichever one feels right for the time I’m ready to start a new one and my best work will come through.  This time, it was the raccoon, and (say it with me)…I had a lot of fun with this one.

There appear to be new challenges with each Totem, whether it’s features or fur and for this one, the fur and hair was different.  It wasn’t particularly difficult, but the wiry raccoon hair is unlike any of the animals I’ve painted before.  Just as the Bison and Otter Totems required me to paint hair a little differently, the Raccoon required me to paint on more layers than I normally would, in order to get that deeper layered look I achieved with the hair in this painting.  I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out.

RaccoonCloseThis was painted on both the Wacom Cintiq 24HD and Wacom Cintiq 13HD displays, using Photoshop CC.  No photos or overlaid textures were used in this image, it was all done with brush work.  I don’t keep track of how long it takes to paint these anymore, because I usually spend an hour or two here and there over a two or three weeks when my other deadlines allow it.  As always, I relied on a few reference photos for this painting and would like to thank my friend Susan Koppel who provided me my main reference for this Totem.  Susan takes wonderful pet portraits, and also donates her time to her local Humane Society in Nevada and you can’t help but want to adopt all of the pets she photographs as she makes them look their absolute best.  Rather than me ramble on about her skill and talent as a photographer, check out her website and you’ll see for yourself.  You can find her at

Happy to end the year with a Totem painting and looking forward to painting a lot more of them in 2014.


Posted on

Giraffe Totem

GiraffeTotemThe latest in my Totem series, this giraffe was a lot of fun to work on.  Well, not the whole time.  Mostly at the end, if I’m being honest.

The reason this one was a little different is that I recorded much of the process.  While I’ve done that a number of times before, the previous videos were done with screen capture software which runs in the background and you don’t really have to pay attention to it.  There’s always a fair bit of editing work after the fact, but that doesn’t affect the painting itself.  With the current video, it’s a mix of screen capture and footage from my GoPro on a tripod, which was sitting just off my left shoulder while I worked.  I’ve often shown the software, Photoshop CC in this case, but wanted to show the hardware this time as well, since the Wacom Cintiq 24HD is such a great display.  What this meant was that I couldn’t shift position and had to constantly be aware that this camera was there.  The lighting was also different than what I’m used to working with.   This changed how I felt about the painting process, but I really wanted to record this video, so sacrifices had to be made.  I’ll be editing it this week and hopefully the footage I got was worth the effort.  As always, photos are only used for reference in my paintings.  It’s all brush work.

RecordingIn a perfect world (hey, it could happen!), my painting sessions involve a hot cup of coffee, music in my headphones and a darkened room with no distractions, allowing me to get lost in the work.  With having to think about the camera all the time, I could never quite get all the way into it until I neared the end.  That’s when I forgot to recharge the GoPro for that session and the battery was dead.  Rather than ruin a perfect Saturday morning painting session by waiting, I decided to just do screen capture for the end of the painting and I had a blast!

GiraffeBlogCloseupI know I say this whenever I finish a painting, but this is one of my favorites.  I just love the expression on his (or her, your call) face.  Anybody who has followed my work on these critters for any length of time knows that I don’t take all the credit for the personality.  It just seems to show up and the funny thing is, it showed up twice while painting this one.  I thought it did a couple of days ago, it was the same great moment that always happens, but then there was another moment in the final hours of painting when something just popped and it seemed to come even more alive.  It was a bonus.

Prints will likely be available for the Giraffe Totem in the next month after I’ve done my proofing and I can’t wait to see them.

Posted on

Coyote Totem


This painting of a Coyote is the latest in my Totem series.  The most recent before this one was the Bald Eagle Totem, finished in November of last year.  If you do the math, that’s almost seven months, which is far too long, especially if you consider that these are my favorite paintings to work on.  With the daily editorial cartoons, the portraits of people, the pet commissions, and the great deal of time spent on the preparation for the Calgary Expo this year, I’ve been busy and otherwise occupied, so the Totems were temporarily on the back burner.  The next one will be coming a lot sooner than December, I assure you.

I painted my first animal in this style in November of 2009, the Grizzly Bear Totem.  Hard to believe that it’s been over three years.  The funny thing is that the Coyote was one of the first animals I wanted to paint but for some reason I kept shuffling it down the line, painting other animals instead.  As is often the case, I may have the reference photos ready to go for months before I get to the actual painting, but this one has easily waited the longest.  It also took the longest to paint if you consider that I started it in February and it sat idle for months until I started back on it last week.  I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out, but as always, I’m already looking to the next one.



Posted on 1 Comment

Otter Totem

This is my latest painting, the Otter Totem.  Under normal circumstances, I’d publish this post on the same day that I finish the painting.  In this case, however, I was a little swamped with other deadlines and it kept moving down on the priority list.  But better late than never.

This Totem was done in about a week, which is the fastest I’ve ever painted one of these.  While I’m sure the hours spent were close to the same as prior Totems, I had a few very late nights and early mornings, largely due to the fact that this was being used in another deadline, a painting video for Wacom.  Despite the quick turnaround, I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out.  As I’ve said many times before, I don’t pre-plan the expressions and they’re often as much a surprise to me as they are to anybody else.  The personality just seems to ‘show up’ at some point during the painting and I just go with it.  In this instance, the personality was there very early on and I really loved the curiously goofy face that emerged as I spent more and more time on the details.

This was also my first painting on the new Wacom Cintiq24HD and the experience of painting on this display was very enjoyable.  While I’ve never had any complaints about the Intuos tablets for painting, I just felt a lot more connected to the brush strokes with my pen directly on the screen.  I’ve always enjoyed digital painting and never felt that I was missing any of the tools I needed to get my best work onto the canvas.  The Cintiq, however, gave me something I didn’t know I was missing and improved the experience.

As for that video for Wacom, it is part of something else that will be coming a little later on, but they posted it on their YouTube channel, which means I’m able to post it here as well.  If you haven’t seen it already, it shows a high speed time lapse of the Otter Totem, from start to finish.  The narrative is aimed at traditional artists who might be considering the digital medium, but haven’t yet taken the plunge.


Posted on 2 Comments

Painting a Bison Totem

This is the latest in my series of whimsical wildlife paintings, the Bison Totem.  As usual, I have the most fun when I’m working on this type of painting, especially since each one presents its own unique challenges.  With this one, it was trying to get the ‘wool’ to look right, and it took some trial and error.   One of the great reference photos I worked from, was courtesy of one of my favorite wildlife photographers, Moose Peterson.  I also used a couple of other photos I bought from a stock photo company, so it wasn’t such a problem seeing the great detail, as it was to replicate it with brushes.

One of the things I’ve learned from working on these animals, is that I could spend weeks painting every little hair that I see in the photos I reference, but it would be a wasted effort.  For one, these animals are caricatures (although not extremely exaggerated) of the real thing, so replication is not the goal.  But also, people aren’t looking at a painting in actual pixel size, so nobody really cares if every hair is perfect, and they’re not holding up the three photos I used for reference to compare them inch by inch.  If they are, they should really get a hobby, because that energy could better be spent elsewhere, like cleaning out the garage or something.

I do obsess about the details, though.  It’s part of my nature (ask anybody who knows me well), and I use it to my advantage in these paintings.  That being said, there comes a point in every painting when any further detail is a waste of time because the viewer won’t see it.  It has to look great at full size, but zoom into any painting close enough and it just becomes a mosaic of pixels and colored noise.  I really do enjoy it, though, painting all those little hairs, music playing in the headphones, just being in the image.  Most of my perfect moments in life, those instances of peak experience (read Maslow), are when I’m painting.

If you’d like the technical info, this painting was done on a medium sized Wacom Intuos5 tablet in Photoshop CS5.  No idea how long it took me, but it was many hours.  The full size painting is 18″X24″ at 300ppi.  Something different this time was that I switched out the nib in my Wacom pen.  Having always used the standard nibs that came with the tablet, I read a blog entry by Wacom’s Joe Sliger about the different nibs and figured I’d try the flex nib for this painting.  That’s the one with the little spring in it.  While it had nothing to do with what the painting looks like, I absolutely loved painting with this nib.  Had a little bit of give to it and while I got used to it quickly and didn’t think about it, I really think I’ll be using this nib more often.  Just feels better in the pen.  Here’s a link to Joe’s article if you’d like more info on the different nibs.

While working on this painting, I saved the image at different stages so that I could make the following video.  It’s a time lapse of different stages in the painting, this being one I’ve been planning for quite awhile.  I’ve had the reference for the bison for over six months, and the music, bought specifically for this painting, for almost as long.  As a big fan of movies, I love soundtracks and this dramatic piece just seems to add something to the video.  It was fun to put together.

Thanks for stopping by to see the latest piece and for reading my thoughts on it.  I feel privileged to be able to paint these creatures and I’m pleased when others like them, too.

Posted on Leave a comment

Rockhopper Penguin Totem

This ornery looking fellow is a Rockhopper Penguin, the latest Totem in the series and one of my more challenging paintings to date.  While I usually have a lot of fun with these, this one was a roller coaster of frustration.

The main reason I added this animal to the series at this point is because the Calgary Zoo had expressed interest.  With their recent addition of The Penguin Plunge habitat to their facility, penguins are a pretty big deal in Calgary this year.  While they have already taken a chance on my Wolf and Moose paintings, I’d like to have more of my Totems for sale at the zoo, so the decision to  paint a penguin right now was a commercial one.  I sent the finished image to my contact at the zoo this morning within a short time of finishing it, and it was well received.  They’ve already ordered a significant number of prints in a variety of sizes, so they should be available at their retail outlet soon.  Right outside The Penguin Plunge.

So why was this so frustrating?  Honestly, with the exception of the Ostrich Totem, I find birds incredibly difficult to paint.  Perhaps it’s because their body structure is so different from mammals, a beak instead of a mouth, usually only one eye visible instead of two, also that they’re very stiff looking…honestly I don’t know what it is.  It wasn’t the detail, because the feathers were a lot of work, but not difficult to paint, just time consuming.  When I’m working on a painting, I start at low-resolution, then as more and more detail gets painted in, I’ll bump up the resolution until it’s around 18″X24″ at 300ppi.  When it gets to this point, the painting is really close to being finished, it’s just a matter of painting in a lot of tiny details.  With this penguin, however, I was trying to fix structural issues at full size, something I would rarely do.  But I’d painted so much detail in a lot of places that didn’t need to be fixed, so I couldn’t go backwards without losing that.

My wife Shonna is not an artist, but she has this uncanny knack of looking at a painting I’m working on and instantly seeing what’s wrong with it.  It’s very annoying, but also very helpful.  When I ask her opinion, I brace myself for what I know is coming, because there is always something.   With this penguin, she saw more than a few problems.  The eye wasn’t in the right place, the yellow feathers didn’t look right, the beak was shaped wrong.  It was brutal.

All of these issues were addressed and repainted, adding at least another five or six hours to a piece I’d already been working on for many more than that.  The personality didn’t even seem to show up until the last few hours, which is very unusual.  So while there’s nothing more I could do to this painting to improve it, I had a hard time ‘feeling’ it while I was doing the work.  There were still times when I was really enjoying myself, but not as much as I normally do.  The Bighorn Sheep Totem was like this as well, and while I love that painting now, I didn’t immediately after I’d finished it.

So what did I learn?  Well, sometimes you just have to plow through and git ‘er done, even when you’re not feeling it.  The finished painting may feel a little different to me at the moment, but anyone buying it doesn’t know the frustrating back story (unless they read it here), so it now stands on its own merit.  It’ll either be popular or it won’t, and time will tell.  Also, I took most of the reference photos myself, and they were average.  For the pose and general features, however, they were good enough.  For the fine details,  I decided to go and buy some stock photos.  After reading their licensing agreement that permits this usage for work like mine, I’ll be doing that more often.  Some great closeup detail reference on stock photo sites, and reasonably priced, too.  This is going to make future paintings a little easier for me.

While I’ve been working on commissions the last little while, turns out this is the first Totem I’ve added to the series since the Cougar in January.  I’ve got a couple of other painting projects up next, but I’m hoping to have another Totem done before the end of the summer.  And no, it’s not a bird.