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Walking with Wolf Pups

If you’d asked me how I was doing during the past couple of months, I might have answered that I’ve had OK days and not-so-OK days, for reasons I need not explain.

This past Sunday, however, was the first good day in a long while. And it was a really good day.

Discovery Wildlife Park is open as a drive-thru right now, an Alberta Health Services approved method for people to still come and see the animals, but they must stay in their vehicles. It’s proving very popular and they’ve been busy, with a steady stream of cars winding through the park on their well-manicured gravel pathways. The staff helps the animals be seen, they answer questions and do their best to make it an enjoyable experience for their guests, despite the distancing measures.

While I think it’s great they have this option, it’s not one I’d planned on experiencing. I’ll admit to being spoiled by my connection to the park, and the access they’ve given me. I just don’t want to see Berkley from my car, especially given the drive time to get there.

Shonna and I have been very good at following the isolation rules in all of this. She still goes to work at the law office each day, but it’s closed to the public and they have the appropriate safety measures in place. I’ve stayed home, only going out once a week for groceries, completing all of my errands in as few days a week as possible.

Alberta relaxed a number of restrictions on Friday, allowing people to get together in small groups. Some more businesses have been allowed to open and people are venturing out of their homes, though still being advised to wash their hands, keep their distance, and exercise caution.

Serena and I were texting Saturday night as we sometimes do, as I’m always curious to see how the animals are doing. She often sends behind-the-scenes pictures and videos for us. I made the off comment that it’s too bad I wouldn’t be able to see the wolves while they were pups, to which Serena replied, “Why not?”
As she did with their Brown bear Berkley when she was a cub, Serena takes 8-week-old Sassenach and Highlander for a walk each evening in the large fenced wooded area at the park. She lets them explore, play, and get into trouble, without having to worry that they’ll go anywhere.

We’ve had the privilege of many walks in the woods with Berkley. So it was exciting when Serena invited us to come up Sunday evening and meet the wolf pups in the same way.

Shonna later said she was impressed at how I jumped at the chance without overthinking it. Spontaneous is not my default setting.

We couldn’t have asked for a better day. With warm temperatures, sunny and cloudy skies, very little traffic on the highways, we headed up that afternoon, a little over two hours’ drive one way.

I talk with my parents often enough on the phone and via FaceTime, but we hadn’t had an in-person visit since they left for Arizona in the fall. As they live ten minutes from the park, we made time for a short visit on their deck beforehand, keeping our distance, of course.

We met Serena at the park at 6, drove over to the wooded area and before long; the wolves were doing their thing while we took pictures.
Part of the reason we have such a good relationship with the park is that we’ve always given the animals their space. There’s no chasing, lunging, grabbing, yelling, basically any behaviour that’s going to freak them out. We were content to watch, let them get comfortable with our presence and it was up to them to come to us.



Thankfully, once they did, both pups did check us out, but their primary focus was on each other, exploring, playing and attacking.
As Serena said, “It’s Fight Club, every night.”

We spent about two hours with them, visiting and catching up with Serena and taking a lot of pictures. I had my camera, but also my phone. Shonna and Serena took pictures with their phones and I got copies of all of them. So most of these pictures are mine, but some are theirs, too. And we don’t really know which are which.
The funny thing is that like most young animals, they were just bundles of energy, until they weren’t. Once they crashed, they crashed hard. Serena then told us we could pick them up, because at that point, they didn’t care. Holding a snoozing wolf pup is a real treat.
As always, we are forever grateful for our connection with Discovery Wildlife Park. Their orphaned and rescued wildlife critters receive the best care, and you need only look to how the keepers and animals behave around each other to realize how much love there is between them.
We were happy to make another donation to the park while we were there, as they really need it right now. In a regular year, they’re only open from May to October, but they still need to feed and care for the animals the other six months of the year. Maintenance of the facilities, upkeep of the grounds and enclosures, veterinary bills and a long list of accessory expenses, not to mention the salaries of the dedicated staff, makes for an expensive undertaking.

I came home with about two thousand photos. After hours of weeding out the ones I can’t use, I still ended up with dozens of reference shots. I’m so glad to have taken photos while they were little, because they certainly won’t remain that way for long. Their eyes are already changing from blue to yellow. There’s no doubt I’ll eventually create paintings of both of them.

After more than two months of being locked down, that was the perfect break from isolation. And to top it all off, Shonna and I drove back into the mountains that night under a brilliant red sky, one of the prettiest sunsets we’ve seen this year.

Cheers,
Patrick
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© Patrick LaMontagne
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Fall Photos at Discovery Wildlife Park

An opportunity recently came up to do a fall photo shoot at Discovery Wildlife Park. I got the text while hanging out at Electric Grizzly Tattoo here in Canmore, which Shonna calls my artist support group.

The owner, Derek Turcotte, and I have gone on drives into Kananaskis looking for wildlife from time to time, and both of us like taking our own wildlife reference photos. I’m always up for taking photos at the park, especially when it’s an official photo shoot. Derek was into it too, so I booked it. $150 each, which was well worth it, since the money goes to support the park.

We drove up on Saturday, leaving just after 3:00 as Derek was tattooing a client all day. Thankfully traffic worked out with no delays en route, because we were cutting it close. We just made it for the 5:30 start. Serena, Belinda and Nadia met us at the main building and took us down to the photo shoot area in their ‘limo,’ which is just a golf cart with extra bench seats.

Discovery Wildlife Park has created a staged area in the woods on their property. It was already a natural area, but they’ve added some rock and water features and the backdrop is the side of the gully in which it sits. Running along one side of the area is a long, tall fence. This is designed specifically for photo shoots and the mesh of the fence is large enough that you can put a lens through it.

Derek and I were joined by two women who had also booked the shoot and with only four of us along the fence, we had plenty of room to move about, didn’t have to worry about getting in each other’s way and the opportunities for great photos were limited only by our own skills.For the first part of the shoot, the wolves Nissa and Lupé were let loose in the large enclosure. Through positive reinforcement with treats and praise, they would pose on marks, run around together, play and explore. The light kept changing as it shone through the trees, creating natural spotlights which was wonderful when the wolves would be caught in one.

After the wolves returned to their own large enclosure in the park, it was time for Berkley to join us.

I last saw her in July and she has grown bigger still. She’s now just shy of 350 lbs and is really showing her adult features. While she still has her wonderfully expressive childlike face and lovable personality, it is easy to see the big bear she will eventually become.

As I’ve mentioned before, it is always a pleasant surprise when she recognizes me and wants to visit. At first, she ran into the enclosure and I could see her coming around the top on the other side of the trees. She moves really fast when she wants to and came barrelling down the path beside the fence. When she got to where I was standing, she slowed right down and did a double take as if to say, “Hey, it’s you!”

That never gets old.
Of course, it did present a little bit of a problem when it was time to take pictures, because Berk just wanted to visit. Telling her to go see her Mom didn’t work, and Serena basically had to scold the four of us to stop talking to her, or we wouldn’t get any pictures.

We had to ignore her so that she would go to Serena, but once she did, she had a great time. From attacking trees, to playing on the large rocks, following Serena around and doing tricks for treats, my camera shutter just kept going rapid fire.
Sure, Berkley would occasionally look my way and then come over, but I just had to stand up and turn away for her to forget the distraction and go back into the middle of the enclosure. I felt bad for doing it, but I still got plenty of visiting time with her a little later on and before we left.

Derek was pretty thrilled to be that close to a grizzly bear, as were the other two photographers. I realized that I’ve gotten a little too used to having so much time with Berkley, that I forget what a unique privilege it is to have a (not-so) little bear friend. There’s nothing like looking into those eyes and that wonderful face.

Derek told me he wasn’t sure if I’d been exaggerating how much Berkley ‘knew’ me or not, so he got to see that first hand. He said it was great to finally see the place and meet some of the people I often talk about, and now he knows why.

With the light in the sheltered photo area fading enough that it was getting difficult to get any more good photos, Berkley left us and Serena offered us the opportunity to take some photos of Gruff, as his enclosure is up on the main flat area of the park, so we still had ten minutes of light to work with.
Derek was primarily looking for tattoo reference and for his own painted work, so Gruff performing his scary bear impression was something he was excited to get. Even though I just painted that very expression, I took some more photos and think I got even better reference of that than the last time. Might be another painting coming one day.

Although it required a four hour round trip drive for two hours at the park, both Derek and I felt it was well worth our time and we’ll do it again next year when the opportunity comes up. The fading light and sometimes fast motion of the wolves and Berkley created some photography challenges that resulted in more lost shots than we would have liked, but that’s part of photography, and life in general. You learn more from the mistakes and failures than the successes. Whether it’s taking the photos or painting from them, there’s more to learn than I will ever have time for in this life.

I took over 2600 photos, and after a few hours of going through them yesterday, ended up with about 100 worth keeping, including quite a few that will work as wonderful reference pics for future paintings.
I don’t know if it’s the last time I’ll see Berkley before she goes down for hibernation, but if it is, it was a nice visit on which to end the year. Discovery Wildlife Park closes for the season after Thanksgiving, so if you’re in the area, there’s still time to see the animals before that.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Two Wolves

     It was with great pleasure and relief that I finally got another painting finished this morning. I started this piece over a month ago and it was a struggle to find the time to work on it.

With the daily editorial cartoon deadlines, ongoing kitchen renovations, a number of other obligations, side issues and unexpected distractions, each day that I couldn’t find the time to paint was frustrating.

This year’s new license with Pacific Music and Art has introduced my work to a lot more places. Hardly a week goes by without somebody sending me an email from somewhere telling me they saw my work in a store or bought one of my images on a product. My buddy Darrel was just on a road trip out to Vancouver Island and sent me a photo of my Bald Eagle image on some notepads in Harrison Hot Springs, BC.
A woman from Florida sent me an email yesterday telling me how much she loves the Smiling Tiger image she bought on a trivet while on vacation in Canada this summer.

It’s a little overwhelming, but also exactly what I’ve asked for.

I’ve been an editorial cartoonist for more than twenty years, self-syndicated since 2001 and a full-time artist since 2006. But newspapers have long since reached their peak and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t often looked down the road and wondered how much longer that will be a part of my career. I’m not ready for the end yet, but I’m preparing for it.

Over the last few years, I’ve lost more papers than I’ve gained, most often because some newspapers have stopped running cartoons, have reduced how often they publish or have shut down. Most daily newspapers have sacked their in-house cartoonists and are using freelancers like myself and others. I’m sometimes surprised that the ride has lasted this long for that part of my business.
While I still need that income and it’s an important part of my business, that first funny looking Grizzly Bear I painted in 2009 has led to my still being able to live and thrive in this artist life, ten years down the road. During that time I’ve created more than 60 production pieces. They’re sold as prints in zoos and parks, and licensed through a handful of companies here in Canada and in other parts of the world.

The foundation for this part of my business was laid ten years ago and has turned out better than I could have imagined, all started with a simple experiment, painting this bear.
In all of that time, the daily deadline of editorial cartoons has been priority one, because that’s the monthly income, the clients I supply each day and invoice at the end of each month. I’ve always put the painting on the back burner, to get to when I have the time away from the cartoons. Over the past year, with my painted work spreading faster and further, it has become clear to me that they are both of equal priority; because the painted work I do now will be what pays the bills down the road.

Just as that Grizzly Bear is still one of my bestsellers (and one of my favorite paintings), none of the current licensing would be possible had I not built the portfolio to offer to these clients in the first place.

It’s also tempting to stick to the formula, to paint the head-shot animal composition time after time, because that’s where it started, that’s what initially got these pieces noticed and those are proven sellers.

But that’s not where the magic happens. We too often worry so much about keeping what we’ve got that we fail to imagine what else might be possible.

With that first painting, I tried something new, took a risk on being different, and it led to the work I most enjoy. I love my whimsical wildlife critters. I am at my best when painting them, both in my skill level and how they make me feel. If the politics of editorial cartooning is the poison, these animals are the antidote.

For years, people have been telling me that what makes these images special is the eyes. It’s always how I paint the eyes, I hear this constantly. Then I painted the Smiling Tiger with her eyes closed and it’s one of my bestselling pieces. Had I paid too much attention to what I’d been told and not enough to what I wanted to paint, this image would never have happened.
I feel the same way about this latest piece. It’s a different composition, two wolves who might be sharing an inside joke. A couple of buddies or a romantic couple? It tells a story and while I’ll always be my worst critic, I really like this painting. I hope it’s popular, because right now, it’s already one of my favorite pieces. It’s different from the usual head-shot composition but a risk worth taking.

And it was fun, something I don’t make enough time for.

I took the reference for this painting at the Calgary Zoo a while ago and I felt that I had captured something when I looked at the shots. I knew instantly I would be painting this image. That doesn’t often happen.

As a professional artist, I have to keep in mind that if I don’t produce any commercial images, I don’t make a living. But I have a feeling about this direction, more animals in an image, telling a story, and still in my style. I think there’s something here.

Only time will tell.

Cheers,
Patrick
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Wolves in Progress

One of the most common questions I get about my painted work is, “how long does it take to do one of these?”

The glib Picasso rip-off answer is, “a lifetime,” most often hauled out when people question an artist’s pricing.

For one of my whimsical wildlife portraits, the answer is usually somewhere around 15 or 20 hours which is just a ballpark. I don’t really keep track because I don’t paint something in one sitting. There’s always other work being done at the same time, the daily editorial cartoons, admin work, and the like.

Something that took me 15 hours a decade ago, however, would likely take me less than half that, now, because I’ve become a better artist in that time. Concepts I found difficult then are routine techniques now, allowing for more detailed work in the same amount of time. This is why many artists don’t offer hourly rates, because the better you get, the quicker you get something done, meaning you’d make less money. It doesn’t make any sense that I should be paid more as a beginner than as an accomplished professional.

Because my licensing clients and customers like them, and I’ve now got a large portfolio that sells well, I’ll still continue to create the somewhat caricatured single head-shot style animal paintings. Like most artists, however, I get bored with my own work and want to try new things. That’s what led to my funny looking animal pieces in the first place, an experimental painting ten years ago.

From gathering the reference, to sorting through them, looking for the one or two that sparks an idea, to sketches and false starts, paintings take time. Posting a new piece every week would only be realistic if I didn’t have editorial cartoons to draw each day.

With that in mind, here is the beginning of a new painting, just started this morning. When I still had a social media presence, this is the kind of thing I would share just to have something to post, in the mad scramble for likes and shares. Now that I know that sort of thing doesn’t really translate into anything more than a higher level of anxiety, I hadn’t thought of posting work-in-progress shots on the blog. Since somebody told me recently that they missed seeing them, well why not?

Besides, it’s humbling to post stuff like this, because it has barely begun, which leaves me feeling exposed. I guess that’s the whole point, to illustrate (wink wink) that a painting doesn’t just happen. It starts with the broad strokes, the roughest of layouts, with many hours working alone, before ending with fine little hairs under the eyes and droplets of moisture on the gums. That moment when the personality shows up, that’s many hours down the road.

Incidentally, at the beginning of every painting, which is what you see here, I always(!) think that my best work is behind me, that there is no way my skills will be good enough to match the vision I have for the piece, and that it’s just going to suck. Go get a real job, you imposter hack, you’re not fooling anybody.

Every painting starts with this fear, and almost every artist I know suffers from this same panicky self-doubt. This is why dealing with internet trolls has always felt like amateur hour to most of us. The trolls who live in our heads are so much nastier, and unlike Twitter, you can’t block them.

All that said, these initial steps on a new painting, it’s a familiar wasteland of unfinished work and I’ve traversed it many times before. Turning back just isn’t an option and I’m looking forward to seeing how this piece turns out.

I’ll keep you posted.

Cheers,
Patrick

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