Posted July 12th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Hearing Voices
There was a small video crew here this morning to interview me, some footage for a piece they’re doing on the upcoming 15th anniversary of the little paper that could, The Rocky Mountain Outlook. Lots of people said it would fail when it first began in 2001, an empty curse that is often in the first paragraph of many success stories.
I have been the cartoonist for the Outlook since the first time it hit the stands and one of my cartoons has been in every issue. My connection to what has become the newspaper of record ‘round here is something I’m proud of, because it was a dream built by tough people who then passed it on to another generation and they’re taking good care of it.
I’m a big softie when it comes to nostalgia. I reminisce often and usually put an overly romantic spin on the memories when I do. Despite my misanthropic outlook, I’ve known a lot of good people in my time, many of whom have helped me get to where I am today, often with gentle nudges but sometimes with the use of high voltage cattle prods placed in uncomfortable places.
The interview this morning got me thinking about the road from there to here. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of my first editorial cartoon, a poorly drawn black and white scrawl for The Banff Crag and Canyon. I look up at the Coyote Totem hanging on my wall, with his knowing grin and I can’t help but marvel in hindsight at all of the dots that had to connect to finally become good enough to paint him. Had I missed just one of those dots, it might have all gone away.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing, an outlet that has ebbed and flowed throughout my life, ever since I was a kid.
At my last Photoshop World, the subject of storytelling kept popping up. One of the instructors was talking about doing that with photos, but the other two mentions seemed entirely random. And yet, I picked up on it. Since then, the theme has been ever-present.
When my publisher Alex and I began talking about my upcoming book of my animal artwork, he was adamant that the writing in it should focus on telling the stories surrounding the paintings. When I dropped off a print to a valued client in Red Deer the other day, she told me how much she liked the stories behind the work. And one of my followers on Facebook commented this week that “One day you will also be an award winning author if you aren’t already.”
I don’t know if that last one is true, but I appreciated the thought. This common theme of writing has resurfaced in recent years, often to the point of distraction. I have editorial cartoons and painting to do, but I made time to write this instead.
When I was in the sixth grade in Lahr, West Germany, I had a teacher named Tom Muise. He was one of those teachers you hear about, who just happened to say the right thing at the right time and probably didn’t even know he was doing it. Handing me back an essay one day, he paused with it just out of reach, so I had to look up at him. When I did, he said, “Someday, you’re going to be a writer.”
I have never forgotten that. I still think about it often. In the late nineties, I was halfway through writing a novel and once again heard his voice in my head. He talked about it often, so remembering that he was from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, I found a number online for a Tom Muise and called him. He didn’t remember me, which wasn’t surprising, but I told him I wanted to thank him for the inspiration and that his kind words had not been forgotten.
Tom Muise died of cancer in 2008. I’m so glad I called.
I finished that novel and only sent it out once. One rejection is all it took for me to put it back in a drawer. Had I known then what I know now about no reward without risk, I would have kept at it and started collecting the pile of rejection letters that every published author holds dear. I still think about the story often and twenty years later, I’ve got pages of notes for a rewrite, hopefully with a more experienced voice. Shonna thinks I was holding back when I wrote it the first time and I know she’s right.
There was another novel after that, and both are printed and held together with cerlox binding, sitting on a shelf where I can see them as I write this. Last year, I bought three moleskin notebooks and keep them close at hand most of the time. I take them camping, on vacation, and on road trips. One is for the rewrite of the first novel, the second is for notes about the art book, and the third is for a new novel with the working title ‘The Dark,’ which will work well enough until something better comes along.
And yet, despite that the fact that I am not a writer, Mr. Muise’s words came to me and helped with my artwork over the years, too. Because what he was really saying was that I could do whatever I wanted to.
In every creative life, there are critical voices. They might come from family, friends, or simply in the form of drive-by posts on Facebook or shouts from the cheap seats through cupped hands. But the worst one is internal. It asks, “What makes your story so special? What an ego to think anything you have to say is worth anybody else’s time. What arrogance. Who do you think you are?
That toxic voice keeps a lot of people from realizing their potential. It’s loud, obnoxious, and provides innumerable excuses for failing to try. Every creative I know fights with that voice on a regular basis. It just told me to delete this self-indulgent post before I embarrass myself.
That’s the voice that made me stop sending out the book after one rejection. Today, it’s not as big and scary as it used to be. Having made my living as an artist for more than a decade, I’m very comfortable with rejection. It’s simply a part of the gig. Its life’s way of asking, “How bad do you really want it?”
There is a parable of a grandfather telling his grandson about two wolves that live inside each of us, constantly battling with each other. One is evil, the other is good. When the grandson asks which one wins, the grandfather says, “the one you feed.”
We each have that choice.
Editorial cartooning will be over someday, of that I have no doubt. Painting will likely be a large part of me as long as I draw breath. This recent urge to write more, however, is a mystery. It might be short-lived, simply dropping by for a little while as it has before. Or perhaps it’s just finally the right time.
What is clear to me is that to ignore the impulse would be a disservice to whatever other has granted me the ability.
So I’ll write, and see what happens.
Posted July 9th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on The Ultimate Bear Experience
In December of last year, I received an email from Discovery Wildlife Park telling me about the Ultimate Bear Experience. A rare opportunity to “spend 4 hours with our black bears and our zookeepers. Feed, train and get to know each bear personally!”
For adults only, a limit of five spots, I booked quickly and was confirmed for the date seven months later. I have been looking forward to it ever since.
As of last year, I’ve become a regular visitor to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, Alberta. I did the behind the scenes tour with the lion cubs twice last year as I knew it wouldn’t be offered again once they’d grown. Having seen them again this week, I’m glad I took advantage of it as those kitties got big! In October, I was granted a short photo shoot with GusGus the beaver and those photos resulted in my latest painting, which is already proving popular. My prints are now available in their gift shop this year as well.
Incidentally, I showed GusGus his painting on Thursday. Clearly, not a fan.
While I was sure the bear experience was going to be enjoyable and educational, I didn’t know what would be involved and was pleasantly surprised that it exceeded my expectations. Not only did we get close access to the bears, but one of the keepers was snapping photos the whole time, so in addition to my own pics, I was given theirs as well, a nice record of the day. Considering some of the great things we got to do, my camera would have been in the way during those times I wanted my attention on the bears.
We began with raking and shoveling bear poop, something that is done every day by the keepers. After that, we stuck fresh cut branches of varying sizes into the ground around the enclosures while the bears were ‘loaded up.’ This means they were in their adjacent pens, a substitute for a den and safe place for them, much like how your dog feels safe in his kennel.
We were given peanut butter and honey that we smeared on logs, leaves and branches around the enclosure. Just a little bit, enough to pique the bears’ interest. The purpose of this exercise is enrichment. By introducing new things into the enclosures on a regular basis, it gives the bears something to do. In the wild, a bear’s time is consumed with finding food. In captivity, enrichment provides them with stimulation through interesting things to explore, directly contributing to their overall mental and physical health.
After we left the enclosure, the bears were released and we were able to see the results of our efforts. Sure enough, they were eager to check out the new digs. They manipulated the branches, sniffed out the little food smears, and were genuinely interested and engaged with what we had done. I had plenty of time to take pictures of the results.
For the rest of the time, we moved from one bear to the next. A couple of them live together, others on their own. I had expected to only be exposed to them with a chain link fence between us, so I was pleasantly surprised when we were able to step inside a few times. The only separation between our group and the bear was an electric fence, similar to one you’d find around a cattle pasture. Nothing that can hurt the bear, just annoying enough to create a barrier they learn to avoid.
We had a chance to reinforce some of their training, spoon feed a favorite treat of avocado, and when I mentioned that a large reason for doing this was to challenge my bear phobia, the head zookeeper decided to ‘take it up a notch’ and brought out the apple pieces. The result you can see below, a wonderful experience I won’t ever forget.
During our time with the keepers, I asked a lot of questions about captivity, the training, and the overall health of the bears living the way they do. I’ve had the back and forth arguments of conscience that many animal lovers have when it comes to wildlife in captivity. Is it cruel? Is it necessary? Would these animals be better off in the wild?
Some people have asked me how I can support zoos with my artwork and accuse me of selling out at the expense of the animals. In our social media ‘judge first, ask questions later’ culture, I’m used to this and dismiss that sort of thing. It’s not worth my time to argue with people who are more interested in telling you their opinion than having an intelligent discussion.
What people often fail to do is ask questions, in order to examine both sides of the argument. From what I’ve learned so far, I believe that animals in captivity, with the proper oversight and safeguards in place, offer valuable insight, especially when it comes to research, conservation and species at risk. Exposure to wildlife fosters empathy, especially in children. That empathy will hopefully later translate to a greater consideration for the world around us, something of which is currently in short supply.
Without going into great detail, I am personally satisfied that Discovery Wildlife Park is doing right by the animals in their care. Most are orphans or rescues and the only life they’ve known is at the park. Had they remained in the wild, they would have died. Returning them to the wild would have the same result. The life expectancy of an animal in captivity receiving top notch care and enrichment far exceeds that of one in the wild.
One thing is clear to me about this facility. These animals are loved. While the chain link fence separated us from the bears, the keepers were able to move about freely with them. In many cases, they’ve raised them and all of the training has been through positive reinforcement. I’d like to talk more about the reason for the training, but will save that for another post.
The facilities are clean, well maintained and the enclosures are large. For some of their animals, their spaces appear smaller, but from asking questions, I found out that there’s a good reason for that.
I’m a sucker for animals and when I see one hurt, injured or abused, it bothers me a great deal. I would not be able to support this park if I thought any of their practices were harming the animals that live there.
I plan to return often.
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Posted June 25th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Kayaking in Tofino
Shonna and I like to vacation in the shoulder seasons, often in Spring and Fall. Having lived in Banff and Canmore for the past twenty plus years, we know how busy tourist areas get in the summer and we try to avoid those months as much as we can.
Early June is a bit of a gamble, because if you run into bad luck, you could have a vacation plagued by rain, especially where we were on the west coast of Vancouver Island. They don’t call it a rainforest for nothing. Fortunately, we only had significant rain on our last evening and the day we were driving back to the airport in Comox, so we lucked out in the weather department.
In addition to a couple of wildlife tours on this trip, we decided to try sea kayaking for the first time. We booked last minute with Black Bear Kayak in Tofino, found them through positive reviews on Trip Advisor. There was only one other couple on our four hour tour, which is one of the main reasons we don’t travel in high season. Smaller tours just make for a more enjoyable time. We also had two guides, so quite relaxing and informative as both knew a lot about the area.
Considering that you can tip if you aren’t careful, I didn’t bring my best camera on this tour. I do have a waterproof pelican case for my little SX-50, however, but only brought that out when we got out for a short hike. The guides take pictures of you throughout the tour on the water and they’re free to download from their site after a couple of weeks, which is why I’m writing this post a little later than the others from the trip.
Glad I brought my GoPro camera as the majority of these shots are screen captures from video. With a suction mount, I secured it to the kayak and pretty much left it alone. Thankfully, our guide Colin advised me to tether it with a bungie and carabiner, because the suction didn’t hold the first couple of tries (tip: get it wet first) and it ended up falling into the drink. GoPro cameras are waterproof, but they don’t float. Had it not been tethered, I would have lost it. While having the GoPro running the whole time meant I got plenty of shots I wouldn’t have, it also meant that most included Shonna’s back and noggin’ and only one of me, a consequence of my checking the settings while looking at the front of the camera.
The tour takes you through the islands and coastline around Tofino with a stop on Meares Island, which is native land. You pay a small separate fee ahead of time, money that goes to the local natives who maintain the boardwalk and preserve the area. The old growth forest is spectacular and our guides were knowledgeable about the flora and fauna we encountered. Shonna and I are history and information junkies, so this was our kind of trip.
We saw eagles and porpoises at a distance, but not a lot of wildlife on the day we went. Considering the abundance on our other tours, it wasn’t a disappointment. Simply paddling around on the ocean, riding the currents and trying something new made this another highlight of the trip. We would take this tour again. For our first outing, the two person kayak worked well. Next time, we’ll each have our own as they weren’t difficult to pilot.
Our other guide, Claire, was from Vulcan, Alberta. There are a lot of Albertans who have moved to Vancouver Island. It’s almost a cliché. While we’re not a big rush to do it, Shonna and I do discuss it often. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up there some day, probably sooner than we think.
Posted June 18th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Beaver Totem
There seems to be no predictable span between the time I gather reference photos and when I end up painting from them. A visit to the zoo might result in a sketch painting the very next day, but most often, I file away photos into folders and when I’m feeling the urge to paint something new, I’ll go browsing through my library until I see a critter that sparks my interest.
There are also many animals I decide to paint and for which I’ll deliberately gather specific reference, but it might be months or years until it feels right to get down to the work. Many of my Totem paintings have been planned one year and painted the next, often longer.
I’ve want to paint the Beaver Totem for a few years. I’ve had reference images for that long and had I been impatient and forced it, I probably wouldn’t have liked the result as much as I do this painting you see here. Most of what I had was stock photos I bought and in those pics, the beavers were all in the water or half submerged or in poses that might work, but none that really felt right.
Then last year, I visited Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, Alberta for the third or fourth time and arranged a little photo shoot with one of their resident beavers, Gusgus. He and his brother were orphans, brought to the park when they were just kits by Alberta Fish and Wildlife. Gusgus is the friendlier of the two and regularly comes out for photos with guests. He posed like a pro, while dining happily on crunchy fresh vegetables, with his constant chirps, grunts and murmuring.
My photo shoot lasted just fifteen minutes but I got more reference than I would ever need. In fact, it was hard to choose which pose to go with as there were so many good ones.
Of all of the Totems I’ve painted, this one ranks in the top three for how much I enjoyed the work. I didn’t want this painting to end. But there comes a time when you just have to call it finished and move on the next.
I will admit to some frustration in recent years, in that it never really felt like the right time to paint the Beaver Totem. Turns out, I was waiting for Gusgus.
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Posted June 16th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Romeo and Juliet
In 2011, my wife and I took our first trip to Vancouver Island. We flew into Comox, rented a car and got a massive truck instead. After brief visits with friends, we drove down to Victoria for a few days and finally ended up in Ucluelet near Pacific Rim National Park. While many end up on that side of the island to visit Tofino, I fell in love with Ukee. There’s something very special about the place and having now been back twice with a couple of years between each visit, I plan to return as often as I can, although I probably wouldn’t like living there year round.
On our first trip, we took a tour with Archipelago Wildlife Cruises. A visit to the area without at least one cruise around Barkley Sound and The Broken Group Islands with Al and Toddy would now leave me feeling like the trip was incomplete.
We’ve become friends with them over the years and seeing them again was a highlight of our latest visit. It’s funny climbing aboard their 53 foot yacht ‘The Raincoast Maiden’ only to be greeted with my own artwork. Not a lot of wall space when you’re living aboard a boat, but they’ve got a few of my pieces framed and even some postcards tucked into nooks and crannies here and there.
My trip to the area a couple of years ago was solo and I went out on the cruise three times to gather reference photos of wildlife. While pulling into the dock one day, literally seconds before Al cut the engine, I noticed two gulls perched on one of the many posts around the harbour. Technically, they were Glaucous-winged Gulls, but seagulls will suffice.
I painted the pair and called it Ukee Locals. A framed print now hangs aboard the boat.
In our run up to the latest visit to Ucluelet, I talked to Toddy fairly often over email. On one of the last ones before we left, she told me about a seagull couple that live near their dock. She told me that seagulls mate for life and that the two are very ‘lovey-dovey.’ Always touching beaks, cooing and sitting close to each other. They named them Romeo and Juliet.
We stopped at the dock on our first day in Ucluelet to say Hello to Al and Toddy as their boat pulled in from that day’s tour. We waited until their guests departed and went aboard for a very quick visit as we know they’re always busy right after a trip. After making quick dinner plans, we left the boat. Before we were back at our rental car, however, Toddy called out to me.
I turned back to see her pointing to Romeo and Juliet nestled together in a fish station on the dock. Toddy told me in her email that she wasn’t sure if it’s the same mated pair that I painted.
I choose to believe that it is.
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Posted June 12th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on You are your own guide
My wife and I don’t travel a lot, but when we do, we like to stay in unique accommodations and take a lot of half-day or day tours and excursions. While at dinner the other night in Ucluelet, we were laughing as we talked about the travelers we’d like to imagine we could be and the ones we really are.
You’re unlikely to find us hiking the Inca Trail in Peru. At one time, that was a serious discussion, but we’ve stopped kidding ourselves. It’s just not us. Same goes for reaching the top of Kilimanjaro, a week on the Amazon River or living off the land in deepest darkest Borneo. We’d like to go on African Safari one day, but it’s unlikely we’ll be roughing it much when we do.
We all like to have this image of who we could be but at some point you must realize that you can still stretch your boundaries without becoming Indiana Jones. I know some of those people and I admire their sense of adventure. Preparing for months in advance to climb Everest or hiking the Appalachian Trail? Good on ya. I think that’s cool. But it’s not my cup of tea.
On the other side of the coin, we are not cruise ship people, going from port to port with thousands of others, sticking to a rigid schedule. While we have stayed at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and Costa Rica and that works for us from time to time, we are also not lie on the beach for two weeks people. We’re usually bored of that after Day 1 and have to get out and do something.
A highlight of a past vacation was a private tour to the Mayan ruins in Coba, something we booked with Edventures in Tulum, ‘cause the guy’s name is Ed. And while he didn’t offer the specific tour we wanted, he said, “My Mom will take you.”
That’s how we ended up spending the day with Judy, who drove us out there in her own SUV, and got us a private walking tour with the oldest guide who had been with the original National Geographic survey of the site. Shonna and I love history, so this was quite special, especially since he talked to us more like we were university students than tourists. Talking to Judy for three hours in the car about real life in Mexico was fascinating, too. You want to learn about life somewhere else, talk to the locals, not the information centre.
Add to that jet skiing in Costa Rica, an open cockpit biplane flight over the Hoover Dam and Shonna’s out of the blue “let’s go skydiving” over lunch one day in Vegas and this is our best selves on vacation. We’re not testing the boundaries of adventure or blazing new trails. We’re not doing anything that hasn’t been done before. Pretty much everything is rather safe, but it’s usually just different enough that we’re living a little more of life than we’re used to, and having a good time doing it. A couple of workaholics seeing and trying new things while still making paying off the mortgage a priority.
The Broken Group Islands with Archipelago Wildlife Cruises
This past week was pretty close to our idea of a perfect vacation. I booked this trip in January, a repeat of my artist retreat two years ago. The goal was to go out to Vancouver Island, take a ton of reference shots for future paintings and get out of the office for a week. Full stop.
But as the year wore on, we planned some home renovations, and a loosely planned trip to Europe in the fall was cancelled because neither of us is feeling it this year. Shonna was able to get the time off work, but to her credit, she gave me the option of continuing to go away alone to get what I needed, without any bad feelings. She’s never been the guilt trip stereotype, so I knew if I chose to go away on this trip by myself, she’d be fine with it. We’d do something else together later. I enjoy her company more than anybody else’s, however, so the idea of her coming along added to my trip and I was happy to have her join me. In fact, she’s probably the only person with whom I could do this trip.
Driving to Vancouver Island is also something that we have never felt inclined to do. We’re not really road trip people. So we flew to Comox from Calgary.
As this was no longer just my trip, we started looking for some extra things to do. She wanted to see if we could find the elusive white ravens in Qualicum Beach, an idea I was on board with, since we were already staying nearby in the Spirit Spheres for one night. We never found any, but it was fun wandering around forest trails in places they’d been spotted and photographed before.
On the other side of the island, the accommodation I’d booked in Ucluelet was fantastic and we were both quite happy at He-Tin-Kis Lodge. With an incredible view, it was a great place to wake up and come back to each day.
Something I hadn’t planned on doing this week was sea kayaking in Clayoquot Sound out of Tofino. We added that when Shonna decided to come along. Quite a pleasant surprise as it was one of the highlights of the week. A four hour tour, we ended up on Meares Island walking along a rough looking boardwalk through an old growth forest among massive cedars and other natural wonders.
The next morning we ended up bear watching in Clayoquot Sound at low tide for a few hours. It gave me a ton of reference photos I hadn’t expected to get and was still a fun excursion for both of us. Seeing black bears in the wild, doing their thing on the beaches, oblivious to the silly tourists snapping shutters just meters away on boats was really quite special. We weren’t bothering them and they showed no sign that we were intruding on their day at the office.
Back in Ukee, we spent the afternoon hiking along the Wild Pacific Trail, looking at anemones and little crabs in the tide pools, snapping photos and enjoying the area. I’ve hiked the trail a few times before but enjoyed it most this time around. Pretty sure it was the company.
Finally, on our last full day in Ucluelet, we went out for a wildlife tour with Archipelago Wildlife Cruises through Barkley Sound and the Broken Group Islands. Five and a half hours on the water, we saw bears, eagles, grey whales, seals, sea lions, deer, raccoons and more birds than I can name.
I can’t say enough about this tour. Shonna and I took it on our first visit to the area in 2011. Then I went out with them three times on my artist retreat two years ago. This time around, I had planned to go twice but they were fully booked for most of the week and Thursday was the only day available. Had that not been the case, we would have missed out on the bear tour in Tofino, so it worked out very well.
It sounds cliché, but if you’re ever out in that area and can only do one tour, Archipelago is the one to do. I could go on at great length about why, but trust me on this. There’s a reason they’re ranked the number one wildlife tour in Canada on Trip Advisor, and they don’t take it for granted. Al and Toddy are still working hard to make sure everybody has a great experience.
Having just come home from a great vacation, I would offer a bit of unsolicited advice. Figure out who you are and what you want from your limited time off. If your idea of a perfect vacation is camping in an RV with power and a swimming pool, then do that. If you’re more at home visiting theme parks, do that. If it’s Napa Valley vineyards, mountain biking in Moab or backpacking through Thailand with no reservations but the plane ticket, then do that.
Find the experiences in life that make you feel like you’re living it well. Stretch your limitations when you can, sure, but be who you are, too. This is a limited time experience, so make it your own.
Posted May 10th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Another Break by a Lake
There’s an annual B.C. camping trip that a group of friends has taken the first or second weekend of May since the early 90s. At one time, there were upwards of twenty people that attended and apparently it got pretty unruly. Thankfully, I didn’t start going up there until later that decade and it has been kept small ever since.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve written about this trip before, right around the same time last year.
Over the years, I’ve dropped in and out of the trip for various reasons. Up until last year, I hadn’t attended in eight years as I was pouring everything I could into my business and work was a priority. My little car was also showing its age. Fully loaded for camping, no matter how careful I drove, I couldn’t make it up the goat track section of the road without rocks and high spots introducing themselves to the bottom of my car. I don’t even want to know what it would cost to get towed out of there.
Now that I’ve got a little more of a utility vehicle, a Pontiac Vibe, I started going back up last year and it’s got juuuuuust enough clearance.
This year, The Calgary Expo was one week later and the camping trip one week earlier, just bad calendar luck. With only three days between the two, it was a scramble to draw enough cartoons for my papers, meet a deadline for an Autodesk/Wacom commission, and still be ready to leave Thursday morning, but I was determined.
Five of us in four vehicles, it was an easy trip up. A little rain on the first day, but three days of warmth and sunshine from Friday to Sunday, so no complaints in the weather department. With camping, weather is more than half the battle. Mosquitos are another foe, one I failed to conquer judging by the number of bites I’ve been scratching while writing this.
The last three months have been hectic, and I was glad to have it all out of the way for this trip. With nothing but my book deadline looming and the usual cartoons, I had three restful nights, even slept in ‘til 8:30 every day. For a guy who gets up at 5:00 most of the time, that’s an accomplishment.
Aside from the obligatory errand into the woods to buck up deadfall for firewood, and splitting/stacking it back at camp, there was nothing on the agenda. Didn’t even eat or drink too much, so no mornings marred by poor judgment the night before. A few old friends came up for a welcome afternoon visit on Saturday and aside from campers on the other side of the lake, we had the place pretty much to ourselves with plenty of room to spread out our tents, trucks and trailer.
I spent my time hanging out with the group, reading, paddling around the lake in the canoe, stalking ducks and squirrels with the camera and even managed some writing on the last afternoon. I did not, however, do any drawing. Not one sketch. Apparently I needed a little break from that, too.
The temperature of a mountain lake in May is a might chilly, but since we all chickened out on swimming last year, I was determined to go in this time. The first dip on Friday was quick enough to get clean and it was most definitely not the typical Canadian swimming temperature of “it’s fine…once you get in.”
The next day, I did manage to swim around for ten minutes before I began to lose feeling in my toes.
I don’t enjoy being idle for too long, and realized on the last evening, that I was ready to go home, which is a good sign. Too many lazy days and I get bored, so I was happy to make the drive home. Managed to pull over and take some shots of this black bear on the way back, too, which was a nice surprise.
On the drive home, I realized how very much I needed the camping trip this year. Next year, I might not. But it’s a nice option to have if the timing is right.
People will often tell me that I work too much, but they obviously don’t get it. I enjoy my work, even though it sometimes pisses me off (see: politics). As some of my friends are a fair bit older than I am, they’re either retired already or talk about it often. I’m of a mind that my best work is still ahead of me and my biggest fear is that some future malady or handicap will prevent me from working as long as I want to.
While I’m saving to be comfortable in my senior years, retirement is not on my radar. My work will change and evolve, I’m sure, but I can’t imagine wanting to stop. I thrive on it.
Camping trips and vacations are necessary to reset and recharge, but that means something different for each person. For me, two or three days doing nothing by a lake is ideal. Anything more than that, and I’d rather be working.
But every now and then, I still want those two or three days.
Posted April 23rd, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Space and Time
A third of the way into 2016 and I’m starting to see posts about upcoming events and excursions that used to interest me, but no longer do.
Despite the fact that I broke away from the norm and became a self-employed cartoonist and painter, it might surprise you that I’ve always been somewhat of a people pleaser, or at least that’s my instinct. I’ll usually go along with the general consensus of a group rather than create a conflict for no reason.
Last weekend, with the kids and spouses home to celebrate my parent’s 50th anniversary, my folks and I were talking about how I’m very much like my Mom. That’s a compliment. She’s a class act. But while I’ve inherited many of her skills and talents (that’s where the art comes from), the people pleasing also comes from her. She struggles with it, too.
The irony is that when you do that long enough, it eventually gets old and you start lashing out a little, or get a chip on your shoulder because you’re not getting the respect you think you deserve from friends and colleagues when they take advantage of that character trait. The truth, however, is that people treat you how you teach them to treat you and if you show them long enough that you’re not going to rock the boat, why would they expect anything different?
When those scales begin to tip, however, they can go a little too far the other way before your ship rights itself. I’ve gone along with things I didn’t want to far too often and have also been very militant about not doing anything I don’t want to during this uncomfortable realization.
Early in my career, I was part of a group called the National Association of Photoshop Professionals, NAPP for short. It was a great community full of photographers, graphic designers, illustrators and other creatives. There was a vibrant busy online forum of regulars and I became friends with many of them.
After a few years, I was making enough money to afford to go to my first Photoshop World event in Las Vegas, a conference that was part of that community. The second year I went, one of my images won the Illustration Guru Award and the Best in Show. In successive years, I ended up doing painting demos at the Wacom booth, got to know some of those folks with that company and have made some friends there, too. My last year at Photoshop World was 2014 and I again won the Best in Show Award for my painting ‘One in Every Family.’
It was a good year to end on and say, “Goodbye.”
I know some wonderful people today that I would not have ever met had it not been for that organization and those five trips to Vegas. My career moved forward in great leaps from being a part of that community, from the support I got from the members, instructors and affiliates to the immense treasure trove of knowledge I gained that contributed to doing what I love to do. It was incredibly inspiring, being around so many people who enjoy their work and watching them become better artists as well.
But things have changed. NAPP no longer exists and the organization became Kelby Media. It’s now focused so much on photography that while there are things I could learn, it’s just not enough to justify the expense. Many of those people I looked forward to seeing there each year just don’t go anymore. The whole feel of the experience isn’t what it used to be. The event has changed, and so have I. But, I have so many great memories and it was well worth my time, which is one of the best compliments I can pay.
I’ve also been seeing recent posts about the upcoming Canadian Cartoonists Convention in Toronto. The group was previously the Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists but has expanded to allow others to join. I have not been a member for quite some time.
The only convention I’ve gone to was the one I actually hosted in Banff in 2008. It was a lot of work and budget restraints meant I couldn’t do the convention I wanted to, but people came and I did it because I felt I should. Parts of it were interesting as I got to meet some cartoonists I’d only known by their work and reputation.
I remember obsessing over details, working out a schedule, losing sleep many nights trying to make sure I remembered to take care of everything. On the first day of scheduled classes/discussions, we got started twenty minutes late because people just wandered in whenever. One of the older cartoonists told me that this was normal, these guys didn’t really do well with schedules and being anywhere on time.
That was a clarifying moment for me. I remember thinking, “Oh, I really don’t belong here.”
It became clear that my first one was probably my last one. The upcoming convention looks to be a three or four day event of talks, tours, meals and parties and I just don’t see the benefit to me. With limited time off during the year and funds with which to do so, that doesn’t even crack the Top 20 of trips I want to take. Many of these folks are competitors whose business choices have made my life more difficult and some have irreparably damaged industry rates and practices.
I’ve never been a good actor. How do you play nice in that environment, especially when you’re getting nothing out of it?
It occurred to me this morning, that while that convention is going on next month, I will be on my first camping trip of 2016. I’ll be sitting by a lake in British Columbia, relaxing, reading, sketching, taking pictures, enjoying good food and drink with friends I have known for years. That’s where I want to be.
I used to feel I had to apologize for not wanting to be a part of that editorial cartoonist organization, just as I should for no longer wanting to go to Photoshop World. Hell, I wasn’t even going to write some of this stuff down for fear I might offend somebody. See, that people pleaser instinct is tough to keep at bay.
There comes a time when you really do have to look at how many days you might have left (likely less than you think) and ask yourself how you want to spend them. Personally, I’m not going to spend thousands of dollars to attend conferences that deliver no worth to me. I’d rather be working.
The more success you find in anything, the more people will feel free to tell you that you’re doing it wrong, for no other reason than you’re not doing what they want you to do. You can’t change their opinion, and as time passes, you realize you don’t even care to.
Posted April 4th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Caricature and Cartoons
When I first started out as an editorial cartoonist, I was horrible at caricature. It took forever for me just to get a passable likeness and sometimes, I even had to put the name of the person on a briefcase or name tag just to be sure that people would know who they were looking at.
As time went on, I spent a lot of energy trying to become better at that, because this artistic shortcoming drove me nuts. I tried to do the extreme exaggeration caricature, with the huge features, but never really took to it. I tried to do faces that were far too realistic so that they weren’t caricatured at all. Eventually, I discovered my own style which is a mix of the two, leaning more toward a realistic than extreme distortion. But still with big noggins.
It has been my experience that caricature is often seen as something easy to do by people who don’t draw or paint. I’m not sure why that is, perhaps it’s because many people have seen or had their caricature painted by one of those artists at county fairs or carnivals in ten minutes or less. What most people don’t realize is that the people who can do that are incredibly talented. That kind of speed and accuracy takes years to acquire and I have a lot of respect for the artists I know who can do it. It is a skill I do not possess.
I took an online caricature course years ago from Jason Seiler through Schoolism.com. Jason is an incredibly talented portrait and caricature artist, his work has appeared in many magazines and publications. He has even painted Pope Francis for Time’s Man of The Year cover last year. You probably saw it, even if you didn’t know who did it.
I learned a lot from Jason’s course, it was well worth my time and money. I probably found my own personal value more in the painting techniques I learned from that course, rather than the caricature. That’s not a failing on his part, far from it. It’s just where my interest was. A lot of the painting techniques I still use today have core elements of the skills I learned from Jason.
When it comes to caricature, I’ve done commissions for individuals, illustrations for magazines and newspapers, business graphics, and celebrity portfolio pieces. After I discovered my animal work, however, I realized that’s where my niche was and have since devoted most of my painting time to that. My caricature skills, such as they are, are clearly a part of that work. While I will still get requests from time to time for caricature commissions of people, I most often turn them down unless there are very special circumstances.
These days, the majority of my caricatures are for editorial cartoons. As deadlines are constantly on my mind, I can’t always put long hours into them, but every once in a while, I’ll make the time.
As I’d had the idea for this cartoon on Friday, in anticipation of the upcoming NDP convention in Edmonton, I decided to devote Sunday to working on it. I started with the sketches very early in the morning and finished painting it sometime around 3 pm, I think. Allowing for time to eat, chitchat with my wife throughout the day, I would guess this one took me somewhere around 6 or 7 hours to complete.
Editorial cartoon caricatures are tough because newsprint is a muddy and unpredictable medium. Subtle brushstrokes often get blurred out so they’re not even seen. For that reason, I have to paint with more contrast, harder lines, and include black lines where I might normally leave them out in another painting. It’s about finding the right balance between how I’d really like to paint the face and what I need to do to make it stand out on newsprint and hopefully look relatively the same in all of the publications that print it. You’d be surprised how one press can make a cartoon look great, while another can make it look completely washed out, all from the same file.
For those who follow my artwork, but not my editorial cartoons or Canadian politics, the guy is Thomas Mulcair, leader of the New Democrat Party of Canada. The woman is Rachel Notley, Premier of Alberta, also with the NDP but at the provincial level. Neither is very popular right now and they’re both struggling for relevance.
I thoroughly enjoyed this, not only the faces, but also painting the car, just spending time on the whole image overall. Without worrying about whether it gets widely published or if my editors like it, I had fun painting it, nitpicking over the details, trying a few experiments, improving on my skills. It was time well spent.
While there will always be room for improvement, likenesses are a lot easier for me now than they used to be. And best of all, I’m confident that I don’t have to write their names in there anymore.
Posted March 13th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Young and Hungry
“…So my question to you is, do you have any advice, or tips, for a young artist who wants to make it a way of life? Especially without a degree under my belt.”
I often get questions from young and hungry creatives who want insight into becoming a professional artist. In this case, his focus is on writing. As I’d like to keep things anonymous, I’ve met (let’s call him Brian) a couple of times where my work and his job have crossed paths. It doesn’t matter that I don’t write for a living. Art is art.
There are plenty of ‘you can do it, Nicky!’ posts out there that say if you want it and wish hard enough, your dreams will come true. This isn’t one of those. Motivation is important, but so are reality checks.
I sent questions and emails to artists when I was young and hungry, too, and I always appreciated responses, so I try to pay that forward. The edited version of my response…
We’re all just winging it, Brian. I’ve never met an artist (writer, musician, photographer, creative type) who has it all figured out.
We’re all products of the talents we’ve been given, the drive to do something with them, the skills that come from constant practice and the backgrounds that put us in front of the right opportunities at the right time.
The only thing we can control is whether or not we recognize and take advantage of those opportunities.
I didn’t realize I wanted to create art for a living until my late twenties and it seemed to happen by accident. There was an ad in the Banff Crag and Canyon newspaper for an editorial cartoonist. Once a week, draw a cartoon on local politics and current events for $30. I was working at a hotel at the time and it seemed like an easy way to get some extra beer money, especially since nobody else applied. I had always been a doodler, but never went to art school, had no training and was simply willing to fail publicly.
I spent five years in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, I took Psychology in college and then was an Emergency Medical Technician who never worked for an actual ambulance service after my training. And I have no degree. At the time, I worked in tourism.
Those first cartoons were pitiful and took so many hours, but for three years I did it and never missed a deadline. Without even realizing it, I was putting in the practice time for what would become my career. When another local newspaper started up in 2001, they asked me to be their cartoonist.
One of the owners, who was the editor and is now a good friend, asked me why I wasn’t syndicated. She told me to start doing cartoons on national topics and just start sending them out to papers across Canada. For the first two years, I had two papers, each paying me $10 a week. It was pitiful. I was working so hard, evenings, early mornings before work, and weekends drawing cartoons and sending them out, getting almost no bites at all, while still working a full-time job to pay the bills.
I often thought of giving up. Hours and hours and hours drawing cartoons that never got published. And in hindsight, it was just more of the necessary practice it took to help me become the artist I am today. I just didn’t know it at the time. I felt taken advantage of and tremendously foolish, as if I was kidding myself to think that I could make a career of it.
When things finally started to click, however, it happened pretty quickly. I started getting more and more papers and a little over ten years ago, my wife and I had a serious discussion about my quitting the full-time job. I was 34 years old, but I felt like I was too old to be taking such a risk. I now know different. You can take risks at any age and nothing great ever comes without one.
But for each person, the sacrifice will be different, greater or less depending on your personal circumstances.
The only way I could quit my job was if my business could still pay half of our mortgage and bills. While those first two or three years were pretty damn lean, we managed, and these days I don’t have to refer to myself as a struggling artist.
I’ve had good advice from unexpected sources, bad advice from others. I’ve made mistakes that have cost me time and money, something that still happens occasionally but a whole hell of a lot less. I’ve planted and cultivated new ideas and pursuits that have withered and died on the vine. Other crops have flourished. My career has shifted from solely focused on editorial cartoons to including my paintings of whimsical wildlife. Each year that part of my business shows positive growth and I plan for that trend to continue.
But there’s no secret that only successful artists know. It’s the same requirement for anybody who wants to be self-employed in any field.
You have to work your ass off.
When your friends are going out partying on a Friday night, you have to consider that Saturday will be wasted if you’re hungover. Every leisure activity you do has to be reconsidered. You must sacrifice.
Those two years when I wasn’t getting any newspapers but was still working what seemed like a full-time job on top of a full-time job, I was giving up time with friends and family, I quit skiing because I could no longer afford it, we got by on one car and vacations were few and far between. We rarely went out for lunch or dinner.
I’ve heard stories of photographers who had to sell expensive lenses to pay the rent, writers who write all day and then go work night jobs while the only thing showing up in the mail is rejection after rejection after rejection, not to mention artists who paint on anything they can find because they can’t afford canvas or other materials.
I think that’s the universe’s way of making you prove how bad you want it. It’s an old cliché, but it applies…if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.
Paying the bills isn’t as hard as it used to be, but I still expect it to be all taken away tomorrow, by some unexpected calamity. It feels like I’m always living on borrowed time and I’m days away from having to go back and get a real job, even though I’m not. I am always working. Even when I’m camping or on vacation, I’m thinking about projects or cartoon ideas, following the news, etc. Success in self-employment means having to remind yourself to stop and smell the roses, but you’ll still only budget a small amount of time for it. I force myself to take afternoon hikes as often as possible just to stay healthy and get out of the office, but I’m still thinking about cartoon ideas and paintings while doing it.
That young guy in the picture above was not thinking about work that whole weekend. I guarantee it.
You want to be a writer? Write. All the time, even when you don’t feel like it. Waiting for inspiration is for independently wealthy trust fund babies. Success only comes to the creatives who treat their gifts like tools, just like a plumber, electrician, or other skilled trades-person. He or she worked hard for their expertise, artists have to as well.
Write about the dirt on the window, the dust on the desk, the clouds in the sky, that rude barista at Starbucks (wait, you can’t afford Starbucks anymore), the guy who cut you off in traffic, the ridiculousness of Apple iTunes agreements, the first blade of green grass you saw in the Spring. Just write!
Making a living at it isn’t for everybody. For some artists, the thought of soiling their talents with money and sales is as distasteful as dining on raw sewage. There’s nothing wrong with that. They can still create and have a job on the side to pay the bills. That works for a lot of people. Their creative pursuits are what make their job bearable.
So you have to decide what you want, and what you’re willing to give up to get it.