Posted March 11th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on The Black Bear Totem
Right up until the end of 2009, my art focus had primarily been on syndicated editorial cartoons and caricatures of people. Along the way, I’d also done illustration for businesses and board games, had tried my hand at some editorial Flash animation, and experimented here and there with creative off-shoots I thought might eventually yield some fruit.
Keeping a somewhat regular blog for the past nine years has served to become a business diary of sorts. It’s interesting to look back and read about my best laid plans. With the benefit of hindsight, some now make me cringe, knowing that had I gone further down some of those roads, I would have been disappointed. I’m also surprised at the blind optimism and enthusiasm in some of the posts, an elixir I wish I’d been able to bottle for mid-life.
The time I spent working on caricatures was excellent practice. I’m much better at drawing likenesses in my editorial cartoons today than I was then and it takes less time to get there. As I wasn’t interested in going that route, I never developed the skill to draw caricatures live. But people used to hire me to create them for birthday presents, wedding invitations, and other occasions. I can’t imagine I’d enjoy still doing that now, but it was all grist for the mill.
I was also getting pretty good at detailed caricature paintings of celebrities, but navigating the legal minefield of likeness rights, the large number of artists already doing that kind of work, and the awareness that my heart wasn’t going to be in it for long, I was a little lost.
This brings me to November 2009, right after my first trip to Photoshop World in Vegas. That summer, I had painted a caricature of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley with her holding one of the Aliens on a leash. The whole reason I painted it was to try to win a Guru Award and I didn’t get nominated. I didn’t enjoy the work, the finished piece felt wrong and I wished I’d never done it.
While disappointed at the time, it was a turning point in my career. I learned not to create something just to win awards and it lit a fire under me to find something new.
Upon returning home with the realization that caricatures of people was no longer where I wanted to focus, I painted a grizzly bear. Although it didn’t start out to be a caricature, it definitely ended up as one.
By February, I had a gallery in Banff willing to hang canvas prints of the Grizzly and subsequent Raven and Elk Totems on consignment. And then people started to buy them. I’ll never forget something the gallery manager told me about my whimsical style of painting. He said that no matter how well I painted, if I’d brought him realistic wildlife, he wouldn’t have been interested, because that’s what everybody else was doing. I’ve heard that a lot over the years.
On my next trip to Photoshop World later that summer, my Moose Totem won the Guru Award for the Illustration category and my Wolf Totem took Best in Show. While I didn’t paint them to try and win awards, it was that event and those chunks of plastic that introduced me to some great people at Wacom, and helped open some other doors that might have remained closed.
Since then, these whimsical wildlife portraits have become a defining part of my life. There are now over thirty paintings in the Totem series, several other whimsical prints, dozens of pet portrait commissions, and hundreds of sketch paintings.
There are now three kinds of prints sold in the Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary Zoos, Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, About Canada Gallery in Banff, and Reflecting Spirit Gallery in Ucluelet. The images are currently internationally licensed on T-shirts through two different companies, and on decals and cases. I’ve written articles for magazines, have recorded a couple of training DVDs, taught webinars and run an event booth for Wacom, and am coming up on my fifth successful year with a booth at The Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo.
I’ve also discovered a love of photography as a result of this work. While I’ve often relied on generous photographer friends for reference photos, I now take my own reference photos whenever possible. This has led me to new friends and experiences that have helped me get up close and personal with these critters I enjoy so much, sometimes face to face.
It is my belief that the next chapter in this work is calling me to get more involved with conservation, to give back to the wildlife that has given me so much. It might have taken me most of my life to find it, but I believe there’s work for me there, although I don’t yet know how it will manifest. I’ve already been looking for and taking advantage of those opportunities.
As all of this started with a grinning funny looking bear, it seems appropriate to reflect and bookend this chapter with another bear, eight and a half years later. The Black Bear Totem, modeled from a wonderful gentle bear named Gruff who lives at Discovery Wildlife Park, although that’s Reno in the photo above. I admire Gruff from a little farther away.
In writing this and checking my facts, I found the following in my blog post from November 2009 when I revealed the Grizzly Bear Totem, which incidentally is still one of my best selling prints.
“I recently found myself inspired to do a series of wildlife paintings, but I wanted them to have personality and life to them. Something different, something fun…I really think I’ll enjoy working on this series.”
I had no idea.
Posted February 26th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on The Jaguar Totem
Whenever I’ve visited Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, it has most often been with an agenda in mind. Two behind the scenes experiences with their lion cubs resulted in my painting of Zendaya. An informal photo shoot with GusGus resulted in the Beaver Totem. Last year I had two up close and personal encounters with their bears to get the reference for the upcoming Black Bear Totem.
I’ve created plenty of sketch paintings of their animals in the past few years. These are images I don’t quite consider polished and print ready, but are good practice and enjoyable work. My experiences at Discovery Wildlife Park have also given me ideas for other projects I hadn’t previously considered.
Best of all, I’ve spent time with the animals, learning about their care, training and wildlife conservation in general.
As my prints (and soon shirts) are sold in their gift shop, and as a consequence of my increasingly regular visits, I’ve been getting to know the staff and keepers. They’ve graciously invited me to hang out with them a couple of times while they’ve cared for their charges. I’ve been able to ask plenty of questions, learned a great deal about the animals, knocked the legs out from under some of my false assumptions about creatures in captivity, and taken hundreds of photos.
It was on one of my bear photo visits last year that I was offered the chance to spend time with Mia and Magnum, their resident jaguars. This was an unexpected treat, an opportunity I certainly wasn’t going to pass up.
Mia had recently had a root canal and the keepers had trained him to open his mouth for inspection and to have the repaired tooth brushed. I wrote about the experience in another blog post you can see here. In the painting, I added in the missing tooth for wider appeal and to avoid confusion.
With so many great photos to choose from, due to the sheer number of them rather than my skills as a photographer, adding a Jaguar Totem to the list was an easy choice. Mia won out over Magnum as the model largely because of the wide open mouth reference and I just thought it would make a brighter and more vibrant image.
Don’t be surprised, however, if you see Magnum as a Panther Totem in the future, even though I learned last year that a panther is really just another name for a black jaguar or black leopard depending on where it’s from.
The Black Bear Totem is next as I’d like to have it ready for the Calgary Comic Expo in April and for the upcoming busy season in the galleries and zoos.
Posted February 2nd, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Transition of Power
(Yesterday, one of my newspapers asked me to write a few lines to accompany the editorial cartoon video you see here, ‘Transition of Power.’ I sent them a short paragraph, but realized I had more to say on the matter.)
In the 1980s, my father was stationed in Lahr, West Germany with the Canadian Armed Forces. Growing up overseas was a privilege, but during the Cold War, there was no doubt as to why we were there. Our Canadian schools ensured we got the most out of our time in Europe. We were able to see a lot of it, were exposed to different cultures and we learned its history.
A school visit to Dachau concentration camp had a profound impact on me as did visits to other World War II sites. The history of that era is something I’ve read about a great deal in the more than three decades since.
Most recently, I’ve read the Third Reich trilogy by British historian Richard J. Evans, which details the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. It was a bit of a slog to get through it, but well worth the effort. While there are many differences between the world of the 1930s and today, the similarities to today’s climate in the U.S. can’t be ignored.
There is a well-known internet adage called Godwin’s Law. It states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.”
It’s true. We tend to be cavalier with the assertion and most often, it’s unwarranted. The mere mention of Hitler in the same sentence as a current leader is looked upon with derision, along with accusations of lazy logic. Some might say that to compare the current U.S. President to the leader of the Third Reich is irresponsible and inappropriate, largely because it amounts to placing a living human being in the same company as a man who is considered to be the worst mass murderer the world has ever known.
So why is this different?
Today, we have the benefit of hindsight, to see what was allowed to happen in Europe of the late 30s and early 40s once the invasion of other countries began. While world politicians talked, worried about polls, votes and public perception, the ball continued to roll toward what we now know as the worst genocide in human history.
And by the time enough people noticed, it was too late.
We can pretend that what’s going in America is politics as usual, that things will settle down soon and he’ll mellow into the job, despite there being no sign of this happening. It has become cliché to say that we ignore our history at our own peril, and yet we continue to do so time and again.
Hitler surrounded himself with men who supported his views, some who entertained demons far worse than his own. These were men he tasked with carrying out his orders, but also whose appointment gave tacit approval to come up with orders of their own. And they did.
Goebbels, Bormann, Himmler, Eichmann, Mengele, and more. Without Hitler, these men might never have been put in positions that allowed them to achieve their full, horrific potential.
So it isn’t just one man being compared to another, it’s what that one man represents. It’s what he allows simply by his presence.
We forget that Hitler didn’t start by building concentration camps. He started by promising to build a better Germany for Germans, swore to return the Fatherland to its former greatness, and he pointed fingers at minorities and said they were to blame for all that was wrong in the world, then he compared them to vermin.
Yes, the blame rests largely on his shoulders. Hitler wrote the tune and he conducted the orchestra, but he wasn’t the one playing the instruments.
The score was performed by the German people of the time, a shame they later had to live with. Had they known what they were allowing in the 1930s when they failed to speak up, had they a glimpse into the future to see the legacy of their misplaced rage, would they have changed course?
We can never know. How could they possibly have imagined the nightmare to come?
But that is what it means to learn from history, to see the same patterns repeating and to make different choices. Unlike the German people, we know too well what is possible when bad men are given power.
If we allow men like Donald Trump and those he enables to flourish, to explore the full potential of the seemingly limitless power they are currently testing and exploiting, the shame will rest on all of our shoulders.
Will Donald Trump and his inner circle become as monstrous as Hitler and his followers?
I doubt it.
But how far down that road is far enough? A quarter of the way? Half the way?
What are we willing to give up in order to find out?
Posted January 24th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on B.C. Road Trip
Despite the fact that I’m pushing into my late forties and have lived in Alberta for most of my adult life, I have never driven farther west than Kelowna. I’ve been on Vancouver Island a number of times, but we’ve always flown into Comox, rented a car and toured around that way. It’s a short flight from Calgary and I’ve never been a fan of long road trips. I’m a destination type of guy, with little interest in the journey.
The metaphor is not lost on me.
Regular readers will know that I’ve been going through a tough time lately and though I’m getting help, it would appear that it will be some time before I get back to normal, whatever that is. As I told a friend yesterday, it’s been months since I’ve felt like myself. With our home renovations finally finished late last week, I felt a desperate need to get out of the house. I figured my wife could use a couple of days break from my drama, too.
Completely out of character, I decided to take a road trip. Half a road trip, if you want to get technical about it.
My buddy Darrel has been one of my closest friends for more than twenty-five years, and he’d driven out to Vancouver Island from Red Deer to see his parents last week. Shonna and I always stay with his folks for a night on our trips to the Island as they’ve been family friends most of my life.
So, on Friday evening, I flew into Comox, had dinner with Darrel and his folks at their house and early Saturday morning, Darrel and I hit the road for the drive back.
I’ve got friends in the Comox/Courtenay area and family near Nanaimo, and if any of you are reading this, my apologies for not getting in touch. Adding more to my schedule right now is not what I need. I was also tagging along on somebody else’s trip, so not my place to add anything to his itinerary, either.
Darrel is easy company, we get along well and neither of us was in a big hurry to get home. I sent out a couple of extra cartoons last week and told my papers not to expect anything Monday. That, too, is completely out of character. But hey, clearly the usual isn’t working for me lately.
Although routine experiences for many, there were quite a few firsts for me this weekend. First time on a B.C. ferry, first time in Vancouver, first time on the Coquihalla highway, first time in the Fraser Valley.
I know that a lot of people love Vancouver, and I was only there for less than two hours, but I couldn’t wait to leave. I’m not a fan of big cities and that one didn’t appeal to me at all. We detoured and drove through Stanley Park, which was pretty enough, then got shunted out to drive through downtown which was frustrating stop and go traffic for about an hour. Can’t imagine what it’s like on a Monday morning commute.
While I’ve seen stories on the news and pictures in the media, I was unprepared for Downtown East Hastings Street. The homeless and drug situation was heartbreaking, seeing so many broken lives. It was overwhelming and while no doubt a consequence of the depression and anxiety issues I’ve been dealing with, that’s what I’ll remember of Vancouver. That’s not a fair judgement to pass from such a short drive through, but those images will stick with me for quite some time and I was relieved to put the urban sprawl of the Lower Mainland in the rear view mirror.
With mountains on all sides, and a wide flat valley of farmland, however, I think I’d like to visit the Fraser Valley again. Perhaps in the spring or summer, though unlikely this year. It was one of the more pleasant surprises of this trip.
It was dark by the time we got to Merritt, and the following morning we opted for the Okanagan Connector Hwy, rather than continue on the Coquihalla. Plenty of snow at that elevation and before we got to Kelowna, we had an hour or so of icy roads, poor visibility and slow going. January in the mountains, so not like it was unexpected. Weather wise, we did pretty well, all things considered.
I hadn’t been to the Okanagan in over twenty years, but it might as well have been the first time as there was little that seemed familiar. We could have pushed through to Canmore on Sunday, but that would have made for a very long day, especially since Darrel drove the whole way home, despite my offer to share the duty. So, rather than spend the night in Revelstoke or Golden, we took Highway 95 to Invermere. As my buddy Jim said via text, quite the detour from Highway 1.
Turned out to be worth it, however, as we got to have a schnitzel dinner at the Black Forest Restaurant, which was better than the Subway we’d eaten the night before. Darrel and I both spent years in Germany as kids, so a traditional German meal was a nice treat. If you’re ever in that area, I highly recommend it.
Monday morning, we headed up Highway 93 for the final scenic drive home. I’ve camped in the Columbia Valley many times over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever made the drive in winter and it was very pretty.
As is my nature, I have a bad habit of trying to quantify experiences. Was it worth my time? Did I get enough out of it? What was the point? For too long, I’ve been asking those questions about life in general, and the answers have been unsatisfying. Life doesn’t work on a spreadsheet, a lesson I’ve yet to learn.
I’ll have to be content with the fact that I did something completely out of my ordinary, spent a few days with a good friend and experienced a change of scenery. Perhaps the benefits will be cumulative or maybe it will make trying something new a little easier next time.
Posted January 6th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on A Portrait of Alan Doyle
I consider the daily editorial cartoons to be my day job, but in recent years, the whimsical wildlife portraits have become that as well, which is a little sad since I never wanted those to feel like work. While it’s great that people like my painted animals, that the prints sell well in zoos and galleries and I’m finding licensing opportunities, that part of my work used to be the escape. Now, not so much.
I’ve been quite candid recently revealing that I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety, a direct consequence of years living with OCD. While people most often associate that with germophobia and checking things, 95% of my particular version is not visible to other people. While I’ve no intention of going down that road in great depth in this post, I’ll just say that these past few weeks have been the most difficult of my life. It is my nature to want this fixed NOW so that I can move on and get back to normal, whatever that is. Apparently it doesn’t work that way and I must be patient. This will be a long road back and I have to stop thinking of it as a destination and simply as something I need to learn to live with.
While I’m not anywhere near there at present, I am moving in the right direction. I’ve found a therapist who understands OCD better than any I’ve spoken to before, and while I haven’t ruled it out, we’ve agreed that medication is a last resort for me and doesn’t look to be necessary at this time as other tools are producing results.
This experience, however, has granted me some much needed perspective. I’ve been working too hard when I haven’t had to. I’ve made it all about becoming more successful and producing more work at the expense of having a life. While I’ve had wake-up calls before, this has been more profound and frightening than any that have come before.
Artists. We’re such drama queens.
In hindsight, it seems I look to portraits of people as island escapes when the seas get too rough. I was in a similar frame of mind when I painted Martin Sheen a few years ago.
I’ve wanted to paint Alan Doyle for a year or two, but just kept putting it off for the work and the deadlines. With workmen currently in the house installing new floors, my office taking up part of the kitchen and not being able to count on any routine right now, this painting was a necessary diversion.
My buddy Darrel and I went to see Doyle play in Calgary a few years ago when he was touring with his first solo album, ‘Boy on Bridge.’ It was a real treat because the tour was playing small venues across Canada and we ended up at a front row table at the Ironwood Stage and Grill in Inglewood. Had we wanted to, we could have put our feet up on the floor level stage.
It was the type of venue where you’d expect to see up and comers before they’re well known. Had Doyle been touring with his band, Great Big Sea, the venue would have been much larger and when he came through Calgary again with his second solo album ‘So Let’s Go,’ he moved up to the Jubilee Auditorium.
I’ve long been a fan of Great Big Sea, but to be honest, I like Doyle’s solo albums better and hope they’re just the first of many. He’s playing with some great musicians and that experience at the Ironwood felt like a special opportunity, reminding me of the days when Darrel and I used to hang out at pubs in Red Deer more than twenty-five years ago, listening to live music.
It occurs to me that perhaps I might paint some more Canadians this year, musicians, actors or average folks like me. Maybe I’ll call it a Canada 150 project, purely to find some joy in painting again, and an escape from the work. I won’t be taking requests or entertaining suggestions, nor will I be putting it on a schedule or trying to get a certain number completed. That’s what got me into trouble in the first place.
I could have spent many more hours nitpicking this one, but I deliberately stopped myself before it became an exercise in frustration. It’ll never be perfect, so why bother trying?
I listened to Doyle’s albums and some Great Big Sea while painting this. Here’s a favorite, ‘My Day’ and the video from where I got the reference for this painting.
And if you get a chance to see him live, don’t pass it up.
Posted November 30th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Demons and Dark Corners
When we returned from Germany when I was fifteen, my parents sent my sister and I to the Catholic school rather than the larger generic version across the street because we were used to small schools and I think there were less than 400 in the one I ended up at. Memory is weird, so I can’t say for certain. High School wasn’t so tough for me, although I was a horrible student. I just had no interest in it.
Anyway, good call on their part. Even though I never really fit in throughout my three years there, I never had any problems with bullies or fights or feeling ostracized. Sure there was the odd asshole, but that was the exception, not the rule.
No, those first couple of years, my friends were mostly on the military base, that’s where the majority of my life was. At first, it was just like fitting in anywhere else, but military kids do that well. I was an awkward teenager. Hey, in one form or another, weren’t we all?
My parents were still dragging me to church and while I was an altar boy in Germany and at the beginning in Penhold, I ended up playing the organ for mass, too.
Organ. In church. Here come the pedophile priest jokes.
Funny thing, because we had one of those and he set his sights on me, although I didn’t know it at the time. It felt like a big brother kind of thing. He took me skiing at Canyon ski hill, bike riding, etc. No alarm bells went off or anything, proving we aren’t the same people as teenagers that we are as adults, because all of the clues were right in front of me.
I even remember him making the comment once that I had ‘big hips.’ Tell me that’s not a red alert right there, but I was naïve and stupid. Nothing ever happened that I can recall, however, but my parents later told me that he wanted to take me camping once and they said, “No,” because by then, THEY were seeing the signs and got me away from him.
My parents told me that when they told me No, I was really mad and we had a big fight about it. I don’t remember any of this.
But it turns out he took a couple of other boys camping later on and ended up in jail for it in Ontario. I still wonder, though, because I have a visceral reaction when the subject of child sexual abuse comes up. It triggers my OCD like you wouldn’t believe. Last month, I watched the documentary ‘Call Me Lucky` about Barry Crimmins and his dealing with abuse and it set me off. I spent days in a deep dark funk, some tears, angry and bitter, but no specific memories. It’s still bothering me a month later.
Having spent way too much time researching child sexual abuse over the past couple of weeks, (that’s what my OCD does), I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a clouded memory in there somewhere as many years of my childhood memories are just snapshots and I have some of the symptoms often associated with adult survivors of that shit. The fact that I have long dealt with anxiety disorders, depression, and am quick to anger could be indicators. I don’t like being touched much. When somebody touches my arm or leg, it creeps me out and I startle quite easily.
Although oddly enough, I’m a hugger. Man or woman, I would prefer to hug somebody than shake their hand.
My folks are adamant there wasn’t any indication of ever having been molested, but busy people with busy lives with the best of intentions can’t be everywhere. I hope they’re right. I suspect they’re not. Just a gut feeling.
What much of the research says is that you shouldn’t go looking for an incident if you can’t remember it, because the mind is a funny thing and my overactive imagination might fill in the gaps. Who knows what shit I could dig up and how much of it would be real? Everybody’s got problems and the root of my craziness could be any number of things, from a genetic cocktail gone wrong to too many Stephen King novels at a young age.
So I stopped going to church shortly after, but it actually had nothing to do with the creepy clergyman. When I’d just turned 16, going to church was a chore, especially since I had no real faith in it and am an atheist now. My parents still went but they didn’t fight me on it and I got on with the business of being a teenager and growing up.
It’s been thirty years, pedophile priest dude is dead now and I’m pretty sure he never got his hooks into me. But he sure as hell was grooming me for it, no doubt in my mind about that now.
And at least he didn’t ruin camping for me.
Posted November 29th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on A long time ago…
Shonna and I wanted to see the new movie Arrival (highly recommend it) on the big screen, she needed to buy a few things and I realized I could use something new to wear for her upcoming office Christmas party. After we bought a few shirts for me, Shonna went off to shop and I wandered the mall, dealing with my agoraphobia, which in my case is not so much a phobia as it is an aversion to other humans.
While leaving The Bay, however, I came across a small display of Star Wars toys, specifically the new Air Hogs remote control Millennium Falcon, X-Wing and Tie-Fighters. I paused and looked at the boxes while my inner child tugged hard at my jacket asking, “Can we get one, can we get one, can we get one?”
Walking out of the store, I remembered one of my best Christmases, back when I still liked the holiday. We were living in West Germany at the time, it would have been ’81 or ’82, I think. I had the Star Wars figures, the X-Wing Fighter, the land-speeder and some weird pod-like craft that I have never seen in the movies, but the marketing team at Kenner somehow convinced my parents to buy for me.
I played with them all. The lightsabres that slid out from the arms were missing, as were the capes and the little guns, the paint was scarred and scratched from all of the battles I put these poor action figures through. They would fight on the blanket planet, the dresser plant, the under the bed cave, the forest planet out back (a coniferous bush of some sort), the sandbox planet. Those toys really got around and rarely had any time for a drink in the cantina.
The X-Wing Fighter wouldn’t X anymore, because I broke the wings and my Dad had to glue them back together in the closed position. The cockpit lid would come off on a regular basis as would the guns. A battery had broken open inside the compartment, rendering that useless, so it wouldn’t make any noise anymore. And I didn’t care. I still had fun with it.
But the best toy I ever got for Christmas was The Millennium Falcon. It was the original, the one that came in that first printed cardboard box. I never got the tie fighter or the Death Star playset or the carrying case for the figures, but the Millennium Falcon was the prize, that was the best toy in the whole collection.
This was back before everybody had a credit card, so I remember going to the Canex department store with my Mom. She would often head to the back of the store to the little office kiosk, tell me to wait over by a corner so I was out of earshot and couldn’t see anything. All I knew was that she was making a layaway payment, whatever that meant.
Yes Virginia, there once was a time where you had to budget for Christmas, make deposits ahead of time with real money and you didn’t get your stuff until it was paid for.
I loved that toy, and I beat the hell out of it.
By the time I had outgrown those Star Wars toys, the Falcon’s lid had been cracked and glued more than once, the hidden floor compartment cover was missing, as was the little light-sabre training ball, the cockpit hatch regularly came off, none of the electronics worked and it didn’t even stand up straight as one of the legs wouldn’t fully extend.
A number of years ago, my parents opened a box in the basement, found a bunch of that stuff and asked me if they could get rid of it in a garage sale. I told them sure as I had no use for it. I’m not a collector of anything and while I’ll still watch the Star Wars movies, you’ll never find me lining up to see one or dressing up as a character at Comic-Con, but I also don’t judge anyone who does. If you’re having fun and not hurting anybody, do your thing.
Over the years, whenever I see articles or hear people talking about how much those old Star Wars toys are worth, especially if they’ve never been opened, I just shake my head.
When I was looking at the new versions of those toys on Saturday, the ones that actually FLY now, I wasn’t thinking of the investment potential, what they’d be worth in thirty-five years or where I could store them.
I just wanted to play with them.
Posted November 27th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Dabbling in Something New
Before I became self-employed full-time, I was the admin assistant for a physical therapy office here in Canmore. For a lot of the time, it was just my boss Shane (the physiotherapist) and occasionally a massage therapist working there in the small clinic. If I recall, Shane and I are close to the same age, both into technology, and he was well aware of my eventual plans to work for myself, as my business was thriving part-time on the side. I only worked for him for a little over two years, I think, and I often tell people that it was the best last job to have. That was more than ten years ago. I left on good terms and when I run into Shane on the street once in a while, I’m always happy to see him.
Because we talked about our mutual interests a fair bit when it was slow, he knew that I had been looking into 3D modeling. I had no designs on getting into it hard-core, but just enough so that I could occasionally add some 3D to my editorial cartoon work. At the time, I wasn’t painting more than the occasional caricature for a client and definitely no animals. I was still exploring my options, however, dabbling in Flash animation, trying new things to see where my career might take me.
My first year working for Shane, he ended up buying me one of the earlier versions of Carrara by Daz3D as a Christmas bonus. He and I had talked about the software earlier and I remember thinking that was quite thoughtful. Instead of just a cash bonus, he bought me something I wanted but really couldn’t prioritize as a valid expense as I was still very much a struggling artist and it wasn’t cheap.
Shane now has a much larger clinic in another location, with a number of physiotherapists, massage therapists and staff working for him and I’m glad his business is such a success. Both Shonna and I have gone there for physiotherapy since.
I loved working with Carrara and bought a supplement for it called Hexagon, which was a basic modeller. Stuff I created in those programs ended up being part of a number of editorial cartoons. Rather than search for reference or work out difficult perspective on some things, I just built basic models of what I was envisioning, brought them into Photoshop, traced over the bones and moved on from there.
Sometimes, I just built the whole cartoon in 3D, like the chess pieces below. It was a real time saver. It also allowed me to move models around to get better angles, more interesting perspectives and revealed possibilities I might not have considered. Four of those cartoons you can see in this post, all built in 3D, with some drawing in Photoshop after the fact. A few of these were way more complicated than they needed to be, but I was also experimenting.
This Checkmate cartoon was for the Alberta PC Leadership race. Not knowing the outcome, I was able to create three different versions, with the names changed to reflect all three possible winners. When the result was in, I just sent out the correct one you see here.
Over time, I stopped using 3D because I wasn’t interested in doing more than I was doing with it, every new release of the software involved learning new things I didn’t need, and a simple process I enjoyed became a complicated mess as they often fixed software that wasn’t broken. Eventually, the software wasn’t being supported anymore and I just let it go. I had also moved on to doing a lot of painting and the animal work that is now such a big part of my life.
Every so often, however, I’ll start drawing an editorial cartoon and think, “this would be so much easier if I just built a 3D model first.”
That’s been popping up in my head more often the last couple of years. I’ve also thought that it might be fun to build some 3D caricatures of both people and animals. To be honest, it’s been some time since I’ve yearned to learn something new, even though this would actually be revisiting an old interest with new tools and a new perspective.
I’ve investigated other 3D software here and there and it’s often too expensive to justify and too complicated for my needs. It would be like learning to fly a Boeing 747 when all I need is to drive to the grocery store. I have limited time to learn new things and keep up with everything else I do. I also knew that I would lose interest in it fast if I had to essentially follow stereo instructions just to create a flower pot.
One of the best programs out there, however, is one called ZBrush. A lot of professionals use it in conjunction with other software and some of the results I’ve seen are incredibly impressive. But for the cost and learning curve, it looked like the same story. Too big.
In recent months, however, I’ve been hearing a lot about the recently released ZBrushCore, which is a trimmed down version of ZBrush. I’ve watched a number of videos and it reminds me a great deal of Hexagon and Carrara, those early pieces of software I enjoyed so much. The difference is that it’s more sophisticated, streamlined and offers more functionality without being a complicated mess. Few artists are programmers and when it goes so far toward the tech that it no longer feels like creating, then I’m lost.
After watching a number of tutorials the past couple of days, I bought ZBrushCore this morning for $200 Canadian, which I consider very affordable.
I’m a little excited about this, and while the challenge will still be to make the time to learn it, use it, and have fun with it, I’m optimistic. Learning something new this winter might also be a partial antidote to my usual seasonal doldrums. So, it’s likely I’ll be adding some 3D elements to my editorial cartoons in the coming year, and might even try out a funny looking animal or two. If nothing else, I hope to have a little fun sculpting.
Posted November 24th, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on You Don’t Say
“You should draw children’s books!”
I hear this a lot from people, along with other ‘suggestions’ from out of the blue.
I could draw children’s books and I’ve had many offers to do so over the past 15 years or so. One of those ended up being very successful for the author and the illustrator to whom I introduced her. They were a good match and the books they’ve done turned out great.
So why didn’t I draw them? I don’t like being around children. I’m not a parent, never wanted kids, and you won’t find me attending the birthday parties that friends have for their kids. Shonna is the same way. We’re monsters. We know. We’re OK with it.
When you create a children’s book, you have to promote it. That means doing readings for children, attending events for children, going to schools where there are children and pretending you want to be there. If I produced a children’s book, there would be a large crowd of people who know me well, shouting, “Hypocrite!”
And they’d be right to do so.
Occasionally I will speak to school classes. I even mentored at the school for a couple of years some time ago, a worthwhile program for kids who showed aptitude in the arts. Once a week, I would go to the school, meet my student in a room near the office and spend an hour on drawing exercises. We’d come up with a project that they’d then present to their class at the end of the program.
I did it because it’s something I would have enjoyed at that age and out of a sense of community guilt, felt I should contribute in some way. There were some good kids, I did my best for them, but it wasn’t personally rewarding and felt like another obligation. Because of that flawed perspective, I won’t do that again. But I will still speak to classes from time to time.
I could have been more politically correct here in my explanation, but I erred on the side of honesty. Feel free to judge me harshly. It’s what makes the internet go ‘round.
“Is this digital? Ohhhh.”
That “Ohhhh” is usually incredibly condescending. What it really says is, “You must have a really good program that changed a photo into whatever this is.”
If I tell them I did it with Photoshop, then they’re even more certain that I’m a fraud.
There are still those who figure if you do your work on a computer, then you’re not really a skilled artist, you’re more like a programmer who just knows how to press all the right buttons.
I could explain at great length about the countless hours I’ve spent working to improve my art skills, through practice, study, and a ton of happy accidents, but I usually just smile and let them have their illusions. As I heard Katey Couric say on a podcast recently, “People aren’t looking for information these days, they’re looking for affirmation.”
You think the computer creates my artwork? Give it a shot.
I’ll wait here.
“Are these photos?”
No. They’re not photos. I use photos for reference, but no photo is ever part of my work.
“So what do you do for your real job?”
This is it. Drawing, colouring and answering stupid…
Sorry. I’ll be nice.
“You should draw an Elephant, Hippo, Badger, Horse, Ocelot, Orangutan, Marmoset, Jellyfish, Narwhal, Praying Mantis, Spider, Kangaroo, Duckbilled Platypus, Anemone, Sloth, Barracuda, Goldfish, Parakeet, Boa Constrictor…(it’s an endless list)“
And will you buying one of those when I do? Just checking.
“They’re all smiling!”
“I just love your work!”
“We bought a print of yours last year and it hangs in our hallway.”
“Is that new? I’ll take it!”
Thank you. Thank you very much.
Posted November 22nd, 2016 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Showing Up
At this weekend’s Calgary Expo Holiday Market, a neighbouring vendor mentioned that it’s probably healthy for us to get out of our own orbits, to network with new people, actually talk face to face with customers. While my instinct is to shy away from that, I know she was right.
She added, “Besides, it’s nice to listen to people tell you how much they like your stuff for an entire weekend.”
Over the course of this weekend, I found myself questioning the value of trade shows, mostly because I’ve gone from doing only the one each year, adding another and am considering more.
So you don’t mistake the following mixed feelings with a misconception that this here hermit artist just doesn’t know how to talk with people, I’ve worked more years in customer service than I have as an artist. I know how to play the sales game.
I was in retail and hotels for years before I became self-employed. I managed a waterslide facility full of screaming children and worked a hotel front desk over multiple Christmas holidays and sold out summers in one of the busiest tourist towns in the world. I’ve smiled through a guest check-in while they’ve told me everything had better be perfect, and again during their check-out when it wasn’t.
I didn’t sit down while in my trade show booth, not once through the entire weekend. Sitting down tells people they’re bothering you and most will just move on. I wasn’t on my phone all the time, or sketching, or standing with my arms crossed. When somebody walked by the booth, I smiled, said Hello, engaged them in conversation, made small talk. If I noticed people looking, but they hadn’t approached, I invited them over to take a look. They most often did and often bought as a result. No sales pressure, just being friendly.
I tell you this not to sound like a martyr. Most people who work customer service know they must do the exact same thing, or at least the successful ones do.
As this Holiday show was put on by the same people who do the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo in the spring, they marketed it to their regular attendees. From this vendor’s perspective, that was great as I’ve gotten to know a number of customers over the four years I’ve been doing Expo. Many have purchased more than once and have become collectors of my work. I do look forward to Expo each year, because prior to being a vendor, I was an attendee. It’s an event I enjoy.
There were a number of familiar faces that approached me, asked what was new and bought some more prints. One gentleman, who owns a few of my prints already, bought his first canvas print. A couple of my Facebook followers came by to visit and both bought prints. Up until now, they’ve been names I recognize from likes/comments. It was a real pleasure to talk to them in person and I was flattered that they made the time to come down and see me.
I was able to chit chat with my neighbour in the next booth and as she’s a regular Expo vendor and sells at many other shows, her insight was valuable.
These are the benefits that are hard to quantify. There is no specific dollar value, nothing that can be put on a balance sheet, but the information and connections you gain from networking will most definitely contribute to the bottom line in the future.
As for the cons, those are more personal. I’m a results oriented person, which often isn’t associated with people in the arts. If I’m not using my time well, then I view that time as wasted.
When I go for a hike, it’s because I know that my senior years will be painful and difficult if I don’t stay fit. Most days, I’d rather just stay in and work, but I force myself to get out and walk those 6-10km, often with a 20 pound backpack which includes a couple of cameras. If I see a squirrel, bird, or something larger, I can take a photo that might end up being used for reference. I also come up with cartoon ideas on my walks. I’ll walk downtown on an errand, rather than drive, not because I’m being environmentally conscious, it’s just multi-tasking.
I don’t do idle well. So while I’m standing in the booth in a slow period, saying Hi to people that walk by, just looking ready to engage, I’m thinking that I could be writing on my iPad, or drawing a cartoon in my sketch book, or perusing the news on my phone. But that would make me look unapproachable and that’s bad for sales.
While some can relax for days on end while on vacation, lying on a beach doing nothing for longer than an hour is torture for me. Let’s go tour a ruin, learn something new or have a new experience. Thankfully, my wife has the same outlook.
The trade show experience, as a result, feels like I’m wasting a lot of time that could be spent producing more work. It took me almost four hours to set up my booth on Friday and two hours to tear it down and pack the car Sunday evening. There was also the drive time to and from, which amounted to three hours total for Calgary.
I could have gotten a lot of painting done in that time, a blog post, or a few editorial cartoons.
The idea of doing multiple Christmas shows fills me with dread. I don’t set foot in a shopping mall between now and January to avoid the madness and festival frenzy. The idea of going on tour to different cities to experience that very thing seems horrific to me. Luckily the weather was great this weekend, but I thought about what it would be like doing this sort of thing when there’s a whiteout on icy roads in a packed car, sharing the road with aggressive Alberta drivers looking at their phones. Sugar plums dancing? More like animal prints littering the ditch.
We canceled our Thanksgiving plans this year because the roads were treacherous. Canceling a booth with all of the associated costs would be pricey.
A period of evaluation lies ahead of me. How much of this do I want to do? How much of my best energy (the stuff I rely on to create!) do I spend on this sort of thing, especially at a time of year when that energy is in shortest supply? Psychologically, winter is when I struggle most, when I am much closer to the bottom than the top, for months at a time.
There is a certain amount of self-doubt about this where I think, “Am I just shying away from this because it’s different, out of my comfort zone, or a foreign experience?” But then there is also the confidence that comes with age where you also know who you are and that what works for one person might not work for you. I’m an atheist, but the serenity prayer comes to mind.
Living your life by somebody else’s playbook, especially in a profession where being unique is the ideal, doesn’t make any sense.
On the surface, sales were decent, but if I factor in everything from my print costs, hotel, food, parking, booth rental and power, then my end profit amounted to less than a minimum hourly wage for all of the prep, setup, time on site, tear down and post-work at home. When I looked at that final number after calculating all of the expense, I thought, “That’s it? For all of that work?”
I don’t feel that way when I get my payments for editorial cartoons, licensing royalties, commissions from the galleries or payments from the zoos. Because when somebody else is selling my work, I’m producing more work.
I’ll be overthinking this for some time. It will factor into whether or not I add more shows or commit to a season of the Canmore Market next spring, summer and fall. I lost money on the first Expo I did and barely made any money on the second, but if not for those first two, I wouldn’t have made money on the next two and this past spring Expo was a really great year. But I also like doing that show, and that matters, too.
As with most decisions in self-employment, there are no easy answers. There’s no map. Most of the time, it’s just feeling around in a dark room looking for a light switch. And when you finally find one, it illuminates a very small area and you’re once again squinting into the dark, looking for the next light switch.