An artist by accident

People aren’t supposed to stumble into editorial cartooning jobs — and cartoonists aren’t supposed to become wildlife artists.

Patrick LaMontagne and a cute rodent from his imagination.

Patrick LaMontagne and a cute rodent from his imagination.

People aren’t supposed to stumble into editorial cartooning jobs — and cartoonists aren’t supposed to become wildlife artists.

But Patrick LaMontagne has somehow achieved both by just following the leads life threw at him.

The self-described “army brat,” who spent his childhood at various military bases around the world, was a reservist and general studies student at Red Deer College, where he met his wife.

But by the time he was approaching 30, the Red Deer-born LaMontagne still hadn’t figured out what he wanted to do for a living.

The couple was residing in Banff, where LaMontagne worked in the hotel and tourism business, and as an emergency medical technician.

But neither career had really gelled when he saw an advertised opening for an editorial cartoonist at Banff’s Crag and Canyon newspaper in 1997.

“I thought that would be a fun thing to do,” recalled LaMontagne — even though his only cartooning experience was “doodling on school notebooks when I was supposed to be paying attention.”

Although LaMontagne is now capable of creating intricately detailed wildlife caricatures that hang in art galleries, back then he insists he was no more artistically talented than the average person.

To his surprise, he was hired for the cartooning job anyway. No one else had applied. “It all came about by accident,” he recalled, with a chuckle.

After brushing up on current affairs and observing the styles of other cartoonists, LaMontagne started out trying to teach himself how to draw. He then saw a televised interview with Montreal Gazette cartoonist Aislin (whose real name is Terry Mosher), who suggested it’s very difficult for young people to break into editorial cartooning.

LaMontagne emailed Aislin asking for his advice and this turned into two years of mentoring by the generous Montreal cartoonist.

LaMontagne credits Aislin for teaching him “everything from how to deal with editors to pricing. He told me that doing two to three cartoons a week was not enough — I had to do more” to improve.

At one point, the Alberta cartoonist was even coached over the phone by Aislin on how to draw a good likeness of former provincial premier Ralph Klein. “My caricature had been unrecognizable,” he laughingly recalled.

LaMontagne’s cartoons were eventually good enough to run in various newspapers. The 39-year-old recently started his own syndication company that distributes his work to about 50 papers, including the Advocate.

“I run in every province (and territory) except Nunavut,” said LaMontagne, who was paid the ultimate compliment when Klein and former prime minister Paul Martin purchased his cartoons to hang on their own walls — although the cartoonist remains a little cynical about these gestures. “They may just want people to think they have a sense of humour. . . . ”

Because too much political satire can become a draining, negative experience, LaMontagne decided he needed a more positive outlet — so he began computer painting anthropomorphic wildlife last fall.

LaMontagne, now a resident of Canmore, said no one can live in the mountains without developing a fascination with wild creatures.

He starts painting straight animals on a digital drawing tablet. But during the creation process, he begins imagining what the wildlife he’s portraying might be thinking. And the end result — some 20 hours of digital “painted” layers later — is a half-realistic/half-caricatured specimen.

His bear looks bear-like — but also a little inquisitive and goofy.

LaMontagne’s elk has a “stunned,” caught-in-the-headlights look, and his mischievous ground squirrel looks like he’s up to something.

“They have human-like expressions and there’s a cartoonie feel,” said LaMontagne, who has received good feedback on his likable creatures.

Red Deer’s Editions Gallery in the Bower Place Shopping Centre will be carrying his limited-edition canvas backed animal prints starting on Saturday.