Monday, June 11, 2007

On Economy

Phil May's Self-portrait

Finally, and by complete happenstance, I've discovered the source of a quote that has been a cornerstone of my cartooning philosophy but which I could never track down. I first heard the story decades ago and long ago forgot where. Now I know.

Phil May was born in 1864 and died in 1903, only 39. He was one of the great British cartoonists of the late 19th century, contributing to Punch and other periodicals. In 1885, May went to work for the Sydney Bulletin in Australia, where he came across an editor who thought he wasn't getting his money's worth out of May. Evidently believing he was paying by the line, the editor asked if May could produce more elaborate and detailed drawings. Replied May, "When I can leave out half the lines I now use, I shall want six times the money."

That's what cartooning is all about to me: distilling a thing to its essence, so that nothing but the information needed is presented, and everything that is presented provides essential information. May's reply reminds me of my all-time favorite quote about writing by mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who concluded a long-winded letter with, "Sorry this post was so long, I did not have time to make it short."

I work on that. In both writing and cartooning, my first inclination is to do too much. If I'm writing a 3,000-word article or 100-page report, I'm very happy if my first draft goes 10% to 20% over because I know subsequent drafts will only improve with tightening. Same with cartooning, I think. I'll draw something several times, figuring out what I can get rid of and what needs to stay, trying for fewer lines and less clutter in every iteration, working hard to make it simple. I always fall short but it's an interesting and worthwhile target to aim for, I think.

When I can leave out half the lines I now use, I shall want six times the money.


ronnie said...

This article, in particular the comment that May died at only 39 years of age, raised my curiosity and led me to this article on

Amazingly, they seem to reference the same story you tell, but leave out his brilliant rejoinder to the editor!

What a short, talented, tragic life. Orphaned at 9, drank himself to death (aided by a "wasting disease" - TB?) at 39.

Sad how often genius finds itself rooming with brutal circumstances and self-destructive tendencies.

None of which dims his genius, nor the truth in his response to his editor.

Mike said...

Another classic quote to go with these is the advice Samuel Johnson said came from a college tutor: "Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

I've never known it to fail to tighten up a passage that was giving me trouble.

Sherwood Harrington said...