Thursday, September 21, 2006

For What It's Worth

Darrin Bell is the talented creator of the comic strips Candorville and Rudy Park, as well as the proprietor of a comics forum called ToonTalk that I visit from time to time. It's not the busiest forum on the Web, but it is a convivial place where a few pros hang out and happily share their advice and experience with anyone who asks. I pass some time there myself and recommend it.

A recent poster wrote that he had some gag writing experience and wanted to try drawing his cartoons as well. He's taking some classes and already knows he has to "practice, practice, practice." But, he asked, what exactly should he be practicing? It's a question I've been asked before, so I thought my reply might make a good blog post. Interestingly, I think it's one of those questions that every cartoonist would answer in their own way (in the ToonTalk thread, it sparked a discussion about the merits of "simple drawing" versus "bad drawing") and reveals more about the respondent and their philosophies of cartooning than it does cartooning itself.

Anyway, here's what I wrote. By the way, if anyone can help me track down that Thurber anecdote I alluded to and probably butchered, that'd be great.

Some of my comments will repeat others, but I'll try to distill my thoughts and advice as best I can. All below is only my opinion:

Absolutely give drawing a shot yourself. Even if you eventually decide your art doesn't have the quality you're looking for, getting a feel for how words and pictures can combine to create something bigger than either of them alone will make you a better cartoonist. When the art supports the gag and the gag illuminates the art, and neither communicates the full idea without the other, that's good stuff.

Learn what you can from the work of others but spend most of your time drawing from real life. I think cartooning is about simplifying things to their essence. Good cartoonists know what to leave out. Don't draw Jim Davis eyes or Garry Trudeau eyes, look in a mirror and draw your own eyes, then draw them over and over until you can express as much with two lines as you originally did with 20. I think studying the work of other cartoonists can be a very helpful part of that process as you specifically look to see how they solved the same problems.

(There's a cartooning story I've always liked and unfortunately I don't have time to look it up, so this may not be accurate: I think it involves James Thurber, who was accosted by a reader demanding to know why he got paid a princely sum to draw a cartoon that consisted only of three squiggly lines. He answered, "If I could've drawn it with two, I would have charged twice as much." Again, accuracy not guaranteed, but illustrative of a good point.)

Re: developing your own style, comic book artist Neal Adams has said that "style" consists of the mistakes artists make that keep their art from being a perfect representation of the thing they're drawing. If we were all perfect artists, all of our drawings would be identical photo-realistic renderings. I don't think I completely agree with that, but it's food for thought. I do believe style evolves from choices--choices of material and media, scratchy vs. smooth, anatomically accurate vs. fantastically exaggerated, etc. Make enough of those choices for yourself and after a while, without you even consciously trying, your style won't look like anyone else's.

So, to your original post, I'd elaborate on the "practice, practice, practice" advice to suggest you practice drawing everything around you: telephones, cars, coffee tables, comfy chairs, cats and dogs, hands and feet. Draw them as well as you can, then "dial down" the realism. As an exercise, maybe see how little you can draw and still have your art communicate "telephone," "car," "chair," etc.

At this point, play with as many media as you can: markers, technical pens, india ink, brushes, nibs, washes, different textures of paper, digital. You could hit an art supply store and for probably less than $30 take home enough experiments to last a month. Give them all a fair try.

In addition to that, learn what you can about how the gag business works and how pros do their jobs. And take any chance you can to look at original cartoon artwork done by pros. When I set out to seriously study cartooning, I learned more by looking at a wall of originals for a few minutes than I could've via books or trial and error for years.

Good luck!


ronnie said...

I couldn't find the "two lines" anecdote online but I did find a great collection of quotes by, and about, Thurber and his creative process at the Thurber House Website:

Thurber himself says, wonderfully, "Some people thought my drawings were done under water; others that they were done by moonlight. But mothers thought that I was a little child or that my drawings were done by my granddaughter. So they sent in their own children's drawings to The New Yorker, and I was told to write these ladies, and I would write them all the same letter: 'Your son can certainly draw as well as I can. The only trouble is he hasn't been through as much'."

E.B. White adds: "He is the one artist that I have ever known capable of expressing in a single drawing physical embarrassment during emotional strain. That is, it is always apparent to Thurber that at the very moment one's heart is caught in an embrace one's foot may be caught in a piano stool."

I think "Have it your way - you heard a seal bark!" (Brian will know it, but for those who don't, ) was the first single-panel cartoon I saw as a child that I recognized as brilliant. (Peanuts was the first strip.) I have adored James Thurber ever since.

Thanks for another great post about the art of cartooning.

- ronnie

ronnie said...

P.S. I am now hearing Buffalo Springfield in my head. Which is not a bad thing.

BrianFies said...

Great stuff on Thurber, thanks a lot. I hadn't seen that first quote before. And as you may know, White is one of my favorite writers--pure graceful elegance.