Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tuesday Cartooning Tips! [8 days to launch!]

Tuesday Cartooning Tips!

If I want to be a cartoonist, should I go to art school?
Answered by Zander

Neither Kevin nor I went to art school. Kevin was a Fine Arts major, and I was an English major, both at Grinnell College, a liberal arts school in Iowa. One of the reasons that we didn't study cartooning is that it was just not something that could be studied in academia at the time. Even as recently as 2002, even if you went to art school, there was not necessarily going to be any cartooning or comic book art classes, much less a major, but of course times are different now. Comics and cartoons are accepted to be real, actual artistic endeavors worthy of study, so you don't have to triangulate your comics skills with related things like straight illustration, graphic design, and playwriting quite so much as you used to.

What Kevin and I did (coincidentally) was each write and draw a comic strip for Grinnell College's newspaper, the Scarlet and Black. If asked, we both profess a great love for the newspaper's unflinching deadline and school-of-hard-knocks public reception as practical learning tools.  There was really nothing pushing us to become better other than our own desire to improve and the cold hard light of day exposing the flaws in our drawings. That, and the fact that you just can hardly draw a year's worth of a weekly comic strip without getting a little better, made us each emerge from the other side with an array of skills that would be difficult to teach in a vacuum, such as:

1) How to envision a gag or story that will fit in the allotted space,
2) How to simplify an illustration or sequence to save time while still making it look good,
3) How to develop a rendering style with the materials at hand that reproduced well,
4) How to write concise dialogue that fits in small panels,
5) How to letter, design logos, and do sound effects in a couple different styles, and
6) How to let go of a drawing because it just has to be turned in RIGHT NOW.

All of this was on top of the usual things one might learn in order to do comics, like drawing -- or specifically, pencilling and inking -- and what pencils, pens, ink, and paper to use. Those are the things that make doing a comic strip or a comic book seem like realistic goals, because after you learn and internalize those things, any project will simply be a difference in scale: more pages, faster deadlines, bigger format, etc.

This kind of education was valuable for me and the way I think, but that only applies to me. Kevin learned a great number of skills I don't have by being a studio art major, such as painting or printmaking, and an art school education would be an even greater extension of that. Kevin has the ability to bring some of the art techniques he learned long ago to bear in his comics illustration that I simply have little knowledge of, and that is a great advantage for him.

So the short answer is: art school will teach you how to draw, paint, sculpt -- and now, even pencil, ink, and letter a comic -- but the practical, day-to-day skills in being a cartoonist can only be learned by doing the work exactly as you would in the real world: with deadlines, with an eye on reproduction, and with an audience.


  1. I would add that it was art history classes more than anything other art class that really shaped my career as a cartoonist. I entered Grinnell with the mindset that "realistic=good" and it took several years and several art history classes before I was able to able to see the value beyond representational art. Most influential was a seminar I took on the German Expressionists whose raw portrayal of human figures and faces have crept into my art over the last decade. That art -- plus a healthy obsession with Pete Bagge's 'Hate' -- helped me realize that good storytelling happens through line and shape rather than realistic anatomical proportions.

  2. I would say it depends on the school. Growing up, all I could think of being was a cartoonist. I tried out a number of art schools before finding the right one for me, the Joe Kubert School. For me, being taught by professionals who have worked in the field gave me a strong foundation to work up from instead of a floundering around trying to learn the basics. I can state very matter-of-fact that I would not have had a career in the business without that vocational training. I have to add that I currently teach adjunct at MCAD - and this isn't a promotional pitch. Do you HAVE to go to an art school to be a cartoonist? No, there's a number of successful cartoonists who haven't - but I'd sure as hell advise an apprenticeship, being mentored, interning, studying, hours at the drawing table, MORE hours at the drawing table, feedback from people in the industry, analysis of the medium, MORE hours at the drawing table - ANYTHING that will get you as informed as possible to get you up to speed. For me, the logical way to get to that point was an art school.

  3. One of the things about the just-do-a-comic-over-and-over-until-you-get-better strategy was that all that inefficient struggling around creative problems gets you to a place where you know what questions to ask when you actually do get to talk to a professional. It's the old cliche: 'When the student is ready, the master will appear'.

    I've spoken to many, many young cartoonists, and you can definitely see a difference in the ones that have a dozen questions and have tried to accomplish things in four or five different ways, and those who are still trying to figure out how to start. It's amazing how much you need to accomplish before you even know what to ask.