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.