How to be a cartoonist
If you draw, quite often you will meet people who don’t draw, and when they see your drawings will exclaim, “I wish I could draw”. Creative talents seem to have this mystique around them. Whether it’s music, art, comedy, or writing, everyone thinks that the people who are good have been gifted from birth. Now I’m not discounting this theory (there are certainly people who seem to have been put on this planet to do what they are known for), but from my own experience, every step forward in all four of the aforementioned disciplines has been due to countless hours of regular, focused practise.
I have always wanted to be a cartoonist. I was five or six when I received my first Garfield book. I spent my youth absorbed in the worlds of Peanuts, Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, and The Far Side. Even at that young age I knew this was the path for me. My first cartoon characters weren’t till grade five, and I still have drawings of them. They were terrible. All through highschool I was drawing. I created more characters, and started to craft actual stories with them. Some of the jokes and situations aren’t bad, but the drawings are terrible. I can say this because I have kept everything from those times, and the times after. My old bedroom at my parents’ house has a deep drawer filled with sketchbooks and visual diaries. Keeping your old work is important, if just as a measuring stick to chart your constant progress.
And progress will be constant as long as you keep at it. Brad Guigar of Evil Inc sent me a reply to an email I sent him years ago where he said that it’s impossible to get worse at something that you do everyday. I think I will remember that for the rest of my life. Around this time I was drawing stills from The Simpsons. Trying to replicate the works of what you enjoy is an invaluable process. I would learn the truth of that many years after.
Discovering webcomics, and specifically PvP in mid 2000 was something that opened my eyes. At this point I had started university, but having my application to the animation school where I lived rejected, I was pondering whether it was worth continuing with my passion or not (the degree I found myself had nothing to do with where I wanted to be. Not surprisingly, I dropped out a year or so later).
PvP inspired me to start my own webcomic, and really it was this consistency of updating frequently that started me on the right path. Oh a lot of the jokes, timing, and drawings from my first webcomic are atrocious, but you know what? I got better, and I got better at a much quicker rate than I would have just drawing on my own. Even better is at that time, there were huge webcomic creator communities on irc, through keenspace, and over livejournal. I met other like-minded folks who had the cartooning bug in them, and I have made good friends with, and keep in touch with a handful of them to this day.
I even attended an animation school in the years after. I dropped out of that as well, but it enhanced my skills even further. In the mid 2000s, I discovered the blog of John Kricfalusi (creator of Ren & Stimpy), and spent most of that year drawing for hours everyday. He created an online animation school, and I completed most of the exercises. If you think of your growth as an artist as a series of cliffs to climb before reaching the safety of a plateau, that year was the most dangerous cliff I have ever scaled, but I’ve been enjoying the fruits of that labour ever since.
That is one thing I love about creative skills, there’s always another cliff to climb if you want to. I haven’t been as bold about the cliffs I have chosen to scale in the years since, but even the tiniest hill overcome is a victory. As long as you’re not stagnating, and working on some part of yourself, you’ll be alright.
So what does all this have to do with being a cartoonist? Well even though my latest comic has been regularly updating for three years, and it has some of the best work I have ever done, I still doubt my artistic ability. I look at some of my peers, especially those who have made a career out of their art, and I beat myself up about my own work. A lot of artists do it, and it’s a terrible thing to do. Seriously, if you take nothing else away from this writing, avoid it. Comparing your work against others is one of the most destructive practises to engage in.
Over the years I have learned to love aspects of what I do. It might be the joke, the pacing, an expression in a panel, or maybe I nailed that background one of the few times I actually decide to draw one. My point is that I don’t consider myself that great a cartoonist. I have spent most of my life pursuing a dream that is still just a hobby. You know what though? I enjoy the hell out of it. Each new comic is not just fun, it can be a puzzle of placing the right pieces in the right spots, and it’s great to know that I can trust my brain and my hands to sit down at a desk and within an hour or so, whip up a finished product that will bring a smile to someone’s face (even if it is only mine).
So yes, people ask me how I became so good at drawing. They lament to me that they wish they could draw. I have been asked how to become a cartoonist. I don’t know the complete answer to that question, but I know I am on the right path, and hopefully if you’re interested, this article has helped put you on the right path too.