Sunday Mailbag

September 13th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: You’re making a living with your artistic skills. From that vantage point, what art skills would you hope would be taught to students (12-15 years old) with similar cartooning / illustration aspirations for their livelihood?

A: At the age you cite there is no specific set of skills or instruction that I feel would be of direct benefit to an aspiring cartoonist/illustrator. At that point it’s all about being exposed to as much art, illustration and inspiration as possible and to experiment with various mediums… and of course to draw.

As a teenager an artist is still very much a blank canvas and is just beginning to develop their artistic sensibilities and their “eye” for seeing the world. I remember when I was that age I struggled to find that inspiration because I went to a small town school where the art program was very low on the educational priority scale. I didn’t have access to much in the way of any kind of art, nor was I challenged much. In fact our art teacher was also the school counselor, and probably an art teacher by default. The one thing he did do for me was to force me to work in different mediums, not letting me just do what I was comfortable doing. That was a great help to me.

Whenever I work with a young kid interested in becoming a working artist I stress two things: the importance of drawing anything and everything, and looking at the work of lots of other artists.

The importance of the former is obvious. Lots of kids love drawing their favorite things, but it’s important to draw life itself rather than one particular, albeit interesting, part of life. Kids that show me a book full of manga drawings of nothing but teenagers jumping around with swords make me cringe. I always ask them if they can draw a chair and a lamp next to the figure and make it look like that figure could sit down in that chair should it suddenly come to animated life. Most will not even attempt it and of those that do attempt it most can’t do it. My point to them is that it’s easy to learn to draw something like an action figure… it’s tough to draw the rest of the world around it convincingly. It’s your skills illustrating the rest of the world that gets you sustained work.

Things like composition, environments and storytelling are as or more important to doing effective cartooning and illustration than just being able to draw scary monsters or caricatured heads. Learning and studying that kind of thing goes a long way to developing a foundation for effective illustration and cartooning. Drawing from life, objects, people, buildings, furniture, machines… drawing these things and placing them in environments develops an artist’s sense of composition and design.

The second thing, looking at the work of lots of other artists, is also important at this young stage. You never know what will resonate with a young artist and will stick with them as they develop their work. I’m not talking about seeing and aping someone’s style, I mean how looking at and seeing the world through another artist’s eyes helps open your own eyes to things you may not have seen or noticed before. A comic strip cartoonist might get as much out of looking at a Maxfield Parrish as they would looking at a Peanuts strip, even if one doesn’t seem to directly apply to what they do or end up doing. For example looking at the work of Norman Rockwell taught me, among many other things, how much dynamic and exaggerated human expression conveys the story of a given illustration. Exposure to the work of others opens a young artist’s mind and inspires them.

The only real, tangible thing I would suggest to teach to a young artist is how to use the computer as a tool for their art. This is already an essential thing today, for a professional expecting to break into the business in 10 years or so it will be beyond essential.

Thanks to John Calvin for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!

Comments

  1. sharprm says:

    Tom do you recommend kids learn those Preston Blair lessons?

    http://johnkstuff.blogspot.com/search/label/construction

    The construction I saw in ‘cartoon’ books as a kid (written by people who aren’t good at drawing sometimes) was so basic it seemed pointless. I think mad satirized it when they had this comic how to draw Alfred E Neuman. They used a couple of steps constructing the basic head and the last step was “start again and trace this”.

    I’m not a pro but I think construction is extremely important and I wish I had’ve seen these lessons earlier. Maybe that is what you mean by action poses versus sitting in chairs? The action pose the kid has memorized from copying from other comics, but sitting in a chair requires a new pose and construction to pull it off.

  2. Chip says:

    Tom I agree with your advice totally.
    I’m an 46 year old artist who ignored the art technology with computers when it started breaking. It seemed too complicated,expensive and time consuming to learn. It also didn’t feel right drawing on a digital drawing tablet or coloring in Photo Shop to me.

  3. John Calvin says:

    Thanks for taking the time for such a detailed response to my question. I teach junior high and sometimes wonder what things I could be doing better. I do teach drawing from 2-D and 3-D reference, and from imagination. They do resist and complain about the drawing from life assignments. They are exposed to pencil, ink, chalk, markers, colored pencils, watercolor, acrylic, and oil. We do look at many artists’ work, including that of TOM RICHMOND. I love to post the “Dreaded Deadline Demon” whenever a big project is due. I hope that’s OK. Our art program is not set up for computer work, but I do emphasize to them to learn traditional media, and at least Photoshop and Illustrator. I have a link to your blog from my school web site, and I check on it daily. Thanks for having such great and informative content. I am looking forward to your caricature book. Thanks!

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