Sunday Mailbag

August 15th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: When you’re drawing, do you usually have anything on in the background (music, TV, movies)?

A: That’s a question that has a lot of different answers from a lot of different artists, which I find fascinating. Everyone seems to have their own idea of what kind of environment they need to focus their concentration, creativity and work flow. I know a lot of artists that have the TV going in the background playing either some specific station or DVDs of movies. That is one thing I cannot do… any visual distractions really mess up my ability to focus on my work. It seems to work just fine for some people, though.

What I have found is that certain stages of a job demand certain kinds of background noise. I can’t work in silence… that is as bad as having a TV going. I need some kind of noise, but it all depends on what I am doing as to what kind of sound I listen to.

Brainstorming, concepts, roughs, pencils- I listen strictly to music during this stage of a project. It has to be just music at this stage because I’m using a part of the brain that doesn’t allow me to split my attention to whatever I am listen to, so the sound becomes a background/white noise sort of thing and isn’t operating on any conscious level. Sometimes I just listen to the radio and sometimes it’s my iPod hooked to a stereo in my studio playing a playlist of some kind. I actually prefer listening to the radio because the occasional DJ banter, weather and such breaks things up a bit. I can listen to Sirius/XM radio over my computer because I have a satellite radio account for my car, but I rarely listen to that. Local FM or my iPod work fine. I like mostly classic rock and heavy metal, alternative rock, reggae and R&B and even the occasional techno dance tune. I loathe rap, country, hip-hop, country and country. My all times favorites are The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

Inking, coloring, painting- This stage allows me to listen to something that I can devote a part of my conscious mind to because the nature of the work is not as creatively demanding. In fact sometimes the process of inking and coloring or painting can get a bit long and tedious, so by listening to something that keeps my attention and is something I want to continue to listen to I can keep myself on task for longer periods. I will sometimes listen to sports on the radio, especially baseball games. However, audiobooks are my favorite thing to listen to when I am doing finishing work. They are easy to get absorbed in and a good one keeps you wanting to continue to hear the story… that keeps me in my chair longer. The one caveat with audiobooks is that, while I do actually listen to the story and follow it well I often times will “zone out” of it a bit during some particularly demanding part of an illustration. For that reason, I only listen to audiobooks I have either already heard before or have already read the book itself so i can pick up on the story again after my little zone out and not feel I have to rewind to hear what I may have missed. I have a pretty extensive collection of downloaded audiobooks (300 or so at last count). My favorites are anything by Stephen King or Frederick Forsyth, The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter books, The Dune series and of course the Sherlock Holmes “canon” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I only listen to unabridged audiobooks, as I feel abridgments are like reading Cliffnotes.

On a side note, I also prefer to work in a clean studio. I hate digging under piles to find things I need. Therefore I usually have to prepare for a big assignment by thoroughly cleaning my studio and getting caught up on any and all mail and other things to “clean the slate” before I feel like I’m ready to get started on something that will consume a lot of time.

Thanks to Ed Placencia* 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!

*Ed was kind enough to send me about 1/2 a dozen questions for the mailbag after the last time I posted the empty mailbox image, and now I’ve burned through all his questions!


  1. Chip says:

    Your response is dead on Tom. I can not create anything in silence. It usually leads to Anxiety attacks.
    When I was 18 I entertained and drew caricatures of people in night clubs for years so there was always a band or DJ playing. The uptempo music kept my energy and drawing pace up.
    In the studio-I listen to either sports talk radio (the bonus of living in a great sports town like Boston ) or classic rock music/one hit wonders/Lost 45’s.

  2. sharprm says:

    Does Playboy send you a magazine when you draw a cartoon for them?

  3. sharprm says:

    Are there any movies you wished MAD had parodied?

    Have you ever tried comedy writing?

  4. sharprm says:

    What are some of the differences between what you do for ‘sketch of the week’ caricatures and those for a MAD parody?


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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