Sunday Mailbag: Art Exercises?

February 14th, 2016 | Posted in Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag!

A: You mentioned that you are still trying to improve your drawing skills. How do you to this? Let’s say you are not content with the noses you are drawing. Are you then doing some hours of exercises on noses? Or are you just paying more attention if you are drawing noses while working?

Q: I am constantly seeking to get move forward as an artist, cartoonist, and storyteller. I do not have any specific “exercises” that I do to improve my skills, so I had to think on this. How DO I work on getting better? I came up with four important things:

  1. Mindset- This is the most important thing, I think. You have to really want to improve. I don’t mean paying lip service to the idea… it’s easy to say “I want to be better”. I mean stepping back and taking a truly critical look at your work and identifying what your weaknesses are, and then attacking them. How do you attack them? Identifying them is the most important thing, and then just keeping them in mind as you do your next piece of art. You mentioned noses. If noses are a weakness for you, you spend extra time examining and drawing the noses on everything you do. You focus on them until they are no longer a weakness. I used to help newer live caricature artists improve on things like this by pointing out something they are doing badly, and then telling them to draw a giant nose, or eye, or whatever it is they are supposed to focus on on the scrap paper on the side of their drawing board. That way they are constantly staring at a reminder of their “target” feature, so they slow down for a second and really look at that feature and think about it before drawing it.
    Another thing about “mindset”- you must have a certain amount of insecurity about your work in order to improve. I don’t mean you have to hate what you are doing, I just mean you have to not be entirely content with it. This is my often repeated comment on that subject: “You can be satisfied with what you drew today, but don’t be satisfied with it tomorrow”. That just means if you stop seeing flaws in your work, you stop getting better.  Don’t think that just the physical act of drawing will improve your work. I have known live caricaturists who are doing the exact same drawings today as they were doing 20 years or more ago, with no change or improvement despite tens of thousands of faces drawn over that time. They are apparently content with where they are, and so they go no farther. The fact that you truly identify that you need to improve and you have the desire to WANT to improve, is the most important step in improving.
  2. Effort– While I do not have any specific exercises in improving your drawing skills, it’s no secret that practice is what it takes. Drawing, drawing, and more drawing (given the mindset as previously mentioned is properly in place). I don’t do as much of this as I should because frankly I usually have multiple jobs on the board at once and the last thing I want to do in my free time is draw, but I still do it as much as I can. My “Sketch o’the Week” helps. I don’t just sit down and do that. I pick a subject and doodle around a little, exploring the face and trying to see what works and what does not, then I do a more complete sketch. I try to spend one hour a day just drawing, sometimes addressing something specific (like your “noses” example) and sometimes just to warm up. Actually I tend to stay away from faces when I just draw, and concentrate on figures or environment, etc. Those are more of my weaknesses and I get a belly full of drawing faces in my everyday work. Drawing is just an extension of your mind and imagination, but the mechanical act of drawing is sharpened by improving the connection between you head and your hand, and in that way the simple act of drawing is like lifting weights to make a muscle stronger. Practice. Effort. Sweat.
  3. Study– You can greatly improve your work by studying the work of others. I don’t mean copying them, I mean looking at what they do and understanding how they are seeing and interpreting life through their drawings. The best kind of work to study is the stuff that is quite different from what you already do. It helps you expand your eye and your horizons. I like looking at the work of Andrew Loomis, Norman Rockwell, Wally Wood and Will Eisner for inspiration and to see inside their worlds. I don’t draw like any of them, so the techniques of how they draw hands or feet or noses don’t apply to how I do it, but rather how they are seeing hands and feet and noses and other aspects of life help open my eyes to see them in different ways.
  4. Get outside the Box– Leaving your comfort zone and pushing yourself in new ways is also very important. Doing that might not translate directly into your work, but it will expand your awareness and get your brain working and seeing in a different way, which improves your “eye”. This might mean working in an unfamiliar medium, or in the case of caricature trying to exaggerate in different ways. The most important thing about getting outside the box is not being afraid to fail. It’s an old adage that we learn far more from failure than we do from success. Very true. If you just keep on doing the same kind of work over and over and never challenge yourself, you will stagnate.

    Fortunately for me, I get challenged with different kinds of work all the time, and that helps me stay fresh and exploring new things. Right now I am wrapping up this 45 page comic book I have been chipping away at for some time. It’s pure storytelling… no caricatures, lots of environments, dialogue, and action. I had forgotten how to construct that sort of thing since my ‘Married… with Children” days. Only doing 5 or 6 pages in a MAD parody, where things are more like single scenes per panel, is a much different animal. I’m excited to see how they things I am putting into this comic to make it work will translate into the next parody I do for MAD.

Sorry I didn’t have a series of exercises, like a prepared workout, for you. I am sure there are such things out there. There is no secret method to improving as an artist, though. You simply have to want to, deep down, and then put in the necessary work to do it.

Thanks to Dominick Zeillinger 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!


  1. Tom,
    This column was was truly excellent. Years ago I visited Dave Stevens site. He Recommended his fans visit the Art Renewal Center.
    This site is dedicated to the appreciation of the art and artists of the 19th century. To learn from the work of these incredible artists really is inspirational. I know all your fans that want to learn would enjoy it too. It falls into that category of study you spoke of.
    Check it out, your won’t be disappointed.


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