Sunday Mailbag

May 12th, 2013 | Posted in General

Q: I am a what you would consider an “average-amateur-novice-white-belt” artist. I have spent many hours in non-art classes throughout college, grad school, and (heaven forbid) church doodling in my notebooks and on the back of Sunday programs, always impressing my less artistic siblings or classmates. I have always enjoyed drawing and now that schooling is done and I have more free time, I have decided to dedicate more time to drawing and art. In my search for instruction, I stumbled upon your book. I really enjoyed it, partially because other books about caricature seemed rather lackluster, but mostly because your caricatures are exactly the style I want to emulate, and I feel like I “get” how you look at and think about your subject matter. It’s inspired me to take up the pencil and pen again and really start dedicating time to this since I really enjoy it!

In my pursuit of developing this hibernated talent, I have found myself lacking some of the basic skills that make the portrait in my head the same or similar to the portrait that comes out on the paper (i.e. borders, shading, the use of negative space, texturing, etc.) and that the pencil or pen tend to guide my drawings rather than my vision. I know that developing this skill of translating my vision to the page takes years of practice and diligence, and as you said, after doing about 500 caricatures, you may finally start to get the hang of it, but I was wondering if there were any tips you might have as a head start, like basic courses, books, or other media that you have found helpful when mentoring younger, greener artists?

A: I usually try to edit down long versions of questions like this one, but I thought the background was pertinent to the question and the answer. If I was going to boil it all down onto one simple question, it might be this:

“Can you give me a resource that will allow me to shorten the “practice, practice, practice” part of learning to be an artist and magically teach me how to draw almost instantly?”

No, I can’t. No such thing. There really isn’t. I tell people this all the time and they say “Yes, I understand that. BUT…” and then proceed to ask some variation of the question above. I don’t even have any specific courses, books, or resources I’d recommend in general because everybody has different issues and are at different levels in their art skills that there is no general resource to recommend. Some artists need to work on their basic anatomy and structure in drawing, some need to focus on composition or design, others need to concentrate on their perspective or ability to draw convincing environments or some other aspect of their work. That makes any one resource impossible to recommend, so I don’t even try. And that is more for artists who are already well down the road of skill and ability, let alone the novice.

I find most young or inexperienced artists just need to work on their DRAWING. Every aspect of it. Books are great, video instruction is great, classrooms are great, but again there really are no shortcuts. There are no secret passages, rituals, or magic incantations that will make a meaningful difference in art skill development. If there is anything that is beneficial, it is exposure to as many different kinds of art and drawing, and different mediums, as possible so an inexperienced artist just getting into their art has an opportunity to explore and find out what interests them and resonates in their own work. As you so kindly say, you found something in my work that you “get”, and that’s the first stage in developing your own voice as an artist. After that, seeking out learning tools like books, videos and classes that apply to the art that interests you is a wonderful idea, but it really is those countless hours of drawing, drawing, drawing that brings your skills around.

I will get letters from people saying they found this book, or that video series, or some such that they say really made a difference for them. Maybe they happened upon something right at the moment that some specific instruction really would make a difference, and it just happened to be perfect for them. That’s great, but it’s such an individual matter it is hard to recommend that same book to another artist, as they might get little from it. I personally think the kind of art book or media that is really helpful is the one that inspires you to do all those countless drawings and spend those hours and hours of practice needed to make real advances in skill and ability. Yes, those books or videos might teach you some theories or techniques that you pick up on and use, but the most effective thing they do is get you DRAWING, which is the only way to get your eyes, brain and hand to start working in tandem to create art.

As MAD art director Sam Viviano said in the afterword of my book:

The one thing Tom does not point out enough in these pages (he could say it in big boldface type on every single page and it wouldn’t be enough) is that no amount of reading will turn you into a great artist. The only way to become an artist is to pick up the tools and start making pictures. A much wiser artist than I once told me that the road to one good drawing is paved with thousands of bad drawings. It’s a long road, but the experience of traveling on it can be exhilarating. <snip>… all the tips culled from the writings of others are only useful if you put them into practice. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Excellent advice.

Thanks to Dan Duran 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. Steve Rider says:

    What’s the best way to learn how to play the piano – read a book or actually sit down at the piano and practice playing?

    What’s the best way to learn how to swim – read a book or jump in the water and practice swimming?

    What’s the best way to learn how to draw?

  2. Bill Karis says:

    I agree 1000%…..draw, draw, and draw some more! There are no shortcuts to being a good artist. Some are more talented than others, but practice makes better!

  3. Patrick Mackery says:

    I can’t disagree more!
    No matter how many free throws you shoot, if no one tells you the elbow has to point to the basket, or if you start before you’re strong enough and shoot with both hands, you’ll never be good.
    I got a charitable c in my only college art class surrounded by people with God given talent. No one ever taught me to look at the overall shape of things, or how to look at the overall shape of things in order to rough out the sinopia before focusing on details in a second pass. I used to start from the upper left and draw to the lower right and everything would be out of whack.
    The best art book tells us what to do, but also what NOT to do. This is vital because it helps us talentless hacks avoid practicing what not to do, that we otherwise don’t have the talent to know is bad. Without it, my eyes would still look like footballs and my nostrils would be circles.
    Now if only we could have a similar book on shading because my crosshatching is never parallel and after incessant correcting, my pictures are either black or white.

    p.s. Of course, practicing is still necessary, it’s just not sufficient.

  4. Dan Duran says:

    And about 6 seconds after writing that rather wordy email, I realized that the magic pencil shavings supposedly collected from the floors of DC comics which I was told to mix with my morning cereal and the “most Holy” ink from the “bless-ed” inkwell I was told to dab behind my ears and on my wrists to channel my inner Hirschfeld were perhaps less wise of an investment than your book and the local art courses I’ve enrolled in. That’s what I get for doodling in church. Thanks for a painfully obvious answer to a sincere (lazy) question.


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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