An Art College Tale

February 28th, 2017 | Posted in General

The last Sunday Mailbag question about realistic or “serious” artwork reminded me of this:

Back when I was in art college I had this illustration instructor who was a real old school guy. Seemed to really hate cartooning and comics, and thought if you didn’t draw like Burnie Fuchs you were never going to make a living as a commercial artist (he drew like Bernie Fuchs… big surprise). During class while we all worked on our latest assignment he would sit and work on some spot illustration he was doing of a boat or lawn furniture or some other product that was going to be used in a newspaper circular or other type of ad, and brag about how he was earning $500 for that piece and doing it while he was teaching us about illustration. He had a lot of disdain for cartoonists, and you could always count on him to launch into a diatribe about how only around one in every 10,000 aspiring cartoonists every actually earned a living in comics or cartooning should anyone dare to attempt a cartoon flavored solution to one of our projects.

Not surprising, there were no cartooning courses or classes at this school, so I did the realism and straight laced illustration we were expected to do, and did my cartooning, comics, and caricature on the side. I actually did not mind this, because it forced me to work on my realism and technical illustration skills, which in the long run only helped my eventual style of cartooning. I was capable of decent realistic work, so it was not a stretch for me. This instructor took me aside many times to convince me to forget about cartooning and concentrate on developing my ability to draw realistically. “Illustrators make their living drawing lawn tractors and sandwiches for advertising,” he would say. “That’s where the steady money is! You’ll never earn a living as a cartoonist.” This was 1986 and no one knew PhotoShop was coming, least of all this instructor who thought a dated 60’s style of advertising illustration was the way to go. No illustrator makes a living drawing lawn tractors and sandwiches for advertising anymore of course… unless they do cartoon versions of those things.

After I left school I embarked on my career path with an open mind. Yes, I loved cartooning and comics, but I was more than ready to draw lawn tractors if that really was the way to earn a living as an artist.

I have never done anything but humorous/cartoon illustration professionally since leaving college.

Maybe I’m one of the “one in every 10,000” he was talking about, but I didn’t need to market myself in any way other than doing the kind of cartooning and comic work I loved to do. I also didn’t create a property like a strip or character that was the basis of my career. I made  a living working as a freelancer, using caricatures and concession businesses as a foundation to build a steady freelance client list and raise a family on it. Make no mistake, I know I am VERY lucky to have been able to do that. Many things happened along the way that helped me when I needed it most, but I made a lot of my own luck as well. I’m glad I didn’t let that instructor’s doom and gloom about cartooning and comics as an impossible way to make a living discourage me from following my passion.

By the way, years later I ran into that instructor at some local place. While we were chatting he fished around about if he might be able to pick up some work from me as a caricaturist at my Minnesota theme park operations.

I told him there was no money in cartooning.


  1. Steve says:

    Thank you for posting this, it gives me hope! I had an art teacher in high school who hated cartoons to the point where she said they’re “not art.” I drew them (and still draw them) anyway. I’d do it even if I never made another dime doing it, because I love it. You’re an inspiration, Tom.

  2. Great story, Tom! Although I never went to Art School (Psych degree, but self-taught professional cartoonist/illustrator my whole adult career) I’ve heard many stories from disgruntled former art students who had a bad teacher give similar advice at a crucial time which caused them to reconsider their art and find other work, always dreaming about the art career. Self-confidence is as important as natural talent and learned/practiced skills.

  3. Raúl Olmo says:

    Great anecdote! Thanks for sharing! Karma is a female dog! (^_^)


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