Sunday Mailbag: Parental Support?

February 4th, 2018 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I assume you knew from a pretty young age you wanted to pursue a career in art. Were your parents/family pretty supportive or did they try to steer you into a more traditional (i.e. “stable”) direction (“You can always fall back on teaching”)?

A: I was fascinated with drawing and comics as long as I can remember, and was saying I wanted to be an artist since probably age 4. My parents were tremendously supportive of my creative career goals. In fact I cannot ever remember a time where either of them expressed any reservations about if I could make a living in art, or even hinted that another career choice might be wiser. When I was 7 or 8 my dad built a drawing table out of an old door in our basement, they collected art supplies and paper for me from wherever they could find it, and a lot of my birthday and Christmas gifts were colored pencil sets, crayons, etc. They seemed thrilled that I wanted to be an artist.

When I was 14, I submitted a drawing in a competition for a scholarship to an art correspondence course called Art Instruction Schools* (you know… the “Draw Tippy the Turtle and win a free art instruction course!” that was on the back of every matchbook and in every TV Guide) I figured I had nothing to lose. A few weeks later a “representative” (i.e. salesman) from the school knocks on our door and proceeds to do a hard sell on how I didn’t win the scholarship but I was one of the “finalists” (riiiiight), going on and on about my “talent” and that I really need to pursue an education in art with Art Instructions Schools. At the time my parents had just gotten divorced for the second time, my dad was trying to raise us on his own and we were struggling with a lot of debt. In other words we had very little money after putting food on the table and clothes on our backs. If I remember right the course cost $1300 (this was 1980), and while it was in payments there was no quitting once you signed the deal. My dad decided he would figure out how to get the extra money. He signed me up.

The part that was most exciting about this course was that your work was supposed to be reviewed by real art instructors who gave you personal feedback and instruction. The salesman showed us vellum overlays that showed instructor’s notes and corrected drawings over student work. It looked very involved, with real instructor interaction. That’s what really sold us on the course, although I felt very guilty about my dad having to come up with all this money to pay for it. Anyway I received my first few lessons in the mail. They were very rigidly formatted with my needing to do whatever drawing task was part of the lesson within the borders of whatever paper the lesson provided.

After my first few lessons I went to my dad and told him I thought the course was a rip off. When he asked why I showed him how the overlays that looked so much like an art teacher’s hand written and drawn instruction was actually drawings and red lettered “notes” that looked hand written but were pre-printed on vellum paper that matched the formatted lesson paper “drawing area” exactly. The only feedback actually from an instructor was usually a “Good Job!” or “Keep at it!” sloppily scrawled in pen on the pre-printed overlay. I was probably receiving about 10 seconds of actual attention from an instructor. I imagined the instructor sitting at a desk with a stack of “Lesson One” drawings on the left, and stacks of 4 or 5 different “corrections” in front of him. The instructor slaps the student’s lesson drawing on the table, decides what about it needs the most attention (anatomy? perspective? etc), and then selects the corresponding pre-printed overlay and slaps it on top. Then he/she scrawls a 5 second comment on the overlay and off it goes. Like an assembly line. I was extremely disappointed. Somehow my dad got released from his guarantee of full tuition, despite the salesman being very clear he could not. I think I only did four lessons overall.

My point is that my parents were perfectly willing to sacrifice in order to help me reach my goal of being an artist. I was always very lucky to have been encouraged to pursue my dreams of doing art for a living, and never had to fight the “why don’t you get a real job” mentality some parents burden their children with. Very lucky, indeed.

* And yes, I know Charles Schulz was an instructor at Art Instruction Schools. He also took the course as a teenager. He worked there in the mid-late 1940’s. Maybe it was a different animal then. Mort Walker was also an instructor there.

** I should point out that the above story is my own experience and perception of this course. I don’t actually know how the instructors operate or typically grade lessons, but I can say for certain the overlays I received back with my lessons in 1980ish were pre-printed and not hand drawn, and the only personal responses I got were one sentence and in some cases only a few words. Your mileage may vary.

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!


  1. Tom Kerr says:

    Amazing story, it doesn’t surprise me you had this experience with that company. I think situations like that separates it so the cream rises to the top. My mum always wanted me to pursue it firba living in college and such but at 18 I found other things. I look back and think maybe I should have but I learned a lot in life. Now at 52 I’ve returned and now I can draw on my life experiences. Yes, I may be a novice, but at this age I Nothing to be pressuring me to pursue it at my pace. Thanks for sharing this, Tom. And to Ed.

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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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