Noodle Arms to Bigfoot: A Cartoon family

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Cartooning and caricature is the use of simplified forms and lines to represent people, animals and things.


Most Cartooning lives somewhere in the middle zone of the Big Triangle, as i’ve traced in red.

Modern cartooning is diverse, I see it as having three major families or styles, falling along a spectrum from most abstracted to most representational, and on to idealized. All popular styles will fall somewhere along this line.

simplifcationTypically cartooning is about simplification, as we see with this set of drawings from the Famous Artists Cartooning Course. FYI if you’ve not read it yet I explore this in some depth in ‘What is Cartooning‘.

This great diagram on the right helps illustrate the idea further–it comes from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and shows the range starting on the left with realism in the left bottom corner, the top is where things become reduced to 2 dimensional abstract forms on the picture plane, and the bottom right where meaning becomes symbolic, iconic, including in the end logos and text. Most Cartooning lives somewhere in the middle zone of the Big Triangle, as I’ve traced in red.

The Three major style groups I mentioned, are the very cartoony, over on the right side of the triangle.


Think Adventure Time, The Simpsons, Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. For most of the characters in this range, they typically stand between 2 and 4 heads tall. And can be drawn using basic forms easily. They often don’t’ have clearly defined knees or elbows, but rather vary degrees of rubber or noodle arms instead.

pbanimation04-bigpbanimation07-bigAnd they will squash and stretch a lot more, and generally distort, to exaggerate their pantomime and employ a dynamic line of action, making them super expressive and often quite silly. These kinds of characters often tend to be utilized for their cuteness as protagonists, though that’s not a rule. By the way the two great examples of dynamic line and squash and stretch here come from Preston Blair’s Advanced Animation, you can check it out here, absolutely one of the best compact instructional books on cartooning.

In the middle of the triangle we transition eventually to Bigfoot style. There’s no real fixed boundary on where these styles end and begin. But It usually features somewhat more representational characters, but with still distorted proportions. Sometimes the faces are more cartoony, sometimes they can be fairly realistic. They can use a fair bit of squash and stretch too, but typically employ it a little less. They also tend to have more clearly defined elbow and knee joints, in many cases quite exaggerated and nobly. The big foot style shows up in the contemporary art of Jack Davis, Ronald Searle, Richard Thompson, and stems from the classic work of Billy DeBeck & E. C. Segar among others.


elmernormalproportionsAs the nickname suggests, often the feet are very large. Hands and heads too typically are blown up, making it easier to be expressive with the characters. Bodies may be roughly normal in shape, or may be fairly cartoony still. But mostly they tend to stand taller, at 4 to 6.5 heads tall.

It’s common for cartoonists to mix these first two styles in the same comics, with some characters being more ‘real’ relatively compared to others.  Elmer Fudd for example, is pretty much a Big Foot Character, but only 2.5 heads tall. He’s the straight man to Bugs Bunny–who also has big feat but resembles a real rabbit much less than Elmer does a man! He’s 4 heads tall, 5.5 including ears. So clearly it’s a very fluid distinction if any.


Art by Alan Davis from Marvel's Excaliber

Art by Alan Davis from Marvel’s Excalibur

Naturalistic realism for the human figure is on average 7.5 heads tall. Some slight variation but as a rule all humans that don’t have dwarfism or gigantism, will fit that model.

Using those proportions tends to not be seen as cartoony, thought the rendering quality of the lines may still give work a more cartoon feel.

Then Heroic proportions start at 8.5 heads tall, and go on all the way up to 10 and on. We see this most often in superhero comics, though the tradition of depicting idealized figures this way dates back to ancient Greek art. We see 7 to 10 head tall figures in illustration and fine are as well, what tends to define them as cartoony is the kind of rendering used.