What defines Cartooning as a medium is ironically often not really well-defined, we just associate it with something emblematic of idea in our head and take it for granted. It’s drawing of course, but a particular kind! How in particular? What makes one drawing a cartoon while another is called illustrative or something else?
How about, what isn’t Cartooning? Is this on the right NOT cartooning? it’s a drawing by Alphonse Mucha, a Czech Art Nouveau painter and decorative artist who’s not often described as a cartoonist but who’s work inspires many cartoonists and shares many of the traits used often to define cartooning. Exaggeration, very designed forms, closed contour lines?
Likewise one of my favourite artists is Toulouse-Lautrec, on the left here. Arguably he used a lot of cartoony distortion and characterization along with his very gestural line. This sketch is a nice example, note the subtle exaggeration to enhance posture and mood?
Some define cartooning as art with a strong outline or contour line, that often is fully enclosed with no breaks. So most of the time a sketchy drawing is thought to be less cartoony.
Sometimes it’s used to describe art done for humorous effect, but we see cartooning in animation and comics where the story is more dramatic or mysterious, than silly funny or even happy. Cartoon tends to evoke ‘funny’ to most but cartoon art can carry a lot of weight, and be used to make more palatable, serious subjects that can be hard to absorb with realism.
So there’s no getting away from it. The boundaries of cartooning are very mushy. The one constant I think is important to think about is simplification. Cartooning is about simplifying. Form, line, ideal, are all often made more iconic than literal or representational.
A strong contour line can be effective tool in doing that so this is why that’s common but not required. And as cartoony art moves more in the direction of illustrative work, it tends to become more literal and less iconic. At what point it crosses the line is hard to say. Take Ronald Searle for example. The portrait on the right here looks more illustrative to my eye, while the profile drawn on the left, much more cartoony. They aren’t all that far apart are they? But the left side image exaggerates, and simplifies much more.
There is but one truism for Cartooning:
Keep It Simple!
As best as you can anyway. And that takes planning. Hence why a lot of cartooning is done ‘constructively‘. Built out of simpler forms, to varying levels of detail but always well shy or the fine fractal resolutions of reality.
This model sheet for Porky Pig is a good example. In the top left corner of it there are some examples of how to build up the character out of simple shapes. Not ALL cartooning is done this way but it’s very common to at least design a character by building it out of simple organic or geometric forms. Ovals circles, triangles, tubes, blocks, or compound organic blobs. Doing so is meant to help make it easier to repeat, and to rotate it as well. The practice was widely institutionalized with the invention of animation.
Before that cartoon characters were sometimes built out of shapes like this but it was a lot more common for them to be less structured. Post animations innovation, far more cartoon characters tend to be built by stronger constructive means even if they are not meant to be animated. You can see this evolution in popular trends in cartoon styles, but at the same time loser or more structured styles both still are practiced. Finding the one that suits your work is part discovery, part explorations.
Learning how to draw at the most basic level, and how to cartoon, it’s pretty critical you practice fundamental drawing exercises, for line control and repeatability. But another of the really fun ways to learn the craft is to start by copying the examples of masters! Here [bellow] is a set of character model sheets and some instructional pages from cartooning texts to utilize in our course. And I regularly post new galleries of great cartoonists work to the FaceBook page here!
I Just gather them from examples found via google, image searches set to show largest images first. if there’s a character you’d like to try that’s not here, I recommend trying that yourself! Search their name, and maybe try adding + “model sheets” or “how to draw” for characters, and simple “art” to the artist’s name for examples of their work more broadly. I’ll add a set of my own studies like this to the end of the post.
Pick one or more of them and first copy the drawings by the original artists, utilizing the structures you can see in them. Even print it out and trace it the first time if you’re very new to drawing. It’ll help you feel out the shapes. Remember, you should also be doing some general basic drawing exercises too! Then after tracing, try freehand copying: Place the refrence image next to or above the paper you’re working on to use as a guide. I recomend doing smaller quick studies for more complex images a few times before a fished study. In general drawing things a couple of times for study is often a good way to get the most out of the exercise. You’ll see me doing this in one of the clips embedded down page. Try to match the forms and line quality best you can. If not redrawing the same image, then multiple examples by one artists, with room for improvising like I did with the Bill Watterson studies in my set at the bottom of the page.
Do this a few times, then once you feel you have that in your mind, put away the model sheets and refrence, just try to draw something in their style without the reference at all, from memory! It can be fun to get very close, but it also tends to teach us a lot about what works and why. And over time a lot like practicing handwriting it becomes something you have to think about less and less.
Don’t expect to get it perfect, that’s not even really the point. But tip try to emulate the spirit of the work, not precisely duplicate the drawings. As you go, make sure to really look at the art you’re copying, study it. Take time to look at it before you even draw it. Try to understand how they used their tools and what tools, to get the shapes of line they do. Brushes and Nibs, give distinctive lines from technical pens, ruling pens and markers. You want to learn to discern the differences a bit to make the most of study.
The use pattern and form exercises to practice imitating some of those gestural qualities and lines, and discover which of your tools comes closest to them by trial and error. Likewise spend time doing studies of the pantomime/body language of the characters, the proportions and dimensionality if any. Always look for how the artists employed if at all Squash and Stretch. Again google is your freind and the research can be fascinating. Biographies of artists can often include helpful details about how they worked, but in time their lines will tell you everything you really need to know. It takes time but this is the simplest and I think most effective way to learn directly from the best.
I’ve posted a pair of clips of me demonstrating all this and some results of it at the bottom of this page.
And read ‘Noodle Arms to Bigfoot: A Cartoon family‘, for a dive into the question of style.
Many of those in this set are chosen because they illustrate how the character is broken down into those shapes already for you. But feel free to seek out others and try to work them out. Again cartooning is not limited to this kind of obvious and very cartoony work, but it illustrates the simplification and defining traits the best. For the history and several families of style, read this post next!