The Gag Process

How To Draw A “Gag” Cartoon

When meeting someone for the first time I’ve noticed that a quick way to dampen—or drown—any hope of a conversation is to answer their question, “What do you do?” by admitting that I’m a cartoonist. Blurting it out that way is usually followed by deep silence, or at most a single comment such as, “Gee, I’ve never met one of those before.” Most folks do not have a followup when they hear what I do. Occasionally, though, they ask questions such as “How do you get your ideas?” or “Which comes first, the caption or the drawing?” or “How long does it take to draw a cartoon?” Kids, I have found, get right to the point—they want to know: “How much money to you make for a cartoon?”

Even when I’m with someone who has known me for years, talking about the uncommon thing I do for a living can be awkward for both parties. For example, each year when I go for my eye exam the doctor asks, after checking my folder for clues as to my interests, “Still drawing your little cartoons?” I answer in the affirmative even while being slightly offended by the rote way he asks. Then the good doc changes the subject by telling me a story I’ve heard many times before about his experiences as a Flight Surgeon in the U.S. Air Force, and I’m relieved to not have to talk about my trade.

The fact is, I do like to talk about what I do with people who are sincerely interested, so I’ve decided to use this post to answer some of the questions people might want to know about the craft of gag cartooning, things they can use to help them come up with queries of their own the next time they run into a cartoonist at a cocktail party on in a redneck bar.

So, using the gag cartoon I did just last week, here is a short primer on how I approach my “little” craft.

1. Rough Sketch


This is an example of a first attempt to get the idea down, the so-called “thinking with a pencil” phase. These days I do all my hand-drawing, start to finish, in blue pencil on 9″ X 12″ tracing paper. And if there’s a caption, I’m still rewriting it, too.

2. Second Draft & Shading Test


After tracing over the first draft to clean it up a bit, I like to play around with possible shading ideas. And I’m still fiddling with the caption.

3. Inked Line Draft


Using another sheet of tracing paper, I ink the lines I want to have in the final art. (Sometimes I don’t use ink at all and settle for the pencil lines.) I can afford to be pretty sloppy at this point because I know everything I do is subject to change later on in the process, after I’ve scanned the image.

4. Inked & Shaded Draft


Still using my trusty blue pencil, and the second draft as a guide, I shade in the areas selected. Now I’m ready to scan the image into Photoshop.

5. Comprehensive Draft


Once I have a high resolution copy in my computer, I switch from color mode to gray scale and adjust the “levels”—the value scale from white to black—keeping as many of the grays as possible. Then it’s just a matter of making scores of small and large adjustments to come to a satisfactory final image, hopefully one that retains the feeling of being completely hand-drawn. I call this combination of hand and computer work “pencil painting.” Then I add the final version of the caption, upload the image to in London, and post a copy here on DoodleMeister. (You may want to compare the comprehensive draft above with the final art, below.)

6. Final Art


If you have questions about my gag cartooning process, or about cartooning in general, add a comment below. I’ll be happy to answer even if I have to make something up. (The original March 6 post featuring this cartoon may be seen directly below.)

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

6 Responses to The Gag Process

  1. Rick Parker says:

    Thanks for sharing your process, Jim. The final version looks a lot like an ink wash. And say, do bartenders really act as go-betweens like that? Also, the next time your doctor asks you if you’re still drawing your little cartoons, ask him if he’s still writing out his little prescriptions.

  2. Jim says:

    Thank you for taking the time to comment Rick. Being an esteemed fellow-tooner, I’m sure you can relate. When that silence takes over the conversation I find it best just to move on and ask the other party what they do, then play off that. I do it to get past the awkwardness, but also because I’m really interested in the lives of other folks, so it works out well for all concerned.

  3. Jacquie Roland says:

    Thanks Jim… Like Rick, I thought that you were still doing ink washes. All of my work for the last 7 months has been in color, and I’ve been trying to figure out an easy way to transform it … your gray-scale thingy should do the trick (If I ever hook up my printer/scanner). I start off with non-photo blue pencils (but yours look to be regular blue?) then go to ink, then color… I’ve always admired the way your finishes look.
    PS… I love Rick’s retort. After I say the dreaded “C” word, when asked ” What do you do?” I usually get a blank stare, then … “but I mean, for a living?” SIGH … Too true, at times.

  4. Jim says:

    The pencil I use for my “pencil-painting” process is a Sanford Verithin Indigo Blue # 741. Don’t know why, but I just like the “feel” of it when sketching. And also, once it’s converted to gray scale and the “levels” adjusted, the dark Indigo becomes black. Back in the days before Photoshop, when I always inked my cartoons, I too used non-photo blue so I wouldn’t have to erase. I’m basically very lazy.

  5. Dave Perry says:

    On your 9 X 12 paper, what margins do you use for your gags? I have been using a 1 inch margin on the sides and top and a 3 inch margin on the bottom for the caption.

  6. Jim says:

    Since I no longer submit cartoons to magazines, I don’t worry about margins and such, but what you’re doing sounds about right. These days I do the finished art in Photoshop and send a copy to in London and post a version of the cartoon on DoodleMeister. Thanks for your interest and the comment, Dave.

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