Cartooning Lessons

On March 20, 1962, I finished my first assignment for the Famous Artists Schools (FAS) Editorial and Commercial Cartooning Course, and mailed it off to Westport, Connecticut. The 24-lesson course is contained in three huge custom-designed binders crammed full of pages with profusely illustrated text on good quality paper. I still have them. Cover 1-10Each of the three binders measures 11 7/8″ X 14 4/8,” and the pages measure 10 6/8″ X 13 6/8″. The FAS course name is stamped on the covers in gold, and my name is tagged, also in gold but much smaller, in the lower right corner. (Click any image for a larger view.) Ten days after I mailed the first completed lesson I had a critique in hand. The return package consisted of my original assignment drawings with tracing paper overlays correcting my crude attempts to render several cartoon heads with properly placed features, the tracing paper overlays beautifully sketched in colored pencil by the FAS instructor. As far as I know, none of my assignments from the 24-lesson course survive. I have a vague memory — like something from a fever dream — in which, in a fit of embarrassment because of the poor quality of my work, I destroy them all. If that is in fact what I did, my only regret is that I must have also destroyed the overlays done by my FAS instructors, some of whom went on to fame and fortune in the commercial art business.

(Click images to enlarge.)

Also included in the Lesson 1 critique package was a neatly typed six-paragraph letter in which the FAS instructor listed the things I needed to work on if I entertained the hope of ever making anything of myself as a professional cartoonist. (See letter scan.) Letter:2Finally, there was a biography page with a photo of the instructor himself. Though not much older than me (perhaps even younger), he was shot from a low angle that made him appear, at least in my awe-stuck eyes, god-like. While being photographed, I imagined that he was hard at work on one of his own pieces of cartoon art, perhaps a full-color illustration for a slick weekly magazine such as Collier’s or Look. (See bio scan.) My instructor was Randall Enos, a very successful illustrator to this day. His work has embellished magazines, newspapers, books, record and CD covers, posters, and animated film. EnosSome of his clients include NBC, National Lampoon, Playboy, Boy’s Life, Atlantic, Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and Forbes. As recently as two months ago I saw a poster by Randall Enos, done in his distinctive “wood-cut-like” cartoon-illustration style, advertising a Broadway play in the Sunday New York Times.

When I mailed that first FAS lesson back in 1962, I was an immature twenty-five-year-old, married with one son and another on the way, afire with the vague hope of beginning a career in the cartooning field. Mr. Enos’ comments, most of which I now realize to be well-written and instructive boilerplate, were meant to encourage new students such as myself. Scan 1-4Part of the FAS instructors’ job, I’m sure, was to accentuate the positive so we wouldn’t get too discouraged too soon and drop out. Which may explain what I call the “damning with faint praise” tone of the first sentence in the first paragraph of the critique. “You have a nice touch with that pencil of yours,” Mr. Enos says, “which speaks well for your future in the business.” Even at that early stage I could see they were blowing a bit of smoke in my direction. If memory serves, the balloon heads that I drew for the assignment looked a lot like the bad example in Lesson 1 at the top of page 4. (See scan 1-4.) It’s the one with the caption, “Don’t draw it like this with a single hard line.” My so-called “line,” especially in those early days, couldn’t have been harder, or uglier, or cruder.

Then, as if he’s already tired of pussyfooting around,Scan 1-9 Enos nails me with this comment: “Your heads have an uncertainty of outline that weakens your drawing.” In paragraph three, he seems to get downright testy and writes, “Use the two guidelines to plot the turn or tilt of the head BEFORE you locate the features.” In paragraph four he uses all caps thrice again, but with what I choose to take as kindliness. (Or is it pity?) He’s gently suggesting that my cartoon heads appear too “NORMAL,” drawn with awkward hard lines, and that they would have more “sparkle” and be less “STATIC” if I used more “EXAGGERATION.” (See scan 1-9.) He expands the point, saying in paragraph five that I should study my own face in the mirror . . . “ham it up and see how you naturally turn or tilt you head in gestures that go along with and emphasize the expressions of your face. Scan 2-6Don’t be afraid to exaggerate these head gestures and expressions — but base your exaggeration on what you’ve observed.” Finally, in paragraph six of the critique, Enos tried to buck up my now deflated ego by saying, “You are off to a good start with these assignments, and we look forward to seeing your work for Lesson 2. Keep it simple! Your grade for Lesson 1 is B+.”

B+? Really? Doing the first assignment I already felt awkward and ill prepared for what I had taken on with the FAS course, so the grade surprised me. At that point I was totally intimidated by the 23 lessons that lay ahead, convinced that I had come too late to the craft of cartooning. Considering the general negative tone of the letter — and my view of the work I had done on the assignments — Scan 3-4I would have given myself a solid D-. But I quickly got over the bad feelings. I refused to let my disappointment with my own work stop me, or even slow me down. For the rest of 1962 I sent off a completed assignment every few weeks, on average. All of which pointed to either undimmed confidence on my part — or arrogance.

My grades for lessons 1 through 10 never dropped below a B, with most of them being B+ to A-. I don’t say that proudly. Despite those grades, I’m very aware of how crude the work that I did was. I came to suspect that FAS instructors were instructed not to drop below the “B” line for any student. The policy — if that’s what it was — I came to think of as a sort of affirmative action program for poor kids getting late starts in the commercial art game. Scan 4-10In other words, the FAS correspondence course in cartooning was designed just for the likes of me.

My assignment for Lesson 2, “The Comic Figure,” pulled a B+. Here’s one of Randall Enos’ pointed tips in his letter critique of that effort: “Remember that the human figure is really quite flexible — avoid rigor mortis in your cartoons.” (See scan 2-6.)

On Lesson 3, “Inking the Head and Figure,” he gave me an A-, my best grade so far. To quote Mr. Enos: “Above all, don’t expect to master the technique of inking in a few days. Only long practice and self criticism of your own lines will give you the sure hand of a professional.” This bit of wisdom is illustrated on page 4 of the text with photos of the pen hands Scan 5-8of three famous cartoonists, Milton Caniff, Al Capp and Rube Goldberg, and a section demonstrating various pen lines. (See scan 3-4.)

For Lesson 4, “The Head in Detail,” I suddenly had a new instructor. His name was Peter Wells, but no biography or picture was provided, so I can’t tell you much about him. But I noticed his writing style was exactly the same as that of Randall Enos. In the critique of Lesson 4, which is a full page and a quarter of single-spaced tips, Peter Wells had this to say about my inking skills, or lack thereof: “In your outlines you have a tendency to leave gaps between your pen or brush strokes. This gives your drawing a disconnected or almost ‘exploded’ look which you can overcome by joining up your lines solidly.” (See scan 4-10.) Scan 6-4Mr. Wells gave me the lowest grade so far, a B.

FAS instructor Randall Enos returned for Lesson 5, “The Figure in Detail.” The first paragraph of his critique ends with a line the various FAS instructors seem to favor: “On my tissues (overlays) I have given you some practical tips that will make this good job even better.” One of those tips, the visual logic of which appealed to me, is something I find useful to this day: “I find that it helps, when drawing hands, to pencil in the mitten shape first in the action I want. Then I draw in the individual fingers, keeping them WITHIN the outline of the mitten.” On Lesson 5 Mr. Enos gave me an A-. (See scan 5-8)

With Lesson 6, “Anatomy,” I had the Scan 7-4professional help of Bernard Thompson, another new (to me) FAS instructor. Once again, no biography or picture of Mr. Thompson was provided. He begins and ends his letter with something at which all the FAS instructors were well versed: that old “damning with faint praise” thing that I mentioned earlier. “You have done a fairly good job with your anatomy here,” Mr. Thompson says. He then continues: “However, in cartooning we have to go a bit beyond a neat representation of the figure with all the lumps and bumps in the proper places.” He ends a page and a half later, all of it written in the usual clear FAS boilerplate style: “This was a tough assignment and, all in all, you did well with it. Your grade for Lesson 6 is B.” (See scan 6-4)

Lesson 7, “Pretty Girls,” must have stumped Scan 8-6me for awhile because I finally completed the assignment a full three months after Lesson 6, the longest gap between mailings up to that point. My favorite picture in the first FAS textbook came in Lesson 7, a photograph of a naked lady on page 4. (See scan 7-4.) The nude model was combined with a series of drawings to make a serious point about reality versus comic illustration. As you might have guessed, I returned to that picture time and time again for close study — but I confess that not all of had to do with cartooning. I still admire the image, but at my age it no longer has the power over me it once did. (A good thing?) And I still like the caption: “The female figure, as the cartoonist draws it, is a stylized figure based on the popular American ideal. Scan 9-13Everything is done to accent sex. Try for a provocative line . . . without being vulgar!” That was good advice and all the professional justification I needed to revisit the image often, without a hint of early 1960s pre-sexual revolution guilt. Mr. Thompson gave me a B+ for the “Pretty Girls” lesson, something I know I didn’t deserve then and don’t today. I still can’t draw pretty woman, at least not up to FAS standards. Ugly women and men, with their various lumps and bumps, are just so much easier — and more fun, too.

Randall Enos returned as my instructor for Lesson 8, “Action and the Figure.” Near the end of his letter, Enos gave me a tip about what I’ve come to know as “spot shadows” a device that has served me well over the years, including when I’ve taught cartooning myself to kids in schools and libraries. In his letter he called them “ground shadows,” and they were placed below and behind a running figure as an aid in giving a feeling of forward motion. He also says that to “give the figure additional action, get it into the air by leaving a clear space between the feet and the cast shadow.” (For example, as a spot shadow under the body. See dancing bobby soxer in scan 8-6.) On Lesson 8, Mr. Enos gave me a very generous B+.

Then came Lesson 9, “Clothes and Folds.” Of the first ten FAS lessons, this turned out to be my least favorite. As with pretty girls, I still can’t draw decent folds in clothes. So I guess it should come as no surprise that on page two of his critique, Mr. Enos inserted a mini lecture in the form of 4 rules, all of which I believe I had consistently violated throughout the previous lessons. (Some I still do, but at least now it’s fully conscious.) Enos set’s up his lecture by suggesting that having completed nine lessons in less than five months, I may have overdone it. “You are now a little over one third of your way through the Cartoon Course,” he writes, “and this is a good time to review your practice and working methods. There are several important responsibilities that you as a student should keep in mind.”

1. “Remember the importance of practice. You learn to draw by drawing and this means continual practice.” (I rarely practiced. I still don’t. Even now, I’m not sure what that means. I somehow got the idea that I could practice by doing, so I tend to just plow ahead, muddle through and manage to always come up with a solution of some sort.)

2. “Study and practice each lesson before you tackle the assignment.” (See above, which may explain why I’m seldom happy with anything I do.)

3. “Don’t try to go too fast. This is a three-year Course so you can spend as much as six weeks on each lesson.” Scan 10-6(With later assignments I manage to go too far in the other direction, occasionally taking months to complete and send in lessons.)

4. “Never start the assignment for a lesson until you receive back the criticized previous lesson. Study your instructor’s suggestions and corrections. Make use of their teaching in the following assignment.” (That’s one bit of advice I found easy to follow.)

It’s too bad I wasn’t smart enough to figure those things out myself much earlier in the course. Still, on Lesson 9, Mr. Enos was kind enough to award an A-. (See scan 9-13.)

On September 24, 1962, six months after beginning the FAS Cartooning Course, I mailed in the assignment for Lesson 10, “Special Types.” The first line of instructor Peter Wells’ critique letter says: Scan 10-10“These drawings of yours for Lesson 10 are full of good cartoon ideas and I enjoyed doing the overlays on them. On my tissues I have made suggestions which I felt would help make your good job better.” (There’s that boilerplate phrase again.) Of course the bolierplate critiques worked because the mistakes beginning cartoonists make were, in many cases, the same or at least similar. Over the course of ten lessons I noticed that once in a while the FAS instructors tried to individualize their comments. A case in point comes in the first line of paragraph four of Mr. Wells’ letter, where he says: “You have drawn your banker gesturing toward the table with that left hand. Why not have him banging it with his fist?” Then, reverting to boilerplate, he continues: “Stop and think about what happens when YOU smack a loaded table. Things jump and rattle — action, good messy action results. Draw that smack and the resulting clatter and add excitement to your picture — something that INTERESTS your reader. It’s this constantly thinking of and drawing things that interest readers that keeps professional cartoonists eating.” Excellent cartooning advice, boilerplate or not, the sort of practical content I found in every paragraph of every critique letter I received from FAS instructors. Again, deserved or not, Peter Wells gave me a B+ on Lesson 10. (See scan 10-10.)

I was pretty proud of myself when I mailed the final assignment in the first textbook of the Famous Artists Cartoon Course. One textbook down, two to go. Ten lessons completed, just shy of half of the entire 24-lesson course. Amazing. And I’d done them in less than five months! At that rate, I told myself, I should have my Certificate in Editorial and Commercial Cartooning in 15 months, less than half the 36 months allowed to finish the program. Was I feeling cocky? Sure. Was my optimism correct? No, not so much. Oh, I did get my certificate all right (see below), just a hair shy of the three-year deadline. With the various things going on in my real life at that time — a young and expanding family, work, etc. — turning out the cartoon assignments became harder as I went along. But that’s another story. And, perhaps, it will make another blog post . . .

Certificate4

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

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13 Responses to Cartooning Lessons

  1. Rick Parker says:

    These Famous Artist School books have never been surpassed insofar as books about cartooning go. Even today, these three volumes remain one of the best road maps to success any aspiring cartoonist could ever ask for. The real road to success is literally paved with the thousands of pieces of paper upon which the aspiring cartoonist places his or her drawings guided by these books, and possessed of the determination and willingness to work hard to make one’s dream into a reality.

  2. John Read says:

    Boy, if you decide to divest yourself of these, please let me know, Jim! I’ve managed to get my hands on a couple of the lessons, but I would love to have the whole coursebook in my historical cartooning lessons library.

  3. Jim says:

    I’m planning to use the FAS textbooks as the basis for future blog essays, so stayed tuned to DoodleMeister, John. Meanwhile, I appreciate your appreciation of these wonderful documents for what they are — important artifacts in the history of cartooning as craft. Your interest inspires me to do more with the material, and to see that the books continue to be preserved.

  4. Rick Parker says:

    These books are frequently offered for sale on eBay.

  5. Jim says:

    Thank you for that lead, Rick, There you go, John, perhaps it’s an opportunity to own a full set for your historical cartooning lessons library sooner rather than later.

  6. John Read says:

    Thank you, Rick and Jim. I’ll keep a close eye out!

  7. Jim says:

    You are most welcome, John. The New Jersey and Maryland branches of the Cartooning Mafia Family is happy to help a brother.

  8. Thanks for sharing your FAS Cartooning Course experiences! It would be neat to see your actual assignments and the instructor feedback. Perhaps not the easiest thing to get the transparencies to align? I have purchased another students partial binder set (from a friends of library in CA) and they had completed the whole course with all the homework and feedback included (binders 2&3).
    Comicrazys.com has posted scans of the first 10+ chapters of FAS Cartoon Course on their site – great for me as I was missing the first binder. But they skipped the intro section material before Chapter 1 – would you be able to scan and post that? Not sure how much of merit is there but the completist in me is wondering!
    Best,
    Jonathan Gilpin
    Coordinator
    Lexington KY Comic Creators Group

  9. Jim says:

    Thanks for your interest, Jonathan, and your comment. I have no plans to scan the FAS cartooning intro material (I’d have to do two scans of each of two dozen or so pages — I have a small flatbed scanner — then put the parts together in Photoshop, etc.), but there may be someplace on the Internet where you can find PDF files of the material. I’ve also seen the complete set for sale on either E-Bay or Amazon. Hope this helps in your quest.
    Jim

  10. randall enos says:

    Boy…what a trip reading this. Those are my drawings on page 9, by the way—of “The Cartoon Head”—the ones at the bottom. The top heads are by Barney (Thompson). Barney was a girly cartoonist for Playboy and other mags. When he was younger he drew Captain Marvel Jr. in the comic books. He was a terrific artist.

    Pete (Peter Wells) had worked on The Katzenjammer Kids before he went to the school. He’s dead now. He was a crusty old Yaley…hence the lower grades.

    You’re wrong about us being told what grades to give. We were completely on our own as far as that goes. The reason a lot of the commentary sounds alike is because they were form letters with certain specific “personal” words plugged in to make it look like we were talking about your specific picture. All the words on the overlays were completely our own.

    In that first letter you show that is not my signature—it’s a hilarious forgery of my signature. We never saw these letters. I don’t even have any of these books anymore…gave ’em all away.

    Say listen, if you’d like another critique of your work—free of charge—send an “assignment” to my address you’ll find on my web-site. I’ll slap an overlay on there and let it rip. I promise not to give you a real high mark—deal?

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  11. Jim says:

    Great to hear from you, Mr. E! (Since I figure you’re roughly my age, I feel I can be less formal here than I was in the blog post.) I’m pleased you enjoyed the piece—it was a lot of fun to write, even if it did remind me of how much I struggled with those FAS lessons and how displeased I was with my assignment work. It’s extra hard to start something like that so late in life (I was 25) and with no art training beforehand, except for elementary school and the lettering brush strokes I learned in vocational school (my substitute H.S.).

    Meanwhile, it’s a deal—I plan to take you up on that free offer—it’ll make a wonderful follow-up to the original post. And I’ll have at least one overlay by you. (I’ll include an SASE with my “assignment,” kind sir.)

    Love your website, Mr. E., to which the DoodleMeister blog has been linked since I did the FAS piece last July—hope it sends some business your way, or at least a few appreciators of your fine (and very funny) work. Interesting that I had just visited your site the other day.

    Gratefully, your former (hapless) student.

  12. randall enos says:

    You’re on Jim. It’ll be fun to do an FAS critique again.

    If you go to my blog http://www.drawger.com/bigfoot and go back into some early posts, you’ll see some that I titled “Tales of the FAS”. You might enjoy them. I have other posts that are my series “My Life On The Slanted Board”. You might enjoy those too.

    Look forward to your assignment.

    I may have been younger than you back in those days. I’m 74 now.

  13. Jim says:

    Damn you, Enos! I’ve spent the morning and part of the afternoon (prim work time for me) scrolling through the “Tales of the FAS” and “My Life On The Slanted Board” posts on your blog. All I’m thinking about now is when can I get back to view and read more of them. Meanwhile, my untouched work pile awaits on my own nearby “slanted board.” Oh well, it’ll still be there tomorrow . . .

    BTW, I’m 72.

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