Cartooning Lessons

July 29, 2009

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 . . .


Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


May 9, 2009

An Ink-Stained Memory

The cover of my copy of the 17th edition of Speedball Text Book by Ross F. George, coverpublished by the C. Howard Hunt Pen Company in 1956, has my last name scrawled in the big yellow letter “S” in the title — proof of ownership by a much younger me. The 6″ x 9″ booklet cover is dog-eared by use and abuse over time and, at the bottom of the subtitle text, there is what appears to be spilled India ink on the words “Poster Design for Pen and Brush.” (Click images once or twice for larger views.)

In 1956 I was 19 years old and serving the second year of a three-year enlistment in the U. S. Army. I doubt that I owned the booklet then, but once I left the military — in 1957 — I became a serious art student with the help of the Korean G. I. Bill. Despite having been an avid doodler and tracer of comic book panels and Sunday newspaper comic strips as a kid, Speedball-1I had had few formal art classes in elementary school. Instead of going to high school I attended two years of “commercial art” training in a city vocational school, to which I was sent after failing the eighth grade. In those days “problem” students — very much me at the time — were given the option of repeating the failed grade, learning a trade or — in a case like mine, because of some problems with the law — going to reform school. For me, the study of art of any kind was very seductive, so it was an easy choice. Later, though, I would discover that what I had signed on for was really a sort of “bait and switch” scheme. (More on that later.)

“Tools for Lettering,” on page 1 of the “Speedball” text, Speedball-2provides a clue as to when I may have acquired the booklet. If you look closely at the “Style C” pen point section you’ll see my faded rubber stamp running vertically up the page — another ownership tag. My address at the time, 3811 Mayberry Avenue, was where my new wife and I lived in the early 1960s. During those years I became something of a “speedball” myself, over-committed in life and in art, trying to make up for lost time and a truncated education. (I had completed high school by scoring well on the General Educational Development test while in the service.) In the span of only a few years I became the father of two sons, was working full time as a clerk for the Social Security Administration and also Speedball-3doing part-time seasonal work in the mail order department of Montgomery Ward (stocking shelves in the toy section). I was also attending evening art classes at the Maryland Institute of Art. And, as if that wasn’t enough, during the same period I signed up for a course in “Editorial and Commercial Cartooning” offered by a correspondence school. Speedball-6It was around this time that I began to collect a modest library of “how-to” art books, with which I planned to master the mysteries of what I hoped would somehow become a career. My simple and — as it turned out — unrealistic, dream was to quickly make big bucks as some sort of artist, in the same way many of my male relatives had become master carpenters and managed to support their families. From the very beginning I figured that art was something I could do, perhaps the only thing I was suited for, and at which I just might be able to make a living.Speedball-20

The Speedball booklet impressed me because of the mix of visuals and beautifully hand-lettered copy. One example of the practical quality of the illustrated craft tips is on page 2, where “Three Points of Contact” of the pen or brush hand in the proper lettering position is demonstrated with a photograph (brush) and in a line drawing (pen). Until I owned the booklet I didn’t know from “Roman,” “Gothic,” and “Text” lettering styles (see page 3). Or that Roman letters could best Speedball-36be made using “C” or “D” Speedball pen points, etc. And that in all lettering, to quote the copy, “Time and effort will be minimized by using the size and style of pen or brush which will form the different letters of any given alphabet without subsequent remodeling of the strokes.”

Now back to what I termed the “bait and switch” of vocational school. The four semesters of half-days I had spent there consisted of the endless practice Speedball-80of basic “show-card” brush strokes (the other half-day devoted to “social studies” and other “academic” subjects). Show cards are those hand-lettered broadsides you still see in the windows of small neighborhood grocery stores, announcing the current sale price of milk and eggs. They were training me to become a sign painter! We students used water-based black or red poster paint and practiced the simple letter segments using old newspapers turned on their sides so that the print columns became uniform guidelines. The exercise was much like the illustration of basic pen strokes shown on page 6 of the Speedball Text Book.

Meanwhile, on page 20 of the booklet, illustrations of pen points were shown stroking Roman letters. Speedball-82Simple, all you had to do to master the basic letter forms was to allow your eyes to follow the direction of the tiny numbered arrows. (There were even microscopic arrows showing where you should “twirl” the point to make a curved section.) As good as those illustrations were, and despite my hours of practice, I never became much good with a speedball pen or red sable lettering brush. I quickly realized that I’d have to develop other skills if I hoped to make a living at a drawing table. It seemed that because of my bipolar-like low boredom threshold and short attention span, Speedball-83and my rush of ambition, I simply didn’t have the patience to practice lettering. Anyway, I was more attracted to what the Speedball booklet taught me about the arty “moods” letter styles convey (see page 36); layout theory (pages 80 to 82); and how something as simple as line direction could convey important information to a viewer (page 83). The beauty part was I came to understand that many of these lettering “rules” also applied to drawing cartoons, a subject that holds my interest to this day.

The beautiful line drawing on page 92 of the booklet, “Early Morning in the Snow,” done with a “C-6” pen point by Charles Stoner, is an example of the aesthetic versatility of at least some of the Speedball products. For many years my personal preference was the “B-6,” with which I did balloon lettering and my rather crude cartoons. The stick figure examples shown on page 94 are close to my drawing style at the time, and they cleverly demonstrate the human body when in a balanced position. The booklet text explains: “Notice also that the supporting foot is directly under the center of gravity.” Other pictures demo the off-balance body, showing a figure actively attempting a broad jump. On other pages in the bookletSpeedball-92 I learned about the use of basic shapes (circles, triangles, rectangles, squares, etc.) with which to begin designing layouts and drawings, along with strategic placement of blacks to direct the viewer’s eye movement left to right, top to bottom through the panels and the pages. Again, these tips have great value for executing all levels and kinds of art, “commercial” and “fine,” not just the lettering on posters and show cards.

Overall, what did I take from my study of the Speedball booklet and similar texts so many years ago — I mean beyond the useful tips and exercises? Speedball-94Well, most importantly I think, I came to reluctantly accept the idea that given my late start in the graphics game I would likely never be able to do any of it at the “master” level. What I did get from “Speedball” and other similar texts, though, was enough new knowledge about the craft and business of lettering and cartooning with which to earn a modest living, something for which I’ve been very grateful. So here I am after all these years, still hard at it, still learning new things every day. And still laughing at myself and my false starts and outright failures. Still trying, despite the odds, to become really good at something.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

To mark this first year anniversary of (initial post published May 7, 2008), I wanted to post something to which fellow cartoonists’ and other commercial-type ink-slingers of a certain age might relate. And lo, the other day I happened upon my well-thumbed copy of Speedball Textbook. Perfect.