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.

The Gag Process

March 9, 2009

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.