I learned some lessons pretty early in life that have served me well over the years. When I thought I was just learning about cartooning, I was actually learning much more.
As a young aspiring cartoonist in high school, I was infatuated with the tools of my heroes — the giants in the cartooning industry. These were people who had their creations sent to the moon, won Pulitzer Prizes, and known by our nation’s Presidents. People like Charles Schulz (Peanuts), Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace), Jim Borgman (Zits and political cartoons), Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey), Gary Trudeau (Doonesbury), Mike Peters (Mother Goose and Grimm and political cartoons), and many, many others.
I would include clippings of my cartoons from the school newspaper asking for advice. I wanted to know what pen nib they used (it was all pen and ink back then — the answer was usually one of Gillott’s nibs or maybe Speedball, but was it a #170 or a B6?), the type of paper they used (usually Strathmore 2-ply bristol board, but plate or kid finish?), the brush (usually Winsor & Newton fine sable, but what sizes?), what type of ink, whiteout and yes, did they use a kneaded eraser or something else? I was slightly obsessed.
If I was lucky, their responses also included their familiar signatures — maybe even a sketch of their renowned characters. If I was really lucky, the cartoonists living nearby invited me to their studios where we could talk shop (and I could ask them even more questions).
But I soon learned that it really wasn’t about the tools — it was about what you did with them that counts. A good cartoonist, or any artist for that matter, can make great work no matter the tool.
What it takes to do good work
As the great cartoonist George Booth from The New Yorker advised, “I think the factors that determine paper and pen are that one should draw his or her most comfortable size with an instrument he or she can forget about and achieve whatever desired drawing. It’s a matter of communicating with other people on paper without such distractions as a scratchy pen or paper that annoys one.”
Another New Yorker great, Charles Saxon, typed me a single-spaced letter that ran longer than a page — it’s been proudly framed in my office for years. It has inspired me and informed my actions throughout my life. He imparted wisdom such as “graphic courses are no more important than fine arts. Take them both. The more knowledge you can absorb, the greater your potential.”
“The paper and kind of pencil I use are unimportant for you. Try all kinds. Try everything. Learn how to use watercolor, oils, pastels. You’ve tried lithograph crayons — benday — now try the others, and that’s what you get in taking more and more courses. Your own style will emerge from materials you feel most comfortable with and you’ll switch more than once, I’m sure.”
“Anything that looks easy, and is really good, isn’t easy. Like a good baseball swing, or a stand-up comedian, or ballet dancing.”
Good cartooning is about developing a personal style and point of view that is uniquely your own — and that only comes with time. A solid foundation in good draftsmanship is critical — because one needs to know how to draw things correctly before they can be exaggerated. And it’s not just about the drawing — more importantly, it’s about the ideas and the writing too! Cartooning is commentary, and that demands knowledge. Because again, in order to satirize something, you first need to know the issues and have something to say. This also includes observing human nature and its foibles.
These are the harder questions to ask, and the answers for what it takes to produce good work are not easy. They are even more difficult to learn. But the more we work, the more we evolve and develop the unique voice that drives quality work. It is certainly not quick or easy.
Are you asking the right questions?
It’s much easier to pursue only the tools and copy the “tricks” of people you admire, but that only takes you so far, for it merely brushes the surface — resulting in a cheap facade over which there is no substance — perhaps slick on the outside but technically wrong and devoid of meaning on the inside.
So many of us want to rise above the noise, yet it’s the easier answers that most people seek — focusing mostly on the latest platforms, templates, online gadgets or tools that will provide a shortcut to success. They are much easier things to deal with than confronting what it truly takes to do good work that stands apart.
As a young college cartoonist, I created this poster for Hammermill Papers.
Our busy social media streams are full of links to more content than we can possibly hope to consume, and they are rife with mediocre work. Noise.
The best creative content is unique and has a compelling message — that is what will set a business apart. Yet the conversation rarely seems to be about this.
Good work requires a willingness to dig deeper — it can be a rigorous physical and mental grind. It means learning how to be better at the craft of creating, not just polishing the surface. It may mean taking art and photography classes, learning how to write a short story and reading! Vocal and dance lessons. Acting. All these pursuits will help produce better, more poignant content — whether it’s images for a blog, video content, the writing itself… whatever. Heaven knows we have enough mediocre content! But if you’re a content creator of any type, mediocrity won’t cut it with the glut of content already out there vying for our attention 24/7.
Maybe not everybody can or wants to create breakout work that is meaningful and original. The best work leaves an indelible mark on our culture. It takes a lifetime of learning, more than a fair share of talent and lots of hard work — studying, practicing, experimenting and restarting — many, many times over. The hard work of creativity.
There’s really only one way to stand apart
It doesn’t matter if you’re a visual artist, a writer, a musician or a great athlete. The basic mechanics and tools can always be learned, but it takes something more to truly set yourself and your work apart from the rest. The answers are much harder to acquire and obviously, they are also much harder to confront. But it needs to be done if we truly want to rise above.
Charles Saxon concluded his letter to me with these words: “It should be obvious to you that I’m spending more time with this letter than with the average letter such as yours. And the reason is that I think you have a very real talent. I wish you good luck, and I hope you won’t try to rush off into a quick pay-off. Take your time and learn and be one of the great ones.”
Ever since, I’ve been wondering what job or project I took on might be considered a “quick pay-off.” Yet those inspiring words always kept me shooting for more, and I think we’d all be doing ourselves a favor if we heeded his advice.
Take your time and learn and be one of the great ones.
All images copyright © 2014 Paul Biedermann, re:DESIGN.