The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod              


Old-fashioned Drawing Still the Most Important Skill for Cartoonists

December 31, 2011

There is a multitude of methods available to draw cartoons in the technological era. There are so many programs to help the cartoonist create their best work. All are useful and productive, and sometimes essential for publication. But creating good cartoons depends on certain skills, without which the artist can be left frustrated and daunted. The technology builds on skills - abilities that start with a set of tools that require no power for manipulation, no special screens or boards and are particularly portable: the pencil, eraser and paper.


Cartoonists are humourists, writers, observers of the human condition, commentators and artists. Being a cartoonist means bringing talents and skills together into a form that fans appreciate with laughter, readers can "chew on" and that perhaps even causes tears of recognition. The drawings that are the basis for the strip or panel range from simple to complicated. The artwork often begin with the zip of a pencil across a paper, or the slide of a mouse, tool or pen across a screen.

Gathering information from many sources (interviews, comments, books and courses), adeptness at digital drawing is gaining in importance, but the most important skill cartoonists need to gain is drawing. Plain old drawing, pencil or pen on paper. And as much practice as possible to finely-tune the skills. Like playing a musical instrument or learning to crack open locks with an ear and touch of the finger, practice truly does make perfect.

Renowned artists made use of basic drawing skills before they tackled their masterworks. Some of the drawings eventually became art themselves, such as the sketches, plans and drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci. Over his lifetime of art, Da Vinci used the very basic method of sketching to outline his ideas, bring creations to life, and envision the future. His sketches and drawings reveal his practiced hand at work, his use of perspective, mathematical accuracy and shading make his artworks distinctively beautiful.

The pencils of modern cartoonists, artists and illustrators are still put to good use and some prefer to begin projects with the age-old tools.

Leonardo Da Vinci Drawing, Circa 1490
Da Vinci "Study of a Woman," Circa 1490

Children's book illustrator and creator of the online course, "Make Your Splashes - Make Your Marks: How to be a Children's Illustrator," Mark Mitchell teaches the vital skill of quickly sketching thumbnails to create the idea of action and gesture. Mitchell also imbues his students with the importance of basic drawing skills before any other method is adopted. (It's a wonderful course, by the way, chock-full of information, videos, ideas, practice and help to make your artwork its best. It's absolutely inspiring, no matter where your talent starts.)

A popular illustrator of children's books, Patrice Barton, uses sketching to get her work projects off the ground. Defining the storyline from the pages sent by the publisher, Barton envisions how the story would look and begins drawing on paper, adding overlays and colour ideas to create the look she wants. Her drawings are intricate, the lines evincing delightful emotion and action.

When Barton has a suitable number of sketches prepared, she scans her work into her computer and also uses a drawing tablet for her illustrations. She uses Corel® Painter Essentials 4 to produce her wonderful artwork.

Patrice Barton's Cover Illustration in "Mine!" with Author Shutta Crum, Knopf 2011
"Mine!" by Shutta Crum and Patrice Barton, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2011    

Also finding the pencil is the place to begin is Victor Kerlow. The professional illustrator is a contributor to many prominent publications such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, and many others. "If I am not working in my studio, I'm probably walking around the city [New York] drawing in a 6" x 8" drawing pad that I keep jammed in my pocket at all times," Kerlow said in the Winter 2011 Strathmore Artist Newsletter (Vol. 10, Issue 1). A prolific sketcher, Kerlow added that "right now I am in the process of filling up my 225th drawing pad." That's a lot of sketching!

Kerlow also uses him computer to initiate and complete his drawings, but finds the finished product not quite to his liking. "It is always difficult to create a convincingly 'real' drawing digitally," the artist mentioned. "So for the most part, I let the computer assist in fixing small mistakes as opposed to using it for the entire drawing production."


Once the skills of drawing are in place, the digital technology does play a solid role. To get a feel for the computer pen and screen as a medium, there are a few free and affordable programs to try.

Giving it a try myself, I have a Genius drawing tablet with pen, and purchased Corel® Painter Essentials 4. The program was reasonably priced at about $60. I'm not handy with the tools yet, but have made a few drawings and a logo. More practice will certainly make a difference. Corel® has several other professional programs to suit any artist's needs and free 30-day trials.

Download a free copy of Google Sketchup to draw 3-D and models, and try GIMP, a free software program to rival professional drawing, painting and photo editing programs.

Logo by Susanna McLeod 2011    

The best advice of many is to enjoy the process, no matter what your tools or style may be. Go ahead. Create. Have fun.

Happy drawing... um, cartooning... er, illustrating!

© Susanna McLeod 2011