The Cartooning Process: Anatomy of a Toon

This is my hard-boiled narrative of the cartooning process:



She was the first client to walk through my door in weeks. I was caught by surprise with my feet on the desk and my head in the clouds, gathering wool. She paused by the door, tall and blonde and dressed to the hilt. Her cool stare took it all in; a half-empty bottle of beer on the blotter, the scattered dirty ink pens next to a sloppy heap of old sketches, the darts stuck in the wall, the unpaid bills. I could tell she was a classy dame and she wasn’t impressed with what she saw. I could also tell she was nervous and desperate. Most important of all, I could tell she had money. Yeah, dames like her wouldn’t even look at a cartoonist when things were goin’ good, but when they suddenly needed help, they pinched their noses and gritted their teeth and sneaked into my office like a nun into a bar.

“I need some cartoons and I need them quick,” she blurted out after some hesitation. I asked her what she wanted done and she told me. As I sat there figuring what it would take in time and materials to do the job, she wandered around the small room, glancing out the window now and then, nervous as a coyote at a sheepherders’ convention.

Her’s was a pretty straightforward job and in no time I quoted her a price. She laughed scornfully. “That much money for four cartoons? Are you out of your mind? I can’t believe you’d charge me this much for…for…for a bunch of simple cartoons! Why, it wouldn’t take you more than half an hour to sit down and do these!”

I sighed and leaned back in the rickety wooden chair, gave her my best tough cartoonist stare and told her in a flat voice, “Lady, you don’t know jack about this line of work. You think it’s all about just grabbin’ a pen and sittin’ down to have a good time, don’t you? You think I’m just some kind of miracle worker that can solve your problem quick and easy? It don’t work like that. There’s no rules in this racket; every new cartoon is a gut-wrenching challenge. You better sit down and listen hard while I explain some simple facts about cartooning…”

* * * *


Before a cartoon can be done, it has to start with an idea, and getting the idea can be the most difficult, time-consuming, challenging and sometimes enjoyable part of the whole process. To make this easy, let’s follow a simple single-panel cartoon from start to finish. This process applies to other types of cartoons also, such as comic strips, editorial cartoons, greeting cards, and comic books. It gets much more elaborate when a story line is involved, so we’ll stick to the simple single-panel type of cartoon.

There are a few rare occasions when the right idea just pops into my head, but most of the time the idea is the result of a lengthy evolutionary process of day-dreaming, free association and doodling in a sketchbook. For the sample cartoon, part of the “Bulltoon” series, I first came up with an appropriate word that would be a pun based on the word “bull”. From a long list of such words, I picked the word “flammable” because it had a lot of possibilities. With that word in mind, I started to consider different ideas, sketching the better ones as they appeared. Eventually, I came up with a situation where a bull might be “Flammabull”, including the elements of gasoline, an open flame and a moment of extreme stupidity.

A cartoonist is like a combination of screenwriter, cinematographer and movie director. He or she has to come up with the setting, lighting, angle of view, props, and characters. The characters have to be placed in the right spot with the appropriate clothing and facial expressions, gestures and body language. And then there’s dialog; it has to be concise, funny and work with the drawing.

For “Flammabull”, I decided to depict the bull as a fuel truck driver filling his truck at a refinery. To draw the setting, I needed reference pictures of a fuel truck and refinery storage tanks. Although cartoon drawings can be pretty basic, a certain level of accuracy is still important. Research into how real-world objects look and work is vital to being able to draw a cartoon version that is instantly recognizable to viewers. In addition to using pictures, it’s often good to get out and sketch actual objects, people, animals, etc. I don’t do this much, which is why I usually have to spend a lot of time trying to find a picture to work from.

After a lengthy search, I found what I needed in my computer’s picture archives; a large, unorganized file of digital photos and graphics. More frequently, I use a search engine to access the images of choice. With the pictoral information in hand, it was time to work on the rough drafts of the cartoons.

The basic composition, character expression and dialog are done in one or more small (usually about 1.5″ by 2.5″) pencil sketches in a sketchbook or on a piece of 8.5 x 11″ typing paper. For “Flammabull”, I did two sketches. In the first one, I didn’t like the composition or the dialog, so I did another sketch with a slightly different composition and new dialog. The bull character had to have a short one-liner that would fit the situation. After some brain storming, I finally came up with one I liked. The bull calling the match “stupid” seemed appropriately ironic in this situation.

The next step was to do a full-sized rough in pencil. This can be done on a piece of typing paper and then traced onto the final draft for inking, or done on the final draft itself. For “Flammabull”, I did it on a separate piece of 8.5″x11″ typing paper. In the composition, the bull character was moved and enlarged to make it more prominent. One of the pitfalls of cartooning is getting fixated on the background elements. Sometimes they’re so much fun to draw that the cartoonist lets them overwhelm the characters. Once I had a rough drawing that worked, it was time to do the finished product.

Now comes the fun part; everything comes together and I actually get to draw something in ink. I traced the basic “Flammabull” sketch onto a 8.5″x11″ page of copy paper  (I use this size for ease of transporting, copying and filing). It’s usually better to draw the final draft on a sheet of smooth-surfaced bristol board (a cross between paper and cardboard) because of its strength and durability, but it saved me a lot of time to draw the cartoon on a page with the logo and border already there. That way I didn’t have to redraw those or cut and paste them onto the cartoon.

A variety of implements could’ve been used to do the final drawing and shading, including watercolor brushes, pencils, felt pens, rapidograph-type fountain pens, ball point pens and/or pen points dipped in black India ink. For the first version of “Flammabull”, I used three rapidograph pens with different point widths and a black felt pen (waterproof) with both fine and broad tips. The latter is handy for filling in large black areas or making extra thick lines. For the version shown here, I scanned the ink sketch into Photoshop, made some changes and went on to do the coloring, utilizing layers.

The finished product!

The drawing took about 45 minutes to do. The Photoshop coloring took about an hour and a half. The average time to do a cartoon is two to four hours. It can take longer sometimes because the final draft just doesn’t turn out right and I have to do it over. When the drawing (the initial non-digital version) was done, I took it to a local bookstore, made five high-quality copies and delivered a copy to the local weekly newspaper for publication. The original and other copies went into a file cabinet and I went to the easy chair to recover from all the hard work.

* * * *

“…and that’s what it’s all about, doll,” I concluded as I stood at the window, looking out at nothing with a thousand-yard stare, remembering what doing that Bulltoon had been like. What it had cost in ink, sweat and paper cuts. “Sure, it’s a tough way to make a living, but somebody has to do it. Look, I ain’t no hero. I just do my job. I just wanted you to know that it ain’t as easy as it looks, that I’ll earn your dough. So what d’you think? Miss?”

She didn’t answer. She was probably too impressed for words. I turned around to look at her; maybe find some kind of clue on her face. There was a clue there, alright. I could’ve read her face like an open book if her eyes hadn’t been closed. She was snoring softly. I was glad to see that she’d relaxed and felt comfortable. She seemed a little embarrassed when I woke her up; said she had a better understanding of the work she wanted done. I gave her a written estimate and she promised to get back to me. I didn’t push it. In this line of work, people have to decide for themselves. As I watched her walk down the dim hallway to the elevator, I hoped that she’d be back. I needed the work more than I needed the money. Hey, I’m a cartoonist. It’s who I am. It’s what I do.

Epilogue: This was written some time ago and the process has changed a bit. Most of my cartooning is done digitally now, with even rough drafts done in layers in Photoshop. Sometimes I miss the old process, but when it comes to coloring and inking, Photoshop and Corel Painter have some amazing advantages.

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