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In this tutorial I’m going to teach a bit about cartooning for kids and beginners, the way I do it.
I’ve been teaching art to kids for a few years now. We’ve drawn and painted lots of amazing things. We’ve painted beautiful 2000-year-old Roman portraits, so alive that they could be your neighbours; Ancient Egyptian murals of solemn animal-gods in muted desert colours; embroidered characters from the Bayeux Tapestry on their way to battle – and we’ve painted food and drink from vintage ads that haven’t been available to buy for 80 years or more. It’s all been lovely and the children each have a precious sketchbook (the same type I use) in which they keep all their paintings, and they’re very proud of their sketchbooks – and of themselves.
A little while ago I decided to show the kids I teach how to draw their own cartoons. They loved these new lessons. They’re all very good at drawing – the classes have given them tons of confidence, which is over half the battle – and now that they are pretty expert with their watercolours, it’s no trouble to them to paint the characters they’ve drawn. As for making up stories and characters, it comes as second nature to children. Even if they say “I don’t know what to draw” at first, the slightest nudge has them creating some crazy character, and once they start they go on and on. There’s a lot of “good” versus “bad” characters – the world they create may be very colourful, but on another level it is always very black and white! My students must be a very funny bunch as their cartoon strips are hilarious, and there’s always a lot of laughter as they look at each other’s work.
I decided to show them some tricks to help them get the look they’re going for with a cartoon. Now, I must point out that I draw cartoons the old-fashioned way – that is, I draw them by hand. I like to colour by hand too. Other people’s cartoons that I enjoy today are invariably hand-drawn – with the exception of no one. I like to make as few “steps” between my idea and the page as possible, to retain the freshness and energy.
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1. A frame is the box with the action in it.
Figure out what you want to say in each frame. Leave an empty space at the top of each frame for the speech bubble and make sure you allow enough room for the words you are going to write. If you don’t plan your speech bubble properly, you’ll end up trying to squash your words into a bubble that won’t fit them.
2. You should write out your words roughly first, to make sure they will fit comfortably in the speech bubble. Allow “breathing room” around the words so that there’s a bit of white all around.
Use a light box when drawing your character to make sure it looks exactly the same in each frame. You can buy a small light box for very little outlay in art shops or those catalogue shops that sell everything. I have a very fancy one that says it will last for twenty years, even if I leave it on all day and all night. I never draw a cartoon without it.
3. Draw narrowly-spaced parallel lines very lightly in pencil to keep your lettering neat. After a while you won’t need them. It will take time, but you will develop your own unique handwriting style. By all means try out different styles, but in the end your natural style will look best.
4. Keep your characters simple. You really don’t want to draw all kinds of crazy detail in every single frame. Or maybe you do, and you want to spend forever on each frame. Cartooning is a very time-hungry art form – make things as easy for yourself as possible!
5. I always draw in pencil first, usually a 2B. I keep a really sharp point on it at all times. I feel really free to scribble just as I want when I draw in pencil on a cheap bit of printing paper. I can ink it in afterwards when I like what I’ve done – but I never draw in ink to start. I finish in ink, though, because it scans much better.
6. I don’t know why the position of eyes makes such a difference to the expression, but it does. Play around with the same oval for the face, but put the features in different places to see how they look different. I tried to draw babies once – I made them all bald and fat-faced – and they just looked like greedy old men. Then I noticed that babies’ eyes and nose are on the same level, and the eyes are far apart. (And they have huge foreheads!)
7. Don’t use a ruler to draw boxes! Remember, this is just my style but I don’t like nice parallel frames. I also like to leave them open to let my characters feel a little less cramped. Sometimes I leave them out altogether, just for a bit of variety.
8. Use letters as part of your means of expression. Make skinny letters truly emaciated and fat ones truly obese. Don’t go half-way! Think of some words and try to draw them according to what they mean. Tall – spiky – short – hairy – bouncy…make your own list.
9. A brush pen is a very expressive tool – it’s so much better to have a nib that widens and narrows according to how much pressure you put on it. But it does take a bit of practice to get it under control. Keep at it – it’s worth the effort!
10. Make your character look small by putting things that we know to be tiny next to it, drawn even smaller. Like a fairy on a toadstool! Think of other ways you can make something look small.
11. Make things look big…by doing the opposite! Think of Jurassic Park and dinosaurs towering above trees. Think up something for the same treatment!
12. Use symbols to say something – at a glance. Stars for pain. Drops of sweat for worry. Lots of them for astonishment. Hearts for love. Think of your own lexicon of symbols – and make them your signature.
So what are you waiting for? Get creating!
So many interesting things! I found particularly interesting the piece about teaching cartooning to children. What a great idea! Thanx for getting this all out there for us to enjoy!
I am about to teach my first cartooning class and plan on showing the students some of this. Thanks much for posting it!
You’re welcome. In the time since I wrote this article I’ve refined my method, but the kids will lead you, as mine did me.
Thank you! I was volun-told to teach 6th grade art this year and it has been over 30 years since I was regularly doing art. Our curriculum requires that I teach cartooning. This has started my wheels turning. Thank you so much!