Opinion: Illustration is easier than cartooning

January 24, 2013 in Comment, General

Cartoonist_or_Illustrator_@_procartoonists.org © Bill Stott

© Bill Stott @ procartoonists.org

When it was suggested by the editor that I should write a piece to the statement, “Illustration is easier than cartooning”. I thought he also ought to reverse the notion and ask an illustrator too.

Trouble is, I’m not an illustrator so know little of their strange and arcane ways. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I have illustrated a couple of books in what might loosely be called a non-cartoon style. And many years ago whilst doing a fine art degree, a snotty lecturer suggested I should switch to Illustration because my work was “rather slick and commercial”. The fool! Did he not see that I was going to be the next Jack Vettriano?

Cartoonist and illustrator are very wide terms. If by illustrator we mean those driven souls who churn out graphic novels – how do they do it? – then give me cartooning any day. On the other hand if, as a cartoonist, you get lucky with a multi-panel strip of Doonesbury or Calvin and Hobbes or The Fosdyke Saga proportions and you don’t have time to draw anything but the same re-occurring characters day after day, world without end, how do you stave off madness?

Do illustrators feel the same? What little illustration work I’ve done rapidly became tedious. Same characters, different situations. Rather more interesting to write than to illustrate. Unless, of course, you’re Victor Ambrus who is brilliant enough to stop even Tony Robinson becoming tedious.

However – I love that word, it means you’re about to kick the foregoing into the long grass – a good cartoon drawing has to be a good joke as well. Thinking of a good joke can be a killer. “Good joke” means one which in the first instance makes you the cartoonist laugh. Whether it makes a commissioning editor laugh is another matter entirely (Ian Hislop is such a tease). Some days good jokes pop up like weeds. On others – like today – there’s a great desire to draw funny stuff but nothing happens and an unhealthy amount of daytime TV is watched.

There. My head’s nearly empty now. The only thing I’d add is the word “good”. Good illustration is easier than good cartooning. Must dash, DCI Banks is on.

PS. If anybody wants a definition of “good”, ask the editor in the comments.

Editor adds: Thanks to Bill for putting his head above the parapet.

26 responses to Opinion: Illustration is easier than cartooning

  1. Point of information: This article should, of course, be properly entitled ‘Opinion: Illustration is easier than gag cartooning’. 

  2. I’m not sure whether I agree completely with Bill, but I’d definitely imagine that it’s a lot easier for a good cartoonist to do an illustration than for a good illustrator to create a cartoon. The cartooning skillset is drawing ability, writing ability and the elusive ‘funny gene’. Having all three is desirable, but the second two more so than the first, I’d suggest – which is where an illustrator with even the greatest draughtsmanship in the world might come unstuck.

  3. Yes – definitely a parapet job this. But I  agree with Huw. I would though. I’m a cartoonist. We need the thoughts of an illustrator here. [rummaging sounds as Brighty puts on other hat]

  4. I think Huw’s analysis is pretty accurate. Cartooning is a writing job.

  5. No it’s not. Writing can be part of a cartoonist’s job, but not in all cases. Is a caricaturist not also a cartoonist? Are comic artists who work to scripts not written by themselves not cartoonists? Or are they ‘merely’ illustrators? And by the same token, are those who write cartoons, but get others to draw them, allowed the title of cartoonist, while their drawing partners are ‘merely’ illustrators? That’s the perverse conclusion this is heading towards. 

  6. Steve raises some interesting points (he should in fact be busy scouring the news for funny ideas right now) – but then it’s his special subject. His questions are almost impossible to answer – it’s all opinion and semantics in the end. The question of who is a cartoonist in a team where one person writes and the other illustrates is a marvellous conundrum, illustrating the futility of trying to define such things. I would have to say – given my own internal gut reaction criteria – that neither is, although they both produce what most people would know as a cartoon (or a comic). That conclusion looks foolish; strung up by my own criteria. I would resist the use of “merely” – although Steve quite deliberately used speech marks; there is nothing better or worse in being an illustrator or a cartoonist. The huge difference is, as Bill says, in quality – good v not so good, but then that too is subjective. 

    I too find illustrating dull, preferring the idea to the execution, but that doesn’t in any way traduce the art of illustration, as Bill’s example of Victor Ambrus shows. It’s merely my subjective taste. I expect if you asked illustrators, they would say they enjoyed it. 

    In the end, you are what you call yourself. If you choose to call yourself a cartoonist then you probably are; you may or may not be a good one. 

    By the way, what is a banker (apart from the pejorative explanations)? Many people (far too many, probably) work for banks, but are any of them bankers? If so, which ones?
  7. I call myself a caricaturist – and you spell that b-a-s-t-a-r-d.

  8. When a writing/illustrating team get together to create a cartoon, their skills are combined to form a cartoonist. The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers work in a similar way.

  9. Yes, thank you Roberts-bach for that helpful interjection, but what about when you’re doing those beautiful illustration things you do?

  10. Then he’s a cartoonist, Andy, as he is when he’s a bas…caricaturist. He draws professionally in a cartoon style. A cartoonist – simple as that. 

  11. I’ve said this elsewhere, and I’ll jolly well say it again.  Saying that ‘Illustration is easier than cartooning” is like saying “Accountancy is easier than playing football”.  It probably is if you’re a 58 year old accountant.  It probably isn’t if you’re an eighteen year old footballer.

    Many illustrators have very little in the way of a sense of humour, and to them producing a cartoon would be well nigh impossible.  A cartoonist who can’t draw wouldn’t be able to produce an illustration which required a high level of technical skill. You’re more likely to succeed as a cartoonist who can’t draw, as long as you’ve got the sense of humour, than you are as an illustrator who can’t draw.

  12. Are there any cartoonists who don’t draw in a ‘cartoon style’?? Glen Baxter comes to mind as someone who adapts his spin on the adventure book illustration style.

  13. Yes I think so Pete. I would suggest some of the presently popular digital manipulation artists work effectively as cartoonists.

    And in my opinion they do also draw, just using the computer as their tool of choice.
  14. I’m more than happy for anyone who draws in a cartoon style (if it’s not cartoon style, it’s not cartooning) to call themselves a cartoonist, and also an illustrator if they illustrate, or a caricaturist if the draw caricatures, etc, etc, etc.

    What I strongly object to is those who seek to suggest that the title ‘cartoonist’ only truly belongs to any one particular branch of cartooning. Or even several, but not all. The question here is misleading, partly for the reasons Cathy outlines, and also for others I’ve broached upon. 

    Look up cartoonist in the dictionary.
  15. Pete – there’s a guy called David Malki who’s work is somewhat similar in that way to Glen Baxter. His webcomic – Wondermark – is made of collaged scans of vintage Victorian illustrations…and is tres amusant. And he’s definitely a cartoonist.

    I suppose it’s the ‘humour voice’ more than anything. Or at least humorous intent.
  16. Hmm, dictionary definitions of “politician” don’t include “self -seeking lying rat-bag” so maybe OED wouldn’t be my first port of call, although I don’t disagree with Steve.

    I also think there’s a value judgement to be made here in terms of what “good” means. Many cartoonists who apply to join PCO don’t get in.Because they’re not good enough.

    On the other hand, quite a few of those don’t make a bad living – e.g., greetings cards etc., for companies who like clunky stuff. Who sell it to a certain swathe of the public who like clunky stuff. Maybe the same swathe which likes Celebrity Big Bugger [with Eric Pickles] and the very clunky Strictly Come Dancing.

    So “good” is the missing word here.


  17. Cartoons and cartoon drawings aren’t always humorous though, Huw – far from it. 

    I’ve never like the “humour voice” thing anyway, as it can easily ignore the fact that the drawings themselves contain humour that isn’t always specified in the writing. And having been told that I would possibly have missed out on becoming a member of the PCO had I been judged purely on the comic work I have done in the past, scripted by others, I think this idea of a humour voice is completely bogus unless it acknowledges that some of the finest cartoonists I’ve ever known, with drawing skills comparable with the very best of PCO talent, would have been eagerly snapped up as members, despite the fact that some of them never wrote a script or gag in their lives. I think it’s a very risky road for any cartoonist to tread who might deny such artisans their rightful status as masterful cartoonists, because that immediately invites comparisons with their own work. Not something I’d relish for myself.

    Cartooning is not a writing job, but it is essentially and by definition a drawing job. It’s the one thing all cartoon work has in common. Be careful who you seek to exclude. 
  18. If illustrations are visuals that expand upon and support text, then a draughts person, photographer, cartoonist or designer may in the course of their career be called upon to don the mantle of illustrator. I disagree with the notion that comics consist of illustration; the interplay between text and image is entirely different. As I say in workshops with kids, in a comic the written word and drawn image can be entirely at odds, combining to provide meaning that neither could do alone. Illustrators meanwhile contradict the text at their peril!
    Finally to the judgement implicit in this blog post; that editorial gag panels and newspaper strips are the acme of cartooning. That’s a matter of taste and entirely defensible as a personal opinion. But despite having been written by an individual it’s posted under the PCO banner. I hesitate to reiterate my contribution of October last, but we return to the thorny matter of criteria and definitions. Most importantly, who the PCO appear to be discounting, publicly, as cartoonists.

  19. Excellent points, Terry.

    And a quick note on the original flawed question, putting aside the fact that both are interchangeable, I find drawing my own material (for the purposes of the question, cartooning) is almost always less challenging and preferable to drawing that of others (for the purposes of the question, illustration). So yes, cartooning is definitely easier than illustration (for the purposes of….etc, etc….)

  20. Editor writes:

    Opinion published here is not the official view of the PCO unless it is explicitly stated. You can see the full Disclaimer on the right hand side of this page.  Also, the headline isn’t a question, it’s a statement of opinion for discussion.

    And to that end, thank you all for contributing to the excellent thoughts that are coming in about Bill’s piece.

  21. I suspect such an opinion piece was written party to generate this kind of interesting debate about the nature and work of cartoonists.

    I think we’re at crossed wires on the humour voice thing Steve – in my understanding, that voice can and usually is in the drawing, Steve. In the funny nose, or knobbly knees or exaggerated teeth of a caricature, the cartoonist is shouting ‘humour’ louder than in any text.
    My initial comment about writing being arguably more important, of course, applies more to gag and strip cartooning. I certainly wouldn’t exclude or discount anyone who wants to be called a cartoonist, but doesn’t write a word. Some of my favourite cartoonists create(d) predominantly wordless cartoons: Sempe, Kovarsky, Steinberg, Cusick.
  22. Of course ‘writing’ means ‘creating’ rather than a reliance on text or caption. LARRY springs to mind, in the gag cartooning field.

  23. “Be careful who you seek to exclude”. Or indeed, admit. When I was on ‘t’ committee, each and every applicant’s work was scrutinized to the nth degree. Dark and dangerous work, but somebody’s got to do it. “Humour voice” came about because we couldn’t think of anything which adequately explained that certain something which made the applicant’s work funny. I’m sure that the same level of agonising goes on in committee now.

    But that’s not the original statement, which said “Illustration is easier than cartooning”.The absence of “good” here is interesting because including it narrows the field considerably.Doesn’t help prove or disprove the statement though. I wrote the original bit from an entirely personal  standpoint .In an ideal world I’d call myself a gag cartoonist, but in the real one I spend much of my time ILLUSTRATING moderately dull articles on fiscal union or automatic gearboxes with CARTOONS.

    So, having read all the excellent ,informed comments, I’d say that non-cartoon illustration cannot be usefully compared to cartooning. They’re both easy/difficult in their own ways.

  24. I agree with your last paragraph, Bill, assuming by “non-cartoon illustration”, you mean illustration that is not in a cartoon style. If it means illustration that is in a cartoon style, but the brief has come from someone other than the artist, then that is still cartooning in my book, and there is nothing to compare. Both are cartoons, and the ‘easy/difficult’ bit then relates purely to the addition of the writing factor. You might think that, self-evidently, that addition makes the job more difficult (i.e. that you have to think up a gag on top of drawing it), but as I’ve already declared, drawing to someone else’s brief can very often be more challenging and painful than drawing something you’ve written yourself, and in those cases, I’d have to say that (gag) cartooning is certainly easier than (cartoon) illustration, and infinitely more enjoyable. 

    All semantics, I guess – until it actually affects the entrance criteria for PCO membership. I’ve no doubt you are correct that selection entails great scrutiny and lengthy consideration, Bill. For me, the definition side of that shouldn’t occupy more than a few seconds, as I have a very clear and simple rule that quickly defines what is a professional cartoonist (i.e. someone who earns at least part of their regular living through drawing in a cartoon style), and so I’d hope that any deliberations were confined to quality assessment beyond that (not a call I’d relish making). But my fear is that may not be the case every time, based on previous discussions like these. 
  25. Huw, I have no argument with your definition of ‘Humour Voice’, but from past discussions, I’m not confident that is everyone else’s understanding of it. 

    As for your point about ‘wordless’ cartoons and the cartoonists you mention, again I agree, but you’ve taken me too literally. Silent gags still have to be written. I was referring to cartoonists who never wrote any of the material they drew (i.e. the scripts or the briefs), but whose own ‘humour voices’ are plainly there in every line they draw. 
  26. It all sounds like an argument in the playground a couple of six year olds would have, ‘my dad is better than your dad!’ etc. It also sounds that we’re an insecure bunch trying to big ourselves up by saying we use more of the grey matter in our world. To me, whether you’re a painter, sculptor, illustrator, cartoonist, whatever, it’s all about problem solving and that’s the crux of the matter. However, I realise this opens another can of worms – do cartoonists have bigger problems to solve than illustrators?!

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