Spencer Hill, Cartoonist, Illustrator, Illustroonist


Tips & Tutorials

I am mainly self taught from books, but I have also been fortunate to have had friends who were willing to share either their artistic skills or knowledge of cartooning and the cartoon industry. I believe it is important to encourage others, and in this section of my website I will pass on what I can of what I know.

I hope there is something of use to you here.

Creating cartoons from scratch Part 1 - Getting an idea

I can't be the only artist or writer who has been asked the question:

'Where do you get your ideas from?'

And if you asked ten of us the question you would probably get ten different answers. So here is my answer, which may be of use to those of you starting out as cartoonists.

For me there are two scenarios when mining for an idea for a cartoon:

1. Sitting in front of a blank canvas with a blank mind

2. Sitting in front of a blank canvas with a subject, a theme or a brief from a client

Clearly the idea of scenario 1 is to get to scenario 2, that is, to come up with a subject to draw a cartoon about. To do this I will expose myself to input. This sounds ruder than it is, but all I mean is that you need something to work with. Personally I don't get this first step from sitting in an empty, quiet room with a wet towel wrapped around my head. I need conversations, web searches, news items, stories, scenarios, popular sayings or anything which I can absorb and then twist inside my head to take it further and make a cartoon from it.

If topical news items are your thing then pick up a newspaper or browse one of the many news summary websites for a topic that catches your interest. If you prefer observational humour then go and sit in a coffee shop and listen to the conversations around you. It is amazing how other peoples chatter, phrases or actions can sometimes inspire you. Engage people in conversation and let them talk about their day, their interests or anything they want. Sometimes the most mundane chit chat can generate some superb ideas or subjects. I wouldn't advise admitting you are a cartoonist before you engage potential muses, as it can have one of two effects; they either clam up for fear that their life is about to be the subject of a cartoon or (and this one is worse in my opinion) they start telling you all their amusing cartoon ideas in great length. Eek! These ideas are usually not great and I rarely use them!

At this stage I would also begin assessing what I am hearing and reading for potential cartoons, effectively merging all the stages into one. If you are new to this then just record ideas. Don't even try and make it funny yet. For example, here is a list of news items I have trawled from a quick scan of my local newspaper:

Hospital to close 

Cancer survivor walks for charity

Wind turbine schemes at risk

Council breaches Data Protection Act

Warning as dogs attack boy

Market traders threaten to boycott town over parking row

This is a tiny selection obviously, but there is enough here to take us to the next stage.

Depending on your cartooning style, moral stance and sense of humour, some of these subjects may not be your cup of tea. For our purposes I am going to take the dogs article as our example.  This made me laugh out loud when I read it because it is so un newsworthy to be reported at all....bear with me....I'm not callous! In the article they report that the dogs attack:

"...did not break the skin but caused a slight reddening of the area" and go on to describe these dogs as "scruffy, dirty and aggressive. "

How can any self respecting cartoonist pass that up??

So you have a subject now and a blank canvas.  Often a cartoon will spring to mind for me at the moment I am processing the subject, but sometimes it proves more elusive and I need to dig a little deeper.  To do this I would use what I call a spray diagram. Basically I put the idea in the middle of the paper, and then think of everything I can which is either factual, or springs to mind as I run the idea around my mind. This is the one I produced for the dogs idea.

There are lots of ideas here and you may think of many more. At first glance I can see at least six different cartoons, maybe more. This again depends on your sense of humour. The dogs on a psychiatrists couch admitting their issues, the dogs reading the news article and their reactions, the possibilities of the dogs NOT being dogs after all and many more. I went with the dogs just being too old to continue their wild lifestyle, and this is the cartoon I would place alongside that article.

My Dancing Bear cover
My Dancing Bear cover

I bought the biography of Reg Smythe (the creator of Andy Capp) a while back, and there was a superb little gem in there about simplification of cartoons. It applies as much to wording as it does to composition, and it is one that i should certainly be paying more attention to in my own work. 

He used to apply what he called the 'fresh fish' test to each cartoon he drew. I will explain it here and then you will see the genius of the man.

The fishmonger puts a sign out that reads 'fresh fish sold here'. He then removes the word 'sold' because clearly he wants money for them and it is unnecessary. Next he removes the word 'fresh' because all his fish is fresh and he doesn't want to suggest otherwise. Now he only has 'fish here' and he removes the word 'here' because they are standing there reading the sign so they know where they are. The final sign simply reads 'Fish'. 

This won't change my addiction to wordiness overnight, but it is something i will never forget. I recommend that book too, and any biography of a cartoonist you can find if that is your chosen field. There is so much to learn from these masters of their profession.