Word and Image: The Art of Cartooning

Below is the transcript of a talk I gave at the Creativity Symposium at the Haystack Mountain School in Maine in 2011.  This will be produced as a monograph, and available in libraries across the country. 


Speaking about creativity to an audience who knows is mind-boggling. It’s like bringing coals to Newcastle, preaching to the converted. What can I offer? I am a practitioner of an odd art form: cartooning. I don’t know how many of us exist in the world, but I imagine the numbers are fewer than the other arts. I have been at The New Yorker for thirty-two years, and drawing cartoons for longer than that. It is challenging, exhilarating, fun, and frustrating. It is a hybrid of words and images. Is it art? Is it writing? Is it journalism? Comedy? Tragedy? Play, work? What is it, who is it for, why do it, and how?

The word “creative” carries a lot of baggage. Those of us who were given the word early in our lives do one of two things: We either subvert it because it’s scary and won’t make us a living; or we accept the badge and wear it as if our lives depended on it.

What does it mean to be creative? Do all creative people “make stuff”? No. Creativity can be found in any profession. My father always told me I got the creative genes, that he had none. He was a doctor, and I would reply, oh, no, I bet you are creative in your work. And I believe that. To listen to a patient and try to understand what the problem is, one needs a measure of creativity. One needs observational powers, an ability to listen, a flexible mind, and one that can juggle many elements and come up with a diagnosis. In fact, being creative in medicine can carry a lot of responsibility because one has others’ lives in his hands. As a cartoonist, as it turns out, I do not. Although recently in the news, international cartoonists have been in serious danger. My political cartoons sometimes get me into trouble, but not often.

So for those of us in the arts—when we discover that we are drawn to create, what do we do with it? Many of us are not cut out for any other activity. People expect us to produce. As a child, it was proclaimed early on that I “was creative”—I made stuff. Sometimes this is code for, “she’s not very bright” or “she doesn’t test well” or “she’s quiet.” All of which applied to me. For a child, this goes a long way. We can make things and get wild approval from our parents and peers. I know I did. And I used the mantle of “creative” to define myself. It actually helped me cope with feelings of inadequacy and feeling that I did not fit in.

But as you get older, and if you have found yourself to be creative, if you choose to maintain the label of “creative person,” this is where ingenuity comes in. An unscientific survey of the word ingenuity on Google brings up references to patents and inventions, animal ingenuity, Yankee ingenuity, female ingenuity, mathematical, economic ingenuity, technological ingenuity. The arts are not mentioned. Creative ingenuity? Isn’t that redundant? Not really. Google also mentions “spirit and survival,” and this is how it applies to the arts. One can create, but in order to continue over time to create, one has to employ ingenuity. If one wants to make a statement that will be heard, or that will make a difference, one has to employ a measure of ingenuity. A child may be able to repeatedly make the same playdough paperweight and get approval; a serious artist cannot.

In fact, when we get to professional artists, there is often the separation between those who are simply artists, and those who are creative artists. This implies that the later are ones who create something new, and are not simply repeating previous artistic methods or statements. Is something creative by virtue of the fact it is created? Does it have to be different? Or different in a valuable way? And what is the role of the individual? Is this, the infinite variations in individuals, what makes for “creative”?

As a young person, I looked for guidance from other artists, and inevitably started “copying” the work of others—either in spirit, or in actuality. After I discovered drawing, I started tracing the work of Charles Schultz and James Thurber, then quickly created my own style. Later, I read whatever I could get my hands on: Some of my favorites were Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Ben Shahn.

In his essay, “The Biography of a Painting,” Shahn wrote about the importance of the artist in the artwork and, that for him, it was a “personal observation of the way of people.” His work was graphic, political, personal, and he described the “tug of war between idea and image”—combining the inner and outer—within the individual. (Creativity in the Arts, Vincent Tomas, ed. “The Biography of a Painting,” Shahn, Ben.  1964, Prentice Hall. )

His essay was an effort to understand what goes on inside himself as he created. Primarily a political artist, he was interested in the social dialogue art can provoke and was concerned with the interaction of his drawing with his subject matter. His concerns danced around the importance or non-importance of the individual. He said, “Art is the wholeness of thinking and feeling within an individual: It is partly his time and place, it is partly his childhood or even his adult fears and pleasures, and it is very greatly his thinking what he wants to think.” He goes on to write that creativity is about “personal style…has always been that peculiar personal rapport which has developed between an artist and his medium.”

Early in my life, I developed a rapport with my medium, cartoons. I found it was something I could do, and I got encouragement for it. In that way, it was a communication with the world around me: My work was of the world around me and it relied on the response from the world around me. It became addictive. Kandinsky wrote of the artist’s “inner necessity.” Almost by chance, I began drawing cartoons at an early age, and I’m not sure if I drew cartoons out of a creative urge, a burning desire to express myself, or whether my creativity was a response to my circumstances. Is creativity a response to adverse environment? That’s a whole different lecture, and I won’t bore you with my upbringing. But I do know that drawing became important, and it quickly developed into a “necessity,” in part because the response I got was positive. My art was not only expressed, but it was fed, and it carried me along in my life. The individual expression was in response to others; creative as it was, however, I had to learn to listen more closely to this dynamic so as to make the balance of individual/viewer, self/others, more equal.

My early drawings were purely visual. I created characters based on what I saw. The motivation was to lampoon people— and oh, what an infinite variation was to be found—and was driven by an unacknowledged cynicism deep inside me. I thought people were silly and absurd. Particularly adults. I feared becoming one, and made fun of what I feared. I drew to make sense of the world around me. This type of humor is the easiest to do, although it is dependent on remaining in one’s particular group. This type of humor reinforces the identity group, while making fun of others outside that group. I was using my creativity to reinforce who I was within my world, and I got acceptance for what I drew. And my ability to create placed me in the status of “artist”; and this allowed for outsider status. So while I was accepted by my group, being outside on the fringe was very comfortable.

But this sort of drawing I found to be limiting and not enough. Shahn writes of the need to use one’s creativity for a higher purpose, and as an idealistic young person, I gobbled his words up. I needed to do something with my creative ability. It was not enough to just please my parents and peers. Then I discovered The New Yorker.

The New Yorker identity as a creative endeavor had and still has the same dynamic I just described. It simultaneously is of its socioeconomic group—the upper class—but outside it. The New Yorker’s articles and cartoons lampoon and critique its class. This is exactly what the magazine was founded to do in 1925. It began as a humor publication, and the founders [Harold Ross and Jane Grant] specifically sought to create a magazine that appealed to the new urban youth of a certain class. To do this, the first editor, Harold Ross, facilitated in creating what we now know as the New Yorker cartoon. I must say it was ingenious. He took the creative powers of artists and writers and, out of a need to improve circulation and attract readers, they invented a new form of art. Yes, there had been cartoons before The New Yorker began, but they tended to be stiff and the words were lengthy jokes. If the operative word in defining ingenious is “resourceful,” then Ross’s vision was ingenious. The cartoon form created was pithy, quick (important for the “modern age” of 1925), and carried more than just a joke. It told us about ourselves, our time, from the viewpoint of an individual. And the art form became the identity of The New Yorker.

Growing up, it was simply a magazine my parents got, and I viewed it as upper-class, status quo, stogy stuff. Later, however, upon closer inspection, I saw it as art that was at times political, socially conscious, and a form of individual expression. And it was in a medium I loved: simple imagery and words. I set my sights on getting into The New Yorker.

I have alluded to the creativity and ingenuity of a certain type of art, cartoons, and to that of The New Yorker. But how is a cartoon created? Each individual cartoonist has his or her own unique method, and from time to time, this is shared with colleagues. But not usually; we keep our methods close to our chests. It is a fragile and somewhat mysterious thing, a creative process, and very difficult to explain. My husband, a cartoonist as well, claims he has no process, but this is hogwash. Examination of the creative process is difficult, and we do things we are not aware of. It can also be dangerous for the practitioner. I love what E. B. White said about humor: “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the scientific mind.”  (A Subtreasury of American Humor, E.B and Katherine S. White, eds. p. xvii. Tudor Publishing, 1945) Don’t worry, I am not going to analyze humor, because I think that what makes something funny is intangible. I think you will find, as we look at the process of a cartoonist, that there are some concrete methods, positioning if you will, yet the final creation is often ethereal. My sense of it is it’s a matter of setting yourself up to a certain mindset, allowing for conditions to facilitate creation. Since we are at a symposium about creativity, I thought it would be of interest to look at my process, because I think it might be slightly different from other art forms. At the same time, it may be similar enough to provide insight into the topic as a whole.

Cartoonists are like receptacles and conduits. Sometimes I refer to us as sponges. A cartoonist takes in impressions and information, and reconfigures it in a cartoon that reflects several things: the world around us, the time in which we live, and, inevitably, ourselves. But the overarching necessary elements are observation, listening, patience, and trust.

It can begin with a word. Something heard in conversation, or perhaps from the newspaper. Or it also can begin with an image. Early on, I did not have a good relationship with words: They scared me. Everyone, everywhere, used words (and did so better than me, I felt). My drawing, however, was my own language. So my work was purely visual. The words—the idea—stayed in my head, as I transformed them into a visual communication. Slowly, I found that there were more choices if one employed words, more chances for communication. Ultimately, I made my peace with words.

Words and sketches are gathered on a large sheet of paper over the course of a week. You listen to the world around you, but you also listen to yourself. You have to grab the words that appear in your mind’s eye, and trust yourself to know which ones to grab. Sometimes they end up being useless, sometimes not. They are words that you hear being used, they are words that seem funny, they are words that are potent. With the mélange of words and images on the paper in front of you, you wait. You listen to them, and you listen to yourself play around with them. You jot phrases down. You put the words in different speakers’ mouths. Either on the paper, or in your head, you bring in settings, situations, scenarios. This takes patience, and a stillness that is full of potential. On top of all that, add a dash of playfulness, and attempt to let your brain go places it ordinarily wouldn’t go. As an individual, so many things have been stored inside our brains: it’s a matter of accessing them. The best cartoonists, in my opinion, are those who can do all of this that I just mentioned, and bring in their individuality. And incorporate it in such a way as it is simultaneously individual and universal. This is very tricky.

Creating a cartoon requires ingenuity, an ability to reinvent and reformat the combination of words, imagery, events, people, places, and self again and again each week to create something new. This “something” has to speak to viewers; a cartoon is dependent on how the viewer receives it. That’s not to say that every cartoon has to elicit a laugh. Rather, it is a form wherein the artist is, to different degrees, conscious of her audience. For example, as I mentioned before, my husband is a cartoonist, and I am aware—by watching him work and talking to him—that his creative process (that he claims he doesn’t have) is inwardly directed: he draws for himself. I, on the other hand, am more outwardly oriented, and utilize more topical subject matter. He and I sometimes jokingly distill this difference to: He is playing, I am saying something. (When I read this to him, he suggested I say, “He is doing nothing, I am doing something.”) But we are both saying something, and we are both playing. That said, we both are aware that the ultimate goal is to communicate.

After spending time with the words and images, you might have a seed of an idea. This could be a word or phrase you know you want to use, a feeling about a dynamic between people that is new and worth exploring, a visual scenario that is amusing. Patiently, you sit with these things and push them, twist them, mold them like a piece of clay. Who is saying what to whom and why? Where are they? What are their bodies doing? How is their face configured? It’s almost like setting a stage, with characters who have a backstory. The cartoonist is designer, choreographer, director, writer. What is drawn has to look natural, instantaneous, effortless. A spoken sentence—if that is what the words are, and they usually are—has to be such that it is not noticeable. The viewer reads the words, glances at the picture (or the other way around) and immediately is delivered the idea. The words have to work fluidly in concert with the image. They have to dance with each other, and dance well.

At some point, you then take the risk to complete the drawing, and this is like jumping off a cliff (although I have never done that and not sure if the comparison is true). It’s a leap of faith. Some cartoonists leap more than others—each artist edits at different times in their process. There are those who edit in their minds, and others who edit on paper. In other words, some produce twenty pieces a week, others only six. Regardless, the more you leap, the more chances you have of creating work that works and work that is truly new.

There are different types of cartoons. Ones without words, ones with words integrated into the image, sequential, titled, and just meaningless silly. Slightly poetic, sarcastic, serious funny, and just serious. Each requires the artist to shift her process, either in conception or execution. The decision as to which form to use comes at different times, for different reasons. It’s often good to extend oneself to different formats within the cartoon form in order to shake things up and avoid repetition.

Many cartoonists use words and images to elicit laughter, while others attempt to elicit more. What may separate cartoons from other art forms is that cartoons are more intimately connected to the viewer. As I said before, cartoons are perhaps dependent on the viewer for validation. That’s not to say we cater to our viewers—that can spell trouble. But always in the back of my mind, I am aware that someone else, on some level, needs to understand what I am drawing. And understand in a way that is more than just about “feeling.” Cartoons are a publication-driven art form, not a gallery art form, and thus the connection to audience is more mass-oriented and more in need of universal appeal.Word and Image: The Art of Cartooning

Cartoons speak to the viewer on a visual level, an emotional level, and an intellectual level. The line and the words transmit an idea. Ultimately, cartooning is a tool of communication, and our tools are words and images, seamlessly intertwined. Some artists’ style is more visual than others, some more verbal than others—but in both, the two elements have to blend just so. In most cases, neither word nor image carries more weight.

Cartoonists seek to make people laugh or smile, while simultaneously expressing ourselves. We create to expose, to ridicule, as well as to educate, provoke, entice. And we create to share. In many ways, cartoons are the ultimate reflection of our world, as refracted through an individual artist. Most cartoonists I know began drawing at an early age, and thus what they do is driven by an inner necessity, and a need for connection. In many young cartoonists, the failure to employ ingenuity within their creative process leads to failure. The inability to bring self into the process also leads to—in my opinion—less successful art. One has to acknowledge both the inner need and the outer response, but never give one more power over the other. And keep jumping off that cliff, every week.

The beauty of cartoons, for me, is their legacy as a people’s medium. They connect with people, even across borders; the art form bridges cultures and languages to share diverse worlds and individual lives. Cartoons connect us on a human scale. No matter where you are from, most of us grew up reading cartoons, and we are drawn to them as we are drawn to childhood memories. With this attention, a cartoonist has the wonderful opportunity not only to make people happy, but to tell them something, too. The reader is at ease, looking for the fun and release of laughter; and while the cartoon artist can give them that, she can give them more, as well. As challenging as it is, this is the incredible reward of creativity.






About Liza Donnelly

Cartoonist and writer and live drawer for The New Yorker, CBS News. Speaker for TED and others. Books: Women On Men, http://www.narrativemagazine.com/store/book/women-men
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9 Responses to Word and Image: The Art of Cartooning

  1. Pingback: Exhibit: Felipe Galindo (Feggo); Feiffer’s first original graphic novel; More Mouly & Blown Covers; Video: S.J. Perelman interview; Mick Stevens’ fav NYer rejects; Liza Donnelly on the Art of Cartooning - Inkspill | Inkspill - New Yorker C

  2. Roz Warren says:

    Not only is this Interesting and insightful — but it ends with a perfect cartoon! Thanks.

  3. Maria Centeno says:

    Excellent piece!! Congratulations

  4. Pingback: A Monday Round-up | Procartoonists.org

  5. Rob Husberg says:

    I wanted to read this 2 or 3 times — and digest it — before I replied. Happy to report: no heartburn! In fact, I feel delightfully satiated from equal portions of insight and intelligence. My compliments to the chef! (All I want to know, is how you got all that on an index card?) And I, too, love your closing cartoon!

  6. Pingback: Developing Your Style | The Cartoonsy Blog

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