Cartooning Advice from Matt Groening

I stumbled on this list flipping through a random Simpson’s comics collection at Half Price Books. A lot of the tips apply to writers as well.

On tip #7, I agree. Most how-to-cartoon are terrible. But Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, and Comics: Easy as ABC are indispensable guides to the craft.

Matt’s main homie Lynda Barry has Making Comics coming out soon too.

Be on the look out, and keep drawing.

  1. Don’t draw with cheap felt-tip pens. The ink in drawings made with felt tip pens will fade in a few years, and all you’ll be left with is a bunch of ghostly images, then nothing at all. And these drawings fade even faster when exposed to sunlight. So wise up and use pens with permanent ink, and try to draw on paper that’s not going to yellow and fall apart. (I learned this the hard way.)
  2. Finish your work! Drawing complete stories is really hard, especially when you’re a kid, but there’s nothing like having a finished story-with beginning, middle, and end-to amuse yourself and your friends. Unfinished work just doesn’t cut it.
  3. Save your stuff! Often, as your drawing and writing skills develop, or you get older and start having other more “mature” interests, your earlier cartoon work starts looking lame and clumsy. The usual urge is to toss it-but resist that urge! I guarantee that later in life you’ll be glad you held on to your cartoons, no matter how stupid they look now.
  4. Don’t let your mom throw your cartoons out! Moms have a tendency to do this. You go off for a weekend visit to Aunt Gladys, or you get shipped off to summer camp, or you turn your back for a second, and poof! There go your toys, your comic books, and your brilliant artwork. And no amount of squealing is going to bring that stuff back. So take care of your treasures-keep ’em out of the way of anyone who has some weird hatred of “clutter” – and make sure everyone in your family knows you’re insanely possessive of your stupid, worthless junk. If you make your stand early, before permanent damage is done to your goodies, they may learn not to mess with your mess.
  5. It’s okay to copy other cartoons, but it’s easy to get obsessed with a particular style that you can never master. I spent a solid year trying to draw Batman when I was eleven, and have nothing to show for it but a bunch of crummy-looking, vaguely Batmannish ghosts (see Item #1). So my advice is to copy from a whole bunch of different sources-eventually you’ll figure out a style that fits you.
  6. Get a sketchbook. Do lots and lots of drawings. Fill up the sketchbook. Repeat.
  7. Most how-to-cartoon books are terrible, so don’t get discouraged by their lousy advice. Remember, if the people who put together how-to-cartoon books knew what they were doing, they probably wouldn’t be doing how-to-cartoon books.
  8. Check out the original artwork of cartoonists you admire. You may be in for a surprise. It doesn’t look as slick as the printed stuff, does it? It’s full of smudges, pencil marks, erased lines, and covered-up mistakes. Most young, would-be cartoonists end up getting totally bummed out because their stuff doesn’t look as slick and perfect as the stuff they see in print. But the original work by the pros themselves usually don’t look that good, either. So it’s okay for your original artwork to look a little smudgy, too.
  9. It’s not horrible to be a crummy drawer. There’s room for all sorts of styles in the world. All I can draw are people with big eyeballs and no chins, and I can’t even do that well-but look at me. I get to blab about how to cartoon, and you get to listen to me.
  10. And finally: Be original. It’s okay to copy the cartoons you love, if you must. But please: Eventually edge toward your own ideas and stories. That way I won’t have to track you down and sue you.

Notes from The Natural Way to Draw pt.2 : The Way to Learn to Draw

The way to learn to draw is by drawing. People who make art must not merely know about it. For an artist, the important thing is not how much he knows, but how much he can do. A scientist may know all about aeronautics without being able to handle an airplane. It is only by flying that he can develop the senses for flying. If I were asked what one thing more than any other would teach a student how to draw, I should answer, ‘Drawing – incessantly, furiously, painstakingly drawing.’

The Natural Way to Draw, Nicolaïdes, Kimon

An artist must have skin in the game.

The work, the practice of drawing everyday, is the path to improvement.

Notes from the Natural Way to Draw: Contour Line Drawing

This book is proving helpful. It clarified some techniques for practicing contour line drawing.

First you must convince yourself that the pencil point is touching the model instead of the paper.

Place the point of your pencil on the paper. Imagine that your pencil point is touching the model instead of the paper. Without taking your eyes off the model, wait until you are convinced that the pencil is touching that point on the model upon which your eyes are fastened.

The Natural Way to Draw, Nicolaides, Kimon, pg 9

I always wondered, what do you do when the contour leaves the edge of the object and turns inward?

Often you will find that the contour you are drawing will leave the edge of the figure and turn inside, coming eventually to an apparent end. When this happens, glance down at the paper in order to locate a new starting point. This new starting point should pick up at that point on the edge where the contour turned inward.

The Natural Way to Draw, Nicolaides, Kimon, pg.10

And contours can lie inside the figure as well:

Not all contours lie along the outer edge of the figure. For example, if you have a front view of the face, you will see definite contours along the nose and the mouth which have no apparent connection with the contours at the edge. As far as the time for your study permits, draw these ‘inside contours’ exactly as you draw the outside ones. Draw anything that your pencil can rest on and be guided along. DEVELOP THE ABSOLUTE CONVICTION THAT YOU ARE TOUCHING THE MODEL.

The Natural Way to Draw, Nicolaides, Kimon, pg 10, 11

Helpful reminders. Now, back to drawing.

John Porcellino’s time machine: From Lone Mountain

This collection of King-Cat comics is a time machine. Not a whirling pod that splits atoms and breaks open new dimensions, but instead a glimpse of John Porcellino’s life in the early 2000s.

As I read each page over and over, I found myself playing this game. I call it: Where was I when?

Here’s how it goes. At the bottom of a comic it may read MARCH 2005.

From there I light a swisher sweet, jog with my memory, imagine, and ask the question, where was I in March 2005?

Was I failing college algebra again?

Was Episode One still the dopest movie ever?

What were my go-to pair of Nikes?

It’s a fun game. Try it at home. But it does make me wish I kept record of those days. A journal, a heart and key locked diary, or, then it’s it heyday, a blog.

We can’t change the past, but we can revisit it. Even if it’s a bit blurry.

Buy your very own time machine here!

Drawing for life

Bored. I waited for my ancient Toyota’s oil change to finish. The iPhone’s gravitational pull is relentless. But I punched it in the face and escaped.

I pulled out my sketchbook and began to draw the sofa in front of me.


There’s many benefits to drawing from life.

Strengthening your observational skills. Learning to concentrate. Developing a new appreciation for everyday objects.

All excellent things.

But the best part?

You’re creating your own unique work. Your own original piece.

It’s your eyes. Your way of interpreting light and shadows. Your way of seeing shapes.

The lines that you scratch across the paper are all inherently you.

Only you.

It can’t be copied. It can’t be replicated. It’s how you discover this elusive thing called style.

Drawing from life will reveal your style.

Try it.

Spend 10 minutes getting some lines down on the toaster/lawyer/spacecraft infront of you.

Even if the proportions are wonky. Even if your lines look like they’re suffering from a bout of vertigo.

Do it.

When 10 minutes are up you’ll feel excited. Nourished even.

You may be disappointed with what lays on the page before you, but it will be all yours.

Cherish it.

Amateur tip: A great tool for scanning your drawings quickly is Scannable.


I was transfixed.

I’m always on the hunt for street art, but I wasn’t expecting any pieces at the polished Shops At Legacy. But then I turned the corner.

My senses were lifted. Kelsey’s lines and paints transformed a drab garage door into an explosive, 2D winged flower bed.

I’d never heard of Kelsey Montague before. My experience is most street artists don’t leave their name behind for all to see.

But I’m glad she did. My eyes keep focusing on the two blue flowers towards the bottom center. The red starfish stigmas and the pink splattered petals won’t let me turn my gaze.

My only hope is closing firefox.

Discover more about Kelsey and her work at: Kelsey Montague Art




Drawing with Adam Savage

Chapter 6 from Adam Savage’s new book Every Tool’s a Hammer ripped me in by the necktie.

I knew Adam would talk about screws and cardboard. I knew there would be tips on organizing your workspace. But an entire chapter on how drawing will transform your critical thinking?

I’m in.

First Adam reminds us, despite all of the planning technologies that exist, a piece of paper and pencil are still formidable planning tools:

Today, the maker space is not lacking in planning tools. There are software and mobile apps and various mechanical apparatus, and they all work the way they’re designed, but none of them seem to do what a simple pencil and piece of paper can. Because unlike those other methods, drawing out your idea shares the physical, tactile character of the building and making it is meant to precede and facilitate. Drawing is your brain transferring your idea, your knowledge, your intentions, from the electrical storm cloud at its center, through the synapses and nerve endings, through the pencil in your hand, through your fingers, until it is captured in the permanence of the page, in physical space. It is, I have come to appreciate, a fundamental act of creation.

Then fellow maker savant Gever Tulley provides a solution to the timeless excuse I can’t draw:

“The pushback I often get is, ‘I don’t know how to draw,’ and my response is ‘Well, how about you go home and spend the summer drawing every day and then we’ll talk about it in the fall when you show me your notebook,” Gever said, rightfully indignant. “Because we know that practice can move your mark making over to something more precise and controllable.”

Adam explains how drawing works as a translation tool:

From a planning perspective-whether it’s for current or future projects-I look at drawing as a translation tool from my brain to the physical world, where I have frequently found words wanting in the explanation of complex objects and operations, which, of course, is the entire purpose of every plan ever made. What is a plan if it isn’t helping you understand what you’re building and how you’re supposed to build it?

Adam also uses drawing to topple creative blocks:

I frequently use drawing as a tool or a technique to break through that dam. Drawing always gives me a new vantage point on the project and allows me to see the thing I’m building with enough distance to identify the next step more clearly. In that regard it’s almost immaterial what I draw. I might draw some reference pictures for a collaborator to understand what I need from their contribution, or to see where their contribution fits in the wider picture. I might draw some mechanical subassemblies that are kicking my ass. I might re-draw the item I’m making for fun, just to stay inside the construction in my head. I might draw a case for an object, or a case I’d like to build for it when it’s done. Sometimes the exercise of thinking about what might contain the thing I’m working on can help me define better what it is I’m actually building and help illuminate what has me stuck. It’s all information. A conversation between my brain and my hands.

And shares his drawing inspirations:

I draw inspiration from the drawings of others. I never tire of poring over the drawings and graphic novels of Moebius, for instance. I get a lot out of looking at Ridley Scott’s storyboards (he’s a wonderful draftsman). Since I was a kid I loved all those old drawings from the mid-century issues of Popular Mechanics. Something about their clean lines and multidimensionality and the way the artists kept all the pieces separate yet constantly oriented to each other, spoke directly to how my brain looks at ideas.

Remember young ones:

You don’t have to be great with a pencil for this to work. Like I’ve said, I’ve never considered myself particularly good at drawing. For the longest time it never felt like the line did what I wanted it to do, yet I continued to draw. One, because it continued to be useful, and two, because it clearly helped me get better at communicating my ideas more precisely.

Enough reading about drawing. Grab a stack of paper and draw.