Cartoonists on Creativity

(Calvin & Hobbes | Sean Davis)

(Calvin & Hobbes | Sean Davis)

"Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

On my coffee table is an anthology of Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. Much like a Bible, I can flip it open to any page and find something original and worthwhile. The most astonishing thing, however, was that Watterson did this work daily, for years straight. How could Watterson produce such a high-volume of creative work when many of us struggle with doing one memorable thing in a lifetime?

That is the trade of the cartoonist (whether in print or online); do interesting work and lots of it. To accomplish this seemingly impossible task of constant cleverness takes some natural talent, but more than that is craft. Craft is learnable in the same way wisdom is transferable.

On Doing the Work

In Stripped, a documentary about comic strips, Bill Watterson said of his work:

I wasn’t looking for a balanced life in those days. My comic strip was the way that I explored the world and my own perceptions and thoughts. So, to switch off the job, I would have to switch off my head. So, yes, the work was insanely intense, but that was the whole point of doing it.

This is what Watterson wanted and if we recognize that we have volunteered ourselves to do this work, we relieve a lot of self-imposed pressure.

On High-Volume Work

Some think of it like exercise and conditioning.

Rhymes With Orange creator, Hilary B. Price:

When you start doing it every day for your vocation; doing seven a week, you have to build up to that. It’s like a muscle.

While others create good habits.

Beetle Bailey creator, Mort Walker:

I think of gags all the time. I’ve got a little book that I carry with me and I write down the ideas as they come to me.

Mutts creator, Patrick McDonnell:

I keep sketchbooks. I’m up to number 101.

Deadlines and expectations aren't the barriers to greatness; rather they create greatness. They force us into the position of high-volume work and lots and lots of practice.

Ira Glass, creator of the award-winning radio program, This American Life gave this advice:

Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers: The Story of Success:

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.

On Creativity

Hilary B. Price:

I used to think that creativity, you know, visited you. And now I realize in the marathon terms, you visit creativity. If this is something that you do seven days a week, you can’t wait for the muse to come circling over. You have to shoot her down.

This echoes the sentiments of influential painter, Pablo Picasso:

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.

And American author Jack London:

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

Be Like Water, Not a Stubborn Rock

Pearls Before Swine creator, Stephan Pastis:

The worst is when you sit there for four hours, not letting go of one idea. And even though you should, and you hang on, and you have nothing to show at the end of it.

You have to give yourself permission to be less than perfect and move on. Though it may seem unnoticeable now, you are always in the process of building. The project is not your work, your final product is you.

Motivator, teacher, and Hall of Fame coach John Wooden wrote in his final book, The Wisdom of Wooden: My Century On and Off the Court:

When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.

For Better or For Worse creator, Lynn Johnston:

If you work for a whole day and never came up with one single idea, it wasn’t a waste of your time because the next day, you could write two weeks just like that.

Irish playwright Samuel Beckett wrote in Worstward Ho:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Questionable Content creator, Jeph Jacques:

It’s all about changing gears. If you’re stuck on one crappy idea, or you’ve got no ideas, take your mind somewhere else for a little while. And to really do it. You can’t be like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna think about something else.’ You have to actually get up and walk around or play guitar for a little while or do something to just get over that bump.

Break up the creative monotony by constantly doing different types of work and switching it up.

Hark! A Vagrant creator, Kate Beaton:

Sometimes I make a point of doing something that I never heard of before or something that I’m not very familiar with. If it’s been a lot of history stuff, [to switch it up] to do like a superhero, or something autobiographical or something after that.

This resembles the method of famed animator and auteur Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki breaks all convention by drawing the storyboards first then writing the script. The canon law has been script first, then several stages later, the storyboards are drawn (usually by someone else). If you are a writer, try drawing it out. If you are an artist, try describing your vision in words. Switch gears to keep the imagination going. Akin to the improvisational process of "yes and": don't stop, let it morph, don't try to own it, and keep the work going.

On Embracing the Joy of Your Work

Hilary B. Price:

I love that I am master of my universe.

Stephan Pastis:

When it comes out of my pencil on the notebook, when it’s being written and I’m watching it, and I laugh like, ‘Wow, that’s good. I’m glad I was here to see it.’ I’m not complimenting myself. I don’t feel like I have. I watched it like you did. I know that sounds odd, but I swear that’s the way they’re written when they’re written well.

Mort Walker:

There you are sitting here with a blank piece of paper and this idea comes. You write it down. And I think: ‘Ten minutes ago, that idea didn’t even exist. Now it’s gonna go into the comic strip, and then it’s gonna end up in books, and people are gonna be reading that idea for the next 20, 30, 40 years.’

Bill Watterson:

I wanted to keep the strip feeling small and intimate as I did it, so my goal was just to make my wife laugh.

Oscar Wilde offered similar advice in The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

A true artist takes no notice whatever of the public. The public are to him non-existent. He has no poppied or honeyed cakes through which to give the monster sleep or sustenance. He leaves that to the popular novelist.

On the Zen Spark

Lynn Johnston:

Because you’re on a deadline, you have a routine. And you know you need to work, the only way to get work is to think it up. You go sit down and you start to get into the zone.

Stephan Pastis:

Like in school, if you’re doing really bad, you can sort of like, grit your teeth and force your way to study harder. But creativity is more akin to floating, or balance. Like, if you grit your teeth, you’re gonna sink. … I sort of go there, and I relax, you know what I mean? I try not to think. You can’t think through funny. I want that logical brain to just get squished into nonexistence.

Bone creator, Jeff Smith:

This was almost like a meditation type thing where you could just zone out and go to that world and just be totally in touch with yourself through the page. That almost Zen Buddhist spark.

Don't rush the spark, sometimes it just needs some time to grow.

The Oatmeal creator, Matt Inman:

I call it ‘brain farming,’ where if you think about it, you’re sort of planting these little seeds which are totally worthless. You can’t eat a seed. And then they sort of grow and your little brain flowers explode out and then you’ve got an idea a few days later.

On Letting Content Drive the Art

Candorville creator, Darrin Bell:

It’s like what Michelangelo said, the statue is already there, you just have to chip away the extra stuff. I think the script is already there and I just have to bang it out.

Mort Walker:

You can be a good cartoonist and a bad writer, and you’ll never make it. But if you’re a good writer and a bad cartoonist, you can make it.

The Top Advice From CEOs to Creatives: READ!

SMBC creator, Zach Weinersmith:

If I find I’m having trouble writing, I can usually trace it to not having read enough. Yeah, if I have a week where I read a book a day, I will never have trouble writing.

Kate Beaton:

Just read and read and read, and think, and hope to God that something good will come out of it.

Understanding Your Own Experience

The creator must experience as much life as possible. Being at the desk all day cannot give you new experiences to "draw" from.

Luann creator, Greg Evans:

The best writing comes from your heart. You need some spark of inspiration. Something in your own life or something you’ve experienced that propels it.

Your creations are pieces of you. The more you are in tune with yourself, the more it will come out naturally in your work.

Cul de Sac creator, Richard Thompson:

Usually, yeah the words do come first. Usually, it’s like hearing voices. Especially if it’s a specific character, then I start hearing voices. Which seems to be a common thing which I would worry about if this was not a creative process.

Greg Evans:

Characters do have a way of telling you, where they’re going to go, or where they need to go, or what needs to happen.

Jean Schulz, wife of Peanuts creator, Charles "Sparky" Schulz:

Drawing is magic and people love watching, seeing a line and then another line and then something appears. Sparky would say, ‘When at the moment of drawing the character, I want to be feeling what I’m drawing. And I want it to be spontaneous. So if I’m drawing a mad Lucy, I’m thinking a mad Lucy. And if I’m drawing Snoopy dancing, I’m thinking a happy dance.’

You Can't Be a Creative Unless You Create

Award-winning novelist and creator of the comic series, The Sandman, Neil Gaiman once told a graduating class of art students:

Go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.