It’s funny, but it just doesn’t make any sense

Artwork by JunMing // Reference No.: JM0164

In my experience, we are missing the part on ‘relatability’. If it is not something that a reader can believe in or relate to, then no matter how funny the gag is, it is going to set the cartoon back by a few miles.

The piece above is an example of how a concept raises more questions than it answers. Why is there a big tea bag at the pool railing? Who left it there? Why is it there? The original intent was to make a play on the similarity between the pool handles to that of the handles found on tea cups which are also typically where people would wrap the strings of a tea bag around. The idea was lost eventually amongst the heaps of other questions forming in the reader’s mind. In the end, it became nothing more than just a funny visual.

I think that’s what sets great cartoons from the normal ones. Master cartoonists takes the responsibility of creating cartoons that are imaginative but yet at the same time not pushing them over the boundaries of believability and into the realm of absurdity. Ideas without a certain element of logic are just wilful drawings in some sense. To draw a cartoon on music, you must research on how musical notes look like.

Cartooning is sometimes like a conversation. It has to go two ways, back and forth between the cartoonists and the reader. For readers to enjoy your art, they have to first accept it. And to accept it, it must be somewhat familiar or relatable to them. And we rely on that familiarity to eventually bring a wonderful story experience to them.

Have a think about whether if there is an element of believability in your next cartoon. It might bring it from good to great.



Keep calm and accept that there will be dry days

Artwork by JunMing // Reference No.: JM0213

It’s almost like being unable to sleep. There will always be that one night that you just can’t get into deep slumber. Truck loads of sheeps have came and gone and no matter how many times you recount them, you are still wide awake.

Similarly, when it comes to cartooning, there are just days that you don’t get any good ideas coming through. Not even the bad ones. I call them my ‘dry’ days. And like those sleepless days, the best way to deal with it is to simply accept. Accept the fact that you are just not going to get anything out of the day.

Go do something else instead. Re-energize the brain with some other inputs. Read a book, watch Netflix, or just chill and listen to music. I often think that dry days are symptoms of a starving brain where the only thing we can do is to feed it with fresh new inspirations.

So keep calm during ‘dry’ days and don’t panic.


Not all lines are born equal

Artwork by JunMing // Reference No.: JM0228

And there will be some lines that are destined for great things. I refer to them as key strokes. In perhaps a more dramatic manner, I sometimes view them as the ‘Qi’ (life essence) of the cartoon drawing. Let me elaborate further below.

There are days that I could be drawing for hours and I just couldn’t put the cartoon together. Nothing works. I may be having the most brilliant idea of my cartooning career (not that I have one..), but there is simply no ‘life’ in the piece no matter how I do it. Then there are also days where it takes just two confident lines to set the tone for the entire cartoon. That’s it, two lines and it almost feels like we we are done with eighty percent of the drawing. How is that possible? What is the core reason behind why some cartoonist could be spending days on elaborate details and still end up with a lifeless drawing? Why, and more importantly how?

Upon closer examination of my own drawing behaviours and patterns, I started to derive certain understanding of what brings life to a cartoon drawing. In many situations, I discover that it is about understanding and setting the ‘rhythm’ of the cartoon. Again, how? There are many ways to start a cartoon. I find that jumping immediately into the first panel and working through panel by panel might not necessarily be the best and only option. Whilst pre-planning the panels may not be much of a novel approach for traditional gag or comic strip cartoonists, composing the rhythmic flow of the cartoons might have been more of an undertone. You may often wonder why some cartoon sequences doesn’t flow as well as others.

The trick often lies in the key strokes that acts as ‘pillars’ holding up the panel. These are the stronger and heavier lines that are added to frame up the drawings and to maintain overall balance. In the above piece, there are two main strokes forming the masculine outline of the wrestler. The one in the first panel is slanted to the reader’s left, whilst the second panel has a line that rocks to the reader’s right. The lines in both panel acts to offset each other thereby setting a rhythmic balance for the readers. Both lines may not be readily seen and sometimes can be very well hidden from the untrained eyes. But yes, they are there if you observe closely.

I do make a conscious effort from time to time to pull myself out from the habit of looking at each panel independently and to start seeing them as a ‘team’ and as a whole. Once you do that, you can be in a position to set the rhythm of the drawing through such pillar lines or key strokes.


The Shrinking Gun and the Magic Beans

Artwork by JunMing // Reference No.: JM0224

There is this very dark gap in between the back of my sofa and the wall. Visually, it’s almost like an alley way of a poorly-lit street. On the flip side, just peering out of my window I can see into a busy highway brightened up in the evening by an endless row of lamp posts. There are times that I imagined using a shrinking gun on one of those lamp posts and then picking it up with my giant hands before planting it along the dark alley way between my sofa and the wall. So everyday when it hits the sun down phase, that alley way gets lit up together with busy highway outside out of my house. Not too shabby an idea I would say.

Making something immensely bigger or smaller than it was originally, and deploying it for the same purpose that it was built for but to a different situation. It’s one of the ideation methods that I used from time to time. Another variation to this approach is to imagine the opposite, that you are suddenly transformed into a giant. And if you are still living in the same city, how would things have changed? Are the buildings still buildings to you or are they table tops infested with small humanites? What if you dropped a quarter on the streets? Would someone be happy when they picked it up?

This approach whilst seemingly easy to deploy, requires a certain level of depth from the cartoonist. Nonetheless, when stuck, try this method. you might enjoy the ideation process of mentally transforming yourself into a giant or a really tiny human.


You have to solve the ‘hands’ problem somehow

Artwork by JunMing // Reference No.: JM0167

Like everyone else, I was facing a fair amount of difficulties trying to get the ‘hand’ correct for my pieces. There are times that I did really well, and then there are times that I felt like someone that was just starting to learn to draw. The ‘hand’ truly broke me in many ways.

So I set out consciously to search for a better way to conquer ‘the hand’. To be fair, that journey has not come to an end yet. But over the past one year, I developed a special approach that seems to be working fairly well for me. Or at least to enable an interim solution to an otherwise embarrassing problem.

The trick is to start with the fingers. This is assuming that I have already ‘set-up’ the body properly. In my case its not so complex since I have adopted a ‘stick-man’ approach when it comes to drawing hands (I find that the less you draw the better the effect). After the fingers, I move on to the ‘palm’ portion of the hand. If you have done the fingers correctly, the palm should come in pretty naturally. For this part of the hand, I usually draws it in a somewhat hexagonal form.

Now the next part is even easier, you need to find a way to join the hand back to the body. The way you draw the forearm is quite critical. There must be enough ‘form’ in it so that it looks dynamic rather than spotting a big resemblance to a thick tube. I use a ‘triangular’ form with the tip-end acting as the wrist. The triangle base then joints with the upper arm which connects back to the body.

Hands are extremely expressive when it comes to cartooning. There is almost no shortcut. But trust me, if you solve the ‘hands’ problem, you probably checked off one of the toughest items on the drawing list.

Ping me if you need any advise or demonstration on drawing hands for cartoons. Would be happy to share what works for me.


Try drawing the body first

Artwork by JunMing // Reference No.: JM0195

When it comes to figure drawing, most cartoonist I know tend to start drawing from the head first before slowly making their way down to the rest of the body. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that it is the wrong way to start. I do that from time to time. However, almost a year ago I made a conscious transition to go ‘body-first’. I was looking for a simpler way to solve certain perspective ‘issues’ which was impeding my progress. It was through one of the practices that I chanced upon the body-first approach.

It immediately felt natural for me. I felt like I was tackling one of the bigger problems first instead of delaying it further down the process. When you do body-first, you get to ‘set-up’ the body structure right from the start. As the body has the largest space area when drawing a whole figure, so once you get it right, the arms, the legs and even the head seems to fall in place easily. In the above piece, all the ‘heads’ came in once I have done the bodies.

Just to reiterate, I am not suggesting that the ‘head-first’ approach is wrong. I am merely recommending an alternative way to set up a figure drawing the next time you are doing one.

Have fun experimenting! and let me know if anyone would like me to do a quick video demo on that 🙂


Plant the ‘punch’ instead of drawing it

Artwork by JunMing // Reference No.: JM0186

The ultimate ‘punch’ is often over-rated. Or at least that’s what I feel. The delivery is what makes it stand out amidst a sea of equally great cartoons.

As a cartoon enthusiast, I tend to draw everything, including the exact ‘punch’ of an idea. It’s akin to telling a joke and cueing where to laugh. True enough, in most of those cases I end up dramatically reducing the impact of even some of my best ideas. Some of the really good storytellers that I know tend to leave short pauses in between a story to allow the reader’s mind to participate what’s next. I figure that is because what you see or hear through your mind seems to have a more direct path to the heart.

So these days I try not to draw the ‘punch’. Instead if there is a way for the readers to ‘draw’ or complete it mentally, that would probably be my most preferred approach. You set it up by your drawing, the readers closed it in their mind. In the above piece, it is entirely up to the readers to try and reconcile what happened. Why does Count looks so ‘alert’? Did something happened to him along the way? Did we missed it? And this urge to uncover the truth then brings the readers back to the earlier panels.

There is of course a fine line between being intrigued versus being confused. The latter can create a certain level of impatience and eventually losing the reader’s interest fully. Therefore, its always important to review the plot or set up before releasing the cartoons. Ill-planted punches are really awkward.