Cartoonist David Waywell on reading, thinking, and drawing.
Drawing cartoons is easy, well, that’s what I’m often told by people who don’t draw them. Cartoons, they say, are just doodles with a caption and that the very best — those that you remember — are ‘obvious when you think about it’.
From the other side of the pen, nothing is that obvious. The best analogy I have is the task of completing a Rubik’s Cube. A completed cube looks so elegant that you’d think it a simple task to arrange the six sides of solid colour. Of course, it’s far from easy. It’s about untangling the structure from the chaos and that’s what my work entails. It’s the process of finding something good in the rubble of the news.
The only solace I have is – no deadlines. I’ve never had the luck to work for a newspaper with proper snorting deadlines. So, instead, I have my own nominal deadline which is usually the time I fall asleep at night. Circumstances dictate that I usually start drawing about 10pm, sometimes earlier. But I need to know the cartoon’s joke by about 5pm. It’s probably a freakish trick of my brain but I always think of my best cartoon ideas in daylight hours and usually in the spring and summer. If it gets to the evening and I don’t have an idea, the cartoon won’t appear.
All of which leads to the million dollar question and my five buck answer. How do you come up with ideas?
The first thing to know is that sometimes you simply won’t find the cartoon. No cartoonist produces a strong cartoon every day, though some, like Peter Brookes at The Times, come pretty close.
Part of the trick is routine: finding space in the day’s schedule to simply think. Yet even that might not be enough. If you’re drawing cartoons based on the day’s news, then your work is governed by what’s in the news. Sometimes the news is dominated by one big story that doesn’t lend itself to a belly laugh. In the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, there’s very little to say unless the tragedy has a political dimension.
Today, for example, the newspapers are still reporting on the terrible tragedy in Nepal. The way to approach such a story is to draw a cartoon that makes a simple but emotive point: perhaps a tattered Nepalese flag flying on the top of Everest; two frames containing the same picture of a tent, one labelled ‘tent’ and the other labelled ‘home’. Caption it ‘The difference a day makes’.
Sometimes the day’s stories lack substance, are hard to twist, or simply don’t stir your anger. Those days are thankfully fairly rare. There’s usually some story to make your bile duct twitch, though the difficulty of finding a story can be compounded when I limit myself to commenting on international stories, as I do for The What and The Why.
All cartoonists have their tricks and you can learn them if you study the best. Peter Brookes, possibly the funniest of the current professional newspaper cartoonists, will often use repetition or a multi-frame format. Morten Morland has a sublime minimalist approach that uses negative space better than anybody. Dave Brown of The Independent, meanwhile, has an inimitable scatological eye and reduces people to their naked quivering flesh.
For me, however, it’s about the source material. The best trick is to find a point of commonality between two stories. Last night I noticed that the Swedish PM has been photographed keeping her mobile phone down her bra. On the same page, Alexis Tsipras has been having a last minute telephone conference with Angela Merkel. The stories went together neatly, though the resulting cartoon perhaps relied too much on the viewer having knowledge of the first story.
If there are no points of commonality between two stories, you can settle on one and find points of commonality inside it. For example, today, it is reported that Prince Charles is ready to end his fossil fuel investments. This is perfect cartoon fodder because Charles is an established character and ‘fossil’ is a strong concept. There’s so much fun to be had with it that I’d doodled the following in an idle few minutes.