On cartooning

A pair of breasts.Flamingo.When I was a kid I wanted to be a comic strip cartoonist. Some characters that I still doodle from time to time have been with me in one form or another since I was a child. I don’t know of any extant cartoons from my childhood. I know my earliest work was Superbird, a superhero comic from perhaps as early as my pre-school years (I remember dictating the text to my dad, which he wrote under the pictures). Superbird was a typical alpha-male protagonist with small assistant named Cuckoo, and an evil-genius arch-nemesis pig. He also had a girlfriend who was always being tied up by the pig-villain. I had such a good grasp of superhero clichés that I even knew enough to draw large breasts on Superbird’s oft-distressed sweetheart. I sometimes still draw breasts and birds, but never together.

Phil the Lizard (or chameleon).Superbird was my last superhero comic. I moved on to newpaper-style comic strips. And by newspaper-style I mean panel-bound pencil sequences on the backs of the scrap papers my dad brought home from work. I think I first ripped off Garfield when I was around seven years old with a cat strip called Zig Zag. But then I created a character called Phil the Lizard. Phil was also heavily influenced by Garfield, of which I was quite a fan. The latter-day version of Phil is depicted here. Now he is more of a chameleon.

The Chicken Devil and His Son Junior.In sixth grade I compiled my most extensive opus of cartoon drawings: ChickenlandChickenland was great. It was not a strip, but a full page (8.5 by 11 inches). It was always divided horizontally into three sections: Chicken Heaven, Chicken Earth, and Chicken Hell. It had a pretty rich cast of characters. My favorites were The Chicken Devil and His Son Junior. Junior was an absolute idiot who tormented his father physically and emotionally with his bumbling. I produced perhaps fifty Chickenland episodes, but threw them away when I was in high school. I still regret that. The modern incarnation of The Chicken Devil and His Son Junior are shown here.

The original and best Karate Fungus ever.By high school (where I wrote a paper on the history of comic strips), I had abandoned sequential comics in favor of random cartoon doodling. I also learned how to draw “for real.” But while researching college programs and careers, I discovered that cartooning was a pretty lousy way to make a living. I lasted about a year as a visual arts major before I switched to the liberal arts. I kept my sketchbook, though. Even as I pursued my career as park ranger, I’d sometimes jot down ideas or scratch out thumbnail sketches. About ten years ago I even went so far as to produce about a dozen strips, intending to create a portfolio to send to a comic strip syndicate. I posted them on another website and then here in the blog.

Semi-morphous blob.But I am not a very disciplined artist. I don’t like to paint and I have little patience with ink. My best and most expressive work comes from my hasty and infrequent thumbnail sketches. I also can’t draw people, hoofed animals, or buildings very well. My people look more like semi-morphous blobs— cartooning taken to the extreme, though I can do a fair job with body language. The guy who draws The Oatmeal draws this way pretty effectively.

Cactus preacher and his disciple.

Wacky computer.I recent years I’ve abandoned drawing in favor of writing, with some regrets. Below is a crude attempt at reproducing the spirit of Chickenland, using my wife’s Wacom tablet. The sixth grade version was never quite so gruesome or ironic. As you can see, I need practice with the tablet. I can control a pencil much, much better, but pencil drawings don’t lend themselves to digital scanning.

Digital cartoon drawing of chickens in heaven, hell, and earth.
A rough cartoon resembling one I drew in sixth grade.

Some more figure sketches

We went sketching again; same model as last week. We got there late and, not having our pick of seats, received a preponderance of posterior angles. Since I’ve pretty much mastered drawing rear ends, I practiced hands and feet with improved results.

Graphite drawing of a nude female posterior with hands on hips.
I'm not crazy about the hands here but they are still an improvement.
Graphite drawing of a seated nude female with one leg tucked behind.
I think the foot came out pretty well.
Graphite drawing of the torso of a nude female sitting backward on a chair.
I started fussing over the chair and didn't finish anything.
Ink drawing of the posterior and feet of a nude female laying on her side.
There were a lot of interesting shadows on her leg. After screwing up the left foot, the right foot came out much better.
Graphite drawing of the posterior, torso, and legs of a nude female perched on a stool.
Again, I fussed over the chair but everything came out proportional.

A few figure sketches

It’s probably been a good six months since I’ve attended the drawing group. Here are the results. I’m out of practice and had particular trouble with the extremities and face as usual. I didn’t even attempt the face on the first couple of tries. This model had an interesting face that I couldn’t quite capture but I can’t figure out what I’m missing.

Graphite drawing of an inclined nude female.
I like the effect of the finer point pencil over the rough graphite.
Graphite drawing of a seated nude female.
I struggled with this but it came out okay.
Graphite drawing of a nude woman resting her head on her hand.
This was a good pose for practicing drawing the face.
Graphite drawing of a seated nude female.
I got so stuck on her face I didn't even attempt the chair she was sitting on.

Figures in carbon

It’s been a couple of months since I last attended the drawing group. In some ways the break was helpful, and I think I made some progress yesterday.

Graphite drawing of a reclined woman leaning against a cushioned stool.
I had extra time so I sketched in one of the other artists.
Charcoal drawing of an anterior view of a leaning woman.
I noticed skinny figures have better shadows.
Graphite drawing of a reclined woman.
The more I look at this one the more I like it.
Charcoal drawing of a posterior view of a woman leaning on a bench.
The eraser was useful in undoing some of my overdone shadows.


My cousin Jeanie recently posted about her trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Titled “Artsy-Fartsy” she described her puzzlement at abstract art.

We visited the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art last weekend, where there is a heavy dose of conceptual art on display. I share Jeanie’s puzzlement, but have concluded that I don’t need to feel intimidated into liking or understanding it. My interpretations of a piece are as valid as the artist’s intentions. In fact I find it liberating to not worry about what the artist was trying to do or say. If I can relate to it, that’s great; if I think it’s a childish piece of pretentious garbage, then that’s okay too. The same could go for films, music even—heaven forbid—blog posts.

As for art more tangible, I have some more drawings from the figure study group I occasionally attend with Lore. Today I picked up a piece of charcoal with the intention of drawing with it for the first time in almost twenty years.

Graphite drawing of a supine nude woman.
Drawing the blanket was even more challenging.
Graphite drawing of a reclining nude woman.
She really did have nice, broad shoulders, but I drew her head too small.
Charcoal drawing of a seated nude man.
My first attempt at a charcoal drawing in about twenty years.

Figure study

And as if one trip out to the rural western half of Johnson County wasn’t enough yesterday, Lore and I went to draw in an art studio in Cosgrove last night.

I haven’t done anything like this since my first year of college. I could hear my art muscles creaking as I drew. Unhappy with my initial sketches using a 6B pencil, I found what can only be described as a graphite brick in Lore’s pencil bag. I discovered that I liked it because it forced me to not be so precise. Some of the results:

Drawing of a woman reclining in a chair.
Figure drawing #1
Drawing of a woman laying on her side.
Figure drawing #2
Drawing of a woman laying supine.
Figure drawing #3
Drawing of a seated woman.
Figure drawing #4

As you can see I can’t draw faces, hands, or other extremities yet. I also was having a very hard time with their relative positions (some of the horizontal and vertical strokes are where I drew an ersatz grid by dragging the graphite across the paper).

The model was pretty cool. She brought a suitcase of clothes (when she bothered wearing any) and a mattress that could be folded into different configurations.

Typography matters

At the community center where we swim, a poster from the neighboring junior high school described the school’s four goals for developing character. The poster was pink, with the lettering in white, except for the first letter of each characteristic, which was black.

The first characteristic was “Self discipline”, except the black S didn’t contrast enough with the pink background, so all I saw at first was elf discipline.

“Elf discipline!” I thought. “This is my kind of junior high school.” Followed by the inevitable disappointment.

Color drawing of Santa Claus paddling an elf.
The naughty list


I don’t make New Year resolutions–you could say the last resolution I made and kept was not to make them. There are things I need and want to do, whether I resolve to do them or not. Despite my growing punch list for self-improvement, 2009 was a pretty good year. I married my awesome wife, and I have a new nephew too.

In 2000, I spent New Year’s Eve with my friends Jeremy and Megan in Manhattan. We ate at an Indian restaurant on Curry Row, then went back to Jeremy’s apartment in Brooklyn where we watched some weird cable access show before watching the ball drop in Times Square. I even drew a cartoon about it.

Rough pencil cartoons of a night celebrating the new year.
Adam at the milennium

Stainless steel shelves with assorted pots and pans hanging from it. Also pictured are Evrim's happy-face potholder, the kitchen fan, and a stylish black outlet plate.
Evrim's kitchen complete
For a few years after that my New Year ritual involved attending Evrim’s informal but intimate parties in New Jersey, which also involved helping him shop and clean the apartment to get ready. One year, he still had to install shelves and other fixtures in the kitchen. The good old days.

This year Lore made a nice dinner of beef with mushrooms and potatoes in cream sauce. We watched “Revenge of the Nerds” and then drank wine at midnight. The new good times.

Art contest

Watercolor painting of a tea cup and saucer.
La Hora Del Té, watercolor, 5.5 inches by 3.5 inches, by María Lorena Padrón.

Our excellent city library has framed artwork that you can borrow like books. They add to the collection each year from a contest of local artists. On Thursday they announced this year’s winners. Both Lore and I were finalists, and my photo was one of the winners.

Lore gets credit for recognizing this as a nice photo and for encouraging me to submit it to the contest at the last minute.

A yellow mini-school bus parked at an ocean overlook.
A yellow mini-school bus parked at an ocean overlook.

A deal

1. “Break open the bubbly, Miss Zweig!” the mayor exclaims to his secretary.
2. He sweeps her off her feet. “We got $500,000 dollars for the property on industrial way, one million for road repair… and donations toward my re-election!”
3. “And all I had to do was sell this town to an alien scientist,” he mutters to himself, feeling guilt as the alien carries her away.