Monday, July 21, 2008

Cartoonist vs Illustrator: Big-Foot vs ... "Small-Foot"?

When I was a boy I dreamed of growing up to be a comic book artist.

Life doesn't always work out exactly as we had planned. I went to art college, graduated from the illustration program, and began my career doing storyboards for television commercials. Now, some twenty years later, I call my company Leif Peng Cartoon Art... but I still consider what I do to be illustration.

So what really is the difference between cartoonists and illustrators? Many artists have firmly entrenched views that there is a distinction. In the 13th issue of Hogan's Alley magazine, cartoonist Bud Blake, creator of the newspaper comic strip 'Tiger', recounts this anecdote that demonstrates just how thoroughly many artists have categorized themselves and each other:

"I remember having a discussion with Frank Springer, and at one point he says, "You big-foot people," like I have some sort of disease [laughter]. I know what he means when he calls me a big-foot fella. Of course, my argument is, "What are you talking about? You're talking about cartoonists when you're an illustrator." I really feel that way. Guys like Springer are illustrators, and there is a difference."

Blake continues, "I'd say [Hal] Foster was an illustrator, like Noel Sickles. There were a bunch of them that did the same style."

"Same style"? But isn't that interesting. I've always had the impression that the literal illustrators as a group looked down their noses just a bit at the 'big-foot' cartoonists... but here's an admitted big-footer lumping Noel Sickles, Hal Foster and Frank Springer together as a bunch of guys who "did the same style" - suggesting the contempt goes both ways.

Well, maybe contempt is too stong a word...

Someone who's in a unique postion to express an experienced opinion on this subject is Marcus Hamilton. You may recall a recent post in which I described the phoenix-like resurrection of Marcus' commercial art career. He had been a successful illustrator for many years when technology threw a monkey wrench in his gears. But through a combination of good luck, determination and talent, Marcus Hamilton re-invented himself as a cartoonist - he took over the Dennis the Menace daily panel from Hank Ketcham when the mischievious tyke's creator decided it was time to retire. Marcus continues to create new Dennis panels that appear daily in newspapers all over the world.

I asked Marcus if he believed, as I do, that the cartoonist is in fact an illustrator. Here is his reply:

"Yes, I DO agree that cartoonists HAVE to be illustrators. My background in illustrating is what helped convince Hank Ketcham that I could handle Dennis. The life-drawing classes I had in college, and the photography that helped me during those illustration assignments were invaluable when it came to learning the physical characteristics of each of the DTM cast members."

"Hank told me, early in my training, that I was the “director” and the “cameraman,” and the characters were my “actors.” I had to be able to put them into any situation, and have them acting/reacting in natural ways."

"My knowledge of composition both through previous illustration assignments, as well as the experience of photographing models from every angle, are what help me to meet the challenges of drawing the daily Dennis panels."

"Although in cartooning I use a different medium, the skills are the same, albeit in a more simplified form."

"However, some of the truly classic cartoonists, i.e., Hal Foster, Leonard Starr (a couple of my favorites, but there are many others), did not use a simplified style…as did Hank, Charles Schulz, etc. Those guys (Foster, Starr) made each panel of their strips a very involved situation that could stand on its own as a single illustration. The comic book artists of today are even more blending illustration and cartooning."

And that pretty much sums up what I've always believed... that there really is no distinction between cartoonists and illustrators.

Some elements of style or specific tools of visual language may differ from one artist to another - or one type of commercial art vehicle to another - but ultimately, all artists doing work for commercial purposes are illustrating something.

To my way of thinking, that makes them (us) all illustrators.

I'll close off this series of posts with a few more remarks from Tom Sawyer who was, during his years as a commercial artist, a member of both the National Cartoonists Society and the Society of Illustrators. Tom offers his always candid, entertaining observations about the two groups. In reference to the story of Roy Doty's 16-year debacle to gain admittance the NCS, Tom writes, "16 years for Doty to be "accepted" into NCS? I find that boggling. I never imagined nor experienced such pretentiousness nor "attitude."

"Less so about the Illustrators, who tend, perhaps, to take themselves somewhat more (and a bit too) seriously."

"I remember an incident of this last -- I think from before I was actually a member. I was at the bar with Leonard Starr, and the club was having a show of Jon Whitcomb's work. A couple of older members were beside us, making smartass remarks about Whitcomb, putting his illustrations down. As they wandered off, Teddy, the club's wonderful bartender, confided, as he cleared away their glasses: "I hear a lotta members make fun of Mr. Whitcomb and his work, but y'know, in the last ten years, Mr. Whitcomb ain't made less than $100,000 (in those days, a lot of money), and I don't think there's another member of this club can say that."

"While I do not think that money is what it was all about, I sensed, as did others, that there was a certain amount of (judgmental and financial) envy."

"I never encountered any of that with the NCS people, who most assuredly did not take themselves seriously. In fact, my take on the cartoonists was that, since most or all of them had been drawing pictures since infancy, and regarded it as essentially child's-play, they felt on some not-all-that-hidden level, guilty about being paid for it at all. Which for me tended to explain why they consistently undersold themselves and their work -- to my increasing consternation."

"In any case, since I never took myself very seriously, I never for a moment regarded any of my output, nor frankly anyone else's, as "art." Now, in far, far retrospect, I guess some of it was..."

"Go figure."

* My thanks to Tom, Marcus, Charlie, Roy and all the other good folks who took the time to answer my questions on this topic and give us all the benefit of their knowledge and experience!

* My Art Instruction Flickr set.


  1. I love these old ads, Leif!

    Yeah, most cartoonists are very friendly, very nice people. There's very little "them v. us" kinda talk, and no snarky "I can draw better than that darn ol' Mike Lynch." Well, maybe there is, but I wouldn't give it the time of day. I'm cartooning, and making some money from it. Of all the careers I had (restaurant manager, college administrator, graphics manager for Deloitte, etc.), cartooning is the only one that felt right.

  2. I tend to use the terms interchangably when asked what I do- one day an illustrator, the next a cartoonist. Bernard Krigstien described himself as a "comic book illustrator" (back when he was one) and that's nicely specific.

    I've never run into any us v. them sentiment. All the illustrators I know recognize how hard good cartooning is.

  3. I have drawn cartoons but didn't consider myself a cartoonist. There was a very good cartoonist at the studio where I worked. He was also a funny writer and generally was able to come up with things that only he could. In addition to drawing & painting a cartoonist has to be funny. At least for some work.

  4. Joseph Taylor8:03 PM

    When I did work for someone else I was an illustrator, when it was for myself I was an artist. I now think myself as a visual have a need ..I'll develop a solution. Sometimes that is a mix of Art,or illustration. I always figured a cartoonist was someone who developed a character that could live from one scene to the next. All I ever wanted to do was... more.

  5. Man do these send me down memory lane in a big way. I remember actually sending away for that Artist Test, as a kid into my teens, I loved to draw. Most of which stemmed from my love of comics. I remember taking the test and doing extremely well on it. But my folks really didn't have any extra money for stuff like this and I never pursued it. By high school, I realized although I had some skills, they would never blossom into the level required to make a living. So I jumped ship and set a goal to write comics. After a 35 year career in the field, I think it was a smart move.And a tip of the hat to Steve Lieber here, one of my favorite artist.

  6. "I never for a moment regarded any of my output, nor frankly anyone else's as "art" Now in far, far retrospect I guess some of it was -
    Go figure"
    This quotation just hits the mark!

    If I look around nowadays, be it in the internet or wherever, I meet all those self proclaimed "artists", trying to sell the most amateurish and awkward stuff you can imgagine. Everyone who's done a weekend seminar on aquarel painting calls himself an artist nowadays and puts his poor output for sale...
    Go figure:
    In comparison to THAT stuff, everything published here in your blog, retrospective as it is, Leif, has a far superior artistic quality!

  7. I call myself a Cartoonistrator

  8. I LOVE that, Rudy - please say i can steal it! ;-)