Freelance Cartooning

Everything you need to know about freelance cartooning.

| January/February 1970

cartoonist drawing

Freelance cartooning can be a real career if you approach it with a few tips in mind.

Illustration by MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff

Now look, gang, don't get us wrong: We're most certainly not suggesting that half the readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS are gonna run out and become freelance cartoonists immediately after reading this article. A few, yes. The great majority, no. We've gone pretty deeply into the how of this particular work-at-home dodge, though, for several reasons:

  1. It's a fascinating field.
  2. It's part of the communications/persuasion industry which plays an increasingly important part in our lives.
  3. Similar to writing, commercial art and various other skills and crafts, cartooning does offer a way out of the 9-to-5 rap for a certain number of talented and determined individuals.
  4. It's mainly a mail-order operation which means it neatly sidesteps race, color, creed and most other excuses we all use for putting bad trips on each other.
  5. Successful freelancing — whether as plumber, cartoonist, cake baker, baby sitter, candle maker or whatever — depends on a certain lifestyle all its own. The products (skill, drawings, pastry, mere presence, decorator items, etc.) may differ but the ground rules are always the same: You're either your own man, work when, where and at what you like and successfully exchange your output for what you need and want... or you go back to pumping gas on the corner.

So, even if you think you have no drawing ability and you couldn't care less about trying to sell funny pictures to magazines, come on along. You're going to learn how to get a highly specialized art — or other — education for very little money (maybe even free), you'll find a definite step-by-step drop-out-and-do-your-own-thing plan used by one successful cartoonist and Carl Kohler's section, in particular, should (a) turn you on to some immediate money-making angles if you are, or want to be, a cartoonist or (b) just generally turn you on if you're not a 'tooner but need some inspiration from a sassy, successful practitioner of an alternate lifestyle. 

So you wanna be a cartoonist? Great! But why?

Why You Should Become a Freelance Cartoonist

If you're just looking for an easy way out, this probably isn't it. Cartooning, like most other endeavors, can be brutally hard work — and, like most other endeavors, it can be deliriously wonderful play that you just happen to get paid for. Let's stop and lay down some ground rules right in front: We presently live in a society that puts a price tag on virtually everything, right? Right. And that can be a real drag, right? Right. Because you always wind up having to put in your time on a job you hate just to get the necessities of life, right? Wrong!

It doesn't have to be that way. It's all in how you look at it. Remember, we said, "The society puts a price tag on virtually everything"? OK. There's no reason why you can't make that work for, rather than against, you. It's easy. First, decide what you really want to do; second, start doing it (as long as you're not putting a bad trip on someone or something else) and third, figure out some way to exchange what you do for what you want and need.

If you're hung up on horses and hate office work, in other words, you'd be damn foolish to work all week as a secretary just so you could pay the rent, put food on the table and — maybe — have enough left over to ride an hour or two each weekend at some expensive stable. Yet that's exactly what an awful lot of babes do. But not my clever little wife. She loves horses so she teaches riding, trains, shows and judges horses and, incidentally, makes twice what any desk job would pay her.

Rule No. 1 in successful living, then, goes something like this: Get yourself together, find out where the action is for you, go there and start making it happen. As Thoreau said, "Build your castles in the air... and then put foundations under them."

So, for the sake of argument, let's say that cartooning is your thing. You're fascinated by the idea of communicating with hand-drawn pictures, you dig the ego trip of being a successful artist or cartooning just appeals to some artsy craftsy element in your nature. It doesn't matter. Don't analyse it. All you have to know is that cartooning is your thing.

Fine. Now, how are you going to start? With 10 years of art school or an expensive home-study course and a fancy studio with all the trimmings? Not on your life — or, I should say, not with your life. You haven't got that much time. You're interested in beginning right here and now. And, just so you can walk away from that factory job (work) and start cartooning (play) any time you feel like it, you're gonna want to make it begin paying off just as soon as possible.

How to Begin a Freelance Career

Every field of endeavor, every sport, every industry, every special interest group — it seems — in the country has one or two or seven or 12 or more magazines, papers or newsletters published just for it. If the publication covers the field, it's called a trade journal. If it's put out by one company or subgroup within the field for "their own," it's called a house organ. Trade journals and house organs are what you look for whenever you want to get inside a field or a special interest group, quickly and easily. As a cartoonist, these publications should doubly interest you because a couple are going to teach you how and the others are going to buy a lot of your finished work.

Forget the shysters who exaggerate the opportunities in the field while selling you an overpriced art course or a truckload of fancy equipment. Forget the dilettantes who always flutter about the edges of the action. Go right to the heart of whatever field interests you by getting your hands on current copies of the working trade journals of that field.

There's no faster, easier, better way to pick up inside language, check out the economics, get filled in on the latest methods, spot developing trends and learn "who's who" in the particular establishment or power structure that interests you.

When I decided to break into cartooning back in the mid-50s, Don Ulsh's New York Cartoon News and George Hartman's Information Guide were the two "bibles" that showed me the way. Through them, I learned very quickly that, while my cartooning was less than professional, there was definitely a market for the gags I was writing. So I switched to writing for other cartoonists (often found listed in those books), and used the money I earned that way to finance the improvement of my drawing. Within six months (while I was still an ignorant 16-year-old Indiana farm boy) I had had gags, drawn by other artists, published in Collier's, true and lesser markets and I was selling cartoons of my own. I had never had (still haven't) an art lesson, I owned no expensive drawing equipment and I definitely wasn't a genius. I had just used the cartooning papers as a magic carpet to get me where I wanted to go.

I've since used my cartoon experience as a springboard into some nice public relations and writing jobs and I've kind of drifted away from the field. If I wanted to get back to the drawing board today (or if I was just starting out), however, my first move would be to get my name on the mailing list for a cartoon-related publication.

I'd also, maybe, invest in Careers in Cartooning by Lawrence Lariar and Jack Markow's Cartoonist's and Gag Writer's Handbook. That, plus the following articles by Kohler, would give me (and should give you) enough marketing information to make it.

Remember, whether you're trying to make it inside or outside the present establishment, the key to success is marketing. If you don't somehow swap what you have too much of (beans, fence posts, cartoons, ripe fruit or enthusiasm) for what you need (shoes, bananas and automobiles), you ain't gonna make it.

But what about drawing. Isn't that important too? Yes, but not as important as you may think. A poorly drawn cartoon with a strong gag that hits the readers of a particular magazine right between the eyes will always sell before the beautiful rendering that isn't really relevant. This is no excuse for lousy artwork, understand, but it does explain why, contrary to what most cartoon course peddlers tell you, you don't need to go to any art school or take any course on the market to become a cartoonist.

As a matter of fact, I feel very strongly that — unless you're really a lazy lout who needs to be pushed, and pushed hard, to start a gag or finish a drawing (and what are you doing in cartooning, in that case?) — you'll find most instruction in the field (and most other fields, too) vastly overpriced and largely irrelevant.

You don't really want all those pre-packaged assignments, penpal letters and a $500 diploma to hang on the wall, do you? Maybe so, maybe not. As for me, I was more interested in kicking the 9-to-5 job — and that meant selling cartoons.

If you're determined to squander your hard-earned loot on a cartoon or commercial — or even fine arts — course, I will give one company a left-handed recommendation: Any of the Famous Artists courses are bargains. I made the rounds, one week, with a Famous Schools salesman and I know about what everything from the salesmen's commission and district manager's override right through the triple-page ads in the glossy magazines costs the company. After all the hype, there isn't much left for art instruction. No worse than other firms in the field, you understand, but not a lot better either.

Besides, there's literally tens and tens of thousands of courses from that one company (and as many, if not more, from each of the others) gathering dust on bookshelves throughout this country. A two-line classified ad in any big city paper should get you a lot of answers and at least one course for $75 — which is what I paid for mine — or less.

A good course, used as a reference, can be valuable to you but it's only worth what you take out of it. The most important thing for you to do if you want to be a cartoonist, is to draw every chance you get. And don't take the lazy man's way out and only draw the things that are easy for you. You're only fooling yourself if you do. Draw, and keep on drawing — from life, from memory, from imagination.

You don't need fancy drawing pencils and pads either. Ordinary note books and regular pencils (whatever number you prefer) are plenty good enough. The really important thing is the developing coordination between your hand and eye.

And here's a fact that should surprise you: The best teachers in the world are all set to help you for free. That's right, the cartoonists who sell their work for the highest prices today are ready to teach you to draw.

All you have to do is leaf through any magazine or newspaper that prints cartoons. If you don't have any lying around, go out and ask the neighbors for back issues... or make a trip down to the nearest waste-paper firm. Get yourself a big stack of magazines with cartoons in them.

Then go through all the publications and clip out all the cartoons you find. Keep it up until you've got drawings by every artist whose work you can get your hands on. These cartoonists are the best teachers in the world. Why? Because these are the guys who are selling their work, right now, today.

Forget all the two-bit teachers who never sold a drawing in their life. Forget all the dated artwork in the cartoon courses. Study what the selling artists are doing. They're the ones who really know what cartooning is all about.

Notice how they place their characters. See how they vary the lines in their drawings. Study their methods of shading. Compare the different ways they draw people. Look at the way they sketch the backgrounds. Soak up every detail of every drawing you can get into your file.

Then try to draw that way yourself. Use every trick you can steal to make your drawings sparkle just like the professionals. Gradually, you'll pick up one idea from one artist, something else from a second and another wrinkle from a third. Pretty soon, you'll be cranking out clean cartoons in a style all your own.

If you don't think you can learn about drawing this way, let me tell you something: The pros do this all the time. It's the way it's done. So go to it.

Some skills, such as learning to draw perspective, you'll probably have to learn from regular art books because it is hard to acquire such knowledge merely by looking at finished art work. In the main, however, you will find that the best cartoon instruction in the world is only as far away as the nearest printed cartoon.

9/3/2007 9:33:41 PM

i was sitting helpless with my cartoon works in hand and lots of ideas in mind. now i am charged up and cant wait to mail my cartoons and start earning. please do help me. where and when should i send my cartoons ? visit my blogs , and i need it immediately and need your help.

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