Freelance Cartooning

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Illustration by MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
Freelance cartooning can be a real career if you approach it with a few tips in mind.

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:

• It’s a fascinating field.
• It’s part of the communications/persuasion industry which plays an increasingly important part in our lives.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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 analyze 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 notebooks 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.

Necessary Tools for Cartooning

As for supplies needed to begin cartooning, here again you can forget the sharpsters who want to sell you everything from hand-engraved sketch pads to chromed drawing tables.

Essential, of course, is a pencil. Ordinary, everyday pencils are plenty good enough for a start. When you think you need something better, you will probably want a few real drawing pencils since you can specify their lead hardness much more exactly. They’re graded from 7H (a very hard lead that makes a light line) through F (medium) to 7B (the softest, blackest lead). I usually wind up using a 2H and 4H most of the time. You may find other grades more suitable to your touch.

Paper is another primary must. Professional cartoonists use regular typing paper for the most part and there is no reason for you to buy anything any more expensive. For rough drawing and just doodling, use a cheap 16 pound paper. Inked cartoons that are submitted to editors should be done on a good grade of 20 or 24 pound, 25 percent rag content paper.

Only a few artists who regularly do complicated cartoons with tints and washes (colored or black ink mixed with water and used like water colors on a finished drawing) for the top-paying markets (Esquire, Playboy, etc.) ever use expensive drawing papers or illustration boards … and, then, only after submitting a rough idea on typing paper, usually.

Another essential tool (at least for me) is a good eraser. Again, you can start with pencil erasers. But sooner or later you’ll want a good “Artgum” and a kneaded rubber eraser.

Cartoons used to always be done in ink, but that is changing rapidly now and it’s not at all uncommon for a drawing done in black pencil and spray-fixed to be bought and reproduced in a middle or minor (or even major) magazine. Still, you should learn to handle ink, because you will be called on to produce an “inker” once in a while. As a matter of fact, while you’re starting you’ll make a much better impression on editors if you submit all your cartoons in ink. Later, when you’re “in” with a few magazines, you can start sending in penciled roughs (rough drawings) or even typers (typed gags for an editor to read so that you only have to draw the particular cartoons he wants to buy). At any rate, black is the only color ink you’ll need and most artists seem to prefer Higgins brand.

Some artists use only brushes, other like pens and still others prefer to use a combination of the two for inking. You’ll just have to find what is best for you. I’ve heard of cartoonists using brushes from No. 00 to No. 7. A few popular pen points are Esterbrook 356 and 358 and Gillot’s 290, 303 and 404. Gaining in favor are some of the new mechanical pens, particularly the Rapidograph, which are made in various sizes.

A drawing board is pretty much standard equipment. Here again, you can save a lot of money by using a standard bread board or a piece of plywood for a starter. Prop it up on a table and you’re in business. Later, when you have the loot rolling in, you can buy a regular drawing table (there’s some great bargains in used tables floating around) or make one from a flush door.

Fancy light boards (which make tracing finished cartoons from a penciled rough much easier) are expensive so I made my first one from an old windowpane and some scrap lumber. A mimeograph stencil light board also works well for less bread.

A ruler, some paper clips, a few thumbtacks and a small piece of cloth for a pen wiper come in handy. For correcting ink mistakes, some opaque white is useful. Your local stationer’s store probably has “Showcard” or “poster” white.

As you progress you can pick up all kinds of stuff such as paste, T squares, a compass, triangles, blotting paper, colored ink, etc. but paper, pencil, black ink, ruler, drawing surface and eraser are all you really need to start.

Remember, it’s the finished cartoon you get paid for, not the equipment you used while drawing it.

Cartoon Brainstorming

Now that you’re all set to draw, where will the ideas come from? Well, you can use one or more gag writers who will mail typed cartoon ideas to you. You then return the ones you don’t like and draw up the others. When you sell one of the finished cartoons, you pay the gag writer 25 percent of the price you received for the drawing.

Let’s save the gag writers for your first dry spell. Here’s how you’ll think up your own gags:

Start a morgue. All cartoonists have one and it’s not as gruesome as it sounds. An artist’s morgue is just a collection of pictures, cartoons, funny remarks, jokes, sketches and a hundred other things. A cartoonist generally keeps two morgues: One of cartoons and drawings to refer to whenever he needs help while drawing and a separate collection of jokes, gags, etc. to primp the pump when he’s writing gags.

Organize your morgues any way you like: in old shoe boxes, cardboard cartons, filing cabinets, albums, notebooks or whatever. But do use a system so you can find what you want when you want it. Add new material constantly. Your morgue is your most valuable tool.

Whenever you need fresh material, you’ll start digging in the morgue and letting your imagination wander as you filter various bits of material through your brain. Pretty soon you’ll come up with a combination you think is funny. You’ll even begin to surprise yourself by suddenly thinking of a situation entirely different from the original idea you used to prime your creative process.

This is just a variation on the way most writers work and the magic word is cram. Cram yourself full of life. Use it all as your gag writer. Watch TV (if you can stomach it), listen to the radio, go to the movies, read, read, read and keep your eyes open. Soak up every impression you can absorb.

Then, when you sit down to shape up some usable gags, you will never have any trouble pulling ideas out of the air. Some of your best gems will pop out of your subconscious when you least expect it: While you’re reading a good book or carrying out the ashes or just as you drift off to sleep.

Once you train your mind to think up humorous ideas, you’ll turn out material faster than you can use it.

Selling Your Work

Carl Kohler’s excellent pieces which follow this diatribe are really going to open your eyes to the marketing possibilities in cartooning. If you think you can only sell single panel gag cartoons to magazines, in other words, you’re going to have your mind pleasantly stretched. Carl’s underlying philosophy should prove quite valuable to anyone trying to make it outside the system with anything. Roughly translated, he’s saying, “Life is just exactly what you make it.”

Although I kinda started at the top and worked down (my gags were published in slick, national magazines first, I next began selling the middle markets and wound up doing local stuff last of all) most beginning cartoonists do best if they concentrate on digging the gold in their own backyard. Every top cartoonist in the country (the world, it seems) is trying to crack Playboy, for instance, but you are probably the only artist knocking on the door of your hometown newspaper.

Prepare a sample kit of your very best work. Make it neat and as attractive as you can. Make two or more sample kits, and you’ll have one to show and others to leave with interested prospects.

Now visit local printers and stress the fast, customized nature of your work. There’s a blue million “mat” and clip-art services but there’s no way for them to customize their art the way you’ll be able to.

Stop in at the local newspaper with some editorial or feature cartoons slanted especially for your town. Newspapers have access to more syndicated art work than they can use but most editors are always interested in something with a local flavor.

Offer to do an editorial cartoon or a sports feature about local athletes on a regular basis, of course. Maybe the paper is ripe for a feature reporting upcoming community projects. If you like to do caricatures or portraits, you might work up a regular weekly panel featuring an outstanding citizen: The mayor, industrial leaders, local celebrities.

Merchants can always use good eye-catching cartoons in their newspaper ads, posters, store windows, handbills and all the stuff they give away such as blotters, mailing pieces, etc. You just have to be enough of a go-getter to sell them on using your stuff.

Do you know the comic strip, “Tumbleweeds”? It’s drawn by a fellow named Tom Ryan. Tom lives in Muncie, Indiana and I’ve known him a long time. When he was a beginning cartoonist (and that was just a few years ago) he sold one newspaper in Muncie the idea of using a little cartoon character, Benny Beans. This little guy was featured in the paper all the time: When the United Fund was having a drive, Benny Beans would be shown holding a poster or a collection can. During the yearly Paint Up-Fix Up-Clean Up campaign, Benny Beans would be seen sweeping the streets with a broom and on and on and on.

Tom was too clever to stop with that. He sold a local hardware store the idea of having another cartoon character, Jiffy Jackson, in all their ads. And, eventually, Tom landed a syndicate for “Tumbleweeds” and graduated into the “Big Time,” but his local cartoon work helped keep his family eating until he finally made it.

You might think that Tom had the cartoon business around Muncie all sewed up when he was doing the local work. Not so! A number of sign painters were doing the usual cartoons on trucks, billboards, buildings, etc. Another cartoonist occasionally contributed an editorial drawing for a second paper in town; I did some cartoons for WLBC-TV in Muncie; and a housewife successfully launched herself into a seasonal business decorating store windows with water color cartoons of Santa Claus and other Christmas scenes. I understand she still has a long list of regular customers for this service and she earns several hundred dollars every December this way.

We’ll go into the working methods of this idea in more detail in a later issue if anyone is interested, but about all it involves is chalking the basic layout on the outside of the plate glass windows of a store and then going inside and doing the finish art work in show card colors. This is a little tricky because you’re working backward, but, if you do the finish art on the outside of the window, rain and small boys will soon mess it up.

One of the best ways to sell your work in the beginning is to offer to take your pay out in trade from the merchants you do work for. They like the idea and will often use your stuff this way when they won’t pay for it in cash.

George Hartman, publisher of Cartoon World, says he always had 1,000 cans in his pantry throughout the depression just because he took goods in trade in return for printing a small town “shopper” on a mimeograph machine. We’ll give you a more complete report on that idea later, too.

Approach the chairmen of various clubs and offer to dress up their programs and announcements when they are planning special events. Maybe you can land a job designing a calendar showing the year’s important meetings for a club or lodge.

Richard Riley, writing in the August, 1969 Cartoon World says: “Our town has an annual rodeo each spring and since I do a great deal of rodeo-type cartoons I talked to the program manager of the Jaycees. After they had their dummy made up, they gave it to me and I did cartoons in the white spaces. The Jaycees told their customers about me as they sold the ads and I not only picked up a nice check from the Jaycees, but from the ads too. Also, my cartoon book, Lit’ Wrangler, will be sold at the rodeo … and I got 10 free tickets, too!”

Get a big pad of newsprint or drawing paper and teach yourself to give interesting chalk talks. A size of 2 by 3 feet is good for this and you’ll find charcoal crayons handy to work with. One subject you can use is “How cartoonists think up gags and make their drawings.” Clubs and other groups will use you as entertainment for 10 to 20 dollars a throw with, usually, a meal for good measure.

A lot of people will pay very good money for a custom mural done on play room or den walls. These are generally colorful scenes done in opaque watercolors and varnished over when well dried. Better practice this one first! Banks and restaurants also go for these.

A well-drawn replica of a new home will sell to the proud home owner. Merchants will pay for good drawings of their stores. They hang ‘em on the walls and use ’em on letterheads and in advertising.

Most factories print a small paper or magazine for employees. Offer to do art work or a cartoon for them.

Teach yourself to do a nice job of lettering and learn to use transfer lettering. You’ll find a lot more jobs coming your way.

Drop in to the local TV station with a portfolio. Local stations can always use locally drawn “spots.” Some cartoonists have even landed a cartoon TV program of their own.

Drawing Cartoons for Magazines

OK. We started telling you about magazine cartooning so it’s about time we got back to the main subject.

There are thousands and thousands of specialized publications printed in this country. You know about Life and Newsweek and other national magazines … but have you ever heard of Boot and Shoe Recorder? Or Pure Milk News? Or Printing Impressions? Probably not, but all three use cartoons.

Go to the local library and look through the directories of business and trade magazines. One is Gebbie’s and another is published by N.W. Ayres and Sons. They’ll open your eyes and give you enough names and addresses to keep you busy for a long, long time. But you’ll be submitting your work a little blindly if you only use such directories.

As I mentioned earlier, subscribe to the cartoonists’ tip sheets. They’ll keep you advised of buying action in the middle and minor magazines. So will Writer’s Digest and Author and Journalist. They all list cartoon markets and, if you submit to the magazines listed, you should gradually build up a list of editors that will regularly buy your work, assuming it is of professional quality.

These little magazines are actually pretty easy to work with and, if your gag sense is sharp and you can slant ideas to the readers of a particular publication, your art work can actually be a little rough.

One word of caution: Stick to the fields you know. Because I lived on a farm when I was doing my heavy cartoon work, I drew mostly farm and dairy cartoons and had no trouble selling them to the smaller farm publications. I was also hung up on aviation and developed a secondary market around that interest.

No matter what magazine you decide to submit to, give the editor what he wants for his readers, not what you want them to have. This is called slanting your work. You send farm cartoons to farm magazines, girly cartoons to girly publications and supermarket cartoons to magazines for supermarket managers.

If you run across a new market and you don’t know exactly what kind of cartoons it uses, get a copy of the magazine and study it. If you can’t find a copy, write the editor, tell him you’re a cartoonist, offer your services and ask for samples of his publication. If he’s interested, he’ll send you a few copies. If he’s not interested, it’s better to find out right in front.

Most editors are honest and hardworking, but you’ll find a few that won’t return drawings or who use your stuff and never pay for it. Forget them. They don’t last very long, anyway. There are more good markets than you can cover. Concentrate on the good ones.

Submitting Cartoons to Magazines

After you’ve drawn up a good batch of 10 or 12 cartoons (or five or six for a very specialized market), address a 9-by-12-inch manila envelope to yourself and a 9-1/2-by-12-1/2-inch envelope to the editor. Stamp both envelopes with sufficient postage, put the cartoons into the smaller one and put it into the big envelope. A cardboard stiffener is also a good idea. Seal the large envelope and mail. It’s now becoming increasingly popular to make a very light fold across the center of the batch of drawings and use half-size envelopes. They seem to stand up a lot better in the mail.

You can seal cartoons, according to the post office regulations, and send them third class as long as you don’t include a written note. If your local post office gives you a hard time on this, write to the Postmaster General in Washington, D.C.

Always include return postage and a return address on the envelope in your submission.

Sooner or later, you’ll have to set up some kind of system so you can keep a record of the drawings you have in the mail, the ones that have already been to a particular editor, and the ones that haven’t. You’ll want to put your name and address on the back of each cartoon too. Editors sometimes get several batches mixed up together and this will help to keep everything straight.

Payment for a Beginner’s Work

The usual rule for a beginning cartoonist is “Get as much as you can, but get the job!” As you start doing work for local businessmen and newspapers, you’ll find, that many of them can’t — or won’t — pay a lot for the work they use.

Don’t be discouraged. The experience acquired on these first jobs is worth a great deal to you. As you improve your work, you’ll gradually slide up from, maybe, 5 dollars a drawing to 15 to 50 dollars or more. Some of the trade journals even pay more than 100 dollars to their regular contributors.

A good artist who keeps at least 10 batches of cartoons in the mail at all times should average 100 to 200 dollars a week. A part-timer with only a batch or two out at any one time can generally pick up 10 to 20 dollars of extra spending money each week. That’s not great, but cartooning worked that way can be looked upon as a hobby that pays its way. I’ve seen a lot of times when that 10 dollars came in very, very handy.

Naturally, since you want to be a cartoonist, you’re going to make every last drawing your very best, whether it’s a paid-for-in-advance 100 dollar cartoon or a 5 dollar spot.

Cartooning is no bed of roses but it can be a very fun way of making a living and — if you make it to the top with a syndicated strip of your own or as a regular artist for, say, Playboy, you’ll be in the big money, indeed.