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The Daily Rituals of a New Yorker Cartoonist (Freelance Edition)

How I approach work when my ideas constantly change

Liana Finck
Mar 22, 2018 · 7 min read
Photos courtesy of author

Working on your own is weird. You need to figure out what to do with your body while you work, where to put it, how to keep it safe and working properly. While you’re working, you need to keep your body out of situations you’d normally want to put it in, such as social situations, or sleep.

In the morning, I wake up and go to a café to work for an hour or two. I have coffee and a croissant. I tend to get attached to a café and go there every day, until the baristas start to ask me personal questions about my schedule and eating habits (“You’re early today! Why are you early? Are you going somewhere?”), at which point I get self-conscious and move on to a new, farther-away cafe. After a couple of years of this, I need to move to a new apartment in a new neighborhood and start over.

I do the café ritual partly to escape my computer, which I leave at home. I love walking with a light backpack and working with just pen and paper. I wish I could leave my phone at home, too. But I check my email all day in case I need to do something.

Sometimes I spend a whole day working away from home, in a café or a museum or on a day trip involving a long train ride. It’s equal parts jarring and wonderful. It’s a hard thing to explain to people. In general, I’m not a fan of questions about my schedule and eating habits. They make me feel like I’m going about things wrong, and people can tell. When you work alone, you get a little paranoid. But office workers get paranoid too, I hear.

I use a .38 Muji gel pen and slightly nice “bright” printer paper, which is smoother than the cheapest printer paper. Low-end printer paper messes up the pen somehow. For finished drawings, I use really nice printer paper, the kind that costs like $30 for a small package, which a photographer told me about once. Or cheapish hot-press studio watercolor paper. But the truth is I prefer the printer paper.

I work on New Yorker cartoons from Saturday through Monday when I feel relatively quick, longer when my head feels like sludge. I spend one day in a public place (ideally a train or museum), sitting somewhere and doodling on pieces of printer paper while trying to come up with ideas. When I like an idea, I mark it with a highlighter.

When I have about twice as many ideas as I need, I start drawing in earnest. The first draft of a cartoon is very scribbly. I draw over and over the picture to try to figure out how to make the joke make sense. When I’m ready, I redraw the cartoon. (Sometimes I trace it from the draft using a light box. Tracing helps me focus on the details and not worry about things that are hard for me, like placement of furniture.)

When I’m feeling confident, I don’t even need a first draft. I know what the thing should look like before I start drawing. When I’m feeling unconfident, I do a million drafts and sometimes give up and draw the thing digitally. Digital drawing is more forgiving of mistakes. You can hit undo. Interestingly, I find that the cartoons I do when I’m not confident are more traditionally “good” and “funny.” The very confident ones are more personal. The ones that are neither confident nor unconfident are garbage.

When I draw digitally, I use Photoshop and a Wacom Cyntiq. I also use a scanner, of course (Brother brand—cheap and big, with a document-feeder option), and a printer. Even when I draw completely on paper, I scan my cartoons and fix them up digitally (making the blacks blacker and the whites whiter, deleting mistakes) before I send them to my editor at the New Yorker.

My graphic novels are also made using a mixture of digital and analog, but the mixture is different. Sometimes I make a first draft of a graphic novel page in Photoshop, then print it out and retrace it by hand. Tracing is nice because you can make small changes without worrying about recreating the whole thing. I retrace the pages of a graphic novel 50 or 100 times.

More about New Yorker cartoons: It’s nice to have something to work on every week with a weekly deadline. It’s grounding, even when I don’t sell a cartoon.

I try not to work on other freelance things while I’m doing my cartoons. And I also use the cartoons as an excuse not to take weekends off. I hate long, aimless social days.

During the rest of the week, I work on my book, freelance stuff, and other online things for the New Yorker. It’s all a mishmash. I just finished a graphic novel I was working on for six years and started a new one. Working on a graphic novel either means working in an extremely focused way 12 hours a day or doing nothing at all and becoming very anxious, depending on which part of the process you’re at.

When I’m anxious, I tend to overeat. When I see myself eating compulsively, I go for long runs. Those help with the stress. There is also an element of insomnia. The fear of compulsive eating has something to do with why I like to leave my house first thing in the morning.

Sometimes you aren’t allowed to work on your book at all—for example, while it’s being sent out to editors and you’re waiting to hear if someone wants it, and if so, how they want you to change it. During these times, I work only on smaller projects. These are really difficult for me. Working with an editor I don’t know well makes me self-conscious, and self-consciousness makes my work kind of stiff. I combat my stiff, perfectionistic qualities by sending it to the editor before it’s quite finished. I include a note about how the piece is not quite finished, because I’m self-conscious, and I ask the editor please just to tell me they like it and I’ll work on it more. Usually, the editor says it’s just fine (the editor often feels self-conscious too, and is also very busy) and publishes it, which is fine by me. Sometimes an editor gives me really good advice, and I take it. This is a skill I’ve learned slowly — knowing how to take good advice and run with it — and am still learning. Sometimes the editor gives me bad advice (this also often happens when I’m working for a client who isn’t an editor at all), and the work suffers.

As I get older, I need less and less advice, because I know what I’m doing.

I wonder if the opposite is true of more extroverted, more male cartoonists: They are more self-confident when they’re young and less self-confident when they learn the ways of the world.

I hope I get better at the smaller freelance comics as I get older. I think they’re hard for me because I haven’t had as much practice with them as I’ve had with graphic novels and New Yorker cartoons. Small freelance comics are also different from longer projects because each one has its own style and its own reason for existing. These things — a style, and a reason for existing — are extremely difficult to find.

It took me a long time to find my style for the book I was working on for six years, but after I found it, I didn’t have to worry about it anymore and could work more freely within it.

My workdays start when I wake up and end when I go to sleep. When I work hard, I don’t socialize a lot and I work 14 hour days. But I think it’s better for me to work less. I think my ideas come from other people. There are things I do that don’t involve ideas — figuring out how to express something right, redrawing things until they look okay — but as I get older and feel reasonably confident in my craft, I try to focus more on ideas, even if ideas are itchy and nerve-wracking, as opposed to work, which is quiet and comfortable.

When I was younger, I used to ditch my friends whenever I got into a relationship. But now I know not to. It’s the same with ideas and hard work. Work is my boyfriend, whom I know well, maybe too well, maybe so well that I can’t see him for who he really is. Ideas are my friends, who are reliable and unreliable and keep changing and drifting away and coming back and are always surprising me.

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