Personal Growth
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Personal Growth

This Is What Cartooning Taught Me About Life

It all started with birds. Growing up in the hills of Los Gatos, California, I was surrounded by birds. Scrub jays, robins, finches, hummingbirds and more.

As a boy, I was fascinated by birds. I loved their songs, elegance and beauty in flight. It wasn’t long before I turned to drawing, in order to capture my avian appreciation.

Thanks to birds, I fell in love with drawing. I was always happiest with pencils and a sketchbook in hand.

My father was an accomplished weekend painter, and he often helped me with my artwork. I also found inspiration viewing drawings and artwork in books and magazines.

It quickly became apparent to my family, teachers and friends that I was a budding artist.

A sort of goofy gracefulness

Then one day, I glanced at a cartoon on the editorial page of a newspaper. I didn’t know much about politics, but I loved the style of the cartoon. It was lushly drawn, with expert cross hatching. It had a sort of goofy gracefulness.

In the 1970’s, newspapers were more prolific. Their pages were bigger than they are now, and often filled with terrific drawings and political cartoons.

Political cartoonists back then primarily used India ink, sable brushes and crow quill pens.

Brushes and crow quill pens allow cartoonists to vary the lines in their drawings from thick to thin. This led to more expressive, beautifully rendered cartoons.

Many cartoonists also used special paper called duo shade. The paper came with a special solution that, when applied, created a gray tone for shading.

Needless to say, I quickly fell in love with cartooning. Particularly, editorial cartooning, because the drawings were more elaborately crafted than comic strip cartoons.

This is what I learned

I began drawing editorial cartoons for my high school newspaper and then, my university newspaper. Later, when I started a career in police work, I moonlighted as the editorial cartoonist for my county newspaper. And a city weekly newspaper.

I joined the American Association of Editorial Cartoonist, and attended a convention in Minnesota.

My passion for editorial cartooning opened my eyes to politics, current events, history and the endless foibles of human behavior.

Years of drawing cartoons, hanging out in newspaper editorial meetings, following the news and reader responses to my work, taught me volumes about life.

Here are some of the lessons I learned.

Solidity equates to depth

Some of my best cartoons have weight to them. To achieve weight in a cartoon, I draw from the inside out. I consider the core or center of focus in my subject, and add a lot of detail to that area.

Carefully rendered cross hatching creates depth to objects, giving them solidity and greater form. Contrast, and attention to detail give a cartoon more impact.

Interestingly, this principle holds true with personal development. The more attention you place on the core of who you are, the more solid an individual you’ll become.

Attention to details in shaping your character, education, ethics and even physical fitness, all result in becoming a person of greater depth.

Design a cartoon, design a life

Good composition and good design make a huge difference in the impact and success of a cartoon.

Whenever I came up with a new cartoon idea, I always spent time exploring design options. How I laid out the cartoon, where I placed the subjects and props, all mattered.

The same is true with life. How you put yourself together, what you wear, how you maintain your home and work space, say volumes about you.

A messy, poorly thought out cartoon just doesn’t work well. It ends up looking unprofessional. The same holds true with people. A messy home or work space, not to mention an unkempt appearance, makes you look less professional and less put together.

A well designed cartoon has impact. So does a well designed life.

Good ideas matter

In cartooning, a great idea can make up for poor artwork. However, great artwork won’t make up for a lousy idea.

I remember spending hours drawing cartoons, only to take them to the editor and getting shot down. “John, the artwork is terrific, but your main idea here is weak,” one editor told me.

Good ideas matter. The hardest part of editorial cartooning is not in the drawing. It’s the hours of research, reading and effort that goes into creating a great idea for a cartoon.

The same holds true in life. The better the idea, the better chance you’ll have of succeeding. Consider an advertising firm. They could spend millions on elaborate advertising, but if the underlying concept or idea is poor, the campaign is likely to fail.

Take care to educate yourself. Do your homework. Put in the time necessary to develop good ideas. Bounce them off of smart people, to test them out. Once you have a winner, it’ll be much easier to get buy in from others.

What to leave out?

A busy cartoon, loaded with endless details, risks losing your audience. As in good writing, what you leave out is sometimes more important than what you keep in.

My personal cartooning aesthetic leans toward detail. I love to render with lots of crosshatching and fleshed out drawing. So I have to be careful. I have to balance out the detail with negative space. Places where viewers can rest their eyes.

Despite my detailed cartoons, I lean towards minimalism in my personal life. I travel lightly. My home is uncluttered and neat.

I guard my schedule and say no to commitments or obligations that can complicate my life. Obviously, I can’t say no to everything. We all have responsibilities. But people will always spend your time for you, if you let them.

To have a successful cartoon, you have to decide what to leave out. You have to find the most efficient way to make your statement, and cut out the superflous.

The same is true with life. To be successful, you can’t get nibbled to death by endless details and distractions. You have to decide what to leave out. What to let go of. Doing so invites more simplicity, and focus on the things that are most important.

Happiness versus achievement

We all have hobbies and pursuits that bring us joy and happiness. It’s healthy and important to have passions that help us relax, recharge, or just escape from the rigors of daily life.

I drew pictures of birds when I was a boy, because it brought me joy. I wasn’t trying to sell my work or impress anyone. Sure, it was nice when Dad praised my artwork, but the act of drawing was pleasure enough.

Things changed by the time I started drawing editorial cartoons. As much as I enjoyed the process of drawing cartoons, I was also interested in the impact of my work. Not to mention, I wanted to keep improving.

With each published cartoon, I’d follow public reaction via letters to the editor. It didn’t matter whether readers praised the cartoons or loathed them. What mattered was that the cartoons struck a nerve.

Quality editorial cartoons are meant to make a statement. They’re not always meant to be funny. They can be biting, satirical, controversial and thought provoking. The best editorial cartoonists don’t just draw well. They get people to think, and write letters to the editor.

Sooner of later, most artists move beyond the simple joy of creation. They become interested in honing their craft. Improving. Greater achievement.

As a cartoonist, I moved beyond the simple happiness of doodling. I wanted to keep improving, and achieve higher levels of cartooning excellence.

This is an important principle in life, too. Most self-help and personal development content focuses on happiness. We all want to be happy, but in many ways, achievement is equally important. Maybe more so.

It takes personal discipline, sacrifice and sometimes hardship to achieve. You might be happier eating donuts on the couch, but if you want to achieve physical fitness, you have to go work out.

What does it take to achieve exceptional parenting? Often, it takes putting yourself second, and the needs of your kids first. Getting ahead at work usually requires working smarter and harder than others.

It’s human nature to seek happiness, and the path of least resistance. Shortcuts and immediate gratification bring short term happiness. However, focusing on personal achievement will bring a deeper happiness in the long run.

What has your passion taught you?

Think about the thing you love to do. The passion that quickens your heart. What lessons about life has your passion taught you?

I’ve met people who race motorcylces and cars. They’ll tell you that if you want to win the race, you have to take good care of your equipment. Just like, if you want to win the race in life, you have to take good care of yourself.

Some people are passionate entrepreneurs. Ask them about investment. The funds and efforts it takes to make a personal business work.

They’ll tell you that the same concepts of investment apply to personal growth. To become a better person, you need to invest in yourself. That means education. Experiences. Hiring mentors and coaches.

Our passions teach us a lot about life, if we take the time to pay attention. That’s what I started doing with my cartooning. Even with my fine art.

I started to pay attention to the lessons I was learning. Lessons that translated to other areas of my life.

Now you know a little bit about what cartooning taught me about life. Why not take a closer look at your passions. Figure out what they have taught you about life.

Doing so will broaden your perspective, and just might help you keep growing, achieving, and inching closer to your dreams.

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. Fine artist and writer. Get on my free email list here for the latest cartoons and blog posts.



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John P. Weiss

John P. Weiss

I write elegant essays about life, which I illustrate with whimsical cartoons, and classic black & white photography.