Wednesday, December 5, 2018

How To Be A Cartoonist, by Charles H. Kuhn

Karen and I like vintage and antiques shops, especially as we look for cool things to put into our eventual new home. It feels good to have something with history, even if it isn't our history. Last weekend we found this neat instructional book from 1936, How To Be A Cartoonist, by Charles H. Kuhn. I bought it hoping to pick up some pro tips.

Kuhn was a working cartoonist who created freelance illustrations, editorial cartoons, and a syndicated comic strip for half a century, from 1919 to 1969. His comic strip "Grandma," which I hadn't heard of, began in 1947 when he was 55 years old and ran until he retired in '69. He also wrote a few other instructional books like the one I found.

Kuhn was good! I like his style. I'd call it a typical early-20th century inkpen (as opposed to brush) cartooning style that is more accomplished than most. His work reminds me of "Skippy" by Percy Crosby as well as "Gasoline Alley" by Frank King, under whom he studied. Solid craftsmanship!

That said, I think his instructional book is a mixed bag. Each page provides examples, and plenty of blank space to practice drawing yourself, but no real underlying theory. He doesn't explain very much. An eager student could copy Kuhn's characters and get very good at copying those particular figures without learning to construct their own. He gives examples of cartoon dogs and wrinkly cloth without discussing how dogs are built or why drapery folds the way it does.

The book's biggest drawback, I think, is that it ignores the craft of storytelling: how to put one drawing in front of another to show something happening and produce an emotional reaction--usually a laugh--at the end. A comic is more than one pretty drawing; it's a series of drawings that move through time.

On the other hand, I really like Kuhn's emphasis on drawing from life, and sketching quickly. Not enough cartoonists are comfortable with life drawing. I often say (and it's true) that I've met kids who can draw a giant laser-mounted dragon fighting an intergalactic fleet of spaceships, but can't draw a woman in a business suit talking on the phone. And drawing quickly forces the artist to focus and select what's most important, which is the essence of cartooning.

Also, I've never heard a word balloon called a "breather" before. That's new to me.

I can't say that Kuhn's book really gave me a lot of tips I can use, but I have a lot of respect for its author and his career, it's a great artifact of its times, and I'm proud to add it to my (someday) library.

(Clicking on the images should make them big enough to read.)


Benjamin L Clark said...

Haven't seen that one before! Very cool!

Anonymous said...

I have this book and am posting it to ETSY today. My shop name is tonigalesfinds. Come take a look.