Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cartoon Sprints (with props to Mike Lynch)

A couple weeks ago I saw an item on ¡Journalista! about a cartoon exercise that Mike Lynch had given to students in a cartooning class: to draw 80 characters in 15 minutes. You can read about the exercise at that preceding link, or you can click here to go directly to the finished product.

I'd like to know more about Lynch's class than he reveals in this particular post: how old are the students, for instance, and--more relevant for this post--how many of them took part in this cartooning exercise? Because it appears to have been a collaborative eighty characters in fifteen minutes, and, you know, that wasn't what I was expecting when I saw the link at ¡Journalista!

No, what I expected to see was Mike Lynch's single-handed effort to crank out eighty characters in fifteen minutes--which averages to one character every eleven and a quarter seconds. Mind, I enjoy the drawings his students produced--no doubt about it, they're fun to look at--but I was hoping for something more, well, athletic, pell-mell, even desperate. So I did what I expected Lynch to have done, and I drew 80 characters in fifteen minutes. Here's the first dozen:

Now, it would be a real challenge indeed not just to draw eighty characters in fifteen minutes but to have to dream up eighty different characters along the way, so I decided to use Lynch's list, which he has thoughtfully included in his blog post. (You may note that two items--robot and hydrant--occur twice on his list. Lynch has already noted it himself, so there goes your No-Prize.) I also soon realized, after warming up with a few practice sketches, that there was no way I could draw eighty characters that quickly if I also had to read their names, so I enlisted the help of Becca Boggs, who read me the names of the characters in turn and warned me when I was taking too long (already with the cowgirl, #5) and reassured me when I had made up lost ground (by the skateboarder, #70). By the second dozen I was getting pretty sketchy indeed:

Lynch describes the exercise as a useful way to train cartoonists to draw lots of different kinds of things. It's true that I haven't spent much time drawing baseball players, truck drivers, businessmen, or angry waiters, as pictured in the third dozen:

On the other hand, I've drawn plenty bunnies, Martians, fish, and fire hydrants (really!) over the years, to say nothing of Batman. And one somewhat frustrating thing about this exercise is that eleven and a quarter seconds doesn't allow a lot of room for invention or witty rendering. That may sound like a somewhat feeble excuse for the resort to visual cliché in these sketches, but I think it's in keeping with what Will Eisner says about stereotypes in Graphic Storytelling: not every imaginable Martian is going to have attenae, say, but if you want to communicate the idea that a humanoid is an alien then a pair of attenae will get the idea across pretty quickly and pretty consistently--more so than a portrait of J'onn J'onzz would (for civilians, at least).

Most of the items in the fourth dozen were pretty straightforward:

It occurred to me while drawing the TV that the rabbit ears are another case of antennae functioning as reliable cliché: fewer televisions nowadays use them, what with cable, satellite, and such, but if you don't want your scrawl confused with a drawing of a microwave they're useful. I was thinking of Mr. Natural while drawing the guy with beard (#45), though that might not be apparent from the hasty result. Probably the trickiest item on this page was #47, specified as not just a car but a "cool car," which required both more thought and (barely) more drawing. (I almost made it the Batmobile, but time was a-wastin' and I figured fins would suffice without further Bat-paraphernalia.)

With the alien (#50), I faced the dilemma of not repeating my Martian. I still resorted to antennae, confound it. The penguin (#51) is dedicated to Carl Pyrdum in memory of Chilly Willy. The Presidential candidate (#53) surprised me somewhat by being influenced by Hillary Clinton (don't look too hard for a resemblance)--perhaps because she seems to be the most determined candidate of late. About the crook (#59) I will note the clichés of garb--dark cap, striped shirt--by way of observing that the reliance on stereotyped imagery caused me to draw a mugger (#8, first picture above) that looked nothing like the assailant who actually mugged me a year ago, save for being male and armed. In other words, even when I had real experience with one of these characters, cartoon convention prevailed over lifelike rendering. (I suppose the same could be said for the lightning bolt, come to think of it.)

Anyway, I'm almost done here. Sixty-one (a cactus; the label got cut off) through seventy-two:

Mike Lynch's students definitely draw a better Spongebob than I do, at any speed. I'm flat embarrassed by that ostrich; a much better one can be seen in Satisfactory Comics #1. And hydrant #2 (drawing #72) makes no effort to look any different from hydrant #1 (drawing #33). Snoring (#69) is dedicated to Alex Lifeson's wife. Paperboy (#72) is dedicated to Patrick Denker.

And finally, the last eight, including robot #2:

So that's it. It's an instructive exercise, that's for sure. For more attractive visual results, I think it might be worthwhile trying to fit eighty characters not into a confined period of time but into a confined space: how small can you draw eighty characters while keeping them recognizable and attractive? My model here would be the amazing Tom Gauld, who has already pulled off this stunt in various ways. Maybe Isaac would like to give that one a try?


Darcy said...

Both T. Rex (12) and the unicorn (48) look quite astonishingly happy. I've always pictured unicorns as introverted, angsty, and stuck on themselves, and T. Rex as-- well, carnivorous. Any thoughts?

Mike said...

Honestly, I was drawing in such a hurry I don't know what I was thinking in most cases. More mysterious to me are the angry faces on the fish and the bee: what's their problem?

The only non-required emotion I can explain is the tear on the face of the Man with Big Nose. He's sad that his nose is so big.

Isaac said...

One can only speculate, I suppose, as to why Mike's doodles look so happy and mine look (by and large) so angry and/or sad.

Mike said...

Quite belatedly: I would like to acknowledge the conscious influence of Lindsay Nordell's cat-robot in my Robot #2. You may see her cat-robot in battle with a demon-dog in "____ Are Always Fun to Draw," or indeed in the post about that anthology:

B.BarNavi said...

Now for the scathing - er, amusing commentary!

Can't decide whether 15 or 23 looks more like you, Mike.
I would say 31 resembles a Southern-Hemisphere Venusian than a Martian. 'Twere me, I would just draw good ol' Marvin and put a (R) next to him.
32 is an angry fish. >:O
40: Pelicans rock.
Nice interpretation of a runner at 46. :)
47 is only a cool car if you're Homer Simpson... or a 67-73 muscle car freak. Fins ahoy!
50 reminds me of Omicron Persei 8!
53 looks more like Bill in drag than Hill :P And no candidate is complete without a podium, I guess.
54: Visual cues rock. (Lollipop Guild)
59: I would've just gone for the cheap shot and drawn Tricky Dick, so kudos for not going that route.
69: Is this the only verb out of the whole collection?
What's with the Jughead-like crown on 78?

I'm perhaps psychoanalyzing too much here, but when we're given only one-word cues and forced to draw them in a flash, the results betray our worldviews and upbringings. Who else among us here would draw a white male (as opposed to a South Asian female) for a doctor, or Hillary(?) Clinton (as opposed to Generic White Guy #463) for a presidential candidate?

Mike said...

Hey, thanks for the extensive comments, B.! A few quick replies:

1) I think you meant 16 rather than 15 for my alter ego. 15 is a vampire, 16 is the nerd. And the nerd definitely shares my bad skin more than does the cartoonist (23), alas.

2) Re: the "VINTAGE!" TV (#43): let it be known that back in DC we're still using rabbit ears. Cable is just too expensive.

3) Re: #50--I'll take every reference to Omicron Persei I can get, thanks. (Good ol' Lurr...)

4) Re: #54: Tip of the hat for recognizing the Lollipop Guild there.

5) Hmm...before you give me too much kudos (sic) for not drawing Nixon for the crook (#59), take a look at the 80 Characters in Silhouette, where I indeed drew Tricky Dick's head in silhouette. In my defense, I was trying not to repeat myself too much between the sprints and the silhouettes.

6) I think "snoring" (#69) was the only verb, yes. I think it would take a long time to draw 80 verbs...much more than 15 minutes, at least.

7) I think the Jughead-like crown on the Mean Kid (#78) is a memory of Bugs Meany from the Encyclopedia Brown books...Did Bugs even wear such a hat? In my memory he does.

And as for psychoanalyzing, I think an exercise like this practically begs for it. For what it's worth, the only South Asian female doctor I can recall examining me was a optician (fairly recently), though I've had various South Asian male doctors (and lots of white guy doctors). And I was a bit taken aback that I drew Hillary Clinton (or tried to) rather than Barack Obama, but I think I had read an article about her most recently when I did the sprints.

Thanks for reading / looking and commenting!

Mike said...

@V.A.: 1) Thanks. 2) Recommendations: read a lot of things (not just comics) and draw as often as you can.