I have been a big fan of cartoons my entire life. Before making my way to an animation program in college, my art education consisted of basic school courses and a lot of self-teaching by copying characters from shows, movies, magazines and comics I liked growing up.
I’m aware this approach into the art world as a kid is hardly unique to myself. In fact, I recently had a long chat with a friend’s teen sister who – like many other artists her age– is slowly shaping up her own artistic growth in the same way. While discussing drawing how-to’s and what makes cartoons tick, I was reminded of my younger self and immediately felt compelled to share with her a tip I wish I’d known or understood at her age: I’m talking about the concept of purpose while drawing. It’s something that took a long time to “click” and take root in my head, and yet I believe it to be such a crucial artist’s tool I still kind of kick myself for not getting there sooner. But hey, I was younger, more inexperienced, and well…you live and you learn.
I believe we can all agree that the main goal in cartoons and animation is to communicate something. Well, when I was younger, all too often, I would take that for granted. I focused way too much on channelling these “cool” comics and cartoon characters I admired into my own art, and I’d make up characters whose sole purpose was to, well, be “cool”…whatever that means. And that’s where the problem lay: I never bothered to dig deeper to find out what made them appealing. “Cool” was an empty word without real meaning, or an actual “WHY” to give it substance.
When drawing, I usually never stopped to think or ask myself any questions, such as: If drawing a character: Who are they? Are they young or old? What’s on their minds? Are they happy, sad, worried…? Are they shy or confident? What does their body language say about them? Are they neat or sloppy? If drawing an environment: Where is it? Is it light or dark? Is it well-kept or run-down? Is it old or new? From what angle are we looking at it, and why? I kept motives and personality at arm’s length, and kept on drawing without caring to first study and understand what I was doing.
Now, as a professional in the animation industry for 10+ years, art has become a problem-solving tool: a visual representation of the kind of message or information I want to send out, in hopes to make a connection with my audience and make them understand or care for what they see. I no longer think “is this looking cool, or pretty?” as my end goal; instead, I ask myself “is it communicating ‘X’ successfully?” Story and purpose become the foundation, and with that I can go on to make something appealing, even beautiful if needed.
I don’t always start drawing with a plan or end goal in mind. There’s always room for surprises: approaching a blank page with no initial purpose and discovering things along the way is just as valid a method to draw something with meaning. However, I believe there has to be an intent (or at least an honest attempt) to answer questions along the way, so I can be on the right path towards making something with a bit of substance. The end goal doesn’t always have to be something ambitious: it can be as simple as “I want to figure out how shadows work on this fabric”, or “should this character have a square jaw?,” or something more complex like “how can I make this room look scary and mysterious?”
Since I started giving story a higher priority, I’ve found it much easier to be less precious about my drawings: if they get me closer to what I need to communicate, they stay; if not, they’re gone…no matter how well executed they are. Being able to let go of art that doesn’t work for my purposes has forced me to draw a lot more, to repeatedly fail and try again, to explore, to learn, and to grow as an artist.
Whatever path you take with your artwork is entirely up to you (or your clients, if you’re doing work-for-hire!). But whether you’re self-taught, in art school, or already a professional, allow me to encourage you to always ask questions along the way, discover the motivations behind your drawings and animation, discard and learn from what doesn’t work, get insight from peers, and make your best efforts to get your message across. Let your art tell a story.