how to draw cartoons

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There are few of us who have not doodled while hanging on the telephone (usually listening to "Greensleeves"). But if you've ever considered raising your game into a fully-blown cartoon, then tuition is available from the National Museum of Cartoon Art, where John Byrne, a professional cartoonist, runs informal, drop-in style workshops every Wednesday evening.

The most incompetent doodlers find themselves sitting next to experienced artists, and the ages on the night I attended ranged from 15 to 50. "I can turn anyone into a cartoonist in two hours," Byrne claims, despite not having met me before.

Alternatively, you might prefer to be taught by Peter Maddocks. His work currently appears daily in the Daily Express. Trained at the Moseley School of Art by Norman Pett (who gave the world Jane, the rarely-dressed wartime heroine), Maddocks sold his first cartoon some 45 years ago, and has rarely been far from his drawing board since.

In 1977 he opened the London School of Cartooning. In 1987 he closed it again but his wisdom has now been distilled into a series of volumes available in reassuringly childish, wipe-clean hardback covers.

Starting with Cartooning for Beginners, these take you from the basics (how to hold a pen) to the subtler tricks of the professional. Apart from his books, I asked Maddocks what makes a good cartoonist?

"You have to be able to communicate your sense of fun through your line," he explains. "It's no good if the words are funny, but the drawing doesn't convey that fun - the cartoon won't work."

Common mistakes, says Maddocks, are too much detail. "People don't know when to stop. You have to learn cartoon shorthand," - and too much artistry. "Don't shade - use line only." Then there is the problem of dynamics, getting action in to your four square inches, characterisation...

There seems to be a huge number of pitfalls in this deceptively tricky business. If you favour a more structured approach, then it's worth considering The Cartoon School.

Established in 1990, this correspondence school currently has about a 100 would-be Heaths and Larrys on its books. Peter Coupe, the principal, is also a trained teacher, whose course is also used at the National Extension College in Cambridge.

Coupe offers both a video and a manual to use with his course, but it is the personal touch which sets him apart. My first assignment - drawing matchstick men in a variety of poses and activities - came back not only with helpful notes but also a fully fleshed-out, coloured cartoon based on one of them - with caption included.

Most of the students have no background in art. "If they do, we have to `de-art' them," he says. "Cartooning really has very little to do with nice drawing."

Maddocks agrees: "The most important thing is to develop your own style. That's more important than technical ability."

So what does a successful, untrained cartoonist think of such schools? Colin Wheeler is the Independent's regular front-page contributor. "They can give you pointers, I'm sure. Most of my generation just sort of drifted into it - I don't think anyone had any real training... it took me ages to accept that I could actually earn a living at it."

Evidently it is a common perception: the late Mel Calman entitled his autobiography What Else Do You Do?. On the other hand, if you can turn those long hours listening to "Green sleeves" to profit - who cares what people think?


The 1995 Cartoon Art Trust Awards take place tonight 6pm, Royal Society of Arts, London WC2 (0171-405 4717)

John Byrne's cartoon class, National Museum of Cartoon Art, 15-17 St Cross St, London EC1. Weds 6-8pm. pounds 3/pounds 2 unwaged. Byrne's book, `Learn to Draw Cartoons' published by HarperCollins at pounds 4.99

Peter Maddocks's books, published by Michael O'Mara (01624 675137)

The Cartoon School - contact Peter Coupe on 01423 887880