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Basic Elements of Cartooning

Updated on October 30, 2010

You Can Draw, Too!

Cartooning encompasses many essential elements of successful drawings, but is typically employed in an overly simplified manner. Some of the simplest, most effective drawings we see or make are done by cartoonists. These artists employ the skills of their trade in a minimalist fashion, and frequently are most successful in eliciting an intellectual or emotional response from the reader. The editorials page of any newspaper employs cartoon art to get us to think about the issues of the day in new or humorous ways; the comics’ page is intended to invoke a chuckle. What techniques do these talented artists utilize to stir our thoughts and emotions so simply and efficiently? They are, in no order of importance:

1. Simplification. A cartoonist simplifies the subject matter while maintaining the viewer’s ability to recognize it. Eyes become circles or dots, mouths are reduced to curved lines, and noses or feet are triangles. It is a tribute to the artist’s skill that so much content can be wrung from these simple geometric forms. We see joy, pain, and fear through the subtle manipulation of lines depicting eyebrows, smiles, or frowns. It is a fabulous accomplishment in its own way.

Clothing is often difficult to draw and reduced to a series of lines indicating shirts, pants, and shoes by the artist. Rarely will you see wrinkles in a shirt or pants pockets in a cartoon. If a series of characters are portrayed, very simple patterns are typically used to make each person’s clothes look specific and individual. In the cartoon Peanuts, Charlie Brown’s unique shirt design is distinctive enough for the character to be recognized in any context it is placed in. The viewer doesn’t even need to see Charlie Brown’s equally distinctive face to identify Charlie Brown, typified by a story line placing him in a summer camp with a sack over his head. We went weeks without seeing his face but never doubted we were reading about Charlie Brown.

Beyond the primary subject matter, backgrounds are minimized significantly in most cartoons. Although there is a tendency with strips such as Doonesbury or Calvin and Hobbes to offer more intricate environments for the comic characters to inhabit, most daily comics in the newspapers are closer in detail to Dilbert or Peanuts. What do you see in cartoon strips like these? The horizon line is a single line toward the bottom of a panel. Houses are simple rectangular shapes. Trees are barrel-shaped trunks with leaves that collectively resemble cotton balls. Clouds look like cotton balls, also. Grass is usually simple repetitive dashes where the ground is supposed to be, if grass is shown at all.

2. Emphasis. Emphasis involves making certain aspects of a cartoon stand out from other details. It might involve drawing facial characteristics that are larger than they should be, or portrayed with more detail than the rest of the figure or scene. It might mean adding shadow or color. It could also be determined by placing a specific detail in a prominent location on the page.

Consider emphasis in terms of other areas in life. If we wish to make a point with someone in conversation, we might speak louder, slower, or with more feeling. Or, we might speak in softer tones to capture someone’s attention. If we own a piece of furniture we are especially proud of, we might put it in a prominent place in our home so it may easily be seen. Cartoonists do the same with their art. They select something to stand out so it will catch our attention. This is not an amazing talent that only creative minds possess. Emphasis is a life skill everyone utilizes each day. You might now be thinking, “Okay, but talking louder isn’t the same as cartooning. How do I emphasize the details of my cartoon that I want people to notice?” That brings us to the next technique.

3. Exaggeration. This technique is especially important to develop when learning cartooning. Let’s switch from the comics page to the editorial section of our newspaper, and we’ll observe that public figures are made recognizable by the exaggeration of specific physical characteristics. Barack Obama is drawn with dark eyes, big ears, and an elongated chin. George W. Bush was depicted with huge ears that stuck out. Bill Clinton, a large nose and square chin. My personal favorite presidential caricature was Richard Nixon’s, epitomized by sagging, jowly cheeks, a long nose and receding hairline.

By exaggerating the proper features, other details inherently diminish in importance. There are no specific criteria for determining what the “proper” features are, but one can generalize. A woman is always drawn smaller than a man with fewer muscles, wider hips, and (usually) longer hair. Men are depicted with larger, more muscular physiques. An especially intelligent person might be drawn with a larger head relative to the body. A dull, stupid person would be drawn in the opposite manner with a small head.

How does one know what to exaggerate? Again, this knowledge is not a gift bestowed upon the creative elite. Rather, it is a common, ordinary knack for observation. Anyone can train themselves to be observant. Look at someone nearby and settle on their most distinctive feature. Ask yourself, if I emphasize this feature in a drawing through its exaggeration, will it be sufficient for someone who knows this person to recognize who it is? If not, is there a combination of features that will accomplish this?

(When drawing caricatures of myself, I emphasize my beard, my hair parted down the middle, and my protruding ears. I now also put bags under my eyes to indicate my age. Through the use of these exaggerations, it doesn’t matter what other details I include. People always know it is supposed to be me.)

If one develops their powers of observation, they can know how to exaggerate physical characteristics to make a cartoon or caricature recognizable. Another means to accomplish this is through the last technique we will discuss.

4. Repetition. Go back to your daily newspaper and glance at the comics’ page. What does each character have in common? They almost never change clothes! They are seen day after day wearing the same shirt, dress, or suit. They never wear anything different! The cartoonist is using repetition to identify the character. Political cartoons are similar. If a cartoonist is satirizing the President or another political figure, they would not arbitrarily put him in jogging clothes or swimming trunks, for example, because we are not accustomed to seeing him in casual clothing or sports attire. We see the President in a suit every day. Consequently, cartoonists will place him in a suit to allow for easier identification. Remember discussing Charlie Brown’s distinctively patterned shirt? It is through repetition that we know this shirt is his.

If one were drawing children it would be appropriate to draw them holding a favorite toy or clutching a security blanket, as Linus does in the same Peanuts cartoon strip. If these details are included each time, the child will be identifiable practically without concern for consistent or accurate facial or physical characteristics. The artist can’t confuse the reader by drawing Charlie Brown with the blanket, but consistency isn’t mandatory if repetition is successfully utilized. For the budding cartoonist, it should be easy to use repetition effectively because it is simply drawing something over and over. What could be more straightforward than that? It is easier to draw a man wearing the same clothes all the time than design a distinctive outfit for each cartoon or situation, right? It’s simpler to draw a woman with the same hair style than create something new, isn’t it? Of course it is!

Let’s summarize to demonstrate how easy it is to utilize these elements successfully. All that’s required to begin as a cartoonist is become familiar with a few techniques typical of the field.

The first is simplification, or intentionally omitting details and/or generalizing them; next is emphasis, or drawing attention to the details of a character, landscape, or situation; third is exaggeration, the practice of drawing a detail or characteristic in an embellished, overstated way that is inconsistent with the rest of the drawing; finally there is repetition, the act of emphasizing the same details or patterns repeatedly. Mastering these four techniques provides the foundation for an artist’s development as a cartoonist. Their utilization offers anyone a chance to improve their skills in this satisfying, enjoyable endeavor.

This informational piece is not intended to diminish the talents of successful caricature or cartoon artists by insinuating following a few simple steps is a substitute for the perfection of one’s craft. It is meant only to encourage everyone who ever looked at the comics’ page in their daily newspaper and said, “I wish I could do that.”

You can.

Caricature of the Author--by the Author

The author, in all his glory!
The author, in all his glory!
My dragon.
My dragon.
Marvel Comics' Hulk
Marvel Comics' Hulk
Marvel Comics' Scarlet Witch
Marvel Comics' Scarlet Witch
"Little Rocky"
"Little Rocky"


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    • jrachellegreene profile image

      Jessica Rachelle Greene 

      5 years ago from New Jersey

      I really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing it!

    • MonkeyShine75 profile image

      Mara Alexander 

      5 years ago from Los Angeles, California

      I've always wanted to draw cartoons. You have a great talent

      Thank you for sharing it with us.

      I voted up this hub

    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      9 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Hi, Bodhi.

      There are lots of places online that offers instruction in drawing and cartooning, and I think you would benefit from them. Many web sites and even Yahoo videos offer easy-to-follow instruction. Wherever you choose to learn from, practice and effort will help most of all. Keep working on your drawing and you will improve.

      Thanks for reading, and good luck.


    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Hi Mike,

      I love drawing but I'm not a very good drawer.

      I just wanted to know if you know of any places I could go to learn how to draw funny cartoons.

      P.S. I'm only 11 years old so I ask questions as I am not much of a writer either.

    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      10 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Blue Parrot, thanks for your very insightful comments. I have always tried to use artwork as a way to allow a peek inside my mind. I have tried to do the same with photography as well, but the results were not the same. It seems far more difficult to find a singular vision and voice through photography than painting. It is certainly not impossible, but more difficult. You are correct, it would be difficult to take a stack of random photos and determine who authored each one. Much easier to do in a painting.

      Thank you for looking for my work based on a forum comment. I appreciate your stopping by very much!


    • blue parrot profile image

      blue parrot 

      10 years ago from Madrid, Spain

      To quote a comment of yours that I just saw on a forum:

      "The application of paint, the brush strokes, the use of color--these things are all part of appreciating a painting in a way that isn't possible with photography."

      Yes. Plus in a drawing I can see the author's mind. A drawing very often creates a feeling of admiration or dislike. I know people say that photos also reflect the author, but do you think that in a pile of (say) 500 photos made by an undetermined number of competent authors you could find some that were all made by the same author?

    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      10 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Habee, thanks for stopping by. I will definitely look for your zebra!!!! Thanks as well for your kind words about my art. Take care.


    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 

      10 years ago from Georgia

      I love drawing, Mike, and you're great! You can see a zebra I drew on my hub about zebra bedroom ideas.

    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      10 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Thanks for reading, Ben. The Flaming Lips comment gave me a chuckle. And yeah, I remember the Topsy Turvies, that was amazing stuff.

      Cartooning is weird for me because I don't do a lot of it, but at the same time my own style lends itself well to cartooning. It's a natural extension of my style that I haven't fully embraced, even though I should. I had an art instructor who encouraged me to paint everything with outlines, which at the time I thought would make everything I did look like a cartoon. It wouldn't have to if I thought about it, of course, but I was young. 30 years later, I've started to do that with some landscapes with decent results.

      Well, hope you have a good day, and thanks for reading.


    • Ben Zoltak profile image

      Ben Zoltak 

      10 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

      Cool article man, I can remember all the frustration in my youth when I didn't understand the concept behind using as you say " a few lines to indicate " different shapes, textures or expressions. Cartooning is an art. My mentor Rob Stolzer studied old early 20th century cartoons, I took his class about it, it was fascinating? Ever heard of The Topsy Turvies? It was an old cartoon that you would turn upside down when you were done reading it rightside up and there would be another story! Anyway, cool hub, I liked your caricature too, reminded me of the lead singer of The Flaming Lips, if you know them, cheers!


    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      10 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      rml, thanks for the compliments. You are very gracious.

      Your comments are appreciated.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      You have a lot of talent and knowledge about cartooning. Thanks for sharing what you know.

    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      10 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Thank you for visiting aefrancisco! I appreciate your kinds words.

    • aefrancisco profile image


      10 years ago from somewhere down the road

      Wow! How I wish am that artistic!

      Great hub!

    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      10 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Linda, thanks for the compliment, I appreciate it!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Nice picture!

    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      11 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Thanks for reading, bay area!!! In a way, it is easy, and I encourage everyone to try their hand at drawing.

    • bayareagreatthing profile image


      11 years ago from Bay Area California

      What a great hub! You make it seem so easy- Thanks!


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