“Cartoons are not art.”
Cue the sound of my heart, hopes and dreams shattering into a million pieces.
I was 14 years old and I was being told that my kind of art didn’t count as real art.
And if my year-9 art teacher said so then it must be true. This was my teacher. The person who was supposed to be encouraging me, helping me develop my own individual skill and artistic identity. The person who knew all the ‘rules’ of art and was tasked with the responsibility of imparting that knowledge to me, an eager student still early in my artistic journey. I trusted her.
I had always been an artist up to this point; I’d drawn for as long as I could remember – fun little cartoons, made-up characters, comic books and stories. And then, suddenly I wasn’t allowed to draw cartoons in my art class. I was told to draw portraits and bowls of fruit. I was forced to paint, even though that medium has never been my strong suit. I was told that pop-art style colouring (the best colouring I could manage) wasn’t acceptable and that I had to learn to ‘paint properly’. I was told to emulate other classic fine-art styles, but despite my best efforts my work continued to take on a ‘cartoon-like’ style, and for that I received lower grades.
I cried myself to sleep the night before handing in assignments, preparing myself for the next round of comments about how I wasn’t trying hard enough; I had talent, but no discipline. I was told that the way I chose to express myself was incorrect and received notes on my homework that said “This needs LOTS of work – do you even want to do art??”.
I’m not the first artist who was forced to conform at a young age to narrow-minded artistic boxes and I’m definitely not the last. It would be melodramatic to say that this art teacher ruined my life, but the attitude she had played a significant part in the life choices that followed.
Firstly, I stopped studying art.
When GCSE’s started, I switched from Art to IT studies. Studying art had always been the plan for me – it was obvious to everyone that that’s what I would do. When the time came, I realised that to do so was totally wrong for me. I felt like I wasn’t capable of the ‘real art’ that my teacher was talking about. To this day, I hold zero art-based qualifications.
From that point forwards, art was just a hobby. I still wanted to draw, but could no longer think of art as an integral part of my future. My identity as ‘an artist’ started to crack.
Next, I tried not to draw cartoons.
I tried and failed, over and over again to draw the way my art teacher had expected me to. I tried to draw portraits, still life and landscapes. I tried to design characters that didn’t look like cartoons; I tried for ‘realistic’ faces, tried to study human anatomy and muscular structure. I was inspired by the hyper-realistic fantasy or science fiction art you might see for things like Magic the Gathering or World of Warcraft. None of it suited me. None of it came easily.
It was a constant struggle, to actively fight against my own natural style of drawing. In the end this constant, frustrating battle with myself led to the inevitable:
I began to hate drawing.
I became angry because I could not draw what I could see so clearly in my head. The lines were too simple, the eyes too big and round, the hands… don’t even get me started on the hands.
Nothing came out the way I intended it to. Paper was screwed up furiously, pencils and sketch pads were launched across the room in frustration. I scribbled venomously over my failings, driving the pencils into the paper so hard that they tore it to shreds. Then the worst part happened.
I gave up drawing.
I couldn’t do it, so that was that. If I couldn’t draw the way I wanted to then I wasn’t going to draw at all. I focused on writing instead. Wrote novels, short stories – inspired by a new wave of reading, having just discovered Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
I still doodled here and there, because even having given up, I couldn’t actually give up. I designed ‘headshots’ for the characters in my stories – continually frustrated when they still did not meet my exacting standards for ‘not cartoons’. This was a much-reduced frequency of artwork though, as I maintained fervently that I did not want to draw anymore.
I stopped being an artist.
I explored other creative exploits such as animation (stop motion and 3D) and filmmaking. I got hold of photoshop and poured hours of my life into photo manipulation. I went to college to study moving image. I went to university to study film further and set up my own business for professional videos, media and marketing materials. I became a filmmaker; a visual story-teller; a digital media person. This was my new identity. This was my life and my future.
While all this was happening, another layer of my life continued to develop without me even noticing. Art hadn’t gone away, it had just taken a back seat.
And it had started back seat driving from the moment I discovered the internet.
I was 16 when we finally got broadband. At this point I was taking a year out from education to focus on writing and to figure out what I wanted to do. This was the year that I started my pursuit of filmmaking. I watched fun Youtube videos, started following the popular machinima series Red Vs Blue. I joined forums, spoke with like-minded people and learned that art could be digital.
I discovered webcomics.
I got hooked on them, more accurately. I read Penny Arcade, Questionable Content, VG Cats, the Rooster Teeth Comics and more. I loved the format, the light-hearted jokey tone and the cartoony illustration styles. I wanted to make my own. I tried a few different times to get my own going – the results weren’t amazing. I struggled to format a narrative to the webcomic structure, and wasn’t sure that my sense of humour made sense to anyone else.
I had started doodling again, and invented some characters that I used to illustrate funny real-life moments and scenes from me hanging out with my friends. Several webcomic-style comic strips came out of this. I had fallen into the practice of ‘write what you know’ without even really thinking about it. With photoshop at my disposal, I could add colour in a way I’d never been able to before,and with the assistance of the internet I was able to get my work out there to be seen.
These comic strips became Button Press, the comic I started in 2007 and kept drawing until 2012 (with a brief rebirth in 2014/2015). The Button Press archive is a week by week record of my gradual re-embracing of cartoons and even art in general.
I was slowly becoming an artist again.
I drew other things too. Started designing other comic projects (some that I’m still working on today) and did some freelance illustration work for my friend’s theatre company productions. I took an evening class in children’s book illustration – it was useless as a class but it still helped me feel like I was working towards something.
Drawing was still just a hobby, but it was becoming a more enjoyable hobby – fun, like it had been before.
Combined with this was encouragement from my friends and loved ones, positive feedback from my work and the start of a new wave or developing my work. My interest in actively studying and learning about art started to come back to life.
Fast-forward to today.
I consider myself an artist again. More importantly I consider myself an artist first,and everything else second. It’s taken a long time to get back to where I was before negative and unencouraging influences did their work. I know now what I knew in my heart all along, but had been scared into denying:
Of course cartoons are art.
Art is whatever you want it to be.
Art includes so many different things – what is or isn’t art is a subject of constant public debate. As far as I’m concerned, it’s art if you decide it is. If you’re expressing yourself, it’s art. It’s up to you to decide. It’s your right to disagree with others too, but it’s your responsibility to do so with caution.
I am the sum of my experiences and I wouldn’t change the decisions I’ve made, but I look back and can still see clearly how many seemingly insignificant thoughts and decisions in my life have been affected by the statement that “Cartoons are not art.” I wonder where I would be now if my art teacher had never said it.
I was 14. You might be 6, you might be 16 or maybe even 60. The idea that you should never let other people stop you doing what you love is a well promoted concept; the idea that it is not exclusively your responsibility to keep that passion alive, less so.
People frequently underestimate the damage that can be done with idle comments about people’s creative works – especially young people’s work. A lack of encouragement, or even the wrong kind of push at the wrong moment can shatter confidence and belittle a person’s passion. Some people never get it back.
I was set back for years, and I’m fortunate now that the right kind of encouragement has got me back on track. Perhaps this is why I feel so strongly about offering the same support to others who may be in need of it, or worse: who may be losing faith in their passion.
So first and foremost I decided to tell my own story, to demonstrate that not every artist has had a lifetime of positive artistic development. I suspect in fact that very few actually have. Many like myself have had their passions challenged, have had their identity called into question and have had to fight to get where they are, all because of the damaging effect of one person’s negative attitude.
Next, I’m going to start trying to help.
In the coming weeks and months I’ll be putting together some content, both printed and online, to help artists at the start of their journeys. I want to offer the advice I wish I’d been given when I was 14, I want to show how things can be achieved and to encourage perseverance for passion.
I’m starting with a few of the questions that I used to ask, but I want to know if others have different questions. I’m opening the forum for suggestions, questions or comments in that regard.
Most importantly I’m want to spread a message that starts right now:
Don’t tell people that what they love to do doesn’t count.
Passion, confidence and motivation can be crushed so easily. Especially for young people that may lack the experience to judge the difference between an idle comment and a heartfelt put-down. And for the artists and creatives out there on the receiving end of negative comments like this:
Don’t listen to them. Your gift is beautiful.