How do you think those things up?

By Bruce Cochran
When I first joined OWAA in the ’90s the president of the organization was cartoonist Cliff Shelby. As far as I know Cliff and I are the only cartoonists in OWAA at this time, but I could be wrong. Hopefully more cartoonists will come aboard in the future and find the following information helpful.
catfish-cartoon-webAll the cartooning classes I’m familiar with have one thing in common: They teach people how to draw in a cartoon-like style, which is the least important part of being a cartoonist. Two examples of this fact are Scott Adams’ Dilbert and political cartoonist Tom Toles. These people can hardly draw at all, yet they are successful cartoonists.
So forget drawing. When people ask, “How do you think those things up?” they’re talking about cartoon ideas. I’ve been thinking those things up for more than four decades, and I’ve developed a routine that works for me. Other cartoonists may do it differently, but here’s the way I go about writing cartoon ideas. (And yes, in my opinion, cartooning is a form of writing.)
First, I narrow down my thinking to one particular category – say deer hunting or trout fishing. Sometimes it helps get my brain flowing to look through an outdoor products catalog (although I often end up buying something instead of coming up with a cartoon idea).
I also try to think about articles I’ve read or something I’ve seen on TV or the Internet that relates to the category I’m thinking about. Often I’ll remember something that happened years ago that will suggest a cartoon idea. Then I try to exaggerate these experiences. A cartoon idea often begins in my brain with the thought, “What if this had happened instead of that?” Then I keep expanding on it until I come up with what I consider a cartoon idea.
I usually carry a small notebook and pen wherever I go so I can jot down ideas that come to mind. I’ll even make a note of something that might suggest a cartoon idea later. I got the idea for the cartoon that appears with this article from a questionnaire in a motel room. In fact I sold several versions of it to different magazines.
I write cartoon ideas best in the morning, and even then I can only do it for about an hour. After that I begin to lose my concentration. As I think of an idea I sketch it roughly in pencil, and I mean roughly, as in stick figures. If I create 10 or 15 cartoon ideas I consider it a productive morning. I’ll file away these rough sketches for a few days, weeks, or months. Later I’ll go through my stack and select the best ideas, often refining the captions or changing the drawings. I’ll then do a more refined pencil drawing on tracing paper of the selected cartoons and e-mail them to the appropriate editor. Then I’ll trace the approved cartoons in ink on good quality Strathmore paper, scan, and e-mail them to the magazine unless the editor needs a hard copy.
If you talk to 10 cartoonists you’ll probably get 10 different explanations of how they create ideas, but this is the way I do it. Hey, it beats working for a living.
brucecochran-webBruce Cochran is a freelance cartoonist/illustrator and humor writer whose works have appeared in Field & Stream, Ducks Unlimited, Stover Publications, Wyoming Wildlife, Petersen’s Bowhunting, Playboy, Pheasants Forever Journal and more. He joined OWAA in 1996.

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