I wanted to write an article about the principles of cartooning, because when I first started studying cartooning, I had to gather information from many disparate sources. I read books, watched YouTube videos and copied other artists. It was a long road. None of these sources were comprehensive to all I needed to know. Sometimes the information was not explicit and had to be teased out by repeated watching, reading and copying. While not a complete tutorial for each principle, I hope this article will give a better overview of cartooning than I originally started out with.
The principles of art are a set of rules that govern how to discuss and understand a work: balance, contrast, emphasis and subordination, directional forces, proportion, scale, repetition and rhythm and unity within variety. These topics help us examine a piece and see how each element supports the other. Within specific fields of study are set rules that relate to the basic principles. Cartooning is no different.
An artist needs to not only know how to apply these rules, but also when and how to break them. Knowing how to break a rule comes from studying and understanding natural forms. A deep understanding of how people and objects really look, gives the artist power to include and emphasize important details, while minimizing or excluding the unimportant.
To develop a cartooning style an artist needs knowledge of real life counterparts and how to use the principles to abstract those objects. Cartooning is grounded in the rules of graphic design and animation. The principles of cartooning, as I have been able to deduce from various sources, are: basic shape form; stretch, squash and bend; variation and rhythm, exaggeration; and minimizing. Having these principles at the forefront of your thoughts while studying cartooning will help improve your ability to see abstractly and minimize real life forms.
Basic Shape Form: All forms are built out of three basic shapes – Straight Line, C-Curve and S-Curve. Everything that can be seen and drawing can be constructed out of just these three shapes, a line, a “c,” or an “s.” More complex forms need more of these shapes in succession, perhaps hundreds. Cartooning attempts to use the fewest of these shapes as possible to minimize the information needed to interpret a form. These shapes are then used to create the three basic forms, ellipse, rectangle and triangle. Cartoon forms are composed of these basic shapes or combinations of a variety of these shapes. A head could be an ellipse, or an ellipse combined with a rectangle.
Stretch, Squash & Bend: Derived from animation, this principle applies energy, weight and movement to forms. Stretching a form gives it a sense of speed (applying diagonals will emphasize this movement). Squashing a form applies weight or can give a sense of potential movement or energy. Bending a form applies force to a shape, such as the wind blowing on a sheet of paper and curving it into a “c” shape.
Variation & Rhythm: A principle of graphic design, this principle gives your object interest through visual variation. For instance, you might make the proportions from top forehead to eyes, eyes to bottom nose, bottom nose to top chin all equal. These would be the standard proportions of a real human face. In cartooning, you would vary these proportions to communicate specific information. Maybe the forehead is short, the nose is long and the chin is small and very close to the mouth. This creates a face that is much more visually interesting because the viewer has to interpret each of these differing proportions; while on a normal face, once the viewer understands one proportion, the rest is very quick to understand.
Exaggeration: Related to variation, exaggeration is emphasizing important details or information usually by increasing the size or mass of what the artist is emphasizing, but also often includes color and shape. This is consciously altering the details of a real person or object to instantly project information to the viewer. Sometimes this information is internal to a character, such as personality traits, and is made external through shape, mass and color.
Minimizing: The opposite of exaggeration. Just as it is important to emphasize certain details, it is just as important to know what to leave out of a drawing. I learned this principle in a specific example by Ben Caldwell. He was speaking of studying real anatomy then went on to talk about how to incorporate that understanding in cartoon forms. When drawing muscle structures, it is important to include the muscles that helps a form flow. If a muscle will make a form lumpy and interrupt this flow, it is to be left out.
I hope collecting these principles will help give you insight to areas of cartooning you may not have been aware of or improve your understanding of an area you were struggling with.
The following books have been an incredible help in my studies and I highly recommend them:
Brian T. Huff