Ten Tips for Cartoonists to Overcome a Creativity Slump

We’ve all been there – tight deadline, or too many projects at once, or even good ol’ fashioned procrastination. Whatever the cause, you need to finish something and the ideas (and graphite) just aren’t flowing. What to do?

Here’s a list of ten things that can help get you out of that creativity funk:

1. Walk Away From It

This might seem counter-productive, but it works. Remember, you have to also walk back to it at some point. And when I say walk away from it, I mean walk away. Get up, get out of that chair, and go somewhere else in your home. Go outside, do those dishes that have been piling up, take the trash out. Do something mundane that will kill at least 10 or 15 minutes of time. Let your mind work on the ideas while you aren’t thinking about them. Think about the project, but don’t obsess over it.

2. Sleep On It

For those tough to crack projects, and ones where you have the luxury of a few days, a good night’s sleep after working on some initial ideas can do wonders for you. Your mind loves to work on problems while you sleep, so why not take advantage of it? Again, use moderation. Don’t obsess over finding the solution, just think about it as you are sleeping, know and believe that your sleeping mind will help you out, and be sure to pay attention to your waking thoughts and any wispy dream fragments lingering on as you wake. Write them down, sketch them out, whatever. Once your mind starts switching gears back into “daily grind mode”, all that dream imagery that seems so impossible to ever forget upon awakening will most assuredly fade away. Capture it ASAP.

Don’t think you dream? Everybody dreams, but most don’t pay attention to them. The more effort you make to recall your dream upon awakening, the more you will start to recall them.

3. Do a Google Images Search

I hope everyone reading this is aware of the Google Images search – a search restricted to images only.

I know, you’re thinking “I don’t want to steal someone else’s ideas”. That’s not the point here. Sometimes it just difficult to get your head around how something looks. I know I have the bad habit of trying to draw from memory. While this works for dogs, bananas, coffee mugs and a carburetor from a ’79 Buick LeSabre (well, maybe not that last one), it doesn’t work for most things. Even simple items like keys, pencils, and animals you don’t see every day (like a goat project I once had), etc., you may THINK you know what it looks like, but once you get some reference material you start to notice subtleties that will make the cartoon come alive.

The first step is to look at real images of the subject matter. Look at lots of them. Full shots, close-ups, different angles. Start building the thing in your mind. Visualize the parts together.

Do this for a good 30 minutes or so, minimum. Resist urges to click on other imagery that pops into your search results that isn’t related to your quest. Use a web browser that supports tabbed windows, like Safari, Camino or Firefox (Firefox also available to Windows users). Blast through the search result pages and open the ones that look interesting in new background tabs.

Next step is to do the same thing, only this time add ‘cartoon’ or ‘illustration’ to your search terms. We’re not here to steal. We’re doing this to compare the real world person, place or thing to other artists’ approaches to rendering it in cartoon form. See what they emphasize, what they downplay. What is eliminated? What is added? How do they overcome adding cartoony eyes to a creature that isn’t human? Sometimes these things just don’t come easily, and usually it’s a perception bias – you “know” how it’s supposed to look, and until you actually look at it, you will never get past your mental image.

What we want here is to tear down the mental image you’ve created and re-build a new one from actual perception.

4. Draw The Basic Idea Over & Over

This sounds ridiculous, but it’s always worth repeating. Don’t sit and work on one drawing of the idea, feverishly (and foolishly) erasing, reworking, tweaking and basically ruining your work in progress.

You want to keep all these intermediate versions for later. You want to compare them, maybe take one part from one version, another from a later draft. You can’t do this if you keep deleting your work with an eraser. I do this even when working on the Mac – I’ll save countless versions as I work on an idea, so I can go back and review them. Save them now, throw them away later. Hard drives are cheap nowadays. If you don’t do this because of space, go pick up a 250 GB drive – you can get them for around $100 bucks at the time of this writing.

Draw every idea that comes to mind. When that idea starts dying out, start a new one. Don’t be afraid to waste a whole page of your sketchbook on a couple of wildly drawn circles.

I hardly draw in my sketchbook any more. I like to grab a stack of inkjet printer paper and go to town. First, it’s much easier to scan it in later, and second, it doesn’t have that built-in “oh no, I am drawing in my sketchbook” feel to it. It helps my mind work more loosely, like I am doing some casual doodles, instead of working on Art. Most of your hangups are mental, so any trick you can think of to get your mind out of the rut is a good thing.

Draw. Draw. Draw. Draw. Draw till your hand starts hurting. Don’t sharpen that pencil – maybe the fatter lines will bring something out that you hadn’t worked on before. This is stream of consciousness drawing. Get all the ideas out so you won’t try to revisit them. Draw the bad ideas, the ones in your head that you know won’t look good. Draw them out, get them out of the way.

5. Turn OFF the TV/iTunes/iPod/DVD (and close your browswer and email program).

Get those distractions away from you. Turn ’em on later when you found the groove, if you want.

6. Turn ON the TV/iTunes/iPod/DVD

Sometimes you need something to distract you. I know, this violates number 5, but these things aren’t in chronological order. Everybody is different, and sometimes silence, while it can be golden, can also be extremely mocking. Again, we’re trying to get out of a mental rut here. Try whatever works for you.

7. Go Eat!

I can’t tell you how many times I have slaved over sketches and lost track of time. A belly full of energy can do wonders for your creativity. Just don’t take that nap afterwards!

8. Work On Another Creative Project

This could be a project related to cartooning, or something else entirely. Sometimes I will pick up the guitar for a half hour, or go work on some design work. Keep that right side of the brain busy(or is it the left side? Whichever is the creative side, that’s what I am talking about). Keep the creativity flowing, but don’t focus on the problem project. This related to the sleep on it thing as well. Make sure you have a pencil/pen and something to write on handy (I started using blank index cards recently, and love them). You’ll be surprised how often the idea will, seemingly out of nowhere, pop into your consciousness.

9. Steal Ideas From Yourself

I can’t tell you how many times I have found that I had already drawn the basics for something in an old sketch from 3 years ago. Sometimes it’s just enough for inspiration. Sometimes you’ll see something you had worked on in the past which you struggled with, but the end result was superb. Remind yourself that you’ve been in this situation before and you pulled it off majestically.

10. For Cripes Sake, Have Fun!

This is what this is all about, right? Getting paid to do something you enjoy? We’re not creating German Expressionist woodcuts for crying out loud, we need a funny monster driving a cartoon hot rod bus. Enjoy it, dive into it, don’t get so wrapped up in the technique that the content suffers. Laugh, think about what will make others smile when they see it. Don’t try to second guess the client (even if that “client” is yourself). Let it flow naturally, and have some freakin’ fun!

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8 Responses to Ten Tips for Cartoonists to Overcome a Creativity Slump

  1. Missy says:

    Jesus, George. Cripes Sake? You’re turning into a cute but cranky, old Grandpa. Seriously, though, nicely written.

  2. George says:

    I\’d like for these posts to be devoid of profanity, since I figured there might be some kids out there looking for cartooning tips. If you have a suitable replacements word for \”cripes\”, I\’m all ears!

    (Plus, I thought the word \”cripes\” sounded funny…)

  3. Adam Pate says:

    Hey George,

    I have enjoyed reading your blog. Nice tips you got there. Do you do caricatures as well? (that’s what I do, and we live in the same area) Stop in to my blog sometime. Not much there yet but I will be updating about every week soon enough. Nice ad in the back of the freetimes BTW.

  4. Good tips, very practical…

  5. B0ukun says:

    What if none of the above works. Should I retire or commit Sepuku?

  6. @Boukun: Just keep at it, creativity is a process.

  7. Rah says:

    Great tips, I would disagree with NOT going to sleep after refueling though. Sometimes a nana nap clears the mind and gives you fresh food for thought, sleep deprivation can be a killer for creativity.

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