I have recently been wrestling with re-learning how to draw. The loss of my former ability has led me to reflect on what drawing has meant to me in my 30 year career as a cartoonist, and how and why I came to be so interested in drawing in the first place.
Back when I was very little, when my active interest in drawing began, there was no ’creative’ person in my family, apart from my Mother who played piano, and certainly nobody that drew. However, my Father enjoyed cartoons, whether in magazines or animated films, and I remember being endlessly fascinated at a very young age by the idle doodles on his desk blotter; silly faces and the like. His younger brothers, my uncles, could be relied upon as a source of cartoon books, comics, Mad magazine, and so forth, and in general, I grew up in an environment appreciative of cartoons. As I got older, I certainly never had to fight anyone to pursue drawing as a career. While many of my colleagues had to battle their families, I’m lucky that my own encouraged my interests.
Drawing became a big part of my life since as far back as 7 or 8 years old. I drew before then, of course, as all children do. I had drawing battles with many of my classmates in 1st and 2nd class, and at that age everyone drew, at least to some degree. But the beginning of my serious interest in drawing dates from the time when most kids were turning away from it, around the age of 8. Children become self conscious at that age and reject anything identified as childish. I too remember self-importantly announcing to my mother that I was too old to lick the excess cake batter from her cooking bowl, much to the great delight of my Father, who licked it clean with great relish (though it is unclear which gave him more glee; the tasty morsel or the crestfallen expression of an 8 year old realising he’d given away the crown jewels?)
I became more intrigued by drawing rather than less, and maybe the solo-escapism of drawing became part of its appeal. When I had turned 7, my family moved to a new town, and I felt disconnected, and again when we moved abroad 3 years later. If this had not happened, would I have clung so determinedly to drawing? This interesting thought was first pointed out to me by my childhood friend Peter Lawlor when we were both adults. As a child, I deeply regretted the family move, but if Peter is right, I may have gotten something wonderful, in addition to his friendship, in return for the brief period of childhood alienation.
After the age of 8, when most classmates lost interest in drawing, the one exception was a boy called Warwick Cook. While I staked out the lowbrow, cartoon end of the drawing spectrum, Warwick was a fully fledged watercolour painter, doing beautiful landscapes of the rugged bush around our town. In my memory, these were very sophisticated paintings for a boy of 9 or 10 and I admired Warwick’s ability a great deal. He really was a remarkable boy; good at sports, a good student and one of those likeable people who can mingle easily with everyone, perhaps because of his easy facility with many different facets of life. Rather than grabbing obsessively onto drawing with both hands as I did, (sometimes to the detriment of other things) it was merely one of many things that he enjoyed.
Warwick made a great impression on me, but I only have memories of him from 2nd-4th class, because I went abroad in 5th class and he’d moved to a new town later on, when I returned. From mutual friends, I’d hear of Warwick’s exploits during high school, and expected great things from him. Sure enough, many years later, when I began working in animation, Warwick went to study painting at art school in London, and he seemed well on his way. Tragically, he was struck by a tube train in a ghastly accident, when he slipped from a wet and crowded underground railway platform one rainy New Years Eve. I had not seen him for 10 years by then, but keenly felt his loss just the same. Warwick will always stay with me as one of my early inspirations at the dawn of my interest in drawing.
It’s hard to overstate the effect that adult attention can have on a kid, especially when not from family members. When I was 8 years old my parents held a party at our house, and I was introduced to Anne Gunner, a student of Dad’s who herself was an educator; an art teacher. On hearing that I liked to draw, she asked to see my drawings and made an ego-gratifying song-and-dance about whatever crude scribblings I showed her (perhaps even some of those here). I remember that she immediately talked to me as one artist to another. Was this a semi-theatrical show for the benefit of amused adults nearby? Possibly, but the important thing is that her unsolicited attention was like water sprinkled on a flower, and I responded to it. She told me that as an aspiring artist I must absolutely make a portfolio. I had no idea what this was, but earnestly understood it to be of paramount importance.
So, hilariously, at the age of 8, I gathered together all my drawings and compiled a crude ‘portfolio’, using left-over wallpaper from the renovation of the ’good room’ of our house for the cover. Not clear on what the purpose of such a thing must be, in practice it became a sort of scrapbook; half my own drawings and half whatever interested me at the time, and I carried that thing everywhere. Many of my childhood drawings, including those here, survive to this day mainly because I kept them in that binder, although it was a close thing; a few years later, when my drawings began to markedly improve, I almost threw out these early scribblings in a fit of tween self-consciousness, but I am so glad now that I did not.
A few weeks after meeting Anne Gunner, there was a surprise parcel for me at the front door, even though it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas. She’d sent a huge box of art supplies; crayons, brushes, poster paints, plasticine, and other goodies that lasted me for years, as well as some Walter T. Foster art-instruction books that I still have to this day. I have no idea where Anne Gunner is now, though I’ve tried searching for her on the web several times, but if I ever did get her contact info, I would like to thank her for taking an interest in a 8-year-old boy and following up with a thoughtful gift that changed his life in a very real way.
Drawing; thinking about it, and consciously trying to get ’better’ by understanding how other people did it, became my focus. I’d always loved animation and attempts to draw famous cartoon characters were there right from the very beginning. Though these scribbles are of Disney characters, the cartoons that played most often on TV were by Warner Bros. and they made me laugh hardest and got most of my attention. It wasn’t only that cartoons were funny, but that mere drawings could move and seem alive was magic to me at that age (and hand-drawn animation has that effect on me even now). I wanted to be able to do that too. There’s something about plucking an idea out of my own mind, shaping it, and making it graphically ’real’ on a piece of paper so that it appears to have a life of its own, that endlessly fascinated me, both then and now, and it’s equally intriguing if someone else does it.
The ability for human beings to do marvelous things in sports, the arts or the sciences; the various ways in which the human mind and body dance together, exerts a fascination over all of us, each to their own preference. But the ability to draw, to capture a personal slice of the world, or a quirky phantasm of the mind, is the particular area of human achievement that intrigues me. Over time, drawing became not only a fascination, but also my chosen means of expression. Where someone else may strum a guitar, kick a ball, or dance to vent their pent up emotions, drawing became my go-to means of expressing the inexpressible.
Why were the drawings in magazines and TV cartoons were so good; ’How come I can’t draw like that?’ Seeing this crude page of bird drawings (an attempt to draw the Warner Brothers’ Chicken Hawk so obsessed with Foghorn Leghorn) brings back a memory of a frustrating day trying to draw beaks; ’How do they make the beaks look so good in cartoons?’ I’m not sure why the inability to do something ’well’ led to the abandonment of certain pursuits (mathematics, sport, getting the girls to like me) whereas, my inability to draw was an obstacle to overcome. I lost interest in many things that I was not good at (that list was long indeed) but drawing held my attention despite the frustration of constant failure. I drew no better than the next child, but stayed with it. Why is that? I have thought about it often, but ultimately, I do not know whether it was circumstantial that I would fall in love with drawing, or inevitable, but love it I do.
People who don’t draw sometimes ask me ’When did you start drawing?’ I answer ’When did you stop?’ because every child draws and I just never stopped. I believe that the amount of time a child spends drawing, and more importantly enjoying drawing, is the key to artistic ability, rather than innate talent, which is a factor too, but not as often as you’d expect. Whether a child enjoys drawing enough to stay with it is not tied to their ability, in the beginning anyway. Looking at drawings by a group of 4 and 5 year olds, it is hard to predict which of the kids will become artists in future, and which will become accountants. At around age 8 or 9, the difference in artistic ability becomes more obvious, but by then, many children have already abandoned drawing. Those who enjoy it, despite the frustration, will keep drawing, and the extra time spent scribbling makes a difference that you can see.
For me, drawing was an interest, an escape, and it even played a part in healing me at times. Being alone, drawing in my room, or figuring out how others did the drawings that amused me in magazines and books, is a constant memory of my childhood. I have a vivid memory of a magazine article about the animation director Chuck Jones I read at around the age of 9. I’d already noticed that his name on the cartoon credits meant something hilarious was about to happen, so this article didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but it was full of pictures from the cartoons themselves, and this was more precious to me than gold. In an age when every home was not connected to the internet or a digital printer, we didn’t have access to images whenever we wanted, so an article about cartoons complete with pictures I could cut out and keep was a treasure. Reverently, I glued them into my ’portfolio’.
Children are very concerned with ’growing up’ and so abandoning drawing can be a self conscious attempt to leave ’childish’ things behind. When we learn to read, we move from picture books, then to picture books with some words, then to story books with spot illustrations, and finally to books that are all text with no pictures at all. Thus, we are culturally conditioned to associate pictures with immaturity. Even my career as a cartoonist is rooted firmly in children’s media; animation is occasionally done for adults, but not very often, so if you want to draw as I do for a living you must make your peace with your role as babysitter. Even though you could make the case that running around chasing a ball is childish too, the fact that adults stay focused on sports means that children stay with it too, but we have ingrained in us that pictures are for kids.
The fact that our education system doesn’t place much importance on visual skills beyond kindergarten is another reason that many children give up drawing. At a similar age, we are being awarded prizes for academic and athletic achievement, so improvement in those areas (and overcoming the frustrations of your limitations) is rewarded. In my experience that was not the case with drawing, where the rewards were all purely personal.
On the other hand, drawing skill not being rewarded, or even acknowledged by ’the system’ was a large part of its appeal to me as a child. Making pictures was the only thing that gave me pleasure that wasn’t contingent on the opinions of team members, class mates, parents or teachers. After about the age of 10, none of my other classmates drew, so it wasn’t a question of competing or being compared to anyone else. Drawing was something that I could do on my own, free from any judgements or comparisons with others.
In adulthood, when I discovered the camaraderie of the art community on the internet, I wished there’d been such a fantastic resource when I was a child. In a small country town, to have had access to a community of like-minded people around the globe would have been marvelous, it seemed to me. But I’ve come to realize that being left to my own devices was probably just what my frail ego needed. By the time I was about 13, my younger brother Rob too took an interest in drawing. It shames me now to remember that at the time, I found this a source of insecurity rather than joy, as I do now. At that age, I’d finally found a persona and identified myself as ’the kid who drew’ and feared sharing the title, as ridiculous as that now sounds. Thankfully, my shrill note of insecurity passed, Rob continued to draw, and in fact he later went to art school. I’m happy to say that he paints to this day, and we often swap notes about the creative process.
At times, it seemed a disadvantage that my interest in drawing grew in isolation, because I had no one to speak with about my interests. Yet, it was really an amazing advantage, because I had many years to develop my own voice, free of comparisons with others. Eventually, my lifelong interest in drawing led me to do it for a living rather than solely to amuse myself, as I did as a child. By the time I was compared to others, and as a pro-cartoonist it is a fact of life, I’d already built a solid relationship with drawing. Even though I was constantly challenged, and worked daily in the presence of masters whose abilities far overshadow my own, it didn’t change the fact that I love drawing. But if I’d been subjected to the ego acid-bath of this process earlier, my frail adolescent ego may not have survived the competition, and I might have tossed drawing aside, as I did so many other worthy pursuits.
As a pro-cartoonist I was surrounded by other people who drew, and drew astonishingly well. Like it or not, I had to accept that I was no longer ‘special’. But in exchange for this reality-check, I became part of a creative collaboration, which is wonderfully rewarding in another way. I grew to take pleasure in the prowess of others, and seeing those phantoms plucked from other people’s minds and then made ‘real’, via their drawings gave me daily delight. Sometimes, it is hard for a pro to summon up that spirit of pure joy that drawing gave as a child, because the drawings are now tied to budgets and schedules, and generally bogged down in other mundane things, yes, even including the judgements of others that I was blissfully spared as a kid. But I think that my best work as a pro came on those days when I could somehow find that childish, playful joy, and pour it into a picture. That spirit sustains me now that I’m learning to draw again these many years later.
It is difficult for me to imagine my life over the past 30 years without drawing, which ultimately led me out of my home town, took me around around the world, allowed me to see (and sketch!) many foreign lands, and connects me to so many of my friends today. Animation is at times a topsy-turvy business, and I’ve been at it long enough to have seen the great breathing cycle of the industry expand and contract several times already. It can be nerve wracking, but it’s never felt like the wrong choice. I’ve loved living a life led by drawing, and I sincerely hope to get back at it one day; as a south-paw now that my trusty right hand is kaput.
But what about that alternate-universe version of me pointed out by my childhood friend, Peter? An other James Baker whose Dad did not accept a job in another state, and who may not have been briefly thrown on his own inner resources, and might never have discovered the lifelong joys of drawing? Well, what did HE do for a career for the past 30 years, I wonder?