"Let's make some funny pictures." - Tex Avery
Over the weekend a bunch of cartoonists met for a quasi-monthly “cartoon jam” at the local independent bookstore Gullivers, which has a nice “Second Story Café” upstairs with a small conference room that can be reserved in advance. Four years ago, after the first Cartoon & Comic Art class was taught during UAF summer sessions, some students started getting together off-campus to draw and continued meeting throughout the year. Since then the roster has expanded to include a roster of professionals, teachers, amateurs and a mixed bag of aspiring talents from the community. Sometimes only a few folks can make it, other times over a dozen people show up – there is about forty names on the email list now, a monthly “jam spam” that (usually) goes out (hopefully) right before the first Sunday as a reminder.
We do a random mix of timed drawing exercises: this jam we started with a sort of visual “telephone” where everyone did a full-page doodle on a sheet of regular Xerox paper, mostly using Sharpies or other markers & pens, for a minute (there is a timer set), it gets numbered, then passed to the next person, who has 15 seconds to look at it, then it’s turned face-down onto a pile in the middle of the table, and you have one minute to recreate that drawing from memory. Then the cycle starts all over with the next person, and so on and so on, all the way around the table. If there are a lot of participants, like there was for this jam, it can get pretty wild as the original drawing inevitably mutates over the course of a couple rounds. Afterwards there is a little insanity/hilarity while we try and match up the drawings in sequence, and everyone then takes turns showing the progression (or regression, depending on the piece) which is a guaranteed laugh when the first page is held up alongside the final one.
The next exercise is to take a 5.5x17” strip of paper, fold it in half, then half again so there is a four-panel strip. Each person starts with panel one (read left-to-right) and draws a scene or starts telling a story. Then that panel gets folded back out of view, and the strip is passed over a couple people to someone else who then adds the fourth, or final panel, whatever they want to come with. Then that panel gets folded back and hidden from view, and a third person gets to complete the second panel in the strip, based on whatever was drawn on the first panel (which is visible for this instance). Finally, it all gets passed to a fourth person, who unfolds everything and attempts to create a third panel that will link the beginning and ending of the strip. Given the random and relative individual talents, styles and techniques (not to mention moods), this more often than not results in some surprising and bizarre little sequences that may or may not tell a coherent story. Usually a few to five minutes is spent on each panel, so a little more care can be taken with the drawings, a couple people even lightly pencil things out first and use different drawing implements for a variety of lines and textures.
Lastly we did a variation on the classic “Exquisite Corpse” originally concocted by a group of Surrealists: in this case we taped together two of the aforementioned strips (since there was eight people this worked out perfect = one person per panel). Everyone then had a few minutes to create an image on the first panel, and to also extend some lines or marks over the fold crease maybe about an eighth of an inch into the next panel. These randomly cryptic shapes, textures or lines are then expanded upon by the next person after it gets passed over (again folding over the first panel so as to hide it from view). It then keeps getting passed down around the whole table, repeating the folding/hiding/riffing off the exposed segment until everyone has added a panel to each strip, which is then unfolded and narrated to general amusement. It can quickly turn into a hallucinatory, abstracted sequence of images that may or might not maintain a thematically linked progression; or become instead a nonsensical unfolding of characters, landscapes, images and objects. It can be a real revelation to see them afterwards, as sometimes there are unexpected surprises, not to mention the head-scratching.
One exercise that we didn’t get around to this time was a personal favorite one of mine: on a regular 8.5x11” sheet of paper a caption is written across the top. This caption can alternatively derived from passing around a hat that everyone’s thrown in a noun, a verb and an adjective on separate scraps of paper – then mixed up and randomly drawn from, making for an even crazier start-up image. The page is passed over to the next person, and they have sixty seconds to illustrate whatever situation is described by the text. The words are then folded back over out of sight, the page passed over, and then the next person has 15 seconds to caption the revealed illustration. After that, the image is folded over back out of sight so that now only the new caption is visible, and the next person in turn has one minute to illustrate the text, and so on and so forth for a few trips around the circle. Very important to remember to number each page, as there usually only room for a few captions and a couple panels on each sheet, and as it progresses around the table, more and more pages will have to be kept together in their respective sets. It might sound confusing the way I describe it, but after an initial round it smoothes out and everyone catches on.
One thing besides basic camaraderie these exercises help to do is provide a catalyst or jump-start to finding creative solutions, and in the process flushing out the blockage that builds up in everyone’s thinking processes. It is as important to spend the time exercising those artistic muscles in your brain, as it is staying physically dexterous by using the tools of the trade. Having mere seconds to come up with an idea often frees up the energy and stimulates a reflexive, spontaneous and sometimes subconscious reaction, which in turn might help to do a mental end-run around any stifling freeze-up in the creative process. I tend to get so tightly wound while alone in the studio up that this approach can be almost terrifying, and I’ve literally draw a blank until the breakthrough of saying to hell with it and just drawing whatever uncorks and the ideas begin to flow. Ignoring the weight of preconceived bullshit is a healthy counterpart to “think before you ink” syndrome, where it becomes a mental infinite regression and nothing gets put on paper. It all just helps to stay fast and flexible, circumventing the usual process by which I “work”, a methodical series of techniques that are effective, but run the risk of becoming stale over time. It's counter-intuitive to my normal way of drawing, and stressful to do sometimes, but after every jam I usually feel artistically pumped up and ready to get back to the drawing board again.
"Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems." - Bill Watterson