September 11, 2007

on cartooning


[December, 2007 marks the 10-year anniversary of my "cartoons drawn on the back of business cards" format. Here's some random notes on the subject, in no particular order:]

1. I came up with the format in early December, 1997 in Chicago. I moved to New York about a week and a half later. But the format didn't really gel till I got to the East Coast, a couple of months later.

2. At last count I had done over 5,000 of them. That was over two years ago.

3. I never really experienced the "One Big Moment", the Tipping Point etc. The schtick just built up slowly, day by day.

4. When people ask me what I do, I never say, "I'm a cartoonist". But the other day a friend of mine made a compelling case for me to start doing so. Not sure what to think yet...

5. I never expected the cartoons to get successful.

6. The way most cartoonists make a living utterly horrifies me.

7. Constantly setting new goals, artistic or otherwise, is harder than it looks.

8. Not caring what other people think is harder than it looks. Especially AFTER you get successful.

9. As I get older the temptation to "tone it down" grows stronger every day. I'm glad I still can resist it, most of the time.

10. My favorite cartoonist for the last while has been David Shrigley, long since before he was hired by Hallam Foe to animate the title sequence. I first met him in Glasgow in the early 1990s. He's a really lovely guy in person.

11. Musicians have always inspired me far more than other cartoonists, with perhaps the exception of Charles Schultz, Saul Steinberg, Ralph Steadman, Ronald Searle and Edward Gorey.

12. Instead of carrying a portfolio around, I just keep a couple of hundred images on my iPod. Seems to work well enough. Luckily my format is well suited to the device.

[All you need to start building an empire- drawing pen, blank business cards, iPod, smokes, lighter, and a local pub that serves a good pint. Click on image to enlarge etc.]

13. Everything I own would easily fit in the back of a small pickup truck. I've never been into possessions. The same was true for my late paternal grandfather, probably the most resonant influence in my life.

14. I find it very liberating to have a format that allows you to store a few years worth of work in a single shoebox.

15. If you offered me $10,000 for this cartoon, I'd probably turn you down.

16. One of the smartest moves I ever made was to figure out that making money indirectly off the cartoons was far easier than trying to make the money directly. If I could teach gapingvoid readers just one thing, that would be it.

17. I can’t imagine how I would have made the cartoons successful without the internet. I just can’t imagine a likely alternative scenario.

18. There are tons of cartoonists who write and/or draw better than me. If my work has one thing going for it, it’s the quite unique and unconventional life that I’ve always seemed to lead.

19. I’ve never envied people with “normal” lives. Nor have I ever envied the people without them.

20. My work generally isn’t for sale. You have to ask me to give you a drawing. And I have to be in the right mood at the time.

21. I have found the standard “struggling artist” myths and stereotypes mostly full of crap. Powerful magnets for Bullshitters, to say the least.

22. I don’t envy, admire or like pretty much 90% of the artists I meet. That’s not me just being old and jaded, that was just as true when I was a teenager.

23. I want to draw cartoons that rip the face off the reader. But in a good way.

24. I have no artistic ambition outside the cartoons. No desire to write a novel or anything like that.

25. I would never recommend to a young person to pursue a career in fine art. Even if she had a talent that was off the scale, I would be slightly hesitant.

26. The most important word in cartooning is “continuity”. Drawing a good cartoon isn’t difficult. Doing it repeatedly, day-in, day-out is far, far harder.

27. Cartoonists who don’t like to think much about the actual business they’re in, who are fond of saying, “I just want to draw” deserve everything they get.

28. Drugs and alcohol are lousy substitutes for inspiration.

29. The older I get, the more solitude the work seems to require.

30. The longer it takes you to become successful, the harder it will be for somebody else to take it away from you.

31. I increasingly find that, as I get older, the only subjects worth writing about are Love, Loss, Religion and Ambition.

32. Ten years ago, when my current cartoon format was “new”, there was a certain magic to it that now I SIMPLY CAN'T RECAPTURE. It took me many years to just let it go.

33. The format works for me because it forces me to keep things simple.

34. If the early days, most of my drawing was done sitting at a bar. Nowadays most of the work is done sitting at the kitchen table. They both have their pros and cons.

35. There’s something about being a celebrity, even a micro-celebrity that poisons the soul.

36. I can totally see why so many artists eventually become recluses, living in the boonies. I find myself increasingly heading in that direction, and I doubt I’ll lift a finger to stop it.

37. In the early days of the cartoons I was living in Manhattan. It would really tickle me when people would describe my cartoons as "SO NEW YORK". Though now a wee voice tells me that if I still lived there, I'd probably be dead by now. I think a lot of ex-New Yorkers feel that.

38. One of the great things about the format is, hey, they're just doodles on the back of business cards. It doesn't matter if they're good or not.

39. If you told me ten years ago that I would still be using this format pretty much exclusively in 2007, I don't think I would've believed you.

40. I have never really given any serious thought to changing my format in all these ten years. Sometimes I find that odd.

41. Art is simply using the tools at hand to ask the question, "What is possible?" Painting, music, literature, it doesn't matter what media one uses. What matters is the question.

42. No artist wants their best work behind them. But that day always comes.

43. I was fortunate. Somehow I managed to get the B-Plan baked into the A-Plan. And vice versa.

44. The good news is, my drawings will probably be worth a lot of money one day. The other good news is, I probably won’t be alive to see it.

45. I feel extraordinarily fortunate and grateful.

[Related Link: "How To Be Creative". 10,000 words from 2004 etc.]

Posted by hugh macleod at September 11, 2007 11:33 AM | TrackBack

There are two things that makes one a Cartoonist. Drawing cartoons, and declaring you are a Cartoonist.

Keep scribbling!

Posted by: stephen price at September 11, 2007 11:52 AM

I suddenly had the urge to watch you draw. A brief search didn't reveal such a video. Does one exist?

Posted by: Craig at September 11, 2007 12:54 PM

Hugh, among your random notes I find many favorites.

As wonderful it is to nurture a child in oneself, it is essential to substitute dependence with integrity and to enjoy it as a child would.

Posted by: Shonzilla at September 11, 2007 1:12 PM

You are a great cartoonist, no doubt in my mind. Whatever "mojo" that you think you've lost is all in your head....people still love your cartoons and are clamoring for you draw more.

I like that you post about 10 cartoons at a time now....I really enjoy taking a few minutes to look them all over. It is a different way of consuming them. It might feel cheaper to you to post them in bulk, but I'm the consumer and I like reading them that way.

Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Patrick Meninga at September 11, 2007 1:25 PM

Many many really good points !

Posted by: Yannick Lejeune at September 11, 2007 1:57 PM

"41. Art is simply using the tools at hand to ask the question, "What is possible?" Painting, music, literature, it doesn't matter what media one uses. What matters is the question."

Thank you for that.

Posted by: Matt Secoske at September 11, 2007 2:18 PM

Now that I've reread with coffee in my system and my eyes properly open.

Love, loss, religion, ambition. I think Shakespeare pretty much agreed with you there. Although I have in my brain there are 7 story lines...

Drug, alcohol and inspiration. The more young artists (and old) that get this message, the better. Keep saying it for them.

Chicago. Thrilled that your finally giving chi-town its due in your story.

Recluse & celebrity. While reclusivity might soothe the poison of celebrity, don't stop your unconvential life. Collect stories till the end.

Keep doodling my friend.

Posted by: Leah at September 11, 2007 2:21 PM


Posted by: D.J. Coffman at September 11, 2007 2:31 PM

These wise words speak to me. Everyone should pursue who they are with such mind griping, relentless terror and love. It is what God made us for.

Posted by: Louis F. Springer at September 11, 2007 2:41 PM

Not much to add here, I just found the post exhilarating enough that I wanted to participate somehow. This is me doing that.

Posted by: Seth E at September 11, 2007 2:45 PM

This is such a great post! Truly awesome!

>>Drugs and alcohol are lousy substitutes

It took my 25 years to figure that out but I finally got it. 332 days. Those Marlboro reds sure looked good though...

>>Love, Loss, Religion and Ambition.


What I really wanted to say though was pleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease
PLEASE! NEVER! TONE! IT! DOWN! The rawnewss of your insight, your fearlessness and uncompromising desire to rip off the fcace of the reader (in a good way) is what makes it work.
Lose that and you might as well go home.

Just one man's not so humble opinion...

Rock the hell on you amazing bastard!

Posted by: AndyT13 at September 11, 2007 3:02 PM

Funny thing. I've followed your work on the blog for quite some time now and just assumed that you are a philosopher with a unique medium. It simply never crossed my mind to 'classify' your work as cartoons.....
The business card format has a distilling effect, keeps your expressions brief, yet provides room for enormous ideas. Keep drawing, continue to stand in awe of the things that appear on the cards in front of you.

Posted by: Roy at September 11, 2007 3:07 PM

Great list! Interesting to see the hooked up iPod though.. I find the inane nonsense most people are talking about at the pub pretty good fodder for social insight ;-)

Posted by: Peter Cooper at September 11, 2007 3:27 PM

Nicely said and nicely done - thanks for continuing to put it out there.

Posted by: Marc Farnum Rendino at September 11, 2007 3:39 PM

That was a fantastic mini self-examination Hugh

Posted by: tomdog at September 11, 2007 3:54 PM

I'm sure you've heard that you can visit Edward Gorey's House, I went a few weeks ago as I do every year.

Posted by: tomdog at September 11, 2007 4:03 PM

Thanks for sharing all this, Hugh. Although I only recently became familiar with you and your work, it's great to hear your story on how you've evolved in the past decade.

I really like point #41, "what is possible?" Every time I sit with a blank piece of paper in front of me, that is the real question, isn't it? "What is possible ..." takes away fear and replaces it with faith.

Rock on, Hugh!

Posted by: latinbombshell at September 11, 2007 4:04 PM

Lovely words...

Posted by: James Cherkoff at September 11, 2007 4:32 PM

As a fellow cartoonist/illustrator, number 16 intrigues me:

"16. One of the smartest things I ever did was figure out that making money indirectly off the cartoons was far easier than trying to make the money directly. If I could teach gapingvoid readers just one thing, that would be it."

While I realize no one wants to give away the keys, a little more detail would be appreciated.

Great post. And great cartoons.

Posted by: George Coghill at September 11, 2007 4:33 PM

I like the iPod idea a lot... but is there anything to it that's particularly 'special' to the iPod? Resolution, format, software, etc.?

Posted by: Rachel at September 11, 2007 4:48 PM

Man, I'd love to see some video. That would be sweet. And fer chrissakes DON'T tone it down.

Posted by: Michael Martine at September 11, 2007 5:02 PM

Immensely interesting. Thank you.

Posted by: Paul Orleman at September 11, 2007 6:29 PM

Lovely list Hugh. The Love, Loss, Religion and Ambition gets to the heart of many things.

Posted by: Rachel Clarke at September 11, 2007 8:53 PM

Hey... This is why I/We love you.............. PS start thinking about it................. big love xxxxxxxxxx

Posted by: Catherine at September 11, 2007 10:15 PM

Another round of good cheer and well wishes from a reader. I too am taken by the simple truth of #41; something this artist loses sight of from time to time. And as for the simple life- rock on (to borrow your phrase). Enjoy life's adventure!

Posted by: peggy at September 11, 2007 10:47 PM

regarding 22: you do envy others because otherwise you wouldnt use Alexa to put me down ... so you are not wholly sincere in this list, matey!

Posted by: Comic Strip Blogger at September 11, 2007 11:44 PM

I've always loved these introspective posts that you write. The one about creative is still one of my favorites.

While this one is about cartooning, there's still a lot of information that you could apply to other things we do in life.

Posted by: Lyndon at September 12, 2007 12:24 AM

Love #8. Thanks for this.

Posted by: Ryan Karpeles at September 12, 2007 12:36 AM

I absolutely love and appreciate you and your mind, Hugh. I glean a great deal here when I visit. I'm digging the new observations about the format and enjoying your transformation into maturity. It rocks to watch.

Posted by: at September 12, 2007 7:12 AM

Thanks Hugh. We never hear that kind of insight - it is generous of you to share it.

Maybe the drive to tone it down means the rage within is mutating to more thoughtful insight? The creativity and imagination will hopefully never dim.

Posted by: Frank at September 12, 2007 8:22 AM

Here's a video of Hugh doing his work:

Posted by: Robert Scoble at September 12, 2007 11:45 AM

Heartfelt and inspirational Hugh. It's been great to hang out with you even briefly and hope we get a chance to hang out in London again.

Posted by: Tantek at September 12, 2007 12:38 PM

Thanks for these reflections. There is real wisdom here that I will share with many people today. Thanks.

Posted by: Ed Brenegar at September 12, 2007 12:48 PM

Awesome Hugh. Thoughful and insightful. As ever.

Posted by: Paul Fabretti at September 12, 2007 1:27 PM

One word - brilliant - thanks for encouraging me through your words and pictures.

Posted by: Dennis Howlett at September 12, 2007 1:58 PM

"16. One of the smartest things I ever did was figure out that making money indirectly off the cartoons was far easier than trying to make the money directly. If I could teach gapingvoid readers just one thing, that would be it."

Those words just drasticly changed the events in my life this upcoming year and a half. Big time.

Thank you!

Posted by: André Hedetoft at September 12, 2007 2:01 PM

Back to work, Hugh

Posted by: Steve Gillmor at September 12, 2007 8:27 PM

This is why I still read your blog Hugh - simply fabulous. Keep drawing, keep creating.

Posted by: at September 12, 2007 9:25 PM

That cartoon that you would not sell for $10,000 is on the back of my business card. Thanks for leasing it to me.

Posted by: shel israel at September 13, 2007 6:04 AM

Hugh, you are the pioneer's pioneer. Your work on global microbranding has inspired me to communicate the concept to the masses. Tomorrow in fact, I'm once again presenting my thoughts on your thoughts and work to a group at a local Chamber of Commerce. So you simply cannot quit or soften your edge my friend. Forget labeling yourself a "cartoonist". Those folks are great, however, you are the "SHIFT" in thinking we all crave. You catalyze creativity from order another pint and buy a box of pens...cheers mate and the format works perfectly...

Posted by: w schwabe at September 13, 2007 4:42 PM

Great list, great read. It's a tad early for this, but congratulations on 10 years of business card cartooning.

Posted by: Albone at September 13, 2007 4:54 PM

I love your cartoons. I enjoy your blog. It's refreshing to witness the "examined life". Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Lloyd Lemons at September 13, 2007 5:15 PM

Now I'm all misty eyed.

Posted by: Jed at September 13, 2007 6:40 PM

big fan. even bigger fan now. thanks.

Posted by: katie Levitt at September 13, 2007 6:49 PM

what is possible?

expression is the core of an artist's soul. just can't keep quiet about it. being able to control your moods (or at least more than the average guy!) is what makes you worth telling other people about.

Posted by: silvino henriques at September 13, 2007 7:33 PM

Love your list - and the cartoons - and don't stop biting. I wondered about this one:

35. There’s something about being a celebrity, even a micro-celebrity that poisons the soul.

Why is that so?

You told me once to be a 'global micro-brand' and I love the term - even though I am more like a very local micro-brand :-) But I think the poison might come partly from believing in it? Because I am seriously not a micro brand - I am just a person - I am even a micro person sometimes :-)

Hope to see you soon here or there!

Posted by: Trine-Maria at September 13, 2007 9:44 PM

Gosh, you sound like your own eulogist. I want to hear what you'll do when the cards run out.

Posted by: Dick Rowan at September 14, 2007 2:49 AM

Beautiful thoughts Hugh, thanks for sharing.

And another perspective on the "magic you can't recapture" and increasing reclusitude (made that word up ...) - creative and spiritual endeavors never stay static, they are born, grow, evolve and reach a ripe age, and possibly die. But then another door opens, twists and turns emerge and creative birth happens again. This "quieter" period in your artistic life is perhaps the transition time to "something else."

I like to think of things that way, anyway ... that as we grow and evolve at each stage of life, new, creative work grows with us. Kind of an alternative perspective to the 82 year old movie star with cracked lipstick, clinging to her early fame.

Doesn't mean you should stop what you are doing of course (please don't!), but I am excited and curious to see what the next decade will bring.

Enjoy yourself, and thanks for always sharing your journey with us.


Posted by: Pamela Slim at September 14, 2007 5:27 AM

You rock Hugh. Keep on the good work.

I have taken fwe liberties to post a couple of your cartoons on my blog (obviously with due credits).

I always thought no one knows (or could understand) what I thought about life and work and here you are with exact same thoughts (in lot of cases - you are ten steps ahead - talking about things that I havent thought about) and that too on the back of the business cards.

Thanks for being such a relief from millions of tons of gibberish spread on the internet.


P.S.: Wondering if all webpages were measurable in grams, would we exceed the weight of the planet .. ?

P.P.S.: Law of conservation of energy - You produce something by using something and sum total of Energy in the planet remains same (E=mc[sqr]). When creating websites is simple and in many cases automated, what law are we following .. ?

Posted by: s4ur4bh at September 14, 2007 5:45 AM

Happy Decade of rocking the backside of business cards, Hugh!

Posted by: Ken Layne at September 14, 2007 6:03 AM

Great read.

"All you need to start building an empire- drawing pen, blank business cards, iPod, smokes, lighter, and a local pub that serves a good pint."

I got all that down pat (well, besides the blank business cards). Let's hope it works.

Posted by: Lisa at September 14, 2007 8:25 AM

I remember in Chicago when you showed me the cartoon: Three words in descending order of importance:
I thought at the time: "I'll never be as smart as this guy." Boy was I right. Very inspiring Hugh. Your outlook (which isn't manufactured) is pure inspiration for so many people. Bravo.

Posted by: Rand at September 14, 2007 4:44 PM

I've been reading your old stuff since yesterday. Now I can understand myself. Thanks

Posted by: matt p at September 14, 2007 9:26 PM

i think the only advice you left off was that one must completely disregard everything you just said and figure it out on their own.

Posted by: Jake Keating at September 15, 2007 3:09 AM

excelentes consejos
algunos los llevaba a cabo
siempre viene bien el refrescarlos


Posted by: thefurgoner at September 17, 2007 5:26 PM

Speaking of being able to store several years of work in a shoebox--I came across a slang term "shoobies". In the 1960s, city leaders in Atlantic City, NJ, desperate to stop the city's decline referred to people who came to town just for the day as "shoobies". The name came from the belief that these people would stuff everything they needed for a day at the beach into a shoebox. This was a derogatory term--the officials wanted people to stay in hotels and spend their money at restaurants, etc. I read this in a great book called "Boardwalk of Dreams" by Bryant Simon.

Posted by: Chris Hiester at September 18, 2007 9:57 AM

Why would you NOT recommend a young person pursue a career in fine arts? Please elaborate.

Posted by: Curious at September 18, 2007 6:17 PM

It's fascinating to read these insights — and I wonder if the general public will ever understand the energy and long-term commitment successful artists put into their work/vision. Alas, there will always be that crowd of "struggling artists" who are just posing as "fine artistes", but at least they're easy to identify...and steer clear of.

Your #30 is really interesting: something along the lines of the physics of success. The more energy one puts into an endeavor over a long period of time...your point really dilutes the whole over-night success phenomenon and explains why most don't last.

Posted by: KG at September 19, 2007 4:23 PM

Hugh, I've always had your blog listed in my cartoons quick link folder. You cartoonist you.
hugs from Texas

Posted by: Cynthia at September 19, 2007 11:52 PM

You are a self-obsessed twerp.

Posted by: i make junk mail for a living at September 23, 2007 8:24 PM