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What Does a Cartoonist Do?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A cartoonist creates drawings used in political commentary, comic strips and animated features. Cartoonists can also illustrate user manuals, installation guides and other texts. Many cartoonists are freelance workers who use a portfolio to solicit work and establish contacts with prospective employers. Job security can vary, depending on the cartoonist's level of skill and established reputation. It might be difficult to break into the market without professional contacts and references.

Like other artists, some cartoonists are self-taught. They might start drawing at an early age and can begin developing a specific tone and style as well as an area of interest. A cartoonist might turn to developing editorial or political cartoons, for example, or might have an interest in illustrating textbooks. With practice and experience, it is possible for a cartoonist to build up a portfolio of examples that showcase his or her skill, style and areas of interest. It might take several years for a cartoonist to build up enough clients to have a stable source of income from cartooning.

Other cartoonists might attend a formal training program. Art school or an art degree can expose a cartoonist to numerous artistic styles and might help with the development of industry connections. Some art students take advantages of internships and other employment opportunities to start work while in school. A degree can be helpful to get a foot in the door with some jobs, but in others, the primary concern is the portfolio.

Many cartoonists work at home and maintain their own studio and working hours. They might accept commissions for pieces in addition to developing work on spec and submitting it to publications that might be interested. Cartoonists also can work on full-length books and series strips rather than individual cartoons. Syndicated cartoonists enjoy stable job security because they need to turn in strips on a regular basis for their employers, and they typically retain employment for an indefinite period of time, as long as members of the public continue to read their work.

It also is possible for a cartoonist to work in an office environment. Publishing houses that have an interest in cartoons might maintain a cartooning staff, as do production companies that make animated films. Office work requires more regular hours but might provide job stability and benefits. Other cartoonists might work for art schools and other education programs, teaching skills to the next generation and helping other cartoonists hone their craft, develop portfolios and establish themselves.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By wander — On Nov 26, 2011

@lonelygod - There are actually a few web cartoonists that I like, but none of them are exactly members of the national cartoonists society. I think to get to that level you really need a formal education and to not work at home, though don't quote me on that.

My favorite isn't updated much anymore, but Homestar Runner is hilarious if anyone wants to check it out. It had a pretty big following online when it was at its peak, with people dressing up like characters from the series for Halloween and so on. My favorite character was by far The Cheat.

By lonelygod — On Nov 25, 2011

It seems to me that one of the best ways to get recognized as a new cartoonist is to become a web cartoonist. It is surprising at the number of cartoonists that have gained some fame from their work online. It is really impressive once a work goes viral.

I personally think it shows that you don't need a fancy cartoonist studio to make it big these days. I suppose as technology gets more accessible, we'll see more and more of these homemade cartoons making it big.

Does anyone have any web cartoons that they really enjoy?

My favorite right now is Simon's Cat, which has a huge following on YouTube and has recently been made into a book.

By Perdido — On Nov 25, 2011

@kylee07drg – Drawing cartoons effectively is hard! I had to switch career paths from cartoonist to illustrator because I just couldn't do it.

However, I could draw realistic images beautifully. I could look at anything and draw it accurately.

I got lots of freelance work with websites in need of artistic illustrations. In lots of cases, my employers would rather pay me to design an original image than pay royalties to use someone else's photographs.

I am so glad I was able to find work as an illustrator. If I had needed to depend on my abilities as a cartoonist for work, I would have gone broke quickly!

By kylee07drg — On Nov 25, 2011

In college, I majored in art, and I met a very talented cartoonist in my illustration class. He soared above the rest of us in coming up with creative ways to illustrate ideas, and even though he couldn't draw realistic images, he could get the point across very well.

One problem he had was coming up with ideas to illustrate on his own. He could not have a lucrative cartoonist career because of that, and so he found a job illustrating children's books.

Because he had text to tell him what to draw, he prospered at this job. I think he probably did better financially with this than he could have done as a comic strip author.

By StarJo — On Nov 24, 2011

In my fifth grade social studies class, we had to come up with a political cartoon. This was very hard for many of us, because we didn't pay attention to the news, and even if we did, we couldn't understand politics.

I ended up doing a goofy cartoon with the two presidential candidates dressed in running gear with their names on the front of their shirts and the caption “running for president.” It had nothing to do with current events, other than the fact that there would soon be an election.

I don't remember anyone else doing anything outstanding, so I didn't feel so bad. I learned that political cartoonists have to have a thorough understanding of their genre, and I gained respect for them for their knowledgeable creativity.

By orangey03 — On Nov 23, 2011

@Mykol – If anyone gets a job as a cartoonist in my little town, they are very fortunate. Artists aren't in demand here, and the ones that do find work often have to supplement their income with another job.

The weekly entertainment guide that comes out in our newspaper features a strip by a local cartoonist. Since he only does one drawing for them a week and doesn't get paid much for that, he has to have a regular job and do cartoons on the side, even though that is his passion.

That is very sad to me. It seems that people with a talent often wind up in the same boat as everyone else, doing something that they don't care for all day long just to make a living.

By myharley — On Nov 23, 2011

The first thing I think of when I think of a cartoonist is someone who draws your caricature at an amusement park or fair.

I have had this done more than once, and some of them are really pretty good. Other times it wasn't worth spending the money on.

I like to watch them as they work and see what the finished product looks like for someone else before I decide if I want them to draw my caricature.

My kids always look forward to this, and some of these have become nice memories that we have framed in their rooms.

There is one man that does an exceptional job, and he has worked at a local amusement park for as long as I can remember. I really don't know what he does during the rest of the year when the park isn't open, but imagine that he uses his artistic talent in some way.

By Mykol — On Nov 22, 2011

Our local paper used to feature a daily cartoonist. These cartoon usually had a political theme, and if you weren't up on all the current news, it was easy to be confused by them.

Most of them were very current and relevant to what was happening in the political world. I am not very artistic, and think it would be hard to come up with a cartoon and caption like that every day.

He was very well known and liked in our local area. When the newspaper began making budget cuts, they no longer paid him for the daily cartoon.

Now one of the local news stations has his daily cartoon on their daily newscast. I have never personally met this cartoonist, but I am sure he was very thankful to have regular work again.

I think that being a professional cartoonist would not have a lot of full time job opportunities - especially in a less populated area.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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