“They’re just silly little cartoons”: Realism as Apex of Artistic Talent

I first learnt to draw – really draw, not just a kindergartener’s squiggles – from Neopets. I’m sure there are those of you around my age who are reading this now and remembering with fond nostalgia the virtual pets website where you could ‘adopt’ cartoons that resembled dogs, cats, gryphons, and other weirder things. At the tender age of 7 or so I discovered this website and spent a large portion of my childhood years on it, and I fell in love with the cute animals. (I was an animal lover at the time and even picked up the Animorphs series because there was a cute bunny on it. How little I was prepared… But I digress.)


A pencil drawing of a Lupe (a wolf-like Neopet) has been scanned it then filled with pink using the bucket tool.
This is the earliest picture on my Photobucket account, probably from around the age of 10 or 11.

I spent years trying to clumsily copy the style of the Neopets. As I grew older, and engaged in other media (like Star Wars) I started trying to transfer those skills to drawing human beings. And I sucked. Every human I tried to draw had a deformed face in the shape of some sort of muzzle, which I’d attempted to mold like so much plasticine into something resembling a human set of features. I recall a particular assignment at the age of 11, where we were tasked to draw a book cover for Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo. It’s a children’s novel about a boy who ends up stranded on an island and meets a mysterious man called Kensuke.

Eager to show off my art skills, I drew with great care a man in the middle of the page, with the title of the book at top, and an island-esque background in the middle. I wish I could retrieve this picture from the sands of time and show you now, but instead I will have to recreate it as faithfully as I can from memory.


A misshapen man stands in front of some palm trees with the text 'Kensuke's Kingdom'. The teacher has added 'B+ Very interesting.' on in red writing.
Kensuke’s Kingdom – it’s where he hides so no one has to face his freakish appearance.

I was dismayed when my teacher claimed it was ‘very interesting’, knowing with instinct that meant it was crap. And it was. I hadn’t figured out yet that my basis in drawing digital animals couldn’t be transfered so simply to humans. No matter- I spent the next several years figuring out just that, and improving as much as I could.

When I was 12, I spent passionate lunchtime breaks drawing Star Wars comics that I thought were incredibly witty, featuring Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in humorous situations. I drew them in cooperation with my best friend at the time. Classmates would come over and snicker at us, the two dorks sitting in the corner at lunchtimes drawing comics, with cartoonish faces.

Anakin stands in profile holding a badly drawn lightsabre.
A recreation of how I would draw Anakin Skywalker. Please envisage this on lined schoolbook paper.

I rarely, if ever, was complimented on my art. Teased for it, mocked even, but no one thought much of my cartoons. I wasn’t particularly successful in Art class, which consisted more of teaching us about various forms of media – like sculpting, or block printing – and recreating famous works of art by Van Gogh, Kahlo, etc, than drawing.

It wasn’t until I was about 14 that I realised why people weren’t impressed with my art. It was time to pick my GCSEs, and, discouraged from pursuing art as a serious subject, I elected not to choose Art as one of my GCSEs. A friend of mine at the time, however, did. Faith* was known for being a great student who did well in every subject, and art was no exception. She faithfully drew realistic art, life drawings of fruit and so on, which everyone admired greatly. “Wow!” our classmates would say, looking through her sketchbook full of recreations of reality. I was dismayed. I had been drawing since I was 4, and no one had ever ‘wow’ed my art. I didn’t draw fruit, and I didn’t do realistic art well. I found it boring and had never tried.

Faith didn’t continue art after GCSE; in fact, she never really drew much again after that. Art hadn’t been a part of her like it was part of me; it was something she fulfilled well under what people wanted of her, but nothing more. I was resentful that someone could be so admired for something they thought of as only a cursory thing. I was resentful that my cartoons were looked down upon, when they brought me so much joy.

When I left school and began university, I didn’t study art; it was again discouraged by my family. But I doodled and drew in my spare time, and people noticed. For the first time people began to refer to me as the arty one, and would admire and laugh at my cartoons. Maybe it was because I began attending a sci-fi fan club at uni, and sci-fi geeks were exactly the sort of people who appreciated and grew up with cartoons and comic books. Maybe it was because I had improved enough by then that my artwork finally passed as something with skill. Whatever it was, it filled me with confidence. I began to follow more comic book artists online, and artists with non-realistic styles who were successful and talented. I began to dedicate myself to studying anatomy, and reading art tutorials, all which I had previously dipped into but had never approached with an adult mind.

Since then, I have grown a new admiration for where comic books came from and the roles they have filled in society over the years. They have acted as analogies for unpopular opinions, exploring the struggle of minorities (such as in X-Men) or becoming platforms for independent artists and writers; they have brightened days and inspired people to do good; they have spawned the mythological figures of our modern era.

I still see people, particularly non-artists, subscribing to this false spectrum where at one end sits ‘low skill’ cartoonish work, and at the other sits ‘high skill’ realistic work. It is reflected in our society – lining the walls of art museums are classic pictures from ye olden days, featuring landscapes and portraits, from days before photography was widespread. In those days art took a different function, since there was no other way to represent and immortalise what was seen before you. Do you see exhibits of cartoonish work? Not many, and not often, although I attended a temporary exhibit at the British Library some years ago on the progression of comic books through the ages. Strange, considering both comic books and political cartoons have been around for quite some time now.

An excellent reference for this is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. In it he posits a three-way spectrum, not of superiority but of style and intention: between “Reality”, Meaning, and The Picture Plane. The entire chapter (Chapter Two) explores the ways different styles have different purposes with much more detail than I could summarise here.

A triangle has been drawn, one vertex is labelled "Reality", the other Meaning, the third The Picture Plane. The triangle has been filled with lots of different styles of faces plotted along this three way categorisation.
From Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Here he has plotted numerous different art styles on his 3-way spectrum of “Reality”, Meaning, and The Picture Plane, represented by this triangle diagram. Full size available here or you can view an interactive version on McCloud’s website here.

I can’t hope to explain it in the same depth as he does. There is a summary done by someone else here, but I thoroughly recommend picking the book up yourself if you’re interested in the history and development of comics and cartoon styles.

2 panels from Understanding Comics. The second panel shows a realistic photo of a man's face, and then a more simplified version of it next to it, and so on, and so on, until it becomes just a circle with 2 dots and a line for a mouth.
From Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. He explains one of the benefits of cartoonism over realism. Text: ‘(1) Defining the cartoon would take up as much space as defining comics, but for now, I’m going to examine cartooning as a form of amplification through simplification. (2) When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential “meaning”, an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.’

Although people now sit up and take notice of my art, recognising the skill in it (not to toot my own horn or anything), I’m still seeing this ‘realism is better’ mindset. Once some plumbers came around to do work on my house, and spotting a piece of art on the wall exclaimed “Did you do this?” “Yes!” I said proudly, thinking they had pointed to one of the many pieces of my own art on the walls. No- they’d managed to find the only bit of art I hadn’t done personally, a realistic painting of a flower I’d rescued from the local charity shop by an unknown artist, a lovely bit of art but not particularly remarkable. I was crushed. They’d ignored every single piece I’d done in favour of that.

More recently, I had a go at a digital portrait of my mother for her Christmas present. I’m not particularly enthralled by painting in a realism style, but I’m at the point in my skillset where (again to toot my own horn) I can have a decent go at any kind of style if I try. I now choose to draw in the comic-inspired style that is my pride and joy, I am not forced into it through some dearth of talent. Regardless, I completed this piece, and after Xmas day I posted it on my social media for the public to see, as I do with every piece of artwork.

One particular comment on that piece was what drove me to write this post. Someone congratulated me on a “step up” from my cartoonish work, as if this marked a new turning point in my talents and eclipsed all the pieces I’d worked so hard on over the past few years – simply because it was in a ‘realistic’ style. All the childhood messages of realism being better began to haunt my brain again. I was seized by feelings of insecurity.

But in the end it only made me more determined to enforce the truth, that realism is not automatically superior to cartoonism. A truth bitterly fought for in my own mind and in my own art, and not one held by myself alone.

So the next time you’re about to remark on someone’s art being better or worse due to realism alone, stop and think for a second. Does your comment really help anyone? Does it help to encourage one narrow form of art, and make budding cartoonish artists feel inadequate about their work? Is your personal taste really representative of what takes more skill and what doesn’t?

Thank you for reading.




Posted in Art

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