Cartoon illustration of a landscape
Image courtesy gyathanarts / Pixabay

Painting advice for artists > Hey, “What’s up, Doc?” Today’s article deals with a very annoying problem that crops up from time to time in some of my students’ paintings. Annoying to them, but the good news is that there is an easy fix if one fully understands the problem! So today I will talk about avoiding the “cartoon look” in your paintings. It may seem like a weird thing to write about, but it is a look I happened upon a few times out in the field as a young painter, and I suspect that I am not the only one who has noticed this in their work on occasion.

Some background: I remember going out on location sometime in the mid-’80s, finishing a field study and coming back to the studio disappointed because it had the appearance of a cartoon backdrop. I could almost see Bugs Bunny or Roadrunner zipping by in my imagination! It was not something I was aiming for, to say the least. I mentioned it to one or two other artist friends who said that they sometimes experienced the same thing, but were at a loss to pinpoint the problem, let alone tell me how to fix it.

That got me thinking about how to quantify what was going on, and thereby come up with a solution to the problem. It was important to first identify the characteristics of a cartoon and proceed from there. Most things, if you think about them long enough, will present you with very logical solutions — especially if you don’t overthink it. Fortunately, I was able to pinpoint what I was doing in my work that crossed the line into this unwanted look. I offer some of these ideas here to those of you who may be facing a similar challenge.

First of all, let me say that cartoons are just fine … if you are a cartoonist. But for an artist who wants to produce a more painterly fine art look, it is not acceptable!

So what are the elements of a cartoon, and how does one avoid those characteristics in a representational landscape? Let me break the problem down using the “Painters Tool Box of Expression.”

Characteristics of a Typical Cartoon:

  1. Drawing: Linear in nature. Forms outlined, stiff, staying within the lines like a coloring book.
  2. Color: Saturated or flat, few or no gradations of temperature or color shifts.
  3. Value: Little or no gradation of values from dark to light. Again, values uninteresting and mostly flat.
  4. Edges: All the same, hard and uniform in coloring-book fashion.
  5. Brushwork: Flat, no textures or interesting brushwork.
Painting advice for artists
John Hughes, class demo study, oil, 10 x 12 inches

Painting Solutions

Okay, you get the idea. Having listed the characteristics that give this art form its look, it was easy to pick out the corresponding difficulty I was experiencing, and the solutions became clear. As a matter of fact, the mere identification of the problems involved was enough to tell me what the solutions were:

  1. Drawing: Be more organic, and stay away from outlining or rigid geometric forms. Stay loose and natural in appearance.
  2. Color: The landscape is generally less saturated than the colors that come directly out of the tube. Also, broken colors are a lot more interesting than the flat look you get when painting your forms as though you were applying color to a wall with a roller. Shake things up (warm to cool, value gradations, etc.). Don’t paint your forms as though the Impressionists never graced the planet!
  3. Value: Again, gradations of value that are not uniform across each area of the painting. Sometimes flatness works for effect, but not everywhere!
  4. Edges: Here’s where you can really have some fun with lost, found, and broken edge work. Be expressive and less linear. Avoid the “cutout look” at all costs.
  5. Brushwork: Vary your brush marks, along with the thickness of different passages in your painting. You will be amazed at how much this component, coupled with expressive edges, can improve the overall appearance of your work and rescue it from the “cartoon look.”

Just to recap, if you are familiar with the five basic areas of painting (drawing, color, value, edge control, and brushwork) you will understand what’s involved in fixing this common problem. Don’t be afraid to take a painting that has crossed into the realm of cartooning and just experiment with it while it is still wet. What have you got to lose?

Painting advice for artists
John Hughes, field study, oil, 6 x 8 inches

Is it a Lousy Painting?

As I tell my students, “Don’t be afraid to ruin a lousy painting — after all, it was lousy to begin with!” When you get overly protective of your work, you wind up protecting your mistakes as well! Remember, growth often happens on the cusp of failure, so break out of your comfort zone and start to fly! I suggest taking before-and-after photos of your painting, so that you can immediately recognize the problem next time it happens and have a ready solution before the frustration sets in. I think you will be happy with how easy it is to take a cartoon and turn it into a piece of fine art after conquering this problem a time or two!

It’s also interesting to note that not all cartoons are alike. As I studied this subject, it became evident that some cartoons border the divide between fine art and cartooning. As one example, I will use the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment of Disney’s Fantasia and compare the artwork to your typical Bugs Bunny or Road Runner cartoons. When viewing the two side by side, it’s easy to see that the artists at Disney were in a special class back then, or, at least, they had a certain freedom of expression and a mandate for greater sophistication. They did work with differing qualities of drawing, color, value, and edges to produce that style that was so indicative of their work in those days.

John Hughes, “In the Canyon,” acrylic, 9 x 9 inches

Let me close by saying that as fine artists, it’s up to us to seek excellence in the quality of our own work. While cartoons might be satisfactory in the movie theater, it’s not what we should be striving for in our quest for quality paintings; at least, that is not what I want! The next time you feel like your painting is mimicking the look of a cartoon and you don’t like it, you now know what to do!

I hope you enjoyed reading this and that it may have struck a chord with some of you. “Th-th-the-that’s all, folks!” —John

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John Hughes teaches landscape painting classes for Salt Lake Community College and the Scottsdale Artist School, along with private art workshops and classes. His work is represented by Montgomery Lee Fine Art (Utah) and Mountain Trails Gallery (Wyoming). Hughes is a member of the Plein Air Painters of Utah, Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters, and the American Impressionist Society. John’s work and art advice has been featured in Plein Air magazine, Fibonacci Fine Arts Digest, 15 Bytes magazine, Outdoor Painter, and Artists on Art. His work was recently featured in the book "Painters of the Grand Tetons" by Donna and James Poulton. He now maintains a studio in Taylorsville Utah, where he resides with his wife Teresa, four children, and two grandchildren.



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