Recently, I watched a fascinating documentary on artist Maggi Hambling that stayed in my mind for days afterwards and inspired me to create some cartoons of her. Hambling talked about ‘memory’ and using ‘non-dominant’ hand, and I have used both of these ideas to create cartoon versions of her in my sketchbook, so this has become a sort of secret mirrored homage to her creative process.
For Hambling, memory work is about ‘positive grieving’ for lost loves and she believes that departed friends and family continue to live inside her. This positive grieving is expressed in her work and a continuation of portraits of the departed based on memories. This notion of positive grieving can also potentially be witnessed in comics work that is inspired by loss, such as Nicola Streeten’s graphic memoir about the death of her son Billy (2011) and also the ‘Billy Boy Hats’ created to order by Billy’s father John Plowman (Billy Boy Hats 2020). My work does not involve positive grieving here, but it does involve working with memory.
Cartooning potentially demands drawing all manner of things from memory including people, animals, places and objects. Often it is tricky for creators to remember exactly how something is physically constructed, but I’m starting to believe that these vague memories are useful for inventing funny styles and characters. When one creates drawings from memory, these become unlikely and incongruous, and this has the advantage of creating a ‘cartoony’ look that signals the funnies genre of comics.
Scriberia has a useful memory exercise in their tiny effective tome How to Draw Anything (2017). First, they suggest writing down six remembered features of anything you want to draw, and then turning these into basic geometric shapes with their visual alphabet (2017: 23-25). I have discarded their visual alphabet, but continue to visualise features first. For the first Maggi cartoon, I first sat quietly and remembered her main characteristics as:
- lots of curly white hair
- dark / hooded eyes
- always smoking
- black gilet
These ideas were not necessarily accurate (as I discovered later) but impressions count and these conjured the essentials to work into the first cartoon.
Next, I used non-dominant hand to develop the image in a pencil sketch. Hambling uses non-dominant sketches each day to begin her creative practice, claiming that they connect to dreams that become paintings. Founder of Sketch Appeal, Dulcie Ball is also a vocal advocate of using ‘non-dominant’ sketching in both her workshops and her own practice. For her, this approach relaxes her and allows her to relinquish control of the line work (Sketch Appeal 2020). This practice is also useful for cartooning on a number of levels. Firstly, it allows beginners to relax as they are unable to control the outcome and can begin to enjoy themselves. Secondly, for the funnies genre, the lack of control organically invents interesting incongruous angles, lines, expressions, and proportions (that are not proportionate). It is also an exciting process, as the funny style is revealed through practice that oft surprises upon the page.
This combination of memory work and non-dominant hand created the first cartoon easily, organically, and enjoyably. The image below was finished with my right (dominant) hand and dip pen. Unfortunately I did not photograph the awkward incongruous initial lines of the non-dominant sketch, but this would be useful for future to better illustrate the potential of this process for my research. Equally, I have not yet tried to use dip pen with non-dominant hand – largely because it is already difficult to control dip pens. In my inking work, I tend to colour within the lines (like ‘a good girl!’), but it is worthwhile to experiment with non-dominant inking and colouring outside the line. It is notable that Quentin Blake does not bother to neatly colour in his lively funny illustrations for Roald Dahl.
I was curious to see if my remembered impressions of Hambling were accurate, so returned to the documentary to discover that my sense of her lumbering posture was incorrect. Nevertheless, I like the way that this hunched posture makes her seem more intimidating as if she is towering towards the viewer. In actuality, Hambling has a strong upright walk and I reworked this into a later cartoon.
Here, I have added birds to her hair on a purely personal whim with connections to my ‘badly drawn birds’ project and website. I also enjoy the possibilities of hair to add extension to character with objects and ideas. In the cartoon below, I have added fire to Hambling’s hair to draw on the perceived sense of her as a ‘ferocious’ and fiery character (BBC News 2020),
For me personally, Hambling does not seem ferocious, but she does not suffer fools. I particularly liked her response to a rather rambling psychological question in the documentary that is briefly paraphrased here,
Interviewer: ’Do you think your paintings are reflections of yourself?’
Hambling: ’No.’ (Annoyed look / Long pause) ‘…I just get up early and do the work’.
Of course, the paintings are likely reflections of her (all creativity probably contains elements of the creator, as in the previous cartoon with my love of birds and drawing hair), but Hambling appears admirably grounded in the practical. This also reminds me of a zen conversation cited by Alan Watts (2009):
Visitor: How do you manage the insufferable routine of getting up, getting dressed, and going to work?
Zen master: I get up, get dressed, and go to work.
Visitor: I do not understand
Zen master: If you do not understand, get up, get dressed, and go to work.
Hambling does not like to overthink, but grounds herself in the practical doing. However, she clearly has done considerable thinking on life, work, love, loss and art. This final cartoon, illustrates some of her relayed beliefs including her routine to start the day with ‘non-dominant’ hand sketches. Her pragmatism for doing the work is framed by her assertion that her work is her life, and that an artist’s best way to give love is through the work. She walks the talk…
This is photographed from the sketchbook – hence Maggi’s feet on top of her own head in another cartoon.
To conclude, there are some useful connections here for future work, including the utility of doing both memory and non-dominant hand work to develop funnies. I plan to keep experimenting with these approaches (with the addition of photographs to illustrate the process, expand my own practice into non-dominant use of dip pens and inking to see if this can further develop funnies, and finally to develop these into exercises for planned workshops and the book.
BBC (2020) Maggi Hambling: Making Love with Paint, available here:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000nx23 (accessed 13.11.2020)
BBC News (2020) Maggi Hambling: BBC Documentary celebrates extraordinary artist, available at:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-suffolk-54659096 (accessed 13.11.2020)
Billy Boy Hats (2020) available here:
https://www.billyboyhats.co.uk (accessed 13.11.2020)
Scriberia (2017) How to Draw Anything. UK: Querus.
Sketch Appeal (2020) available at:
https://www.sketchappeal.co.uk/what-we-do (accessed 13.11.2020)
Streeten, N. (2007) Billy, Me & You. UK: Myriad.
Watts, A (2009) The Way of Zen, available at:
https://audiobookstore.com/audibooks/the-way-of-zen-2.aspx (accessed 13.11.2020)