The principle aim of this research is to develop ways to find the funny and build it in the comics medium. The impetus for this came after a long period of miserable burnout when I intuitively felt that learning how to create funnies could put some fun and enjoyment back into life. It became a process of learning to see life differently to liberate from the serious and instead to place funny at the centre and this has transformed my life.
This creative process has involved learning to think differently and to reframe the straight and serious into wiggly humorous interpretations. This process could also be described as structural neuroplasticity where neuroscience suggests the brain alters with learning and application (Graziano Breuning 2016, New Scientist 2021, Rogers et al. 2022).
I am not a scientist, so this writing can only be an interested nod to a fascinating field. However, the notion of neuroplasticity also potentially connects to the field of education, where educators design programmes to facilitate transformative or transformational learning, which is an emancipatory ‘practice of freedom’ (hooks 1994), ‘where knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention’ (Friere 2014:52). My creative practice aims to provide opportunities to build new creative and cognitive habits through humorous reinvention. To this end, I have tested, produced, and invented many exercises and activities as a sort of funny brain gym or ‘humorobics’ (Roukes 1997). This blog details one of these activities that is particularly useful for provoking new interpretations.
This year, I invented the exercise of ‘Incongruous Portraits’ while attending various portrait drawing sessions on Zoom. In these sessions, professional and amateur artists take turns to pose for 30 seconds to 6 minutes and almost all are aiming for realistic representation. My focus is rather different with its preoccupation with finding the funny, so I started to develop my own approach by adding incongruous and unlikely words to these portraits. Over time, my confidence has grown to include direct cartoons amongst these sketches.
It is fun to challenge the imagination to add new words and images and to build fictional conversations and stories between people, who are probably sitting in different countries while on Zoom. My group with artist Dylan Sara (@dylan_sara) is an international group that stretches from Gottingen, across Europe, and to the USA. It is a naturally funny group, where Dylan sets themes and prompts to inspire poses and expressions. In the following drawing, the session’s theme was ‘introverts at a party’ and this generated many useful expressions and humorous ideas,
Initially, I was concerned about posting such sketches on Instagram, as although members of portrait groups are willing for their faces to be drawn, they have not given permission to be given imagined unlikely words or thoughts. Ethics and causing upset concerned me, so for a long while, I only posted straight sketches done in these sessions. I expressed my concerns to Dylan privately and he dismissed them by messaging me to say his group were ‘all for it!’
I eventually began to tentatively experiment with posting comics versions with the explanation,
‘Experimenting with drawing portraits with imagined and unlikely words – just for fun.’
I have been amazed by the positive superlative responses from both my portrait drawing groups, particularly ‘Pencils4Tea’ (@pencils4tea) as this is a silent group where you are only known by your work. There are sometimes 100 people in this group drawing silently and I have only one friend amongst them. Pencils4Tea is led by various artists (@jane.hildreth, @kirsty.a.lockhart, @ilariarty) and they are currently using the following cartoon creation as the group’s profile picture,
Other cartoons have been used to promote the group before our sessions, which has been very encouraging, as here on 14.09.2023,
My confidence has gradually developed over time to include more direct cartoon styles. In this recent example, Dylan shared his experiences of live portrait sketching at a hotel in Gottingen where he abandoned physical needs and only ate a handful of nuts in order to draw for 6 hours straight. This image aims to convey his joy and satisfaction at the day with a verbatim quote (and also condenses his response to a member of the group exclaiming, ‘you’ve drawn for 6 hours today and you still want to draw with us for two more hours?!’),
In Dylan’s group, I often hear fun and funny things and record them into comics. Of course, these are personal responses to ‘fun’ and ‘funny’ that amuse me and allow me to play with my sense of humour.
It is easier and more effective to have some kind of schema as a starting point for funny invention and Dylan’s group helps with this my establishing a theme at the start. In my other online portrait group, ‘Pencils4Tea’ each pose lasts only as long as the duration of a song and we sketch silently to this music. This often feels more difficult, as ideas are developed in my imagination and schemas tend to kangaroo dependent on the poses,
On the 10th August, I tried working with a predetermined theme in this group and chose the zeitgeisty topic of Artificial Intelligence (AI). I later regretted this choice, as although I welcome the potential of AI, it is threatening for many people, and this caused me (largely unfounded) concerns that people would object to versions of themselves considering AI issues,
To date, the only objection in comments comes in regards to the cartoon above with the statement, ‘I know how to get the printer running!’ (10.08.2023). There is important learning for me to here; to either celebrate people positively in cartooning or to add incongruous fantasy that cannot be believed. For the most part, sitters have responded surprisingly positively to being ‘funnified’ in this way and often add superlative direct and encouraging comments. There is a sense of surprise at this new approach to portrait creation in some of these remarks; ‘Love your approach!’ ‘Oh I love your captions with the sketches!’ and ‘Love your stories.’
I am the only member (so far) to take the liberty of drawing imaginatively without concern for realism. It will be interesting to see if anyone else in this group decides to try adding unlikely imaginative elements. For educators Paulo Friere and bell hooks, transformational learning is also about transforming and liberating communities. It is a nice thought that as I emancipate myself from serious realism that this offers other artists the same possibility. If not, at least these cartoons might generate a smile or some amusement meanwhile.
To sum up, these groups are a great opportunity for developing the neuroplasticity of the ‘funny brain muscle.’ Beyond these creative cognitive skills, they also develop drawing skills for sketching faces, expressions, poses, and hands, which are valuable for developing the flexibility to translate funny ideas more easily onto the page.
Friere, P. (2014[1971) Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. USA: Bloomsbury.
hooks, b (1994) Teaching to Transgress. UK: Routledge.
Graziano Breuning, L. (2016) Habits of a Happy Brain. Massachusetts: Adams Media.
New Scientist (2021) How Your Brain Works: Inside the most complicated object in the known universe. (New Scientist Instant Expert. London: John Murray Learning.
Rogers, C. and Thomas, M.S.C. (2022) Educational Neuroscience: The Basics. Oxford: Routledge.
Roukes, N. (1997) Humor in Art – A Celebration of Visual Wit. Worcester, Massachusetts: Davis Publications Inc.