Monday, September 23, 2019

On the Digital Drawing Board: Writing funny - for cartoons

I wrote about my drawing process in "step-by-step" manner a few months ago, and that post received a good response, so I thought I'd try another. 
This one is involves writing, for an ongoing project for Ralph Lauren Polo Inc., that started a few months ago. 

RL's Director of advertising contacted me in June, to discuss doing a series of humorous cartoon illustrations, focusing on their Polo-inspired restaurants. (I was aware of the restaurant in New York City, but learned there are also "Polo" establishments in Paris, London and Chicago.)

"The Polo Bar" in New York

  Their advertising director told me that the Polo restaurant in NYC is frequented by celebrities, and their goal was to highlight that fact with humor...i.e., depicting some of these well known humans, and to write funny concepts that fit their personalities. Both were right up my alley.

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, dining in the Polo Bar earlier this week.
(They were in NYC promoting the Martin Scorcese film, "The Irishman".)

(Photos from an article provided to me by RL for background; covering the Duchess of Sussex/former 'Suits' actress, dining there earlier this year -.)


An added challenge arose: RL's execs felt that I should write and draw concepts only for deceased celebrities. (I get it...and deal with this dynamic often with political and social commentary cartoons. The living are much easier to offend.) 
However, that is a significant restriction, especially when trying to create content that will resonate with today's social media savvy audiences...more on that later in the post.

Another caveat: Ralph Lauren's upper management wanted me to write humor in my own style and  'voice', but wondered if I could aim my celebrity caricatures in a direction toward the style of the late, great caricaturist, Al Hirschfeld. (Al is widely considered to be the greatest caricaturist of all time, and his flowing ink lines were mesmerizing. During his heyday, he was fixture in NYC and was known for drawing celebrities - hence the tie-in to the NYC Polo Bar.)

Al Hirschfeld Limited Editions and Originals

There are challenges in trying to emulate someone else's work, especially that of a legend. For one thing, it is difficult to nail such a distinctive, well-honed (and frankly, brilliant) style. Then there's the issue of drawing in another person's style while also getting good likenesses of the aforementioned celebrities. Every caricaturist's method of finding the "right" likeness is different, and I had to combine his drawing style with my own sensibilities about how to depict a person, and what to exaggerate. Of course such a challenge can be fun, and this proved to be true.

Here's the process outline for the first cartoon, which was a test, or proof of concept for RL - to see if we could make this "work":

Step 1: I sat in the comfy "writing chair" in my studio and brainstormed a bit. (I find that for me, writing is best suited to the quiet of the morning, before activities of the day march forth, including client calls/emails.) After noting some seeds of ideas, I wrote out around ten concepts on a notepad. These were all done with some piece of humor present, but the specifics were very rough. 

Step 2: Editing ideas and sharpening humor: Afterward, I selected what I thought had the potential to be the funniest four concepts, fleshed them out a bit. 
These were all written out, using only words and phrasing to get across the concept, without images and sketches. I've found that a funny written idea will stand on its own. After such an idea is identified, funny art can really enhance it. But weak ideas and unfunny concepts are almost never brought to life with even the most badass funny drawings.

I finished writing and editing, and emailed those four concepts to RL's corporate folks in New York. 

Surprisingly, they liked all four ideas, (that does not usually happen, at least for relevance reasons), and they approved starting the artwork on two immediately.

Step 3: I began the first art with a sketched concept featuring Elvis and Marilyn Monroe...

Step 5: The sketch was passed around their management and with a positive response, I went forward with finished artwork in "ink" on my Wacom Cintiq.

  Elvis and Marilyn  Monroe were the two elements that I felt were the strongest, so I refined those, and then built the cartoon around them.

Step 6: I added or "spotted" areas of black ink for contrast and to lead the viewers' eyes to Marilyn. The text was simplified and shading was rendered.

The cartoons are appearing in RL's various social media, for example, their  Instagram.

Later, I simplified the scene, and added some splashes of watercolor
 for further social media and print ads:


On this second cartoon, an abbreviated glimpse of the process. I went with a Polo theme concept and a young Paul Newman, Clark Gable and Marlon Brando. 


...But later I decided that it might be fun to have some continuity between cartoons, so I switched Clark Gable for the King. He finally gets a table - as he should. (Paul Newman is also at the table)

I made other changes: Redrawing the woman in the left foreground, (giving her less contrast, so as to not draw the reader's eye away from the action. The folks at RL also asked me make her a bit more attractive. I added contrast to the area behind the men. Lastly, I added the RL Polo Bar logo to a window on the right.


We have done four cartoons so far, with two of them released. Both have received a positive response in their various ads and social media platforms, and RL's management decided to go forward with more. I have enjoyed the challenge and scope of this project so far, (pleasing the client, the main goal for me) and we'll see how it goes over the next several months. 

One thing is nearly certain...I think that I will soon run out of deceased celebrities who are recognizable to today's audiences, and that I will need to talk the RL folks into allowing me to draw and write about some people with a pulse. 


  1. Nice descriptions of your process and decision making. I'm curious, for projects like these, how do these people and companies find you?

  2. Hey Ryan - Thanks, and that's a good question. Roughly half of my work is comprised of repeat customers, the other half is new. Depending on the month, each of those groups range from 40% to 60%. New clients come from various sources: referrals, my website and also an agent. About three years ago I decided to hire a creative agency that had been soliciting me. I figured I had nothing to lose and trying It. The arrangement is that I pay them an annual fee and they also take a small percentage of each project, it I is proving to be worthwhile, and a good source of interesting projects.

    As for the work discussed in these recent blog posts, the exec at Ralph Lauren contacted me directly, The project with Capgemini Inc. came through the agency. The rest were repeat clients.

    Hope that helps. By the way, the wording you used makes me think that you might be a cartoonist or illustrator that the case?

  3. Ha ha ha. You guessed correctly. I'm a cartoonist and recently graduated from art school, Savanna College of Art & Design. I'm working a job and also trying to build up some clientele, but it's slow going. Reading this has inspired me.

    How did you get started? I don't mean to ask you to write a long answer, but any advice you can give me is very much appreciated.

  4. Congratulations on your degree from "SCAD". That's a a great school.

    Send me your contact info, (either the contact form here, or you can connect with through my website) I'd be happy to call and chat with you.


  5. Mark, Thanks for the call. I don't normally feel comfortable asking for help, or even talking on the phone! But your advice was very helpful and appreciated. Thanks again for sharing your insights. - Ryan


Let me know if I can answer a question.