Thursday, August 27, 2009

Will Traditional Cartoon Principles Survive?

I was worried classic cartoon techniques - and the great studio cartoons of the 30s to the 50s themselves would soon die out and be forgotten. Certainly if all you could ever see were the modern cartoons on TV and even the feature films it would be a guarantee that our glorious past could never come back - and that would be profoundly depressing.

I'm encouraged lately by how many young cartoonists are doing my own exercises and getting really good at it, and that they are embracing actual practical skills and appreciating the beautifully drawn cartoons of the golden age of animation. It seems positively rebellious to me, considering the recent past of shoddy popular animation - and how many people who stood up for it.


I've met a few Sheridan college students who praise teacher Pete Emslie because he not only explains classic cartoon drawing principles, but will actually sit down and show you by drawing over your drawings and demonstrating how to do them with an intelligent procedure.

As far as I know, this is very rare for animation schools. When I went to Sheridan, the teachers all praised Disney tradition but none of the teachers could show you how to do any of it. They didn't actually draw anything in front of you - or if they did the odd time you'd see why it was such a rare occurrence.

Pete's students have all told me how much easier it is to learn from someone who will demonstrate the techniques themselves. I imagine you'd respect the teachings more too, knowing that the guy preaching good drawing can actually do it himself.


Pete and I have our own separate tastes (and some that overlap) for which classic cartoons we like best; he probably prefers Disney and Jones to Clampett and Natwick, but we both believe in the principles of good cartoon drawing that all these artists share.He's also well known for his stylish caricatures and generously shares his techniques on his blog:

Whether you like Disney, Clampett, Avery, UPA, Spumco, Tartakovsky, Pixar or almost any other character animation styles - they are all derived from the principles and techniques developed and used by the classic animation cartoonists of the 1930s and 40s. If you know these techniques, you will have a much easier time adapting from one style to another or creating your own style. Good drawing in general is not a style; it's knowledge, understanding and skill. The better you can draw and analyze, the more creative choices and control you have personally. You won't be a slave to lack of ability.

Here are some of Pete's online tutorials:

and his blog:

Obviously the best and quickest way to learn to draw is to have good teachers like Pete who can give you personal instruction, demonstrations and critiques but not everyone is lucky enough to have this. I sure wasn't. When I started in the business I would have killed to have teachers actually show me how the cartoons I loved worked. Instead, I had to collect what little information existed about cartoons at the time, and tape old cartoons off the air and copy the drawings and try to figure out what was holding them together - with the help of the Preston Blair book.

Today there are still a handful of dedicated traditional teachers like Pete, but even if you don't have personal instruction from a skilled pro, there is a ton of useful information at the cartoon blogs.

Michael Sporn's Blog

Michael Sporn has a great blog that is just filled with articles, art and information on the most commercially oriented (which to some critics means crass and kitschy) yet artistically principled animation studio of all time.

You can learn a lot about classic cartoons by looking at, studying and copying the model sheets and "how to draw" articles on this site.

Disney Magazine Cartoons





Here is Michael's article about the art of Disney animation and the book that inspired him and many others.

"I suspect that my receiving the book at such a young age made it all the more precious to me, and to this day it gives me positive feelings whenever I hit on certain pages and pictures in it. There’s a photo of Eyvind Earle holding up a cel of one of the three faeries that ALWAYS sends a chill up my back. It strikes to the heart of something I love about animation, and it inspires me like little else can. I can’t say what it is about this picture, but it speaks to me."


Michael and I also share a love for animation by other classic cartoonists like Grim Natwick and Ub Iwerks and he has articles about them too:

So even you aren't lucky enough to have a skilled personal teacher who can sit down and show you how to draw traditional classic cartoon techniques, great blogs like Michael Sporn's are the next best thing.




mike f. said...

A very wise post. (BTW, I hear you're gonna broker the next Israeli/Palestinian peace treaty after this...)

Paul B said...

OH, the S curves!

I discovered that copying and analyzing the poses of Jerry the other day!

This are great blogs, I have them in my favorites.

The Michael Sporn's Blog is a treasure for cartoon eaters like us

ThomasHjorthaab said...

Hey John:)

nice, very interresting blog there...
I know you're probebly drowning in fellows who wants you to see their stuff...

And I'm one of'em, so here's the link to some of my constructions:

- Cheers John!:P

Tom said...

hey john, thanks for the link collection!
My thoughts are jumbled up. As somebody who hasn't been studying this for long at all, i'm tottaly amazed by the amount of information online. I'm probably not going to study animation or art soon in any "proffesional" frame, but i'm practicing it whenever i can - and i think the internet makes it very possible to better yourself. (in that respect, the support of fellow struggling artist from around the world also helps). I remember back at art class in highschool a lot of us were pissed that we werent taught what we reffered to as "technique". I wanted to study perspective and anatomy and for people to tell me how to draw "right"! the teachers treated such people with patient disdain, and disuaded us by saying - is that "all" you want?. I dont want to put down stuff i learned about modern art, but it's hard to get a good grounding in art principles these days. which bring me back to the internet - far from being an ideal class, there's certainly a lot of support. I'm not that young anymore (just topped 20, wishing i practiced drawing more), but i think i still have hope at funny pictures and cartoons.
I know you cant include your own blog on the list, but for me it is a gateway to the world of awesome cartoons, and invaluable in learning not just about cartoons - but about trying to be creative in art, and also inspires me to practice and try to better myself. I think a lot of future cartoonists will be tankful for the information here. Thanks, Mr kricfaluci! (funny note - i was pretty sure it was pronounced "krika-faloo-see" for a while.)

it stands for WHITETREEFOX said...

I think my head just exploded in joy. Thank you so much for this post!

Peggy said...

I'm constantly glad that I hung around Spümcø and picked up the basic principles from you, and I tend to consider them a bit of a sacred trust given how hard you worked to keep them alive. Most of the time "passing them on" just consists of pointing kids looking for help to your blog and the archive of the basic Blair posts, since you've been putting so much effort into getting your teaching methods out this way!

J C Roberts said...

The more people who come here and pick up on these principles the better, provided they can then produce things and get them out someway. People will always relate to good drawings in a way CGI can never replace. If parents stop buying crayons for their kids and just give them a copy of Maya, then I'd worry a little.

Why do so many things that start with "S" heavily feature S curves? Snakes, Squirrels, Smoke, Sand dunes, Swirls, Swans...

Here's a couple of the Preston Blair examples I did last night. My healing fingertip is still affecting things a little slightly.

John said...

John, cartoons may be crap these days, but you have inspired me and many others to fight to make 'em good again.

This is what I want to do with my life.

Bitter Animator said...

The big problem as I see it is in the application of those principals. Many of the principals and techniques are well documented. And there are people like Mr.Emslie who can pass on an incredible amount to new generations.

But it's one thing being told and even knowing principals. It's entirely different thing to master them, apply them well and, importantly, to know when they shouldn't be used (many people seem to boil techniques and principals down to 'rules' and so apply them without any thought on whether they are right for the scene or not).

The difference in studio systems can only have a negative effect on that. That is blindingly clear.

Practise makes perfect.

And you just have to look at the practise. In the older 2D studio system, how many drawings a day did someone have to do? Not just drawings, but finished, approved drawings under the supervision of a senior animator or animation director. Every single day of their employment as they learned and worked their way up the system.

I remember working it out once, just as an estimate. I can't remember what the figure I came up with was but I think it was in the region of 7,000 a year. I'm going on memory so could be completely wrong but it was a lot.

With Flash (and its equivalents) and 3D dominating and a whole different system in place, how many finished animation drawings are new recruits doing a year?

Of course, they are still learning skills but they're a different skill set and in many (but of course not all) places, the skills are about speed of turnaround rather than quality of work. And even in the places that go for quality, can they compare to the practise that came with that older system?

Knowing the skills and truly having control over them are very different things and, unfortunately, I see a very bleak period for animation.

But, having said that, I'm generalising and taking the industry as a whole. It's encouraging to see just how often I'm surprised by some new artist's work, a new short film or whatever. There are some immensely creative, talented and dedicated individuals out there. Some amazing young talents.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if they not only keep cartoon principals alive, but bring something new to the art form as well?

Anonymous said...

Thank you, John, for being the level-headed adult, and for this wonderful olive branch of a post, and you know what I'm talking about.

Daniel said...

Hey Bitter Animator,

I've never worked in a studio, but I've read a lot of stuff. And from what I gathered I can only assume the output of finished drawings a day was completely different from production to production in say the old Disney days. I just read (from Walt's People) that during Sleeping Beauty there was a period where the animators were only able to produce one single approved final drawing a day! Yikes...But that was back then... :)

zach said...


everything you've done on the blog is greatly appreciated. I've learned a lot and you've given me a new found appreciation for the classic cartoons. I think these principles will survive thanks to people like you and the others listed. This is probably the best site I've found for instruction.


Geneva said...

Man, there are so many beautiful and fantastic things that human hands have made. I just saved upwards of 50 images.

Gad said...

there where low tide's and high tide's in the world of animation since their was animation
unfortunately we are now in a law tide. but the high tide is close.
you will be amazed the explosion of classic animation in Europe this days. and thanks to you who post this wonderful blog, and others who do so. I can learn so much, when i am on the other side of the globe.

Kelseigh said...

I just went through the pre-animation course at Algonquin last year (starting animation in a week and a half), and there was a lot in it about the classic animation concepts although it was largely a drawing course. In our second term we were studying classic stuff like Tex Avery and the like, and encouraged to work with those styles. It was great stuff. And over the summer, as I've been trying to get my skills built so I'll have an easier time this fall, the single best bit of advice I got was to start working from Preston Blair's Cartoon Animation. As soon as I did, stuff I'd been bashing my head against for months suddenly started making sense, and my work got dramatically better.

Of course your frequent mention of base concepts like hierarchy of form made a big difference too, so I owe you a debt of gratitude of your very own.

Probably next summer I'll see what I can do about following some of the public lessons and exercises you've posted in your blog. It looks like the sort of thing that could help me a lot.

:: smo :: said...

this is a very good post. i've been going back to the blair studies in my free time and am going to hit these up. i really need to mow down my boring freelance stuff so i can get more time to study. i feel like i'm stagnating and these posts really help keep me going.

John S. said...

Thanks for this and all the other posts about construction and teaching. I particularly enjoyed your assessment of Pete, as he's taking a real beating over on Cartoon Brew for merely expressing an opinion.

Kali Fontecchio said...

I'm really loving the pencil quality on those drawings!

A teacher who teaches?!

Daniel said...

Got some more studies up. Can you have a look and let me know what you think John?

patrick said...

Thanks for all the time & effort you put into this blog, for the good of cartoons!

PaulW said...

Thanks for putting this up. Its good to see how he constructs the character in the video. It was interesting to see his line sketching style matches my own. I spent quite a while wondering whether I was doing it right, as the Preston Blair book has such a refined line style. Its been enlightening, and I will spend more time on his blog!

A little off topic, but I would love to hear how the Ren and Stimpy sound track was decided. One of the main reasons I loved, and still love Ren and Stimpy was the sound track. (It was just as detailed and quirky as the animation!) Are you going to cover this in your blog? Or if its going to be in your book?



Alberto said...

I like Emslie's charactures, they remind me of Hirschfeld. I saw him posted on cartoon brew the other day b/c of his comments towards the new Ottawa Film Fest Poster.

btw, I made a new drawing off the boxing hare and tortoise. Also just to clarify is there a deadline to get into the cartoon college?

Mitch K said...

Can you believe that Pete actually painted (with real paint!) that Snow White background?

Daniel said...

...and a few more. Thanks! :)

JohnK said...

good stuff Daniel

I'd leave a reply on your blog, if you made it easier

Daniel said...

egads! It's hard to comment on my blog? I'll fix that right now...

Namekal said...

I'm a writer, not an artist, but am deeply interested in animation techniques and find they inspire my own work. This blog in particular has helped me appreciate the intense attention to detail that makes for great work. You can't be great at your work without studying how the masters did it! Thanks for your dedication to passing the lessons on.

Anonymous said...

I did some studies if anyone wants to check them out

hope this works and is clickable

Benjamin Anders said...

Pete has been the most praised teacher at Sheridan by all the students I've spoken with. He teachers the principles. Animators need to learn them to be able to be better artists. It's the same for pretty much every profession. You wouldnt let a repairman fix your car if you knew they had no idea what they were doing.

Also, I've added more cartoon studies over in my blog. Here's a direct link to the post! Cartoon Studies I'd love to get some feedback on them! :)


PaulW said...


If you want to make it easier for readers to comment on your blog (I could have commented directly on your site, but this may be useful to others who use WordPress on here for the tutorials etc.), do the following:

Go to the dashboard, then appearance, then editor.

Select "comments.php" on the right hand pane.

Comment out the section that starts: type="text" name="email" and the section that starts: type="text" name="url"

That way readers can leave a comment easily and don't have to divulge their email address or website, but you can still moderate the comments.



David R said...


I put up a couple more things on my portfolio - stuff from the Sporn blog and the Blair book. I am still trying to figure out how to get these done and show you all the construction work, but trust me it's all there. I know you can't comment; I'm going to get a blog up here pretty soon. (hoping to get into the school, too!)

composition exercises

Daniel said...

Thanks Paul. That's a lot easier. I didn't realize it was such a hassle.

Sam said...

Awesome post! I feel like I could spend a couple of years practicing and learning based on the information in this one post alone.

Amir Avni said...

Pete is a hero to all of us :)

Anonymous said...

I wholehardly agree with you the fact that teacher's should "show" you how to draw, not simply tell you.

One good teacher i had at sheridan was Wayne Gilbert(*he's at ILM now i think) ONe excersise he made us do was draw a cat in 24 different squares on a piece of paper. I got stummped at 8 or 9. It was the toughest and most rewarding assignment i did at sheridan. It taught me to love and respect other "styles" in animation. Not everything should look "saturday-morning-ish".

That said, Mr. Emslie is at least teaching kids "one" way to draw. You gotta know the principles first i guess right.

I just hope the kids will develop their own signature styles too.


Anonymous said...


I meant ".. in 24 different styles, on 24 different squares drawn on the sheet".

Now it all makes more sense ;)

kurtwil said...

Peter E's definitely among my favorite contemporary Disney artists.
Another one is Ron Dias, who began his career inbetweening on Disney's 1959 Sleeping Beauty and is alive and kicking with traditionally drawn art (folks can see his recent interview on the recent Sleeping Beauty BluRay ).