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Expat Interview – Steve Bright (Part 3)

On cartooning as a career

Cartoon of Boris Johnson and David Cameron by Steve Bright
BE: What, if any, formal training do you have in art? Is it necessary or can the required skills be learned on the job?

Steve Bright: None, no and yes, in that order. I took art at school, and passed all my exams fairly comfortably. Beyond that, I applied to art college in Scotland, but my first choice turned me down (thanks, Edinburgh – no, I really mean that!). Disillusioned by that early rejection, I applied for a “career in journalism“ rather than go with my second choice, and ended up on the editorial staff of The Beano comic. The ensuing six years I spent at D.C. Thomson was an infinitely more valuable grounding for what I do now than any formal post-school art education I could have gone on to. I worked with many of the best professional comic artists on a daily basis, writing scripts for them, and processing their artwork ready for publication. In a business where there is no one conventional route in, this was the most serendipitous of lucky breaks. And with the knowledge I gleaned over those years, coupled with the contacts I had made, my subsequent leap into the shark-infested waters of self-employment was as safe as it gets, and the very best of starts. Times have changed, thankfully, but I reckon I’d have had any cartoon stuffing knocked out of me back then, had I chosen to go down the art college route, and would certainly not have made it to where I am now.

How has the cartooning profession changed because of technological changes? Print newspapers are struggling to survive, yet the growth of digital communication must have opened new doors. How have these changes affected you personally?

Well, I’ve been involved in the creation of an app! Not something I even knew existed just a couple of decades ago (because they didn’t). It was a dreadful little ‘game‘ that allowed you to vent your frustration at bankers by splatting one repeatedly across the face with assorted implements, such as a handbag, baseball bat or wet salmon. I believe it’s still out there, but since I don’t earn any commission through its sales, I’m too embarrassed by it to recommend it.

Yes, the markets are evolving, and sadly, some are disappearing. When I started out, if you’d told me I’d outlive such a great British institution as The Dandy comic, I’d have thought you were mad. Sadly (at least from the comic’s viewpoint, if not mine), I have now done just that, and jobs that I once thought would be for life have gone with it, along with numerous other comics that have bitten the dust over the years. I’m hoping the newspapers will see me out, but that may require an early exit from me in order to happen. And there have already been many casualties in the print industry, not least among editorial and gag cartoonists, as editors and owners (mistakenly in my opinion) see cartoons as a luxury rather than a necessity, hence they are among the first to be cut.

The good news is that these things are evolving, and most newspapers are now embracing the Internet and managing to find a balance that allows both print and web versions of their product to coexist, and hopefully cartoons as part of the equation. Cartoons can actually look very impressive on screens, and once the Dust Of Change has settled, I’m sure they will still have a big part to play in the variety on offer for those editors strong enough to hold their nerve and still use them.

And other doors are indeed opening all the time, through technology and not in spite of it. In fact, 100% of my work comes to me initially via email these days, and it’s never been easier to work for clients all around the globe. But, and it’s a big but, only if you’re prepared to embrace the technological changes, I’m afraid. Resist them, and you will be left behind, as some of my peers have found out, sadly. I owe my younger brother big time. It was he who practically forced a computer he’d ‘built‘ from spare parts (he’s in the cyber biz) upon me, as I sneered ungratefully, and reluctantly agreed to ‘give it a go‘. I’ve never looked back, and now I break into a cold sweat whenever I think about where I might be if he hadn’t done that.

You are a master of digital art – do you ever feel the urge to pick up pen and paper? Do you ever paint? If so, what medium?

Painting, no. Not if I can help it. I’m rubbish at it – always have been. That’s not false modesty – it’s just not my forte. In my predigital days, I got by with Windsor & Newton coloured inks when I had to use colour, and was fairly handy with an airbrush. But the first thing I learned to do on the digital side of things was colouring my scanned work, and I now love that part of it all. I’ve heard it being dismissed as in some way ‘cheating‘, mostly by those who think it’s nothing but flood fills, flat colours and mechanical gradients. At entry level, that may be true for some, but it’s also patently obvious when it’s badly done. Good computer colouring requires the same artistic eye that any medium needs, and at its best, can be stunning. I use Photoshop, but it’s just a tool (okay – set of tools), and requires every bit as much learning, practice and technique as any other to use proficiently, and a good deal more than some. I know some artists like to get messy with paint and inks, and don’t consider it ‘real art’ unless you do so. I can live without that, and have done so happily for years now, whilst producing colour work of a quality far superior to that of my paint and ink days.

The paper has all but gone too. Although I still do occasionally draw professionally on it when I do the odd live caricature gig at weddings and corporate events. These are rare nowadays however, as my work for The Sun takes up the weekend, when most events occur that book caricaturists. I love doing them. They’re a wholly different ball game to the usual working practices. Not only do I get back to basics with paper and brush pens, but I get out of the house (where I do 99.5% of my work), travel long distances in my car, and have to work at great speed, averaging six minutes per caricature, to a live audience who will instantly and honestly appraise your work seconds after you’ve completed it. Even if their words are being kind to you, you can see in the eyes you’ve just been drawing what they really think. Mostly it’s good, and laughter prevails, but you never can be certain. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s a real adrenaline rush every time, and very rewarding when you have an appreciative audience, as most are.

But actually, the basic principles of digital and ‘traditional’ drawing are exactly the same. I use a pen for both, and draw directly on to a screen as if it was a sheet of paper. My preference for digital is dictated by the huge amount of extra versatility that is on offer with the same pen. And of course, the ‘undo’ function, which is the greatest plus of them all.

How viable is cartooning as a career? Have you any advice for others who wish to earn a living in this way?
On my first day as an editorial assistant at D.C. Thomson, I was told by a long-serving member of their art department, “You should have been a plumber!“. A few days later, I wrote my first script for Britain’s most famous children’s comic, and it was passed unchanged. In that hand-written script, I had the audacity to doodle out one of the pictures for the artist, to show him how I envisaged it. He smiled at me through gritted teeth when he collected the script, saying, “You stick to writing, laddie, and leave the drawing to me.“ Six years later, almost to the day, both those gentlemen were good mates of mine, and attended my ‘smoker‘ (leaving party), wishing me well in my new career as a cartoonist. Indeed, the latter even gifted me a small package with my first pen holder, nibs and ink.

There were lots of comics back then, and I worked for many of them over the next few years. Had you asked me then about the viability of a cartooning career, I’d have had no hesitation in recommending it to anyone with the talent to work in it.

These days, I won’t do it. In fact, I have refused to do so for many years now, on the grounds that it would be irresponsible of me to encourage any youngster down a career path that is rocky to say the least. It’s certainly still possible to earn a living, and even a decent one, through cartooning. But it’s anything but easy, and only the very best will survive long term as full-timers. And I’ve even seen some of them struggle, as well as having struggles of my own at times. As a job, I can think of few I’d rather do (and I’m now too old for those), but in terms of security… well, let’s just say that perhaps those two advisers I had back at the start of my career were right. My eldest daughter married a plumber two years ago, and they’ve not long moved into a beautiful brand new home that he mostly built for them, and look set for life. People will always need plumbers!

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