Teaching comics to teens day 3: Learning basic cartooning techniques

This is part of a series of posts by Derek Mainhart—an entire year‘s curriculum for a comics class at the secondary level: middle school and high school. Follow us via rss, Facebook, or Twitter (buttons above to the right) to be informed when new posts go up. To search for all the posts by Derek, including all in this series, click here

The first drawing lesson! As you know, cartooning is primarily about storytelling. However, for some students a big motivation for taking the class is to learn how to draw. This expectation is understandable and even desirable from a teaching standpoint. But, as any artist knows, the best way to learn how to draw is simply to do it. Over and over again. Still, many students need some sort of entry point.

There are countless books on cartooning that focus on drawing basics. What’s notable about these books is that, no matter what overly-specific subject they’re covering (How to Draw Norwegian Dragons, How to Draw Adolescent Cyborg Catholic School Girls), they almost all start with the same universal lessons regarding the head and figure. (Drawing Words and Writing Pictures is distinct in that it covers, but does not emphasize, this aspect of comics).

Basically, no matter how complex a subject is (whether it is a sofa, a car or the human body) it can be broken down into basic shapes. This is not something specific to cartooning, but true of art in general. As the semester goes on I’ll get into things like proportion, basic anatomy, etc. But, especially in the beginning, I keep it simple.

Objective: Learning basic cartooning techniques

Do Now: Draw the head of an animal

Now, as you’re circulating you’ll probably notice a wide range of talent and skill. Part of your job is to teach the lesson so that it engages everyone, from the kid who just rendered a DaVinci study of a lemur, to the kid whose drawing appears to be some sort of three-eyed rodent that he drew while holding the pencil in his teeth. This is partly accomplished by emphasizing the universality of the rules I’m about to share with them.


  • Teacher introduces the concept of utilizing simple shapes to describe complex objects using visual examples (readily available from the internet or the aforementioned “How To” books)
  • Teacher explains that cartoonists will often utilize combinations of these shapes to create formulas that facilitate character design
  • Teacher will ask students to name a character that clearly uses simple shapes in its design (i.e. Spongebob)

At this point, I tell students that what I’m about to show them is one of these much-used formulas.

  • Teacher demos the Three-Circle formula

You start by drawing a circle:

Add two connecting circles underneath it (sort of like a Venn diagram):

Add a nose in the middle where the circle meet:

Add eyes over the “cheeks”:

Add details to make it specific:

  • Teacher will ask what other kind of characters can be drawn with this formula

By changing the details, you create a different character:

Even humans:

The thing to emphasize here is that once you know the underlying formula, it can be manipulated to create a wide variety of characters. It’s the formula that’s important.

  • Exercise: Students will use the formula to draw a character that’s different from the ones the teacher just demonstrated

As you’ve circulated the classroom, you may have noticed some students already using this formula in completing the Do Now. Acknowledge this and encourage them to push it further (“Show me what you can do”).

Alright, now that we’ve learned the basic formula, let’s push it a little further. We’ll do this by introducing the concepts of stretch and squash.

  • Teacher will demo a stretch, by starting with the three circle formula, but stretching it like this:

Before adding details, ask your students what kind of personality they think this character will have based solely on the shape of the head. Next add details. Stretch each feature. For example:

  • Teacher will demo a squash. Draw the three circles thus:

Again ask about a possible personality. Then add details, squashing each feature. For example:

  • Demo a face that uses both techniques. For example:

Emphasize that in each case, a lot is communicated through the initial design alone, before details are added.

  • Exercise: Students will create two characters utilizing stretch and squash. They may ink them, adding details, texture, etc, time permitting.

Again, this is simply the introductory drawing lesson that I use; something simple to whet their appetite, that any student can have some success with. You can teach them any drawing techniques you like (if you teach them at all. As Jessica and Matt aptly point out, you can create comics, strictly speaking, without drawing anything at all – see Drawing Words & Writing Pictures page 9).

Derek Mainhart is an art teacher at Deer Park High School and at the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. He has taught widely at many institutions such as Molloy College, Boricua College and Hofstra, among others. He teaches cartooning workshops in the greater New York area. In addition, he was the first Vice President of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) in Manhattan, and was instrumental in the formation of its annual MoCCA Art Festival. He has organized and participated in numerous gallery exhibits in and around NYC. His self-published works include The Iraqi Tinies and W. He is married to web-cartoonist and fellow art teacher Ali Solomon. They live with their daughter in Forest Hills (not far from the house where Peter Parker grew up.)


2 Comments to Teaching comics to teens day 3: Learning basic cartooning techniques

  • by Leah

    On November 19, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    Thanks for posting these! I’m a new art teacher struggling for ideas. This blog is a great resource!

  • by Derek

    On November 22, 2015 at 11:05 pm

    No prob Leah! Glad you’re finding them useful! Good luck!

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