Noodle Arms to Bigfoot: A Cartoon family

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Cartooning and caricature is the use of simplified forms and lines to represent people, animals and things.


Most Cartooning lives somewhere in the middle zone of the Big Triangle, as i’ve traced in red.

Modern cartooning is diverse, I see it as having three major families or styles, falling along a spectrum from most abstracted to most representational, and on to idealized. All popular styles will fall somewhere along this line.

simplifcationTypically cartooning is about simplification, as we see with this set of drawings from the Famous Artists Cartooning Course. FYI if you’ve not read it yet I explore this in some depth in ‘What is Cartooning‘.

This great diagram on the right helps illustrate the idea further–it comes from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and shows the range starting on the left with realism in the left bottom corner, the top is where things become reduced to 2 dimensional abstract forms on the picture plane, and the bottom right where meaning becomes symbolic, iconic, including in the end logos and text. Most Cartooning lives somewhere in the middle zone of the Big Triangle, as I’ve traced in red.

The Three major style groups I mentioned, are the very cartoony, over on the right side of the triangle.


Think Adventure Time, The Simpsons, Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. For most of the characters in this range, they typically stand between 2 and 4 heads tall. And can be drawn using basic forms easily. They often don’t’ have clearly defined knees or elbows, but rather vary degrees of rubber or noodle arms instead.

pbanimation04-bigpbanimation07-bigAnd they will squash and stretch a lot more, and generally distort, to exaggerate their pantomime and employ a dynamic line of action, making them super expressive and often quite silly. These kinds of characters often tend to be utilized for their cuteness as protagonists, though that’s not a rule. By the way the two great examples of dynamic line and squash and stretch here come from Preston Blair’s Advanced Animation, you can check it out here, absolutely one of the best compact instructional books on cartooning.

In the middle of the triangle we transition eventually to Bigfoot style. There’s no real fixed boundary on where these styles end and begin. But It usually features somewhat more representational characters, but with still distorted proportions. Sometimes the faces are more cartoony, sometimes they can be fairly realistic. They can use a fair bit of squash and stretch too, but typically employ it a little less. They also tend to have more clearly defined elbow and knee joints, in many cases quite exaggerated and nobly. The big foot style shows up in the contemporary art of Jack Davis, Ronald Searle, Richard Thompson, and stems from the classic work of Billy DeBeck & E. C. Segar among others.


elmernormalproportionsAs the nickname suggests, often the feet are very large. Hands and heads too typically are blown up, making it easier to be expressive with the characters. Bodies may be roughly normal in shape, or may be fairly cartoony still. But mostly they tend to stand taller, at 4 to 6.5 heads tall.

It’s common for cartoonists to mix these first two styles in the same comics, with some characters being more ‘real’ relatively compared to others.  Elmer Fudd for example, is pretty much a Big Foot Character, but only 2.5 heads tall. He’s the straight man to Bugs Bunny–who also has big feat but resembles a real rabbit much less than Elmer does a man! He’s 4 heads tall, 5.5 including ears. So clearly it’s a very fluid distinction if any.


Art by Alan Davis from Marvel's Excaliber

Art by Alan Davis from Marvel’s Excalibur

Naturalistic realism for the human figure is on average 7.5 heads tall. Some slight variation but as a rule all humans that don’t have dwarfism or gigantism, will fit that model.

Using those proportions tends to not be seen as cartoony, thought the rendering quality of the lines may still give work a more cartoon feel.

Then Heroic proportions start at 8.5 heads tall, and go on all the way up to 10 and on. We see this most often in superhero comics, though the tradition of depicting idealized figures this way dates back to ancient Greek art. We see 7 to 10 head tall figures in illustration and fine are as well, what tends to define them as cartoony is the kind of rendering used.


Examples of classic heroic comics art from How to Draw the Marvel Way.

Strong contour lines with weight variation emphasising force and power, exaggerated physics and dynamic posing often characterize cartoon art, regardless if the images are realistic or not.


A classic Jack Kirby two page spread.

Often for cartoon art, the contour line is fully enclosed, or very graphic in nature.

Having a looser more sketchy contour tends to be seen as less cartoony, and typically painterly images loose the contour entirely in favour of using colour and form to define things. Notable exceptions of course here too.

Mobius, from The Airtight Garage

Mobius, from The Airtight Garage


If I were king, art by Alex Toth

The art of Alex Toth uses strong design and chiaroscuro contrast to be bold while often breaking the contour line. But still his work otherwise is exemplary of the graphic punch that typified American Comics. And of course, there’s Kirby

Europeans comics evolved a little differently, with a tendency towards a more ‘illustrative’ line, and early on they aspired to artistic heights that few mainstream American comics did until the 80s or so.

The range of styles that dominated the Franco-Belgian comics is really pretty hard to summarize, it’s huge. I don’t want to try to list them all but Moebius, HergéAlbert Uderzo, are first among them certainly. But there’s immense diversity. Today europe also hosts many art comics and alternative comics publishers as well. With the EU the mixing of style and genre there has exploded.

AstroBoyEpisode51wbManga and it’s animated cousin Anime, while often looked at as separate styles from western comics but really utilize all of the traits i’ve talked about here as well, from the more cartoony to the heroic. Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka is often cited as the first Manga/Anime character.

Characters in that show and many others still employ the full range of 2 to 6 heads tall, model with slightly oversized hands and sometimes feet, though those are often small or in the case of Astro, non existent.

What makes them distinct from western cartoon characters are more specific stylistic notes like that. Anatomically notably often the eyes are very large, though sometimes very small too. Figures are mostly very lean. Many follow a very strict stylistic constraint on the shapes of heads, drawing tiny noses, and small chins. Long elongated limbs and child like bodies. There’s similar trends to pretty much everything you’ll see in manga, enough so that many tutorials specialize in the genre specifically now. But to every rule there are exceptions too. There’s a full diverse family of art styles to be found there.

Modern Manga trends are towards much finer line work, and Anime leans to the cute and fantastic. The artists often use halftone screens for values along with hatching. They don’t always but there’s a bias for a more elegant look than with american comics. There are examples of bolder line work for sure though as well. And at this point asian comics and western comics are very actively influencing and cross pollinating art and storytelling styles so while you will probably recognise the styles as distinct, it’s increasingly hard to make any real solid generalizations.

One of the biggest influences on western comics has been in story pacing. Western comics mostly tended to work towards efficient compression of the storytelling pace. Aiming to get as much covered in as few panels and pages as they could.

Asian comics on the other hand early on adopted a much more decompressed pacing, drawing out time much more in the narrative, and resulting in also much higher page counts, and the popular thick trade paperback format many are published in dominating over shorter pamphlets common in the US [often about 22 pages per monthly booklet] or the mid length BD album [typically around 60 to 80 pages].

One of the outcomes of the cross pollination between regional styles of comic art, and the work of artists in other mediums has been a big growth in experimental comics art. For example, the great teacher, sometimes cartoonist and professional illustrator [site], Barron Storey, taught or influenced an impressive list of very notable Comics creators and pop artists! David ChoeBill Sienkiewicz, Ted McKeeverDave McKean, Kent Williams, David Mack, Ashley Wood, George Pratt, and many many more have studied Barron’s use of pattern and abstraction, and his own broad pallet of influences. Certainly though also making an impression on many of them, possibly including Storey himself, is the astounding art of one of his contemporaries in the Italian illustration and comics scene, Sergio Toppi!

I often feel it’s the most exciting time to be involved in cartooning and comics, with the range of work to learn from staggering. Hardly a final list but here’s a few to check out. I recomend you explore all the work samples in this post, and those that follow. Attempt to imitate in order to study and learn from them. First, regard the work of luscious illustrative artists like Takato Yamamoto or their stylistic followers such as the astounding James Jean. The crisp work of modern north american ‘alternative’ cartoonists like Chris Ware, Adrian TomineDaniel Clowes, the classic retro and clean storytelling of Seth, brushy but looser Craig Thompson, the elegant design and grace of Jillian Tamaki, the deceptively casual Kate Beaton, and graphically bold Becky Cloonan, and the endearing Moomin of Tove Jansson. Ok, I can’t keep being witty about it. Dive in and look at the art of the Fleischer Studios & Disney, Hanna-Barbera. Carl Barks, Charles M. Schulz, Jim Davis, Reg Smythe, Harvey Kurtzman, Walt KellyMatt Baker, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Ronald Searle, Frank King, Milton Caniff, Bernard Krigstein, Hugo Pratt, Gary PanterJack Bradbury, Jaime Hernandez, Gene Colan, Frank Frazetta, Art Spiegelman, Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, George Herriman, Winsor McCay, Will Eisner, Osamu Tezuka, Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri, Pendleton Ward, Wally Wood, Marc Bell, Carson Van Osten, Bill Watterson, E. C. Segar, Katsuhiro Otomo, Sergio Aragonés, Brendan McCarthy, David Mazzucchelli, Gabrielle Bell, Phoebe Gloeckner, Marjane Satrapi, Maitena Burundarena, Nina Bunjevac, Alison Bechdel, Trina Robbins, Hope Larson, Roz Chast, Jon J Muth, Enki Bilal, Renee French, Lynda Barry, Carol TylerMatt Groening & Jill Thompson!

This list is one I put together with some help from friends on facebook, of creators who had a noteworthy impact on comics and cartooning. It is hardly an exhaustive analysis of all the cartooning styles out there, that would take a much MUCH longer post. But hopefully I’ve given you an idea of the general landscape and more than a substantial start for your reading and study list!