Why Do The Cartoons In Some British Magazines And Papers Use Simplistic Art ? – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Simple art cartoons in magazines

I’ve probably talked about this subject before, but I thought that I’d take a more detailed look at it today. Even so, I apologise in advance if I end up repeating myself.

A while before I wrote this article, I happened to take a look at a copy of “Private Eye” from May.

If you’ve never heard of “Private Eye” before, it’s a British satirical magazine that includes both articles and large quantities of both political and humourous cartoons. It’s sort of like our version of “Charlie Hebdo”, but it’s more established and somewhat less controversial (although it’s editors have been sued for libel at least a few times).

The interesting thing about a lot of these cartoons is that the art tends to be very much on the minimalist side. They’re often black and white drawings, with minimal detail. So, this made me wonder about why many modern British press cartoons tend to have such simplistic artwork.

Of course, the most obvious reason is because the funniest part of the cartoon isn’t the illustration, but the caption beneath it. As long as the illustration either compliments the caption or provides an amusing counterpoint to it, then the level of artistic detail doesn’t really matter that much. In most cases, it doesn’t really affect how funny the joke is.

Another possible reason for the low level of detail is the fact that these cartoons have to be made within a relatively short space of time to stay topical. When combined with the writing time (and actually thinking of a joke is often the most time-consuming part of making a cartoon, a webcomic update etc…), simple artwork allows the cartoon to be produced quickly in order to meet a deadline.

This can be seen in daily editorial cartoons in many newspapers too. Whilst some newspapers include a roster of cartoonists who each produce 1-3 detailed paintings per week (eg: like in The Guardian), if a newspaper has a cartoonist who makes something every day, then the detail level will be significantly lower. A good example of this is the small single-panel B&W “Matt” cartoons that are published in The Telegraph.

This is hardly a new thing in cartooning – many American three-panel syndicated newspaper cartoons (eg: Dilbert, Garfield etc..) often use very simple B&W artwork for time reasons. Likewise, when I was looking through some old books in a forgotten corner of one of my bookshelves, I stumbled across a couple of second-hand books of British political cartoons from the early-mid 1990s. The artwork in virtually all of these cartoons also consists of relatively simple line art. So, it really isn’t a new development.

One possible reason for this could be to do with the history of printing technology. Although modern printing technology is quite advanced (and even some of the simple cartoons in modern editions of “Private Eye” occasionally feature greyscale shading and/or limited colour), this wasn’t always the case. Simple black and white cartoons were historically a lot easier and cheaper to print than more detailed colour artwork was. As such, this old practical tradition probably still has an effect on some modern cartoonists (who were inspired by these older cartoons).

There are probably also stylistic reasons why many modern British print cartoons have simple artwork. One is that, by definition, these cartoons are anti-establishment. As such, rougher and more unpolished artwork gives these cartoons more of a “punk” kind of look. They look like something that someone has drawn quickly because they want to make a point, rather than a more polished work of art that is designed to be visually pleasing.

There’s also the fact that these are serious cartoons that are aimed at adults. Whilst mainstream American superhero comics have gone down the route of including more realistic and/or detailed artwork, British press cartoons have tried to set themselves apart from this by placing less emphasis on the art and more emphasis on the ideas. They aren’t designed to be flashy, they’re designed to be funny and/or to make a point.

In addition to this, the simplistic art is also a sign of creative freedom too. After all, unlike some traditional comics that have a “house style”, all of the simple cartoons in “Private Eye” have their own unique art style. Even though the art is fairly simple, you can easily tell the artists apart from each other by the details of their art style.

So, yes, these are some of the possible reasons why British press cartoons often use fairly simplistic artwork.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂


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