Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Accidental Cartoonist

Nick Brennan, 48, has been a prolific cartoonist for the past 18 years, famous for his Blinky character in the Dandy and various comic strips for the Beano, including Crazy for Daisy. But apart from Art 'O' Level, he has no artistic training and never intended to become a cartoonist

“I was a mechanical engineer, working for Rolls Royce in Bristol,” he says, in a quiet, laconic voice, “and then my wife saw some cartoons I’d drawn and said, ‘why aren’t you doing this for a living?’ It had never crossed my mind – I did them for myself.”

Nick and Fran met at a beer festival in 1984 and when he decided to try his hand at cartooning, they moved from Bristol to Scotland. “I didn’t realise at the time that we were 20 odd miles from Dundee, the home of the mighty D. C. Thompson, where the Dandy and Beano are published,” Nick says. “I went along to see the editor of the Dandy with my portfolio and from there I got the occasional half page and built it up over the years to regular work. Now I get a lot of commissions from the internet.”

Nick was originally inspired by cartoonists such as Charles Schultz, Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman, “but I’m not very interested in the political side of things,” he smiles. “I hope to just bring a bit of fun into the world now and again.”

His cartoons for the Beano and Dandy are determined by a script; but for private commissions, people ask him to draw things for them. “Some are very specific,” he says, but the process is far from simple. “Usually people have an idea of what they want, I have an idea for a script and the ideas bounce between us until we get down to what they actually want, which is sometimes different to what they think they want!

“I send some roughs for them to look at and if they like them, I do some more detailed roughs, then the inked version, then it all gets coloured and sent off. If they don’t like it, I change it.” Nick’s wife, who went to art college, colours up the cartoons for Nick because he is colour blind. “I also use Fran as a sounding board – she’ll say if something is wrong,” he adds.

The time consuming part of the process is thinking up the ideas. “A lot of people don’t realise it’s not the actual drawing that takes time, it’s coming up with the idea,” says Nick. “It might entail me staring out of the window for a day. But once I get an idea, I write it down, even if it’s rubbish. One idea triggers another, and it’s all about training your brain to think in that way and try and make connections with things that hopefully people will find funny.”

The frustrating part of Nick’s work, he finds, is when he knows what he wants to draw but can’t get it down on paper. “The opposite is also frustrating - when you don’t know what you want to do and stare at a blank piece of paper.”

Most of Nick’s work is aimed at children and he has found that sensitivities have changed over the years. “It’s become much more lavatorial, which is of course a great tradition of British cartoons. Lots of gross things for children like snot and farts and bogeys now! Years ago I was chatting to the editor of The Dandy who complained about one of the other artist’s work because it was so rude. He painstakingly Tippexed all the farts! It’s totally changed.”

The main thing to avoid is encouraging racism or bullying. “It has to be inclusive because life’s no good if you’re miserable,” Nick explains. “The other thing is showing anything that could be deemed dangerous that children might emulate.”
Nick’s workshops are very popular with children. He holds regular sessions at Falmouth Art Gallery and recently held a workshop at the Fal River Festival. He has also collaborated with the staff at the Royal Cornwall Museum to create a comic aimed at inspiring children about the collections there. “The first comic was about the Cornish collection, and you can pick a copy up at the museum, or see it online at www.cartoonfun.co.uk/rcm/bttp,” says Nick.
He admits to being petrified by his first workshop. “I was worried that that were bored - they were so quiet. But a teacher friend of mine said, ‘no - quiet’s good! That means they’re interested and doing it!’ It turned out fine because they were really keen,” he says with a grin.

During a workshop Nick might take in some old work from the Dandy to show children that it’s drawn much bigger than it’s reproduced. “They have to bear that in mind and not wonder why they can’t draw it so well,” Nick says. “I go through some basics about drawing and various techniques you can use.” Usually the workshops have a theme which, if at a museum, is usually related to an exhibition that is on at the time.

“One of my workshops tied in with Henry Tuke’s paintings,” he says. “We looked at the way he uses light and shade, and tried to get the children to think about the bare minimum they needed to put in to give ‘a sense of place’. We then drew some pictures and decided what the background needed to include.”

Most workshops usually last for two hours but Nick’s never had any problems working with children. “They’re volunteers so they tend to be pretty keen.” Nick smiles. “Usually they don’t want to stop and I get told off by the gallery staff!”

Working with children can be incredibly rewarding. “Sometimes they draw little cartoons for me,” Nick says. “Once we’ve finished I have to sign any of the things I’ve drawn so they can take them home and put them on their bedroom walls.”

For any budding cartoonists, Nick acknowledges that there are fewer opportunities nowadays. “There aren’t so many kids’ comics. Political cartoons are a bigger market but there aren’t many places that take cartoons these days and the ones you do find are so inundated with stuff it’s difficult to get in. Practise your craft and persevere,” is Nick’s advice. “You need to get a foot in the door and keep trying. There is the internet of course and then the world’s your oyster.”

Fran is from Cornwall so they moved back here eight years ago, and 2 years ago acquired a very beautiful border collie called Pearle. “The pubs are nicer down here,” Nick says. “I love the scenery, the gig rowing – you get addicted you know.” They have both rowed at the World Championships at Scilly - Nick rows with Devoran Gig Club - they both enjoy exploring the coast with Pearle, and drinking real ale. His local, the Seven Stars in Falmouth, not only provides good Skinners and Sharps beer but the landlord, the Reverend Barrington Bennetts, had a major role in the Beano one year.

“Barrington’s birthday card came about because three things happened,” Nick says. “He was 70, had done 50 years behind the bar and it was 10 years since he’d been ordained as a priest. Having designed the card, we talked to the Beano editor, asked if we could put Barrington in for a bit of fun and he said yes. When we showed Barrington the published version he didn’t believe us at first – the Beano was sold out in Falmouth that week!” Nick also made postcards of the birthday card, and the original Beano page is in the Falmouth Art Gallery.

It is clear that here is one contented cartoonist. “I intend to keep doing this till I drop at my desk!” he says. “I love drawing silly pictures, and it beats engineering. I can escape into my own little world and draw people with big noses.”

Nick is also available for advertising copywriting and greeting cards.
He can be contacted on 07866 207 912; www.cartoonfun.co.uk
or email nick@cartoonfun.co.uk

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