Cartoonist loves feel of ink, paper, paint
By Jeff Koterba | World-Herald cartoonist
I start my day by reading the Omaha World-Herald and other newspapers. I also check other sources -- TV, radio -- but it really takes a newspaper's content to give me ideas. Broadcast news rarely offers the depth of information required for a cartoon. I also read lots of books. There's just something about the written word that I connect with, that gets my creative juices flowing. I also occasionally do additional research and investigation. And, because I'm a naturally curious person, I love meeting and hearing from our readers about what's on their minds. Coming up with the idea is the most challenging part of my job. On rare but lucky days, the ideas come quickly, like a flash, a moment of inspiration. But mostly, looking for ideas is an arduous process, requiring lots of sketching, thinking and walking around. Also, coffee. Lots of coffee.
When choosing a topic I won't necessarily pick the biggest story of the day. Yes, if a story is too big to ignore I'll be drawing on that topic. But I also like to mix it up, occasionally surprising readers by commenting on more offbeat topics. I also like to give voice to issues that don't always get the attention they deserve.
I'm one of those people who can think only when typing on a computer or with a pencil in his hand. After settling on a topic, I'll spend the rest of my morning sketching, sometimes filling up sheets of paper, trying out different angles, various expressions, playing with the wording, rewriting and editing as I go.
An idea for a cartoon might start with just a nugget. The United States doesn't yet have a solid exit strategy in Afghanistan, and complicating matters is the self-imposed deadline for withdrawing troops. So I was thinking about Afghanistan and exits and started playing with the idea of an exit door. What if a soldier saw an "exit" on a door and opened it, but there was nothing on the other side?
Often I just keep sketching, trying to discover how far I can take an idea and still have it make sense. Along the way, I ask myself: Is this a fair comment? Does it hold up logically? Journalistically?
Although I work in the world of opinion, I still must base my commentary in fact. I can't just say I don't like politician so-and-so. And, in fact, I generally don't dislike people -- I just don't like what some people say and do.
Once I have a sketch that satisfies me, I'll leave it be for a while and return to it with fresh eyes to make sure it still works. If not, it's back to the drawing board. Literally. I might also show the sketch to colleagues to get their reactions.
Geitner Simmons, editor of the editorial pages, always reviews my sketches. On good days, I might have two or three ideas, and we'll discuss which is the best for that day.
In the past, the process of identifying an idea would take me late into the day. In recent years, I try to have my idea by lunchtime, giving me the afternoon to complete the finished drawing.
After Geitner approves my sketch, I redraw the cartoon on a large sheet of Bristol board, a type of paperboard, inking it in with pens and brushes. This might take anywhere from two to three hours, depending on whether I need to do further research and study. For example, if I'm drawing a politician I'm not as familiar with, I might need to look at several photos of the subject, wearing down my pencil lead in figuring out the perfect caricature.
A few years ago, we began printing my cartoons in color, so after finishing the black-and-white drawing I color in the cartoon. I photocopy the black-and-white version onto a second sheet of Bristol board and then paint in the cartoon using good old watercolors.
If I mess up, I just make another copy and start again. I have nothing against using computer software to color cartoons, I just love the tactile nature of painting, the feel of hand on paper, the feel of the brush, paint and ink on my fingers. This reminds me that I'm not just a journalist, but an artist, too. A cartoonist once asked me what software I used to get such an authentic and natural watercolor look. That was quite satisfying.