A cartoon lifestyle: the thoughts and influences of Steven Appleby

Guardian newspaper cartoonist Steven Appleby works exclusively with Winsor & Newton Drawing Inks and Winsor & Newton Artists’ Watercolour half pans (now called Professional Watercolour). While creating a specially commissioned cartoon for Winsor & Newton, he talks about the process of making cartoons, his influences and ideas.


My ideas start in everyday life, family and people around me. This applies particularly to the Loomus strip in the Guardian. I won’t sit in front of an empty sheet of paper and try to think things up. My work is primarily ideas-based, rather than being a vehicle for a particular style of drawing.

I jot down ideas in a notebook as they occur to me; if I don’t, I will soon forget them. Occasionally the kids will notice me taking notes, or say, “that would make a good cartoon, Dad”. For example, yesterday I bought a present for a friend, Cathy’s, birthday. I proudly showed it to everyone and they all said, “you’ve bought that for yourself”. I got very defensive – “well, she will think of me when she uses it”. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but there’s something about buying the wrong present or a bad present that will make a good cartoon.

Brain acupuncture - Steven Appleby
Brain Acupuncture, Steven Appleby

How I make cartoons

I get in the studio and first of all I need my notebook. I will then draw, using a pen on paper, to develop the idea and push it around. For example, Brain Acupuncture – I felt confident this would work and it became a cartoon in the Guardian (Weekend Guardian, Family section 22.09.12). I will sit here with no distractions and rough it out. The one I’m making now for Winsor & Newton is maybe a bit sinister. It’s not anatomically correct; if it is, it loses a bit of life. Being “wrong” is often better.

Steven Appleby - How I make cartoons
Steven Appleby, How I Make Cartoons


I studied graphic design because I didn’t think I was good enough at drawing to be an illustrator; it was only later that I discovered that you didn’t need to draw correctly in order to be able to express an idea. Gary Larson does enough to convey his very funny ideas. James Thurber is very good at getting across his surreal ideas without being what you might call “good at drawing”. It was only at the Royal College that I discovered my own “wonky” style, which was how I used to draw before I went to art school. I’d spent all this time experimenting with techniques and came back to how I used to draw as a child!

Once I’ve worked on the drawing enough I put it on a lightbox. I then lay paper over it and start to ink it in. I use a pen with a nib and Winsor & Newton Indian Ink, a black ink which I’ve used since my student days. I don’t trace the drawing underneath but rather use it loosely as a guide. At college, I would work on boards, rub out mistakes then ink over the pencil work. This could end up very messy. At the Royal College of Art, Quentin Blake showed me how to use this lightbox technique. It means that at every stage of the process I am never precious about the drawing and can re-work it without making a mess. The ink takes about half an hour to dry. Then it is waterproof and I can add colour. Sometimes when I’ve been working to a tight deadline I’ve put drawings in the oven or under the grill to hurry them along!

I’ve now finished inking the drawing with Winsor & Newton Indian Ink. For the colour, I use Winsor & Newton Artists’ Watercolour half pans with a Series 7 brush. I’ve tried using tubes but prefer the half pans for their convenience. I mix the colour on a piece of paper so that I can see what it will look like before I add it to the cartoon. I try not to be too fussy or neat in my application. If I’ve got a Guardian deadline then I will keep the colouring simple. In fact, I enjoy having the deadlines to motivate me. For this cartoon, I’ve now coloured in his trousers and face, but I’m thinking it needs something radical to “lift” it, so I’m going to paint the desk a purplish colour. When I’ve done that it will be finished. I would then scan the cartoon and send it to the publisher.

Steven Appleby's Ink Drawing for Painting Matters
Steven Appleby’s ink drawing for Winsor & Newton



Steven Appleby's Ink Drawing for Painting Matters



Artists and writers who create their own worlds were my early influences. I loved Ronald Searle and the dark humour of St Trinian’s as a kid. Swallows and Amazons was another favourite. As a student it seemed that the options for an illustrator were limited to children’s books or ad hoc commissions. Then I saw these weird little books by Edward Gorey which were definitely for adults and independently made. I realised comics could be grown up. My first strip was in the NME music magazine. It was called Captain Star, inspired by Star Trek and Gerry Anderson’s Fireball XL5. He wasn’t really a superhero but a rather mundane space captain obsessed with hoovering his space ship and checking the windscreen wipers.


*Lead image: Steven Appleby’s Ink Drawing for Winsor & Newton