Do you enjoy making cartoons as much as reading or watching them? Then a career as a cartoonist may be a great fit.

Working in cartoons is a creative profession with plenty of variety in terms of the type of work you can do and the industries you might work for. There’s also a lot of potential in the purpose behind the work that you create—for example, entertainment, marketing and advertising, or social or political commentary.

If getting paid to doodle sounds like a dream job, here’s what to know about how to be a cartoonist, including a quick look at cartoonist qualifications and salary expectations. 

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What is a Cartoonist?

A cartoonist is a visual artist who draws original cartoons or comic strips for various types of media publications. In addition to drawing, a professional cartoonist may engage in other related specialties, such as cartoon writing and animation.

As is true for many creative careers, a cartoonist may work in-house for a publication or publisher, or they may work independently as a freelancer. In either case, there’s an opportunity to make decent money and explore new facets of your creative talents. With enough success, you could even join the ranks of famous cartoonists like Matt Groening (The Simpsons), Tove Jansson (The Moomins), and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes).

cartoon
Cartoonists bring unique points of view to their work and many have identifiable styles that set them apart from others in the field. (Comic by Skillshare student Roy Vincent Trani.)

Cartoonist Job Description

What does a cartoonist do day-to-day? Obviously, lots of time is spent drawing, but that’s not the only task on a cartoonist’s to-do list.

Other duties of a cartoonist include:

  • Brainstorming and research: Inspiration for a cartoon can come from anywhere, including current events, politics, and even songs. Every cartoonist has their own process for approaching their work, but an impactful cartoon usually starts with brainstorming and a bit of background research. This is when the vision for the cartoon and its story will come together, plus decisions on things like color palettes and formatting.
  • Sketches and mock-ups: Most cartoons start as sketches before getting finalized into completed works, and a cartoonist may be required to make multiple sketches and mock-ups for approval before moving on to their final draft. During this stage, a cartoonist will also create character design sheets to standardize their character illustrations and unique character features like facial expressions and general style.
  • Team collaboration: A cartoonist who works for a specific publication, studio, or agency will often work alongside editors and producers, and they may collaborate with writers and animators as well. A freelance cartoonist also does quite a bit of collaboration, communicating with clients and doing some additional back and forth until the project is complete.

How much autonomy you get as a cartoonist will largely depend on who you’re working for and in what capacity. It’s possible to work completely independently and simply sell completed works after the fact, but that route might not end up being as profitable as working in-house or on commission.

character sheet
A character design sheet is an important first step in creating a new comic. (Design sheet by Skillshare student Leigh Dunsford.)

Creating Cartoon Faces

Drawing Faces: A Beginner’s Guide

How to Become a Cartoonist

There is no single path guaranteed to lead you to a successful cartooning career. Instead, there are an array of things that you can do to open yourself up to opportunities and get established in the field, and depending on where you want to work, that may or may not include going to school for an art degree.

So then, how do you become a cartoonist? Here are two ways to go about it.  

Get an Art Degree

A bachelor’s degree in art or a related field such as animation, graphic design, or illustration could be a good stepping stone on your way to a career as a cartoonist. Getting a formal education gives you a chance to hone your skills, find your unique style, and access opportunities like internships and mentorships that you may not have had access to otherwise. It can also help you stand out when you’re applying for jobs.

Gain Experience Creating Cartoons

A nice thing about drawing cartoons is that you don’t need to be working on commission in order to make them. Anyone can practice their cartoon drawing and character development skills at home. Likewise, there are a ton of resources available online for learning about things like cartoon theory, storyboarding, the cartoon creation process, and related skills like animation and graphic design.

As you grow your skill set, see if you can find an internship or entry-level position that will provide you with on-the-job experience. You should also work on building a strong portfolio that you can show to prospective employers or clients.

drawings
Cartoonists often start their work by hand and then transfer it to a digital format, so consider getting familiar with programs like Photoshop and Illustrator as you work on developing your talents. (Cartoon sketches by Skillshare Student Nina Al.)

Average Cartoonist Salary

The average salary for a cartoonist in the U.S. is about $51,500 per year, according to the Economic Research Institute, with senior-level cartoonists making closer to $63,000. As you might expect, though, a cartoonist’s income potential can vary quite a bit depending on their location, skills, experience level, and popularity.

It’s important to consider the field itself and how most cartoonists are making their money when looking at overall income. For example, a freelance cartoon artist is going to have quite a different pay structure than someone who is paid a set annual salary.

If you’re interested in going freelance and want to know how much you could make, do some digging to see what cartoonists at your level are charging for their work and what additional skills or services could help you diversify your offerings and make even more.

Where to Look for Cartoonist Jobs

Cartoons as a visual art form appear in all different sorts of publications and media outlets. As you forge ahead in your career, you’ll probably start to get an idea for what kind of cartoonist jobs you want to pursue, but it helps to know what your options are and where you might be able to put your talents to use.

Print and Digital Publications

From The New Yorker to Buzzfeed, there are tons of publications that commission cartoons or keep cartoonists on staff. This includes newspapers, magazines, and websites, many of which have some sort of specific spin, such as politics, entertainment, health and wellness, or sports.

Television and Film

Wherever you see animation in TV and film, you’re seeing the work of a cartoonist brought to life. Working as a cartoonist in this type of media is an exciting prospect, though it can be a bit competitive, especially if your ultimate goal would be to work somewhere like Disney or the Cartoon Network. To set yourself apart, you’ll likely need to be able to bring additional skills to the table, such as the ability to write or animate in addition to draw.

Advertising

For as long as there have been ads, there have been companies using cartoons to help sell their products. If you have an interest in marketing and advertising—or if you just see this as a potentially lucrative cartoonist career path—keep an eye out for art and graphic design positions at ad agencies and use your skills to help create memorable media for advertising campaigns.

Go Solo as a Freelance Cartoonist

Want to do a little bit of everything? Start a career as a freelance cartoon artist and sell your work directly to all sorts of clients and customers. The big benefit of working as a freelance cartoonist is that you get complete say in what you choose to work on. As for drawbacks, the work (and income) may not be as consistent, and you may need to work overtime in the beginning in order to make a sustainable profit.

Share Your Creative Talents on National Cartoonists Day

Any day is a good day to show the world what you can do as a cartoonist. But if you’re looking for an excuse to broadcast your art, then National Cartoonists Day, held every year on May 5, is the day to do it.

National Cartoonists Day was founded in 1999 to pay homage to both cartoons and their creators, with the date itself serving to celebrate the first commercially successful cartoon, “Hogan’s Alley,” which was published on May 5, 1895 in the New York World.  

You don’t need to be getting paid work as a cartoonist in order to honor your own art and the art of other cartoonists. On National Cartoonists Day, make a point of engaging with the cartoonist community online, and consider taking the plunge and going all-in on pursuing a career in the field. 

Make Moves as a Cartoonist

Cartooning: Drawing People in Motion

Written by:

Laura Mueller