McLean Initiative Turning Kids Into Budding Cartoonists


(Wednesday, March 14, 2007 5:48 AM EDT)

Many kids enjoy sitting back and watching cartoons or reading a comic book. Some take it to the next level and draw their own.

Now, burgeoning cartoonists can hone their skills in a new class, designed for ages 8 to 12 and offered by the McLean Project for the Arts in partnership with the Cocoran College of Art & Design.

“Every day at school, I have a notebook, and I draw everything in my head,” said participant Kellyn Henry, whose favorite cartoonist is Jim Davis of “Garfield” fame. “I thought this class could inspire my drawings.”

Students start each two-hour-class with drawing exercises, then delve into topics that include developing a storyboard, inking, lettering, caricature and anthropomorphism (giving human characteristics to non-human objects or creatures).

“Cartooning has its foundation in drawing, so we touch on that in every class,” said Erik Swanson, who teaches the class.

Swanson holds a bachelor's of fine arts degree from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, and is a member of the faculty at the Cocoran College.

He has done work on comic books such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Hysteria, and likes to share his experience with the students in a master/apprentice-like environment.

“I always try to show them me drawing,” he said. “I think it's important for younger artists to see older artists working.”

Even though the class is for elementary- and middle-school students, Swanson doesn't make it easy on them. Anime, a Japanese style of animation, is probably the most popular form of cartooning among the students, but Swanson makes sure to teach them a broad spectrum of cartooning styles and techniques. He also throws in some art history , such as the evolution of the speech bubble.

“I'm trying to expose the students to every aspect of cartooning and animation,” he said. “I believe in setting the bar high, because there aren't any students who haven't reached it.”

Although Swanson expects a lot from his students, he stresses that students should not beat themselves up if they mess up. They should be “committed to the drawing, not the page,” meaning if they're spending too much time fixating on one sketch, they should just move on and try again.

“You may draw 10,000 to 100,000 bad drawings,” he said. “But you're just getting them out of your system.”

Swanson is also continually impressed with the students' creativity in their cartooning.

“Their imaginations are flawless,” he said. “They've got me beat!”

Students are responding well to the six-session class; several said they have started to notice improvements in their work.

“What I like best about the class is learning more about cartooning,” said student Andrew McCleaf. “I practice and practice, and I've gotten better.”

McLean Project for the Arts will offer a cartooning class for students from 12 to 16 years old, beginning in April. For more information, see the Web site at or call (703) 790-0123.

Nicholas Rowan and Andrew McCleaf warm up their drawing hands at the beginning of class.
(Photo by Kristen Armstrong)

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