Creative Lives — Cartoonist Tom Gauld on drawing for science and defying convention
Gracing the cover of publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times, you might already be familiar with the work of Scottish cartoonist Tom Gauld. His work creates narratives that provide light in the toughest of times, including his recently released book Department of Mind-Blowing Theories – a collection of his weekly science-related cartoons for New Scientist. Originally from Aberdeenshire, Tom’s career kicked off with a regular gig making comics for Time Out, leading to longstanding work for The Guardian. We find out how Tom landed on his style as a student at Edinburgh College of Art and talk to him about demystifying the concept of “good drawing.” Tom also has some reassuring advice for anyone who is yet to land on their own visual niche.
Cartoonist and Illustrator
The Guardian, New Scientist, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Le Monde, Eye Magazine, WIRED, Penguin, Faber, The Royal Mail, Apple, Google
BA Illustration, Edinburgh College of Art (1999)
MA Illustration, Royal College of Art (2001)
How would you describe what you do?
I draw two weekly cartoons: one about literature and the arts for The Guardian and one about science for New Scientist. These take up about half of my working week, the rest of the time I do a variety of other things like illustrations for magazines, newspapers, websites, book covers, advertising and design work, plus writing graphic novels and working on a children’s book which will come out next year.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I’ve always been more of a morning person – I like to be at my desk by 8.30am. I try, and often don’t succeed in, getting straight to drawing and creative thinking. I then move on to answering emails or sending invoices.
Coming up with the initial spark of an idea is by far the hardest part of my work. I’ve found caffeine, walking and sketching have been the best methods in helping my ideas grow. Up until recently, I worked in a shared studio which I generally had to myself for an hour or two at the start of the day. I am now working remotely, in light of the social distancing rules put in place for Covid-19.
‘Tough Times’, The Guardian 2012
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I like working for myself and keeping my own hours. It does generally allow me to have a pretty good work-life balance. There is a pressure that comes with doing it all on your own, and I sometimes feel envious of people who work in teams and can rely on help from others when they get stuck.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I’ve been working on two books that are new departures for me. One is a collection of my weekly science cartoons called Department of Mind-blowing Theories and is the result of a leap into the dark I made when I decided to expand from literature and art cartoons into the world of science. It took some effort to get my head around it at first, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. The second book is my picture book for children which I can’t say much about, but it was an exciting challenge, trying to translate my work into a new area for different readers!
(left) Fall ‘Library’, New Yorker 2011, (middle) ‘Winter Garden’, New Yorker 2019, (right) ‘Work’ The New York Times 2020
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
You need to be able to devote large amounts of time to carefully thinking about and drawing pretty silly things. There’s no boss, so you need to be self-motivating and able to uphold standards and keep working on your own. Being able to work quickly when necessary also helps.
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
When I started out I had a pretty clear delineation between personal projects (which tended to be self-published comic books) and illustration work from which I made a living. These days it’s more of a mixture with most things having a personal element and a work element.
In terms of timing, everything has to slot in amongst my two weekly deadlines: generally Tuesday for The Guardian and Wednesday for New Scientist. If I’m feeling particularly organised, I tend to hand in a few cartoons early – so that I have a bigger stretch of time for specific projects. For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on an idea for a children’s picture book, which started as a personal project. Eventually I founder a publisher to work with and it evolved into a ‘real’ or professional project.
‘Epic Tale’, personal work 2009
‘Ghosts’, The New York Times, 2008
‘Postcard’, personal work 2020
What tools do you use most for your work?
For the last ten years or so I’ve drawn in Maruman Art Spiral notebooks (which are a nice size and have lovely paper) with a Uni-Ball Eye Micro pen – which makes a good, even line of rich black ink. I make rough sketches in pencil on basic photocopy paper and trace them with Uni-Balls on to cartridge paper on a lightbox. I use photoshop to clean up, edit and add colour.
I keep a passport-sized notebook from Muji in my pocket for any ideas I have when I’m out and about and I use Simplenote on my iPhone to record text ideas. I think it’s important to get ideas down quickly, no matter how half-baked or weird it sounds. The good thing about using my phone to jot these down is that I can do it with one hand and not have to stop walking!
“I think it’s important to get ideas down quickly, no matter how half-baked or weird it sounds.”
What inspires your work?
Ideas comes from all aspects of my life – I’ll take them anywhere I can get them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, literature and other cartoons are my regular sources of inspiration. I had a lot of doubts about my visual style when I was studying illustration at Edinburgh College of Art. I often felt that I should’ve been making expressive, virtuoso, dark work but it was never much good: the notes and doodles in my sketchbook were always better than the “art”.
When I started making comics, I just naturally slipped into using my non-style, i.e. the way I drew when I wasn’t thinking, or trying to impress anyone. So I started using this simple style for all of my work and it felt natural. I still want my work to look nice, but hopefully that comes through interesting design and layout, rather than traditionally ‘good’ drawing. I think having a recognisable style (even though I slightly hate that word) is helpful, but forcing it is unhelpful. If you work hard enough and make enough work, a ‘style’ will appear.
‘Time Travel’, The Guardian 2017
How I Got Here
Did you study at degree level and if so, do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I loved being at art school and being surrounded by a cohort of interesting people – they were all excited to be making things. I learned a lot from some excellent tutors but probably more from the students around me: filmmakers, animators, painters, other illustrators. I have friends who went straight into cartooning, or went to university rather than art school, so I don’t think art school is a necessity by any means.
“I always made sure that I had a physical, printed thing to give anyone who saw me: a mini-comic, a poster, a postcard – in the hope that they’d pin it up or keep it on their desk.”
When first starting out, what were your initial steps?
I started out by showing my illustration portfolio to as many people as I could. I asked my tutors and friends for the contacts of anyone they thought might be willing to look at my work, then I tried to see those people in person. Once I’d shown someone my work, I would always ask if they knew anyone else who might be interested. It took maybe six months of going around before I started getting work. I was lucky that I had a part-time job in a bookshop and understanding parents who helped me out with rent at the time.
I always made sure that I had a physical, printed thing to give anyone who saw me: a mini-comic, a poster, postcard, whatever, in the hope that they’d pin it up or keep it on their desk, rather than filing it away and forgetting me.
Weekly cartoon, The Guardian 2014
Weekly cartoon, New Scientist 2016
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break? Or has there been a project that particularly helped your development?
Luckily, very early on I got a regular weekly job making a comic for Time Out magazine. That gave me the opportunity to showcase my work and earn a small regular income.
Another pivotal moment was meeting Roger Browning who was an art director at The Guardian. I showed him my portfolio and left him with one of my comics – he was very encouraging but unfortunately didn’t have any work for me at the time. Over the following months, he gave me small illustration jobs to complete for the Guardian Review that led to bigger illustration jobs. I eventually began covering other cartoonists who were on holiday and finally having my own weekly column. I always put in extra effort when I’m working on briefs for him as I believe the Guardian Review was a great home for my work.
Weekly cartoon, New Scientist 2019
Weekly cartoon, New Scientist 2018
weekly cartoon, The Guardian 2015
What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
I’ve come to be less afraid of turning down work that is not well-paid enough or that I don’t have time to do. I used to think that turning things down would get me put on a ‘never use this person again’ blacklist, but actually it can sometimes make you seem more desirable to a client.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
I once read some advice, which I think was from Neil Gaiman, and it went something like: “There are three qualities people like in a freelancer; firstly doing really good work, secondly finishing the work on time, and lastly being nice to work with. If you can manage two of the three then people will forgive you for the other one.”
And lastly, do you have any advice as we work through the lockdown period?
I’m not sure that this will reassure anybody else, but all I can say is what I’m trying to do at the moment, which is stay busy. I’m focusing on making work. Working keeps me sane and when this is over (which it will be, sooner or later) I’ll hopefully have something to show for my time in lockdown.