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Washing my hands of the idea process...

My editor, Stuart Leavenworth, a graduate of the prestigious Columbia University School of Journalism (c), asked me what I was thinking about drawing for Sunday, and so on Wednesday afternoon I gave him the same answer I always give him on that day, which is, “It’s Wednesday afternoon.”

Perhaps the major challenge of this job is coming up with ideas. Drawing them up is rather a breeze in comparison. It’s the difference between designing a airplane and riding in one. Many people have asked me how I get my ideas, particularly Stuart Leavenworth on Wednesday afternoon.

I have to draw at least five cartoons per week, and the Sunday cartoon takes up pretty much all day. Today, I have a small eye infection, which is making me feel less amusing than I normally would after, say, writing a large check to one of my three college-age children, who have an usual affinity for large checks.

I always tell people that political cartooning is a writing job, not a drawing job. The job is all about coming up with a small phrase, and the cartoon that appears in Friday’s newspaper is about President Obama’s ACA website. Originally, I had considered doing a cartoon about “Black Friday” itself, but then I decided to go with a (small) phrase I had thought of this morning, which was “Obamart,” a hypothetical Big Box store.

What got me was, how do I convey “Black Friday?”

Well, I thought about the phrase “Black Friday” for several hours. I went to coffee. I went to lunch. I sat quietly in my luxurious cartoonist suite and kept saying to myself, “Black Friday.”

And it was only Black Wednesday.

Anyway, I thought about “Bleak Friday.” I thought about “Blecch Friday.” And then I came up with “Barack Friday.” So I went with that.

Now I had the infill, which is the balloon caption. These are usually fairly simple matters, as they mostly just describe the predicament whatever hapless politician happens to be suffering through in my drawing. One thing you don’t want to do is have a caption that’s too long. I figure I like to get these things in under ten words. Fifteen would be a long one. Four or five words is ideal. Once in very great while, I will come up with a cartoon that has no actual caption.

One of the most ubiquitous political cartoon captions is the phrase, “Now what?” “Now what?” is a punchline that can apply to about 80 percent of all political cartoons. Since I have openly ridiculed “Now what?” to all of my cartooning peers and editors as a crutch, particularly when there’s a couple sitting in front of a TV set, I never use it. One of my colleagues, who shall remain captionless, drew the same couple sitting in front of a TV set dozens of time in a year. The television screen had a caricature of a politician saying something, and then the couple would say something in response. More often than not, “Now what?” would work as a caption.

Once I have written the balloon caption, then it’s on to the inking and crosshatching part. This is the part of cartooning that most interests outsiders, but to cartoonists, it’s like stapling Tyvek onto the side of a new house. The pencilling is the hard part; it’s akin to being a set designer. The key to a good drawing is a good pencil rough. I use a light table to trace my pencil rough on to a piece of Strathmore paper, then I can usually get the main inking done in one to two hours. Sometimes less. Sometimes more.

The hardest thing about drawing the cartoon for Friday was making the teeny tiny people look right as they stood in diminishing perspective. The “Obamart” lettering was hard because I had to use diminishing perspective and ground perspective simultaneously. This causes my eye to hurt even more.

Having finished the actual drawing, I slapped it down on a scanner, made a JPEG, and put the drawing in Photoshop. I colored the drawing, which takes about twenty minutes to an hour, depending. I usually like to get done by three o’clock (5:00 PM Central time) so I can get it to my syndicate in Chicago for posting for my national clients.

Once I’ve done all that, I have to drop the cartoon into The Bee computer pagination system, which is called CCI. CCI (Cartoonist Confusion Interface) is a very complicated program that requires about 30 separate steps to get the cartoon on the page, and people with liberal arts degrees hate to have 30 separate steps to do anything.

When I’m done with all that, I go wash my hands, which are typically filthy from actual ink.

Then I return to the idea process, again.

And, no, as I write this, I still don’t have my Sunday idea yet. Take that, Stuart Leavenworth of the Prestigious Columbia University School of Journalism (c).

It’s still Wednesday afternoon.

But I did wash my hands.