On Good Bad Art

I read a lot on how to draw human figures and landscapes; I read a lot on what makes a good visual narrative; I read a lot on the history of comics, on what comics artists from various decades and places have been doing, and why; in short, I do a lot of reading on making cartoons and comics — and yes, funnily enough, I end up spending more time reading about it than actualling doing it. There is an upshot to this, however. Sometimes, in this erudition, I stumble upon these little inspirational nuggets. One such nugget for me is what renowned 1970s’ punk manga artist King Terry has said about his philosophy for artists (as quoted in Frederik L. Schodt’s Dreamland Japan).

To him the highest level of achievement for an artist is not the ability to make good art but instead the ability to make heta-uma (which translated means ‘bad-good’) art. By which he means not your it’s-so-bad-it’s-good art but art that is both bad and good at the same time. To illustrate this, I can think of no better example than Dutch absurdist Gummbah, whose work was once ridiculed by editors but eventually got featured in national newspapers and magazines. On first glance, looking at just one figure or cartoon that he created, you may think him possessing no drawing skill or technical ability whatsoever, but his cartooning style oozes soul and authentic personal sensibility — and that’s precisely what makes his cartoons so good … while being bad. I wonder, though,  if anyone would go as far as to proclaim him a master cartoonist. I know I would, but I may be alone in that.


Now, of course you can argue that a cartooning style such as his doesn’t hold up compared to — I don’t know, say the just-plain-good-drawing style of Marten Toonder, arguably the best Dutch comic strip creator to have ever lived. But the point King Terry wants to make is that people, young and aspiring artists especially, tend to value and emphasize technique over style, while, in his view, it should be the other way around. And he’s right. Artists should establish a style of their own first, and only then strive for mastering their drawing skills… or just be content with having a signature style, or any style at all, even it’s bad.
Marten Toonder

Well, ideally, of course, it would be nice if a work of art shows both individual style and technical prowess like — well, for example, the comic strips of Toonder. But it takes a certain talent, an innate gift, to achieve such a level of competence. Not to mention a lifetime of practice and discipline. So, yeah, not everyone gets to be the next Toonder. No, chances are, you will end up like me — inadequate, technically incompetent, lacking knowledge or skills. But don’t get discouraged, there’s a silver lining here. No matter how bad you are at drawing, you can still be an authentic artist and get your work published.