5 Steps to Create a Gag Cartoon

Step 1: Initial idea

This cartoon started out innocently enough. The idea was to have a law firm run by dogs. This dated note below shows the idea for the scene (a partners's meeting), the punchline (in quotes) and the name of the firm (the list of dog breeds).

Step 2: Thumbnail

This is an important step. This is when you determine if your original written idea will "read" properly once drawn. 

In this case, there were five elements that needed to be made clear to the viewer: the speaking dog, the listening dog, the human, the sign of the name of the firm and the location (an office). I had to figure out the best way to arrange these five elements in the space so that the viewer would immediately understand at what they were looking.

Generating numerous thumbnails is a helpful method for arriving at the best solution. You're not striving for a perfect drawing when creating thumbnails; instead, you're exploring all of the options to discover which works best. I also started creating various versions of the punchline, searching for the most succinct (and funny!) wording.

I used different colors (blue, green, burgundy and graphite) to differentiate among the elements as I arranged them, keeping them apart to avoid confusion as I worked out the idea.

Step 3: Rough drawing
Now it's time to take the thumbnail and make it into a larger, more detailed drawing. In my case, after thinking about and drawing the layout several times, I realized that my original staging of the cartoon was not working well. I created a new thumbnail with which I was satisfied and made that thumbnail into my rough drawing.

Step 4: Cleanup drawing

Now you take the rough drawing and do a clean, more revised and detailed drawing.

When I first did this drawing, I was happy with it. I put it aside and returned to it several days later.

Upon second review, I saw a few things wrong with it! First, I didn't like the listening dog's face. I had reverted to my usual way of drawing…flat. So I applied what I've been learning lately and redrew the dog using three-dimensional shapes, not just outlines. Second, although I liked the cartoony forward leg of the human, I realized that his perspective was off in relation to the floor and ceiling lines. That definitely needed to be fixed otherwise it would look super amateurish which is the exact opposite effect I'm attempting. Those errors I fixed in the final drawing.

Step 5: Final drawing

This step involves copying the rough drawing, "perfecting" your lines and adding tone/color. Some artists make a tight rough drawing and simply ink over the rough to get clean lines for the final. Other artists feel that some life is lost by doing a direct copy so they use the rough merely as a guide for the final. How you create your final drawing is up to your own preferences and style. 

In my case, I adjusted some elements and added some tone. Voila, a cartoon is created!


  1. Or if you are not that good at drawing, you could try Googags Gag Maker

    1. Thanks for the link. I think, however, for anyone who's an artist and takes their work seriously, using stock gags should be avoided.