When creating an illustration, my goal is to be…FUNNY! I’ve always been drawn to humorous artwork, whether it’s featured in a television cartoon, book, or comic strip. While growing up, my parents were both laughing and joking all the time. I was lucky in this way. Even after they divorced, my mom and I kept the laughter going to get through some difficulties. As a result, humor is comforting and has always been my go-to.
The mark of a successful, humorous illustration is more than a laugh–it’s a feeling. Viewers should be able to escape into your joke, become completely enthralled, and forget about other things that may be going on around them. The big question is how do I make my art funny? In short, keep it simple!
Here are a few key elements you can use to make your work warrant a laugh: Situation, Expression, Body Language, Captions, Commentary. Let’s look at some examples.
Situation (Plus Expression and Body Language):
There are, of course, opportunities to create a joke over a series of panels or pages. However, the ability to show an entire narrative using a single spot illustration as a form of pictorial storytelling can really bring home the laugh. For example, a bird poop joke! This image exhibits three of the above listed key elements: Situation: being pooped on by a bird; Expression: she does not look amused; Body Language (Arms crossed, face forward).
Not all jokes should be potty related. While they can be tasteful and clean, potty humor is a sensitive subject. It can easily step over the line to make viewers unhappy vs. happy, so proceed with caution.
A quick tip: Draw from a place of personal experience
I created the above illustration after experiencing this incident firsthand. When you draw (no pun intended) inspiration from your own life and situations, your work will be better and more fun. Creating this illustration did help me overcome the fact that I was pooped on by a bird. However, I can’t change the fact that this happened during my engagement photo session…that is just something I’ll have to live with!
Expression & Body language:
These two elements are some of my favorites because they are extremely versatile. You can achieve so much in a sideways glance or an eye roll. A good way to develop your humor is to make some character model sheets like the ones below. A model sheet shows a single character in different positions, displaying different forms of emotion. Creating these not only helps develop your rendering of expressions and body language, but it also allows you to practice character consistency.
The illustration below depicts a similar setting to the first image, but here we see a mischievous birdie drawing on the poor bear while he’s just trying to take a snooze. When posting your work on social media, the way in which you caption the photo can really add another layer of humor to your work. For this illustration, I captioned it: “There’s always that one friend…”
Placing words among your illustration is a great way to add humorous layers to your work. However, use this technique sparingly. Textual elements should not explain what’s happening in the illustration; your image should be able to stand alone. Plus, a general rule in illustrating is to avoid redundancy between words and images—you should not show the same thing the text is telling. Rather, words should serve to amplify the humor in the piece. Using the illustration below as our example, redundant speech would be the following: “I am standing here while you shine the light on me in hopes of seeing my shadow.”
Caption: “That’s one way to try to make it snow…”
The groundhog’s speech amplifies the piece’s humor by commenting on the situation, not explaining it. The caption I used when posting this piece on social media also amplifies the comedy. The seasonal reference is relatable and easily identifiable as a nod to Groundhog Day. A quick side note—this illustration also features a “B” story or secondary visual narrative. Do you know what it is? Let’s see if I can shed some light on the answer…it’s the lightning bug acting as the flashlight! Always try to push the funny. Of course, I could have used a normal flashlight, but the bug adds humor!
There are many situations out there that can inspire humorous illustrations, but when you pull from personal experiences or things you find funny, then your work will be more successful. Keep a list of these things in your sketchbook and reference them when you need a drawing prompt, who knows what will happen! In closing, keep it simple, keep it fun, and most of all, keep laughing!
Ashley Belote specializes in picture book illustration that evokes a sense of humor. She has a background in traditional animation under the direction of Don Bluth. She earned her B.F.A from Alderson Broaddus University and then completed the Whole Book Approach Course through Simmons College at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. She earned her Master’s degree in Arts Administration through the University of Kentucky. Her debut picture book, FRANKENSLIME, written by Joy Keller, will be released in Summer 2021 from Feiwel & Friends. Ashleybelote.com