How Bowden Drew His Cartoons in His Own Words

From J. Earle Bowden Collection

I used a variety of drawing tools and papers in my career as newspaper cartoonist-illustrator. I began drawing sports cartoons as sports editor of The Florida Flambeau as the Florida State University student, and contributed pen-and-ink artwork to the Panama City News Herald. On June 2, 1950, I was a summertime reporter-columnist for the News Herald, continuing to provide sports cartoons and newspage feature illustrations.

My first cartoon for the Pensacola News Journal portrayed Pensacola High School’s All-State fullback Ed Sears, published October 30, 1953. I drew Sears on the weekend following my first week as a sports writer, working on the dining room table at my wife Louise’s parental home in Panama City. (This drawing and explanation of drawing materials and art schooling are in the opening chapter, “Rejoicing in a Limited Palette,” in my 1996 cartoon book, Drawing From an Editor’s Life).

I drew the early sports page cartoons with graphite, crow quill and Speedball pens and watercolor brush using India ink and shaded with a wax crayon on pebble, Coquille or illustration board. In Pensacola throughout the 1950s I purchased the paper at Peaden’s Office Supply, downtown’s only art supply store, now home for Jackson’s restaurant. This ridged paper highlights crayon markings as consistent dot patterns like old Ben Day gray shadings in earlier works by sports cartoonist Willard Mullin and editorial cartoonists Bill Mauldin (Willie and Joe) and the fabled Herblock of the Washington Post.

During letterpress “hot metal” printing, drawings were engraved on zinc from photographic negatives, exposing only the ink lines and shaded areas for what was known as a “Line cut.” If I only used graphite (called the lead pencil), the drawing would have been engraved as a “halftone”—the tight-dot light and shadow for reproducing photographs. Hence, in the early years when Pensacola Engraving Company produced the News Journal’s line and photographic halftone cuts, I drew cartoons very large, slightly smaller than a newspage size; in the engraving process lines could be vague or lost. Complaining to owner Eugene Foote, he said, “Make your lines stronger, thicker.” And that’s a reason many of the early cartoons are a bit heavy-handed.

When I was News Editor of The Pensacola News, designing Page One, I would work up a spot caricature or drawing to illustrate news stories. On a deadline I drew with a heavy graphite pencil we used to edit copy (news stories) on newsprint; some were engraved as line cuts and some screened like photographs. I learned from caricaturist Gerry Gersten that oversized facial lines and shading sketched in graphite—tightened in reduction on a photocopier—appear similar to ink lines when engraved.

But when I drew cartoon illustrations for news features on the cover pages of the Focus editorial section I designed and later as editorial page editor in 1965, I continued on pebble board and began penning art on smooth-surface Swathmore Bristol artpaper.

When visiting the Raleigh News and Observer to inspect the newsroom’s new computer system in the 1970s, editorial cartoonist Dwane Powell introduced me to Craftint duo tone paper with embedded shading exposed by brushing the surface with liquid developer. Many cartoonists and some comic strip artists (Buz Sawyer, for example) were using the unique paper because of the quick developer exposing heavy or light dots or lines enhancing the inked drawing. I ordered the expensive paper from Cleveland. Finding the developed shading yellows over time, I soon returned to inking and hatching which I believe is the best technique. This was demonstrated by the line drawings of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson (Gibson Girl) and the great draftsmanship of 20th century cartoonist Pat Oliphant and Jeff McNelly.

More, I discovered Stippling, patterned ink dots simulating varying degrees of solidarity similar to Pointillism, small dots of color in painting. In engraving, the technique was invented by Gulo Campagnolia in 1510 and became popular for publishing shaded line art illustrations. Stippling is favored over hatching in biological and medical drawings since hatching can be mistaken for contour lines. Few cartoonists use stippling, but I find patterned dots allow variety in the density of shading more depict curved or irregular surfaces.

Besides the old crayon shading, used effectively by Herblock and many sports cartoonists, had gone out of style. So had the sports page cartoon symbolized by Mullin and Murray Olderman.

From the beginning, for cartoons and book illustrations, I used the crow quill and Speedball dip-pens with India ink, inexpensive fountain pens (tube filled with India Ink) and the Sharpie permanent black marker for dark areas. Ballpoints suffice for sketching and drawing and computer-scanning in the Digital Age; computer-assisted drawings provide great clarity and color. But I strive for ballpoints artpens with waterproof ink, ensuring archival quality.

I never worked much in color, since process color was limited to mostly piggybacking spot-color off advertisements in the letterpress era. Fond of the colored pencil, I rendered the season-changing autumn leaves in my self-styled pointillism as the jacket cover art for my book, Embrace an Autumnal Heart. And some of my other drawings have been colorized by others for reproduction.

The traditional dip-pen (once provided in U.S. Post Offices) and the watercolor brush for waterproof India ink are still reliable, especially if you seek archival quality. But in the Digital Age artpaper and tools are secondary to appearance of the finished art, thanks to on-screen computer quickness and changing technology. From the beginning I aimed for lasting quality, with an eye on the future when my work could become an active educational archive to illustrate the political and cultural transformation of the West Florida-Pensacola region and also for illustrating a rarity in American journalism—a newspaper editor who drew his own editorial cartoons.