INTERVIEW: Christopher Downes

Originally hailing from a small town in Tennessee, Christopher Downes came to Australia in 2000 to go to the Tasmanian School of Art. There he received a Masters Degree in Fine Art & Design in 2002. Currently, he works as an editorial cartoonist for The Mercury newspaper in Hobart.

In 2015, he was awarded the Stanley Award for best editorial/political cartoonist by the Australian Cartoonists Association. He also has drawn cartoons for Crinkling News and designs t-shirts for the podcast, Lore.

 

How’s it going Chris?

Really well, thanks! It’s a beautiful, sunny day outside, both my lungs are working and I seem to still have a pulse. Asking for anything more would just be greedy!

Newspapers are a dying platform these days – how has political cartooning changed from when you started to now?

I started drawing cartoons for The Mercury about eight years ago. Before I drew my first cartoon, though, I was told the job might not last for too long. Back then, I was just doing a cartoon here and there when one of the other cartoonists needed a day off – which was very rare! But soon after that, Graeme Dazeley retired and I was offered his Monday cartoon slot. And still I was told, “You’ve got this now, but we don’t know how long it’ll last.” (It’s like that quote from The Princess Bride, “Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”) So, I honestly have no idea how long this will last, but I’m very happy about each cartoon I get to draw for them! Currently, I’ve drawn about 840 cartoons for them, which is still small potatoes compared to other cartoonists.

But, you know what? The Mercury is a good little paper. It’s still one of the more successful newspapers in Australia. A lot of Tasmanians still have subscriptions to it and I see it being read in coffee shops all the time. So that’s heartening. And even though I’ve seen two major downgrades in office size and a lot of staff have had to take redundancies in the past eight years, they’ve always placed a lot of importance on the cartoons. They also give me an extraordinary amount of freedom with what I can draw and say – and I greatly appreciate that.

As far as the art of political cartooning changing, I really can’t say that I see much of a difference besides the fact that many more cartoonists are going digital.

I like the flying kiwi in the background. It kind of negates the entire joke, I know. But that’s why I like it. Cartoons don’t have to make sense. Also, where does the pilot sit? Are the seats made of guts? Where is the luggage compartment? What if it has to make an emergency water landing? Can it swim?

 

I imagine to be good at your job requires you to keep up to date with news, particularly political news… that must be a tough job sometimes!

When I started, I had to buy a copy of Australian Politics For Dummies. I was that clueless. My first cartoons were awful, too. But, as with any job, you start to get the hang of things, and something that’s impossible to decipher becomes more accessible. But, I also think that it’s really important to keep a bit of that naivety because it deters me from making my cartoons too complex. I don’t want to overload the image with labels on everything!

It is a tough job still. I get up in the morning to see what’s made the news and what stories are likely to still be pertinent the next day. That part is tough. Once that is sorted out, then it’s time to make a joke about it. That’s the toughest part for me. I’m not naturally funny. Humour is so strange and malleable. It’s like trying to catch a greased pig. Sometimes I think I’ve got a cracker of a joke, but when I draw it, it turns out to be terrible. I usually end up drawing about two or three ideas before I send anything to the editor.

After I get an idea approved, (sometimes, none of the ideas are approved and I have to go back to the drawing board to start from scratch!) I get to work on sketching out the cartoon in blue pencil. This is when I rough out the compositional elements. Where does the speech balloon go? How big should I draw the people? What kind of frame should I add?

Then, I draw it again, in more detail, in pencil. This is when I work out the lettering and try to get the faces to look vaguely like the politicians that they need to represent. When that’s done, I scan in the pencils and ink everything digitally in Photoshop. I colour it in Photoshop, too. I usually finish everything around 9pm and then crash on the couch.

THE DOWNES PROCESS

  • STEP 1
  • STEP 2
  • STEP 3
  • STEP 4
  • STEP 5
  • STEP 6
  • STEP 7
  • STEP 8

Idea sketch. This is when I work out the jokes and basic layout. This is what I send to the editor for approval.

Blue Pencil. This is on larger paper i do most of my blocking at this point. I had a bit of a dilemma as to how far away the diners should be from the door. I originally had another table closer, but I took that away because it felt too close to the door. I also start to work out lettering at this point. It’s sloppy, but it helps me to know how big my speech bubble needs to be.

Pencils. Again, more detail. I play with the lettering and get placements just right. I had a terribly time trying to figure out where and how the waitress was grabbing the door. Looking back on it now, I probably should’ve drawn her hand flat against the door instead of holding it. But, that’s just nitpicking. (i’ll try not to lose sleep over this.)

Scan and ink. I scan the pencils in and change the colour to a light brown in Photoshop, then I “ink” the image digitally. I always do the words first. No real strategy behind that. I have fun with this stage and I like to eat dessert first.

More inking. You can see that I’ve added a bunch of details that weren’t in the pencils, like the orders in the window.

Colouring. I’ll be honest. I wasn’t sure how I was gonna approach colouring this cartoon. I wanted the back room to looks a bit darker and more cluttered. Stressful.

Background colouring. I wanted the main restaurant to look vibrant and happy. The colour in this needed to act as a metaphor for the divide between those who get to enjoy Eight Hours Day as a public holiday and those who unfortunately have to work. The only problem was that I didn’t want the patrons to draw more attention than the main characters. So, I pulled colours from the kitchen area. As a result, it kind of balances the composition. I then coloured the speech balloon to counterbalance that.

Final Colours. I made the skin tones and the uniforms of the main characters more saturated to highlight them.

Have you had much editorial input into your cartoons?

Not often. Most input that I get is more geared to the story that I can riff on. Sometimes the story that I pick is a few days old and any jokes about it would be stale by the next day’s paper. Most of the time, the editor will let me have free reign on the subject matter – even if they disagree with my views. A good joke is a good joke. I have had some deemed too risky to print. (I put WAY too much blood in one.)

What’s the best reaction you’ve had from a cartoon?

Back in 2016, asylum seekers on Nauru held a protest. It lasted for weeks. On day 48, they held up prints of one of my cartoons. I was told about this by a refugee advocate on Twitter. Suddenly, the weight of the importance of that action hit me. I never intended for that cartoon to be seen by anyone outside of Australia, but somehow these people saw it and felt moved by it to print it out and hold it up in front of cameras. They used one of my cartoons to be their voice. I’ve always been a strong advocate for refugee rights as well as human rights, but hearing this news made me realise how incredibly powerful something as simple as a cartoon could be.

…and the worst?

Whenever someone asks me to explain one of my cartoons, I want to climb inside a pile of dirty laundry and suck my thumb.

Is political cartoonist a sustainable income? How do you supplement that, do you do other projects as well?

For a lot of cartoonists, it can be a source of sustainable income. I only draw two cartoons a week, so I have to find other things to do as well. Currently, I’ve been working on card games for the Museum of Australian Democracy and some special t-shirt designs for the podcast, Lore.

This is a CD cover I designed for Chad Lawson, who composed the background music for the Lore podcast. It’s beautiful and haunting. It’s still one of my favourite projects that I’ve ever worked on.

 

Are your cartoons syndicated anywhere other than the Mercury?

My cartoons are actually used by News Limited – which means that other newspapers from the same company can use them if they don’t have a cartoon for that day. But, many of my cartoons are specific to Tasmanian politics, so they mostly stay in The Mercury.

How often do you get asked “hey can you draw ME as a caricature?”

Not too often. I don’t draw caricatures in the usual “big head, little body” style. Plus, I’m too messy. I don’t think I could ever get one of those jobs at a theme park!

I never quite understood how Boxing Day got it’s name. I wanted to take a bit of a different approach to my cartoon for that day and address a lot of the problems that people face around that time – and to use the box to say that these problems always seem bigger than they actually are.

 

Who were your influences? I love the detail in your work, reminds me of the great Geoff Hook.

Thank you very much! Geoff Hook is a wonderful cartoonist! (He was also a Mercury cartoonist for a while. That was way before my time, though.)

My influences are pretty spread out. My greatest influence is Richard Thompson. He was a phenomenal cartoonist who happened to be as funny as he was talented. I also really love Ronald Searle and Ralph Steadman. I have a hereditary tremor in my hands that’ll get worse as I get older, so I’ve always looked to artists that have uneven, almost sloppy, line quality. I’ve grown to really appreciate how much loose linework can contribute to the overall feel of a cartoon. There’s a tenderness to it. If you compare Charles Schultz’s early work to his later work, you can see a strong change in his line quality. His early cartoons are vibrant and clean whereas his later ones are more subdued and wise – like a old man recounting memories of childhood.

As far as writing influences go, I’m mostly influenced by Berke Breathed, Charles Addams and Jon Kudelka – which is weird because Jon lives in Hobart, too. So, there’s this unspoken rivalry. Whenever we meet in public, it usually ends in a knife fight.

This is one of my favourite cartoons mainly because I felt the composition really worked for me. And that platypus is CUTE!

 

So you’re a Ledgers judge this year – how’s that going?

It’s very intimidating. I’m not as plugged in to the Australian Comics scene as other cartoonists, so there’s a lot of names that I’ve never heard of before. But, there’s so much skill! It’s great to be surprised by that!

I remember the great show you put together at the Ledgers a few years back, where you were drawing live on stage – is that an invigorating process?

It’s always invigorating to see someone else draw live. It’s intimidating to be the person who is drawing live – especially when you’re in front of a whole bunch of cartoonists from the mainland and you’re from Tassie. But, Josh Santospirito was there on stage with me and that man could calm a rhino’s panic attack. I don’t think I could do that performance without him there, too. I just timed myself with his music and let go.

Do you see a time that you might put together a comic book of your own?

I really want to. I’ve got a few ideas that I want to work on. I also have no excuses to get started on a project – which is, you know, annoying.

 

The Cartoons of Christopher Downes
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About Darren Close

Darren Close
Darren is the creator and publisher of the KILLEROO series, and also the creator of the OzComics website and subsequent drawing challenge on Facebook. He's been around the local comic scene for far too long for many people's liking. Gary Chaloner was foolish enough to make him the new Managing Editor of AustralianComicsJournal.com

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3 comments

  1. Les and Annette Downes

    Oh, my gosh…This is so interesting to know the process of developing a cartoon from “thought to finish”. Good job, Chris and Darren Close for such an amazing article. Chris happens to be our son and we really enjoy his artwork and are very proud of him and his accomplishments. He’s had to explain some of his political cartoons to us since we live in Tennessee, U.S. and aren’t savvy to Australian politics, but that never keeps us from being two of his biggest fans.

  2. Great article Darren, on a great cartoonist. Good on you Chris, love your stuff; and the process pages are exceptional.

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