Books

How Adrian Tomine Decides How Much Detail to Put in His Drawings

And how his style differs from New Yorker covers to his new graphic memoir.

An illustrated self portrait on graph paper by Adrian Tomine.
Self portrait by Adrian Tomine. Drawn & Quarterly

On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with cartoonist and illustrator Adrian Tomine, whose latest book, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, was published on Tuesday. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rumaan Alam: I’m going to do something truly awful and ask you to describe your visual style.

Adrian Tomine: I work in a couple of modes. I think of myself as having two separate careers, one as a guy who makes comics and one as an illustrator for magazines and advertising, mainly these days for the New Yorker. I think there are probably people who would recognize my work or they would know who I was if I described a New Yorker cover I did where two people were passing on opposite subway cars and for a minute they see each other, and they’re holding the same book. Of my two modes of working, that style is more detailed, it’s more composed, it’s always in full color. And I tend to use a bit of a muted-leaning-toward-pastel palette of flat color. It’s not painterly at all.

Then for my cartooning work, especially this new book, I’m trying to visually create the equivalent of my handwriting. It’s not as thought out. It’s not as planned. I’m not using a million different esoteric tools. I just have a pen and a sketchbook, and I’m trying to get these anecdotes as clearly as possible onto paper. It’s a thin black and white kind of scratchy line, and it’s maybe a little bit less realistic. But I think the two styles would have certain things in common. There’s definitely a striving for clarity that I put into both. I want to make sure that nothing is confusing to the viewer or the reader; I make an effort to convey as much as possible visually through facial expressions, poses, settings, and things like that.

I’ve heard so many people in creative fields talk about constraints ironically being really good for the finished product. I didn’t publish a novel in the many years before I had children. And then in the years since I have had children, I have written three!

Absolutely. I have definitely found that it could take me roughly the same amount of time in terms of days to finish a New Yorker cover now than it did when I didn’t have kids, except that the intensity of those hours now is just so much greater. It’s like, “They’re in the bathtub. Let me close the door for half an hour.”

My older son, who’s 10, was looking at your new book last night. He flipped through it, and then he said, “You should ask him why he doesn’t draw himself with any eyeballs.” When you depict yourself, you depict yourself behind a sort of opaque shield of your glasses. There is something very guarded about that, even though the book is about you and you’re in a lot of the frames of that book.

I think there are some images in the book where either I remove my glasses or it’s very crucial to see which way my eyes are darting. So I do have little dots for eyes. But … the jokey answer is just that I was very influenced by the character of Marcie in Peanuts. That just always seemed like the right way to draw someone with glasses. Beyond that, I have tried all kinds of different ways of depicting myself, and somehow this level of abstraction is the most effective. A lot of people who know me in real life, the main thing they react to this book is how I drew my posture or a certain facial expression.

It’s a really delicate decision-making process in terms of how much detail to put in. As a reader of other people’s comics, I’ve found that sometimes too much detail becomes a little grotesque and off-putting, especially in autobiographical work. I could draw three versions of my face right now. One more abstracted than how I did it in the book and one less abstracted. And for whatever reason, I feel like the one in the middle is the one that most effectively communicates the story and the concepts.

To listen to the full interview with Adrian Tomine, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.