Meet the Artist March 4, 2021

10,000 cartoons and counting - The funny old world of Jon Kudelka.

Jon Kudelka is an Australian political cartoonist, artist and author known for his biting social commentary, pathos and humor. His work for The Saturday Paper and The Australian newspapers has won multiple awards and he is the author of 101 Uses For A John Howard, Kudelka And First Dog’s Spiritual Journey, Hobart By Kudelka and A Dozen Dancing Devils.

Hi Jon, where are you based and how long have you been drawing?

I’m based in Hobart. I like to think I was an early pioneer using technology to enhance a cartoonist’s portability. When I was working for the Hobart Mercury in the pre-laptop/portable scanner days, I went backpacking around Australia with a relatively small fax machine, which I would plug in wherever I had washed up to send through the next day’s cartoon. The iPad has greatly streamlined this process.

My first professional gig was being paid fifty cents by my mum at the age of nine for a cartoon for a newsletter she was editing. This could buy a bag of mixed lollies (candy) bigger than your head in those days, and I was hooked.

Do you consider yourself a Cartoonist, a Political Cartoonist, or something else all together?

I’ll answer to either of those. I got into newspapers just as this thing called the internet was becoming the fashion, so missed the ‘rivers of gold’ era requiring me to diversify rather than just bang out an editorial cartoon every day and go to the pub. I’ve always enjoyed doing non-topical cartoons as well, and have always had a few different projects on the go including animation and old-fashioned art on paper and canvas.

Being a daily published Cartoonist is extremely competitive, how did you get your first break?

I had just finished a BSc at Tas Uni (University of Tasmania) and decided to give cartooning a year to see if I could make it work, so was taking on any illustration jobs I could find. I was sending off batches of gag cartoons to The New Yorker and The Bulletin, with 100% more luck in The Bulletin than The New Yorker. Although I did get a batch back with a coffee ring on one cartoon, and a note saying they were 'promising'. I’d also set up a little self-syndication business of a weekly Far Side type panel to the smaller regional papers which was doing okay. I was also doing quick portrait sketches at Salamanca Market (in Hobart, Tasmania) for ten dollars a throw, and I was just generally telling everyone I was a cartoonist.

One day after a hockey match the editor in chief of the Mercury, who was a bit of a hockey fan, wandered over and said he’d heard I was a cartoonist, and would I like to fill in on the paper when the normal guy went on holidays. I said yes, though honestly I hadn’t really thought of being a political cartoonist until then. Anyway, I sketched out some truly awful political cartoon ideas and took them in to the editor, and luckily a couple of them made him laugh. Things went well from there. My stint at The Australian came from a mate overhearing a phone call where they also needed a fill in guy, so I called them up and got on the ferry and drove to Sydney the next day as you do (I think the cheapest flight was about $1000). The interview was in the pub down the road from the paper, and as I had a slightly better portfolio to show at that stage I got that gig too and things sort of progressed from there.

It turned out to be quite lucky that I drove, as I ended up sleeping in my car for a couple of weeks until my first cheque came through. Being a freelancer is always a fairly day-to-day proposition, especially when you’re starting out, and the ferry trip had entirely maxed out my credit card.

It’s hard to find a cartoonist who can bang out something semi-convincing on a regular basis, so if you can meet deadlines and occasionally provoke a wry smile you could do okay back in the day.

Being prolific is a big part of being a Cartoonist, and it seems very high pressure. What’s the secret to pumping out new ideas and work day after day?

The big secret is the certain knowledge that you have to have something ready to put on the page by the end of the day. This can seem terrifying until you realize that you don’t have to bring down the government by virtue of your scintillating wit every single day, and that it would in fact be quite inconvenient if you did that on a regular basis.

If you’re the sort of person who thrives on last minute panic then this job is for you. I have always been more of an improviser than a planner so this is the perfect occupation for me.

When did you make the transition from paper to digital, and what drew you to Procreate?

Like I said, I used the fax machine in the mid 90s, then progressed to one of the clamshell iBooks and thin scanners when they became affordable. I was either living in Sydney or Hobart and working on The Australian and The Hobart Mercury at the same time, so I was always sending a cartoon to someone.

I was doing animation work on the side and got quite a well paying animation job to do a short promo for an animated series, and was using a tablet with Flash. I never really got the hang of the tablet, so used a bit of the advance on the animation job to buy a 17 inch Cintiq which sped up the job by more than half. I loved drawing on the screen so much I started using it for the newspaper cartoons as well. The great advantages of working digitally for newspapers are speed, the ability to undo errors, and possibly most importantly the capacity to move things around when you’ve finished. The layout of a cartoon is quite important to landing the punchline at the right time.

You have been venturing into animation, how has that been?

I’ve actually been animating for quite a while, though every time I finish a project I swear never again! I was recently commissioned by the Tasmania Law Reform Institute to animate a series of explainers for Tasmania’s changes to how gender can be recorded on birth certificates. This was a complex topic, and needed a bit of a light touch to get the concepts across. I wanted that direct handmade feel you can get drawing with Procreate, and the animation tools are quite straightforward once you get your head around them. The explainers are available here.

You recently gave up working for The Australian to open your own shop. Was that a leap of faith, and how is it going?

A few years ago I scored a junket to France for an international cartooning conference. They take the whole cartooning thing quite seriously over there, and I was interviewed in front of a few thousand people about my work. During the interview, I was asked approximately how many cartoons I had published and we worked out it was a tick over ten thousand, which seemed quite a lot. I had never really planned to be a political cartoonist forever, I started to imagine what life without twelve deadlines a week looked like and decided it actually sounded quite nice.

I moved to The Saturday Paper which is one cartoon a week and am really enjoying having the time to actually think about the cartoon before drawing it. My process is much more leisurely — I loll about on the couch randomly sketching ideas on the iPad until something starts to stick and then I finish it up. The paper occasionally posts the Time-lapse videos you can output from Procreate so people can see how many terrible ideas I burn through before coming up with something halfway decent.

I’ve always been quite eclectic with my work. It’s been nice working with traditional materials. As well as painting and sketching, I’ve taken up pyrography (burning images on wood) and I’ve built a little printing press fashioned after a tortilla press and taken up lino and woodcut printing. My wife Margaret studied mosaics in Italy a few years ago, so her work adds up to quite a range of artwork. Visitors are often surprised that all the work in the gallery comes from just two people.

The gallery is going pretty well, even though we did open just before the start of a worldwide pandemic.

What is next for Jon Kudelka?

This year I have a few projects lined up. There’s a possible road trip with a book attached. A TV series about whisky where we’ll be using Procreate’s Time-lapse and animation capabilities (What could possibly go wrong?), and I’m also working on a small pyrography exhibition called Too Many Birds to kick off the year for the gallery.

What advice do you have for aspiring Cartoonists?

My first piece of advice is to never listen to any advice, but luckily that also includes my first piece of advice so can be cheerfully ignored.

If you’re serious about wanting to be a cartoonist for a living, work out exactly what part of cartooning you’re good at — jokes, satire, illustration, long form comics, caricature etc, and try to work out how you can make a living at it. You should expect to make not a lot of money for a fair while, so it’s important to have a back-up plan. Mine was to do a BSc at uni, though you may want to pick something a little less time consuming.

My other main rule of cartooning is Don’t Be Boring. It’s amazing how people often forget this bit. If what you’re doing is boring to you, then you really can’t expect the reader to get much of a kick out of it.

What’s your favorite Procreate feature, and what do you enjoy about using it?

My favorite Procreate feature is the simplicity of the interface and the quality of the brushes. You can use the iPad as a sketchbook and almost totally forget that you’re working digitally (until the battery runs out), and finish a drawing then email it off to the publisher without any mess, fuss or mucking around. For a very old person like me, it still feels miraculous.

If you could add one feature to Procreate what would it be?

One area that could use some improvement is saving and archiving works from the iPad. It would be amazing to have a bulletproof way of freeing up some space on the iPad whilst being able to easily access older works from an external drive on your main computer or from something like Dropbox. I know it can be done at the moment with a bit of mucking about, but it’s nowhere near as intuitive as the rest of the program.

Discover Jon’s incredibly smart and funny books, art and cheese boards at his shop website.