How do you illustrate depression? Martin Rowson describes how he developed his cartoons.
When Jenny Diski was researching her article on dysthymia, she phoned me up to get a cartoonist’s perspective on things, working on the not unreasonable basis that cartoonists have a dark and gloomy view of the world. And we do, though in fact for the most part I’m a pretty cheerful soul, perhaps because I learned very early on to laugh at the things that make more sensitive or susceptible people cry.
Still, given that all jokes are knocking copy about the unending desperate horror of being alive, and cartoons are a particularly in-your-face subset of jokes, I completely understood both what Jenny was talking about and also how she, herself, often felt. Illustrating her copy was, therefore, relatively straightforward. Moreover, because cartoonists, among many others, are cursed with requiring professional levels of synaesthesia, one of the things we probably do better than others is evoke mood.
I therefore knew what I wanted to draw and, more importantly, how I needed to produce it. My working method is always pretty much the same: the image forms in my head, and I then have to work at the difficult and hazardous job of getting it from there out onto a piece of paper, without too many breakages. Thanks to this way of working I hardly ever make preliminary sketches, except on the sheet of paper that will eventually hold the finished artwork.
So what I needed to achieve was this: a strong evocation of gloom and of being trapped, tempered by elements of humour. I knew it had to be in mono, with oppressive blocks of crudely applied black. It also had to reflect another aspect of the condition Jenny describes, which is the strong sense the sufferer has of being a random jot in a chaotic universe. So I needed blots. Lots of blots. I also needed to make aspects of the drawings deliberately ‘cartoony’, to accentuate the mismatch between mood and treatment, because therein lie the gags.
Luckily, to pursue that important blotty cartoonishness I had just the tool I needed in the form of a mouth atomiser given to me by the truly great cartoonist Ralph Steadman. Further patchiness, again reflecting mood, was achieved by sparsely overpainting the blots and speckles with gouache paint, barely diluted at all. More spatters were applied with an old toothbrush. The glimmer of light on the horizon in the third picture was created by spraying white ink feebly onto the black background, while the red noses provide the only colour, courtesy of the pills. This is, after all, dark stuff. Though we all know that black humour is the best and most therapeutic and powerful kind of humour there is.
The girl in the pictures, incidentally, is based on a photograph of Jenny Diski as a teenager that I found on the web. Like you do these days.