How much hand?

I’m working on a new project – a book, or comic book, or illustrated book, or graphic something about free culture/free content. I’ll probably use a mix of styles and techniques, since that’s how I roll. But I’m trying to figure out the dominant one.  And the question is: hand drawing with ink on paper, or drawing directly into the ‘pooter using a vector drawing program (Flash)? Behold two approaches saying basically the same thing:


How Memes Reproduce

The image above was “drawn” with the Cintiq, directly into Flash. I like it because it keeps the focus on the idea and not on the humans.


Same idea, different technique. It’s much “warmer” and friendlier. But it draws you into the humans, more than the meme they’re sharing. Drawing humans like this, they each need genders, clothes, and other identifiers which are mostly irrelevant to the point I’m trying to make. On the other hand, warmer drawings may attract more viewers, which is desirable, and may be sufficient for the idea anyway.

What do you think?

Update: per Richard O’Connor’s suggestion, a hybrid:


The problem with this is that the meme looks sterile, while the people look warm and alive. I’m trying to express that it’s the memes that are alive; that we humans are just their humble servants.



Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

44 thoughts on “How much hand?”

  1. Hey Nina!

    I can see your dilemma, but there are a few things I’d like to point out. You don’t actually have to give hand-drew figures genders and features – that’s a freedom you can enjoy, surely? And why not use a mixture or both hand-drawn and computerated, since that’s your style?

    Can’t wait to see your next work 🙂

    Daniel Lynch

  2. The idea (as I understand it) is weakened in the first by the fact that the people are already clones, so the cloning of thought by heard speech is merely consistent, whereas in the second there’s a thesis about the origin of classical Greek and Roman thought in Africa, or a transfer of knowledge from matriarchy to patriarchy.

    Not what you were asking, but interesting to note in this that there’s the cartoon convention of the speech bubble, which you play on with the flower growing up the stem, but there’s no cartoon convention for hearing, so you’re left with the abstract dotted line. Hm. Should there be bees?

    Also, I see that cartoon gene for four-fingered-ness (if not four-toed-ness) is inherited in the digital imaging…

  3. I look at the second one and instantly say, “That’s Nina.” There’s no doubt. There are hints of your style in the first, but they aren’t as clear. It’s blander and less personal, and could be anyone’s work.

    That’s not to say it’s bad, and maybe it’s what you want. But I don’t get the sense that the clothes and other specifics in the second style would really detract that much from the message.

  4. Hey Nina.
    I think your idea of combining the two is a great idea, but I think you’re going about it the wrong way. The generic black figures imply “every human! this is you, your mom, your neighbor, everyone” which is whats so nice about it.

    What about just DRAWING the first one? Take the exact same image, but draw it. Draw generic black figures, filled in with black (no apparent lines) but with your always approachable and irregular lines. This to me is the most eloquent combination of the two ideas.

    The two hand drawn people (with the identifiers you mention) really is too specific. Suddenly its a comic about these two people, instead of an abstract illustration of a concept.

    Anyway, take it or leave it, I always admire your work and ambition.

    Fort Greene, Brooklyn

  5. Yeah, I thought of that; it’s just that flowers aren’t as interesting hand-drawn. People and animals are where the coolness are. But maybe I could use a different metaphor for the meme, it doesn’t have to be a flower…maybe it could be a person too?

  6. @Mark – see that’s the problem – because of all the extra information in the hand-drawing, you inferred all these messages that I wasn’t trying convey (“thesis about the origin of classical Greek and Roman thought in Africa, or a transfer of knowledge from matriarchy to patriarchy”). That’s very cool of course; memes mutate as they’re transmitted, and it’s neat that what you got from the picture wasn’t exactly the same as what I tried putting into it. The very fact that your interpretation of the picture differed from my intent, contradicts your interpretation – that the memes stay the same while the people change. In my experience, memes change faster than people.

  7. Agreed that #1 is getting your point across more clearly. I happen to like the style of #1 better, but that appears to be personal preference. One way thing you might consider: how much you want people to identify with/be drawn into the characters might depend on whether you expect your viewers to make a time commitment to keep up with the project (is it a serial?) or something they can absorb quickly and in one sitting.

  8. First one without a doubt for me. The expressions on their faces that you achieve with just the outlines of their eyes and mouths is simply delightful to see! The minimalism also translates universally across race, ethnicity or gender lines far better than the second one! Also, the glowing translucence of the flower in the first one makes it look like a cross between a flower and a light bulb which carries the metaphor of an idea or meme across far better than the flower in the second one.

    But yeah, the people in the second one carry your signature style which you can’t quite see in the first one.

  9. The first. The second is more aesthetically and visual appealing but if I look TOO closely I get into the whole “Incans to Romans?” thing and it distracts from the idea. I think the first also more clearly depicts that the idea is being (and has been) transferred.

  10. I like the hand figures and the flash meme. Humans are organic and memes are more analytical and intellectual like a font expressing words. But I like the all hand or all flash ones too. You can drive yourself nutty over-thinking these things sometimes.

  11. I had the same reaction to #1 regarding the characters as @Mark: The people are identical, reducing the impact of meme transmission (i.e. why wouldn’t identical characters share a thought?) and hence of the idea.

    I don’t know whether trying to have the best of both worlds via hand-drawing the iconic people — introducing subtle differences that add visual interest — would work, but it might be worth a try. I think that’s what @Daniel might be driving at. It’s akin to using hand-lettering vs. a font. The letterforms are still abstractions, but the former tend to have more life in them.

  12. Will the new project be character-driven? If yes, I’d vote for the updated Hybrid. If not, #1.

  13. RECAP on blog as requested:


    But it’s unfair -these approaches are aiming at completely different targets.

    But for the semi-didactic project you outlined- #1- no contest.

    It’s not just a different technique (ink vs digital) applied to the same content but it’s actually approaching your content in a completely different voice…

    For me #1 conveys a voice of authority yet is still still quite friendly and conversational… makes me want to read more..

    #2 feels overly casual (and overly specific) for this topic that is ( I’m guessing) meant to apply to a wide variety of instances

    This topic deserves all the iconic clarity & succinctness it can get…

  14. i like the hand drawn characters better as characters, but if your point is the make a point, i’d go with the machine drawn ones.

    does the tool you use to create affect your thoughts much?

  15. Like Mark E., I assumed that you were making a comment about a meme transferring across cultures from Africa to Ancient Greece.

    In the hybrid version, the computer illustration of the flower serves to idealize the meme, make it seem more like a Platonic form, and less like a specific, real-world, material object. That seems more appropriate to me than the reverse, or even the all hand-drawn version.

  16. @Michael H – Yes, the tool influences the style, which is almost the voice. Drawing directly into the computer, with my Cintiq, doesn’t compare to ink on paper. My hand moves very quickly, often too quickly for the computer to keep up, yielding weird line errors. My hand also interacts with the surface texture, the light is different…my particular brand of cartoony style really flourishes in ink on paper, while drawing at the computer naturally leads to other styles. I can crudely imitate it on the Cintiq, but it’s really the wrong tool for that style.

  17. well then it sounds like you might want to use ink on paper in most cases for aesthetic reasons plus purely selfish ones (ie being selfish about your pleasure while working).

    cintiq might be useful for occasions where you really want a kind of streamlined presentation ie where getting the POINT across is more important to you than the above considerations. in that case you might go with even simpler figures.

    i might call your cartoon:
    me + me = meme
    or somesuch drivel.

  18. No humanity, no memes. So I’d be careful about any version that makes the humans too unimportant. It might be fun to have an iconic ‘aha’ facial expression or posture symbolizing the reception of a meme that can be recognized no matter the period/style of the character doing the receiving.

    Maybe you can use a banana rather than a flower, because that would be a better spacial fit for the forehead.

  19. All of the above. I mean, if your message isn’t about particular people, then you don’t want to particulize them and thereby introduce cross-talk into your story & argument. But it seems to me that’s orthogonal to the question of what medium to use. You got particularity in Sita, no? And surely you can efface it in hand-drawn images if you wish.

    Part of my problem is that one page or set of panels really isn’t enough. How does this or that style interact with whatever else you’re going to put into the mix?

    Have you ever seen Michael Green’s Zen & the Art of the Macintosh? It came out in 1986 and showed what you could do with a platform that let you use images and graphics in the same virtual/physical space. & it was all low-res B&W. You should pick up a copy (used, that’s all there is) and see what it suggests. It was a harbinger of a marvelous graphic design creativity that never happened because, well, because people what their images in one place and their words in another and we gotta keep it all nicely ordered and discipled.

  20. Nina, I go with #1, for all the reasons others give. Though I do love your people!

    Mark Eslin makes a really interesting observation about the fact that we have the symbol of a thought bubble, but no symbol for hearing. That got me to thinking… how would you draw an artist creating an image to express an idea, and a viewer taking in that image-idea through his/her eyes? Would the image flow out of both the artist’s eyes and hand?

  21. I’m tackling that very question. In my notes have the the same flower that’s in the voice balloon, with the stem again coming from the artist’s brain, traveling through their arm, and emerging from their hand (via pencil/pen/paint brush). The viewer receives the flower through their eyes, via dotted line or arrow or similar device.

  22. Both!

    “Say what? The choice was one or the other! Do you mean a hybrid like #3?”

    No, I mean both #1 & #2. The point is what gets the idea across best to the reader quickly and easily.

    The very first time the idea and context of “meme” is defined and explained for the reader — which you should do, since the word has already gained multiple, related meanings since Mr. Dawkins first coined the term — you should use #1. It’s simple and focuses on the concept of “meme” itself.

    Later, once the primary ideas are covered and you are describing why people use memes and the advantages of free content for people using it, then you use #2.

    The only reason I can see why this would not work is if you are publishing on paper instead of electronically, in which case each sheet and page adds heavily to the cost.

  23. I’ve always believed memes to have a more sinister connotation. Like, they hijack your brain and spread virally across groups of people. so the flower will take some getting used to for me. . . but wonder how it would read if it looked more like the meme was escaping, or leaping out of the mouth, instead of being thrust out intentionally by the person who is vocalizing. I know that you want to show people as being more of vehicles for the mindless replication of memes. to me the drawing looks too much like the person is in control.

  24. Ok,I thought the Cintiq, version follows your goal to keep the focus on the idea. But, I do like the people and the Cintiq technique reminds me of something from a “Power Point” presentation.

  25. Nina, your personality simply will not declare itself in a computer-drawn design. Your point, however, about the hand-drawn work “drawing too much attention to itself” is very well taken. The suggestion of a hybrid by Richard O’Connor is right, but the execution is too simplistic to achieve the results you want. I’m more with Jesse’s position.

    Think more hand-drawn mascot in a Chris Ware style, with minimal defining characteristics, something like your computer-drawn abstracts but with enough more humanity and Ninaness to put to rest the question of whether they were done on computer or by Nina. (The computer-drawn listener, incidentally, looks like he’s waving rather than listening; you can stretch the limitations of that figure style by drawing it by hand and using an enlarged ear and enlarged hand, as you so ably — and Nina-ly — did in the hand-drawn version.) The rest of the subject matter (e.g., the vignetted flower) is less relevant, but for the record I feel Photoshop vignettes and outlines cheapen, while a boldly outlined, slightly rough figure gives that warm feeling you mention.

    I was going to scan an impish piece I did a couple of years ago that had these cute, abstract mascots making little funny comments, but I’d have to restart my PC to get the scanner going, and I can probably give you the idea in one word: schmoo.

  26. I don’t think you’re comparing apples to apples. If you drew the first strip by hand, it would have exactly the same abstract feel, without gender or clothes or whatever.

    Or is it that the pen-and-ink style pulls you in one direction (more expressive humanity), while the computer interface pulls you towards a simpler, more absract style?

  27. As a busy, overworked, and underpaid wage slave, I like the first one. The idea is more quickly assimilated without the distraction of detail. The second has more beauty. If i could just get stoned and stare at shit—if I had the time—I would certainly enjoy the second one more.

  28. Well, I am the hopeless love slave of the Nina who makes Sita, but the other styles leave me utterly cold. If you’ve going to commit yourself to another major project, you need to give both us and, particularly, you, yourself, characters we can all cherish. I would like to see new characters in your… what shall we call it? Flash Deco??? style!

  29. Still the first assay. The meme is fully-realized in the mind of the creator/discoverer. It buds (only?) when shared, and is again fully formed and open in the fertile mind of the beholder/receiver. Do you want the blossom to be identical to the original? Is the meme more vital than the impulse to share/receive? Does the prospect of being shared excite memes? Do they smoke afterward? Do people?

  30. I am not a cartoonist and my comment is purely based on gut feel. I prefer #1 because it is obvious. If the recipient didn’t have the brain show up until it received the message would it be stronger? Just a thought.

  31. Nina,

    Do you know Wayne Tuell of Intermission Films? He is selling 16mm copies (no lie) of one of my movies. He would be interested in your cleverly made intermission/lobby trailer for SITA SINGS THE BLUES. If you are interested in his interest, let me know.


  32. Ah, okay. I read this post and the next one in reverse order. Now I see what you’re after . . ..

    The vector image people seem much less warm. The static flowers don’t seem out of place, but only because the people also seem to be nodes or cogs instead of actual sentient beings.

    The second image is better – the people are warm and alive.

    Now if you want to convey that the memes are also warm and alive, I’d change the flower over time. Memes get altered by those who receive them. Otherwise they’re static, unchanging, and therefore dead things invading us.

  33. Or if you want the people to look like cogs, and the memes to look warm and alive – hand draw the memes and change them over time, but make the humans into vector shapes (which you could also change over time to reflect something of the memes in their heads).

  34. I would say open up the composition– a square canvas– then enlarge the word bubble and flower to give it more prominence and give all the elements room to “breathe”.

  35. Hello Nina,
    whatever you choose is cool, but consider dumping Flash; Adobe and its products are so very much against the spirit of open source. Have a look at Alchemy al dot chemy dot org and MyPaint, which have been used by David Revoy for the preproduction work on the Blender Durian project. Also check Albinal’s use of 3D software to make 2D animation ( albinal). All the softwares mentioned are free & open source.

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