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Art 101, taught by Snoopy and Van Gogh

By John Arms / November 15, 2000

If you can draw your name, you can draw anything." I think I heard or read this line somewhere, or maybe it came in a dream, as many insightful inspirations do. Whatever the source, I'm immensely grateful for the idea.

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Like most people, I used to be intimidated when I saw an artist deftly sketch lines that turned into faces, flowers, and trees. It seemed a magical process that the artist had brought with him at birth, and the less endowed had to be content only to watch and admire.

But the "draw your name, draw anything" concept made me take a closer look at my signature. Like most, mine has complex arcs and swirls that I make automatically. So it seemed reasonable that with practice I could learn to make other forms, too. And so it has been.

I began by copying cartoons. This seemed permissible. If art students can go to museums and copy the masters, I could learn by copying "Blondie," "Hagar," and "Peanuts." Charlie Brown's perfect-circle head defied me, though, as it has others, and I wondered how Charles Schulz did it.

So I asked him. Yes, I did! I'm a freelance photojournalist and an assignment sent me to his studio in Santa Rosa, Calif. Mr. Schulz was a warm man, and we fell easily into a conversation that took us from noon to dinnertime. I exposed two rolls of film and thought it was enough, but he said "Take more if you'd like," so I did.

He invited me to watch as he drew, and at one point Schulz dipped his quill pen in India ink and created that famous Charlie Brown head as easily as you and I cross our T's. "It's not hard to do when you've known Charlie as long as I have," Schulz said.

"It wasn't always easy for me, though," he continued. "My first renditions were awkward. I drew the 'Peanuts' characters for several years before coming up with the gang you see today. By the way," he said cheerfully, "call me Sparky. All my friends do. It comes from "Sparkplug," a long-ago cartoon character I used to draw for practice."

"You mean you learned by copying other cartoonists?" I asked.

"Of course," he answered. " 'Barney Google' was one of my great inspirations. I started with him at the age of 6, and I knew then that cartooning was to be my life. Teaching Sunday School and opening an ice rink in Santa Rosa have been my only added interests.

"If you want to be a cartoonist yourself, just begin. For a start, copy Lucy if you want. She's fairly easy to do. Or Snoopy. You have my permission," he smiled.

Inspired, I began copying Snoopy, then turned to "Calvin and Hobbes," "Garfield," and that good-hearted family in "For Better or for Worse." Later, I tried editorial cartoons, which taught me about doing caricatured likenesses of politicians and princes.

Once I spent an entire day in the library studying Van Gogh. Some of his early sketches looked quite amateurish to me, but I didn't mind. It made him more human. I remember thinking "It doesn't appear Vincent was a born artist. He had to learn like the rest of us!"