Illustrators in conversation: Adrian Tomine and Wendy MacNaughton

DrawTogether host WendyMac chats with October’s Writer in Residence about his work and his perspectives on creativity as a parent.

Cartoonist and illustrator Adrian Tomine has spent the past month as Substack’s first Writer in Residence, sharing behind-the-scenes glimpses into his process and answering an array of reader questions: everything from “What kind of pens do you use?” to “How do you approach writing dialogue?” to “How do you go about finding the story you want to tell?

To round out his residency, we invited Wendy MacNaughton—a fellow illustrator and the creative force behind art-making show and Substack DrawTogether—to interview Adrian about his work and his perspectives on creativity as a parent.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Wendy: I have a ton of questions about craft and process for you, but I’ll start here: What do you call yourself? A cartoonist? Writer? Illustrator? All of the above? 

Adrian: I’ve never had a good, succinct title for myself. It used to be just “cartoonist,” but then everyone started using the phrase “graphic novelist,” so I had to begrudgingly go along with that. And then I started doing other kinds of work, so sometimes I guess I’m an illustrator, and—at least in theory—I’ve lately been a screenwriter. To be honest, I probably just say whatever I think will be the most comprehensible and impressive to whoever I’m talking to.

Wendy: Each of those titles/hats you wear requires a different kind of attention. I think the process would be quite different for a fast-paced magazine cover or a slower book project or a screenplay. How do you move between longer-term projects and shorter-term ones, like, say, a Substack residency?

Adrian: In recent years, I’ve come to really love moving from one project to something totally different. I think I spent too many consecutive years making nothing but comics, and now I’m trying to enjoy my life! For better or worse, I find that I end up getting completely obsessed with whatever I’m working on (including this Substack residency), to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. I’m really not good at multitasking. Which is to say, I kind of treat every project the same, whether it’s long- or short-term, drawing or writing, or private or public.

Read Adrian’s description of the step-by-step process behind creating cover art for The New Yorker.

Wendy: Tell me about the screenplay! What’s the project and how has it been, working in a whole new medium?

Adrian: I’m currently working on the scripts for two different adaptations of my comics. One is a feature film based on a book called Shortcomings, and the other is a limited TV series based on The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist. With projects like these, there’s no way to ever be 100 percent sure about anything, and I have no idea if or when they’ll actually exist. But I’ve really enjoyed working with all the other people involved, and, maybe even more surprisingly, I’ve really loved the process of writing the scripts. It’s nice to be able to take a second crack at a book that’s already been published, and it’s a real luxury to be able to write something like, “He sprints down a crowded city street” and not have to worry about drawing it.

Wendy: Amazing. I know you’re a dad. I can only imagine that your work, especially when you’re writing/drawing a story, requires concentration. Also, you work with ink! A kid is messy, and your work is so clean! How has being a dad changed your work practices/habits/interests?

Adrian: I actually have two kids! The main way being a dad has changed my work practices and habits is that I’m now on a pretty strict schedule. I basically work when they’re in school, and that’s it. Before we had kids, I used to work all the time, including late at night and on weekends, and now I just can’t do that. My interests have changed a bit, but it’s hard to say if it’s due to having kids or just getting older. I used to write a lot of stories about young people and romance and nightlife, and now that would just annoy me.

Wendy: Do you keep a sketchbook? And if so, how do you use it? Pictures only? Words and pictures? Project by project, or day by day?

Adrian: Just last week, one of my daughters and I walked over to the art store and bought sketchbooks just for doing “fun drawing.” I’ve gotten so busy over the years that my sketchbooks have become, sadly, almost exclusively preparatory work for something I’m going to get paid for. And my daughter reminded me that a lot of people draw in sketchbooks to practice and have fun, so that’s what we’re trying to do. I was surprised by how weird it felt to sit down and just draw whatever was in front of me, or whatever popped into my mind, and not worry at all about how it would be received.

“My daughter reminded me that a lot of people draw in sketchbooks to practice and have fun, so that's what we're trying to do.”

Wendy: Do you two draw together?

Adrian: We used to draw a lot together when she was younger—in fact, she made hundreds of pages of comics—and then she got more interested in friends and, yes, screens. So that’s part of why we went and got new sketchbooks. I'’m trying to institute a nightly routine of doing anything cultural and non-screen-related: drawing, writing, reading, even just sitting and listening to music.

Wendy: Also, what do you notice about your kids’ approach to drawing that is different from yours and that you admire? Have you learned anything watching them draw?

Adrian: Oh yeah, I love watching them make art of any kind. I notice that when they’re younger, they have a completely carefree confidence that leads to amazing art—especially paintings. And then when they get about midway through elementary school, all the self-consciousness and obsession with realism starts to descend. But both my daughters have very specific stylistic quirks in their drawing that I don’t think they learned from anywhere, and I love that I can see stuff that came only from inside them. I’ve always been such a derivative artist, and I basically learned everything by copying other people’s work, so I’m so thrilled when I see pure originality in my kids’ work. They will sometimes get frustrated by these very aspects, but I’m always trying to convince them that that’s the best stuff.

Wendy: Thanks so much for the chat, Adrian. I so appreciate your work and can’t wait to see what you (and your daughters) create next. 

Adrian Tomine’s books include Sleepwalk and Other Stories, Summer Blonde, Shortcomings, Killing and Dying, and, most recently, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist. Since 1999, his comics and illustrations have appeared on the covers and in the pages of The New Yorker. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and daughters.

Subscribe to Adrian Tomine's Substack

Wendy MacNaughton is an illustrator and graphic journalist with a background in social work (MSW). She is the creator and host of DrawTogether, a participatory drawing show for kids. Her Substack, DrawTogether with WendyMac, includes podcasts, activities, artist collaborations, and creative experiments from the DrawTogether universe.

Subscribe to WendyMac's Substack