Sonny Liew, cartoonist, Wacom Ambassador

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Sonny Liew, cartoonist, Wacom Ambassador

How would you describe yourself? 

I think of myself as a cartoonist. Some people like to use the word ‘comic artist’ but I think that’s only half of what the cartoonist does, because cartooning involves both writing and drawing. To me, a comic artist focuses on drawing somebody else’s script, which I do sometimes. But I also aspire to do both drawing and writing. That’s why I use the word ‘cartoonist’ even though people will think of the cartoons on TV. 

When did you first know you wanted to be a cartoonist? 

The first inkling came when I was 19. I did some comics for The New Paper and it was the first time I got paid to draw. The idea that you could think of your own stories, draw them, get paid, and have people reading them was very engaging for me. From that point on I wanted to find a way to make a living in the arts. 

What is your drawing process like these days? How much is analog and how much is digital?

The first stage of a comic is doing the thumbnails; and breaking down the visuals and text. Initially, you have to do it on paper, just to get loose ideas until they coalesce together. Once I get to the final round of thumbnails I do them digitally, because it’s a lot faster to rejig things. It’s easier to change a panel or shift it if you have it on a digital file. It’s also easier to copy and paste the text into the file. 

After that, I do the pencils, which I used to do on paper. But now I do it on the computer because that’s the phase where you have to do a lot of revisions. A simple example is if you spend half an hour on a figure and realize it’s too small for the panel. Traditionally you’d have to redraw it, whereas on the computer you can scale it. 

The analog part for me comes from after I finish the pencils. I’ll print it out on paper and then I’ll ink using traditional tools. I’ll scan that back in to color. So the inking part is analog, which I feel is hardest to emulate on the computer. I’ve seen and tried inking digitally, but it always feels less organic than an actual brush. 

When did the Wacom first fit into your workflow? 

I graduated from the UK, came back to Singapore, and found an illustration job, around 1997-98. The first time I encountered a Wacom tablet was in the office because they had a bunch of illustrators. 

I’d say I’m quite resistant to change. I insisted on using the mouse for several weeks (laughs)! Eventually, I tried the Wacom and found it was much better. I bought one and used it for a long while until I discovered the Cintiq. I’ve been using that since until the current upgrade. 

What are the key differences between working on paper and working digitally? 

The digital tools aim to seem analog. They try to make a pen on glass feel like a pencil on paper. At the same time, they give you the speed and efficiency that you wouldn’t get on traditional media. 

But I would say that analog painting and inking has a certain feel that’s still not captured by digital drawings. If given infinite time and resources I’d paint using traditional media more often than I do right now. But in real life, with deadlines, I end up using digital tools. 

Even though the results might be more interesting with traditional media, speed-wise you can’t beat the digital medium. You can achieve a lot of the same effects as well, so you’re not losing too much from the process and you’re gaining a lot more efficiency. 

If someone wanted to be a cartoonist today, would you tell him or her to start on the computer or to pick up analog tools first? 

In the past, people would always say you should start with analog because you learn the fundamentals and then you can pick up digital quickly. But that was the generation that started on analog so obviously, they would defend their own roots, right? 

What I’m seeing now is that people start doing digital straight away, and they produce incredible work. So I’m not sure if that still holds. I would say as long as you learn the fundamentals, whether you’re drawing on a Wacom or a pencil and paper, it’s still learning the fundamental skill of observing a figure and drawing it. 

It’s not so much the kind of tools you use but the kind of things you learn while using them. If you only copy figures from flat drawings then you miss out on how to draw volume and mass. It’s more about the mindset of what you’re learning rather than the tool you’re using.

“It’s more about the mindset of what you’re learning rather than the tool you’re using.” 

Photography Zaphs Zhang