Art history 101: what is a cartoon?

Published 2 September 2015

As the extraordinary 13 metre-wide Waterloo cartoon goes on display at the RA, our curator of works on paper offers a quick introduction to the technique used by the likes of Maclise and Raphael.

  • What is it, and why is it called a cartoon?

    While the word cartoon usually refers to an animation or a funny drawing, in an art historical context it can also refer to a full-scale preparatory drawing for a fresco, oil painting or a tapestry. The word we use today comes from the Italian cartone, which simply means a large sheet of paper or card.

    Who invented it?

    In his Waterloo cartoon, Daniel Maclise RA was drawing on a medium with its origins in Renaissance fresco painting. While Maclise copied his cartoon by eye (as did Raphael in The Sacrifice at Lystra; pictured) there were other scaling techniques which had been around for thousands of years. “Squaring up”, a method still used by artists today, was developed by the Egyptians at least 5,000 years ago. More on this below…

    How does it work?

    During the Renaissance, artists transferred their designs to the wall or canvas by making pin pricks along the outlines of a drawing and then rubbing powder or dust across the back of the sheet to create a mirror image of the composition. This procedure – known as “pricking” or “pouncing” – often damaged the paper and many cartoons do not survive as a result. However, there are some fine examples of this technique, such as Raphael’s Young man asleep on the ground (1504; pictured). The pin pricks can be seen clearly along the outlines of the drawing.

  • Raphael, Young man asleep on the ground

    Raphael, Young man asleep on the ground, c.1504.

    Young man asleep on the ground between two female figures: cartoon for the painting ‘An Allegory’ or ‘Vision of a Knight’ in National Gallery, London; pen and brown ink, pricked for transfer, black chalk residue on verso.

    18.2 21.4cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

  • What did Maclise do?

    The 19th-century revival of fresco and mural painting, particularly in connection with the decoration of new Houses of Parliament (which had to be rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1834), also gave rise to a renewed interest in cartoons. At Westminster, the process of commissioning artists to paint the new interiors was preceded by a series of high-profile cartoon competitions. Daniel Maclise’s The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher adorns the walls of Westminster. While his preparatory drawing for the original, now on display in the Royal Academy, is not a cartoon in the strictest sense, it was almost certainly intended to be copied by eye, or possibly traced, a technique also favoured by Raphael for his cartoons (pictured), which are now at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

  • Daniel Maclise, Cartoon for 'The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher After the Battle of Waterloo'

    Daniel Maclise, Cartoon for 'The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher After the Battle of Waterloo', 1858-59.

    Chalk on paper, on ten separate sheets attached to individual panels. 337 x 1381 cm. © Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer Prudence Cuming Associates Limited.

  • So, what’s this “squaring” method?

    “Squaring up”, a simple technique which allows the easy and accurate transfer of an image from one surface to another, was most often used to transfer cartoons onto murals or to transfer preparatory drawings onto canvas paintings. Lord Leighton used this technique for his preparatory sketch for Flaming June (pictured). You can see the pencil-drawn grids which would be used to transfer the sketch onto a larger surface as accurately as possible.

  • Lord Leighton PRA, Squared up tracing for 'Flaming June'

    Lord Leighton PRA, Squared up tracing for 'Flaming June', ca. 1895.

    Given by Mrs Matthews, 1896 and Mrs Orr, 1896.

    Pencil on tracing paper. 10.5 X 10.2cm. Photo: RA © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

  • Raphael, The Sacrifice at Lystra

    Raphael, The Sacrifice at Lystra, 1515–16.

    Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.