Behind the Lines: The People behind Australia’s Most Every-day Images

It’s an art form that can be easily registered, but rarely acknowledged. Imagery is inherent in human culture. With the introduction of mainstream advertisement and modern technology, our society is bombarded with images and graphic design on a daily basis – some even becoming household names.

We have found the people behind some of the most iconic and everyday images in the media, and asked them to share their stories of the art, industry, and mayhem.

John Shakespeare, Political Cartoonist (Sydney Morning Herald)

How did you start in political cartooning?

In 1980, I got a job as a cadet artist at the Courier Mail in Brisbane; a job that involved everything from photo retouching to filling in the crossword solutions by hand. Luckily, Alan Moir was the resident cartoonist, and I would nervously approach his desk every dew days and show him my cartoons. He would advise me on how to improve them, and after a few years I was sending cartoons to the Sydney Bulletin and getting some published. After 5 years at the Courier, I moved to Sydney to take the job of editorial cartoonist at the Sydney Sun, an afternoon paper owned by Fairfax.

How did you hone and polish your drawing style?

I didn’t start developing my caricature style till my late 20s. The Sun had closed down, and I moved to the SMH (Sydney Morning Herald). They had enough gag cartoonists, so the art director gave me six weeks to practise my caricature style, in work time – which was a very nice gesture. Basically, I bought some books by the caricaturists John Spooner and David Levine, and sat down for eight hours a day copying their drawings – in an attempt to learn their technique. After doing that for six weeks, I’d come far enough to be able to start publishing in the paper. Copying is a really good way to learn, so long as your own individual style emerges at the end!

When a new politician arises, what are your main steps of providing a caricature of them?

There’s usually lots of information available about an emerging politician, as they’ve usually been around for years working their way to the top. When Rudd came on as opposition leader, he was already. It’s then a matter of working out how to exaggerate and portray him that’ll match that.

What do you see for the future of political cartooning for print newspapers?

I’m sure as long as there’s newspapers, there’ll be cartoonists. People enjoy that light relief that cartoons give. I’ve also been surprised from my experience on Twitter so far – how much people appreciate cartoons. We live in a bit of a vacuum at a newspaper office, and rarely get much feedback from the public, so it’s really great being able to interact with readers directly via Twitter – brilliant!

Have you ever had any run-ins or opposition from politicians for your cartoons?

Not really. I think they love seeing themselves in cartoons, and if they don’t, they probably have a pretty tough skin!

Do you have any concerns, “should-have” thoughts, or opinions when you see your published work?

This happens quite a lot! Worst one is driving home and getting a better cartoon idea for the one you’ve just done – and it’s past the deadline! The other nightmare is thinking I’ve got a likeness of somebody the night before, then see it the next day and it’s all wrong. Very distressing!

Is the cartooning industry a dog-a-dog world, and is there a lot of pressure?

There’s no-one yelling at you to be funnier. The pressure for me is more self-imposed. If I’m struggling for an idea, it’s the worst feeling. Sometimes it can be thirty minutes before deadline, and I have but panic in my head.

Is there a camaraderie with Australian print political cartoonists?

I think so. It’s probably more like “friendly competitiveness”. I’ve met lots and they’re mostly good fun. There’s a lot of sharing each other’s work on Twitter too, which is nice.

If you could sum-up Australian political cartooning in one word…




Originally published in print and online for Semper Floreat Magazine (

Photo credit: Sydney Morning Herald, John Shakespeare

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