July 24, 2013

Illustrator Gary Clement has a social media fling going this summer with readers of Canada’s National Post.

Each week, he tweets out a question using the hashtag #npsummer, then draws full-page cartoons to immortalize the readers’ replies. From summer romance and backyard barbecues to mishaps on camping trips and in summer school, he’s getting the skinny on his audience — 140 characters at a time.

Gary Clement

“I did one cartoon about summer jobs — that’s probably been the funniest one so far. I sort of ended up with drawings that gave people job tips,” he said by phone. “Job tips from a cartoonist — that’s funny. What do I know about working?”

“My theory was that people tweet sort of indiscriminately. I thought, why don’t I ask people for little bits of stories, and I will stitch them into some rich tapestry? Turns out, it’s a lot harder than I thought.”

But he appreciates their contributions, just the same. Connecting with readers on social media is a primary goal, Clement said. The National Post helps spread the word by retweeting his tweets.


Clement, who recently started tweeting, says he tweets out his queries once or twice a day and gets about 20 replies to each question.

Interestingly, he has noticed a bigger flurry of Twitter activity about the questions after his cartoons have been published in the paper.

“People seem to be excited about the fact that their tweet has made it into a printed paper. … That’s like the real validation,” he said. “One young woman tweeted that her grandmother called to say, ‘Did you know that you’ve made it into print?'”

The idea for Clement’s summer Twitter feature came up over what he calls his annual ‘What are you going to do for the summer?” lunch discussion with his editor, Steve Meurice, who came up with the summer project idea.

Clement works from home, most often working on newsier projects for the Post, with illustrated features like the Week in Review. His topics might include the search for Edward Snowden, elections in Iran or the threat of nuclear missiles in the Middle East.

But his summer projects are different. His pursuits for humor have taken him to London and Beijing for the Olympic games and criss-crossing the back roads of Canada. Other projects have been illustrating summer “staycations” to chronicle things like a house painting project, a summer book club and the random trip to the barber.

“I just basically report on my adventures, and make clever or cynical and sarcastic remarks about what happened,” he said.

“My strength happens to be narrative and storytelling,” Clement said. “I use the same skill set if I am doing a cartoon, or one of those longer, more narrative, newsier pieces. I am thinking and trying to communicate an idea. … I can switch from news topics to this Twitter project, which is more lifestyle. It’s all using the same part of the brain, I think.”

Ken Whyte, the first editor-in-chief of the National Post when the paper launched in 1998, hired Clement.

“As an illustrator, I had been freelancing a fair bit for The New York Times doing drawings for the Op-eEd page and for The Wall Street Journal,” said Clement, who has also illustrated children’s books. “I think (Whyte) figured I had the skill set of being able to interpret news and other people’s editorials. The difference with my position at the National Post being that I now offer my own opinion as opposed to trying to reflect somebody else’s opinion in an illustration.”

Clement explained his process for creating cartoons, saying, “I sit on the couch and I think. I sit with my sketchbook and I think some more. The largest portion of the afternoon is spent in the concept stage. To me, that’s the most important part of what I do.”

Clement says it’s less about drawing and more about coming up with exactly the right idea, with the right combination of humor and cynicism. The trick of the job is to “find the thing that relates the issue in the briefest and most concise way,” he said.

“I look for a story people will know — that’s not going to require a lot of explanatory preamble,” he said. “I want you to look at it and know exactly what it’s about, what it means and why it’s funny — or not funny, or whatever. … That takes hours of sitting on a couch, thinking and sketching and doodling and scratching out little ideas.”

And, this summer, hoping for an inspirational tweet.

Here are some examples of Clement’s work:

A sample of one of Clement’s cartoons.
Clement says the best tweets he has gotten have included an unfortunate turn of events. “It’s like the old Tolstoy thing—unhappy things make stories more interesting.”
The National Post’s Week in Review cartoon boils current events down to simple, one shot ideas.
The headline on this National Post cartoon: Clement on North Korea’s march to war.
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Sara teaches in the areas of design, illustration, photojournalism and leadership. She encourages visual journalists to find their voice in the newsroom and to think…
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