Sharon Murdoch

The cartoonist that almost wasn't

Interview By Ella Somers (she/her)

Sharon Murdoch thought of herself as a graphic designer before being encouraged to enter the world of cartooning. Since picking up her cartooning biro, Murdoch’s wickedly smart cartoons – which cover everything from the political and social spectrum of New Zealand to the entertaining life of Munro the cat – have seen her nominated for New Zealand Cartoonist of the Year multiple times and win the award in 2016, 2017 and 2018. She talks to Ella Somers about her cartoon beginnings, favourite sketchbooks and the cartoons closest to her heart. 

When did your interest in cartooning start?   

For years I thought of myself as a graphic designer – I trained as a graphic designer and worked mostly for the arts, unions, for a few years at the Wellington Media Collective, a kind of left-wing activist design group. At the time, I was living with a political cartoonist, Trace Hodgson, and he encouraged me to get into political cartooning, but I guess I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. And also, he was very good, and I think that put me off because I thought I could never be as good as he was.   

But quite a few years afterwards, when I had left the collective and the relationship, I drifted into it. It initially wasn’t a conscious decision – I had started doing more of a political illustration to go with a newspaper column, and the opportunity came up to try political cartooning. By then, I realised that I had things I wanted to say, and I had my own style – or rather, I thought of it as a lack of style – that wasn’t like Trace’s, but it was OK.  

Favourite thing to cartoon?  

People with big characters in political cartoons and animals and little people in non-political cartoons. 

What does your cartooning routine or process look like? Do you start with a strong idea or just start drawing and see what happens?  

Reading and listening to the radio, because I have to keep up with current events. I always have my sketchbook with me and note down any words or phrases that have struck me. Quite often, it might be a phrase I’ve heard that will be the starting point.  

I have a particular kind of sketchbook I use – they were from a shop called Japan City, and when they closed, I bought up all of the ones they had. I often think that when I run out of those sketchbooks, I’ll stop cartooning.  

Really nice sketchbooks aren’t very productive because I’m scared of ruining them with my drawings. I draw in my sketchbooks with a biro. If I used a pencil, I would always be rubbing out, but a biro keeps me from getting too precious about the drawings. It also keeps them spontaneous.  

I used to use pen and ink to do the finished drawing, but since the lockdown, I have been using Procreate on an iPad Pro. I photograph the sketch, place it in Procreate and base my drawing on that. Quite often, it changes directions halfway through. 

What are some of your favourite cartoons you’ve drawn and why? 

I suppose because I trained as a designer, I tend to like my cartoons that are graphically strong. Or I like the cartoons that have little people going about their business. As in the drawings are little. And some are close to my heart because they are about something I really care about – climate, animal rights, that sort of thing.  

What is something you wish you’d known about cartooning before you started? 

There isn’t only one way to do it.