Visual Culture

7 Artists Influenced By Cartoons and Comics

Jacqui Palumbo
Aug 8, 2019 9:46PM

In the late 1950s, Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein began hiding easter eggs in his Abstract paintings. Before he began painting his lovelorn comic-strip girls in Ben-Day dots in the 1960s, he had Mickey Mouse on his mind. He felt compelled to include the cartoon mouse, Donald Duck, and Bugs Bunny in his compositions for the keen-eyed to spot.

Cartoons and comics would soon become the basis for his work. In 1961, Lichtenstein created the tongue-in-cheek oil painting Look Mickey, appropriated directly from a comic of Mickey and Donald. Two years later, he painted Drowning Girl (1963), riffing on a frame in the DC Comic Secret Love #83. He saw cartoons as an entry for cultural satire. I was very excited about, and interested in, the highly emotional content yet detached, impersonal handling of love, hate, war, etc. in these cartoon images,” he once said.


Artists continued to question the line between “high” and “low” culture. Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat included famous superheroes in their work, and Keith Haring adorned New York with his iconic dancing cartoons. Joyce Pensato, who passed away in June, spent her career applying Abstract Expressionist techniques to pop culture motifs, through large-scale energetic charcoal drawings of characters like Homer Simpson and Batman.

Today, there is no shortage of contemporary artists using illustrated or animated characters as source materials for their work. We present seven artists drawing inspiration from cartoons.

Yoshimoto Nara (b. 1959)

Yoshitomo Nara
Cosmic Gil ( Eyes Open, Eyes Shut) , 2008
Rosenfeld Gallery LLC

Yoshimoto Nara was born in Hirosaki in the postwar era, and spent much of his childhood with his nose in Japanese comic books. He has been associated with Neo-Pop art and Superflat movements, both of which appropriate ubiquitous images in media and art to comment on consumer culture. Nara looked to Japanese Otafuku and Okame theater masks, anime and manga, and ukiyo-e woodblock prints to create the works for which he is best known: illustrative portraits of kids, whose cuteness comes with an edge—sometimes literally, as they are prone to brandishing knives.

KAWS (b. 1974)

KAWS (real name Brian Donnelly) started out in the animation and street art world, and he has brought that sensibility to the fine art market. Following his studies at New York’s School of Visual Arts, he took a job working on the backgrounds of ’90s animated favorites Doug and Daria. In 1999, he released his first “Companion” vinyl toy, a subversive riff on Mickey Mouse. In recent years, art and toy collectors alike have clamored over his creations, and he has shattered auction records with his large-scale sculptures, as well as paintings based off The Simpsons and Fat Albert.

Kristen Liu-Wong (b. 1991)

Kristen Liu-Wong
A Choice
Corey Helford Gallery
Kristen Liu-Wong
Look Out
Corey Helford Gallery

In Kristen Liu-Wong’s bubble gum- and mint-hued scenes, she taps into the same idea championed in recent comedies like Broad City (2014–2019) and Tuca & Bertie (2019)—that femininity doesn’t always mean polished and soft; it can be crude and gross and sharp. Liu-Wong’s protagonists are millennial Amazonians in cluttered pink apartments with a penchant for violence. Pop culture references like La Croix cans litter patterned living spaces along with knives and discarded apple cores, as the women dominate each other or opt for a quiet Friday off. Liu-Wong draws from a host of inspirations, including American folk art, ‘90s Nickelodeon cartoons, and traditional Japanese art.

Kenny Scharf (b. 1958)

Los Angeles–based painter and street artist Kenny Scharf calls his brand of art “Super Pop,” with lurid palettes and exaggerated characters. The artist, who was part of New York’s downtown art scene with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in the 1980s, conjures alien landscapes; odes to doughnuts; and anthropomorphized swirls and smileys that exude childlike playfulness on psychedelics. Cartoon icons Felix the Cat and Fred Flinstone have made appearances in his work, along with many characters of his own imagination. You can snag one of his inventive cartoon personas as a pool float from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Takashi Murakami (b. 1962)

Takashi Murakami is the founder of the Superflat movement, and like Nara, Murakami drew on the visual styles of anime and woodblock prints in his work. Those inspirations became part of the basis for his Superflat theory. While Western art had focused on three-dimensional modeled forms for centuries, Eastern art was grounded in two-dimensional practices. Superflat referred to his idea that Japananese culture had entirely lost the distinction between high and low culture, which Murakami fully embraced. His own highly saturated kawaii and creepy cartoon characters star in paintings and sculptures, and come in toy form as well.

Tala Madani (b. 1981)

Tala Madani, Shitty Disco, 2016. © Tala Madani. Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York.

Tala Madani, Two Fountains, 2018. © Tala Madani. Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York.

In 2017, when Tala Madani exhibited six paintings at the Whitney Biennial, the New Yorker christened her work as both charming and disgusting. Her satirical scenes populated by tubby men are cheeky—some literally, like Shitty Disco (2016), which shows a nightclub with colorful stage lights emitting from the rears of grinning, rotund men. The Iranian artist dissects and reframes the male ego in works with little men pissing, masturbating together, and braiding each others’ beards. Her loose, cartoonish aesthetic infantilizes her cast of characters, showing traces of the British children’s books and American children’s animations she grew up with.

Raymond Pettibon (b. 1957)

The prolific Raymond Pettibon has an estimated 20,000 drawings to his name. His DIY style was molded by his early years drawing political cartoons and inking flyers for the bands Sonic Youth and Black Flag in the 1970s and ’80s. He taps into the emotional drama of pulp fiction and the narratives of comic books. Pettibon famously skewered George W. Bush in illustrations from 2007 and 2008, but almost no U.S. president has escaped the sharp edge of his pen.

Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.