Cartoonists draw illustrations for newspapers, books, magazines, publishers, greeting cards, movies, television shows, civic organizations, and private businesses. Cartoons are most often associated with newspaper comics, comic books, graphic novels, and the World Wide Web, but they are also used to highlight and interpret information in publications as well as in advertising.

Cartoonists translate ideas onto paper to communicate to a specific audience. Sometimes the concepts are original; at other times they are directly related to the news of the day, to the content of a magazine article, or to a new product. After cartoonists create ideas, they discuss them with their employers, who include editors and creative directors at advertising agencies. Next, cartoonists sketch drawings to submit for approval. Employers may suggest changes, which the cartoonists then make. Cartoonists use a variety of art materials, including pens, pencils, markers, crayons, paints, transparent washes, and shading sheets. They may draw on paper, acetate, or bristol board.

Comic strip artists tell jokes or short stories with a series of pictures. Each picture is called a frame or a panel, and each frame usually includes words as well as drawings. Comic book artists also tell stories with their drawings, but their stories are longer, and they are not necessarily meant to be funny. In fact, "graphic novels" such as Art Spiegelman's Maus, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, and Chris Ware's Acme Novelty comics have blurred the line between comics and serious literature and art.

Editorial cartoonists comment on society by drawing pictures with messages that are usually funny, but which often have a satirical edge. Their drawings often depict famous politicians. Portraitists are cartoonists who specialize in drawing caricatures. Caricatures are pictures that exaggerate someone's prominent features, such as a large nose, to make them recognizable to the public. Most editorial cartoonists are also talented portraitists.

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