The drawing board

Teens take cartooning workshop at Alex’s Place.


Who better to lead a cartooning workshop for teens than Ryan Barr, who began cartooning in his own childhood? “When kids were playing soccer and baseball, I never bothered to put the crayons and pencils down,” Barr told the Times last weekend. “I started to take it seriously in high school, and then went to art school at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and received a B.F.A. in illustration. It’s just something I’ve always loved to do, and hope to continue doing it forever.”

The kids in Barr’s workshop at Alex’s Place at the YMCA are equally enthusiastic. Alyssa Smith, a 17-year-old senior, has taken cartooning with Barr twice before. What brings her to the workshop is “character and cartoon design. I don’t have room for it at school, and this is great to have because I can make time for it on the weekend, and it gets me out of the house,” Alyssa said. “And it’s just a really fun class. I’ve known Ryan since my freshman year, and he’s a great teacher and, as a person, is fun to be around.”

Alyssa says she feels like her skills have developed since she began taking the workshops. “I’ve perfected drawing more, and been able to do digital stuff as well,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without the class. I hope to be able to work on my personal comic books, whether or not I actually publish them.” Alyssa said that the cartooning class is different from taking a school art class. Barr’s class allows students to focus on character design.

Seventeen-year old senior Dylan Wallace says that before this class, he had been drawing existing cartoon characters as a hobby. Like Smith, he’s taking the workshop because “I really want to improve my skill, since I have ideas for superheroes and other characters like that, and maybe I can make comics about them and sell them.”

Vivian Surprenant, a 16-year-old junior, has also taken the class twice before. “It’s a really informative class. We have a lot of good materials and good tips. The assignments are sort of loose. And if you can’t do something, you get help. I’ve been cartooning since I was 13. I started drawing my own characters,” Vivian said.

The classes in the workshop, Barr says, cover a variety of topics under the cartooning umbrella, such as comics, children’s book, as well as character design, which was the topic the day of my visit. He began the class with an engrossing PowerPoint that included a video with some great tips about how to really infuse your figure with a distinct personality. Afterward, the kids went to their proverbial drawing boards to sketch characters of their own that had a personal twist on existing ones. Even the pizza lunch didn’t stop them from working, as they munched and drew at the same time.

The week prior, Barr said, he focused on how the kids “should use creative influences that deeply interest them to create their own work.” He used a PowerPoint presentation that demonstrated how he used comic artist Jack Kirby’s Thor artwork to create his own Thor illustrations. Barr showed the kids his process sketches, which act as a timeline from his initial concept to the finished work. “A lot of the time, kids go right for the final on the first try, so I’m hoping this PowerPoint showed them if they take their time and think about their piece from more angles, they will create a fully fleshed-out and strong final work,” Barr explained.

“A big part of the series is really getting the kids to think about their own individual creative voices, and how to go about making art that matters to them,” Barr said. “I hope they use all I teach them to build upon their own individual understanding of cartooning, and get inspired to take it to the next level. This class is not made for the beginner, but more for the kids that just have a real passion for making cartoons, and perhaps have aspirations to take it to a place where maybe they want to go to school for it or try to get themselves in the cartooning/illustration field.”

Barr plans to offer another eight-week-long workshop in the spring. He works at Alex’s Place at the YMCA in the afternoon, and at the café in the morning. “When I’m not at the Y, I’m at home drawing away,” he said. “A lot of it is various commissions and freelance work that keep me busy, and if I’m not working on that stuff, I just draw whatever interests me to maintain a decent online presence. I love to geek out about comics, movies, and TV — and am a child of the ’90s and proud of it. If anyone is interested in seeing any of my work to get an idea of the kinds of stuff their kids will be learning about, they can check out my Facebook page at, or my Instagram, @radmanrbarr.”