Bill Leak - Daily Editorial Cartoonist, The Australian

Bill Leak
'For me, the most artistically liberating thing I ever did was start working as a cartoonist, because it means I can paint whatever I like, and it doesn't matter if I don't sell my paintings.'

An unexplained childhood interest in art and a year spent travelling around Australia doing caricatures in exchange for beer are two forces behind Bill's career. A drunken night on the town with Brett Whiteley, the fortunate appearance of an unknown benefactor and political indoctrination by his father also helped shaped Bill's infamous foray into political cartooning.

Bill has won 19 Stanley Awards, eight Walkley Awards and, having been a finalist 12 times, can confidently claim to have lost the Archibald Prize more consistently than almost any other Australian painter.

Did you always want to be an artist?

Yes, even as a toddler all I wanted to be was a painter. I don't know why, because I lived out in a place in Western Victoria that was almost spectacularly devoid of art in all its forms. But when we visited my extended family in Adelaide, my parents would take me to the art gallery and that's all I ever wanted to do. No-one could quite work it out, but I was just obsessed with the idea of painting pictures and putting them up on walls.

Were you interested in politics back then as well?

Not really, but my father was fairly politicised and I suppose I absorbed his prejudices quite gladly. I know for a fact that I was quite keen to pass on my prejudices to my own sons. We used to watch political shows on TV and my sons would say 'do we like this guy Dad?' and I'd say 'no we hate this guy'. One of the great pleasures of fatherhood is being able to indoctrinate your kids.

When you started out, did you see your future as sitting in a room painting all the time?

I did actually. I had this romantic notion that I'd just paint pictures, put them in galleries and make enough of a living to keep paying for paint. That was the objective, and it stayed that way for a long time. When I left art school, I travelled around Australia for a year with a whole lot of prepared boards and paints. I thought I'd return home triumphantly as the greatest landscape artist since Fred Williams. In fact, all I really did was draw caricatures of people in pubs in exchange for beers and meals. After that, I saved up and bought a one-way ticket to Europe. My objective was to traipse around all the galleries and see paintings firsthand. I had only ever seen paintings in reproductions and I thought Rembrandt painted in black and white!

What did you do in Europe?

After living in London for a year doing odd jobs, I went to Germany to visit a woman I had met while travelling – we ended up getting married and I stayed there. My then-wife managed an orphanage and I established a little studio in a barn at the end of the street. The kids from the orphanage used to wag school, hide out in my studio and I would get them to sit for me. I stayed there for four years and started establishing a name for myself as a portrait painter. I then came to Australia for a holiday during which I went out drinking with Brett Whiteley. I got absolutely hammered and Brett was telling me I should stay in Australia. I was so revved up by all the positive things he had to say about my work that I just staggered off and cashed in my return ticket to Germany. This came as a big surprise to my wife, but there was nothing I could do about it when I woke up in the morning. She went back to Germany, sold everything we owned and came back. It was pretty amazing really.

What did you start doing at that point?

To begin with I just wondered what on earth I had done. Back in Germany I actually had a living, but in Australia I had absolutely nothing. Then the most incredible thing happened. A friend of a friend, who I didn't know from a bar of soap, rang me out of the blue to say he had seen my work, thought I needed a bit of a head start and was going to pay the rent for a studio for me. I thought he was joking but it was true. If it hadn't been for him, my entire life would have been totally different and I never would have been able to do what I did.

Did your career in painting take off?

No. I organised a one-man show, for which I had to take out a bank loan, because for six months before the show I wasn't able to do anything except paint. I sold 11 out of 28 pictures, which was quite good, but all up it only just about covered the cost of the frames. I had two young kids who I needed to keep alive, so that was never going to work. The only other thing that interested me was drawing cartoons. I always loved cartoons – I used to cut them out and pin them all over the walls. So I sat down and drew cartoons for a few days. I took a handful to the art director at The Bulletin and, to my amazement, one of them appeared in print and I got sent a cheque for $40.

So you then threw yourself into a career as a cartoonist?

Yes, I just got hooked. I absolutely loved cartooning and I became totally obsessed with it. I drew cartoons all the time and started to get my work in print around the place. It was a wonderful way of expressing ideas that weren't appropriate to paint. It also gave me an income that supported my painting. That set the pattern for the rest of my life and I've been doing it for at least 25 years now.

How is it as a career?

A lot of people were very disparaging of me when I started doing my cartoons, especially because my background was as a painter. You get a lot of people in the so-called fine arts scene who are snobbish and like to wear their so-called integrity as a badge of honour. People who are always banging on about integrity are usually the people who don't know the meaning of the word. For me, the most artistically liberating thing I ever did was start working as a cartoonist, because it means I can paint whatever I like, and it doesn't matter if I don't sell my paintings.

What is a day in the life of a cartoonist like?

Stressful. For quite a long time now, I've been a daily editorial cartoonist and it is a highly stressful existence. Bill Mitchell, one of my predecessors at The Australian, put the nature of the job beautifully. He said 'the cartoonist only has to be funny once a day, but it's a lot harder than you think'. There's always the awful prospect of a deadline looming at the end of every day – in my case six days of every week. From the moment I wake up, the only thing on my mind is my cartoon – once I've completed it, it feels like I flip over into a different world.

How do you come up with a cartoon? Does it come to you in a minute some days and then other days you have to workshop it all day?

That's exactly right. It's one or the other, and everything in between. I always start my day by listening to the news at 7 am and usually again at 7:45 am. Then I listen to AM and read the newspapers online. I just sit there waiting for some brilliant flash of inspiration. A dream day is when I read an article and then, boom, I scribble down an idea and that's it. However, on a bad day it might get to 3 or 4 pm and I still don't have any idea what I'm going to do.

The hard part is coming up with the idea – drawing the cartoon is pure pleasure. I enjoy the process, and watching the cartoon materialise in front of my eyes. It's all a bit self indulgent, but it's a lovely thing because I just love creating pictures – especially funny ones. If you can laugh, get something off your chest, feel like you are expressing your own ideas in a unique little way and possibly vent a bit of spleen at the same time, that's fantastic. It is a very exciting and liberating way to make a living.

How far is too far with a cartoon?

It's too far when the lawyers at the office say it can't be published. It's a technical decision – not mine. It's the same with matters of good taste and political correctness. I don't think that I have to give any consideration to notions of political correctness, because frankly I find them offensive. The one thing that politically correct cartoonists have in common is that they are incredibly unfunny.

Salmon Rushdie said that the freedom of speech is the freedom to offend. I really believe that, because if you are going to state your point of view it is probably going to offend someone out there. That's simply the way it is – if the thing that is uppermost in your mind when you put pen to paper is 'I hope I don't offend anybody', then you might as well give up and do something else. You have to be prepared to cop a bit of flack and for people out there to dislike you. I find that quite interesting too – it's a great feeling to be part of a public discussion.

So you've had a bit of hate mail?

I've had the lot! You would be surrised at how many people cut my cartoon out of the paper, scrawl things all over it and just send it back. Once, somebody sent me one of my cartoons on which he had written that I was a foul, offensive and tasteless person. The ironic thing was that he had also wiped his bum on it. I thought 'gee, this person is really in a good position to call me tasteless'. You've got to just let it be like water off a duck's back, otherwise you can't get on with the job.

What other advice do you have for someone wanting to follow in a similar career path?

I'm not being facetious, but I would recommend learning how to draw first of all. You would be surprised how many people think they will become a cartoonist, but they have never learned how to draw. You also have to stay on top of the news, which luckily I don't see as a burden or an obligation because it's an overwhelming interest for me anyway. When it comes to career opportunities, I have to say that the future for cartoonists, per se, doesn't really look that great because there are fewer newspapers, since more people are getting their news online, and that has traditionally been the vehicle for political cartooning.

What sort of person suits being a cartoonist?

You really have to have strong opinions. You have to be one of those people who watches the news and gets angry, someone who listens to Parliament Question Time and throws things at the radio. If that passion and interest isn't there, then there would be no reason for doing it.

How do your painting and cartooning complement each other?

I like to divide my time between cartooning and painting, but sometimes the cartooning is so overwhelming, and requires such a lot of thought and effort, it can be difficult once I've finished the cartoon for the day to turn around and start painting. They are two very unrelated activities. One doesn't necessarily segue nicely into the other – it's a different approach, a different frame of mind and the objectives are totally different.

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