Ingram Blog

Life Lessons from a Cartoonist

For this lesson, it’s valuable to draw from life, not from photographs. Life drawings, especially landscapes, should capture changing light. The shadows move. Nothing in nature is constant.

“By focusing on shadows, we might see the beauty in them.”

Chapter 4

Death Comes Knocking
Drawing Lesson: Make an Object Bigger by Adding a Shadow.

What you will need:

  • Charcoal or other pencils
  • Charcoal or drawing paper
  • Fixative spray
  • Scissors


For this lesson, it’s valuable to draw from life, not from photographs. Life drawings, especially landscapes, should capture changing light. The shadows move. Nothing in nature is constant.

Set up a simple still life outdoors. Be creative; don’t just set out a bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers. Grab three or four things that are not typical: a lacrosse stick, an old thermos, a circular saw.

Now, instead of drawing the objects, sketch the shadows cast by the objects. I know that’s strange to think about, but do it. The shadows will be heavy in certain areas and lighter in other areas.

When your drawing is complete, spray it with the fixative. Crop the image with scissors and trim out some of the background. The object is to create an abstract work of art, a piece that’s open to interpretation by the observer.


It was a blistering-hot day on Monday, July 1, 1968. Mom was in the hospital with double pneumonia. She was extremely sick, and my sister Cheryle was keeping the family together at our Walnut Street apartment. But we all visited Mom in the hospital almost daily. On this day, Mom told Billy to ride the El into town to buy some new sneakers. She gave him some cash because she didn’t want him jumping the turnstile. My brother gathered some friends to join him.

When the train pulled up to the platform, the doors opened, and people shoved forward, anxious to board before the doors closed. Billy paid his fare and fell in just behind the crowd. His friends, however, hopped the turnstile to hitch a free ride. The conductor saw what was happening and, in an effort to keep the train hoppers off, he quickly slammed the train doors shut. Billy, the last ticket-holder trying to board, wasn’t quite in.

In the commotion, the conductor didn’t notice that my brother’s leg was caught in the door, leaving the rest of him balancing on the platform. The train pulled away with Billy in tow as horrified onlookers shrieked alongside the squeal of the rails. When the conductor finally stopped the train, Billy’s leg was almost completely severed from his body. He was rushed to the hospital—the same hospital where Mom was lying, sick from pneumonia—where he underwent a six-hour surgery.

He nearly survived, too. But in the end, he didn’t make it; he had lost too much blood.

When Mom heard this news in her hospital bed, she sat up, turned to the side, and put her feet on the floor. Doctors, nurses, all told her to lie back down. She stood and went to take care of her oldest son. She was almost a ghost, walking the halls of the hospital, but nothing—rules, people, pneumonia—would stop Dot Armstrong. But, for once in her life, there was nothing she could do to fix things. It’s frequently said that no mother should outlive her children, and I can only imagine what was going through Mom’s mind at that time.

I know what was going through my mind. I was stunned. At age six, I hadn’t personally ever known anyone who had died, and here my hero was dead. I didn’t even cry; I was too confused by it all. I was not able to weep for Billy until years later.

Billy’s blood stayed on the tracks for a long time. Neighborhood kids used to visit the site of the accident. I was not one of them. It would be years before I’d even ride the El without adult supervision, and to this very day, every time I ride a train or subway, I think about Billy.

Forty years later, I was at a church service in South Philadelphia, admiring the skills of a new baritone in the choir. After the service, I sought out the singer to compliment him on his amazing voice. During our small talk, we quickly discovered that we’d both grown up in West Philly. He reflected again on my name.

“Armstrong,” he said slowly. A flicker of recognition crossed his eyes. “You’re Billy’s brother?”

I nodded and was reminded once again about how different life was for our family after Billy’s death.

There was a long shadow—one that stretched decades—attached to our very name. My surviving brother, Mark, was never the same after Billy was gone. The truth is, neither was I. My sisters still won’t discuss Billy’s death to this day. And if my father showed up for the funeral, I don’t recall seeing him. It wasn’t long after the accident that my mother picked all of us up and moved us out of that neighborhood, determined not to lose another child to the streets. My life was changed forever.

Life Lesson: You can sometimes see better in the dark.

We all face challenges. How we handle and move past those difficulties says something about not only who we are at the moment, but also who we will be in the future. We can choose whether the shadow cast by our troubled times will remain with us as a small shadow, or whether it will overtake us, always looming large. By focusing on shadows, we might see the beauty in them. I am, of course, thankful for my blessings, but it is the hardships in my life that I reflect upon and gain strength from.

Billy’s short life lives on in me. And, at this point, he lives in a whole lot of other people, too. I have spoken to more than 80,000 young people in schools all across America, and whenever I do, I always tell Billy’s story along with mine. We can find strength in each other’s shadows, you know, because sometimes it just helps to know we’re not alone.

Originally published in the March issue of Advance

Book Title: Fearless: A Cartoonist’s Guide to Life
Author: Robb Armstrong
Sub-Head: Drawing Lessons from Life
ISBN: 9781621452874 | $24.99 HC | Reader’s Digest Association

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Adapted from FEARLESS: A Cartoonist’s Guide to Life, A Reader’s Digest Book, copyright © 2016 by Ruff Sketch, Inc. Used by permission of Trusted Media Brands, Inc., New York.