Making Your Sketchnotes Come Alive with Cartoon Elements

In my last post I discussed why I like sketchnotes and why I find them useful methods for taking notes:  namely that they are visually compelling and easy to understand for the person that creates them. However, that only scratches the surface of the benefits of sketchnotes.

Two things make sketchnotes so useful for learning:

  1. The act of creating the sketchnote (e.g., synthesizing, drawing, and writing) helps to make a lasting imprint of the information in my mind; and
  2. Having an appealing visual artifact that I will want to view again promotes making the content stick.
Since cartoon elements add visual appeal for me and even make them personable, they make me want to look at the content in sketchnotes more closely. They make them memorable. It’s a personal preference and so I thought it would be fun to describe my simple approach to adding cartoon elements to sketchnotes.

Of course, just adding cartoons to sketchnotes is not necessarily helpful on its own. I like to make them relevant to the subject of the sketchnote. One great way to do this is to add cartoon features to inanimate objects to make them characters, thereby bringing those objects to life. I’ll also show you how to use cartoon lettering to draw attention to words and phrases, and how to use emanata to represent movement and emotion.

Facial Features

Let’s start with facial features. To keep things simple, we will draw simple eyes, nose, and mouth.

cartooning faces

In the page above, you can see a few ways to draw simple eyes, noses, and mouths. Even with these few examples, you can create a very large number of combinations that express different emotions. Looking carefully at the individual elements representing facial features you’ll notice that they are just simple shapes that can be drawn quickly. Eyes can be as simple as two dots or two circles. A nose can be part of a triangle. A mouth can be a squiggly line. I find it remarkable that cartoonists are able to achieve a sophisticated look with the simplest and minimal number of lines.


It’s really fun to add these features to inanimate objects. In fact, anthropomorphosis—adding human attributes to objects—is one of my favorite additions to sketchnotes. In the sketchbook page below, I’ve drawn several objects that have appeared in my sketchnotes occasionally. I’ve added facial features and even arms and legs to give them visual interest.


Note the simplicity of the eyes, noses, and mouths added to the objects. Often I will draw the eyes, nose, and mouth first and then draw the object around it. This is not a hard and fast rule, but just the order that I like to do it most of the time. For example, for the book I drew the facial features first, then the book, and finished with the arms and legs. I followed the same order for the rest with the exception of the clipboard.

Cartooning Words

Another great aspect of cartoons and comics that we can use in sketchnotes is the lettering found in comics. In the first post we saw that we can emphasize words using double line lettering. Comics give us more tricks that we can borrow.

Cartooning Words

In the page above from my Sketchnote Ideabook, there are several easy methods shown. The title is written in block lettering, for example. The letters slightly overlap and I added a drop shadow to each letter. This is a nice trick to add emphasis to the most important words. It is particularly useful for titles and headings.

I also like to begin a thought or phrase with a block letter and drop shadow if the thought is longer than a few words to draw attention to that phrase. Note, too, that I typically write in all upper-case letters. This is common in comics and gives the sketchnote that comic feel.

Sometimes I don’t draw block letters with straight lines and even add wiggles to the letters’ contours to give the letters some personality.

Adding patterned fill to large block letters is another way to add emphasis to words.

Of course you can always add cartoon facial features to letters (and even words!) to give them personality.


The last class of cartoon elements that you can add to your sketchnotes are marks known as emanata. Emanata is a term created by Beetle Bailey’s creator, Mort Walker, who named them for their ability to denote movement and emotion. You’ve seen emanata many times but you might not have known that they were called that. Several examples of emanata are shown in the examples in the following page from my sketchbook.


In the page above, you can see that there are marks drawn on or near each of the characters/objects. For example, the title “emanata” has lines and smoke emanating from behind it suggesting that the title is moving quickly to the right. The cartoon of my dog has emanata around her tail suggesting it’s wagging. The sound of the tail, denoted by “thwap-thwap-thwap” is surrounded by a jagged container that suggests it’s a loud sound. The character with smoke coming out of his ears is clearly angry. The envelope with the trail behind it suggests and email message is being sent or received. The light bulb has a series of u-shaped curves around it to indicate that it’s shining. The character with spiral above his head and marks about his head really looks unwell. The sweating thermometer suggests that it’s hot.

Emanata can be an effective addition to your cartoon characters that suggest emotion and/or movement. Next time you read a comic, look for the different emanata and try drawing them yourself.

What’s Next?

Now that you have some ideas of ways to add simple cartoon elements to our sketchnotes, you can practice. Try filling up a blank sheet of paper with as many combinations of eyes, noses, and mouths in as many different styles as you can create. I love this exercise because it helps me build up a library of things that I remember how to draw—also called a visual vocabulary. We’ll discuss visual vocabulary in more detail next time.

Another fun activity that I like is to draw as many quick sketches of inanimate objects as I can think of and then add some simple elements to make them into cartoon characters. And make sure to add some emanata to make the characters even more lively!

Three references for cartooning that I find useful include:

The Big Book of Cartooning by Bruce Blitz
Cartooning the Head & Figure by Jack Hamm
Drawing Words & Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden

In the next post, we will see how to sketchnote a talk from a recorded video. Happy cartooning and sketchnoting!

Rob Dimeo Signtature

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