Sunday Mailbag

December 17th, 2006 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: How do you choose which feature(s) to exaggerate in a caricature?

A: That’s an easy one to answer: the face I’m drawing tells me. The explanation is not so easy.

Caricature is all about your perception of the face in question. Perception is very different from measurable physical elements. If it was possible to have exactly the same nose on two different faces, that nose on one person may be perceived as big and on another person might seem small or at least not big. It’s all about the combination of features, how they relate to one another, and how an artist perceives them as a whole.

Take a color, for example. Just a simple square of a redish-orange color may seem very red to the viewer if placed next to a yellow or green square, but placed next to a true red square it will appear to be orange instead. Likewise an area that has a value of 20% gray will appear darker next to a pure white area, but appear lighter when next to a pure black square. Our perception of things change when other factors influence what we are seeing. The face is no different.

We spend our entire lives looking into the faces of our fellow humans, and as such our subconscious observational powers are honed to a razor point. Subtle differences in the relationship of a feature to another makes a big difference in our perceptions. The average Joe may not be able to articulate or understand why this face seems long to them and this one seems short, but they notice it. They also recognize it when an artist points out those relationships in a good caricature.

I try to look at the relationships between the eyes, nose, mouth and head shape and look for something that sticks out to me. It isn’t just the size of one feature, but the distances between them, and the angle they rest at compared to the others. It might be wide set eyes, or a heavy jaw, or a big distance between the nose and mouth… or a small one. Some faces it is obvious and some it is less so… The important thing is to find something and run with it. I think it’s especially important to identify one or several things when you have to do multiple caricatures of a subject within a parody. That way I can carry those elements along with each drawing and establish a recognizable caricature throughout.

Thanks to Tim Kannard for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!

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