Sunday Mailbag

March 18th, 2007 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I assume you use photo references for your movie/TV parodies. Do you draw the character’s facial expressions from these or do you just ‘make them up’? I know this question may seem lame but everyone’s smile, frown etc is different and unique to them and caricaturing is as much about capturing a person’s personality as it is the drawn look. Do you find pictures of the expressions you’re after or do you just ‘wing it’?

A: In many cases I ‘wing it’ as you called it. It would be impossible to assemble a collection of images of a person with all the various expressions and emotions needed for a parody in which they are featured multiple times. If I happen across a picture of some actor I am drawing yelling or something, I’ll grab it as it’s a good thing to have, but even in such cases it’s unlikely that reference will be facing the way I need it or have the exact expression I want anyway. In the case of a MAD parody, I am required to draw the same face over and over with different expressions and showing different emotions. Expecting to find a reference for each individual face would be unrealistic. Therefore I need to be able to draw these faces without specific reference.

References used for caricatures or any illustration job are meant to be an assistance, not a crutch. If I cannot create an illustration of something without a photograph showing me the exact image, angle and lighting I am looking for my effectiveness as an illustrator would certainly be compromised. I use references just to see how things work, to pick up details and aspects I might not otherwise realize existed and to help me make my drawing more convincing, not as the entire basis for everything I draw. It’s a little like a writer using a dictionary or thesaurus to find a word for use in his story, or reading articles or books to learn about facts or details of the subjects he is writing about. The story he writes is his creation, but he might do some research to write more convincingly about a given topic. If I need to draw a building, I might refer to some pictures of buildings to see how the windows, trim, stonework and such might work and be added to my drawing to make it look more like the kind of building I am trying to draw, but I don’t need to find the exact angle and view of every building I want to draw in order to make it work. In fact I will often change things even from a direct photo reference for reasons of composition or effectiveness in what I am trying to achieve with the illustration.

The same goes for caricatures. If I have several pictures of a subject from several different angles, I can draw their face multiple times at different angles than those shown me in the pictures by using what I have learned of their face from the existing references. When it comes to expressions, faces all have the same basic muscles and tend to have the same reactions with respect to emotions and expression, so by combining those elements I can draw the same face with different expressions and still maintain a cohesive likeness.

With respect to a MAD parody, the trick to doing this is twofold. First, I need to find several important features that are “keys” to the specific face I am doing multiple drawings of, and carry them through each different caricature even as I take liberties with the expressions. It might be heavy eyebrows, the squareness of a chin, the head shape (usually an important one) or any one of many such things that make the particular face unique. These become linchpins that make the viewer believe they are looking at the same character in each panel. Usually the crazier the expression I am drawing, the more I have to rely on these “keys” to keep the cohesion.

The second part of the equation is what I call the “keystone” technique. Basically what this means is that, at several points through the parody, I incorporate a caricature of a subject drawn from specific photo reference. These caricatures are always more detailed and have the strongest likenesses of the lot. These are always found on the splash page (those being the “intro” keystones) and then here and there throughout the rest of the parody. They act as “keystones” or “cornerstones” that bridge the gap between the ones where I am faking it with expressions and angles I don’t have specific references for. They keep up the viewer’s perception that the same character is being seen throughout. Jack Davis used to use this technique all the time with his MAD parodies, except he’d often just do the one keystone caricature on the splash and then do a cartoon representation of the character for the rest of the parody. I’m not Jack Davis, so I do more than one keystone caricature.

Thanks to Daniel Moir 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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