Live Caricature 101- Surface vs. Structure

June 20th, 2007 | Posted in General

I have been traveling a lot this spring to my different theme park operations, working with new artists far more than I have in the past few years due to a set of unusual circumstances. I both enjoy it and find it exhausting and frustrating, but always rewarding. I never fail to learn something myself, if nothing more than a better way of explaining some concept for new artists to grasp.

Live caricaturing is a unique and challenging art form. Part cartooning, part illustration, part performance and part gestural drawing, it can seem complex and intimating to the rookie artist. In fact there are two separate elements to live caricature that need to be worked on simultaneously. One is the “surface” aspect, and the other the “structural” aspect. One can be taught (to a certain extent) but the other needs to be developed. Both need to be strong and work together to make for successful live caricature.

“Surface” aspects are the things you can teach. They include line quality, techniques for drawing three dimensional faces and objects in line, how to draw and render individual features convincingly, composition, smooth and effective airbrushing (our color technique) and other elements of drawing that lead to a solid and polished finished piece of art. It’s these aspects that the public react most to, which is a little sad. For the most part, it’s more important to a customer to have a fun, well drawn and smiley caricature with a zany body or gag than to see a bona fide strong likeness incorporating some good exaggeration decisions.

“Structural” aspects are the things that lie beneath those surface elements. Imagine a newly constructed house…. the siding, paint, trim and window dressings are the surface aspects while the architect’s vision, created with the framing, foundation and floor joices, are the real strength of the home. It’s the decisions the artist makes about the shapes and relationships of the features, where to exaggerate and placement of elements like visual weight and expression that really make the caricature strong. The surface aspects are just the language used to describe these underlying elements.

When I teach people our live caricature techniques, I start out with general concepts and theories that are part of the structural aspect of live caricature… things like recognizing head shapes that depart from the traditional ‘flattened oval” of portraiture, understanding the importance of the eyes/nose relationship as well as that of the other important facial elements, the cause and effect that is created within the face when exaggerating any features and other caricature theories. Then I spend most of my energy working with them on the surface aspects. That’s because these are things I can teach then that they can grasp and put to use immediately. They need to be able to draw the features well and with confidence before they can start to develop their eye for exaggeration. At first we strive for strong likenesses, good linework and a polished paint job.

The analogy I always use is learning to ride a bike. At first, just staying up and balancing is taking all your concentration. Eventually that all becomes second nature, and you don’t even think about it anymore. That’s when the ride and your destination are all you thinking about. Once you have control of the surface aspects of live caricature, you can concentrate on the caricature itself.

Unless the nacho-breath of the kid leaning over your drawing board distracts you, that is.


  1. drawmyface says:

    Thanks Tom, that’s a really interesting overview. Do you know of any online resources or books that teach this kind of thing? I think I struggle a lot with the surface aspects . . . and the structural ones come to think of it 😛

  2. TerryElliott says:

    Thanks a million for this post, Tom. Any nugget of information concerning live caricature goes a long way. So when you’re teaching your new artists, are you saying that the eyes/nose relationship is most important? …and that you build from there (how far the mouth is, how high the forehead is, etc)? Also, you’ve mentioned before that one day you’ll write a book on the subject. Can’t wait!

  3. SteveH says:

    Solid advice as always Tom. The nacho-breath kid is always a problem but so is the drunk Uncle who wants to heckle to life out of you! But I would not want ot be doing any other job, I lOVE live caricaturing and meeting all these new people and faces is such fun!

  4. BVasilik says:

    Great post Tom!
    I hope there is a workshop on this topic at the NCN Convention in Reno.
    Most of what I saw last year was “studio” caricatures being done live.
    Drawing caricatures and teaching how one draws caricatures are two skills.
    As a self taught caricature artist my goal is to bring out the unique qualities in each face. I think small details can bring a caricature to the next level. I also admire artists who have a consistent recognizable style to their live work.
    Perhaps a future post of your can be on the fine line of humor/exaggerating and offending a customer.

  5. Philbert says:

    I am new to caricature drawing and I’m eating up your posts with a spoon! Your blog is one of the great resources available on the web and I, for one, am very grateful you take the time to share your expertise.
    I would love to see rough pencil examples of some of the theories you expressed here…the eyes/nose ratio and the departure from the flattened oval concept. etc.
    Oh, and if you ever decide to write that book, I’m in line at the bookstore already!


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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