How Much is Too Much?

August 3rd, 2007 | Posted in General

Last Sunday I answered a mailbag question about customers sometimes getting angry about their caricature when drawing live. I mentioned that, when I was just starting out as a caricaturist, there was a prevailing attitude among the artists I worked with that the customers didn’t understand ‘real caricature’ and that if a drawing got rejected it was dismissed as a result of the customer’s ignorance rather than any fault of the artist. The customers didn’t understand how the 2 foot nose that was drawn on their face was “true caricature”. Not to put too fine a point on it, we were arrogant and thought our ‘art’ was more important than the business we worked in. Certainly we ignored where we were and lacked perspective concerning what we were doing… insofar as I know there have been no Nobel prizes awarded for theme park caricatures.

I wised up over the years and realized that there had to be a balance between the art and the commercial nature of live caricature. I needed to please the customer and sell the drawings because that was my job, but I also needed to get some creative satisfaction out of that same job, otherwise I would quickly grow to hate it and would be unable to continue doing it. To go totally commercial would be easy… just draw generic, innocuous, cute caricatures with little challenge or effort and collect the money. On the other hand, I could go the other way and draw as exaggerated, mean and derogatory as I could, have a lot of fun and accept the commercial consequences. My natural style of caricature isn’t based on heavy exaggeration anyway, so I found it easy to strike that balance based on reading the customer’s tolerance for exaggeration and drawing accordingly. I concentrated on likeness, expression and technique on the less exaggerated ones and then let it fly when some customers who could ‘take it’ came along. I saved the really daring and wild exaggerations for ones I did of the other artists, friends or people who I thought would appreciate it.

The whole “customers don’t understand real caricature” is a dangerous attitude to have, not just commercially but in terms of being honest with yourself artistically. I have seen a number of caricatures drawn at theme parks that were truly brilliant pieces of caricature art get rejected, but in truth that’s the exception. A lot of live caricaturists use that mantra as an excuse to hide behind rather than face the fact that their skills could use a lot of work, or that they just drew a dud. I’ve see artists complain about how stupid the customers were that rejected a drawing when that drawing looked nothing like those customers and had glaring flaws. Exaggeration aside, if the drawing has no likeness then it’s a failure. It’s easier for the artist’s ego to claim to be misunderstood than to have to admit they did a poor job. That does more damage than good to the growth of a caricaturist. Being objective about your own art can be very difficult for some.

A number of years ago, as a member of the National Caricaturist Network, I witnessed this same attitude gain a measure of popularity with the idolization of Sebastian Kr?¬?ger, the brilliant German caricaturist/painter. Kr?¬?ger is a monstrous talent who can stretch and exaggerate the face wildly and still capture a startling likeness. A lot of the NCN artists tried to emulate Kr?¬?ger, and a few of them had the drawing chops to pull it off. There were two or three artists who did ‘extreme exaggeration’ at the conventions and did it very well. Many other artists did not understand that you can’t go from “zero to Kr?¬?ger” in 5.4 seconds, and that in order to be able to do that kind of exaggeration you had to first have very strong realistic drawing skills and a total command of facial anatomy, proportion, etc. Kr?¬?ger studied traditional realistic painting and portraiture for years and can do world-class, incredible realistic portraits at will. Likewise, the few NCN artists who can do the Kr?¬?geresque kind of exaggeration also have tremendous drawing skills and have a deep understanding of portraiture and realistic drawing. Yet many other artists wanted to skip the hard work of developing the fundamental drawing skills and go right to the crazy exaggerations. The results were predictably rough, with shaky or non-existent likenesses and badly constructed heads. It was one thing to do that kind of experimentation at the convention, and quite another doing it back at the theme park or party circuit. Yet thanks to that “the customer doesn’t understand real caricature” mantra to hide behind, they could do it with relative impunity. Just blame the customer’s ignorance for that reject, not the fact that is was a poor job. That’s not being honest with yourself as an artist.

There is also a very clear distinction between “exaggeration” and “distortion”. Exaggeration in caricature is changing the size or relationship of a feature to place more or less emphasis on it according to the specific demands of a given face. If that person has a small nose, you make it smaller… large eyes become bigger, etc. Distortion is exaggerating without a reason or need. Giving a person with a little, button nose a giant schnozz is not exaggeration, it’s distortion. A funhouse mirror distorts the person it reflects, and that distortion is the same no matter who is reflected. Good caricature is like a funhouse mirror that is specially designed for only one person. Some artists either always apply the same exaggerations to every face, or blow features out of proportion just to make the drawing look exaggerated. That is bad caricature. Yet I’ve seen this done, get rejected and then hear the customer’s lack of “understanding” get the blame.

It’s always been my belief that good caricature has a basis in good drawing. You have to be able to draw something convincingly, in it’s true proportions, before you can expect to break away from those proportions and exaggerate them in unrealistic ways and still maintain a strong likeness, sense of being and illusion of life. I also believe there is a limit to how far you can exaggerate a face… that limit is up to the skills and eye of the individual artist, but it’s easy to gauge when the limit is exceeded. If the drawing is not recognizable as the person it is supposed to be of, then the line has been crossed. It really is that simple. If the likeness is lost the exaggeration went too far. Some artists like Kr?¬?ger can indeed push the exaggeration VERY far without losing the likeness. However, even Sebastian Kr?¬?ger has his limits of exaggeration… his paintings have unmistakable likenesses, so he reaches those limits but does not exceed them. I want the artists who work with me to understand the difference between exaggeration and distortion, and also to be objective about the success of the drawings they do. I start my training by teaching basic human portrait proportion, and each feature lesson starts with real anatomy as a foundation for caricature.

That’s why, when asked for advice by young artists eager to learn caricature, I suggest they get not books on caricature but on portraiture, figure drawing and the fundamentals. Keep drawing caricatures but study the basics of good, realistic drawing. That kind of base will provide the future caricaturist the foundation from which to achieve success no matter if they want to exaggerate with abandon or just a little, or somewhere in between.


  1. pmcmicheal says:

    Tom…Back in High School I had the awesome job of artist in the school newspaper!!! People ( and teachers) would get very uneasy when I was watching ( studying ) them..thinking they were my next victim! One time I did a caricature of this student who was a huge OGRE and I “NAILED” his likeness…even ran it passed a dozen people for inspection!!! It was unmistakenly HIM!!! When it was published, he declared he was gonna kick my ass! My responce to him was “Hey, I didn’t design you!!! your PARENTS designed you…go kick their asses” My responce only angered him more as he became ridiculed through the entire school!!! I probably should’nt have made his knuckles dragging the ground! My first lesson on “backing Off” a little.

  2. quikdraw4 says:

    Tom great blog today. Always enjoy your insights and observations on the art of caricature.
    Just to go off topic on a lighter note..We here in Boston want to thank your Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett,your Wild for Manny Fernandez,
    Twins for David Ortiz BTW we have the vault open and locker stall ready for Johan Santana. lol! Have a great weekend Tom.

  3. Lar says:

    Tom, your articulation is as impressive as your caricatures. What a terrific essay on distortion vs exaggeration! 🙂 Thank you for making clear this important distinction in the artform we all love.

    All the best!

  4. jsager says:

    What books would you suggest for portraiture, figure drawing, and fundamentals?


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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