Sunday Mailbag

September 28th, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: How do you respond when doing a caricature and you present a preliminary sketch, the client says, “His (Her, My, whatever) nose (ears, chin, whatever) isn’t that big?” In a live party situation, where the drawing presented is a done deal and the host is paying by the hour, I respond with, “Now it is!” But in a studio, commission situation my first impulse is always to ask, “Do you know what a caricature is?” I almost always try in the initial conversation to determine if they know the difference between a portrait and a caricature. Even then I sometime get that irritating question.

A: Drawing caricatures for a living, either live or in a studio, will inevitably lead to this issue at some time or another. Mostly it happens when the subject of your caricature is also the one approving the image. There are two possible reason why this happens:

  1. The subject is not being realistic or objective, and refuses to see their likeness even though the caricature captures them well.
  2. The caricatures actually does not have a good likeness.

I’ll get to that second one in a moment, for now let’s assume the caricature in question is a good, solid likeness of the subject.

So what do I say to that?

When drawing live I usually respond with a smart aleck comment like “I draws ’em as I see’s ’em” or “If you don’t like your nose, don’t blame me, blame your parents!” or some such. If they really protest about it then I give them a refund and move on. I do not bother to try and educate anybody at a theme park about the art of caricature. It’s not worth my time. Nor do I care about their opinion of my work past their being happy with it and buying it. That may sound cynical and materialistic, but that’s just the way it is at the theme parks or in any live venue. Some people never should have sat down in the first place, so why try and convince them to buy something they didn’t want to begin with? If I know I did a good job and they don’t want to buy it, or they don’t like it, that’s their problem. I just move on.

Now, with that said, I am also objective when it comes to the likeness. Nobody’s perfect, and drawing live leaves room for doing a bad drawing or three every once and a while. I know when I’ve done a good job and when I’ve blown it, but you still present them with the drawing either way… not that I treat the customer any differently in either case. I always offer a refund or allow them to decide not to buy it regardless if they are wrong or right about the likeness. Sadly a lot of live caricaturists are NOT objective about their own work, and will instantly blame the subject for “not understanding caricature” when they dislike a drawing done of them. I’ve seen live caricaturists do horrible drawings with zero likeness that get returned by the dissatisfied customer and then hear the artist complain about how that customer just “didn’t get it”. Of course, I’ve also seen some really brilliant caricatures returned in the same manner.

In the studio is another story. I don’t present pencil sketches or work to a client unless I am satisfied with the likeness of a caricature, so just the fact that I am showing them the work means I think the likeness is solid. Like I said before the only time this issue ever comes up is when the subject of the caricature is also the person approving it, because their ego sometimes gets in the way.

Again, what do you say to that person? I know the likeness if there, but if they don’t see it then what? It depends on their comments. If they just say “I don’t think it looks like me”, then maybe you have to take into consideration you are (probably) working from photos and the photo reference might be throwing you off. I would say “This looks like the person in the photos to me, so if you don’t think it looks like you then I will need better photos”. Usually that is useless, but at least you are giving them the benefit of the doubt. 99.9% of the time they don;t see themselves in it because they can’t deal with a caricature of themselves… even a relatively nice one.

I have about a million stories about this kind of thing, starting with my very first freelance job. Here’s another: Just a few years ago I did a holiday card for a local insurance company, with about 30 employees and management in pen and ink. The owner was the father of the two managers, one daughter and one son. I did the pencils and sent it over to them and all the employees loved it but the son and daughter didn’t think it looked anything like them. I tried to make them happy by revising it based on what they THOUGHT they looked like, but what I ended up drawing looked nothing like either of them in the end. I did that for two years but the second time around I had an even worse time with the daughter. The next year the daughter, who was the one coordinating it each year, called me up again and I told her I wasn’t interested. I was not shy about why, either. She seemed fine with that. The next year I got a call from one of the other, non-related managers begging me to come back and do it again as they had gotten another local caricaturist to do it and everyone hated the results. This lady was very nice and promised me I would have no problems with the daughter or son as far as approvals went. I told her I appreciated the kind words but I still wasn’t interested… I think I was busy with other work at the time, and I had no interest in going through that again at any rate.

Actually I have a surefire way to avoid having those kinds of issues: I just don’t accept work where the subject of my caricatures has any say in the approval of the artwork.

That’s nice an easy. No vanity projects with potential issues like… vanity. I am lucky enough to have plenty of work from clients who will pay me to draw caricatures of other people, so I don’t have to accept personal commissions or projects involving caricatures where the subject’s approve their own image. For some caricaturists personal commissions are a big part of their business. To them I would just say try and make the client understand ahead of time that you’re a caricaturist not a portrait artist, make sure they’ve seen your samples and that they know what to expect… but ultimately be prepared to have the occasional problem like this. Unavoidable.

One final thing. If any caricaturists out there get the “why me?” feeling when someone rejects a drawing you feel you really did a good job on, don’t feel too badly. It happens to the very best. When The Lovely Anna managed to convince the great Mort Drucker to draw my caricature, we were told a major reason Mort doesn’t to personal commissions is he runs into this same issue sometimes. In fact, Anna was told that Mort would send a sketch to her for approval but if there was any question about the likeness he would not revise it but instead talk with her about buying a MAD original for me instead. Of course she loved the sketch.

So, if MORT DRUCKER can be told by some idiot that they don’t think his caricature “looks like them”, it isn’t too hard to imagine we mortals having the same problem.

Thanks to Paul McCall 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!


  1. PaulMcCall says:

    Thanks for the answer Tom, very thorough. Much appreciated!


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