Sunday Mailbag

June 14th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Concerning drawing live caricatures: What do you do if the subject’s key identifying characteristics may be something they are ashamed/embarrassed about? For example, a person whose eyes don’t point in the same direction, a lady with a long, “horse-like” face, people with extremely crooked teeth, people with an extremely pronounced underbite, people with more chins than they would prefer to have, and the list goes on. On one hand, these “unattractive” features might be needed to clinch the likeness. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.

A: Good question. A lot of the answer involves that “sixth sense” I talked about in my last Sunday Mailbag, where the artist gets a feel for what a given subject/model can take and what they can’t. That’s easier said than done as some caricaturists do not have that sense, nor is that sense always accurate. You would like to think that anyone sitting down for a live caricature actually understands what they are about to get, and if they have features like you described they must be comfortable with them as they should know they will probably be exaggerated.

Sadly that is sometimes not the case.

It’s funny how some people’s self-image works. Some are literally blind to their true appearance, and cannot see the imperfections of their features. It’s like hearing your voice on a tape recording… some people cannot believe that is really the way they sound, but others will instantly recognize it as their voice. Others are all too aware of their imperfections, and will specifically ask you to ignore them. When a person with gigantic buck teeth sits down and immediately tells you not to draw their buck teeth, what they are really saying is that they don’t want a caricature. Why they sat down in the first place is beyond me.

So, what so you do in the circumstance you describe above? I have one rule in that regard…

Draw ’em as you see ’em.

I will not ignore features because I am afraid the subject is sensitive about them. My first priority is to get a likeness of the subject, and in order to do that I have to draw what I see. That’s not to say I have to exaggerate those features in order to get the likeness. I can suggest the buck teeth in my drawing without making the person who has them look like they have the Ten Commandment tablets coming out of their mouth. Nor do I have to draw the person with eyes looking in slightly different directions look like Marty Feldman.

Marty Feldman and Co.

I won’t ignore them but I do not necessarily have to focus on those kinds of features. Here are the two scenarios that often happen, and how I handle it:

Subjects sits down with obvious type of feature and asks me “not to draw” that feature- Let’s say it’s a big nose. My response is “You will look strange with a big hole in your face where your nose should be”. They of course respond with a “just don’t make it big”. I then tell these are supposed to be funny 10 minute cartoon drawings, not portraits. If they want a caricature, I’d be glad to draw one for them. If they want a portrait, my price for portraits starts at $250 and a sitting takes 3 hours.¬¨‚Ć The allusion to the time and money involved for a portrait often does the rick. If they go ahead with the drawing, I make sure I exaggerate something other than the feature they have an issue with. If they get up and leave, I just avoided a likely return and a waste of my time. The trick is to do this and not sound haughty, rude or condescending. They are, after all, the customer. Still a caricaturist is not a portraitist, and shouldn’t be expected to draw a Glamor Shot portrait of anybody.

Sometimes the customer (usually a parent of a kid with big ears or something) gives you the “we are the customer and we are always right, you should do what we say” routine. At that point I give them the old “Chinese food” routine. I ask them if they would go to a Chinese restaurant and expect the chef to make them an Italian dinner. That makes no sense, as it makes no sense to ask a caricaturist to draw something other than a caricature. Again, you have to deliver this message in a way that does not come off as rude, which at this point is getting harder to do.

Some people cannot be pleased no matter what you do. That happens, and it’s best not to get worked up about it. A long as you are satisfied you did the best you could to appease that person, then that is all you can do.

Subjects sits down with obvious type of feature but leaves the artist to guess if they are sensitive about it- In this case the “draw ’em as I see ’em” rule is in full effect. If my Spidey Sense give off no alarm bells, nor tells me this is a “live one” who will appreciate a strong exaggeration, then I always err on the side of caution. I will try and exaggerate expression or some other feature and make that my focus. It’s easy to take the attention away from one feature by creating another area which draws it away. If you are looking at a person with a 50,000 watt smile, you will likely not notice that their ears are very big. The great thing about caricature is that you can choose to exaggerate several different things and still achieve a good caricature.

Here’s a note about drawing people with special needs, like Down’s Syndrome or MS… I have learned is that most special needs people will get offended if you do NOT draw their real features. To ignore or draw them without their physical differences can be considered insulting, like you are trying to “fix” them and they do not think they need fixing. They are who they are and don’t want an artist to try and make them look different. Again, no need to EXAGGERATE their particular differences, but you do not ignore them. For example I would never draw someone in a wheelchair running and winning a race. I might draw them in a souped up, rocket-powered wheelchair outracing other runners, or if they have an artificial limb drawing a robot one doing something superhuman, but that is the extent to which I might draw attention to the feature. Those kinds of gags usually go over well, as they have the double purpose of addressing the disability yet saying that great things are possible despite the challenges involved. However if the subject specifically asks me to draw them without their disability (i.e. running a race, etc) I will do that. That does not interfere with their likeness and if they want me to do that I will comply.

Thanks to Joyce from Singapore 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. I have to admire your energy – I did wonder if the Sunday mailbag would happen this week given your schedule but you amaze me by fitting so much into your life – plus you always give amazing advice i always look forward to the Sunday Mailbag!

  2. Niall says:

    Perfect advice Tom.

  3. cathryn says:

    wow. this is incredible advice. you are wonderful.


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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