Sunday Mailbag

July 19th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Would you know or could you give the history of the pencil, airbrush caricature like you do in the parks? Was it the Fasen’s that put it together and brought it to the amusement parks?

A: Great question, one I happen to know the definitive answer to as I was there when the live airbrush caricature was “invented” and know the whole sorted story.

Live airbrush caricatures are seen in theme parks, fairs, festivals, malls, tourist centers and many other places where crowds of people gather to spend money. The technique has been adopted by many artists as it is quick, efficient and very impressive when done right. The color magically appears on the paper, and an artist with good airbrush skills can really make their caricatures pop with the color technique.

The airbrush technique was brought into popular use by the Fasen brothers, Steve and Gary, and Fasen Arts, a company that owns caricature art concessions in a number of different theme parks and venues today. However the first time airbrush and live caricature were paired up was not by the Fasens, but by two of their artists who set up on their own in the winter of 1985 in Las Vegas at a casino off Fremont Street.

The two artists were caricaturist Dave Kamish and airbrush T-shirt artist Doug Mahnke. Dave and Doug worked at Six Flags Great America for the Fasens in the summer of 1985, which was also the year and place of my first summer of drawing caricatures. At the time we did them only in black and white using a soft graphite pencil and blending stomp on 12″ x 16″ paper. There was a lot of talk that summer about trying to figure out a good way to color the caricatures, which the Fasens felt would allow us to charge more for the drawing and therefore raise sales. The trick was to come up with a quick, clean and efficient way to color them so the extra revenues from the higher price was not eaten up by the artist spending too much time applying the color. Things like pastels and a palette of crushed chalks with dedicated blending stomps for each color were tried and discarded.

Dave and Doug went to Las Vegas after the summer was over to try and make some money in the off-season. Since Doug’s airbrush T-shirts was too unwieldy to try and set up in a casino, they came up with the idea of having Doug airbrush Dave’s caricatures, and thus tag team to create a color caricature they could charge more for than a black and white. Their foray into Vegas (which at the time was mostly devoid of caricature artists, unlike later years) was not too successful and they moved back to Minnesota… we were all from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. However they learned a few things about applying freehand airbrush to a black and white caricature and they got together with Gary in his home studio to share their experience. Gary, Steve, Doug, Dave, myself and some of the other artists brainstormed and experimented in Gary’s basement with using the airbrush to color our caricatures. Eventually a workable technique using a single brush and multiple bottles with a set color palette was established.

The summer of 1986 saw the Fasen’s convert their airbrush T-shirt booth at Six Flags Great America into a combo T-shirts and caricatures, and this location became the experimental “Color Caricatures” booth whereas the other existing locations remained black and white only. Only Gary, myself and two artists named Chuck Senties and Mark Sanislo were airbrush adept enough to work the color booth, so we were the guinea pigs.

The technique proved immensely popular and with further refinement very quick and efficient. The next summer all three booths were converted to airbrush color and all the artists used the airbrush. Once customers saw the airbrushed caricatures, we would not sell more than one or two black and white drawings for the rest of the day… everybody wanted color.

Almost every single one of the many airbrush caricature artists you see out in theme parks or other places today can be traced back to that original Fasen theme park operation. They will have either worked directly with Fasen Arts, Kamish’s, myself or another artist who worked with us at some point. I am sure a few artists have seen an airbrush caricaturist work and have then emulated the technique, but most will have been a part of an original or offshoot operation at some time.

Of course there are many ways to color a caricature, and pencil/airbrush is only one. I’m not saying it’s better than another technique, just that it’s a darn good one. I’m also unable to claim with impunity that Fasen’s artists were the first to EVER airbrush a live caricature, because for all I know some caricaturist drawing at the Boiled Potato Days festival in Podunk, Idaho tried doing it in the 1970’s completely independent of Fasen’s group. I can say, however, that the proliferation of the technique in theme parks and venues all over the United States is definitely the result of those cold winter days in Gary Fasen’s basement experimenting with the airbrush.

Incidentally, what ever happened to those two original artists who went to Las Vegas and combined caricature and the airbrush? Dave Kamish and his brothers owned and operated theme park caricature concessions in various locations including Sea World in San Diego for years (they are mostly out of the business now), and Dave has done animation for studios including Warner Brothers, freelance illustration work and authored children’s books. Doug Mahnke is now one of the most popular and respected comic book artists in the profession, which credits too long to mentioned here but including the biggest titles like Superman, Batman, Justice League and many others.

So, there you have the history of live airbrushed caricatures. As always, please do not use this knowledge for evil.

Thanks to Michael Garisek 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. Trevour says:

    Thanks for the thorough back story Tom! Count me as one of those direct offshoots!

  2. Michael Garisek says:

    WOW amazing story

  3. Dan says:

    Thanks for the story Tom. We had a caricature done outside of Excaliber ten years ago and was impressed with the artist’s setup. I never imagined so much went into the technique.


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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