Sunday Mailbag

September 6th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: How do you envisage the future for caricature? Do you see it moving a lot more towards manipulating photographs or do you think there will always be a place for the conventional hand-drawn approach?

A: One of the beautiful things about caricature is that it is a very personal thing. An artist’s caricature of a subject is his or her personal interpretation of that individual… every caricature has a little bit of the artist in it. It’s impossible to completely disassociate yourself from the caricature you draw, because without your personal observations and interpretations it’s not a caricature, it’s a portrait. Given that there will never be a computer program that automatically generates a real caricature. You cannot remove the artist from the equation.

That’s not to say that computer software might not take the DRAWING out of the equation someday.

Right now there are programs and tools that allow a user to manipulate a face and make it into something resembling a caricature. “Liquify” is a tool in PhotoShop that lets you push and pull features about in a photograph. I’ve never used it but I’ve seen the results and in most cases it makes the face look like it’s made of wax and has been sitting too close to the oven. Eventually a program might be written that will allow a user to take the individual features of the face, change their relationships by moving them about, and then the software with “render” the results so the structure, skin, hair, etc. all are recreated seamlessly to make a convincing caricatured face. That won’t make it a program that will do an automatic caricature, however. There is still the need for a human to impose their personal observations and interpretations on the subject, but it would eliminate that human’s need to be able to draw. That is the sad part of it.

There are already artists out there doing computer assisted caricature images. Here’s an example from the cover of MAD back in 2003:


These are photos manipulated on the computer to create a caricature of sorts. Personally I don’t think much of the results, but an artist still had to make decisions on what to do with each face… bigger jaw, smaller eyes, bigger forehead, etc. For what it’s worth I’ve never heard a single fan of MAD say they did anything but loathe this cover. MAD never did another photo manipulation cover again, although they did one for MAD Kids and there has occasionally been photo-caricatures used as spots in the magazine. You see them here are there.

Every since the first computers were made there has been debate about if and when humans would become obsolete. When will computers be able to do everything humans can do, better and faster? I think while the answer might not be “never” it is certainly a long, long, long way off. Computers, for all their technology and advancement, are still a long way from being as smart as a human brain. You need only look as far as the simple and humble “spam filter” to see that. The spam filter on my computer catches about 90% of spam e-mails, but 10% still creep through. Virtually any human being, however, can take one look at an e-mail and instantly tell if it’s a real message from someone or a spam/ad. They would score 100%, yet a computer is still incapable of that bit of intuition. Hence it cannot caricature.

To get back to your original question, while I think that you may see computer manipulated photos (done by digital artists) occasionally used in place of caricature illustrations, I do not think they will ever replace the hand drawn/painted/illustrated caricature. Art is art and photos are photos, and there will always be a need (and market) for humans to see and enjoy real art created by a real artist.

Thanks to Paul “Hutch” Hutchinson 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. Great Question, and an interesting topic!

    I certainly see software completely overtaking traditional art medium in the future,but not the methods we have to employ those mediums. besides, I think what will save caricatures the fate of being automated is that there doesn’t seem to be that much demand for it. it’s a sort of niche art that i can’t forsee someone writing software for.

  2. Mike Curry says:

    The photo caricatures just aren’t funny.

  3. sharprm says:

    I’d guess there would be demand for this software (eg. photo manipulations that come with mac, also here is an example I found using google: I’m not a programmer but if they have software to recognise points of eyes (I think I’ve seen this), nose etc. then they could generate a bunch of images with random exaggerations and leave it up to user to decide which produces best likeness. Or, like the spam filter, use caricature artists’ decisions to ‘train’ the program. Its not going to be as good as real caricatures. Humour, 3d-ness, nice rendering can’t be done by computers I guess.

  4. Kamal Dollah says:

    It is sad that lesser people draws these days because of technology. Computers may not have all the solutions yet but it will be there soon, actually it already has for those who could not differentiate good from bad. We should not forget that 3D applications will also have an impact in how you could easily mold shapes and the computer renders it. Still it all requires skill and I’d look at it that the medium has changed. I still respect the craft when done very well like Pixar’s animations.

    In all, there will be lesser people who could draw caricatures thus lower supply. On the other side, there is also lower demand with technology as it is now easier to buy stock images or just steal them on the internet. Hence it may be true that this is a dying trade or one that does not grow. This trade it a niche like it always has and there will still be business with impressive prospect on a small scale.

    These days, when you draw ‘live’ caricatures, people are so thrilled because they never knew you could do it without a computer. Its a great show and all the Oooh and Ahhh in the background sounds nice to the ‘live’ caricature artist. This kept him going.

    I totally agree about the artists’ identity. Caricature is a genuine craft. I was very impressed that in a room of close to 200 professional caricature artists from around the world at the ISCA convention likeness competition, nobody’s drawing of the same person looks the same. Each has their own interpretation yet it is recognizable to the same person. But, in a portrait class of students who have attained a fairly decent standard in drawing, all the drawings look alike.

    Kamal Dollah,


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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