Sunday Mailbag

October 11th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Have you ever had to caricature someone that was so incredibly dull , boring and completely void of any notable characteristics that you are at a loss? I have been stumped¬¨‚Ć a couple times by some friends that literally had “NO” features what so ever!¬¨‚Ć They were just so generic and plain!¬¨‚Ć Have you ever turned customers away because of this?

A: This question is geared towards the live caricature angle, but the answer applies to caricature in general.

There is no such thing as an “uncaricaturable face”. There are faces that seem to be much easier to caricature than others, but none that are so “plain” as to be impossible. It’s all about perception and observation.

Some faces have features/feature relationships that jump out at you. The guy with the huge nose, the lady with the tiny, little pig eyes, the kid with the big buck teeth, etc. Those kinds of faces are the ones you stare at in the grocery store and instantly imagine the caricature you would draw. Those are the faces caricaturists love to draw. On the opposite end of the spectrum you have the generic, good looking 20 something with a “plain” face… they seemingly have nothing to grab hold of and exaggerate. Those faces are boring to draw.

You have to ask yourself, why are some faces easy and some hard? You might think it’s the features themselves, but really it’s your PERCEPTION of the features. The guy with the “giant” nose? How much bigger than a normal nose is that giant nose, really? Not much, if you measure it with a ruler. Millimeters. Everybody has the sames set of features and they all fall within a spectrum of a sizes and relationships that isn’t really that diverse. Not diverse enough in a physical sense of measurement that should make one face so much easier than the other. It would be impossible to, for example, use a computer program to precisely map out and measure all the features on a human face, compare them with what is “normal” and then produce a caricature based on those measurements. That’s because the exact same nose on two different people will elicit two different reactions based on perception. It’s all about how you perceive the features and their relationships.

No, the faces that are easy to draw are easy because you noticed something, and that is all about observation. Observation is what makes caricature work. You have to be able to objectively look at a face and observe what is important about that face. Some faces like the fore mentioned “guy with the giant nose” makes those observations easy, and some faces you have to look a little harder, but there is always something there. If there was not, you’d be looking at a face with no features… which of course would be something to caricature right there.

I know that “look harder” isn’t much of a useful answer… but that really is the truth. There is always something, even if it is not readily apparent. You just have to see it. One piece of advice: don’t rely on just the features for your source of caricature material. I’ve always felt it’s a common mistake for caricaturists to stop at the features themselves when searching for things to play with in their work. Physical features are only part of our perceptions of fellow humans. It’s quite possible, and indeed very effective, to caricature things like expression, posture and, indirectly, personality. Everybody has expression, and the crooked smile, the wide eyed stare, the squinty, crinkled eyes, the knitted brown and scowl… these are also “features” that can be exaggerated. Posture is another thing that is often overlooked by the caricaturist. How someone holds themselves is part of their overall look, and often a major part. Some people slump, while others look like they have a steel pole for a spine. People’s heads might tilt one way or the other, they might look up at you from a head tilted forward or down their nose at you from a head tilted back. It’s often apparent while drawing someone what kind of demeanor and personality they have. They might be quiet and mousy, or loud and brassy, or menacing, or flirtatious… these things can be conveyed in a drawing as well through expression and posture. Many times a caricaturist who observes and captures these “intangibles” will have the friends and family behind them swear that is the “look they always have” after the drawing is complete. It’s THEM. That is more than drawing features.

The good news about observation and perception is that those abilities develop the more you use them. Brand new caricaturists working at one of my theme park operations might only find 10% of faces that sit in front of them “easy”, and the rest they have to work at. Later in the summer that number of “easy” faces has climbed to 20 or 30% or higher. The more you develop that “caricature eye” the more faces will fall into that category, until virtually everyone has something you see and can grab on to without a lot of searching.

Of course, it’s important to make a distinction here between caricature and likeness. None of what I just talked about has anything to do with likeness. You achieve a likeness by drawing the features so they look like the features of the subject. You achieve a caricature by exaggerating the relationships of those features and things like I just discussed. Good caricature can reinforce or amplify a likeness, but it cannot create one. Either you have drawn the features well enough to create a likeness, or you have not.

Oh… and no, I have never turned away any live customer because they were too hard to draw. I love challenges!

Thanks to Pat McMicheal 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. Alec Fritz says:

    That’s a great question and a brilliant answer. Capturing a person’s essence can be just as important, and can improve the caricature, instead of just trying to exaggerate the facial features.
    Thanks Tom

  2. Willva says:

    Thanx mate that was really helpful =) as has all of your tutorials and sunday mailbags =) i’ll defnitly be throwing my sketchbook at you when you come visit at sydney =). I’m pretty sure i saw your name on the list.
    Anyway thanx again =)

  3. maddy bluhm says:

    good question, and brilliant answer. thank you very much mr.richmond.
    i often had similar problem like this. it hurts me when the outcome of my drawing is dull. everytime this happened, i will captured a picture and and try to draw it over and over again at home.


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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