Sunday Mailbag

February 14th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I have a technical question for you; What rules do you use for shading your caricatures? I checked several of your examples and in many of them it is not clear to me where did you place your light source. It seems, for instance, that you imply primary and secondary sources… Moreover, do you have suggestions on where to place the light source for typical poses? In particular, with profile caricatures I have lots of problems…

A: I am not sure if you mean live caricatures or just caricatures in general, but both have the same answer: the light source is placed where it makes the most sense, but I am not very militant about it.

In an illustration I will establish a basic light source that leads both to the best definition of the primary subjects and the creation of a believable and appropriate environment. Since any kind of light source and the shading that defines it will help create the illusion of mass with something you are drawing, it’s only important to find one that makes sense for the subject and scene, and stay consistent with it. Since most real life situations contain multiple light sources either via several different lights or the reflection of a single big light (i.e. the sun), there is plenty of room for fudging the exactness of the shading. To be honest, unless there is a very strong light source in a given illustration I will just keep a general one in mind for things like shadows on the ground and big shaded areas, and I am a lot less rigid when it comes to things like figures and smaller objects. I am sure lots of errors can be found in my illustrations in that regard… I am just not very anal about it. My thoughts are that unless your light source and shadows are so wildly inconsistent as to be noticeable and distracting, then they are not a problem. The one thing I need to keep in mind, and this is especially true when I combine several different caricatures from various photo references into one illustration, is to keep my light source consistent even if the photo references show me different shadow patterns. I may have to ignore the shadows in the reference photo and change them to fit my illustration’s light source.

Of course, some illustrations call for a very specific and demanding light source to establish some important aspect of the image like the mood, time, atmosphere, etc. Then I am a lot more wary of the specifics. I don’t plot anything out, I just wing it but I imagine the scene in my head and how the light from that dominant source would play on the objects around it. I use simple rules like the darker the surroundings and the brighter the light the darker and more dense the shadows become.

This MAD splash called for a night scene and I added two distinct light sources,
The window and the clock, and lit the figures and room accordingly.

This portion of another MAD splash also had some strong light sources

The environment of this scene needed a light source established by both values and color

When it comes to live caricatures, I don’t often do anything fancy… no time. I use a consistent light source from above and to the left of the subject, and then when working will allow for a reflected light source from the lower right, but I am not slavish with it. Suggesting the reflected light is actually easy to do with the live techniques I use, because it’s simply a matter of doing all the shading values on the left side of the face (my left) a fraction of an inch from the actual contour line of the features. I do this both with the blending stomp and the airbrush. This creates a natural feel of reflected light there, allows the airbrush’s slight over-spray a cushion and does not require I go in and add a color with that reflected light. Sometimes, especially when I work on wall samples, I will use a little white colored pencil to sharpen the reflected light edges:

You can see a suggestion of reflected light on the left side of Cosby’s face

And again but more subtly on Stewart’s face… more noticeable on his suit

This sketch has a strong outdoor light source

Slight underlighting was important for this sketch to establish the maniacal
quality of the “Dexter” character

Definite secondary light source on Leo’s right side (viewer’s left)

When it comes to specific lightsources for specific poses, then again I would say you need to examine what you are trying to accomplish with the image and decide accordingly. Something that you want to look dynamic or dramatic will require a strong and dramatic light source. A more intimate or quiet scene would need a more suffused and subtle lighting effect.

As to profiles… those are so flat and dependent on contour lines to establish form that there is little for you to use a lightsource on unless you so something intense. I guess I would stick to a broad light located in front and above the face, and have some shadows under the brow, the nose, the bottom lip, and jawline and the ears and more subtle shadows under the cheekbones.

Thanks to Fabrizio Lorito for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar,¬¨‚Će-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Fabulous says:

    Thank you Tom!
    A very rich answer. For sure some stimulating suggestion to practice


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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