Sunday Mailbag

May 2nd, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Is there a trick to caricaturing beautiful women? I find it incredibly difficult, as I know many do. But I’ve found it hasn’t gotten any easier as my overall drawing skills have improved, which is frustrating.

A: The following answer was a not-so-long-ago post here on The MAD Blog… But this is something many caricaturists struggle with and deserves another look:

One of the most common problems I hear about from other caricaturists is that women are harder to draw than men. Many struggle to make their caricatures of women look feminine, and often feel their female subjects look like “drag queens”.

I think it’s a myth that women, particularly beautiful women, are harder to caricature than men. Women have the same sets of features that men have, but the need to differentiate the masculine from the feminine forces the caricaturist to modify his or her approach (in most cases) to the different sexes. That doesn’t mean that it’s more difficult to draw either sex than it is to draw the other, but you do have to keep the masculine/feminine difference in mind if you want to avoid the “drag queen” look that sometimes results in a caricature of a woman.

Superficially there are a lot of facial elements that identify a given subject as male or female. Thick eyelashes, full red lips, soft complexion, high cheekbones, more curved and thinner eyebrows… these are feature descriptions that are distinctly “feminine”.¬¨‚Ć You may notice these items have one thing in common… they are all features that women traditionally use makeup to accentuate or to create. If women don’t have them in abundance naturally many use makeup to create them or to accentuate what they do possess. Take your cues from what makeup artists do to see what kinds of features say “female” (and conversely what to avoid on a male caricature to prevent them from looking feminine). If I am drawing a man who happens to have thick, long eyelashes (many do) I will play that DOWN in many cases to accentuate the masculine in the drawing.

These are only superficial things, though. The real differences between men and women’s faces lay under the skin… with the bones and the skull. This is the basis of the “drag queen” look… the human eye and brain is able to differentiate between a male and female face based on difference and indicators that are more than surface features. Hence a drawing of a face with lot’s of female makeup level features on the surface but with the structure and other aspects of a typical male face looks like a man wearing makeup.

Skeletal differences between the sexes are well documented. It’s not just the different chromosomes that are behind it, either… the high levels of testosterone at puberty help enlarge the bones of males, while the high levels of progesterone also help develop male characteristics like greater height and a narrower pelvic bone. The differences also extend to the skull, which is actually the second easiest part of the skeleton forensic scientists can use to determine the probable sex of a skeleton, the pelvis being the first (learned that on NCIS!). In fact the mandible (jaw bone) alone gives examiners a 90% accuracy in determining the sex of a skeletal subject.

The female skull is generally smaller and lighter than the male’s. Elements like the brow ridge and mandible are usually less pronounced. The female skull tends to be wider than the male’s which leads to a general softness of features, more prominent cheekbones and a less prominent jawline. The areas above the eye sockets in men tend to be more blunt while the brow itself is more pronounced, but in women that same area is sharper (thus the purpose of “eye shadow”) while the brow protrudes less.

The jaw is actually a key element to the masculine/feminine definition of a subject, and represents the most dynamic differences between the faces of the sexes. The combination of the wider skull, the less developed mandible and the propensity of the female chin (mental protuberance) to be smaller and more pointed as opposed to a man’s wider and more square one makes the female jaw distinct from the male jaw. The upper (top part of the) chin is wider and higher vertically while a female’s is more rounded and shorter. In fact the male chin is generally larger in every dimension. Big, square jaws inevitably read as masculine and small, narrow and pointier ones read as feminine.

Jackie O‘s features are classic feminine

Features themselves are also different, often as a result of the skull variance but sometimes of their own accord. Female noses, for example, are generally less angular and the tip is smaller and softer. They have a tendency to be pointier, narrower and vertically shorter (closer to the eyes) than a man’s nose.

Spencer Grammer has a small, understated nose, small chin and
wide face that says “female”

So, what does all this mean in terms of a caricature? Since caricature is all about exaggeration, it makes sense that if you want a subject to be more feminine you should downplay the things that make a face masculine and play up those things that make it feminine. Sounds like distortion, or the exaggeration of features based not on the what the subject’s features demand but on some other preconceived notion (which I constantly preach against), doesn’t it?

Some rules to drawing faces need to apply in order for the end result to be read as what it is intended to be read as. Drawing kids has certain rules you cannot break (or must break with only the most demanding of reasons) if you expect your caricature to look like a kid and not some weirdly deformed adult. Same thing with women. While it’s true that some women’s faces with bend and even break some of these “rules”, knowing the general rules will allow the observer to look for them and understand their meaning. If you are drawing a women with an enormous square jaw you can hardly ignore it, but you can look for the other typical female attributes you can then play up to balance things… or you can just exaggerate that enormous jaw and know your caricature is going to end up looking like Jessie Ventura in a wig. Hey, if the SUBJECT looks like Jessie Ventura in a wig you can’t do much about that. At least you know WHY the caricature doesn’t look feminine. You break the rules at your own risk, but you do have to break them when the situation calls for it.

Some examples of Breaking the Rules:

In this one of Rihanna I exaggerated her chin,
but the other rules are in place to help compensate.

This Lena Headley looks distinctly masculine… too many harsh angles

While the nose on Scarlett Johansson is not very feminine, the other features
compensate… cheekbones, lips, eyes, eyebrows. Chin is bigger but jaw still small.

So, what are the rules for making a caricature of a woman look feminine? The obvious thing is stay away from making the jaw, brow ridge and chin bigger or more pronounced in a woman’s caricature, and if possible even make these elements a little smaller. When possible play up those features that makeup is meant to enhance, like the sharper areas in the corners of the brows (eyeshadow), higher and more curved eyebrows (shaped eyebows), fuller lips especially the upper lip (lipstick), longer thicker eyelashes (mascara and eyeliner), higher more pronounced cheekbones (blush or rouge), less prominent nose (powder or base that used to avoid highlights that show the edges and draw attention).

Despite the “walleyes” this drawing shows the exaggeration and
understatement of the eyes, nose and mouth to accentuate the
femininity of the subject.

Personally I always strive to make a woman’s face SOFTER than a man’s. I stay away from harsh, angular lines and features in a woman’s caricature and use softer, more rounded lines and forms to define the face. I try to use fewer lines and elements that define edges of features.¬¨‚Ć With a linear style of drawing, In general the more lines you use in the face the more masculine (and older) the subject looks. If I want my subject to look more feminine, I will seek to define the features with are few lines as possible. It’s an old trick of filmmakers to use softer light and slightly out of focus (or vaseline-smeared lensed) camera on close ups of women to create a dreamy and sultry look to them… it eliminates the hard edges of features.

The ultimate feminine face? This caricature of Marilyn Monroe hardly has
Any lines inside the face. It’s all softness and suggested features.

Caricaturing a subject is, as always, defined by the demands the subject’s features and persona demand of the artist. However that does not mean the caricaturist cannot approach a subject a little differently, and look for specific things they might expect to see, based on things like the age or sex of the subject. Understanding human perceptions and what’s behind them with respect to things like male versus female faces only brings another source of observational power to the artist.

Here are some other examples of caricatures of women:

Kim Basinger has the eyes, brows, smallish nose, lips and chin
of the textbook female type

Fergie has a hard jaw, large brow and wide chin for a woman

Soft curves and understated features dominate this sketch of Lucille Ball

A somewhat hard chin but doe eyes and cheekbones make
this drawing of Winona Ryder look distinctly feminine

Another classic feminine face: Audrey Hepburn

Despite the bulbous nose, the other features of
Hayden Panettiere are soft and feminine

Thanks to J.J. McCullough of Vancouver 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. Brad says:

    great examples!


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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