Sunday Mailbag

May 16th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I started to simply add this as a comment on your post, but after a second thought I felt it may be better served as a “Sunday Mailbag” question. Regarding your “Sketch O’ The Week” on Wednesday, May 12, you posted the following comments: “I debated whether to even post this caricature of LOST’s Elizabeth Mitchell as Dr. Juliet Burke, since I lost the likeness somewhere along the way between the rough sketch and the final washes. However, seeing as how I didn’t post one at all last week I’d better get something up today.

Does this happen often with your sketches? I ask because this is a wonderful opportunity for me to pick your brain on this issue. When I look at this sketch, it seems that you’ve nailed each feature individually. I mean, she definitely has the high arched eyebrows, piercing eyes, the “duckbill” upper lip and a fairly square — but not too masculine — jaw. And yet, even though it’s a great sketch, I can see why you think you’ve lost the likeness somewhere along the way. Still, when I look at the individual features I can’t really see which ones you could actually draw any more accurate in order to improve on the likeness.

This happens to me fairly often. It will seem that I’m really nailing a subject’s features in a caricature, yet I lose the likeness in the final drawing. When this happens, I can never quite recover the likeness in that particular drawing, and I most always have to start over from a completely different perspective. Do you have any advice on how you can salvage the likeness in a drawing when this happens? Or is there no easy way to recapture the likeness? Are you ultimately better off just starting over from scratch again?

A: I know that’s a long question but Lash brings up several points that I think really deserve to be part of the discussion.

First off, missing the likeness in a caricature can happen for lots of reasons, but for me the one that seems to be the biggest culprit is not being able to let go of some preconceived notions you have about your subject when the drawing is clearly showing you that your notions are wrong. The drawing I did of Mitchell is a perfect example… I had this idea in my head that she had a wide face, mainly due to the prominence of her cheekbones. I was convinced of this, and I tried to shoehorn her features into that head shape. The result was that any likeness I had gotten in the sketch phase was based on superficial, individual features drawn on top of a poor foundation, and the loose nature of the medium I did the final sketch in couldn’t survive that delicate balancing act. The likeness was destroyed, even though if you look at things individually they are not that far off from the subject. Trying to beat that square peg into the round hole of my erroneous “wide face” observation ruined the caricature. I good caricature is more than the sum of it’s parts. Like a good piece of music, the individual notes themselves are put together to make the melody become something memorable.

I’ve found that when you run into this type of issue, when you work and work at a face and the likeness eludes you, you must step away and go do something else for a while. Beating your head against the wall by continuously drawing and redrawing the same face will not help. It’s not a problem with your drawing or your hand, it’s a problem with your eyes and your head, and they will usually not suddenly get it if you try and force them to shape up. Go do something different to completely get your mind off the drawing and the subject. Then, when you come back to it, find and use completely different reference shots, and start over from scratch. Don’t go back to the same drawing and reference that has been eluding you. Look for profile references or extreme 3/4 views and do a series of quick studies to feel out the face and get a grip on it. Throw away all your preconceived notions and just draw it with no attempts at exaggeration, and let your sketches suggest what those exaggerations need to be. These methods usually do the trick for me.

Thanks to Lash LeRoux 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. Toby K says:

    This was really helpful, I find myself in this situation a lot and I’m such a perfectionist that I just won’t stop until it looks right. Great advise, Thanks for answering peoples questions:)

  2. Stan says:

    As in Lash LeRoux the professional wrestler? Great question, great repsponce. Love the mailbag.

    • Tom says:

      Yes. Lash is a talented caricaturist and illustrator when he isn’t pile-driving large men into submission in the ring.

  3. Hutch says:

    A great question and very helpful answer. Thanks Tom and Lash.

  4. Antonio says:

    WOW that’s exactly my problem, too. I drew Laurie/House so many times and still I think there’s something i havent found yet..

    thanks so much Tom for doing all these Answers, Tuts, WIP’s and everything! You make it look so easy 😉

    greetings from Deutschland!



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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