Sunday Mailbag

May 6th, 2012 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Do you have any tips on how to change a person’s expression and retain a likeness. Say you have photo of someone smiling but they want a surprised or angry look. Any advice?

A: In the case of a single image of a subject, I would require the subject (assuming it’s the subject asking for the changed expression, like in¬¨‚Ć a gift caricature) to give me a reference showing the kind of expression they are asking for. Even though faces, for the most part, follow somewhat similar patterns when making an expression like “surprise” or “anger”, you cannot pretend you really know what a given person’s expression looks like without seeing it. It’s a total crapshoot that you get it right if you just guess in the drawing. In doing a live (or rather “on the spot” in this case) caricature drawing from a photo I would refuse to do it without the right reference. That would not be a caricature, it would be a shot in the dark.

But, you might say, don’t you do that sort of thing all the time in your MAD parodies? Surely you don’t get a reference shot of every expression you draw the characters making in a movie or TV spoof? True, I do not need reference of every expression for a MAD parody but that is a horse of a different color. I actually write about this very subject in The Mad Art of Caricature!, Chapter 9: “Caricatures and MAD“.

It would be impossible to assemble a collection of images of a person with all the various expressions and emotions needed for a parody in which they are featured multiple times. If I happen across a picture of some actor I am drawing yelling or something, I’ll grab it as it’s a good thing to have, but even in such cases it’s unlikely that reference will be facing the way I need it or have the exact expression I want anyway. In the case of a MAD parody, I am required to draw the same face over and over with different expressions and showing different emotions. Expecting to find a reference for each individual face would be unrealistic. Therefore I need to be able to draw these faces without specific reference.

I amass a selection of references of a given subject from as many angles as I can get and (hopefully) a few different expressions as well. If I have several pictures of a subject from several different angles, I can draw their face multiple times at different angles than those shown me in the pictures by using what I have learned of their face from the existing references. When it comes to expressions, faces all have the same basic muscles and tend to have the same reactions with respect to emotions and expression, so by combining those elements I can draw the same face with different expressions and still maintain a cohesive likeness . . . given that I do a little visual trickery to keep things together.

With respect to a MAD parody, the trick to doing this is twofold. First, I need to find several important features that are “keys” to the specific face I am doing multiple drawings of, and carry them through each different caricature even as I take liberties with the expressions. It might be heavy eyebrows, the squareness of a chin, the head shape (usually an important one) or any one of many such things that make the particular face unique. These become linchpins that make the viewer believe they are looking at the same character in each panel. Usually the crazier the expression I am drawing, the more I have to rely on these “keys” to keep the cohesion.

The second part of the equation is what I call the “keystone” technique, which I go into in Chapter 9 of my book. Basically what this means is that, at several points through the parody, I incorporate a caricature of a subject drawn from specific photo reference. These caricatures are always more detailed and have the strongest likenesses of the lot. These are always found on the splash page (those being the “intro” keystones) and then here and there throughout the rest of the parody. They act as “keystones” that bridge the gap between the ones where I am faking it with expressions and angles I don’t have specific references for. They keep up the viewer’s perception that the same character is being seen throughout.

This technique only works when you have a continuing storyline with multiple caricatures of a subject. Doing just one single image? I have to have either a reference showing me the way a given expression looks on the subject, or I must see the subject make that expression either live or in a video, and then draw it from memory using other references for the details. There is no other way to be sure you get it right.

Thanks to Brian Benson 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. Mike says:

    Tom, I am always amazed at the detail you put into your answers. Thank you for all the instruction you give us.


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