Sunday Mailbag

May 13th, 2012 | Posted in Mailbag


Q: As a caricaturist how do you avoid the reliance and clich?¬© of using props (as in properties) to bolster the recognition of a person? For example, if you are depicting a not so well known sports personality there maybe a tendency to add sports gear or team logos to the image helping to get the message across. Or say a “celebrity” who is surrounded by their associated paraphernalia, just so you know who that caricature is meant to be; which helps bridge the association of recognition but then destroys it with poor observational drawing. Sorry if this question has answered in your new book, but I’ll won’t know that till it becomes available in the UK.

A: I do, in fact, talk about this in my book The Mad Art of Caricature!, when I discuss the difference between “likeness” and “recognizablity” in a caricature. I illustrate this using a caricature of the rock musician Slash:

From The Mad Art of Caricature, Chapter 1:

A good caricature must be instantly recognizable as the subject regardless of the level of exaggeration the artist applies to the subject’s features. If it doesn’t read as the subject, it’s not a successful caricature. Notice I did not say it must have a “likeness,” meaning it must be recognizable as the subject via the features themselves. The “likeness” can be independent of “recognizability.” You can recognize a subject in a caricature in other ways than likeness of features. More stylized caricatures can depend on things like very distinct features represented by more abstract elements rather than by accurately drawn facial details. A caricature can also utilize things like trademark clothing, hairdos, or other well-known and unique aspects of a subject. One example of this might be the “caricatures” of famous people making cameos as themselves on animated television shows like The Simpsons or Futurama. These must be recognizable as the celebrities they depict but still conform to the rigid style of the animation design…the features are immaterial. The caricature (above) relies on the signature hair, hat, and other elements of rock star Slash for its recognizability, as opposed to any accuracy in drawing the features themselves . . . since there are no features.

There is a world of difference between the use of “props” as you described to enhance the recognizability of subject, or the use of them to accomplish that recognizability. In the former, you are merely building and solidifying an already strong likeness-based caricature. In the latter, you are using the props as a crutch to cover up a poor or unsuccessful likeness.

How do you tell the difference? That’s easy. Say you do a caricature of Robert Downey Jr. wearing his Iron Man armor from the Marvel films. If you crop the image to only show his face and people do not recognize that it is Robert Downey Jr., but then show them the full caricature and they suddenly recognize him, then you are using the props as a crutch. It’s that simple. Either the caricature is strong enough to stand on its own, without the need of accessories or some kind of elaborate environment to make the subject recognizable, or it isn’t.

The specific situation you cite, where you are doing a caricature of someone who is not that famous or recognizable as a celebrity in the first place, like a “not-so-well-known sports personality”, is a different story. You can do the greatest caricature likeness in the world and it will not do you much good when expecting the rest of the world to figure out it’s the backup utility player on your local minor league baseball team. In a case like that, you are required to use props and other accessories to establish the identity of your subject . . . and here I assume the reason you are doing a caricature of some obscure personality at all is for some project or article that needs the subject depicted and recognized for who is/she is or what they do. In that case the props and accessories are the real subject of the narrative, but that wouldn’t mean you couldn’t still do a good job on the caricature itself.

Oh, and you can get the book in the UK, and anywhere else in the world. You just have to pay the outrageous shipping charge of $17 US. I have shipped hundreds of books to the UK.

Thanks to Cameron 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!



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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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