Sunday Mailbag

October 28th, 2012 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: When you were in college and first working at Six Flags, what was it like? Was it really nerve-wracking? Did it help build confidence in your drawings and style, and what kind of feedback did you get from the people you drew? Do you have any examples of the work you did back then?

A: For those who may not know this story: I got my start in caricature working at a Six Flags theme park during my college years in the mid to late 80s. I was skipping a highly pretentious art class while attending the University of Minnesota, hanging around the studio arts commons area when a flyer on the wall that asked “Can You Draw?” caught my attention. It was an ad for a job drawing caricatures at a local theme park. I thought I could draw, so I applied for the job. I didn’t get that local job, but I did get an offer to move down to a town in Illinois about half way between Chicago and Milwaukee, WI, to work at Six Flags Great America for the summer. That was in 1985.

I really do credit that job for my entire career direction, such as it is.

What was it like? I know for some it was nerve-wracking.¬¨‚ĆIt takes a lot of guts to sit in front of people and draw, with the “peanut gallery” sometimes commenting behind you. You have to have a thick skin and a lot of confidence in what you are doing to do that. In many ways it’s also a performance art . . . you can’t just sit there and draw. There is a certain amount of interaction between the artist, the subject and the crowd that needs to take place. The most successful live caricaturists handle both the art and the social aspects of the work equally well. Many artists have trouble with that…you really have to come out of your shell and put yourself and your work out there at the mercy of the unsolicited opinions of the Great Unwashed who stop and watch. Worse yet, you have to draw quickly and spontaneously with no safety net, so whatever comes out the end of your pencil is what you are judged on. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Personally any nervousness and questioning of self-confidence was lost on me. I spent most of the summer pinching myself that I was actually getting paid to draw funny pictures of people. I just let it fly and had fun. I was drawing next to veteran guys like Gary Fasen and Dave Kamish and even fellow rookies like Chuck Senties who drew circles around me, but I loved that because I learned from watching them and they pushed me to improve. They gave me goals to achieve. They were also incredibly supportive and free with advice and instruction. I learned more about drawing that summer than I did in four years of college.

As far as feedback from the people I drew…one thing I learned right away that helped with my self-confidence in the chair was that most of the people watching me draw and the ones I was drawing couldn’t really tell the difference between a good and a bad drawing. Most were what I would call “visually illiterate”. Almost anything that looked remotely human they were amazed by, and it did not take much to do a drawing they were happy with. In fact, the more the drawings approached a “real caricature” the less they liked it. They were much happier with a cutesy, cartoon drawing even with a so-so likeness than with something that really looked like and exaggerated them. They seemed to react more to the line quality and general polish of the technique than the substance of the drawing, and I would have people telling me I was brilliant while looking at a drawing I knew was not very good. On the flip side, more obnoxious people might heckle a drawing I was doing that I knew was one of my better ones of the day. Essentially, this taught me to disconnect with the opinions of the public, both the love and the hate. I only cared about the opinions of my customers insomuch as they were happy with the results and bought the drawing. It was the opinions of my fellow artists I took to heart, both their compliments and their criticisms. This was important because, if it was just the sale of the drawing I cared about, I could have stopped developing my work after the first month or so and been quite successful doing the cutesy, cartoon stuff and left it at that. More than a few career live caricaturists have gone this route. I wanted more with my art, so I learned to balance commercial reality with artistic integrity. I also wanted my artwork to progress past being hung up in cheap plastic frames in people’s basements rec rooms, or put on the refrigerator with a magnet shaped like an ear of corn and tossed out a year later. I concentrated on improving not because the customers demanded it because I demanded it.

Unfortunately I have no examples of my work from those early days anymore. For years I kept a handful of old samples from my first summer in a drawer, and I would pull them out at the end-of-the-summer get together with all my theme park artists so they could see what kind of work I did at the same point in my career (it make them feel good, I can tell you). I must have tossed those during the Great Flatfile Purge of a few years ago, as they have disappeared. They were pretty bad. They were also very much a product of the era. If I remember correctly, the subjects included Grace Jones, Dee Snider from Twisted Sister, John Belushi and Dan Acroyd as The Blues Brothers, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan and Madonna in her early “Boy Toy” look. This was 1985 after all. Sorry I don’t have those to share.

Thanks to Elizabeth ‘Polyrhythm’ Murray 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. Polyrhythm says:

    Thanks for the answer, Tom! It sounds like a really great job, especially as you got to draw so many different faces, and alongside so many fellow caricaturists who were willing to share tips and tricks. I’m keeping an eye out for positions at theme parks near me, as I’d love to be able to do that one day 🙂

    Thanks again!

    – Elizabeth


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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