Sunday Mailbag- Trouble Caricaturing Familiarity?

April 13th, 2014 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Let’s say someone loves your rendition so much, they keep showing up for you to draw them. Does this affect your ability to produce a caricature, or do your drawings of them actually get better?

A: How intimate familiarity with a subject affects your ability to caricature that subject is an interesting question. Specifically you are referring to live caricature work (I assume), and that is a little different of an animal. Unless your subject comes back to get a drawing several times a week, you really cannot get so familiar with their face that it affects your ability to draw them objectively. After all, you only spend a few minutes actually observing them and there will likely be hundreds if not thousands of faces that sit in front of you before you see that same subject’s face again. You might recall some elements of your earlier drawings but with so little actual time spent observing them, you will still mostly have “fresh eyes” with each new caricature. I’ve draw caricatures of the same people every summer and I don’t feel it helps or hurts the results to do that.

Drawing people you really are familiar with is a different story, though. I’m talking about people you spend significant time with in your life. That interaction both improves and hampers your ability to caricature them.

Familiarity improves your caricature of someone because you have intimate knowledge of their mannerisms, personality and “quirks” of expression that you can bring into play in your caricature. These are things that you just don’t have when you draw someone “cold” having not seen them in motion or in life before. Drawing caricatures of celebrities works better if you have seen them in films or TV, when their images are not airbrushed/photoshopped to death like they are in magazine photos. You have a chance to see them as they really are…moving, speaking and breathing. Working from a single photo is a crapshoot, and eliminates any sense of the person you get from actually observing them in real-life (or at least on the screen). You can more effectively caricature your room-mates, friends, co-workers, etc. because you have made many observations over time and can use them to capture your subject better.

Familiarity can also interfere with your ability to caricature someone, because it can cause you to lose objectivity. It’s natural to downplay or overlook the blemishes and imperfections in your close friends and family members because your eyes don’t see them the way a stranger’s eyes would. Not that blemishes and imperfections are critical to a good caricature, but the WHOLE STORY is and those elements are part of it. You can’t do a complete and honest caricature of someone if you only tell part of the story.

It is also very possible to be TOO close to a subject. People who are long-time, integral parts of your life like family members might elude you in a caricature just because you cannot seem to capture what your inner eye is telling you they look like, and you are incapable of only using your outer eyes and being objective. This is literally a subconscious thing… you are tying to be objective but the drawings keep being “off”. I compare it to how your own voice never sounds like you when you hear a tape recording of it, because you have a certain idea of what you sound like in your head and you accept that version of your voice internally rather than what your ears actually hear. Likewise your brain seems to tell you your family members look one way when your eyes might be trying to tell you different. That’s what a mom can sit there and coo about how cute their baby is when it really looks like a cross between Gollum and a baked potato. I know I have a hard time drawing my parents, and I think that sub-conscious, psychological block is part of it.

Some people have no trouble stepping back and being objective even when it comes to caricaturing their closest friends and family. The end result for those types is usually some scathing family caricatures and no one sending them birthday cards or inviting them over for Christmas dinner.¬¨‚Ć Similarly, I did a caricature of my wife The Lovely Anna once…


Thanks to Virginia Baker 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. Virginia says:

    Thanks, Tom for the response.
    The reason behind the question, other than you needing one :-), was my having been drawn by you 3 times. Twice, at two separate visits to Valleyfair (live), once recently (3 images) for the inside of your caricature book.
    What I observed, was your ability to capture me, almost exactly (like that?! LoL) the same, all 3 times. It was as though you took your artistic method and applied it all 3 times on how I would be drawn via your ‘eye’ and hands… this, to me at least, showed your talent in spades.
    I don’t draw professionally, but I wanted to point out how much I appreciate your talent, value the art I have that you created, and ultimately why those at MAD do too.
    Much continued success, Tom!

  2. Jeff Niffen says:

    I have had the occasional situation where a woman will ask me to draw her kids, and then immediately afterwards have me draw the youngest one again, but this time with his grandmother. This has happened more than once, oddly enough. For some reason, I find the pressure doubled when having to draw the same person two times in a row. Don’t really know why that is. Perhaps it is because I am worried about being able to capture the same likeness again so soon after the last drawing?


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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