Sunday Mailbag- Options for Caricatures?

June 1st, 2014 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Hi Tom – I’ve been struggling with the following for over a year now, possibly without realizing it! But I now see we have 2 (or maybe 3 options!) when it comes to creating a caricature.

1. We can keep the head shape as an accurate representation with little or no exaggeration – after all, we are engaged in the quest for likeness (so this is the most important thing – when we see someone from a distance, we recognize them, without seeing their features in detail). We can THEN exaggerate the features – make the eyes smaller, the nose more bulbous, the ears more jug-like, etc, etc…

2. We can exaggerate the actual head shape (still applying the ‘law of constant mass!) and then just place standard features ‘on top’ of that exaggerated shape.

3. And I imagine this will be the best option, although the most difficult for us mere mortals – We do BOTH the above. But finding the balance in between the two is the crux, no? Presumably one results in the other, to some extent…

A: Options one and two are no options at all. Both would create bizarre and unsuccessful, or at best incomplete, caricatures. Only option three above is a viable approach to a caricature.

In my book I cite the universal foundation of any caricature is exaggerating the relationships of the features to one another. This means that all features, and this includes the head shape, are interconnected and to exaggerate any aspect of them is to affect the rest. No feature is an island that you can just exaggerate and leave the surrounding face unaffected.

One of the concepts in my book is “the law of constant mass”, which basically states that you only have X amount of mass in any face, and if you decide you want to make a feature on the face bigger or smaller to create a caricature, you cannot just add or take away mass to do this. You must move the mass from one to another area of the head. So, if you decide to exaggerate the jaw you must reduce the mass in another area, likely the top of the head. If you want to make the nose big, that mass or energy has to come from somewhere. In this way you maintain the balance of the head itself.

It would be virtually impossible to even accomplish your first two options above. If you have a simple, realistic head shape, you are already locked in to the relationship of the interior features themselves (Unless you are prepared to draw the eyes up on the crown of the skull, or the mouth on the chin). Likewise once you exaggerate the head shape, how can you draw “standard” features within it? The distances and widths of the head have presumably changed, which would then change the relationships of the interior features so that they stayed in the same relative locations on the head. This is why I say that exaggerating the head shape is the single most powerful exaggeration choice you make with any caricature… exaggerating it forces you to change the relationships of all the features to match.

A good caricature takes the whole head into account, not just a single feature or exaggeration. You can build an entire caricature around only one observation that you want to be your key exaggeration… big eyes, perhaps. But the resulting drawing will have other elements of the face adjusted to make those big eyes fit and make sense with the rest of the head.

Thanks to James Gardiner 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. Thank you for answering my question. Yes, I suspected this would be the case but sometimes it’s good to have things explained in this way. Thanks again – I hope this helps others also!

  2. James Stout says:

    James, I struggle with the same issue. Thanks for submitting the question for both of us and Tom, thanks for answering. Your book has made a tremendous improvement in my drawings! We are talking unrecognizable stick figures to drawings people actually want!

  3. Cheers James – yes,in retrospect it makes sense that we should think of it all as a ‘whole’ – so, in effect, my question was somewhat rhetorical. But I was prompted to ask because I’ve seen – online,and live here in London – ‘caricature artists’ defaulting to option 1, as listed above… it’s difficult though, because as Tom mentions in the book, the differences (from the ‘norm’) really ARE minuscule…


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