Sunday Mailbag- Impossible Subjects?

June 22nd, 2014 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Hey Tom! Looking back in your blog, I’ve noticed that occasionally you either re-do a sketch of a celebrity, or even state difficulty with a subject (Nathan Fillion I believe to be one of the more “challenging” subjects) But have you ever had a severe level of uncertainty with a subject? Any subjects that you couldn’t just get right no matter what?¬¨‚Ć Any more challenging subjects you would care to share about and how you overcame that? I can’t imagine you’d let an uncertain caricature be published to MAD… well maybe who knows?

A: Every caricaturist occasionally struggles with some faces. It could be because the subject has an elusive face in general…a young William Shatner was notoriously hard to caricature. Some people seem to look different in every different picture of them. I find Jennifer Lawrence to have that kind of face. However I think very few people have faces that are difficult to caricature in general.

More often an artist might encounter a sort of “blind spot” for a specific subject, where they just cannot seem to capture them in a way that satisfies the artist. I’ve found the cause of these “blind spots” are an inability to be objective about your subject based on a preconceived idea of how you want them to look in the caricature. That sounds like a contradiction because bringing your preconceived ideas of what a subject looks like to a caricature through your exaggeration choices is exactly what a caricaturist is supposed to do. But sometimes your idea of a certain expression or “presence” of a subject just doesn’t work well with the way the rest of the worls sees them, and you end up trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It won;t fit, and you won’t give up and go with a round peg instead. Then you get failed drawing after failed drawing.

I have struggled with certain caricatures say for MAD jobs here and there, usually as a result of the above “blind spot” phenomenon. Two I can think of recently were the a fore mentioned Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” parodies, and Woody Harrelson (of all people)a in the “True Detective” parody in the latest issue. Part of the problem with Harrelson was that he went back and forth between and older and younger version of his character. You can always tell if I am having a problem with cpturing a subject when you see inconsistencies between the different caricatures throughout the parody. That means I am relying on individual references to get likenesses as opposed to “figuring out” a face and its essentials, and carrying them through the entire piece.

Here are some “inconsistent” caricatures of Harrelson from the parody that don’t quite carry though as I would have liked:

Several of these are successful individually, but as a whole there is an inconstancy in terms of head shape, exaggeration and follow-thru. The chin I especially was not consistent with… in some drawings it’s enormous and others it’s not as prominent. It’s important to note, however, that the artist’s idea of capturing the subject might not be the same as the rest of the world’s idea. I’ve been told by some people they really loved a caricature I did of someone I thought was a big, fat miss, and I’ve been happy with the likeness on drawings where other say they think I didn’t get them very well.

How do you overcome this “blind spot”? You have to step back and try and look at the face with fresh eyes, leaving behind your square pegs and preconceived notions. Let the face tell you what do do. Take a break from drawing that face and come back to it after working on something else if you can. Objectivity is the key. I often will look back at something I did a year or so ago and see where I went wrong or how I could have done much better on it, mostly because enough time has elapsed that I can be more objective in my observations.

Thanks to Cameron Briones 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. jailerjoe says:

    Interesting stuff.

  2. Cam says:

    Thanks Tom for answering my question! You’re the man!


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