Q: Live caricatures are difficult partly due to the fact that you are face to face with the person you are drawing. You do a fantastic job explaining this in your book and go on to say how some customers are easier to draw than others based on prominent features (i.e. a big nose) and this is called a “field day.” ¬¨‚Ä†
But what I want to know is how do you deal with clients that have deformities? I’m not talking about caterpillar eyebrows or a big forehead. I mean scars, a very lazy eye, or anything out of the norm.
I have a cleft lip/ palette. Meaning I have a prominent scar on my upper lip. It’s not horrifying in any sense but it’s there and it used to make me self-conscious. So, naturally I would avoid caricature artists like the plague (ironic considering I love the art form now). But later in life I gained more confidence and had a caricature done recently. I actually told the artist not go easy and to be honest on what he saw; mostly because I wanted his honest interpretation, but also to ease the tension mostly for my own selfish reasons. He complied and it worked out fine. I was happy with the final piece.
I’m sure this is a rare problem considering the fact that the person would need to be either shy or self-conscious like I used to be, but has there ever been an exception? How would you handle something like that?
A: You would think that if a person sits down in front of a caricaturist, they would be prepared for the results and have the self-esteem necessary to take a little ribbing about their physical appearance. Often, nothing could be farther from the truth. Not only do live caricaturists get subjects who are overly-sensitive about their appearance, but they get people who are downright delusional about what they look like…. they just plain don’t believe they have buck teeth, even though they could open tin cans with their central incisors. They literally think they have nothing to exaggerate, and are usually appalled when their delicate self delusions are brought crashing about their feet like splintered glass.
That all said, those subjects with real physical abnormalities or disabilities are different cases all around. The above paragraph is about people with basically normal features, the differences and perceived “flaws” being only minor cosmetic elements… nothing but superficial vanity. There are, or course, many people with very obvious abnormalities to their features. Cleft lips or a lazy eye like you mentioned, injuries, scarring, illness, disabilities needing prosthetics, wheelchairs, etc…. these are issues that affect their actual lives, and are in some cases central to their daily lives.
So how do you handle these kinds of elements in a caricature? Do you ignore them? Downplay them? Draw them but not exaggerate it much? Ruthlessly exaggerate them?
Much of how you handle it depends on the person in front of you, and they will often let you know what they want like you did with your recent caricature. These folks are used to living with whatever issue they have and understand that many people, not just caricaturists who are wondering how to draw them, have difficulty addressing them. The more invasive the issue, the harder time people have getting around it in normal daily interaction. These people get that, and they will often take the initiative and address it upfront. They may say “don’t forget my scar!” or “can you downplay my scar?” or whatever… they will give you the lead. If they have a very obvious issue but say nothing about it at all, that also says something. It means they don’t let whatever it is dictate their interaction with people, and while they don’t hide from it (they are asking for a caricature after all) they don’t let it get in their way either.
So, what do you do when confronted with an issue like this?
It’s been my experience that there are two things you absolutely avoid doing:
- Totally ignoring the issue and draw them without whatever it is.
- Making an exaggeration of the issue the focus of the drawing.
With regard to the former, whatever their issue it is part of who they are. It may be nothing more than a cosmetic thing, or it may impact their life from morning to night. I’ve found the more it affects their daily lives, i.e. the severity of the disability, the more important it is you depict it in the drawing. It is actually insulting to the subject to NOT draw whatever it is (unless they specifically ask you to do this) because it insinuates they are “broken” and you draw them normal because that’s the way they are supposed to be. People usually don’t like that.
That goes for wheelchairs/mobility issues as well. I had a caricaturist once email me telling me a story about how he had a kid in a wheelchair get a drawing done, and how he drew him running with healthy legs across a race’s finish line in first place, and then telling the kid “you WILL walk again” when he handed it to him. That is just about the most disturbing and wrong thing I’ve ever heard a caricaturist do with a disabled subject. That kid might be permanently paralyzed and have zero chance of ever walking again. He may have spent years coming to grips with that, or still be coming to grips with it. That kid isn’t less of a person because he can’t win a foot race, and doesn’t need to be able to do that to live a great and happy life. What kind of message is that to impart, that walking again is an ultimate life goal? The artist said the family loved the drawing, but he got lucky there. Most of the time the opposite is true.
The latter point is the opposite end of the spectrum. No matter what issue or challenge the subject is dealing with, making that issue the central part of your exaggeration/caricature is equally as insulting as not drawing it. Your subject is not defined by whatever their issue is, so making it the focus of your drawing is not only insulting, it is incorrect because it says they ARE defined by it. A caricature is supposed to capture the personality and “presence” of the subject, and that means deeper than the skin. Expression should be as central to your exaggeration as the raw features are… making a prominent facial scar into the Grand Canyon on the subject’s face captures nothing about their personality, and is a lazy cop-out for the caricaturist.
How I usually handle it, once I understand the subject does not want me to ignore the issue completely, is I draw it but I do not emphasize or exaggerate it. If it is something strictly cosmetic I will perhaps downplay it a bit, but will definitely include whatever it is. If it is something more invasive like missing limbs, a wheelchair, etc., I will of course include that as well but I might address it more… that depends on the interaction I have with the subject. If I get the sense they have a good sense of humor, I will make a gag out of the issue, but in a way that makes light of the issue, not them. For example, if they have a missing arm, I might draw them with a book in one hand entitled “Robotics Made Easy”, and have a giant robot arm in place of their missing limb, doing curls with a 100lb dumb-bell. If they are in a wheelchair, I might draw the wheelchair as an “Ed Roth” style souped-up drag racer wheelchair bursting through the finish line of a race. These kinds of gags are twofold: first, they are funny ways of addressing their disability. Two, they show the subject clearly overcoming their disability using their own power or ingenuity, unlike the “miracle” gag the afore mentioned caricaturist used. People want to be shown as empowered in the face of a challenge or disability, not at the mercy of hoping for a miracle.
It’s always a challenge to draw someone with a physical abnormality or disability. The rule of thumb is you want to draw THEM, not their issue. Drawing them likely will include drawing whatever issue they have, but it should not be about the issue… it’s about them.
Thanks to Ethan Keister 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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