Sunday Mailbag- Bland Faces?

August 14th, 2016 | Posted in Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag!

Q: How do you go when you have to caricature someone who has no discernible features?  Case in point, the actor Peter Davison who played the fifth Doctor Who.  Back in the day many artists had a lot of trouble capturing his likeness particularly when it came to painting his likeness to use on book covers and other pieces of merchandise – even a number of comic book artists had that problem.  They couldn’t find a “hook” for his face as the actor was in his late twenties, he had a very smooth face and had facial features that didn’t lend themselves easily to caricature.  A lot of artists described him as “bland” and in the end the BBC just used stock photographs of Davison to compensate on book covers etc.  What would you do if faced with that challenge?

A: I know what you mean about Peter Davison. He had sort of a baby face without a lot of character, but the real problem artists had with him is he seemed to look very different in different photos. At one angle he seemed to have a big chin, then in another he had a sunken, tiny one. Sometimes his nose looked big and at other times it seemed short. Some people have these kind of “rubber” faces, and of course how a face appears in a photo and how it looks in real life can be very different. I know people who are incredibly photogenic and look like movie stars in almost every picture they take, but in real life they donlt look like that at all… the camera just loves them for some reason.

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 world 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 in the last few years were the a fore mentioned Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” parodies, and Woody Harrelson (of all people) in the “True Detective” parody from MAD #528. 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 capturing 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. Same with the forehead. 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.

(Much of this answer was taken from a previously answered similar question from a few years ago… what can I say, I’m lazy.)

Thanks to Glenn Robinson 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. Mike Wallster says:

    I wish I could give the year and issue #, but when MAD parodied “All the President’s Men” Mort Drucker did the impossible…he took the most handsome man in movies (at that time) and in one panel in particular made Robert Redford look absolutely goofy.


Sketch o'the Week- Natalia Dyer! @strangerthingstv #strangerthings #nataliadyer @mad.magazine

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