Sunday Mailbag: Composition in Live Caricature?

January 29th, 2017 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Do you have any tips/suggestions for drawing 3 or more people in a caricature…especially when there’s a baby/toddler involved? I often struggle with letting the kid “take over” the whole drawing (by letting his/her face be larger than everyone else’s).

A: Composition is always very important with live caricature, and it gets trickier the more faces are in a single drawing. Even with a single subject, composition can degrade or ruin an otherwise good drawing. Here’s some tips for good composition for various numbers of subjects:

One Person-

It’s common for a live caricaturist to just start drawing the face without thinking of its placement on the paper and the overall composition.  It’s very easy to just get drawing and suddenly realize you out the head too far down, or too far to one side or the other, which will create an imbalanced drawing:

Many live caricaturists also tend to start in the exact same spot with every drawing. This is primarily muscle memory, and an easy habit to fall into. You have to take just a second to visualize the basic drawing in your head, and “see” it on the paper before you get going. If I am drawing a single subject without any unusual body or action going on, I place the eyes about 2/3 of the page height from the bottom.

Two People-

Now things get interesting. Two people in a drawing allow for a lot more interesting compositions. There are some definite “don’ts” with two people compositions. Don’t draw them shoulder to shoulder and/or at the same eye level, that’s boring and looks like a police lineup. Manage the size of the heads to allow both faces fully on the page… you don’t want one cropped off the page.

I always stagger head placement, first based on the height difference of the subjects (which, BTW, you can exaggerate via the composition). But what if they are both roughly the same height? Remember you aren’t just working with a two dimensional layout. You can also layer people to create some depth of field. By placing one person in front of the other, you can cheat the head placement a bit thanks to the depth of field while making the composition more interesting.

Three People-

Your specific example of a baby or toddler makes it easy… the adults are staggered up top and the kid is below… however I still use depth of field to create a layered composition. The baby will not dominate the drawing unless you make his/her head gigantic. Just don’t do that and you will have proper balance.

Four or More-

Once you get past three people there are few rules. You clearly have to start drawing the faces smaller to accommodate them all, so the first key is to draw small enough that you won’t have the “photo booth” effect of having to cram cropped off faces into the picture. After that you can play with head sizes to get as many people in as you need. Foreground people are obviously going to have bigger heads than those farther back, and how far back you go dictates how small the heads get.

Thanks to Lorin Bernsen 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 your questions and I’ll try and answer them here!


  1. Lore says:

    Thanks for spain…lore

  2. THANKS so much for the advice, Tom!!

  3. I’ve always meant to ask you about this. Very useful – thank you!

  4. S.R.O. Speedwagon says:

    I thought you’d keep on going until you gave your trademark “how to arrange 38 caricatures” tips. Lazy bones.

  5. Justin says:

    Thank you Tom, very enlightening. I was sure you would switch to landscape orientation at some stage, but no… it’s all about compostion (and a bit of forethought)

    Love your book by the way. It has helped me become a much better live caricaturist. Still not in your league, or Jason’s, but enough to where I feel happy and competent.




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