Sunday Mailbag: To Tell the Truth?

April 16th, 2017 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I draw caricatures at weddings all the time. Recently I was hired to draw at a wedding by the mother of the bride. She was a really nice lady and I had a great time drawing at the event, but I ran into a bit of a dilemma when it came time to draw her. Physically, her most defining feature was that she had no neck or jaw line. Her head looked like is had sort of melted onto her shoulders. She was obviously a bit self conscious about it, so I did a drawing that played down her lack of a neck but ultimately looked very little like her. Had I just let loose, I could have done a very funny drawing that looked just like her, but I might not have been paid at the end of the night. What do you do in these situations?

A: This is the ageless question for live caricaturists: Do I let loose and exaggerate the hell out of someone not caring what they think, or do I do safe little “cute-a-catures” with little caricature about them that no one will object to? Both approaches are wrong if that are adhered to with every drawing.

You are a caricaturist. You are supposed to exaggerate your subject, and you are supposed to get a likeness. Exaggeration is subjective. A caricature is still a caricature if the amount of exaggeration is mild or wild. Likeness, however, is crucial. If the drawing doesn’t look like the subject, how much you exaggerated the features is immaterial. Your mistake was ignoring something that was so important to the likeness of the subject that you missed the likeness of the subject.

As much as we all just want our caricatures to be about the art, the bottom line is when we do gigs or retail work we are in a commercial environment. That means our primary purpose is to make our client happy, whether that client is an event organizer or a customer at a fair. Art aside, you do need to take into account your subject and your environment. That’s the commercial part of the equation. In your case, the mother of the bride was your client. You needed to make her happy. If she liked the drawing you did, you did your job… at least the commercial part of it.

That said, it is entirely possible to do a good caricature without sacrificing the likeness by ignoring the truth and resorting to some fantasy version of the subject. The first step is to not ignore the feature or whatever it is that the subject is sensitive about, it’s part of them and you cannot get a likeness ignoring something like that… but you do NOT have to exaggerate it. In fact that’s the trick. Pick something else to be the focal point of the drawing, and exaggerate that. Something positive if you can. In your situation, I am guessing the mom had some seriously coiffed hairdo and makeup that accentuated her eyes (most moms of the bride do). You could have drawn the head and neck shape as they really were, without exaggerating them, then played up the hair and eyes to distract the viewer from the lack of neck. It’s like a magic trick… distract the audience from what is there but you don’t want them to see.

Of course she still might have been unhappy with the drawing because you didn’t make her look like Scarlett Johansson, but if you got a likeness and truthfully drew but did not exaggerate the features she is self conscious about, that’s not your problem. It’s her problem. You are a caricaturist, not a therapist or a plastic surgeon. By making the clear focal point of the caricature something other than the objectionable feature, you likely would have satisfied her and still done a caricature you could have been happy with yourself. It’s always better to have both the client and the artist happy with the job being done.

Thanks to Anthony Schmidt 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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