Sunday Mailbag- Learning Caricature?

May 7th, 2017 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Can just anyone learn how to draw caricatures, granted they have some artistic talent in the first place?

A: I guess that depends on at what level of success you consider needs to be reached before the artist in question can “draw caricatures”. Art is subjective. Anyone can pick up a pencil and move it around on a piece of paper and that’s drawing. Mastering drawing, or any art form, is a different story. That’s a lifelong pursuit.

Caricature is an artform and anyone can learn about it, study it, and practice drawing them. Study and practice hard enough and, with your caveat of having had some spark of talent in the first place, do drawings other people with react positively to. Being really good at it is another matter. Anyone can learn to play some simple songs on a guitar, but that does not make one a guitarist.

The difficult thing about learning to draw caricatures as opposed to just learning to draw, is that drawing an object is not subjective. It’s either a good drawing of a chair or it is not. The drawing part of a caricature is only part of it. The other part is the artist making decisions on how to exaggerate the subject, and that IS subjective. Drawing a nose so it looks like a convincing nose is not that hard. It’s practice and study and more practice. Looking at a subject and understanding that in drawing their caricature it’s important to make that nose much bigger than it really is, or much smaller, or more crooked, or whatever, is the hard part. That is SEEING… recognizing what makes the subject in question unique, and pointing out those things by exaggerating them. No one can teach you that. That is something you have to develop your eye for. It takes time and many thousands of drawings.

In these workshops I teach I try to do two things. One, I teach about good drawing and how to render the features to good effect. That’s cosmetic, simple drawing skills. Important, but not really “caricature”. The other things I do is try to open students eyes on the observations they need to make on a subject to “see” what makes them unique and how to exaggerate it. I cannot make those observations for them, so I need to try and give them the tools to make those observations for themselves. It’s up to them to take those tools and use them every day so they get good with them. How good they get is a combination of practice and hard work, and innate talent.

Some people have a natural eye for caricature. I’ve seen the work of artists whose drawing skills are pretty rough but who make great observations of the face and do good caricatures despite the poor drawing.  I’ve also seen artists who can draw like masters but who just don’t see what needs to be seen in a face to caricature it. The ability to draw is separate from the the ability to “see”.

So the answer to your question is yes, I think anyone can draw caricatures and have fun doing it so long as the expectations as to how good they turn out are tempered. And no, not just anyone can become a truly good caricaturist even given all the time in the world to practice. A natural eye for it is required if the expectations are very high.

Thanks to Grant Jonen 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. alex in San Jose says:

    Here’s my two cents!

    Look up “Fun With A Pencil” by a guy named Loomis, free online. It’ll give you the basic-basics, then next I suggest Tom Richmond’s book, don’t pass Go, don’t collect $200, just get Tom’s book, it’s the best there is. But to start, Loomis’s “Fun With A Pencil” is a free download, hosted by people who love Loomis’s work. Loomis actually did 4 books, and his “Figure Drawing For All It’s Worth” is his most famous, but that’s one to study AFTER Tom’s caricature book, and remember to have “Fun With A Pencil” first because it’s free and so, a basic training will only cost you a couple of pencils, blue pencils, and some computer paper.

    Now, what is “good”? If I’m looking for a commercial drawing of a chair for say, a catalog, I want it to be really accurate, and prettied-up. If great cartoonist Robert Crumb drew a chair, it’d be turned down for a catalog, but that’s the drawing of a chair I’d pay $100 for and put on my wall. Because George Crumb’s drawings have SOUL.

    Drawing realistically is great, and typically it’s where everyone starts. Drawing realistically is like learning scales for a musician. Or learning grammar and spelling for a writer. We all have to work on it, at least in the beginning. But look at some of the great MAD artists. Don Martin, Paul Coker, Prohias, all distort and stretch and imagine beings that could never exist in the real world. They’re also hilarious! Al Jaffee is probably the most realistic artist of the cartoony ones, and I love him. When he drew a character on a hot day, I could *feel* the heat and humidity and sweat. Then you get into more realistic artists like Mort Drucker and Tom Richmond. Some would say the stars of the show, but really they’re all stars – they all make you laugh, make you think, and get their message across. You can choose, or will drift toward, being an artist anywhere along that continuum.

    The point is, draw. Draw and draw and draw, and don’t feel bad if your first efforts look awful, at least you’re doing it. You can’t expect to play tennis at a “pro” level at first, it takes lots of time, and drawing is the same way. So that’s how you learn, by doing it a lot. Copy, even trace, artwork you like if it keeps you happy and you’re learning.

    You could also consider working for one of the caricature-artist companies in your area; we’re getting into summer and the fairgrounds and tourist areas will be humming. You won’t get paid much, but it’s like being paid to be in art school rather than paying.

    • Tom Richmond says:

      I have all the Loomis books, including “Fun with a Pencil”. Great stuff.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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