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On Caricaturing Women

All these short tutorials are part of a larger and much more in-depth book I wrote on how to draw caricatures called The Mad Art of Caricature! now available to order online.

One of the most common problems I hear about from other caricaturists is that women are harder to draw than men. Many struggle to make their caricatures of women look feminine, and often feel their female subjects look like “drag queens”.

I think it’s a myth that women, particularly beautiful women, are harder to caricature than men. Women have the same sets of features that men have, but the need to differentiate the masculine from the feminine forces the caricaturist to modify his or her approach (in most cases) to the different sexes. That doesn’t mean that it’s more difficult to draw either sex than it is to draw the other, but you do have to keep the masculine/feminine difference in mind if you want to avoid the “drag queen” look that sometimes results in a caricature of a woman.

Superficially there are a lot of facial elements that identify a given subject as male or female. Thick eyelashes, full red lips, soft complexion, high cheekbones, more curved and thinner eyebrows… these are feature descriptions that are distinctly “feminine”.  You may notice these items have one thing in common… they are all features that women traditionally use makeup to accentuate or to create. If women don’t have them in abundance naturally many use makeup to create them or to accentuate what they do possess. Take your cues from what makeup artists do to see what kinds of features say “female” (and conversely what to avoid on a male caricature to prevent them from looking feminine). If I am drawing a man who happens to have thick, long eyelashes (many do) I will play that DOWN in many cases to accentuate the masculine in the drawing.

These are only superficial things, though. The real differences between men and women’s faces lay under the skin… with the bones and the skull. This is the basis of the “drag queen” look… the human eye and brain is able to differentiate between a male and female face based on difference and indicators that are more than surface features. Hence a drawing of a face with lot’s of female makeup level features on the surface but with the structure and other aspects of a typical male face looks like a man wearing makeup.

Skeletal differences between the sexes are well documented. It’s not just the different chromosomes that are behind it, either… the high levels of testosterone at puberty help enlarge the bones of males, while the high levels of progesterone also help develop male characteristics like greater height and a narrower pelvic bone. The differences also extend to the skull, which is actually the second easiest part of the skeleton forensic scientists can use to determine the probable sex of a skeleton, the pelvis being the first (learned that on NCIS!). In fact the mandible (jaw bone) alone gives examiners a 90% accuracy in determining the sex of a skeletal subject.

The female skull is generally smaller and lighter than the male’s. Elements like the brow ridge and mandible are usually less pronounced. The female skull tends to be wider than the male’s which leads to a general softness of features, more prominent cheekbones and a less prominent jawline. The areas above the eye sockets in men tend to be more blunt while the brow itself is more pronounced, but in women that same area is sharper (thus the purpose of “eye shadow”) while the brow protrudes less.

The jaw is actually a key element to the masculine/feminine definition of a subject, and represents the most dynamic differences between the faces of the sexes. The combination of the wider skull, the less developed mandible and the propensity of the female chin (mental protuberance) to be smaller and more pointed as opposed to a man’s wider and more square one makes the female jaw distinct from the male jaw. The upper (top part of the) chin is wider and higher vertically while a female’s is more rounded and shorter. In fact the male chin is generally larger in every dimension. Big, square jaws inevitably read as masculine and small, narrow and pointier ones read as feminine.


Jackie O‘s features are classic feminine

Features themselves are also different, often as a result of the skull variance but sometimes of their own accord. Female noses, for example, are generally less angular and the tip is smaller and softer. They have a tendency to be pointier, narrower and vertically shorter (closer to the eyes) than a man’s nose.


Spencer Grammer has a small, understated nose, small chin and
wide face that says “female”

So, what does all this mean in terms of a caricature? Since caricature is all about exaggeration, it makes sense that if you want a subject to be more feminine you should downplay the things that make a face masculine and play up those things that make it feminine. Sounds like distortion, or the exaggeration of features based not on the what the subject’s features demand but on some other preconceived notion (which I constantly preach against), doesn’t it?

Some rules to drawing faces need to apply in order for the end result to be read as what it is intended to be read as. Drawing kids has certain rules you cannot break (or must break with only the most demanding of reasons) if you expect your caricature to look like a kid and not some weirdly deformed adult. Same thing with women. While it’s true that some women’s faces with bend and even break some of these “rules”, knowing the general rules will allow the observer to look for them and understand their meaning. If you are drawing a women with an enormous square jaw you can hardly ignore it, but you can look for the other typical female attributes you can then play up to balance things… or you can just exaggerate that enormous jaw and know your caricature is going to end up looking like Jessie Ventura in a wig. Hey, if the SUBJECT looks like Jessie Ventura in a wig you can’t do much about that. At least you know WHY the caricature doesn’t look feminine. You break the rules at your own risk, but you do have to break them when the situation calls for it.

Some examples of Breaking the Rules:

In this one of Rihanna I exaggerated her chin,
but the other rules are in place to help compensate.

This Lena Headley looks distinctly masculine… too many harsh angles

While the nose on Scarlett Johansson is not very feminine, the other features
compensate… cheekbones, lips, eyes, eyebrows. Chin is bigger but jaw still small.

So, what are the rules for making a caricature of a woman look feminine? The obvious thing is stay away from making the jaw, brow ridge and chin bigger or more pronounced in a woman’s caricature, and if possible even make these elements a little smaller. When possible play up those features that makeup is meant to enhance, like the sharper areas in the corners of the brows (eyeshadow), higher and more curved eyebrows (shaped eyebows), fuller lips especially the upper lip (lipstick), longer thicker eyelashes (mascara and eyeliner), higher more pronounced cheekbones (blush or rouge), less prominent nose (powder or base that used to avoid highlights that show the edges and draw attention).


Despite the “walleyes” this drawing shows the exaggeration and
understatement of the eyes, nose and mouth to accentuate the
femininity of the subject.

Personally I always strive to make a woman’s face SOFTER than a man’s. I stay away from harsh, angular lines and features in a woman’s caricature and use softer, more rounded lines and forms to define the face. I try to use fewer lines and elements that define edges of features.  With a linear style of drawing, In general the more lines you use in the face the more masculine (and older) the subject looks. If I want my subject to look more feminine, I will seek to define the features with are few lines as possible. It’s an old trick of filmmakers to use softer light and slightly out of focus (or vaseline-smeared lensed) camera on close ups of women to create a dreamy and sultry look to them… it eliminates the hard edges of features.


The ultimate feminine face? This caricature of Marilyn Monroe hardly has
Any lines inside the face. It’s all softness and suggested features.

Caricaturing a subject is, as always, defined by the demands the subject’s features and persona demand of the artist. However that does not mean the caricaturist cannot approach a subject a little differently, and look for specific things they might expect to see, based on things like the age or sex of the subject. Understanding human perceptions and what’s behind them with respect to things like male versus female faces only brings another source of observational power to the artist.

Here are some other examples of caricatures of women:


Kim Basinger has the eyes, brows, smallish nose, lips and chin
of the textbook female type


Fergie has a hard jaw, large brow and wide chin for a woman


Soft curves and understated features dominate this sketch of Lucille Ball

A somewhat hard chin but doe eyes and cheekbones make
this drawing of Winona Ryder look distinctly feminine


Another classic feminine face: Audrey Hepburn


Despite the bulbous nose, the other features of
Hayden Panettiere are soft and feminine

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8 Responses to “On Caricaturing Women”

  1. Steve Hearn says:

    GREAT post Tom! I enjoy drawing the ladies and seem to have a style that makes them glamorous, no matter what they look like, but drawing live at weddings, this always seems to go down well with the girls!

  2. Lash LeRoux says:

    Another tremendously helpful tutorial, Tom. Thanks so much for sharing! I often find myself having some difficulty caricaturing women — especially attractive ones. I know most people subconsciously perceive women as being attractive or beautiful when their features appear balanced and symmetrical. This is where I generally run into problems. I have trouble finding a feature to key in on because their features seem so balanced. In these cases, I can still achieve a good likeness but the caricature often seems boring and has no “life” to it. Or, I find a feature to exaggerate, but then my drawing no longer reflects the “attractiveness” of the subject. It just doesn’t look as if it’s meant to represent a beautiful woman.

    I can already recognize where a lot of the points in your posts will help me in this area. It’s great to see how you can achieve a great exaggerated likeness while still maintaining an attractive, feminine drawing of the subject. Thanks again for sharing these valuable tips!

    Happy New Year!

  3. Another great tutorial.
    Must have been a coincidence that on the same day the “Illustration Art” blog talks about the difficulties of drawing women’s faces too. Here is the link.
    http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2009_12_01_archive.html

  4. DGV says:

    Many thanks Tom!! It’s a very very helpful tutorial… ;)

    Best regards and happy new year 2010. :D

  5. gustavo says:

    An indiscrete question:

    Do you feel ..excited when you draw beautiful women like the ones of the examples?
    (I do)

  6. Jen C. says:

    Wow. Very timely post for me personally as I have been having a much tougher time caricaturing women. With all those hard angles and strong features, so many male faces just look like “field days” to me! But my women were definitely looking like wig guys ;)

    I’m one of many working artists and wannabes out “here” I’m sure, who are benefitting tremendously from your online tutorials. CanNOT wait to buy your book when it comes out. Thank you for sharing so much!

  7. John V says:

    Tom, thanks for this really great post, and a ton of good example images. It really helps.

 

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