Q: I know you do a lot of different kinds of humorous illustration, but you are primarily known for doing caricatures. What first got you interested in drawing caricatures? Was it something you started doing as a kid, or did you discover it later?
A: I started typing out an answer to this one, then realized that the following excerpt from the preface of my book said it better, and I’d already written it!…
When I was a young man, drawing caricatures for a living never struck me as something I was interested in doing. I never opened a magazine and saw a great caricature of some celebrity and realized in a forehead-slapping moment of epiphany, that’s what I want to do! In fact, I wasn’t even aware caricature was an art form. The whole thing kind of snuck up on me, and the people to blame are Mr. Chilson and the Fasen Brothers.
Mr. Chilson was my seventh-grade art teacher at Longfellow Middle School in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1979. The school was so small that we had our art classes in the same room they held the shop classes, sitting on barstools at tall worktables, while another grade’s art class was going on at the same time on the other side of the large workshop. One day Mr. Chilson started a lesson on caricature. I was sitting in the back, not paying attention, as usual, and drawing in my notebook. While Mr. Chilson was explaining what a caricature was, I was drawing one of the other teacher, who was only a few dozen feet away from me . . . except I didn’t know it was a caricature. To me, it was just my drawing of the other teacher.
“RICHMOND!” Mr. Chilson yelled in my ear. “You are in THIS class, not THAT one!” He was standing next to me. One of the drawbacks of being absorbed in a drawing at the expense of paying attention in class was that I never heard the teacher coming. That resulted in many startling yells in my ear. He snatched away the notebook, glanced at it, glared at me, and then instructed me loudly in front of everybody to see him after class as he returned to the front of the room with my confiscated notebook in hand. Resigned to getting detention at the least, I meekly hung back and watched my schoolmates shuffle out following the bell.
Instead of giving me detention, Mr. Chilson sent me around the school over the next several days to draw about two dozen of the teachers, and then he displayed my work in the glass case at the top of the stairs right in front of the art/shop room. I guess he liked my drawing of the other art teacher—or maybe he hated the guy and sent me around to draw all the other teachers he disliked so they could be ridiculed publicly and I’d be to blame. I was never sure. Regardless, that was my first exposure to the art of caricature, as well as my first understanding of what caricature was.
I then promptly forgot all about caricature for about six years.
In 1985, I was at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, attempting to study commercial art. It had been a year or so, and I’d had only one art class as they were impossible to get into as an underclassman, and the one I was “lucky” enough to get into was a complete waste of time. “Alternative Sculpture” was one of those art classes that was 99% pretension and 1% actual, useful art instruction. I was skipping it one day, hanging about the commons area, when I spied a flyer on the wall asking “Can You Draw?” It ended up being an ad seeking caricature artists to draw at the local amusement park for a company called Fasen Arts. I suddenly recalled Mr. Chilson and my seventh-grade show and thought this would make a great summer job. I secured an interview and dragged an overflowing folder of drawings I’d done from some magazine photos with me to meet with Steve Fasen, an accomplished caricaturist and the owner of Fasen Arts.
I didn’t get the job.
Some weeks later Steve called and offered me a spot at a different theme park near Chicago, about 450 miles southeast. I was later told this opportunity opened up only because someone else had backed out, but that hardly would have mattered to me at the time—nor does it matter in hindsight. I packed up my things and moved to Waukegan, Illinios, where I spent the summer drawing caricatures with a group of very talented artists headed by Steve’s brother Gary, a brilliant caricaturist and illustrator. There I learned a great deal about drawing and cartooning, discovered the realities of making a living as an artist, renewed my appreciation for a certain magazine that would later become an important part of my life, and, most importantly, fell in love with the art of caricature completely and for good.
That pretty much sums it up, except to add that I continued to draw caricatures all through grade and high school, although I wasn’t really conscious what I was doing was “caricature’. I was just drawing funny pictures of my friends and teachers. I did a series of comic stories casting myself and my high school friends as infants but imbuing them with our current personality traits and faults. Those were caricatures, in a way. Lord knows I got in trouble a few times for drawing my teachers in less-than-complimentary ways. Still, I was pretty dense and never put the term “caricature” and what I was doing together until that job at Six Flags.
Thanks to Rich Griffin 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!