Sunday Mailbag

December 31st, 2006 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Some people seem to be easy targets for caricature (Ross Perot, George Bush, Elvis, Stallone). Is that case? And if it is, have you ever had trouble with an “easy” subject? If so, why?

A: I tell the new caricature artists I work with that it is only an illusion that some faces are easier to draw than others. Faces all have the same elements… eyes, nose, mouth, etc. Those features are always unique from one person to another. They are sitting right there in front of the artist and should be easy to see and to draw. Why then, as you say, do some faces seem so much easier to draw?

I think the answer comes in how much different an individual’s features are perceived from ‘normal’, and how easily that observation is made. Obviously some people will have certain traits and features that really stick out… like very large ears, small beady eyes, a big gap in the teeth, etc. The job of a caricaturist is to pick out what is unique about a person’s face and accentuate it. If the subject has very obvious feature traits, they stick out even to an untrained eye, and that makes it them easy to see and to draw. Another element is expression… if a person has a unique expression, like Stallone’s lidded eyes and droopy lip, that also makes for an easily observable and caricaturable reference. In other words, some people’s features jump out at you, and some don’t.

It goes a little farther, though. Each artist has his or her own unique bright and blind spots. Some faces are easy for an artist to draw, and some are a struggle, and which ones are which differ for each artist. One subject that might roll right off the pencil for one artist might be difficult for another, and vice versa. That is mostly about a person’s personal observations and perceptions. One theory is that artists tend to project their own features onto a subject, and face types that are closer to their own are easier to draw for them than ones that differ greatly from their own face. I find that is often the case with inexperienced live caricature artists. Others find it very hard to draw their own family members… largely because they cannot be objective in their observations… it’s a blind spot for them. Sometimes faces that might SEEM easy to draw end up being hard ones. When I did Brokeback Mountain for MAD I thought I’d struggle with Heath Ledger and breeze through Jake Gyllenhaal. I found it to be the opposite. While Gyllenhaal seemed to have a face that would be easy to caricature, my sketches kept missing the mark. Why? Maybe he was in one of my blind spots. Maybe he had too much to work with and I was trying too hard to push the exaggeration. If I knew why, then it would have been easy to fix. Instead I had to draw him many times until I got a workable caricature, and I was never really happy with any of the ones I did. They were ‘passable’, but not much better.

In terms of live caricature, the beginner might see the kind of features that jump out at you in only 10% of the subjects that come by, and find the other 90% take much more effort to try and find uniqueness to grab onto and use for the caricature. However, as they gain experience and develop their eye and observational skills, they begin to see unique features that stand out in more and more people. Soon it’s 30% they find obvious. Then 40%. Eventually they see something in everybody that they can use for their caricature. That’s every caricaturist’s goal.

Thanks to Craig Zablo 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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