How to Draw Caricatures: Relationship of Features

February 21st, 2008 | Posted in Tutorials

This series of “How to Draw Caricatures” tutorials are a just a small taste of a larger and much more in-depth book I wrote called The Mad Art of Caricature! The book is 175 full-color pages, lavishly illustrated and contains greatly expanded explanations of the concepts presented in these tutorials, as well and a great deal of additional material on caricaturing other facial features, posture, hands, expression and more, techniques on drawing from live models, doing caricature for freeplace illustration and for MAD Magazine. This is a must have book for anyone interested in caricature, cartooning or humorous illustration. You can order it online here.

Part Two: Relating the Features

Previously I mentioned how the relationships between features are the driving force behind caricature:

“Caricature is not about choosing one feature and making it bigger, it’s about all the features together and how they relate to one another.”

Actually caricature is about changing the relationships between features, meaning their distance, size and angle relative to one another, from what they truly are and what is considered “normal”. Deciding what relationships to change and how much to change them is one of the caricaturist’s most important jobs, and one of the most difficult to “learn”. The actual difference between the relationship of features of most humans does not add up to much in terms of physical measurements… a “big” nose may be only a fraction of an inch larger than a “normal” nose. Yet we can see different feature relationships on almost everybody, some which seem very pronounced. That is because we spend basically our entire lives looking into people’s faces… we go it when we interact, work, play, go shopping or to church… we are social beings and our faces are both our identities and our method of communication. Our ability to observe minute differences becomes very fine tuned. Mostly it’s unconscious, but we see that fraction of an inch larger nose as “big”, or we see this person’s eyes as large or this person’s mouth as small based not on physical measurements but on our overall perception of the features and how they relate to one another. Consciously making those observations, especially for those faces in which the unique aspects are not obvious, is the most difficult part of drawing caricatures. There are some techniques and methods you can use to help make those observations.

Classic Portrait Proportion and Observation

It’s important to start somewhere, and the best place is with what is considered “normal” relationships of features for two reasons. First, knowing these classic proportions will help you as a caricaturist to observe where your subject’s face might differ by providing a point of reference to compare it to. Second, once you’ve made these observations you can use that same point of reference, the classic portrait proportions, as a guide to get as far away from as possible to create your caricature.

Let’s start out looking at the classic human proportions in traditional portraiture (this is boring, but it’s important). One method that has been used for centuries is by using the width of an eye, from corner to corner, as the primary frame of reference:


In this method, the head is five eye widths wide, with a single eye width between the eyes, and between the outside eye corners and the outside of the head. The nose is one eye width wide, and therefore the nostrils are equal to the corners of the eyes. Another simple method for establishing the “normal” relationship between eyes and mouth is via the equilateral triangle that should be formed by the points of the outside corners of the eyes, and the center point of the bottom of the lower lip. Every book on learning to draw the human face has some similar method of standardizing the proportions of the average face.

Do human faces really conform to these exact relationships? No, of course not. That’s the point. There are differences from this face to that, some very slight and some more pronounced, and the caricaturist exaggerates these differences to create a caricature. Knowing what is supposed to be there is half the battle of seeing where things are different.

Again, making these observations is the trickiest part of doing caricature, but the good news is you don’t have to come up with a shopping list of deformities in order to do a caricature. In fact, all you have to do is come up with one good observation. Just one, and you can use that as your cornerstone and build your caricature around it. It could be as simple as: this person has a skinny face… or big eyes… or a small mouth… or a square jaw… or a bent nose… or whatever. More than one is better, but just one will suffice.

Action and Reaction

Why is only one observation enough? Because “no feature is an island”. What I mean is that all the features relate to one another fundamentally, and you cannot make a change to one feature without it affecting the others. This is one of the few constants you can rely on with respect to drawing caricatures: Action and Reaction. In physics every action causes an equal an opposite reaction. In caricature the action of changing the relationship of a single feature to the others causes the others to react in often predictable ways. You cannot change the eyes without affecting the nose, mouth, head shape, etc. and how it affects those other features follows (for the most part) a predictable path.

Say we make an observation about our subject that the eyes seem far apart. If we move the just the eyes farther apart and leave the rest of the face untouched, we have a bizarre looking result:

There is an awkwardness to the “caricature”

We can’t ignore the effect on the other features. The act of moving the eyes father apart forces the other features to react. Typically when the eyes move father apart, the nose moves closer to the eyes, the mouth moves along with the nose, the head becomes wider and, in turn shorter:

The features work better together here

Additional observations can change the path of the reaction. Say our observations are that the eyes are far apart, but the mouth is also far from the nose. Because of that action, the lower part of the face must be longer, and therefore the top part of the head becomes smaller:

Hmmm… looks like my brother…

Head shape is often the most affected, and is not coincidentally a big focus. In fact part three of this series will deal entirely with head shapes. For now we will stick with the interior features and their relationships.

The “T” Shape

I have talked a lot about simplifying the face by boiling it down into the 5 Shapes, but it can get even simpler than that in terms of both making observations and in playing with the relationships of features to make a caricature. In fact I believe there are two absolutely crucial, key components to any caricature: The head shape and the “T” shape. These are the two elements of a face I look at first and try to make observations about, because with them I can push, stretch and exaggerate the face to great effect with relative ease.

When I talk about the “T” Shape I am speaking of the geometric shape created by the eyes and nose as a single unit. In simplest terms they create a capital “T”. Sometimes the “T” can be short and wide, sometimes it can be long and thin, or somewhere in between. The angle at which the eyes rest to the center axis of the face can change the “T” into more of a “Y”, or more of an arrow shape. I treat the “T” not as a set of simple lines but as a contour shape with thickness, therefore the stem (or nose) of the “T” can be thicker or thinner at one end or the other, and the arms (or eyes) of the “T” can also change in thickness to accommodate big round eyes or narrow, squinty ones. Imagine a contour capital “T” drawn around the eyes and nose in varying relationships.


The shape of the “T” reacts to changes you make to the relationship of the eyes and nose. In most cases the eyes and nose work in a predictable tandem within their relationship. Imagine that the eyes and nose are connected by a string that travels through a two wheel pulleys located in the center of the eyes. The length of the string is constant. If the person’s eyes are moved farther apart, the string pulls the nose closer into the eyes. If the nose is made longer, then the eyes are drawn closer together. All of this takes place within the “T” shape.


The mouth, nose and chin have a similar connection. they have a constant amount of distance between each other. If the mouth is perceived as being close to the nose, the chin moves a little farther away as a reaction. There are similar rules that apply to the head shape, which we’ll get into next time.

This is extreme simplification, but a I have said before the simpler you can make the shapes you are working with, the easier it is to exaggerate them and create your caricature. If you imagine a shape as simple as a “T”, it’s very easy to exaggerate that “T” shape and then plug in the features as they really look within your simple shape and you have your caricature. Take a look at these caricatures and the “T” shapes within their head shapes:


The “T” Shape and head shape combine to create the base of your caricature, over them the 5 shapes further define the relationships of the features, and over the 5 shapes the features themselves are drawn and things like bone structure, anatomy, expression, skin, hair and other details work to create the likeness and bring the underlying structure to life. It’s still all built on these simple foundations.

I would suggest as an exercise to forget about rendering and drawing details caricatures for a moment and fill up a few sketchbook pages with nothing but the head shape and “T” shape of the faces you see when paging through a magazine. Draw one quickly using just your initial observations and first impressions of the face. Then look back at it and try to see where it differs from the “normal” template of classic proportion, then try it again, this time exaggerating your first try. Do this with a dozen faces a day, and see how your ability to “see” the caricature in a given face develops.

This “How to Draw Caricatures” tutorial and others of the same series on this website are part of a complete book on drawing caricatures live and in illustration, entitled The Mad Art of Caricature!


  1. Trevour says:

    Thanks again for posting the continuation! I am learning to draw caricatures all over again just because of these mighty-fine tutorials.

  2. Mark Heng says:

    Great stuff- Very helpful! I especially liked the pulleys illustrating the eyes/nose relationship. Sign me up for the book when it comes out!

  3. awesomeair says:

    Great stuff again. I wonder if you could show a picture of a person then explain what you see and how you would approach a theme park style caricature. And how the theories you’ve explained apply.

  4. TerryElliott says:

    Unbelievable. Thanks Tom! Wish this kind of resource was available 20 years ago! I echo what awesomeair said — these theories applied to a real life caricature from start to finish would be so valuable. OK, so I’m getting greedy. Can’t help myself!

  5. Tom says:

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Do not fear, actual caricatures with photo reference are definitely part of what is to come.

  6. yondaime_kazekage says:

    mr. Tom,
    for your sincerity, and willingness to help us to achieve our goal, i’d pray to god, so that he will make you to improve so much more, the same way that you helped us, to stay motivated, and get some improvement in our skills

  7. Tom says:

    Allllllrighty then….

  8. drawmyface says:

    This is really great Tom. I like the pulley idea, although I noticed it doesn’t seem to apply to your Stephen King sketch. His eyes are close together but his nose is also really close to his eyes. Could you explain why you broke the general rule in this case? I guess it’s because of the huge gap between his nose and mouth??


  9. Tom says:

    Dan- I have to save some things for the book! 🙂

    The short answer is that faces really have a kind of energy that connects the features and head shape, and this “force” (insert Star Wars joke here) is constant… just like the mass of a head is constant. Some faces like the Stephen King one above demand that you break that simple “pulley” rule and squash the eyes and nose together in the center. When that happens, the excess force that used to exist as distance between the eyes and nose has to go somewhere… so in King’s case it lies as a greater distance between the nose and mouth, and a more massive lower face.

  10. drawmyface says:

    Very interesting. Thanks for that, can’t wait for the book to come out!!

  11. vedala says:

    Tom, the way you have described techniques in all your tutorials is simply crystal clear and easy on eyes. Great job.


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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