Sunday Mailbag

October 5th, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

A: I have a question (and I don’t think I’ve seen it answered yet!)! Has there ever been a face that no matter how many pictures, video or resources you look at, you just can’t get a grip on it? Myself, I specialize in a variety of anime stylizations, but there’s this one face (Nathan Fillion to be specific) that no matter what I try – anime, traditional caricature, or realism – I can’t quite get it! I’ve been able to create some drawings that people recognize without me having to give clues, but it’s not quite satisfying ME. If you do have one of these sorts of Achilles heels, do you have any tips or strategies to overcome it?

Q: Well, I did have almost the same question asked a while ago, but this one is asking from a little different angle… why do caricaturists sometimes struggle with a certain face and is there a way to overcome it?

Faces are faces. Basically we all have the same physical features. It’s the subtle differences in perception that the caricaturist is trying to figure out and then accentuate. Why, then, would one face be harder than another?

In some cases it’s just a matter of the face itself not giving you enough information to work with. The so called “plain faces” that do not seem to have any outstanding features for a caricaturist to grab hold of. I find that to be a lack of observation rather than a lack of features on the part of the subject. Maybe someone has nothing obvious to exaggerate, but that should never stop an artist from attaining a likeness. All that needs doing is to draw the features as they really look to attain a likeness. That has nothing to do with exaggeration. The trick with caricature is to both exaggerate AND attain a good likeness. Drawing the features accurately but making poor choices in exaggeration will kill the likeness. In general the struggles one might have with a “nondescript” face is that they cannot see anything to exaggerate so therefore just exaggerate blindly or at random. That is like shooting with a blindfold on… you might occasionally get lucky and hit the target, but you usually miss.

I believe when an artist struggles with a recognizable person like your example of Nathan Fillion, it is because they have lost objectivity. They entered into the drawing with a preconceived perception of what the subject looks like and what they needed exaggerated, and are then not objective about drawing that person’s caricature. If their preconceived perception is wrong, they can’t get past that and insist on trying to shoehorn their caricature onto the face, rather than letting the face dictate the caricature. You have to be able to approach the subject with an open mind and set preconceived notions aside.

There are a few ways around this problem I’ve found effective:

  • Set aside the drawing for a day and come back to it with a fresh eye. If you are working on a deadline that might not be possible, but if it is that seems to be the best solution. It is easy to get “too close” to a drawing and lose objectivity. Take a long break from it and do some other drawing of an unrelated matter in the meantime. Draw a car or a chair or something non-organic.
  • Toss out all your photo reference and get new ones. It’s possible your reference is confusing you. Pictures can lie and you might be fixated on a single picture or something you think you percieve from that picture that isn’t right. In one picture a subject may look like they have a big jaw but it could be the angle or lighting fooling you. Toss them all out and dig up fresh ones.
  • Work from a video. Put in a DVD with the subject in it in the player or computer and work up a page of sketch studies of the face. Moving images cannot lie as well as pictures. You will be working from a more true perception of the face.
  • Adjust the scale of the drawing and study it. I do this a lot. I find a drawing looks a lot different when it is smaller or larger than the size I am working at. Step back from the drawing board and look at the sketch, or use a magnifying glass to enlarge. Better yet, scan it in and adjust the zoom on the image in PhotoShop. You may notice where you are having problems. You might even try and flip the drawing and look at the mirror image of it. That is more about seeing the structural problems of a drawing, but it may help you figure out the problems.

Great question. Thanks. I’ll do Nathan Fillion as this week’s “Sketch o’the Week” and see if I can do something with his face.

Thanks to Jade Gordon 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. says:

    I find that so many caricaturists these days are so hung up about extreme exaggeration that they don’t always acheive a likeness. Sometimes pulling back on the exaggeration can be helpful as well.

  2. matias_32 says:

    hola! ha todo aquel que visite esta pagina se va a sorprender al ver un comentario en espa?±ol. Es que soy de argentina y me interesa aprender a dibujar. y aqui aprendi muchas cosas.


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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