Sunday Mailbag

December 7th, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: You have a great skill for likeness, Every time that I look at your “park” caricatures I can really see the likeness in it. But, if you were asked to do a “realistic” illustration of someone, do you think you would be able to “carry their likeness” to the illustration? I’ve always felt that, a great caricaturist can be able to be a great portrait artist. How do you feel about this matter? Is it harder to do an portrait than to do a cartoon? or its the contrary?

A: I read or heard a quote by someone somewhere once that described a caricature as a “portrait with the volume turned up”. That is a very good way to look at it.

Likeness in both portraits and caricatures is achieved in the same way… by drawing the features so the viewer recognizes them as the subject’s features. With a portrait that simply means you draw the features as they really look. With a caricature you can also do that but change the relationships of the features, or you can draw something that represents the features in a way that is still recognizable to the viewer. By that I mean you don’t necessarily draw the eye exactly as the eye looks, but you come up with a visual representation of that eye instead. The best example of that is probably the work of Al Hirschfeld:

Look at the caricature of Katherine Hepburn. Her nose is not two small ovals, her eyes are not buttons beneath an arc and her mouth is not a thin half circle connected by a thicker curve. Hirschfeld was a master at representing features in the simplest of design terms and still make them recognizable as a whole. That is a very unforgiving way to approach caricature. You must have everything working perfectly together to get your likeness to work.

Getting back to your question, I find portraits equally as challenging as caricatures… it’s just a different set of challenges. Portrait work involves more patience and in most styles a stronger technical skill insofar as rendering goes. Caricatures can be drawn with contour line, but as a rule portraits are done in values. Really that is just technique, though. At the bottom, portraits and caricature both require the ability to see and capture the essence of a person… features, expression and personality. It’s the same skill set but on different paths.

Back when I was a college art student, the school I attended turned their nose up at cartooning. I was not allowed to do much cartooning in any assignments. Fortunately I was pretty competent at the realistic stuff as well. When I got the job doing caricatures during the summer, at first I struggled to get back into the swing of realistic drawing after a summer of nothing but caricatures. It took a few weeks to get that out of my head and get back to realistic proportion. Believe me, I THOUGHT I was drawing realistically but everything was just a little bent and exaggerated. Eventually after a few years of this I was able to switch back and forth at will.

Today I might be hard pressed to do a really good portrait. It would certainly take me a long time to do. I have done nothing but cartooning for years now. However back about 8 years ago I went to a live drawing co-op once a week where we did a series of ten minute poses and then one long 2 plus hour pose. I found it did not take long to get some of my realistic drawing skills back. Here are a few of my life drawings/portraits from those co-op sessions (although a few of the quicker figures might have been studies from a book… no way to tell after so long). I know I posted these a few years back but they are the most recent “realistic” work I have!

WARNING: some of these were nude models. CLICK on the images for a closer look.









  1. Shiva Souza says:

    Thanks for your answer Tom, very good examples of your realistic work too, good stuff!



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

Workshops Ad

Dracula ad

Doctor Who Ad

Superman Ad

%d bloggers like this: