Sunday Mailbag

January 11th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: When you work from reference materials, the facial expressions of the people are rarely (never) what you need to incorporate into your drawings. Are there any principles you can give for altering facial expressions to comic proportions and situations while still retaining a good likeness?

A: It’s very true that if I were to need to rely on finding the exact angle and facial expression of a given actor in order to pull off a recognizable caricature of them for a given panel in a MAD parody, I’d never get anything done. Instead I gather up multiple references of an actor from various angles, assemble them into a single page and use them as a basis for all my caricature… but not necessarily as exact reference. I have a technique I use for the MAD “continuity” work that I have already imparted here on The MAD Blog, but it’s been a while so here it is again for those who didn’t catch it the first time:

References used for caricatures or any illustration job are meant to be an assistance, not a crutch. If I cannot create an illustration of something without a photograph showing me the exact image, angle and lighting I am looking for my effectiveness as an illustrator would certainly be compromised. I use references just to see how things work, to pick up details and aspects I might not otherwise realize existed and to help me make my drawing more convincing, not as the entire basis for everything I draw. It’s a little like a writer using a dictionary or thesaurus to find a word for use in his story, or reading articles or books to learn about facts or details of the subjects he is writing about. The story he writes is his creation, but he might do some research to write more convincingly about a given topic. If I need to draw a building, I might refer to some pictures of buildings to see how the windows, trim, stonework and such might work and be added to my drawing to make it look more like the kind of building I am trying to draw, but I don’t need to find the exact angle and view of every building I want to draw in order to make it work. In fact I will often change things even from a direct photo reference for reasons of composition or effectiveness in what I am trying to achieve with the illustration.

The same goes for caricatures. If I have several pictures of a subject from several different angles, I can draw their face multiple times at different angles than those shown me in the pictures by using what I have learned of their face from the existing references. When it comes to expressions, faces all have the same basic muscles and tend to have the same reactions with respect to emotions and expression, so by combining those elements I can draw the same face with different expressions and still maintain a cohesive likeness.

With respect to a MAD parody, the trick to doing this is twofold. First, I need to find several important features that are “keys” to the specific face I am doing multiple drawings of, and carry them through each different caricature even as I take liberties with the expressions. It might be heavy eyebrows, the squareness of a chin, the head shape (usually an important one) or any one of many such things that make the particular face unique. These become linchpins that make the viewer believe they are looking at the same character in each panel. Usually the crazier the expression I am drawing, the more I have to rely on these “keys” to keep the cohesion.

The second part of the equation is what I call the “keystone” technique. Basically what this means is that, at several points through the parody, I incorporate a caricature of a subject drawn from specific photo reference. These caricatures are always more detailed and have the strongest likenesses of the lot. These are always found on the splash page (those being the “intro” keystones) and then here and there throughout the rest of the parody. They act as “keystones” or “cornerstones” that bridge the gap between the ones where I am faking it with expressions and angles I don’t have specific references for. They keep up the viewer’s perception that the same character is being seen throughout. Jack Davis used to use this technique all the time with his MAD parodies, except he’d often just do the one keystone caricature on the splash and then do a cartoon representation of the character for the rest of the parody. I’m not Jack Davis, so I do more than one keystone caricature.

As far as expression goes, you can exaggerate and impose almost any expression on a caricatured face and maintain a passable likeness as long as you keep those keystone elements strong and easily readable. I have a small mirror in front of my drawing table and will sometimes make faces in it to get an idea of what happens to the basic muscles and features for a given expression. I can transfer what I have observed onto the existing caricature structure. Another great resource for that is to find the same actor in a previous movie on DVD. Looking at them move and speak gives you a lot more understanding of their mannerisms and facial expressions than static photos do… and maybe even a glimpse at a few extreme expressions.

Thanks to Daniel Moir 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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