Sunday Mailbag

June 7th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: You’ve noted that a bad caricaturist can get trapped using a set of pre-defined exaggeration points – enlarging a chin, making a nose bigger, giving the eyebrows an odd slant, etc. – and that when you are working you try to find something more personal or a little more interesting and less “by the book”. When you are on the clock, where do you draw the line between making the subject look like the typical caricature one might see vs. something YOU find satisfying?

A: I think what you are referring to is what I call “generic caricature”, where a caricaturist basically draws the same features and/or the same relationships of features over and over, only changing the obvious details. To a certain extent almost all live caricaturists have tendencies concerning types of features that roughly can be defined as part of their “style”. However when those tendencies become overpowering, rigid certainties in almost every drawing then that caricaturist is drawing generic caricatures.

Generic caricatures can be very commercially successful. If the features that are rubber stamped on everybody are of a flattering or attractive nature (i.e. very fun and cartoony) then the customers are often happier with that than a “true” caricature. However doing drawings of this nature is easy and lazy. Some artists might decide easy and lazy but financially effective is just fine with them. Personally that would drive me crazy, and I would very quickly hate my job drawing live caricatures as there would be zero artistic satisfaction in anything I do. I would be no more than an art machine, cookie-cutting my way through day after boring day. The drawings might sell very well, but they are devoid of any creativity or artistic effort. Some caricaturists choose this route, which is sad.

However, there is an opposite end of that spectrum that is, in my opinion, just as bad. That is the live caricaturist that thinks it’s all about them, their “art” and the “pureness” of “real caricature”… and screw the customer. These artists will often go out of their way to do as derogatory and nasty a caricature as they can, and are actually proud of the negative reactions of their customers. Most of the caricaturists that cop this attitude have deep seeded resentment toward the customers, despite the fact that they are paying their bills with the money those same customers are willing to pay for a caricature. They do not just exaggerate but viciously distort the faces they draw using the excuse that it’s a “real caricature” and if the customer doesn’t love it they are morons who don’t “get” real caricature. Very few artists can exaggerate the face to such extremes and still retain a recognizable likeness, so I’d estimate 90% of these types of caricaturists do lousy work with poor likenesses and blame the customer’s lack of sophistication on their returns and rejections. In a way this is even worse than selling out doing the cute and generic caricatures… and least those artists understand the venue and dynamic in which they work. Art snobbery doesn’t play very well in a public retail environment…. I don’t think we’ll see anyone winning a Pulitzer or Nobel prize for their theme park caricature work.

The trick to doing live caricature is to find that happy medium where you do good work at a fast pace, pleasing both your customers and yourself as an artist. It is possible to do all that at the same time. You want to do a good caricature, one where you make very specific observations and decisions based on the face in front of you, not on a predetermined set of features, and exaggerate those features to an extent that it is obviously a caricature but that it still looks like the subject. That said, you have to be aware that you are working for a client and that client is sitting right in front of you, and your ultimate job is to make them happy with your work. It’s a balancing act.

Long ago I developed a kind of sixth sense that will tell me how much a given subject can “take” with respect to exaggeration. Some subjects are going to need to be handled more gentley than others. I do the cutsie drawings when they are required, and pull out the hammer when I get a “live one” that I can tell will appreciate some serious exaggeration. Regardless if I do cute or cruel caricatures, I always stop short of exaggerating so much that the likeness becomes unrecognizable. I can always find artistic satisfaction in even the least exaggerated of caricatures by going for other goals in the drawing like expression, likeness, personality, body action or just plain old good craftsmanship with the lines and color. I do not “sell out” and start cranking out generic drawings, but I also do not need to make my customers cry to justify my artistic existence.

Thanks to Robert and Margaret Carspecken 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. Daniel says:

    I love this post because I’ve thought about it a lot. For about 7 seasons I did theme-park caricature for a company I ended up having a lot of respect for. At first it seemed like they were into the “rubber stamp” generic caricatures, as there was a “house style” they insisted everyone spend some time trying to learn when they were first starting out. I remember being very skeptical and disappointed; I just knew it was going to end up stifling my creativity.

    But I learned that they had similar ideas about a “happy medium; having everyone learn a basic style that would “get us all by” was only step one. Once we had it down we were encouraged to branch out from and improve on the style in our individual caricatures. The end result was a hugely diverse range of styles, and a keener “student’s eye” than we ever would have had otherwise. We could look at each others’ work and appropriate techniques and ideas between ourselves much more easily having started in a similar “boot camp,” and yet in only a couple of years nobody’s caricatures really looked that similar, or used the “generic” style as a crutch.

    Anyway, just a story about this concept in action.

  2. Meesimo says:

    Well said, good sir. Nice post.

  3. Joyce says:

    Hi Tom, thanks for the insightful article. I wanted to also thank you deeply for all the really helpful lessons and advice on caricaturing you put up here. I really admire your work. I’m a Singaporean with a standard day job, but I hope to become good enough at caricaturing one day to do it for a living. So a few months ago I set up a website ( and am doing caricatures in my free time to build up my skills.

    The issue you addressed in this post is kind of related to something which I’ve been meaning to ask for your opinion about – what do you do if the subject’s key identifying characteristics may be something they are ashamed/embarrassed about? For example, a person whose eyes don’t point in the same direction, a lady with a long, “horse-like” face, people with extremely crooked teeth, people with an extremely pronounced underbite, people with more chins than they would prefer to have, and the list goes on. On one hand, these “unattractive” features might be needed to clinch the likeness. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.


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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