Ismael Roldan: R.I.P.

September 15th, 2009 | Posted in News

Self Caricature by Ismael Roldan

I recieved some terrible news today. Apparently caricature illustrator Ismael Roldan died today at age 45 in New York, according to his friend and fellow Colombian caricaturist Jorge Restrepo. Jorge confirmed the news through one of Ismael’s cousins still living in Colombia. Ismael was born there but has lived in the United States for over 20 years. No further details yet on his cause of death.

Besides being enormously talented, Ismael was a very generous man, giving of his time and advice to aspiring artists. He was the special guest of honor at the last convention of the International Society of Caricature Artists, where I had a chance to meet and spend some time with him. We had some professional contact previously (we both commiserated about a deadbeat magazine client we had both done work for and had trouble getting our payments from) and had corresponded for some years, but that was the first time I got a chance to meet him in person.

Sadly it will also be the last.

Ismael was the person who recommended me as a guest speaker to the folks at the CaliComix event in Cali, Colombia that I ended up attending last June, and he was instrumental in helping me get that arranged. I had him to thanks for that, and I am glad I let him know it.

This is a sad day for professional caricaturists everywhere. My heart goes out to his recent bride and his family.

Me by Ismael Roldan

Here is an interview with Ismael from last year’s issue of the ISCA’s Exaggerated Features Magazine right before the annual convention at which he was the guest speaker, courtesy of ISCA president Robert Bauer:

Every year, the NCN invites a prominent humorous illustrator to be our guest speaker at our annual convention. It’s such a bonus when that illustrator also does caricatures as part of their skillset. But when we have one of our own former members reach the level that this person has reached, we feel especially greatful to have him back to be our Guest of Honor for the 2008 annual convention.

Born in 1964, Ismael Roldan has been drawing caricatures since the age of 12. A big influence in the development of his hand came with the discovery of David Levine at 14. Levine’s work taught Roldan how to exagerate while still keeping the likeness of his subjects. Later on, the french caricaturist team of Mulatier, Ricord and Morchoisne opened up his mind to using color and volume in his work.

After receiving his BFA in Illustration from Parsons School of Design in New York, his interest turned to the work and draughtsmanship of Ingres, Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Bouguereau and Daumier.

Roldan believes that the eyes as well as the expression of the mouth, are the two most important features in order to capture a likeness. The rest adorn and complement what you already have. Today he is still at it and getting excited with each new face he draws.

Some of the publications he has contributed to: Time, Money, Sports Illustrated, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The New York Post, Upside,The Washington Post, The Washington Times, BusinessWeek, US News and World Report, Business 2.0, Games, The Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer as well as many other significant publications and corporate clients.

EF: Ismael, it’s such a pleasure to have you as our guest of honor for this year’s convention. Our members will have a great opportunutiy to see your work and watch you draw all week long. It will be like cramming an entire semester of art classes into one week for all of us. Speaking of which, what was it like attending Parsons School of Design in New York?

IR: Thank you, Robert. As with any school, there are good teachers and subject matter and there are bad teachers and subject matter as well. Parsons is VERY much directed towards art directing; they don’t really teach art techniques which is essential in the field of Illustration. The good thing about that school is that while I was there Sam Viviano and Philip Burke came by to give talks which was very refreshing. I had some talented classmates as well and that’s something that helps a lot. But in the end I had to teach myself techniques and come up with my own stuff. Self taught in spite of.

EF: I am always amazed at how common that is with many artists I meet. Many learn more from each other or on their own than they do in class. It’s why our convention is becoming more & more popular. There is so much to learn from so many gifted artists when you go. Did you take classes elsewhere as well?

IR: Before coming to Parsons I did a year at Altos de Chavon in Dominican Republic. That allowed me to come to Parsons since they have an association. I also did four semesters of Graphic Design back in Colombia where I am originally from.

EF: So do you do any design work?

IR: No, I don’t do any design work.

EF: I see. But did those classes help you out with your illustrating?

IR: I’ve always believed that we illustrators must know a bit of graphic design to help us understand why art directors need some things designed in the illustration in a certain way. What we do occupies a space that is surrounded by type and sometimes the way an elbow comes out might perturb their work. We as caricaturists should also have a bit of psychology and journalism in us too since we deal with human beings and many times they are in the news.

EF: Those are good points. It’s something that every comercial artist should be aware of as they start out. Speaking of starting out, where did you grow up?

IR: I grew up in Bogota, Colombia. Left the country when I was 22.

EF: Wow. What made you decide to leave your home in Colombia?

IR: The lack of opportunities. To this day, it is still very difficult to make a living as a caricaturist. Some illustrators are able to do okay if they work for a publishing house and do children’s books. I did do some comic strips and graphic humor as well but there were no outlets for those either.

EF: So where are you living now?

IR: I’ve been living in New York for 21 years now. Right now up north outside NYC where I lived for ten years.

EF: Obviously, New York is the place to live when it comes to editorial illustration. So many illustrators call New York home since that is where most of the more prominent publications come from. Who are your biggest clients these days?

IR: My biggest client is The Wall Street Journal.

EF: Outstanding. So do you also read the WSJ?


EF: Well, I had to ask. Can you remember your first big break?

IR: My first big break was with Time Magazine. They had a section where they used illustrators every week. I dropped off my book as it used to be done and the art director for that particular section kept some samples and gave me a call two days later.

EF: Two days later? That sounds unusually fast for a first-time illustrator. Did he say what made him pick you?

IR: That section used caricature. He liked the style and the fact that I got likenesses. He used caricature from time to time but was giving the work to general illustrators (you know, situational kind of jobs that required backgrounds and stuff).

EF: I understand; general illustrators vs. caricature artists. So can you explain your typical working procedure?

IR: Typically I’m given a personality to get a likeness of. Sometimes a whole concept is required which, from time to time, I’m allowed to propose; many times the editors know exactly what they want and send the concept up front. Other times my initial idea is “adjusted” by the art director or the editor. I develop a sketch which is pretty tight so that they know what the final will look like.

EF: How do you initially develop your gag, or story, in an illustration when an art director doesn’t give you much instruction?

IR: I read the story first and get the main idea. Then, I look for pictures of the personality or character involved that show more or less the emotion required. I do a tight sketch of the face and then proceed to work on the body and add the elements that I believe complete the whole idea. I usually develop the idea in my mind before I put the pencil on paper.

EF: Do you do lots of sketches first?

IR: I used to do several sketches but found that editors ended up sending me back to the very first one I did (“We don’t want to offend”). So nowadays I do a first sketch with a slight exaggeration and that’s pretty much it.

EF: So I take it that you work pretty quickly.

IR: I would say, yes. It always depends on the person’s face. But I usually get the likeness right away unless it’s a not-too-good picture.

EF: I can relate to having poor reference. It can make a difficult assigment next to impossible. Can you recall an illustration that was very hard to get a likeness? Who is tough for you to caricature?

IR: Bill Gates. The man looks like an easy target but has something SO bland and plain almost without character on his features that make him tough.

EF: LOL. You have a point. Take away his fortune and you have a pretty boring person to work with. Even with the money, he does seem to lack any strong phycical characteristics. So tell me, what is your medium of choice?

IR: I’ve been using acrylics on illustration board for quite some time for my work in color and graphite on smooth paper for black and white.

EF: How large are your caricature pieces done for magazines?

IR: I work depending on how large –or small- the work will be printed. For spots I don’t work larger than 8???10. For covers I tend to work on 15???20.

EF: Have you played around on the computer at all? Do you like digital work?

IR: No, I haven’t really played with it. Very reluctant. I like to feel the materials in my hand and transmit that unique sensibility onto the paper/illustration board. I do appreciate digital work when it’s done in an honest manner. I know people who use photography and mix it up; I guess those are tricks of the trade but…. leave a certain impurity and sour taste visually speaking.

EF: I understand. The computer has really blurred the line between original art, photography and image manipulation. Each can have its place but nothing seems more pure than traditional pencil and paint. What are your main concerns when doing a caricature illustration?

IR: My main concern is to leave the client satisfied with a good product.

EF: Spoken like a true commercial artist. Keep your client satisfied. I say that as a compliment. Do you have a philosophy about your work, or a driving influence that you try to work towards?

IR: My goal and challenge every single time is to get the likeness of the person involved. It is so fulfilling to start seeing someone appear in front of my eyes with lines that rhythmically dance and make that person unique. I leave the eyes for last most of the time; they are the exclamation point!

EF: I read that you feel the eyes and the expression of the mouth make or break the likeness. I tend to agree. Even in retail caricatures or at live events, you may not have the best drawn features but if you capture the person’s eyes and mouth, you usually succeed in capturing their likeness.

IR: They say the eyes are the reflection of the soul. I think it applies to what we do. Some CEO of a company I drew years ago for a computer magazine called me up to buy the original piece and he said to me: ” Your drawing looks more like me than myself”. How about that one?

EF: Yes, I have heard that line used before in fact. In one of our seminars where a presenter mentioned that you are doing your job right if your caricature looks more like the person than the person. It’s an interesting thought. Who were the first caricaturists you admired, when you first noticed caricature (presumably as a kid)?

IR: My very first caricaturist as such that I got to admire was David Levine. I was 14 when I got one of his books. At the time I was already working on a crosshatching technique with a very fine rapidograph and seeing Levine’s work simply blew me away!

EF: So who are your main influences in caricature now?

IR: I stopped being influenced by caricaturists’ work long ago. After Sebastian Kr?¬?ger showed up in the scene, Caricature was elevated to another level; that’s when I turned my attention to the work of Ingres, Bouguerau, Jacques Louis David, Caravaggio, Velazquez…. And I’ve been looking at most contemporary portrait artists whose work is simply amazing (Nelson Shanks, Daniel Graves, Robert Liberace to name a few).

EF: What do you consider when doing a caricature- do your priorities lie in exaggeration, painting, likeness or equal parts?

IR: There has to be a balance of them all. When doing commercial work, clients tend to be afraid of exaggeration because they don’t want to offend. It is understandable because what I do is figurative. The concept of seeing a resemblance that carries a pointy or big nose, large ears… drives editors crazy!!

EF: Speaking of editors, would you take an editorial assignment when you personally disagreed with the product or point of view being commissioned? Have you turned down assignments along these lines?

IR: Unless it is something truly disgusting, without taste and that borders on the purely offensive I won’t do. I’ve done work for publications that attack both political parties for instance; I believe that we caricaturists are journalists somehow and should keep objectivity first.

EF: That is an interesting viewpoint. Especially when you stop and consider that many caricaturists believe what they do is totally based on being subjective rather than objective. They are expressing their opinion in their art.

IR: My personal opinion is mine unless it’s presented by itself to the public. I don’t have to mix it up with an assignment. We as illustrators are doing images that go next to a specific article; there’s no escape! I had a classmate back at Parsons who was gay and he ALWAYS included his sexual preference in every assignment. Do we really need to know about it? Politically speaking, I am very objective because those who rule belong to a different breed of human beings and must be mentally undressed; Either by their exaggerated facial expressions or the activity we put them in.

EF: I see your point. It’s the difference between fine art vs. commercial art. One is a way of expressing yourself while the other is used to communicate to the masses. Fine art is timeless. It will always be relevent to someone, but what about illustration? Is illustration a dying art form with the decline of print, or do you see web based illustration taking up the slack?

IR: Illustration will always be needed BUT we are responsible for delivering and producing work that can be used no matter where.

EF: I hear you. Even Exaggerated Features is available in our online forum as a PDF file in addition to the printed edition. It’s something that wasn’t around when you used to part of the NCN. Being a former NCN member, do you have any stories to share when you were a member?

IR: It was looong ago and I used to get upset at the fact that things were kept pretty much inside “Live Caricature”; I’m very happy to see that things have changed A LOT.

EF: Yes, the NCN has evolved quite a bit over the past 10 years. And it will continue evolving. I like the fact that we continue to grow in quality as well as size. Each year, winning the Golden Nosey at the annual convention becomes tougher and tougher. And that is a good thing.

IR: Perhaps the appearance of Kr?¬?ger and Op de Beeck in particular, helped with the revolution. Then you add to the equation the very talented younger ones like Jason Seiler and Joe Bluhm; no wonder the quality level keeps getting elevated!!

EF: So true. And both of them have seminars this year at the convention as well. There are many talented new artists that emerge each year at the convention. It’s very inspiring to see them grow and have the torch passed on to them by older, established artists from years past. Speaking of years gone by, if you could go back to meet an artist who is no longer with us, who would you like to meet?

IR: Honore Daumier. The first true caricaturist and political commentator.

EF: Ok. I was unfamiliar with his work so I looked him up on the internet. I see why you’d like to meet him. His style was way ahead of its time.

IR: Oh yes, it was! His caricatures both drawn and in the form of sculpture were simply terrific and his cartoons were also very fresh in the use of lines and shapes as well as being quite sharp and witty. He wasn’t as good a painter though.

EF: Neither am I, so I can relate. So can you tell our members a little about what to expect from you for the convention? What do you plan to show and discuss for your keynote presentation? Do you plan to hang around and draw as well?

IR: You guys can expect an open book from me. I will be showing my early beginnings so that you can travel through the different styles and
techniques I got to do in order to get where I am now. I hope it will
encourage those that are starting out. I also plan to hang around, draw and participate in the different activities whenever possible. I’ll bring along pencil and paper for sure!

EF: Fantastic. I’m sure our members will love having you around all week at the convention. I am looking forward to meeting you in person, Ismael. Make sure to send in your absentee election ballot before you leave for the convention since the convention starts the week of Election Day!

IR: I’m also looking forward to meeting you and everyone else!
I’ll make sure to vote before I leave!


  1. Lar says:

    Very sad news 🙁 His work was wonderful and I was sorry to have missed meeting him last year. It was great to hear reports on him from last year’s NCN convention.

    • Marcela Ramirez says:

      It is very sad to hear about Ismael Roldan´s death, he was an incredible artist.
      I send all my condolences and blessings to his family and specially to his father, Ismael Rold?°n. Caricaturist¬¥s such as Ismael are not easy to find. A loss for the artist¬¥s world.

  2. jert says:

    this news was a shocker….Ismael was one hell of a great guy, anybody that got to meet him and talk to him was fortunate indeed. God bless him and his family….he will truly be missed

  3. julio cesar Naranjo says:

    Hi Tom its very sad to hear this news, their are not very much Colombian artists who have the chance to make a difference in this kind of industry and he made it .

  4. Sam says:

    RIP Ismael
    this is a truly shocking news, He was a great artist whom I really admired. this must be a very difficult time for his family and friends.May God bless his family during this time and always

  5. TRIANA says:

    Sadly notice to caricature colombian and world… Thanks for comment this notice!!! Regards from Colombia and God Bless the family of master Rold?¬∞n.

  6. PaulCapurso says:

    Hey Tom,

    Wow I saw you post this on Twitter, I can’t beleive this. I have e-mailed with Ismael over the years and he gave me some great pointers. We also use to speak about family and how it worked with work etc.. I never got to meet him but just from his his e-mails he seemed like a very nice person AND a tremendous talent. So sad to hear….

  7. Juan says:

    I am a close family friend of Ismaels. If anyone is interested in attending his wake it will be held on 09/19/09 from 2 to 5pm at 491 MAMARONECK AVE WHITE PLAINS, NY 10605. Help spread the word. Thanks

  8. Lachezar says:

    Ismael was a very close friend to me. He was amazing person and fun to be around with. I received the shocking news the day he passed away and I still cant believe I have lost such a charismatic friend. He was a talented artist with great sense of humor. I am so sad…

    • Rosa says:

      Hi Lachezar. I happened to find out about Ismael’s passing y es en realidad una noticia bien triste. Te envio a ti mis condolencias porque se que eran muy buenos amigos. Lo que yo mas recuerdo de la casi unica conversacion que yo tuve con el una vez fue cuanto significaba para el su hijo, y en el nino es en quien estoy pensando. Ojala Dios provea lo mejor para esa criatura. Ismael ya emprendio el camino que todos emprenderemos algun dia. Un abrazo y solo pide por el si eres creyente, eso ayudara a combatir la tristeza tambien. Dios bendiga a su familia.

  9. After I heard that bad news I wanted to draw his very kind and friendly personality.
    It was a strange experience. I never spoke to Mr. Roldan,I saw him in America on a conference and I heard many story’s about him.It was like I know him very well,strange,
    it’s really sad,

  10. Mark Hill says:

    Hey Tom,

    Just thought I’d mention that today the Wall Street Journal did a very nice “In Memorium” tribute to Ismael in their Leisure & Arts Section, (where he was frequent contributor of illustrations.) It featured some nice examples of his WSJ work over the years, as well as his self-portrait. They also published a web address for a gallery of his work at


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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