Sunday Mailbag

November 1st, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: As a live caricaturist, I’ve noticed that some days, things flow quite naturally.¬¨‚Ć I can observe what I see and properly draw it on the page with a little exaggeration here and there.¬¨‚Ć But on occasion, I have “one of those days”.¬¨‚Ƭ¨‚Ć These are the days that I find it extremely difficult to get the result I want – likeness, line quality, and so forth are a struggle to achieve, and simply “trying harder” doesn’t seem to get me too far.¬¨‚Ć You have been doing this a long time, and I wonder if you had any insight into how to deal with one of the dreaded “Bad Drawing Days” when they come.

A: I always preach abject professionalism and a certain amount of professional “detachment” from the artwork done for any paying job, be it for an art director, client or in a live caricature setting. However the truth is that as artists we cannot completely emotionally detach ourselves from the work not pretend what we do is not a product of our creative side. We don’t work with absolutes doing math calculations for a living. We create art, and sometimes the creative parts of the brain just aren’t firing. It’s like “writer’s block” is for an author. Sometimes it comes easy and sometimes it comes hard.

In the studio, the solution is simple. I get up and walk away from the drawing board. Music, reading, writing or watching a movie will remove my mind for whatever visual image it’s struggling with and allow it to walk about different paths. When I come back to my board it’s usually with a different point of view, and more often than not I find whatever barriers were frustrating me knocked away.

Live caricature is a different story, however. Usually you do not have the luxury of just getting up and going to watch a movie or listen to you ipod of an hour or two. You have to work through the artist’s block. I’ve found two methods that seem to help a lot when this problem arises.

Just Let Go– I know you said “trying harder” doesn’t help, and you are right. You need instead to stop overthinking, loosen up and just let your instincts take over. I struggle the most working live when I am trying too hard to exaggerate or force something that isn’t coming. You need to just react to the face and take what it will give you. Just draw it as naturally as you can without analyzing things. Usually that results in a sharpening of the likeness and a downplaying of the exaggerations, but it also act as a “reset” button of sorts and from that base starting point you often find your eyes start seeing and your head starts observing better. It’s a matter of approaching the face with no agenda, and letting it show you what it wants to show you instead of you looking for what might not be there. Sounds very zen, I know, but it often works.

Change Your Approach– This is less of a metaphysical and more of a mechanical remedy, but I find that changing my approach to the drawings can break me out of a mental rut and get me seeing things better. There are lots of different ways to change your way of drawing, but my favorite is to switch to a very fast “eyes/nose/mouth” drawing as a way to start the caricature. Ordinarily I start with the eyes and then do the nose, make connections, add some detail, move the the mouth, make connections, some detail, etc. In my new approach, I do a very fast simple eye shape, bottom of nose shape, mouth shape with no connections or detail at all. As simple and fast as I can do it. Then I go back and add the connections and flesh out the features before moving on to the rest of the face. There is an extreme spontaneity with that method that eliminates any analysis and forces you to work on pure instinct. Often after doing that method for an hour or two you can revert back to a more comfortable approach with a fresh eye.

When all else fails I just put my head down and race of the finish line (i.e. the end of the day). We aren’t machines and sometimes it’s just not clicking.

Thanks to Bill Breneisen 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. jert says:

    When I’m having a bad drawing day in the chair I just sign Ed Steckley’s name to the drawing

  2. Steve Hearn says:

    English beer often numbs the pain of a bad day….! I try not to beat myself up over a ‘poor’ drawing, instead just say to myself that “I need to concentrate and be more focused on the next one”, as I usually find that the rushed drawings are the bad one’s. But it is different for us all and Tom’s advice here should be heeded and applied by any one who has the ‘bad day’ experience. I just tell people that do not like my drawing that my name is Dave…..


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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