Sunday Mailbag

January 24th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: My question is what advice would you give to someone who would like to branch out more into the world of freelance illustration and cartooning? I have many years in the world of theme park caricatures and hope to eventually branch out more, or at least supplement my income a little bit on the side.. 🙂

A: I get this one a lot from other theme park artists I know and have worked with. Drawing live caricatures is challenging and a good way to earn a modest or even very good living (if you find the right situation) but it gets old to see all your artwork walk away knowing it will end up hanging in the rec room, from the refrigerator from a magnet shaped like a green pepper or eventually in the garbage can and only be seen by Aunt Sally and company. Being published and doing work for professional clients is something most theme park artists aspire to do.

First off, here is a link to a post where I explain about “breaking into” the freelance illustration business from a generic standpoint. It will answer a lot of questions about getting started, marketing, establishing a client base, etc. This is advice any artist who wants to do freelance illustration can find useful.

Specifically, as it pertains to a live caricaturist’s desire to get started in freelance illustration, the first thing you need to understand is that there is basically no market for theme park style caricatures in the publication world. The style of work done and the materials used have “street artist” written all over them and most art directors do not want that type of work in their publications, ads or other projects. There is a strong market for caricature, but anything that looks like it was done by a live artist is shunned. A live caricaturist must figure out how to apply their skills in a new style or way so the work is not typecast as a live caricature style. This usually means abandoning the tools the live caricaturist using for their live work… markers, pastels, prismasticks… whatever. At the very least the live caricaturist must use these tools in ways that differ greatly from the “live caricature” look.

I’ve got a story that illustrates this very point. I had an artist working for me at Valleyfair many years ago, and he took his portfolio to a local publisher to try and get publication work. He had all manner of styles in is book, from park-like caricatures to some¬¨‚ĆDavid Levine-ish crosshatch caricatures. These latter they liked, and he got a call to work up a caricature of then Minnesota Viking’s coach¬¨‚ĆDennis Green. He worked hard on the piece, and then brought it to me to show before turning it in. What he showed me was a park style airbrush caricature, not the crosshatch style. I told him they would not like it, and that he should have done it in the style they responded best to. He disagreed and turned in the piece as he showed me. As I expected, the piece was rejected and he got a kill fee, plus he never got another call from that publisher. That artist would have been better suited to have removed all the park style caricatures from his portfolio, but as it was he had some very different styles of rendering as well and that is what the art director liked.

Another thing that prevents many live caricaturists from successfully transitioning to freelance illustration is what I call “Live Caricature Disease”, or LCD. LCD is a condition in which the live caricaturist, through years of conditioning, believes the entire universe starts at the top of a person’s head and ends at their neck. They have spent so much time drawing basically nothing but faces that everything they do is about faces and they often struggle to draw anything else. Some literally can’t draw the rest of the world with anywhere near the same skill as they can the face. LCD victims also often cannot draw a convincing environment, nor compose a drawing in any way that does not focus overwhelmingly on a caricatured head.

Clearly this is a big problem for sufferers of LCD, as there are not a lot of jobs out there that call for the illustrator to draw floating heads (or giant heads with little bodies rollerskating under them), and have no need for the other skills an illustrator brings to the table like storytelling, composition, problem solving, etc. Another occasional and unfortunate side effect of LCD is a certain blindness to the problem. Some LCD sufferers see only the caricatures in the work of other published artists, compare their caricature favorably to that published work and then cannot understand why their portfolios are not getting them similar jobs. What they do not see is that, while the caricature is a major element to the published artist’s work they feel they are comparable to, it is really only one element of many that artist does well. Meanwhile when an art director looks at the LCD striken artist’s portfolio, they might see very good caricatures but very weak other elements… hence no jobs. MAD art director Sam Viviano has often told me that he sees sample work from terrific caricaturists all the time, but often the strengths of that artist stop “at the neck” and they do not have the ability to do all the other things that MAD needs it’s illustrators to do. As a result they are never seriously considered for any jobs. A live caricaturist needs to be brutally honest with themselves about their work.

My advice on that point is simple: the cure for LCD is to draw everything and anything BUT faces in your sketchbook for as long as it takes to develop the same visual command of environments, objects, figures and other parts of the world in which your caricatures reside. Drawing live caricatures for a living often dulls those skills, so that makes it all the more important to work on them. Buildings, cars, animals, the human figure, stop signs, soda cans, chairs… you name it. An illustrator should be able to not only draw all these things with the same level of skills as they draw faces, but they should feel like they exist in the same universe. A Jack Davis drawn caricature is instantly recognizable as his work, but a building, car, animal, human figure, stop sign, soda can, chair or any other object drawn by Jack Davis is also instantly recognizable as his work. He applies the same eye to the soda can as he does to the caricatures.

Above all keep at it and don’t get discouraged. Keep yanking old pieces out of your portfolio and keep inserting new ones in their place. Keep beating the pavement and marketing your work. Start locally and work your way into bigger and better clients. Stay professional and deliver on your promises. Success will always follow hard work and perseverance.

Thanks to Dave Ussery for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar,¬¨‚Će-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


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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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