Sunday Mailbag

March 7th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I was wondering what you could share on the importance of style in caricatures. Your work for MAD, differs greatly from say, Stephen Silver’s more cartoony style, David Cowles’ more abstract work, and Jason Seiler’s paintings. Are all styles equally in demand in publishing? Is having a unique style that sets you apart, key in getting work? Is the likeness/exaggeration often an area of contention between the artist and client?

A: One of the great things about caricature is that as an artform it can include virtually any style of drawings or rendering and still be instantly recognizable as a caricature. Whether a caricature is done by the cartoony linework of a Mort Drucker, the lavish painting of a Sebastian Kruger, the elegant lines of a Al Hirschfeld, the graphic design and color of a David Cowles or by any one of an infinite number of other techniques, the end result is still unmistakably a caricature (If you haven’t checked out my “Me Gallery“before please do, it is a great example of hundreds of different styles (and different levels of success) applied to the same subject, including all four of the luminaries I just mentioned above).

“Style”, in my definition anyway, is a combination of two things: an artist’ natural sensibilities and the technique they use to actually accomplish the finished art. The latter is basically mechanical, and within the intellectual control of the artist. It’s not too terribly hard to develop new techniques and use new mediums to come up with a replacement or secondary method of working that might appeal to a different set of clients, but to change the fundamental way in which you draw and see the world is a lot harder to do. Therefore in some ways an artist’s style is within their control, and in some ways it is not.

Artistically speaking the success or lack thereof of a given caricature is independent of style. Whether the caricature is painted, drawn, inked, wildly or mildly exaggerated, sculpted, frescoed on the ceiling of a renaissance cathedral or scrawled on a cave wall with crushed berry paste by torchlight… it’s either a good caricature or it isn’t. The style of the artist doesn’t matter a bit in that respect. Your question is mainly concerned with the commercial applications of style, and in that respect it can matter a lot.

There is certainly no one style that is commercially applicable above all others. There are obviously many illustrators that are known for their caricatures and they work in many different styles. Today the work of C.F. Payne, David Cowles and Steve Brodner are probably the most often seen and commercially successful, and their styles are all diametrically opposed. Many other illustrators are likewise successful and visible but who’s styles differ wildly. Are all styles equally in demand in publishing? Certainly not, or many more artists would be working doing many more styles of work. However, there is room for a great many styles of caricature in publishing and advertising. In fact, it could be argued that there is room for ALL styles of caricature commercially… it’s just that it’ a lot harder to find commercial applications for some styles over others.

Commercially, the appeal/viability of a given style hinges on a number of factors:

  1. The final result or effect the art director is looking for– Each project is a little different, and what the art director might need or envision on a given job will dictate the style of art he/she is looking for. A smart AD will then look for an artist who’s style fits the look they are seeking. If they want a crazy exaggerated style they’ll call artists who fit the bill.
  2. The demographic and tastes of the overall target audience– This falls somewhat under the umbrella of the first factor but with a much broader context. When it comes to publications, each has a certain visual “identity” or feel to them and they won’t stray far from that identity regardless of the needs of a given project. Some magazines won’t use cartoony or whimsical artwork, but like the illustrations to be more artsy and avant garde. Others prefer a more realistic approach to their illustrations, etc. Obviously who the publication is meant to appeal to and the subject matter they cover dictate some of that visual identity… a magazine for kids will use cartoon artwork and zany, energetic styles while one for the film industry might want something more daring or cutting edge. However I have found over the years that it’s the preferences of the current art directors of a publication that define its look. I have been given jobs for magazines that I would never have thought would be interested in my cartoony style, and likewise I have seen magazines that used to use a lot of a certain style of art suddenly drop those illustrators with the hiring of a new AD, even though that new hire did nothing to change their target audience or subject matter.
  3. What is “hot” at the moment– There are certain trends to illustration, and styles that are greatly in demand for a few years might find themselves suddenly out in the cold as “pass?¬©” at a later time. Some styles are timeless, but some are subject to the fickleness of current trends. For a long time many of the big entertainment magazines were using these weird scraggly line and blocky color wash style spot caricatures for their sidebars and short pieces… that caricature style has all but disappeared from the major entertainment publications. The graphic, design-like look of Cowles’ work was huge for a while but has cooled off quite a bit in the last few years. What happens when a style is “hot” is that while an artist like Cowles and maybe one or two others will define the style the saturation of it will get work for a lot of knock-off or similar but lesser known illustrators. Then when the popularity of the style cools all the ancilliary artists will stop getting that type of work and the defining artists will be given all that is left. In that way a few artists can always make a living doing a certain style independent of current trends, while those who were riding the popularity wave would struggle to find work in that same style once that wave washes out.

Some styles are timeless and just will never go away. Having a unique style is important to establish an identity as an illustrator, but unless your style is one of those timeless ones, or it appeals to a large enough base of potential clients that you will find continuous work with it, it’s hard to make a long term living as an illustrator. I know many illustrators who have developed secondary or alternate styles in order to pursue work from a different set of clients.¬¨‚Ć I have done a similar thing with my colored like technique, which I am still developing to try and break into different markets. I’ve often said here that it’s important to have a consistent and identifiable style as an illustrator so your clients know what to expect and come to you to get it, but there is nothing wrong with applying different techniques of rendering and execution to your natural way of drawing and expressing your views of the world that might appeal to other potential clients. I’ve know some illustrators who develop a radically different style of illustration and actually market themselves under a different name with that look.

The final part of your question: “is exaggeration/likeness often an area of contention between the artist and a client?” It absolutely should not be once the artist and client relationship begins. A client should understand the style of the artist they have engaged, and not be surprised by what they get nor expect them to do something that is not what they do. I’ve had a more than a few projects where the client tells me they love my work but then proceed to instruct me to do something completely different from what it is I do. That’s like hiring an Italian chef to cook a Chinese meal. If a client wants an exaggerated caricature, they need to call an artist who does that kind of work. That is why how an artist represents his work is so important… illustrators must communicate to potential clients what they and their work are all about, so the calls they get are ones looking for exactly what they offer.

Thanks to Derek Edwards 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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