Sunday Mailbag

October 17th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I Really love your work, especially the detail you put in. Your pictures are never taken in at a glance – there is something interesting going on right into the corners. So I have a question about your attention to detail. Obviously it’s important for caricatures that the details are as accurate a depiction as necessary to make the image recognizable, but how important is it to you that the details of the less essential elements in a scene are similarly as accurate? If you draw a car in the background do you like the car to be recognizably a Toyota or a Ford if all that is necessary is it be a car?

A: First off, thanks for the kind words about my work… I’m very glad you enjoy it. Now, on to your question…

I’ve learned an awful lot about illustration and cartooning working for MAD, but if someone was to ask me the single most important piece of advice I’ve ever gotten from anyone on cartooning/illustration, the answer would be this very simple but crucial bit of wisdom I got from MAD art director Sam Viviano:

“Your background elements should look as convincing as your foreground elements.”

I’m actually paraphrasing there, because Sam never says anything in one sentence, but that is essentially the point he was conveying. We were discussing my work and what I could do to improve it… this was before I had done my first MAD job and when I was furiously trying to “break in” to the magazine (which is not to be confused with my attempts to break in to the MAD offices… those efforts are a part of public police records). He pointed out to me that there was a noticeable difference between my caricatures of celebrities i.e. people who were supposed to “be somebody” in my illustrations and those who were just background or secondary characters. It was very apparent in my drawings who were representations of real people, and who were made up out of my head. His point was that this difference was noticeable to the point of distraction, and although I didn’t need to necessarily do full blown caricatures of real people for every face in a panel, I should make them look like they COULD be a real person… that they have enough presence and individuality to be a believable person, even if they are not the focus. I started using books of modeling agency head shots and stock photography books to get ideas for my background character’s features, hairstyles, look, etc. and also adding in people I know just for fun.

I combined that bit of advice with another that I consider the second most important thing anyone ever taught me about cartooning and illustration… this one came from long time MAD editor Nick Meglin, again prior to my doing work for MAD. I was having lunch with both he and Sam at the Society of Illustrators in New York, my having come to NYC to show them some of my latest work. Nick explained to me the importance of having a coherent look to the way you draw anything. His example was an artist who’s work can always be counted on to be an example of how to do it right… the great Jack Davis.

“Everybody knows Jack draws people and hands and feet and things like that very distinctively, and you can instantly recognize a Jack Davis hand or a Jack Davis foot… but you can also instantly recognize a Jack Davis chair, or boat, or cow, or baseball glove, or parking meter, or…”

Nick went on for about 15 minutes, kind of like Bubba in Forrest Gump about the different ways to cook shrimp. I think Sam eventually kicked him in the shin under the table and then he stopped.

Anyway, his point was that an illustrator draws the world as he/she sees it through their eyes, and it’s as important that your drawings of chairs or boats or parking meters look like they belong in the same world as the more important stuff you are drawing. So many caricature artists out there don’t understand this, having 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. The rest of the world needs to be described just as much as those faces do… and placing those faces in a world in which they look like they belong makes the caricatures all that more strong.

So, I do think it’s important that the details are paid attention to. Your example of drawing a car is a good one. No, I wouldn’t necessarily need to make sure the make and model of every car I draw be recognizable, but it should look like a convincing car. If I don’t know enough about the way a car (or any object I need to draw) looks I will get a picture and get a feel for it. I won’t necessarily draw the exact car in my reference photo, but I will use that picture to draw something that is not only unmistakably a car but one that contains convincing details like hood seams and air intake grills and such that it looks substantial and not like a cardboard cutout of a car put in for a prop. You don’t want to over-detail your secondary elements in an illustration to the point they distract from the focus of the image, but it can be equally distracting to have some odd looking thing that is SUPPOSED to be a car but which is so badly misproportioned or has some other flaws as to look out of place. Buildings are another good example. When I draw a building I want it to look not only like a real building but one that is appropriate for the environment I am drawing. It would not make sense to draw the facade of some New York brownstone if the scene of my illustration was in the French Quarter in New Orleans. There details are crucial, even though buildings are seldom part of the focus but usually background elements. Again, too much detail can be distracting but an overall convincing look enhances that believable world you are trying to describe with your drawings. I wouldn’t want to draw every brick in the facade or other minute details, but I’d want to get the essential elements like the molding, window casings, placement or elements and overall look accurate and enough details drawn or suggested to give it a convincing and substantial look.

Thanks to Jamie Littin 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!


  1. Lee Fortuna says:

    Tom you mentioned Sam Viviano, and I know this doesn’t apply to the mailbag but I wanted to say I finally met Sam along with Dick DeBartolo,John Ficarra,Mr. Al Jaffee and My hero outside of Mr. Jack Davis, The one & only Mr. Mort Drucker!! All at the NY Comicon. All I can say is I’m still flying high! My buddy I was with & I call it “Our Day With Mort”,lol! Also met his wonderful wife Barbara who was just beautiful! We took pictures with Mort, shook his hand and of coarse got his autograph on a few vintage Mads! I don’t mind telling you I’m nearly 50yrs old, got a few tattoos & ride a Harley and after meeting Mort Drucker I felt like crying,lol! What also was funny was watching Sam run around like he drank a 55gal drum of espresso,lol! Is he always that hyper Tom? Anyway, GREAT DAY & great people!

  2. George Cook says:

    Thank you for that informative answer, Tom! I had been wondering something along that line myself, but just hadn’t been able to get the words formed in my head right enough to ask such a question.


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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