Sunday Mailbag

July 31st, 2011 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I know you have already covered the basics of exaggerating but I’d really love to pick your brain a bit more about seeing your subject; what to exaggerate and emphasise and what to play down. For example drawing familiar faces, friends or relatives or even celebrities you’ve ‘known’ for years. Or drawing characters like Lemmy Kilmister, who looks like a caricature already. It seems really hard to analyze someone’s face that far without over-analyzing and losing the big picture.

A: Well, that’s the trick to caricature. It’s exactly those decisions, what to exaggerate and what not to, that dictate the success of a caricature and places the artist’s personal stamp on the art.

There is no single right or wrong way to draw and exaggerate a given face. Different artists can make different choices and still create a successful caricature. My choices on what to exaggerate might not be the same as your choices. How far you push the exaggeration might not match how far (or little) I push mine. While there are many “wrong” decisions that can ruin a caricature (drawing someone with small, beady eyes and giving them big, gigantic eyes would be a wrong decision), there are also several “right” ones that can apply. Caricature is rooted in personal vision and observation, and the decisions that stem from a given artist will reflect those unique perceptions. You can take a single subject around the country getting a thousand different caricatures drawn of he or she, and no two will be exactly alike. Some will be unsuccessful, but many will be great, dead-on caricatures yet differ wildly. That’s one of the most exciting things about the art of caricature.

I tell the artists that work with my theme park operations that great caricatures are made up of 25% drawing and 75% seeing. Having strong drawing skills is a must, but it’s the ability to see the unique relationships in the face and then make good choices on exaggerating them that is the bulk of the success of a caricature. Even an artist that can draw incredibly well can’t do good caricatures if they can’t see what to exaggerate…the most accurate shooter in the NBA can’t score if they can’t find the basket.

Learning to “see” is a lifelong process and involves developing your ability, not learning it. Yes, there are many techniques and concepts that can help an artist develop that ability, but ultimately only thousands of drawings and hours of time and effort will cause that “caricature eye” to open wider.

Thanks to¬¨‚ĆTomi Lepist?? from Sipoo, Finland 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. Edd Travers says:

    Spot on, as always, Tom! I’m a caricaturist who gets asked this this sort of question a lot… I always blether about how I’ve sort of developed an ‘eye’ over the years for what to exaggerate, etc, and I think that, certainly in terms of live caricature; over time you kind of sense ‘how far you can go’ with a person from the ‘vibe’ they give off to you….I find that a bit of ‘patter’ puts them at ease to some extent where you can push the drawing into where you it want it to go, and they (and the onlookers) get on your side….anyway, just thought I’d chip in my 2 bobsworth! Not that you need it!

    Keep up the great work.
    Best regards, from Edd Travers, caricaturist, Glasgow, Scotland.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks, Edd! I agree that after a while you can sense the tolerance level for exaggeration in your live subjects.

  2. George Cook says:

    Very well said, Tom! I know I am quite a few thousand hours short of that “caricature eye” opening up to where i’d like it to be. I had actually taken a couple months off from drawing because nothing I was trying was working for me, but a friend just bought me a really early b-day gift in the form of a folding drawing table, so I guess its time to start up again…


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