Sunday Mailbag

September 18th, 2011 | Posted in Mailbag

Q:¬¨‚Ć What advice would you have for someone thinking about getting into live caricature? I’ve been doing them for about 3 years now but still have much to learn. It started out as something I did for fun/practice and lately I have been selling them. The thing is I’m used to having a lot of time, often times days to find a person’s likeness, color, etc, drawing and redrawing until I’m satisfied. Usually in illustrator/photoshop but also paper on occasion.¬¨‚Ć How do I know when I’m ready to go live? Is there a way to get my feet wet first before diving in head first?

A: Unfortunately the only way to learn to do live caricatures is to do it. No amount of reading or practicing from photos will really prepare you for drawing live. It’s a catch 22 because you can’t get the hang of live work without drawing live, and you can’t (or rather shouldn’t) start drawing live as a professional until you get the hang of it. It’s something you have to develop an eye and instinct for, and no amount of studying will accomplish that.

With new artists that work with us at our theme park operations, I or one of my artist/managers spend about two days working with them, teaching them theory, techniques and that kind of thing. They get to draw the other new artists for practice and to try out the things they have learned. Then they spend the next week or so doing practice live drawings from volunteer theme park visitors who are willing to sit for 10 minutes or so knowing the drawing is just for practice (they don’t get to keep the drawing unless they want to pay for it, however). I estimate they have to do about 100 live caricatures over 4-5 days before their lines and the confidence in them gets to the point where they are doing a “sellable” drawing. Then they can start doing them for money and continue to develop their abilities as they move forward.

It’s easy at the theme park, because there are always people coming by who are willing to be a guinea pig for a rookie caricaturist, so there is a constant flow of volunteers for practice. On your own it’s not so easy. My suggestion is to volunteer to draw at charity events about town, at local schools at their homecoming or other events, or just set up in conjunction with some festival or fair… anywhere there is going to be a crowd of people. Even at the local park or mall will work, but it’s best to align yourself with some specific event or charity so you have an excuse for giving them away. Then get as many drawings under your belt as you can, drawing them in the way you want to do your live work. After half a dozen of these events, you will get comfortable and confident, and your instincts and eye will begin to develop.

If you want to know the absolutely best way to learn to do live caricatures, get a summer job at the nearest theme park caricature operation. As long as the owner actually spends time preparing you to draw live, you’ll have a chance to learn a few things and then 3 months of boot camp-like constant drawing develops your skills like no other experience does. By the end of a summer of theme park caricatures, your drawings will be light-years ahead of where they were at the beginning. Not everyone can just drop their lives and do something like that, but it is an ideal way to do it.

Thanks to Kyle Maloney 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. Steve Hearn says:

    Some great advice there Tom! I have been drawing live caricatures to make a living, for about ten years now. I started by drawing for our coal school summer fete, giving the money I made to the parents association. It was a great way to learn and get started. Drawing live means you also interact with the sitter. After a while you develop a sense of how to talk with people to help them relax and enjoy the experience of being drawn! So it is a combination of drawing and people skills! The best advice I can offer is to join ISCA and really kick start your learning process off! Oh and buy a new caricature how to draw book, that is out soon by some sap called Ted or Tom, I think….

    • Tom says:

      Thanks, Steve! I was going to add that joining the International Society of Caricature Artists would be a good idea, but the ISCA is a professional caricaturist organization, so don’t you really have to be a pro first? That’s the way it was when I first joined anyway.

      • Steve Hearn says:

        Yes that’s correct Tom but we also accept people who want to learn and develop their caricature art. We look to encourage artists at all levels and that diversity brings ISCA to an exciting place! Membership also allows people to attend our convention and that is a great event to learn at and be inspired to do better as an artist!

  2. Kyle Maloney says:

    Oh wow, I assumed your last book preview was your way answering indirectly, being so close to when I sent it. Thanks for the detailed response Tom. 🙂

  3. John Schipp says:

    I did my first event at a local fesival a year ago. I drew caricatures for free. I had a line an hour or longer the whole day. People were generally impressed, it was free so no suprize. A year later (last weekend) I did my second event, same local fest. I charged $5 thinking I would cut down on the long lines and make a few dollars. I had people stand in line over an hour again and everyone was suprised it was only $5. My drawing time started at 13-15 mins at begining of the day and got closer to 10mins buy the end. I felt like drawing live was easier, and I learned way more about what I was doing. Id say go for it. Doing it for free or cheap and donating to a charity should help take some of the stress out of it.

    • Kyle Maloney says:

      5 dollars is what I’m charging now actually, haha. I figure if I end up disappointing people at least their only out 5 bucks. I feel like I should start charging more, but its kinda dictated by the site I’m using. Its called, you can only charge 5 dollars, no more, no less. And the site itself takes a dollar, so I’m only getting 4 per caricature. I need to find another outlet that lets me expand.

  4. cade says:

    When I was trying to figure out the live caricature problem I went down to the local library and asked them if I could camp outside and offer free caricatures to practice. I would let people know what I was doing as they came in and they were under no obligation to take them. Everyone took it even if I felt the caricature was lacking.

    After doing this a few times, I was confident enough to go to some craft shows and charge $5 for black and white caricature. I did that for awhile and then stopped as my life changed.


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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