Sunday Mailbag

January 15th, 2012 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I’m enthusiastically working through your book. Aside from enjoying the art and fantastic tips, I’m really interested what you said about it taking 500 faces to really get the nuances of caricature / portraiture.

So to fully understand…. maybe naively so, I have set out to draw 500 faces. I really want to at least begin to recognize all the subtleties you mentioned… and to overcome some of the challenges I’ve faced while drawing portraits. A friend of mine said that it takes 1,000 attempts at a particular activity to beome an expert. My goals isn’t really to become an expert (a half expert is fine with me) so much as to further my own art and to help me grow as a hobbyist.

What else would you recommend artists do to grow and become better at achieving a likeness?

A: I think you are mistaking the difference between caricature and likeness. Here is the quote from the book to which this question refers:

The Mad Art of Caricature, Page 12:

In caricature, the old adage of “practice makes perfect” has never been truer. The ability to see doesn’t spring up overnight, and I often tell eager young caricaturists they have about 500 or so bad caricatures in them before they start noticing the subtle things that hide inside the ordinary face.

By the term “see” I am talking about not necessarily the ability to DRAW or to capture a likeness, which can be done without any exaggeration. I am talking about the ability to observe and notice the things about a face that makes it unique…the things that a caricaturist is going to want to exaggerate to create a caricature as opposed to a portrait. The “500 or so bad caricatures” I say a new caricaturist has in them is not about improving drawing skills or capturing a better likeness, it’s about developing your eye to notice those unique things through the simple medium of observing and then drawing what you observe. Of course the act of drawing over 500 caricatures will also improve an artist’s drawing skills as well as their observational skills as it pertains to simply seeing the facial features that a likeness requires be accurately drawn immensely, but it’s the development of the ‘eye’ to which I refer in that quote.

Additionally, those 500 drawings are not a threshold wherein drawing number 501 is like some switch was suddenly switched on and an artist’s drawings suddenly become successful. I actually use that number with my new theme park artists as saying that is about when they stop fighting with the tools and medium, start getting comfortable in the chair and faces start to look different to them as things jump out that previously went unnoticed. It is still an ongoing process, and at the end of the next 500 drawings, number 1,001 will look very different than 501 did as long as they continue to apply themselves.

Now, as to your actual question about what else (besides practice) an artist can do to improve their ability to capture a likeness…

Nothing. There is nothing else besides unyielding dedication and sheer, unrelenting observing/drawing that will help an artist become better at getting a likeness. Studying and incorporating different techniques are important, and can help an artist along the way, but there are no shortcuts. No amount of studying, reading, watching videos, listening to lectures or other sources of information on drawing can replace the act of drawing and what that does to your ability to make your eyes, hand and brain work together. It’s like swimming. You can read about how to swim, you can look at diagrams of the action, you can watch videos and have classroom instruction in swimming. Until you actually get in the water and start moving around, you will never be able to swim.

That is advice nobody really wants to hear, but it is the absolute truth. Talent is only part of the recipe. The most talented artist in the world would not be more than a mediocre artist if they never bothered to work at developing their skills. Modest talent with enormous work ethic and determination will beat out enormously talented but lazy artists every time.

Thanks to Steven White 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. Robin Crowley says:

    Very good question, and I totally agree with the answer. I’ve drawn more than 20,000 faces, and still have a lot to learn and improve.

  2. Brian says:

    I’ve bought every caricature how to book I could find. The Mad Art of Caricature is the best one by far. Why? The rules! or Laws. I can actually just follow the thinking feature by feature and almost always get a exaggerated likeness. T shape, law of consistent mass, eye tilt, head shape, on and on. It’s almost a formula. It amazes me how so many professional caricature artist miss these concepts and only get a likeness by luck it seems. I love this book!

  3. Steven White says:

    Thanks, Tom for the feedback and insight. You can imagine my surprise this morning when I checked my feed reader and saw my letter posted as your mailbag! Awesome! Wish I’d asked a better question now….

    Unrelenting drawing it shall be. 🙂


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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