Sunday Mailbag

April 22nd, 2012 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I am contemplating a resurrection of my own cartooning talents that I abandoned years ago, and am considering the art of caricature as part of that. Do you think it would be beneficial to study real life portraiture first, then go into caricature? I think if you could master a good portrait, caricature would be easier to accomplish. Would you show a sample of one of your portraits that you have done? I, along with most of the visitors to your site, would be quite interested in seeing one.

A: No question that having a strong grasp of realistic drawing will only help an artist’s skills with caricature. The knowledge of how a face really works, both anatomically and in capturing an accurate and realistic likeness, and the ability to draw it well means that when you then turn your focus to the exaggerations that make caricature, you have a strong foundation upon which to work.

Sadly, caricature is something that an artist can fake a little too easily, and I have see a great many live caricaturists do this to the detriment of their own skills and the public perception of live caricature in general. By “fake”, I mean getting away with doing poor drawings because caricature is “supposed to be exaggerated” and the general public is all too willing to forgive a bad likeness or poor underlying substance because they think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I especially see many live caricaturists trying to do these outrageous exaggerations from the very beginning of their careers rather than take the time to build a solid foundation of strong drawing skills first. Their caricatures look wild but fall flat in terms of likeness and structure because they do not have the necessary foundations of good drawing and the command of the facial features necessary to pull that kind of extreme exaggeration off. The all want to be Sebastian Kr?¬?ger, but miss the fact that Sebastian studied realistic portraiture and fine art painting for years before becoming one the world’s greatest exaggerated caricaturists.

Portraiture does take a different set of drawing muscles, though. Back when I was a college art student, the school I attended turned their nose up at cartooning and caricature. I was not allowed to do much cartooning in any assignments. Fortunately I was pretty competent at the realistic stuff as well. When I got the job doing caricatures during the summer, at first I struggled to get back into the swing of realistic drawing after a summer of nothing but caricatures. It took a few weeks to get that out of my head and get back to realistic proportion. Believe me, I THOUGHT I was drawing realistically but everything was just a little bent and exaggerated. Eventually after a few years of this I was able to switch back and forth at will.

Today I might be hard pressed to do a really good portrait. It would certainly take me a long time to do. I have done nothing but cartooning for years now. However several years ago I went to a live drawing co-op once a week where we did a series of ten minute poses and then one long 2 plus hour pose. I found it did not take long to get some of my realistic drawing skills back. Here are a few of my life drawings/portraits from those co-op sessions (although a few of the quicker figures might have been studies from a book… no way to tell after so long). I know I posted these a few years back but they are the most recent “realistic” work I have!

WARNING: some of these were nude models. CLICK on the images for a closer look.








Thanks to Tony August, Surrey, BC, Canada 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. Skip says:

    Just like portraits, caricatures are based on a sound understanding of the way heads and bodies are put together. I’ve never been a caricaturist, but many years ago I took an evening class in it. I learned a lot about identifying the key things in a person’s unique facial structure that made them “them”. That ability is important in my fine art work and crucial in portraiture. I’ve worked as a courtroom artist and it was vital there as well. I’m a firm believer in including caricature in fine art curricula. Unfortunately, I’m in a minority!

  2. Chip says:

    Tom I love your portraiture and would enjoy seeing more in future posts.
    I myself will do a day of portraiture to escape the caricature world or snap myself out of being stagnant. I think that’s important to cartoonist/caricaturists as well. Take a day off and draw anything but caricature/cartoons. Draw a dog-flower-car-a tool in the shed etc. Give your caricature mind a break.
    I subscribed to the “Police Sketch Artist” theory on live caricature. i would look at a subjects face for a few secs say Hi and ask his/her name and as I’m writing that name I am thinking-what stood out for me? Then look up and start drawing.
    Think about it. When you are asked to remember what a person looked like in the brief time you saw that person you will say ; Big hair,long chin,short nose etc. you are basically describing the person in caricature.
    In live caricature you have the benefit of studying your next subjects as they await . While I’m drawing the person in front of me-I’m checking out the next 5 or 7 people so I can get familiar with their faces and draw them. People have told me -wow that looks great and you hardly looked at me. Oh I did. While you were waiting. lol !

  3. George Cook says:

    I know I have been lacking in trying anything realistic in a while. I know I need to get back to setting at the drawing table and working on both realistic stuff and on cartooning. I’ve just been dealing with other issues lately and trying to get them out of the way so that they don’t interfere when I do get back to realy spending the time I need at the drawing table.

  4. I don’t profess to be an authority but I agree that a thorough understanding of anatomy and bones and muscles and how they attach/function is vital to understanding exaggeration especially as it relates to cartooning and caricature. I took many life drawing courses (at least 4) and anatomy classes learning about bones and muscles. All were taught in the art department at local colleges. Many classes were devoted entirely to just drawing hands and feet and we had assignments to draw people ‚Äö√Ñ√≤on-the-street‚Äö√Ñ√¥ (full body‚Äö√Ѭ∂i.e. on park benches, etc.) and also go to local Nursing Homes and draw hands/feet of the elderly. All this was a foundation for eventual exaggeration. I will also say that talent is a requirement. I was not the best artist in these classes but I had a base talent to draw. Tom‚Äö√Ñ√¥s ‚Äö√Ñ√≤life drawing‚Äö√Ñ√¥ images are high-end. He likely won‚Äö√Ñ√¥t say it but I‚Äö√Ñ√¥m sure his drawings were the talk of the class. We know what he can do with cartooning/caricature but to see that he has the talent to draw realistic and with such quality confirms that to be the best you cannot fake it (as he conveys). Although somewhat unrelated, I am often asked (especially during live ‚Äö√Ñ√≤on-the-spot‚Äö√Ñ√¥ caricaturing) if I could teach someone to draw (especially parents asking to teach their kids to draw)‚Äö√Ѭ∂at first I was diplomatic but now I have adopted the simple response, I‚Äö√Ñ√¥ll teach you to draw if you could teach me to be tall. Many don‚Äö√Ñ√¥t get it, but if it‚Äö√Ñ√¥s not there‚Äö√Ѭ∂.you can‚Äö√Ñ√¥t teach it.

  5. Bearman says:

    My one and only art class I took in college was a beginning drawing. The grad student/teacher was into abstract versus showing us how to do any semblance of realism. His line was always “if I wanted a photo, I would take a picture”

    Turned me off to that art department completely and went the business route. (probably shows in my work today..haha)

  6. force says:

    What do you make of the Hockney-Falco “artists couldn’t draw they traced” thesis? Obviously caricaturing blows that idea out of the water. But could you draw a portrait like Ingres?

    • Tom says:

      No doubt projection and optical devices, once available, were used by individual artists as a basis for some of their art, but to suggest those advances were mainly responsible for the advances in western art is ludicrous. Anyone who has ever attempted a portrait using an artographed photo knows to follow the photo exactly results in a lifeless image. The artist must bring thier own observations and interpretations to th table to create art, even if visual aids are used at some point.


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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