Sunday Mailbag

October 14th, 2012 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: How do you feel when clients ask caricature artists to “water down” their exaggeration. I feel they do not understand why they hired an artist in the first place. I believe you said you were asked to tone down your caricatures at the Democratic National Convention gig you worked at. I guess they did not want to offend public figures being drawn. Has a client made you change a commissioned project to be less exaggerated? As an analogy I do not think someone would ask a chef to tone down their spices at a restaurant. Recently a downtown restaurant asked four muralists to paint on the walls and gave them “full creative license”. One artist said “The better works are those done with total freedom…so let the artists do what they are good at.”

A: There are a few shades of interpretation with this question, especially as it pertains to caricature vs. other types of illustration.

With respect to something like the mural project you mentioned, there is a big difference between asking an illustrator to “tweak” their work a little and asking them to do something completely different from what they do. I think anytime an art director has to ask an illustrator to really adjust their style of art to fit their project, they didn’t do their most important job as an art director right: select the right artist for the job. They should have found an artist who’s work already fits with what they are looking for, so they don’t have to tell them to change their natural tendencies for the sake of the project’s needs. To use your analogy, why would an Italian restaurant hire a French cuisine chef, and then ask him/her to start cooking Italian food? In that respect, I agree with the artist you quote, in that the best creative work by an artist is done when that artist is given the freedom to be themselves.

With respect to caricature, however, it’s a little bit different . . . especially when you consider the wide variety of styles within the art form. In the case of my DNC caricature gig you cite above, they were not asking me to radically alter my drawing style, but to resist the temptation to “go off” on someone and keep things a little more flattering than derogatory. My caricatures are not particularly mean-spirited, so that wasn’t what I’d consider an unreasonable request. Many caricaturists, especially ones that do live work, can turn the volume up or down on their exaggerations, and the clients need only find someone who’s portfolio is close to what they want and then direct them a little one way or the other. In this case, CNN did their job picking someone for that DNC gig whose work is already in the ballpark of what they were looking for (actually to be accurate, I was given this gig by the Goofy Faces agency, and they picked me, not CNN). Had they picked Sebastian Kr?¬?ger and then asked him to tone it down, that would be hiring a French chef (in this case a German one, I suppose) to make Italian Food. That would make no sense. At least they hired an Italian chef…they just asked him to go easy on the garlic.

Has a client made you change a commissioned project to be less exaggerated?

This has happened to me many times, to the point where I no longer accept any project where the subject themselves are approving his/her own image. It isn’t usually about exaggeration levels, but just plain old honestly about what they look like. Every once and awhile I take on a project like that and almost always live to regret it. One such recent job was when a micro-brewery owner contracted me to do a caricature of him for a label of one of his beers. It was a legitimate micro-brewery, not some garage operation, and they were paying a decent rate, so I took on the job. Here are the pics of the guy:

And here’s my sketch. The logo was to go into the outer circle area. I needed to keep the line work extremely simple as it would be used for many different purposes and might be vector based in the end, and he wanted to possibly make a neon sign out of it:

I thought I was pretty nice to him… no flabby, double chin anyway. The response was that his wife and mom didn’t think it looked like him.

That’s right… his MOM didn’t like it.

In my personal definition of what a professional caricature illustration job entails, I specify that a client’s MOM is not to be involved in the approval process of sketches. Job over, I sent him a refund of his deposit down as I was the one who cancelled the job, and once again questioned why I ever take on these kinds of projects. It’s the curse of the freelancer…it’s physically painful to turn down a decent paying job even when you know it might be a problem. Live and learn.

Thanks to Brian Vasilik 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. Rob Chase says:

    What type of reaction does the client generally have when you leave a project like that?

    • Tom says:

      I have only resorted to this type of action a few times. Ordinarily, once I take on a job, I also bend over backwards to please the client, even if that means I end up with an end result I am not necessarily happy with. However, sometimes it becomes readily apparent that the client doesn’t have a clue what they want and seem to expect me to shoot blindly in the dark until I happen upon something they are satisfied with, if I ever do. When that is obviously the case, I find it better to bow out. That might seem unprofessional, but it’s best for my sanity and for the client as well.

      How do they react? It varies. Sometimes they are mad, sometimes apologetic, sometimes indifferent. I usually couch my backing out of the project with some variation of “I think it would be best for you to find another illustrator who can do a better job for you”. That makes it sound like it is my failure not theirs, and they react better that way.

  2. Bill Karis says:

    Did you ever check back to see if he had someone else design a different logo for his micro brewery? If so, how different a direction did it take?

  3. Mike says:

    Tom, I am reading the autobiography of Norman Rockwell, “My Adventures As An Illustrator”. It is an interesting book. Your stories sound like some of his “adventures”.

  4. Richard says:

    At least he sent you somewhat decent photos. I love when they send you a 4×6 and their head is about half an inch big (and often in bright sunlight) or taken in a mirror and blown out by the flash and out of focus.
    It could’ve been worse though, he could’ve asked you to do it “for the exposure”.
    …but what self-respecting brewery-owning bloke lets his wife and mother decide?

  5. jailerjoe says:

    Toning down? That sucks all the life out of it! The fat, wrinkly and plain ugly are hard (if not impossible) to do accurately w/o offending, unless they have thick skin. It ain’t worth no amount of money to put up with mom’s trivial critique. Send her a picture of Fred Flintstone next time.

  6. Alex says:

    Looks like you nailed the guy and even flattered him a bit by toning down chin #2…

  7. Grant Jonen says:

    Seems silly… I think the caricature is flattering and you did everything asked of you.


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