Sunday Mailbag

April 28th, 2013 | Posted in General

Q: After working for my [caricature concession] company for four years, I might be in a position this year where I’ll be in charge of interviewing and hiring, as well as training. So here is my question: When hiring new artists for your theme park concessions, do you have any thoughts on:

1) Weeding out the right person who has enough artistic potential as well as the ability to engage a guest in  a pleasing manner while they draw,

2) Any tips and techniques for training these people to become better at engaging the guests? I would definitely like tips or drawing techniques I could teach them, but I’m more concerned about making sure they’re actually out there interacting with guests in the park, and not cowering behind their easel.

A: Since the seasonal theme park caricature biz is ramping up right now, this question has some pertinence to me at the moment. It also speaks to a part of that type of caricature art that doesn’t always get addressed: the performance aspect.

Make no mistake, at its best live caricature is a performance art. Those who truly excel at it not only do great work on the paper, but are also great at “working the crowd” and the subjects via a dynamic that is part what is being drawn on the paper and part verbal interaction. I know caricaturists who are superb at drawing but lousy at interacting, and caricaturists who put on a great show but the drawing leaves a lot to be desired. The best have a handle on both. That said, I will always give the advantage to the “art” over the “act”.

When looking at potential artists for my theme park operations, I start by assessing their art abilities. That’s because ultimately what we are really selling out there is a product, i.e. a caricature of the subject. That has to be done competently at a minimum, and preferably done impressively well. I’ve always held to the belief that a good caricature is still a good caricature even if the artist creating it wasn’t very entertaining to listen to, but the best showmanship in town will not make a bad caricature good. Therefore the art skills are always first and foremost for me in looking for new artists for one of my theme park operations.

That’s not to say I don’t consider the potential artist’s personality at all. Far from it. I have turned away artists who I thought would do just fine with the drawing part of the job because they were so painfully introverted I knew they’d have trouble with the people part of it. Not just being quiet, but literally struggling with drawing in front of people. That is not easy, and takes a certain amount of self confidence and occasionally some thick skin. How do I spot those types? That becomes fairly evident within a few minutes of talking and interacting with them. It’s very easy to spot those people with extroverted personalities, or at least those with good conversation skills. If they have those in place, they can learn to “put on a show” when working, even if thay aren;t naturally inclined toward it.

How do I train artists to better engage the guests? That’s easy… by example. I am by nature not very talkative… I’d much prefer to shut up and draw. However I know that’s not the best approach when doing live work. I begin by explaining to new artists why it’s important and beneficial to do some talking when doing a live caricature. It loosens up not only the guests you are drawing, but you as well. Your drawing becomes more spontaneous and reflective when you engage your subjects verbally as well as visually. You get a much better sense of “them” than if you simply look at them as they become more and more uncomfortable in the silence, and your caricature improves as a result of that better interaction. Finally, the interaction interests the people watching, and they are more apt to stick around and see the final “reveal”, and then decide to get one themselves. You could do the best drawing ever and it would be a boring process for the subject, the audience AND you if it was done in silence. Then I either personally demonstrate how to draw and talk at the same time, or make sure I put them in a booth with those that do a good job with that so they can see how it’s done and emulate it. I learned by sitting next to one of the best ever, Steve Fasen of Fasen Arts. Steve not only did some seriously great exaggerated caricature art, he was a master at banter, conversation, and “insult” comedy. He would say things to people that I still to this day cannot believe he said and got away with… somehow he was able to pull it off. He was the Don Rickles of caricature, only his insults were smart and savvy as opposed to calling people “hockey pucks”. Basically , he’d put on a little mini Friars-roast of his subjects with each drawing. He had the uncanny ability to sense how much the subject was able to take of this treatment, and would dish out exactly that much. The result was guffaws from the audience, equal laughter from the subjects and a line of people waiting get the same treatment. I would never advise anyone to emulate that sort of act unless they had Steve’s sixth sense, but the basic idea of subject/audience/drawing interaction is an important part of the mix.

I ran into this issue just last weekend at one of my park operations. I was watching three of my artists doing drawings simultaneously, and the entire time no one said anything. It was like being in a morgue or a library. While they were all busy drawing another family came up with three kids looking for a caricature. I commandeered the seat of one of the rookie artists and did that triple myself. By the end I had the family laughing, a crowd of people around me enjoying the show, and did the drawing in about 1/2 the time the other artists did theirs. Afterward I told the artists that none of that comes naturally to me, I have to “put on a show” with a real effort. The results are noticeably better in all facets of the process, and that’s why you need to do it. Hopefully that sunk in and they will be better at making that effort.

I still believe that there is no substitute for doing good live caricature artwork, but doing that and being engaging and entertaining at the same time is the recipe for success with this kind of art.

Thanks to Cowboyseth 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.

Comments

  1. Simeon Taylor says:

    Absolutely spot on in your observations and thought. I regularly do caricatures during wedding season. Once you get first one drawn people flow in. Its only when the couple is laughing, having a good time does the crowd form, and get one drawn. Also, thats when you the Tips! The only down side is you’re getting paid the bridal couple thus the drawings are free for the guest… then some drunk idiots sits down.

  2. Ryan says:

    Great advice as always Tom!

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