Sunday Mailbag

December 1st, 2013 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Hey Tom! Not sure if you’ve covered this ever on your blog but here it goes. As we all know people come in all shapes and sizes. Now let’s say a lady is a little on the heavy side. Hopefully as she’s getting her caricature, she’ll know it’ll be somewhat exaggerated. But how do you find a balance on a “sensitive” person, so you’re not offending the person? In the case above, you don’t want to make the lady disgustingly fat and all that. But you don’t want to just ignore the fact that “she” is on the heavier side. It doesn’t have to stop at weight either. Say a bony nose, or big ears you get the idea. (Not so flattering characteristics we may or may not have). If a person has a bony nose, you can’t just skip that when doing a caricature. So I guess what I’m asking is, how do you keep that balance of “caricature-ism” but at the same time dealing with the sensitivity of some of your clients? Also has any clients been mad at the fact that you point these bad features out?

A: This question obviously pertains to drawing live caricatures, not illustration. It also is a question that pertains a bit more to caricatures done in a retail environment like at a theme park or a fair…in other words where the subject of the drawing is expected to pay for said drawing. You also bring up one of the biggest specific tarpits of the live caricaturist’s existence: a subject’s weight.

Firstly, in general: There are many schools of thought on the approach to retail caricature, and all of them fall somewhere along a scale with an extreme on each end of it:

Cute-acatures <————–> Fuckyou-acatures

On once end of the scale you have the complete artistic sellout: the Cute-acature. This is a drawing that has little to do with what the model actually looks like. It’s a drawing that is usually heavily based on a single look or style with some individual features shoehorned in, that makes the subject look cute, good-looking, cartoony, attractive, what have you. It ignores any and all features that might not come off as “ideal” and is meant to compliment and flatter the subject, even if it means giving a 300 lb man a jawline.

On the other end of the scale is the Fuckyou-acature. This is where the artist does a drawing that basically says to the subject: “Fuck you. I am an ARTEEST and I’m going to rip you a new one, and you are going to like it or you are an overly-sensitive moron.” This drawing goes out of the way to grotesquely exaggerate any flaws or blemishes the subject has… in fact it often OVER-exaggerates them far past any level of exaggeration the feature is actually asking for. For example, a subject might have a slight overbite/buck teeth. The Fuckyou-acature artist would draw the front incisors extending down past the chin, and in fact digging into the ground while the subject’s head pulls back and their feet barely scrape the floor. Hilarious, but few overbites are so severe they are demanding that sort of treatment. That becomes distortion not exaggeration, even if there is a glimmer of reason for it.

Neither approach is a very good one, although both can have their moments. The Cute-acature is usually the more commercially successful approach, but talk about a vapid and soul-crushing waste of artistic talent. The Fuckyou-acature will have its fans but without some tempering it will result in a lot of very pissed off customers, and not just the actually over-sensitive ones who would struggle with a good but honest caricature. Even people with a sense of humor don’t like being told to pay for a “fuck you” drawing that frankly is more about the artist than about the subject.

The best approach, both for all customers in general and in particular for one like in your example above, is a balance between the two. In fact, the really good live caricaturist develops a sort of sixth-sense about the tolerance levels of their subjects, and tempers their caricatures accordingly. This is especially true of a person’s weight, which is really in a class by itself when it comes to subject being sensitive. Why? Because it is viewed as something the subject can control, and therefore exaggerating it is like saying “you are guilty of being lazy and weak”. That’s hardly fair, because in many cases a person has only so much realistic control over their weight. Various conditions contribute to that, particularly genes. No one has control over how their nose looks, how big their forehead is or if they have freckles, but they do (or are perceived that they do) have control over their weight. Outside of surgery or some sort of cosmetic procedure, you were born with your features and they are what they are. Being overweight is considered (fairly or not) a correctable issue, and that makes it personal and therefore a subject of a far more sensitive nature.

Let’s take your example as a demonstration. A heavy-set lady sits down to get drawn…. where on the scale do you draw her? That depends. In talking with her, you could get the sense that she’s very comfortable with her weight (a rarity, especially in terms of being okay with it being the focus of a caricature), or you might get the idea she’s sensitive about it (like if she says “don’t draw me FAT!”). You cannot ignore that fact that she has a double chin, because if you do you will not get a likeness. However you don’t have to go out of your way to exaggerate that fat face to the point where she looks like a balloon with tiny a nose, eyes and mouth sunk into a fleshy ball of dough. I would never draw her so she looks like a scrawny Angelina Jolie, but I would probably look for other things to exaggerate and emphasize… especially if they are attractive things. Maybe she has very lush eyelashes, or her hair is big and flowing. Maybe she has a radiant smile, and I’d be sure to capture that. I’d still do the double chin, but I wouldn’t exaggerate it so she looks like Jabba the Hutt. When I teach rookie theme park artists live techniques, I always caution them to err on the safe side with people’s weight. Don’t ignore it, but don’t make it the focus of your drawing either.

With other features, that’s up to your assessment of the tolerance of your subject. If you get the sense they are babies about their big nose, downplay it and look for other things to emphasize. If they seem like they are into it, let them have it. MOST people understand what a caricature is when they sit down and that’s in your favor. You’d think if they really are vain they wouldn’t get one done in the first place… but you’d be surprised how many people just don’t believe they have the big nose they do out of sheer self-deception.

Do people ever get mad at a drawing? Sure they do. Sometimes you just guess wrong, or more likely you never had a chance outside of a “cute-acature” anyway, and then you lose a sale. Big deal. Just politely say you are sorry they didn’t like it and move on. You are a caricaturist, not a self-image consultant.

Thanks to Cam 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. bob says:

    I know it’s your blog and I’m just a guest, but I can get your point without the f-word being thrown in my face.

  2. Cam says:

    Thanks tom for the response, glad you picked my question! This is my 2nd question I got on your blog and am quite proud. Your response definitely helped me grasp this and I am surely grateful….. Even if you used the f-word haha. Keep up the awesome work

  3. Dave Moore says:

    I always felt that it was a bit presumptuous to assume that a customer was ashamed of a particular characteristic. No such thing as a bad feature.

    • Presumption is Job One. Before you draw, you assess your victim’s desires and proceed from there. Treating everyone the same is just plain silly. A brash, loud man is TOTALLY going to get a great big honker drawn if they in fact have a great big honker. A shy guy or girl with a large nose won’t get the same level of schnozzola as the loud fellow, but some other aspect will be exaggerated. Peter Parker almost said, “With great exaggeration power comes great responsibility‚Äö√Ѭ∂”

      Or you could go ALL out ALL the time on everyone. Cause, sure, that’ll work, too. Something like, “With great exaggeration power comes, uh, me. Me me me. Yeahhhh‚Äö√Ѭ∂.. Me.”


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