Sunday Mailbag- Caricaturist Block?

November 2nd, 2014 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: (I’m paraphrasing this one from a non-english speaking emailer’s question) I’m a caricaturist and sometimes when I’m working on a sketch of a subject I just can’t get the likeness. I will redo it several times and ask others like my wife what they think, and even though they know who it is supposed to be I am still unhappy with it. Does this happen to you? Do you have a trick to drive you back out of a seeming impasse?

A: This happens to every caricaturist at one point or another. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it… you just occasionally struggle to find a solution to the subject you are trying to capture. Sometimes it happens with what you would think would be the easiest of faces.

I’ve found the problem is often a disparity between what you THINK the subject looks like,¬¨‚Ć and what they really look like. Caricature is all about perception, and if your perceived notion of a subject is different that what others see or what the face really shows, you will have problems. Often it’s more about expression than it is physical features. You see a certain subject as having a cynical, wry look to them, but none of your photo reference show you that look. You keep trying capture it with what’s in your head and not what’s in front of your eyes. If those two references do not mesh, you will have a result that satisfies neither. You might think a subject has a big chin because in certain photos it looks like they do, but in reality their chin isn’t big. Again, your perception is off and you need to let go of your preconceived notions and look at your subject with fresh eyes.

I do have a few tricks to help with this:

  • Get up and leave the drawing behind– Stop banging your head against the wall and go do something to take your mind off the drawing. Not just for a few minutes but for a few hours if you can. Better even the next day if deadlines are not an issue. Sometimes you just need your brain to reboot to get those fresh eyes working.
  • Toss out all your sketches and start over- Stop reworking the same sketch that isn’t working for you in the first place. It might be too broken to recover.
  • Toss out all your references and get new ones– This one usually helps. Photos lie and distort the features is subtle ways you don’t immediately recognize. Odd angles or expressions can make a big difference in how you perceive your subject, and sometimes references can throw you off badly. Don’t become enamored of a single reference picture and insist on making it your cornerstone. Get a half dozen references, with different angles and looks. If available, watch a little video of your subject talking and moving about. That helps a lot.

Don’t give up. but don’t waste your time beating a dead horse, either. There is no undrawable face.

Thanks to Thmas Vetter 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. thanks Tom 🙂


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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