Some retail caricaturists, meaning those that sell drawings to their subjects at theme parks, fairs, street corners, etc, seem to think you can’t do both of those things when in fact you can if you keep a few things firmly in mind: learn to read your subjects and be aware of the environment in which you are working.
There are two extremes when it comes to retail caricature:
The “Sell-Out”– This is the “caricaturist” who abandons all pretense of caricature as an art form and just goes for maximum sales at all times. This is usually accomplished by doing a “generic” face using the same basic feature shapes, head shape, and relationship of features, and just plugging in the most obvious physical traits like hairstyle, mustache, glasses, etc in order to get some form of mild likeness. The result is more of a cartoon character that is totally benign and flavorless, but usually sells without any problem. Sadly, the customers do tend to eat this up.
The “F*You, I’m an ARTEEST”– This is the “caricaturist” who abandons all pretense of being in a retail environment and goes for not just extreme exaggeration but the literally grotesque without giving any consideration to what kind of exaggeration the face really calls for. They simply bring in the sledge hammer no matter what. They do this in an apparent effort to prove they are true artists and if their customers don’t like it they can go f*k themselves. Actually, in certain cases and with certain faces, some of these artists can do some really brilliant caricatures. However I’ve only seen a handful with the actual art chops to pull off these kinds of drawings, with many not having the foundation of good, strong drawing skills necessary to do this kind of work, and the result is a terrible drawing with only a passing resemblance to a human being. A small section of customers can appreciate this kind of art, but realistically “The ARTEEST” is doing these drawings for themselves and not for the customer.
I personally disagree with the extremes of both of these approaches but if that’s the route an artist takes, more power to them. That said, here’s my problem with each extreme:
With “The Sell-Out”, they are doing the customer a disservice in that they aren’t really doing caricature. A caricature is about what makes a person unique, and drawing the same face over and over isn’t drawing the person in front of you. It’s artistic fast food. You get the same burger the last person got. Yes, you want to make your customer happy but not at the expense of any form of real caricature art. In my opinion the customer isn’t getting what they are paying for. The artist is not giving them the talent, expertise, and effort that the word “caricatures” on their sign is insinuating they should be getting. The fact that they buy it and leave happy (most of the time) isn’t an excuse for this kind of shortchanging of the art the caricaturist should be doing. Each person that sits down should get a drawing where the artist really looks at their face, and gives them a real, individualized caricature complete with an attempt at exaggerating what they perceive is unique about the subject and a good rendering of their features and likeness. Anything less is a poor job. How these people get through day after day of doing this sort thing is beyond me… I’d be hating my job after a week.
With “The ARTEEST”, they are doing their customers a disservice in that they are not really looking at the face and doing a drawing with the level of exaggeration that face calls for, nor paying attention to the needs of their customer. They wade in swinging haymakers whether they are drawing Marilyn Monroe or Marilyn Manson. Some faces absolutely don’t demand some crazy level of exaggeration, while others do… telling the difference is a fundamental skill of a good live caricaturist. Some people just aren’t prepared to handle something that is really taken to the edge or beyond. In the end The ARTEEST is drawing only to satisfy their own creative urges, with the customer’s satisfaction a very distant priority. It’s hard to determine if this is a function of enormous ego, where they expect their customers to swallow what they give them and like it, or if it’s really the result of a weak ego, where they just can’t bear the idea of doing an easygoing drawing for a couple of ten year old girls who are just looking for a fun drawing they can giggle at and saving the big ammo for faces that need it, customers that can handle it, or for on their own time. These folks have forgotten where they are and what they are doing. They are not drawing scathing editorial illustrations for The Village Voice or the New York Times Book Review. They are doing caricatures for $20. While sitting in lawn chairs. In a theme park or tourist trap. While wearing a neon yellow polo shirt that says “Six Flags” on the pocket or similar. The last time I checked no one has won a Pultizer or a Nobel prize for theme park caricatures. If retail caricature is an artist’s only environment for creative satisfaction they are in the wrong career, or they need to find another outlet for scratching their artistic itches.
My philosophy has always been finding a balance between the commercial realities of working retail caricature and artistic integrity. That balance comes from being able to read your customers and recognize when you can really go to town on the exaggeration, and when you need to back off and go easy. After a while you get a sort of sixth sense for it. A couple of times a day you get to really have fun with some subjects who you know are going to really love their neanderthal brow, Billy-Bob teeth or saucer-sized eyes. A couple of times a day you end up doing some cute-a-cartures of some little kids or obviously insecure teenage girls. Most fall in between somewhere. I can still do work I am proud of across the spectrum because I always give the subject my individual attention. I can go for a really strong likeness and snappy linework for the wimpy ones and push myself and the exaggerations for the meaty ones. My ego can survive doing the occasional easy-going, flattering caricature because I’m not defined by a $20 drawing of some cotton-candy munching tween done while roller coasters roar in the background… I can satisfy my artistic soul in other endeavors and in other drawings. Likewise I can bring the lightning when it’s called for and have a lot of fun doing some more exaggerated caricatures, and occasionally wow some folks when the stars align… and those are the drawings I remember as highlights of the day.
Granted I do not do a whole lot of retail caricatures work anymore… in fact this past summer was the first time in quite some time I actually worked a few real days at one of my stands and wasn’t just there to train people or do demos. Things have not changed since my first day drawing caricatures at Six Flags Great America in 1985. I’m still working in a retail setting, and there are simple realities to that.
Thanks to Daryl Griffin 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!
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