Sunday Mailbag- Realistic Retail Caricature?

October 18th, 2015 | Posted in Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag!
Q: Reading your mailbag a few weeks ago about rejection when drawing live caricatures, do you think it’s better to go for high sales or for great caricatures?

A: Yes.

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!


  1. jailerjoe says:

    Maybe caricaturist should post a sign (like the Vegetable Justice guy) saying, “Don’t play if you’re easily offended”. It’s entertaining to watch and see what each artist brings to the table.

  2. Great read Tom, if you wrote this blog this morning, kudos, my brain isn’t even awake; I’ve read through this a few times and think this is key “learn to read your subjects and be aware of the environment in which you are working”. Many beginning retail caricaturists haven’t developed a style yet, want the sale, veer on the safe side, and I think there can be a happy medium. I veer more on the side of “sell out”, “cookie cutter” “cute-a-cartures” and I’m okay with it. Like you “I’m not defined by a $20 drawing” and agree “balance comes from being able to read your customers”. Thanks for the read, now back to coffee 🙂

  3. Joel Kweskin says:

    “Take out my wrinkles…my double chin…give me more hair…give me bigger boobs…don’t add my freckles…” etc., etc., etc.
    To which my frequent reply is, “I’m a caricature artist…not a plastic surgeon.” 😉

  4. After my coffee I’m thinking more this and questioning what is the individual’s time worth? In retail if you make 25% – 35% commission and it takes you one hour to do a caricature, then for a $20 drawing you are making $5 – $7 per hour. If you speed up your drawing and draw 5 per hour then you are up to $25 – $35 an hour. Like Tom wrote, it’s a balance.

    • Tom Richmond says:

      I always explain that to new artists. Be aware of what you are charging and take the appropriate amount of time. Cranking out some sloppy, generic drawing in 2 minutes is just as wrong as spending 30 minutes on some masterpiece when you are charging $20 for the caricature.

  5. Tom Faraci says:

    Excellent read, and it’s an intelligent look at what is certainly a touchy subject for many artists.

  6. CaptNice says:

    I’ve seen some so-called artists actually go to the extreme of deliberately trying to insult the subject. The “Joke ’em if they cant take a #%&*” approach. They consider each subject who storms away a validation of their comedic genius and I find that offensive..

    There’s truth in all the Pens/Swords and Great Responsibility stuff. Wielding artistic talent as a weapon to hurt people that do not deserve it, makes one little more than an artistic bully. A pencil pushing thug.

    I hope someday to become a different sort of caricaturist. One who celebrates rather than satirizes. I want to draw ordinary folks not as laughable cartoon figures, but as the super heroes they really are.

  7. Tad Barney says:

    Note that the “sell-out” artist in some (if not many) cases is not drawing in that manner simply to sell drawings. They are drawing that way because they truly think they are getting a likeness, without realizing that they’ve gotten into the habit of drawing so many features exactly the same way on every person. I know artists who have been drawing this way for decades in both party and retail environments who think they are drawing true caricatures. It’s those artists who need to take photos of their drawings and look at them all side-by-side and really examine their artwork. Some, however, will never be convinced that they aren’t already masters of their trade.

  8. Jamie Rockwell says:

    This is great; I agree that balance is the best approach. I think that a lot of people forget that, in a retail setting, the most important aspect is that you’re being commissioned to draw what your customer/client wants, not what you want. You’re going to draw people that want you to twist their face into oblivion and you’re going to draw people that don’t have the spatial awareness to know what their own facial proportions are, but your drawing won’t look like him unless he’s holding a golf club. I think that the ability to quickly read your customer is one of the most underrated aspects of retail drawing.

  9. Tracy Latham says:

    Thankfully, I do not wrestle with this. I yam what I yam, and I draw like I draw. Worst case scenario could be a horrible miss on the likeness paired with poor placement on the page and garish line quality. Or the stars being in proper alignment, I could do a very subtle but brilliant caricature that captures the subject by pushing their features into cartoondom, at the same time wowing their friends by the capture of the subject’s soul and impressing myself with my line quality and design (Dang. Did I draw that?). Most of my drawings exist like a giant reptile whose nostrils are protruding above the surface of competence but the body is mostly submerged in the deep waters of mediocrity. Sometimes I can burst forth for the kill when the right prey comes along and I’m feeling it. My life is more than half over, and I’m still doing it. So, whatever.


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