Sunday Mailbag- Caricatures and Ethnicity?

October 9th, 2016 | Posted in Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag!

Q: What is to consider when drawing different ethnicities? I think a French caricaturist is usually seeing a lot of “big” noses in France. So he maybe will draw every Japanese nose small, even if it is a “big” nose in Japan.

A: Of course race and ethnicity play factors in caricature because they affect the physical features of the subject. Racial/ethnic stereotypes as they apply to a subject is something a caricaturist needs to be aware of. Your question pertains to if the ethnicity of the artist colors their perceptions of the models, which is an interesting point. Let’s look at the stereotype issues first.

When working with beginning caricaturists, I always make a point of discussing racial stereotypes and why they are important to pay attention to:

Be aware of stereotypes, but don’t be afraid of them. There are many racial stereotypes that people deem offensive. Giving asian people squinty, slanted eyes and big buck teeth, for example. Or drawing black people with big lips or a broad, flat nose. Giving jewish people big noses. These are stereotypes and automatically applying them to a subject because of their race or ethnicity is both wrong from a caricature sense, and offensive from a social sense.

That said, it’s just as wrong to ignore the actual features of a subject to avoid the appearance of stereotyping in a caricature as it would be to add them in without cause.

Stereotyped features didn’t just get made up for no reason. There are real, physical differences between the races and even regionally throughout the world, and it doesn’t stop with the skin color. Asian people do not have “squinty, slanted eyes” but they do have an extra piece of skin above their upper eyelids called the epicanthic fold, which appears with more or less prevalence depending on the person. That is a real, physical difference. Black people often have fuller lips and wider noses than other races, again the prevalence of which varies individually. There are real, regional tendencies with regard to physical features as well. Eastern Europeans have a different “look” than western Europeans. Scandinavians tend to be fair haired and skinned with blue or lighter eyes, where as Spaniards tend to be dark haired and dark complected, with brown eyes. The great melting pot that is Planet Earth has been chipping away at these differences for generations and there are many variations and combinations, but the differences between the races and regional ethnicities are not myths.

Where they become stereotypes is when they are indiscriminately applied without reason because of race. When drawing individuals you draw what you see. If the subject in front of you has big lips, you draw them with big lips. whether they are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.

The only caveat to that is how and when to exaggerate these features. I’m more sensitive to exaggerating what is perceived to be a stereotyped feature, and won’t do it unless the subject REALLY has features that demand it. In other words, if my subject is black and has only slightly bigger, fuller lips, I will not exaggerate that feature. I’ll only go there if their features really call for it. I sometimes get comments on this caricature I did years ago of Biggie Smalls from people saying it’s racist because I gave him “big lips”:

Sorry, I didn’t give him big lips. God did, I just drew them. He has really big, full lips. NOT drawing that is racist. If he had just “kind of” full lips and I did that to him, that would be wrong. I won’t exaggerate stereotypes just because they ARE stereotypes, and I’ll avoid exaggerating features that are considered stereotypes if the subject only mildly has those tendencies, but I will not avoid exaggerating those features if the subject truly has them and it’s part of their likeness.

Your point about if the ethnicity of the artist might influence their perception of a subject is something I had never considered before. Caricature is more about perception than it is physical measurements, so I suppose if you are used to seeing big noses all around you every day your idea of a big nose might become very different than someone elses. In this day and age of worldwide communication and access to visual entertainment I doubt anyone can avoid having a broader and more cosmopolitan perception of the human face than in previous generations. One might not notice their regional accent until they watch the network news every night.

Thanks to Dominick Zeillinger 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. Jack Myhervold says:

    You explain the issue fairly and honestly, and yet some in this overly sensitive age might find something wrong with any attempt to discuss and be realistic about our real cultural and physical differences, that should be viewed, as I believe you do, as part of what is so fun and interesting about the human experience. You mention regional accents, that brought to mind the way Fargo has fun with our Midwest accent in a way that is an audible caricature of something that is not really that strong anymore, but it is partially true. I feel like they are doing it in a loving way, and I think most modern day caricaturists take that same joy in their subjects.

  2. Hello Tom I’m a African American caricature artist thanks for keeping it real. I really appreciate your honesty.


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