Sunday Mailbag- Portrait or Caricature?

November 12th, 2017 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Is it more difficult to draw ‘realism’ and general portraits, than to draw caricatures? Initially I thought it would be easier to draw caricatures as I have seen street artists draw caricatures quite quickly and they look great but seeing yours it looks quite difficult. With a normal portrait you just draw what you are looking at but with caricatures you have to sort of make it up yourself, larger forehead, larger chin etc then working out with exaggeration goes with each individual.

A: I think it’s equally difficult to draw a truly excellent caricature and an excellent realistic portrait, but from a technical standpoint I think a portrait is more difficult… or at least “less forgiving”. Both require great understanding of the features, very strong drawing skills and a mastery of whatever technique the art is created in. Both also require making creative choices that enhance the effectiveness and success of the final result.

Do not think a realistic portrait is nothing more than drawing what you see. An accomplished portraitist is much more than just a technically skilled copy machine. Choices in expression, posture, lighting and even subtle exaggeration moves an excellent portrait from a mere replacement for a photograph into something that captures the subject better than a photo can. The artist has a lot of input beyond just accurately drawing the features.

Caricatures are more overtly creative, however. In portraiture the artist’s choices are less evident because they are made and executed in a subtle way, and are not the prime focus of the artwork. Capturing the likeness is the prime focus, and the artist’s hand and sensibilities add to that likeness without being the reason for the art. A caricature, on the other hand, makes the artist’s interpretation of the subject the main focus. While a good likeness is crucial to accomplish that, the real reason for a caricature is to showcase the artist’s exaggerated description of the subject with the likeness a necessary byproduct, otherwise a portrait is all you’d need.

The reason I say a portrait is “less forgiving” than a caricature is that it demands the portraitist stay strictly within the physical forms and features of the subject, which demands a higher degree of technical skill in drawing. Even being slightly off in your perspective, anatomical representation, the relationship of features to one another, or the shapes and nuances of the features themselves, can cause a portrait to go from good to awful. With caricature, the editorial input of the caricaturist can vary almost beyond number between artists, so not quite getting the nose right or having the features not relate to one another correctly gets written off as part of the “exaggeration” and is forgiven. The caricature can still be successful even though the artist’s technical skills didn’t quite hit the mark.

Of course, all of that depends on what you consider a “good” caricature. Some (NOT ALL) of those street artists you mention probably draw the same basic face over and over in a fun, cartoony style and only change some obvious features like the hair or glasses. That’s really not good caricature, and yet people might love those drawings and hang them up on their walls. I guess the same thing can be said for portraits, but a bad likeness in a portrait is pretty obvious and one in a caricature can be more easily forgiven. Ultimately, I feel that excellence in either artform hold to the same standards of likeness, skill and artistry.

Thanks to Stephen Magee 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. Excellent read. Great insights…!

  2. leefhcaricature says:

    I’ve seen highly-skilled portrait artists had lots of difficulty to convert to drawing caricatures probably because of their engraved ‘seeing’ and interpretation skills. To draw good caricatures, one has to re-learn it. What do you think the best way to convert portrait drawing skill to caricature drawing?


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