Part One: Basic Theory and the Five Shapes
This is the first of a series of articles I will post here on The MAD Blog about my theories, methods and processes concerning how to draw caricatures. A lot of this information is part of what I teach my theme park artists, so it is derived partly from the approach of doing live, quick-draw caricatures. However all of that can be applied to more studio orientated caricature work and I have also added points and concepts directly from the less time-constrained world of caricature illustration. Therefore this is not instruction for just the live caricaturist but for any artist interested in caricature for any purpose.
These kinds of things always start out with a definition, but “caricature” is a hard thing to pigeonhole into a single sentence. How can you, when the word encompasses the elegant, minimalist lines of Al Hirschfeld to the lavish, value and color soaked paintings of Sebastian Kruger to the graphic, geometrical collages of David Cowles and everything in between? Despite the wild differences in style and technique, “caricature” is the tag that is placed on any of these works of art without hesitation. Obviously there is a connection beyond a common technique, school or format. So, what are the universal elements all caricatures have that identify them as caricatures? I would say there are three essential elements that transcend style and medium and must be present in a caricature:
- Likeness- If you can’t tell who it is supposed to be, then it is not successful. All good caricatures incorporate a good likeness of their subjects.
- Exaggeration- Without some form of exaggeration, or a departure from the exact representation of the subject’s features, all you have is a portrait. The level of exaggeration can vary wildly, but there must be some departure. A straight portrait is not a caricature.
- Statement- I believe a caricature must editorialize in some way. The artist must be trying to say something about the subject. It might be something to do with the situation the subject is drawn in, it may just be a play on their personality through expression or body language, it might be a simple as making visual fun of some aspect of their persona or image. Exaggeration itself can accomplish this in some cases. The best caricatures say something more about the subject than that they have a big nose.
By my ‘definition’, a successful caricature therefore looks like the subject, is exaggerated to varying degrees and also has something to say about the subject… some sort of editorial comment. In “live” caricature at a theme park, that third item is often turned way down or ignored completely, but in the case of caricatures for illustration, it’s an important part.
Teaching Someone to See
I’ve been working with young caricaturists at theme parks for over two decades now, and I’ve learned one very important lesson… it’s impossible to teach someone to draw caricatures. I can teach them to DRAW… that isn’t so hard. Learning how a face looks and works by learning anatomy, how expression changes the features, how the angle the face is at changes the perception of features, how hair grows and falls about the head… those are things that can be taught. Drawing caricatures, on the other hand, is a lot more about seeing what makes the person in front of you unique and personal interpretation than it is about making good, confident marks on the paper. I can explain to someone exactly how to draw a circle, but if I place a circle before them and ask them to draw it and they draw a square… well, that is all about seeing and not drawing. The ability to see, and after that the ability to exaggerate what you see for humorous effect in a caricature… that has to be developed. For most that means a lot of drawing and a lot of looking.
Have you ever been walking along at the mall or where ever and along comes somebody with some crazy, incredibly distinct face that maybe sports a gigantic nose or a Cro-Magnon brow or some other obviously out-of-the-ordinary features? Caricaturists have a term for that kind of face… it’s called a “field day”. Think about it for a second… why is that face so ripe for caricature compared to the next guy’s? Are the features really that different? If you took a ruler and measured the size of Mr. Shnozzes’s nose compared to Mr. Normal, the difference would be minimal. So why is he so easy? Because you are SEEING a difference based on perception, and that is giving you your springboard for a caricature. One observation of what makes this person different from “normal”, and you are off and running. The obvious features are easy observations… it’s Johnny and Susie Normal or, worse yet, Johnny and Susie Supermodel that are the challenge. That is where developing an ability to “see” becomes important. There is no face that defies caricature, you just sometimes have to dig a little deeper to find the keys to unlock the more difficult puzzle. In caricature, the old adage of “practice makes perfect” has never been truer. The ability to see doesn’t spring up overnight, and I often tell eager young caricaturists they have about 500 or so bad caricatures in them they have to draw out first before they start noticing the subtle things that hide inside the “ordinary” face.
Although I say it’s “impossible” to teach someone to draw caricatures, it’s not impossible to help them develop their ability to draw them. There are many ways and techniques to help an artist develop their ability to see what is in front of them, recognize what makes what they see unique and then amplify that uniqueness to create a successful caricature. There are general concepts that apply to the overall approach of a caricature as well as specific tricks and tips for individual features and important, main elements that I will be sharing over the multiple parts of this series of articles.
The Five Shapes
The human face is perceived by many as an incredible complex object. There are about 52 muscles in the face, depending on your source and it’s categorization. Age, sex, race, expression (the face is capable of about 5,000 expressions) weight and environment can all play a role in the look and perception of a given face. Sounds pretty complex. Not really. Every building, no matter how complex, starts out with a foundation and framework. Look at this simple drawing:
Show that drawing to any human being in the world and ask them what it is. Barring a language barrier, they will tell you it’s “a face”. No other information needed. In it’s most simple form, the human face is made up of only five simple shapes:
Place these shapes in their proper relationship, and you have a human face. It really is that simple. Drawing the shapes accurately, so they recognizably represent the subject’s features, is the basis for a good likeness. Beyond that is nothing but details… things like dimples, wrinkles, eyelashes, cheekbones, etc. They are the decor to your building… the millwork, furniture and drapery that makes the place unique and filled with life. Without the strong foundation, however, it can all come tumbling down.
What does that have to do with caricature? Everything. I mentioned a single word in the last paragraph that really is the secret to caricature as a whole no matter what technique or approach you intend to practice:
It’s the manipulation of the RELATIONSHIP of these five simple shapes that create the foundation for your caricature. In fact, I’d argue that 90% of the entire caricature resides in how you relate these five simple shapes to one another. It is the foundation upon which the rest of your building is built, where the real power of exaggeration is realized. Make it good and almost all the heavy lifting is done, the rest merely referring to details. What do I mean by “relationships”? I mean the distances between the five shapes, their size relative to one another, and the angles they are at in relationship to the center axis of the face. Distance. Size. Angle.
In traditional portraiture, the head is divided into “classic proportions” (we’ll get into that more next time), meaning the relationship of the features are within a certain, accepted range of distance to one another, size and angle relative to the face and head shape. You achieve your likeness in a classic portrait, in it’s most basic form, by correctly drawing the shapes and then the details of each feature according to the model in front of you while staying within the framework of the “classic” proportions. Of course each face varies minutely here and there, but still you do not stray far from the classic formula. In a caricature, like a portrait, the likeness is also achieved by drawing the features as they really look… but you change the relationship of the features based on your perceptions of the face. The relationships you change are as I listed before: distance, size and angle. Look at these VERY simple drawings that demonstrate how you can change the relationships of the five shapes and create very different caricatures:
No detail, and all the shapes are basically the same with the exception of the head shape (again, more on that later… MUCH more) but all are distinctly different and when the details are added will make for highly varied caricatures. The difference is the relationships between the features, and how they have been exaggerated and changed. Caricature is not about choosing one feature and making it bigger, it’s about all the features together and how they relate to one another.
Here are some quick studies of the 5 shapes beneath a few caricature sketches:
The relationships differ in distance, size and angle from one another. The bigger the differences are from “classic” proportions, the more exaggerated the caricature. It’s much easier to see the differences when the details are removed and only the 5 shapes are left. It’s also much easier to create those differences at this simple, fundamental level. It’s easy to get caught up in details when the important information rests beneath the rendering.
How does one determine the “correct” changes to make to a given person’s feature relationships to make a good caricature of them? Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? That is were that pesky “seeing” comes in. In his book “How to Draw Caricatures“, Lenn Redman uses a concept called “The Inbetweener” as a basis for almost every observation. It is basically the classic portraiture relationships used as a point of reference for making observations. Every caricature begins with the observations the artist makes about the subject, and how their particular face is perceived by them. MAD legend Mort Drucker has been quoted as saying that there is no “one correct way” to caricature a subject. Any given subject can have several difference interpretations with respect to the exaggeration of the relationship of their features… and each may be as successful as the other. That’s one of the unique things about caricature as an art form. Portraiture is basically absolute… Your drawing either looks like the person with the correct features, proportions and relationships, or it does not. Caricature is subjective to a point. The artists goal is to draw how they perceive the face, and exaggerate that perception. The result may be different than how others perceive that face, but if the three elements we described in our definition are present it’s still a successful caricature. Hirschfeld used to say he once drew Jimmy Durante without a nose at all, yet it was still recognizable as Durante.
That’s not to say that any observation is appropriate… after all you can’t give someone with a small, button nose a gigantic potato schnozz and call it “exaggeration”. That’s not exaggeration, it’s DISTORTION. You can, however, choose NOT to exaggerate the nose’s smallness but rather find something else to exaggerate. That is the caricaturist’s task, to find what it is about the subject’s face that makes it unique and alter those relationships to exaggerate that uniqueness.
Next time We will delve more deeply into the relationships of features, what to look for and some rules to follow when changing those relationships that will make the rest of the face fall into place.These articles on drawing caricatures will appear on The MAD Blog every week or so, and will eventually be collected, expanded and published in book form.