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Friday, August 9, 2013


Caricature can be challenging. Combining two well-known caricatures into a single image without either figure dominating, is the mark of a real master in the art.
In my book, Art Think, I do a segment on "Drawing Caricatures;" so, in the interest of avoiding redundancy (and maybe selling a book or two), I'm not going to get into the "how to" aspect of this art form. Instead, I'm going to look at caricature in general terms; but in doing so, keeping one aspect in common among all examples--the subject (some might say "victim")--in this case the most caricatured man on the planet today, the President of the United States of America. The purpose in this is to explore the very wide interpretations and resulting images caricature artists and cartoonist devise. 

A very talented graffiti artist from
the city of Pompeii, first century AD. 
Caricature has been around at least two-thousand years as seen in the example at right. No, this one is not President Obama, but a politician, nonetheless (possibly the Roman Emperor, Claudius). The art of caricature can be summed up in two words--simplify and exaggerate. Our Pompeian wall artist seems quite adept at both. In recent years, the art of simplification seems to have fallen largely to the wayside, which would seem to indicate a weakness in portraiture skills among caricaturists, in that simplification of the image also entails the ability to capture a good likeness without relying on a multitude of facial details. It goes without saying almost that caricaturists work exclusively from photos, at least in the initial stages of their work. After all, no celebrity or politician is apt to sit and pose for a portrait which makes them look silly. Politicians, such as Richard Nixon, for example, have been known to become livid in seeing what caricaturist have done to their noble visages. Most, however, have developed the thick skin and political grace to merely "grin and bear it." Outrage only makes it worse. On the other hand, some officials have even requested signed original drawings suitable for framing from their caricaturist tormenters.

Quel's Obama may
be the ultimate in
Tom Richmond
exaggerates the
smile, the ears,
and the chin
On the exaggeration front, it's no secret caricaturists see things differently. Caricatures of President Obama tend to exaggerate two features most often--his broad, glowing, toothpaste ad smile, and his protruding ears. Personally, I don't see his ears as prominent enough to be worthy of exaggeration. Other artists have concentrated on the president's chin while others have braved the exaggeration of his broad, African-American nose. Other artists seem to want to treat all features equally when it comes to exaggeration (below, left). Often such a choice simply results in an unflattering portrait, rather than true caricature.
Obama as seen by John
Cox. Notice the difference
is his chin and that of
Tom Richmond (above, left).
Ismael Roldan's
Obama. All things
being equal. No
toothpaste grin here.
This brings to the forefront the element of humor. Good caricature should be funny, taken at "face" value. However today, all too often, caricatures of President Obama seem more aimed at ridicule, anger, even hate tinged with fear, than humor. In other words, there are "blue" caricaturists and "red" caricaturists, with the latter seemingly in greater abundance and, as might be expected, the most vicious. Any humor in such work would depend totally on the viewer's political mindset. There's nothing new in that, though. Napoleon undoubted found no more humor in his caricatures than did Lord Nelson in his. Especially in the case of political cartoonist, each one has his or her own audience. Having said that, reminds me of an interesting fact regarding caricaturists--even today, they're overwhelmingly male. Why is that?

Photoshop or artifice?
I would be remiss in not pointing out, as I often do, how digital technology, and specifically how the advent of "talented" photo-editing software has changed the "gentle" art of caricature. As with many such invasions of the computer into art, drawing talent, even a working knowledge of facial architecture now seems to be fading in this genre. A few clicks of a mouse, noses grow, smiles broaden, ears enlarge, necks shrink to mere twigs, eyes become beady, and eyebrows run amuck. I wouldn't go so far as to say that just any political junkie can now easily become a caricaturist, but if Internet offerings are any indication, the quantity, if not the quality, of political caricature has grown apace with the growing surface simplicity (and deeper complexity) of Photoshop and its ilk.


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