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Learn the Basics of Drawing & Portrait Art

The word, caricature literary means “loaded portrait.” A caricature is an exaggerated or distorted portrait of a person or thing that overemphasizes a subject’s peculiarities, defects, or distinguishing features but still retains a likeness to the original. Although usually drawn with pencil, crayon, pen, charcoal, or pastels, caricatures can also be drawn digitally using computer software, such as Photoshop CC, Adobe Illustrator, Corel Painter, and ArtRage Studio Pro. 

Early in the 17th century, caricature was used – both drawn and written – to express facts or personal beliefs that were often suppressed or censored. They were also created to mock and ridicule public figures – much like today.  For example, the famous caricature of Napoleon Bonaparte by James Gillray, which depicted a very short emperor wearing a very large hat.  As a result, we think of Bonaparte as much shorter than he really was. 

Today, caricature has evolved into a form of art that is both popular and accepted worldwide and continues to poke fun at public figures, including politicians and movie stars.  Magazine and newspaper editors gladly welcome artists who draw caricatures, and although they may disagree with the ideology portrayed, they still respect the artists’ ability to give a humorous slant to a subject. 

Magazines like Mad, Time, The New Yorker, US News Report, and many more all depend on caricature artists to create characters that grab at people’s consciences, make reader’s laugh, and leave a lasting memory. But, because caricatures can be both comedic and realistic, an artist must be part psychologist and part artist who can draw a slightly skewed likeness of a subject, as well as interpret their attitude and personality.

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Develop Your Drawing & Communication Skills

To create a stylized caricature, artists must have a good understanding of anatomy to reference during the drawing phase.  Although the final portrait is typically skewed and misshapen, if the anatomy is wrong, the drawing will take on an unfamiliar and disjointed appearance; unlike the subject. It’s also important that caricature artists pick out a distinguishing feature in each subject to emphasize; something that makes the subject unique that the artist can then accentuate and play up in his or her caricature. So, observation skills are important.

Caricature artists must be good at communicating with humor and satire because most caricatures, especially in the case of editorial cartoons, address potentially controversial topics. 

Caricaturists must be good writers too, as many caricatures will include titles or short dialogue. And, besides the obvious, which is the ability to draw very well, artists must also understand color and which colors work well together and complement their subject.  Mastering advanced drawing skills like perspective, style, gesture, proportions, and composition is also fundamental to creating a polished caricature. They must understand how clothing fits a subject, how to add details to hair and body, how to add in a background, and they must also have a complete knowledge of any software used to create caricatures digitally, such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, or ArtRage natural painting software. Initially, most artists rough-sketch their caricatures first using pencil and paper, charcoal, pens, or some other similar medium, so understanding which works well to achieve the desired affect is also vital. 

Sometimes, caricature artists come under fire from disgruntled readers. The ability to take criticism is important, as is the ability to stand your ground.  The job of a caricature artist is not to make their subjects beautiful and flawless, but to bring attention to their subjects through imitation, wit, and humor. Artists must make creative decisions on the fly, compromise and learn new techniques, especially since many caricatures are drawn digitally, and software is ever-changing. 

There is no specific training needed to become a caricaturist. However, to develop the professional skillset necessary to break into this competitive field, earning a degree is advisable. If you choose to pursue a degree, a bachelor of arts (BA), with an emphasis in visual arts may be best. Several schools in the US offer degrees specifically in illustration and cartooning, and if this is the path you choose, you will graduate with a bachelor of fine arts (BFA). The curriculum is much the same in both programs and includes illustration, design, English, computer graphics, writing, and art. BFA degree programs that emphasize cartooning will also include classes in the history of cartooning, advertising, storytelling, drawing and perspective, portrait and figure drawing, color theory, and portfolio, and possibly 2D and 3D design. 

College programs offer students the opportunity to create a portfolio, find internships, exhibit their work, and find employment after graduation.  In addition, there are online programs, vocational schools, community colleges, and art institutes that offer courses in cartooning. One other option to also consider is applying to the Center for Cartoon Studies – a program/institution located in Vermont that offers both one- and two-year certificate programs, as well as a two-year master of fine arts degree program, and summer workshops, all taught by experienced cartoonists, writers, and designers.

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Sharpen Your Skills & Develop Your Style

Aspiring caricature artists must continually practice their skills. It can take dozens of sketches and many incarnations of the same caricature before it satisfies your needs or the needs of your employer or client.  As you polish and sharpen your skills, you will develop your own style and unique formula for creating caricatures that set you apart and give you a level of recognition.  If you want your work to appear in print; magazines and newspapers, you can start by sending samples of your most recent work to local newspapers and magazines. If you choose to work in advertising, then send your work to advertising directors at local ad agencies. Of course, if you plan on being self-published on the Internet, then making your own website, blog, and using other social media such as Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Pinterest, and YouTube, or some sites specific to cartoons, such as GoComics and Illustration Friday are all good choices.

After you have some of your work published, it is easier to create or update your portfolio, which in turn can help you get a syndicated comic strip.  Of course, if you graduated with a degree, you’ve already created a portfolio. If you’ve been freelancing, then you’ve probably also created a portfolio of work. But, continually updating samples of your work is vital, as it shows your progress and improvement overtime.  You might have the best resume in the world, but it won’t get you hired without a portfolio that demonstrates your unique style and drawing ability.

Employers also value training and experience when hiring a caricature artist. Previous experience shows employers that you can produce great work on deadline, that you are dependable, and willing to learn.  According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), syndication companies compete for newspaper space and want caricature artists who attract subscribers, so artists with a strong following are more competitive and often win out over those without any experience whatsoever.  Caricature artists can gain this experience by drawing live people at fairs and carnivals, at weddings and parties, art fairs, and at any event or social function where people gather.

Of course, networking with others in the industry is also important to the career of an aspiring caricature artist. There are dozens of associations and organizations across the US offering online workshops and opportunities to network with seasoned professionals. Contacts can also be gained through internships, joining clubs, a personal blog, and working in another department (such as advertising) for a local newspaper.

Get to Know Our Experts

Nolan Harris

  • Title:
    Co-Owner
  • Company:
    Over the Line Art
  • Where:
    Seattle, WA
  • Experience:
    16 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • I started drawing live caricatures at age 18, which was my senior year of high school.
    • Working in a live environment at a theme park summer job, with a variety of experienced artists was extremely valuable to my growth. I managed to excel very quickly as an artist and salesperson due to the extremely competitive environment.
    • During college, every year I would return to my summer job as a caricaturist. There was no better way for me to stay sharp with my skills than to draw every day during my summer break.
    • Once college wrapped up, I decided to commit to one more summer as a theme park caricature artist, refining my drawing and business skills, which gradually evolved into a career with a theme park art concession company, managing and growing artist/employees.
    • After a few years, I moved to Seattle to start an art-entertainment business with my best friend/business partner Dexter Rothchild. We started out with a few seasonal concessions (caricature stands) in Seattle.
    • Once we built up enough capital, we expanded into festivals and special events/parties.
    • As each year passed, we would invite more artists to draw with us, growing bigger and bigger, eventually leading to our expansion into airbrush apparel and face painting.
    • After 5 years we are the largest art-entertainment entity in the Northwest with a team of 14 talented artists. Our growth has also translated into national events, where I travel the country offering art-entertainment at trade shows and conventions.

    Recommended Organizations

    • International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA) – Since caricatures are such a peculiar artform, there is only one viable option for artists aspiring to grow and build a career. I am the president of a wonderful organization called the International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA). We have a yearly convention that houses over 200 attendees from around the world; all are caricature artists.

    Advice

    On whether or not he recommends a formal education

    I do not believe a formal art education is important. However, it is important to surround yourself with talented artists and smart business people. Having a core group of honest and critical artists surround you will only make you better. While college tries to create an environment of growth, I feel that it lacks a certain degree of honesty that you can only get by drawing endless hours with a team of talented artists.

    Why should you surround yourself with smart business people? Art is a business. By building a foundation in business, you are only setting yourself up for success. Selling hundreds, maybe thousands of drawings each year will give an artist more confidence in themselves than any individual graduating with an art degree.

    Tips for caricaturists

    1. Focus on your artistic growth before diving into the business world. It’s always important to have a great product that keeps customers happy.
    2. Have fun! We draw funny pictures for a living. Success is a wonderful thing, but stay grounded.
    3. Theme parks are the perfect environment to start drawing caricatures. You will grow as an artist, and you will gain the confidence to sell your art.

    Advice on getting your foot in the door

    There is a small assortment of companies that hire caricature artists with little to no experience. My advice is to assemble a strong portfolio that caters to facial drawings. Draw your friends and family! Once you have a solid portfolio, seek out companies in your area that offer caricatures. I highly recommend companies that reside in theme parks, malls and zoos, as you will always be surrounded by talented artists and diverse drawing subjects.

    Stan Yan

  • Title:
    Caricaturist
  • Company:
    Freelancer
  • Where:
    Denver, CO
  • Experience:
    9 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • I have been drawing cartoons since I was old enough to hold a crayon.
    • I never considered art to be a viable career choice, so I studied and got my B.S. in accounting.
    • I worked as a stockbroker for 13 years while I self-published my first 3 comic books and first graphic novel, marketing my work online and at comic book conventions.
    • I was referred a gig illustrating 100 caricatures for one of my former professional networking friends’ clients in a one week span. I didn’t consider myself a very confident caricature artist, but I was willing to give it a shot in spite of my fears.
    • I got laid off from the brokerage industry 2 times in 3 years and decided to try freelance illustration full-time.
    • In 2006, I realized I actually needed to make money at conventions I was attending to promote my comic books, so I started offering to do zombie caricatures, which happily was fairly lucrative and got more and more lucrative with the rising popularity of zombies.
    • In 2009, a high school friend running an events company got reacquainted with me on Facebook after seeing my work at the Denver Chalk Art Festival and began hiring me to do some traditional caricature gigs.
    • In 2011, I finally published a zombie-related comic book, Vincent Price Presents #33 for Bluewater Productions, written by me, and illustrated by Daniel Crosier, and began to try to regrow my readership by offering these books for free to my zombie caricature customers.
    • March 7, 2015, I’m launching a crowdfunding campaign to redraw Vincent Price Presents #33, offering backers the opportunity to be drawn into the book and even be the villain.

    Recommended Organizations

    • ISCA – Many of my peers belong to ISCA, and I lurk on their social media pages for additional inspiration, so that’s probably a good organization to look into. They also share a lot of tips on the business end of things, which a lot of caricature artists may lack.

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    Advice

    On whether or not he recommends a formal education

    As an art instructor myself, it may seem strange for me to say “no”, but I feel like my experience as a stock broker helped me as much, if not more than anything else in my freelance illustration career, as it made me keenly aware of the client relationship dynamic, contracts, and such. My passion for my muse was the key ingredient to longevity in my career.

    Tips for caricaturists

    1. Love it enough to do it even if you aren’t making money at it.
    2. Don’t undervalue your skill, and you will make more money.
    3. Be inspired by others so your work can continue to grow, and you’ll become more marketable.

    Advice on getting your foot in the door

    Most caricature artists I know started working at an amusement park. The good thing about this is you get a lot of practice to hone your craft, but it pays poorly, and a lot of artists I know overly rely on park-taught formulas, which can make artists stagnant. And I feel that half of the fun of what I do is learning to more effectively entertain, surprise, and tantalize my customers, which leads to repeat customers at many events I attend on a regular basis. This also can lead to folks that are impressed enough to hire me for parties and events.

    Tony Sobota

  • Title:
    Caricaturist
  • Company:
    Tony Sobota Art
  • Where:
    Knoxville, TN
  • Experience:
    15 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • Although I got into caricatures a bit through accident, I started out much like everyone else in my profession: by drawing at a theme park. I had always loved to draw portraits and other subjects, but it remained a hobby until early in college.
    • The first season of drawing caricatures is easily the hardest for the artist, and many people drop out. You’re thrown into the colorful, loud, fast-paced environment of the theme park and need to come up with funny (but not too funny) likenesses of your subjects in minutes!
    • You’re ‘hired’ to draw anyone and everyone, and no one teaches you how to draw a crying baby or how to get kids to pay attention or to calm down an angry girlfriend. I was pursuing a counseling degree at the time and believe the listening skills I was honing at school went a long way in the world of retail caricature!
    • I graduated college, and as a way to earn money while figuring out my next step, a friend of mine and I opened up our own caricature operation at a zoo and seasonally at a mall.
    • I decided to go to grad school, however, I eventually dropped out to pursue art full-time, and caricatures became my bread and butter. I set up my own operation at a nearby zoo and supported myself during the off-season with odd jobs.
    • Eventually, I came across a group of artists drawing caricatures at traveling fairs and festivals, and joining up with them allowed me to draw caricatures year-round.
    • Because drawing at festivals gave me the ability to earn my living in a concentrated amount of time, I took sections of the year off in order to work on my fine art and teach part-time.
    • I’ve maintained this schedule for the past seven years, drawing caricatures for about 5 months a year and using the rest of the year for doing gallery shows and teaching.

    Recommended Organizations

    • Society for Caricature Artists (ISCA) – Join the International Society for Caricature Artists (ISCA) and go to the annual convention! Nothing else will push you to grow in your artwork like connecting with other artists at the convention. There are also loads of other resources that come along with joining ISCA, like the Exaggerated Features magazine, podcasts, and more.
    • Join a figure drawing/sketch night in your hometown like Dr. Sketchy’s or a drink and draw. Drawing from life is the hardest and you need to learn how to do this if you’re drawing caricatures.
    • The Nose or About Faces – If you’re already a caricature artist, join up with organizations like The Nose or About Faces to be listed in your area as an artist and get party gigs. This is a big part of what I do and being listed on these websites helps me get gigs.

    Advice

    On whether or not he recommends a formal education

    While most artists I encounter professionally did attend some kind of art school (graphic design, fine art, illustration, animation, etc.), nearly all of them say school isn’t necessary. Here’s why: the ability to draw caricatures accurately and successfully comes down to the ability to “see” –and learning to see takes thousands of drawings and years of practice. You don’t need to pay thousands of dollars to an institution to get this practice, but you can get paid to do it as an artist in the field.

    Have real passion

    Like many artistic professions, you have to really want this to get in and stay in, because the career definitely has its ups and downs. Ask yourself: How badly do I want to do this? Drawing caricatures is a rewarding career in that I get paid to do what I love, meet lots of people and see different parts of the country, and work side-by-side the most driven, talented, and fun group of artists in the world. But if you’re not sure you want to do caricatures – if you don’t love it – you won’t have the motivation you need to make it long-term.

    Read this book

    If you want to learn how to draw caricatures, I highly recommend you pick up Tom Richmond’s book, The Mad Art of Caricature, and gather some like-minded friends around you and practice what’s in the book. There are a lot of good books on caricature, but Tom’s is generally known as the caricature “Bible” and offers an accessible, detailed, and fun approach to think about and learn caricature.

    Draw, draw, draw

    If you can, draw something every day. I drew all the time as a kid and young adult, and it no doubt helped me have thousands of hours of practice under my belt by the time I started drawing caricatures. Be patient with yourself, and remember that learning to see takes time, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t ‘get it’ after 10 drawings, or even 100. It may take 1000 bad drawings to get to the good ones. So have fun along the way!

    Advice on getting your foot in the door

    Sign up for a job at the theme park. This is easily the best way to get started in the field. To get in at a theme park you usually need to have a portfolio of portraits, caricatures, and other illustrations. 10 pieces will suffice. And usually an interview sketch is involved: that’s right, you draw your interviewer live! Believe me, there is no better way to learn than going through the process of drawing at a theme park with other artists – and you get paid to do it!

    Caricaturist Infographic