Saturday, October 19, 2019

There’s a feeling I’ve had, looking at caricatures a while back, where it seems like the artist just merely listed some qualities that the face they were looking at had without really drawing the face. And then the drawing feels disconnected from the subject. Then, the opposite of this is that feeling of looking at a caricature where the drawing shares some essential aspect with the subject, some aspect that whoever is meant to enjoy the caricature, maybe the subject themself, or maybe their parents or friends feels this aspect in the drawing and couldn’t have imagined that this shape which they’d internalized was drawable. And therein lies the magic of caricature, portraiture, and drawing really. And I admit that this last part may be my bias talking.
     I had a couple of great faces sit down for me just yesterday—a couple. Both of them had really interesting, compelling visages that I really wanted to capture, wanting, as I always want, to get to the essence of what it was precisely that made them so compelling. And so I dove in, but I wanted to go fast. Why go fast? Well, here’s another story. Two fairs ago, out in Delaware, I drew a really fun couple. They seemed so young and engaging and open. And this contrasted to a couple of couples from the previous day. And these couples’ reactions were anywhere in the range of so so to troubling, but those drawings which brought on the reactions were also so so, in my opinion. So I can chalk it up, and say “that’s on me”.
     But this couple was different indeed. Much more friendly and cool and open. And so I took my time. I must have just sketched with pencil for upwards of ten minutes before getting in there with marker. And my friend and I chatted with the couple so comfortably and easily and at length and in depth, and it was everything we could have hoped for. I must have took an hour and a half on the drawing. The drawing, I felt, ended up having many of the qualities of a good live caricature, only fine tuned, and laser focused, and amplified. I was very confident in the likeness and indeed, amidst all of the heartfelt, impassioned disapproval with the caricature that resulted, not one complaint about the likeness was brought up. Not one. There were even tears, or at least nearly tears. So one thing this reinforces for me is the need for a caricature to be fast if it’s funny. At least for some customers. I guess I’m not allowed to spend an hour and a half on a joke about a stranger’s face. or a somewhat stranger. And it was a heartfelt impassioned disapproval that could weirdly enough, only be quenched with a refund. 
     So her, the buyer, looking at the drawing, has to at least entertain the idea: Is it just me who is extra sensitive. Maybe it’s okay for someone to draw people like this and get paid. She concluded: No. This is not right. I cannot let what this man did go. I must do something. That’s kind of how it went down. And that was pretty much her tone after she came back the second time after coming back the first time, when I preempted her complaint and passionately and vulnerably poured out to them my feelings about it, how I really thought they were a couple of nice kids so I really tried to spend my time to do something cool for them. I didn’t cry, but I really poured it all out to them as I’d always wanted to address customers of this sort. And I will admit that my eyes probably did get shiney. 
     And apart from this I’ve had enough experiences to tell me that it’s not enough sometimes to “just take your time and make it awesome” as a hedge against reject anxiety. There’s something built in with the speed element of live caricatures—a load bearing wall not easily extracted. But I was so excited to draw this couple yesterday, and I wanted to go fast. And there are other benefits to drawing fast and wacky on a busy day particularly. It sets the standard for the next drawing, as people watch it happen and decide they want to get one. I drew the drawing. I saw the reaction. My interpretation of it is that they believe they got a caricature; they were nice. They paid. But they didn’t like it I could tell. They didn’t want to communicate their dissatisfaction to me, certainly not forcefully—they may have allowed for some of it to slip through, past the bouncers of their good manners. But I feel what happened effectively was that two great faces and two great mindsets got abused. If they ever go to a caricature stand where there are good caricature artists working they’re gonna say “we wanna get one, but don’t make it crazy.” And the artist who draws them on that occasion will fall back on his old tricks and be prevented from cracking it open—from digging into the face to get to the good stuff, to turn it into something beautiful. That seems like a good place to end, but I may just keep going. 
     Let’s say you just simply don’t like caricatures, but you like portraits. Let’s say there’s some particular portrait of some person that you like—that you love. Whether you know it or not, you like that portrait because of some particular aspect of it, or a bunch of different aspects. So if someone drew a caricature, or let’s just say a quicker drawing which had those exact same aspects, you would like the caricature instead. Of course, now that you’ve seen that portrait, if someone were to simply recreate those aspects in a caricature, it would be derivative. But the point is that if the caricature from the outset had those particular aspects to it, then they who like the portrait would instead be they who like the caricature. It’s just a matter of getting to those aspects first. 
     But what’s interesting about caricatures and portraits versus other kinds of art is any particular aspect isn’t localized within the drawing. Same goes with all other observational art. The aspect is the drawn shape’s relationship to the observed shape. So whether or not a drawing stands on its own as a work of art, it also has to stand in relation to its subject matter. The subject isn’t merely inspiration to help the artist create. 
     Now all the art that’s hung up in the museums and upheld in art history books as the golden standard—all the subjects are dead. If those works were all theme park caricatures it could be no different. But to think in terms of being “archival” and hanging in museums gets away from the main point, and the main point is resonance and connection and likeness, and humor. 
     I guess what I’m getting at is that you can’t not like caricatures. Artists abilities vary. Customers faces vary, but the principals remain. Every face has a different answer, a shape password—a code that can be gotten to. And when the code is found the likeness is achieved, and when it is achieved it can’t be denied. If the likeness is good enough it doesn’t matter how ugly the drawing is. It could be the most difficult, bad mood having helicopter mom in the world. Seeing her daughter’s face will crack that rough exterior, if only the artist can allow himself to look at the face and be vulnerable to it and wait for the answer, knowing that it comes not from him but from the face. So that’s why I felt bad about wasting that couple. They were open to me doing whatever it is I do. And I could tell they had it in them to make a broad imaginative leap to see the likeness. So it was a shame. That’s all. 
     I had done the sort of live caricature that I’d seen so long ago, before starting into drawing live caricatures—the sort of drawing I’d held in contempt and set out to avoid. We’ll treat this as the titular moment, though it’s not as clear cut. This is the moment when I realized that listing is actually a valid approach to caricature. It just has to be done right. You have to make sure at the outset that you really step back and feel the overall picture. Get a sense for the main issue. This will be the aspect of the face most unique to this person, and thusly most obvious—most palpable to the non-caricature artist—most obvious to the untrained artist. The aspect—the shape you’ve never drawn before. So this, as opposed to “wow his teeth are weird! Lemme draw those.” All those elements are so important and need to be shown if you’re feeling them, but held together by the larger meta observation of the relationship between those shapes. But, of course, with the understanding that “shape” means aspect. We live in a world where manipulating so many different aspects of a two dimensional plane is such a common place thing now, with everybody having phones and ipads. It use to be that we all manipulated two dimensional visual planes by way of making letters on pieces of paper, and shape was a way we talked about the marks we made, but what we’re all easily capable of manipulating visually now has jumped so drastically, our common conception of shape will likely stay stuck in the realm of mathematical geometry. But “shape” allegory is the way likenesses are established, and no visual aspect is exempt from its affecting likeness.

     But how is this “listing”? Those teeth that you dove into. You were excited to draw them because you’ve been holding those teeth in your arsenal, waiting for someone to sit down who had them. Same goes for the eyes. Same for the cheek wrinkles. The face sits down, and you list all the shapes that you have a match for. All the shapes in the face that you have in your hand. You just list them off. It sounds very rudimentary but only until you realize that a shape is just an aspect. It could be as simple as a nose that’s just a ball, or it could be some aspect spread out across the whole face. It could be that their tongue looks like whistler’s mother. It could be a gradation of the skin. It’s just an aspect of the face—an aspect of the face that resonates with you. That’s all a shape is. It’s nice when it’s like—their head is a perfect square. Their nose is a perfect circle. Their eyes are—when it’s all obvious to see and simple to draw. Only those people rarely sit for caricatures—for a number of reasons. A lot of people come to caricatures curious what anyone could even do to their face. And it’s nice when we’re able to do something to where our observations clearly resonate. If not with them, then with their family watching. But hopefully with them. Hopefully with everybody.

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