Published December 30th, 2023 by Russ White
The Twin Cities artist (and new President of the International Society of Caricature Artists) explains the artistry, community, and career opportunities of caricature
When you're drawing a portrait, there is a moment somewhere along the way when the person magically appears on the page. A tweak of an eyebrow, a turn of the lip, and suddenly you recognize the face in front of you — it's kind of amazing. The flip side is that the likeness can slip away just as quickly.
Nobody understands this better than caricaturists. They bring an incredible efficiency to the process of portraiture, seeing and emphasizing all the little specifics that make each face unique — translating them from eye to hand to paper. With enough skill, the likeness remains, a real person recognizable in only a handful of lines.
This past month, Twin Cities artist Robin Schwartzman was named the President of the International Society of Caricature Artists, so she's probably the best person to talk to if you want to learn more about the genre. It's an art form we often take for granted as mere cartoons (as though those aren't incredibly difficult, too), but caricature specifically has helped shape the very language of editorial illustration for centuries. Here Schwartzman explains that history, how she discovered caricature, and what young artists can do to go pro.
Schwartzman and I also work together at the UMN Department of Art, where she teaches and oversees digital fabrication in the XYZ Lab; in addition, she keeps busy designing mini-golf courses with her partner Tom Loftus as A Couple of Putts.
Robin Schwartzman, The cast of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Russ White: Talk to me about caricature — I think it tends to get a bum rap as a kind of novelty art, but it has deep art historical roots and is foundational for a lot of contemporary illustration. How do you define its cultural importance, and what caricaturists first got you interested in the practice?
Robin Schwartzman: The word caricature itself is rooted in Latin and Italian and literally translates to load, exaggerate, or charge. Some of the earliest caricatures are found in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, who sought out people with natural deformities as subjects to draw. In 18th century Britain and 19th century France, caricature gained huge popularity in the form of political cartoons. Back then, so much of the population was illiterate, however, they could all understand pictures and artists were able to share their work en masse thanks to the printing press.
Around this same time, artists such as Monet would stroll into bistros and sell live drawings as a way to make enough money to be able to buy paint. This was the beginning of what we call retail drawing, which became popular throughout the 20th century and has continued to evolve up to the present day. And now, caricature is also part of comic culture, illustration, cartoons, character design, puppetry, animation, storyboarding, sculpture, and more.
I think caricature often gets a bad rap because people automatically associate it with poorly executed street art or carny culture. And while caricature can sometimes be a quick or mediocre sketch, it can also be so much more. At its peak, caricature is an art form that is both endlessly fascinating and constantly challenging. Every face is a different puzzle, presenting its own unique set of features to capture with no single solution.
As a kid, I remember staring at a poster for the New Haven Connecticut Shubert Theatre that hung in the lower level of my grandparent’s house. I was enamored by it, and years later came to realize it was the artwork of Al Hirschfeld. Around the time I was in middle school, I remember thinking often about what made my mom look different than my sister or my friends, or a random stranger. So, I guess caricature has been part of who I am for as long as I can remember.
RW: How did you get your start as a caricaturist yourself? Did you begin with famous faces or just friends and family, and how long did it take you to develop your personal style?
RS: When I was in high school, I lived near an amusement park called Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, PA. My friends and I would get season passes and spend our summers wandering the park and riding roller coasters. Every time we went by one of the caricature stands, I was always fascinated by how the artists could draw someone so quickly, without erasing and make it look like them. That summer, I proclaimed to my mom, “I’m an aspiring caricature artist!”
At the age of 15, going on 16, instead of getting a season pass to the park, I applied for (and got) my very first summer job, drawing caricatures. I remember practicing on any face I could — friends, family, and celebrities out of magazines. From 2002-2010, I spent every summer drawing in amusement parks, hotels, or county fairs across the east coast and midwest. I did so many bad drawings and a few good ones, and learned so much. Nowadays, I mostly just draw studio-style caricatures of fellow caricature artists or celebrities on my iPad for fun, with the occasional gig when I’m itching to draw live again. I also do commissions upon request.
Robin Schwartzman, Pee Wee Herman & Denzel Washington, both 2023.
It’s taken me 21 years to find my personal style. Seriously! It’s an evolving process and I feel like I hadn’t really hit a stride of seeing my own style truly emerge until the last year or two. My educated guess is that I’ve drawn more than a hundred thousand faces. I’ve looked at the work of so many amazing and inspiring artists. I’ve experimented with a lot of different techniques and approaches. And some days I still don’t feel like I’ve found it yet. But, over time, I’ve learned what I like, what I don’t care as much about, what I struggle with, and things I strive to achieve in my drawings.
RW: What makes a good caricature? I imagine it’s similar to a roast in that you could easily cross a line into offending your subject with comic exaggerations, and certainly some cartoonists do just that in their caricatures of public figures. How do you approach the line between a good-natured likeness and a mockery?
RS: In my opinion, a good caricature looks and feels more like that subject than the subject themself. It is about achieving likeness through some means of exaggeration, in combination with formal artistic elements such as shape, line, value, color, and texture. It conveys a mood or tells a story; it captures the essence of a person.
Every person has a unique combination of features that makes them, well, them. The shape of their face, the size of their eyes, the furrow of their brow, the distance between their nose and mouth, the color of their skin, their accessories, facial hair, hairstyles, wrinkles, freckles, posture, and on and on. So often someone will sit in my chair and say, “Don’t draw my double chin” or “Don’t make my nose huge.” This makes me a bit sad, because their features are what makes them interesting and beautiful. People are so accustomed to certain standards of beauty, and often vanity will take away from their experience with the artwork. But I truly believe the best thing I can do is to draw the subject for who they are. My mantra is “I just draw what I see!” My goal is always to playfully capture what I think that person looks like in that moment to the best of my ability. I never approach a drawing with malicious intent.
Every now and then, I get a subject who doesn’t like their drawing. There’s not much I can do about that, so I typically offer to redraw it or have them drawn by another artist in a different style, and then I move on. Some people don’t like how they are drawn no matter what, others typically just don’t like one or two things about the way they’ve been depicted, and some just can’t see themselves in the artwork. It’s truly subjective, so every person has a different reaction, but most people laugh and love it.
Schwartzman working live at an art fair.
There is this general assumption that caricature artists just draw everyone with big noses, but that is the furthest thing from the truth. A good caricature artist knows that we amplify some features and shrink others, and it’s all about the relationship or proportions. If someone has huge eyes, I’m going to focus on their eyes by making all of the other features of the face smaller, so that the eyes appear even bigger. If someone does have a large nose, I might exaggerate that, but again, it’s a delicate balancing act of making sure all of the other features are in proportions that make sense for that particular face. There is no “one size fits all.”
Now back to your bigger question about approaching the line between good-natured likeness and mockery — I feel very strongly against the idea of punching down. I was recently interviewing Steve Brodner (caricature artist for The New Yorker, The Village Voice, The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and more) and he reminded me of the old journalism saying: “Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted.” True political caricature, in the sense of biting commentary or harsh criticism of those with wealth or power, certainly has its place and should be reserved for public figures. Artists of every era have used caricature as both a way to comment on the world around them and as a tool for challenging existing power structures. However, mocking the innocent or those already fighting for their rights as a human under the guise of a joke or artistic freedom is both disingenuous and dangerous. Criticism of corruption sits in stark contrast to cruelty against marginalized groups. Unfortunately, there are many artists who disagree with me, and this is currently a “hot topic” in the caricature community.
Steve Brodner, Court of King Donald, via sva.edu.
RW: You were recently named President of the International Society of Caricature Artists. What does that organization do to advocate for its artists, and what does your new role entail?
RS: The International Society of Caricature Artists is a 501C6 non-profit trade organization dedicated to elevating the art and artists of caricature. Our mission is to celebrate caricature as an art form, promote caricature as a valuable commodity, be the definitive professional resource on caricature, and cultivate a global community that connects, inspires, and entertains through caricature. The organization has over 1500 members from around the world. I’ve been a member since 2006, nearly half of my life! I was elected to the board back in 2019 where I started as Secretary, moved my way up to Vice President, and as of November 2023, I was named President. This new role involves chairing our Board of Directors, a team of 7 incredible volunteers, as well as working with our small, part-time staff. We plan and organize a big annual event, ISCAcon, where about 250 of our members travel from across the country and around the globe to draw together and learn from one another for an entire week each November. It features competitions and awards, guest speakers, workshops, and 24 hour/day open draw time. A lot of people refer to it as “the Olympics of Caricature.” The Board also creates exclusive monthly content for our digital magazine, Exaggerated Features, that is then printed in an annual compendium. Other duties include supporting our Artist Directory, hosting virtual member drawing nights, managing our social media, running membership drives and connecting with other caricature related entities. To learn more, check us out over at caricature.org!
Artists at work during ISCAcon 2023. Photo by Eric Goodwin.
RW: How have you seen caricaturing evolve — stylistically and in terms of career opportunities — and have you seen any changes to the field arise from social media?
RS: There are so many different styles and approaches to caricature, which is what makes this art form so exciting to me, personally. A hundred artists can draw the same face in a hundred different ways and they can all look like that person. From meticulous pencil hatching and highly rendered oil painting to minimal use of line and shape. From the tame to the super exaggerated, sometimes even to the point of abstraction. And everything in between.
However, there have been many “camps” of caricature move in and out of popularity throughout the years. There are “Likeness Caricatures”, which might be a bit tamer when it comes to exaggeration. Artists in this camp could include Zach Trenholm, Lenn Redman, Henry Major, Juan R. Avila, Don Bevan, etc. Then, there are artists focused on shape and/or line such as Al Hirschfeld and more contemporary folks such as Maria Picassó i Piquer, David Cowles, Aina Albi, Mizuka Sekine, and Hanoch Piven. And then you have incredible renderers like Jan Op De Beeck, Thomas Fluharty, Torren Thomas, Sebastian Krüger, and Rob Hren. For a while in the early 2000s, there was a group that went by the Beastheads out of San Diego who prided themselves on “jackin’ up faces” and “anything goes” — the more extreme the better. They set the tone for many of the extreme exaggeration artists to follow. Some of these notable “extreme” artists include Nate Kapnicky, Brian Oakes, Sebastian Martin, Manny Manvel Avetisyan, Eric Goodwin, Damon Renthrope, and Lindsey Olivares, to name a few.
Social media has definitely changed the game. So many of our artists have gone viral for their live work and extreme exaggeration. And what has become especially popular are what we call “reaction videos” where the artist films the subjects’ reaction to their live drawing. Alani Jimenez totes himself as the “World’s Most Viral Caricaturist” with over 2.6 million TikTok followers, 2.2 million Facebook followers, and over 350k Instagram followers. The duo known as Caricature Party (Aaron Philby and Saemee Yoon) have 1.8 million TikTok followers and 1.1 million Instagram followers, and their videos of extreme exaggeration are constantly going viral. Other popular social media caricature artists include Kiko Yamada (@ninjasketch) and Danillo Mattos (@cowricature). People plan entire trips and travel to seek out these artists just to get drawn by them because of what they see on social media.
But even for the average artist who isn’t going viral, social media has allowed us to share our work with a global audience as well as be inspired daily by other artists whose work we admire.
RW: What kind of opportunities exist for caricature artists, and what advice do you have for young artists who are interested in entering the field professionally?
RS: The most common type of work for caricature artists is live/retail work. Live work, or as we sometimes refer to it as gigs, includes drawing at events such as weddings, holiday parties, company picnics, birthday parties, etc. This type of work pays a good hourly wage, plus tips. Retail work includes drawing at booths/stands at theme parks, malls, festivals and fairs, etc. In this environment, the artist is paid per drawing, plus tips. I know many caricature artists who make an excellent living either drawing live/retail and/or running their own caricature operations full-time. If live drawing isn’t your thing, there are also caricature artists who make a living doing studio work, either commissions for private clients or creating artwork for newspapers, magazines, websites, etc.
If you’re interested in entering the field professionally, the best way to get started is practice. Then more practice and, you guessed it, even more practice! The best way to practice is to get thrown right into the live/retail environment. You’ll draw hundreds of faces and most of those drawings will be bad. When you start getting into the thousands, you will get a little better. If you keep going, you may even start to get good!
Also, books such as Lenn Redman’s How to Draw Caricatures and Tom Richmond’s The Mad Art of Caricature are fantastic resources that discuss face shape, likeness and exaggeration. Caricature Resolution is also an incredible and low stakes way to learn and practice. The concept is to draw a caricature each day for the month of January from an official prompt list. All styles and levels of skill are welcome — from realistically rendered to the highly stylized, from beginners to experienced professionals. The atmosphere is easygoing, encouraging, and non-competitive. As of January 2024, it’s going on its 8th year! I’ve completed the challenge every year since its inception, and I can see that my work has leveled up so much from participating in it.
Lastly, consider joining ISCA and coming to an ISCAcon! You’ll learn more in a single week watching hundreds of other artists create mind blowing caricature art than you may in a year.
RW: And finally, what’s the Twin Cities caricature scene like? Are there any other artists here that people should look up?
RS: There are many amazing caricature artists here in the Twin Cities! I just mentioned Tom Richmond, who is famous for his caricature work in MAD magazine. Tom lives in Burnsville, MN, and owns and operates the retail caricature stands at Valley Fair and the Mall of America. In addition to the many books he’s published on caricature, Tom teaches caricature workshops a few times a year around the world, which are great for beginner or veteran caricaturists alike. Tom is a former president of ISCA as well as the National Cartoonists Society (NCS), is a two-time Golden Nosey winner, and has also received the prestigious Ruben Award for “Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year” 2011 from the NCS.
And of course, there is Twin Cities Caricatures, owned and operated by Erik and Kelsey Roadfeldt. In addition to Erik being the lead artist, TCC books many other prominent local caricature artists including Ash Stryker, Erin Goedtel, Zack Wallenfang, Heather Nameth Bren, and Bryce Davidson. Some other great Twin Cities caricaturists to check out are Rob Laskey, Greg Halbert, Andrew Blakeborough, Michael Stetzler, Isaiah Shipp, Tiffany Terrion and Taylor Smith. Not only are all of these people great caricature artists, but they are also comic book artists, illustrators, painters, ceramic artists, sculptors, and break dancers. ◼︎
Robin Schwartzman, The cast of Succession.
All images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
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