Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Caricature Capers Part 2: In the Trenches!

In our last thrilling installment, I detailed how a young, inexperienced cartoonist (me) had figured out a way to earn money "drawin' pitchures". I had hooked up with a local caricature firm, and was going to be doing cartoon portraits of tourists and the like at a popular tourist trap in downtown Boston, MA.

Now remember, I had precious little experience drawing caricatures at the time, but I figured, the owners of this firm must have had an "eye for talent", and wouldn't have hired me if they thought I couldn't do the job.

I was sorta right.

Before I began, the owner of the business gave me a brief "tutorial" on the methods and materials the caricaturists in his firm used. The tools of the day were a Sharpie Rub-a-Dub® marker for black line work, and Chartpack® markers for colors. The drawings were done on 8 1/2" x 11" index card stock, pre-printed with the name of the company. I was also given my very own lap board to lean on as I drew. After showing me a few tips of the trade my boss assigned me to my first day of drawing caricatures for the general public, or as I came to know them, The Great Unwashed.

The caricature cart was located, as I mentioned, in a very popular tourist area filled with shops, restaurants, and street performers. As my first day approached, I felt extremely excited, and extremely nervous. I was excited to be getting paid for drawing cartoons, but nervous I wouldn't be good enough.

As it turned out, I needn't have felt either emotion. The "excitement" of being paid for drawing all day dissipated as soon as I realized how little me and my fellow artist were being paid compared to what the owners of the venue were raking in. True, we were making more than we would have been flipping burgers or cleaning toilets, but not much. I also realized that drawing cartoons for yourself was a lot more fun than drawing screaming kids and drunks all day and night. Having the above mentioned people arbitrarily judge your work based on how cranky/drunk they were was no fun either.

As for my fear of not being "good enough", I had nothing to worry about. While some of my co-workers were wonderful cartoonists and really enjoyed their jobs, the majority were hacks. Their drawings would have shamed a 7 year old, not that they cared. As long as the rubes paid for their crappy drawings they were content. In comparison to them, my stuff was ready for  the cover of MAD magazine.

As the Summer of my first caricature tour of duty wore on, I settled in and realized that while there were some good aspects to the job, there were downsides as well. Such as:

• It was HOT! Given my pale, Irish ancestry, I ideally should be kept in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight and humidity. No such luck. By day we were seated outside with no shade, while the Sun baked down on us. Nights were cooler, but then we became a biting insect all-you-can-eat buffet.

• The food was awful! Sure, I could have packed a lunch for myself, but that would have required some forethought, so I dined from the food court at the location we were at. After a Summer of greasy fast food fare, my stomach and I were no longer on speaking terms. My wallet was a lot lighter too.

• The clientele left something to be desired. The ideal subject for a caricature is a secure person with a good sense of humor. Why vain, insecure people with self-image issues want a caricature of themselves is beyond mortal understanding. Time and again someone would sit down with a HUGE honker and say, "Don't give me a big nose". People with glasses didn't want them in the pictures, and of course, tubs of lard all wanted to be skinny.

In all seriousness, it was truly heartbreaking when someone with a true birth defect or some other physical problem was coerced into having a drawing done. It was awkward for the subject and the cartoonist. You can't insult them by exaggerating their problem, but to leave it out of the drawing or idealize them would make it seem like you were passing judgement on their disability. The worst? People who talked their BLIND friends or family members into getting a caricature! Why would someone who can't see want a cartoon of themselves?!

• There were other negatives to the job: Parking, maneuvering through crowds, not to mention roaming clowns. The  worst thing though, were the HECKLERS!

I suppose in any job where you are out there exposing your "talent" to the general public, you are opening yourself to the puckish wit of passerby. A day didn't go by where some yahoo would stumble up, look over my shoulder, and make a witty, derisive comment about my drawing. The problem wasn't with anyone making a witty comment (I've made one or two in my time), it was the complete lack of originality! Over and over again I heard, "Hey, SHE doesn't have a mustache!", and, "Wow, you're makin' them look ugly!" The subject of the drawing couldn't see their portrait till I was finished, so their heightened anxiety just added to the onlookers fun. Other winners included less pithy comments like, "She doesn't have 3 eyes!" Get the joke? Why would I draw someone with 3 eyes?! Jocularity at its finest! (I know I've forgotten some of the comments that retail caricaturists hear daily, so if any other caricaturists out there have any comments, please post 'em in the comments section.)

One of my favorite comments, that always left we scribblers scratching our head was, "It's not supposed to look like ya! It's a caricature!" That was always a puzzler to me.

A lot of you reading this will think I am a spoiled brat, whining about some petty annoyances on what appears to be a pretty easy job. You may be right. There are a lot worse gigs out there, and I've had a bunch of 'em (Gas station on a freezing Christmas Eve, anyone?). If you do think I am being a whiner, pick up a pen and start drawing funny pictures of your friends and loved ones.

Then get back to me.

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Blogger P.L. Frederick said...

People like cartoonists to be paper surgeons. It's cheaper than plastic surgery.

You did a hilarious drawing of me in Mat's Cartooning 101 class that I'd like to post on my blog some day. It's a Hee Hee.

P.L. Frederick (Small & Big)

May 14, 2009 at 4:54 PM  
Blogger P.L. Frederick said...

And that's a HILARIOUS cartoon. My!

P.L. Frederick (Small & Big)

May 14, 2009 at 4:55 PM  
Blogger Bill White said...


I would be honored if you used my drawing on your blog.

It beats using it to line your birdcage.

May 14, 2009 at 5:45 PM  
Blogger David said...

Glad I didn't ask you to not draw me fat!

May 14, 2009 at 6:45 PM  
Blogger SNeelyArt said...

I did caricatures back in 1995 in a local mall that an artist had running in the center of the mall at a kiosk stand. He saw my stuff since a friend of mine had given him samples of my work and he liked it. I didn't know the friend had shown him my stuff but the guy approached me and asked if I would be interested in working for him doing caricatures. I was a novice at doing it, and I did get the hang of it about three weeks in and was really cranking them out where many soon got to be quite good since I trained myself to know what to look for.

He made most of the money though and I had to give him 50% of what I made since it was his stand. On days that he wasn't there, I just pocketed mostly everything I made and said it was a shitty day and no one was really there. Ha!

I was burned out after 4 months of doing it almost 6 to 7 days a week for like 9 to 10 hour a day that I quit and went and did other artwork such as advertising. He closed up after Christmas of that year and he moved to another mall. It was a good experience for me and I still do the occasional cartoon portrait for people if they commission me.

I guess the most valuable part of doing it was some advice he told me when I was spending too much time on drawing one image. He'd be like "How much are they paying you to do that?" I'd tell him and he'd say "You're giving them a piece of $200 artwork for $40. Meaning the quality of it and detail was getting too deep and I was giving the talent away for free. THAT was a life lesson and one that I use to this day even when I do for any art job or sketches at a comic con. If they want a $20 con sketch, they get a $20 con sketch. You want a $150 piece of art, you'll get it.

I see a LOT of young people who do full all out drawings for people and trying to impress them that they do a $300 piece of art over a two hour stretch for only $15! I've seen it happen and then the guy who got the sketch then thinks that ALL artists do this kind of sketch work for little money. Once a line has been set it's hard to then retrain someone that they got a piece of art for basically nothing.

There are comic artists who do comic pages for DC and such and sell the original art for $25-30 a page! They not only give the stuff away but devalue everyone elses work as well.

But I digress...

May 15, 2009 at 12:44 AM  
Blogger Mark Heng said...

My favorite nightmare scenario happened when I was drawing caricatures in Boston (Yep, folks, the same place as BW)...

A black mother and her daughter sat down along with a white guy who turned out to be a Mormon missionary who had convinced this lady to pack it up and move to Salt Lake City to join the church...As I was drawing them, they chatted and joked away...The mom said, "Hey, you should draw us white!"...Ha ha, yeah right...I revealed it to them, laughs all round, they paid and went on their merry way...

About an hour later they returned for a refund. Their complaint? I hadn't drawn the mom and her daughter white. Oooommmph...They sat again to be drawn by another artist.

Just another reason to hate organized religion...

May 15, 2009 at 1:20 AM  
Blogger Bill White said...

Scott and Mark-

You've touched on a few topics that i left out. I realize I still have plenty more "amusing anecdotes" about live caricaturing to tell.

I may have to wait a week or two though. This is a scab that hurts to pick.

Stay tuned.

May 15, 2009 at 9:11 AM  
Blogger John F said...

Great Stuff, BW . . .

I've often heard talk of "The Good Ol' Days" drawing "Thousands From All Over The World" -

I'm happy to view the scene of the crime from a distance . . .

More Please!!

. . . brilliant drawing, as always.

May 15, 2009 at 11:32 AM  
Blogger P.L. Frederick said...

Love reading these comments!

May 19, 2009 at 9:54 AM  
Blogger Edward said...

"I realized how little me and my fellow artist were being paid compared to what the owners of the venue were raking in"

I hesitate to ask, but do you know how much it costs to run a kiosk at a popular mall or tourist site?

Your employer may have appeared to be raking in the dough, but I assure you it was probably much less than what you believe.

June 6, 2009 at 11:40 AM  
Blogger P.L. Frederick said...

FYI, Bill, I posted a link to this on and folks have been giving it very high marks. It's in the comics section, somewhere on Have a great day.

P.L. Frederick (Small & Big)

June 6, 2009 at 2:03 PM  
Blogger DevBlazed said...

Why would you go to a FIRM.. just stand around in public and draw people?

Thats like a hooker that needs a pimp to suck another mans dick.

June 6, 2009 at 2:44 PM  
Blogger P.L. Frederick said...

Ooh, here's the link to comments on

June 6, 2009 at 4:43 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey -- from a business standpoint, what value are your employers adding? That is to say, what is stopping you from ditching the corporate overlords, buying your own paper and pocketing the whole fee while working on your own schedule. Doesn't solve the problem of the unwashed masses as clientelle, but it does come with a pay-raise and a new view on the whole enterprise. Oh, and don't worry; non-competes rarely hold up in court, according to my father the lawyer.

Good luck!

June 6, 2009 at 11:36 PM  

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