Guild Secrets of a Caricaturist: Tom Richmond

Just this past holiday season, I was talking to a caricature artist set up for business in my local mall. He had this board full of cartoon likenesses pinned next to the photographs that had served as their models. I call them likenesses, but that’s not quite right, because really they bore very little resemblance to their purported subjects. If someone had shuffled the whole array like a deck of cards and asked me to match them up, photo to drawing, I’m not sure I would have even been able to do it correctly. This particular caricaturist obviously subscribed to the funhouse philosophy of caricature: lots of crazy, twisting, elongated features; exaggeration in all the wrong places; comic zaniness everywhere trumping fidelity and verisimilitude. “That’s my specialty,” he said, defensive, when I told him some of this. “You mean you want a portrait,” he said, a little dickishly. I started to backpedal a bit, telling him they looked great (“Thank you,” he said), but that they’re more “impressionistic” than the kind of caricature I was looking for. That’s a pretty sloppy way of putting it, I know–the verbal equivalent of this man’s drawings, in fact–but that’s what I said. I took his card and walked away. The price was right–the price was better than right–but it’s been said that you get what you pay for, and although these caricatures were what I wanted to pay for, they were certainly not what I wanted to get.

If Tom Richmond’s new book, The Mad Art of Caricature: A Serious Guide to Drawing Funny Faces, had come out just a little bit sooner, I would have known what to tell this guy when he accused me of wanting a portrait rather than a caricature. I would have told him, “A good caricature captures some of the personality, attitude, and intangible essence of the subject; it goes where a portrait cannot because it can amplify and accentuate those elements of a person that make them unique. In many ways a caricature can be more recognizable than a portrait because it can go beyond the features. It can capture and describe elements of who the subject is, not just what the subject looks like.” I would have told him that, and I would have told him this, too: “While some styles of caricature incorporate other factors to create recognizability, I personally think the likeness is the strongest foundation upon which to build. It is the base upon which the caricature has been supported.” It wouldn’t have mattered that I was quoting Richmond when I said all this, because one look at the guy’s portfolio and you’d know he hadn’t read the damn book anyway.

Richmond has been doing art for Mad since 2001, just about all of it for the magazine’s sprawling continuity satires of movies and TV shows. He also keeps a strong list of corporate clients as well as other magazines, but Mad, as his punning title suggests, is the institution with which he most closely identifies, and with which he wants to be most closely associated. Mad has long held the de facto gold standard for what caricaturing should be, and Richmond is obviously and justifiably proud to be a part of that tradition. His book is part how-to, part mission statement–it’s how-to as mission statement–and it’s incredibly effective on the terms of both. Reading it will either reinforce your desire to become a caricaturist, or it will reinforce your belief that you have no business doing so. Just because I belong to the latter category doesn’t mean I didn’t get much from it, or that I didn’t enjoy it. Looking back through the Mad archives while I read the book over a span of weeks, I saw the drawings in the magazines, always rich to begin with, take on a new layer of richness altogether. Obviously the drawings hadn’t changed, but their perceiver had.

Richmond runs through his methodology for drawing heads, eyes, noses, mouths, faces, ears and hair. He even goes so far as to list the specific anatomy for the head, eyes, nose, and mouth, brilliantly drawn and diagrammed opposite the text. For some readers, this will be entirely too much detail, but for others, passionately engaged in pursuit of the sorcerer’s secrets, no amount of detail can ever be enough. The book has pages, and you can turn the ones you don’t like, or you can submit, as I did, to their strange esoterica until the esoterica begins to acquire a peculiar poetry all its own.

There’s an entire chapter devoted to the specific discipline of live caricaturing (which is how Richmond got his start), but there is also, preceding that, an entire chapter on how to avoid the main pitfall of live caricaturing–namely, an ineptitude for drawing anything below the face. This is important, because posture, clothes, neck, and fingers can count for so much–they can bear a load as heavy as the face does, and, when the face is insufficient to satisfactorily convey a person’s essence, the below-the-neck can often make the caricature. Here, as everywhere throughout the book’s nine chapters, Richmond includes pertinent examples from his own work, as well as those painstakingly precise anatomical renderings–in this case, of the muscles in the neck and the structure of the hand and fingers.

Mad‘s art director, Sam Viviano, writes in his afterword that when Richmond first approached him looking for work with the magazine, in 1999, his drawings were “very good even then, but, to be honest, not quite good enough for MAD, and I told him so.” A year later, when Viviano ran into Richmond again, he knew instantly upon appraisal that Richmond’s work was ready for the magazine, and he writes here that “I don’t think Tom magically became more talented over the preceding year, [...] but he did put in a lot of work. Thousands and thousands of drawings, I would guess. And it got him where he wanted to go.” Richmond concludes on a similar note, warning his readers that “there’s no book, no lesson, no magic formula that will automatically transform someone into the artist he or she aspires to be.” He tells about having his self-confidence shattered at two crucial junctures in his career, and he tells about picking up the pieces and putting them back together, more determined than before. He tells about self-confidence buttressed by humility, and humility buttressed by self-confidence: “Don’t believe you have ever reached the limits of your skills or talent, because the moment you do believe that, you have.”

This all comes by way of conclusion immediately following his final chapter, wherein he breaks down a piece of Mad continuity art at all stages of its development. He takes us on a tour through “Sad Men,” his satire of the gang at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (Issue #508, April 2011), walking us through the layout he initially receives, with space allotted for dialogue boxes, his rough pencils as they go on the layouts, then the final pencils, and then the finished inks, followed finally by digital coloring. He not only tells us how it’s all done, but discloses its detail in the doing. He’s that sort of sorcerer–the kind bravura enough to perform his prestidigitation even as he holds up all ten fingers.

Lary Wallace is a contributing editor for The Faster Times. He can be reached at emersonian@ymail.com. ...read more

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