Monday, February 8, 2010

Caricatures or Portraits?

What is the standard dictionary definition of a "caricature?"

I disagree with the definition offered by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, when it says "A representation, especially pictorial or literary, in which the subject's distinctive features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated to produce a comic or grotesque effect."

I do not think the best caricatures are arrived at by a deliberate exaggeration. I think true caricature is achieved only by the artist whose point of view and way of expressing it are naturally funny.

I also question whether a merely grotesque effect is enough to qualify a drawing as a caricature. I think a caricature should be funny in order to be a real caricature. At least, I would like to see more people actively paying attention to whether a particular caricature they are viewing is merely grotesque, and not really funny, and appreciating the difference between funny and grotesque.

Many artists who are drawing what they call caricatures are actually doing portraits that are neither funny nor grotesque. Their work is often done in a highly stylized manner, either manga-like or in a look that resembles other comic book styles. It's simplified (reduces the degree of detail) and employs line qualities and other familiar visual devices that closely resemble what would be seen in comics or comic books. Sometimes they are painterly rather than comic-like, and rely on detailed use of color and shading.

One of the most recent pieces I drew was more in this category than it was in the category of a true caricature. I drew seven women on horseback in a parody of "The Magnificent Seven" movie poster. The treatment of the faces had some elements of a comic book drawing style and some elements of painting. About the only thing about it that was caricature-like was the disproportionate scale of the head sizes in relation to the body (and horse) sizes. Caricature typically exaggerates the size of the head (although when caricaturing someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger it makes more sense for the head size to come out very small in relation to the body).

I have struggled with describing this kind of drawing. Is it a cartoon? Is it okay to call it a caricature even though the only thing exaggerated is the head size? I have often found myself incapable of doing a realistic portrait--every time I draw a face and think it looks just like the person, everyone who looks at it laughs and tells me I made the subject look "funny." The above are about as close as I can get to a non-funny style. So is it actually more of a caricature than I think, even though I drew a likeness that was as close to the photo as I could? Does it water down the meaning of caricature when we blur the lines between caricature and non-exaggerated portraiture?