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How to draw a caricature in four steps

A good caricature should capture the subject better than a portrait

· illustration,english

In this blog post I will take you step by step through the process from idea to finished caricature. As an example I'll use my caricature of artist Wouter Tulp (a hero of mine) as an example.

Caricature of artist Wouter Tulp. All rights reserved, Sebastian Dahlström.

The finished caricature. All rights reserved.

Step 1: Analysis

When I set out to draw a caricature I always try to capture the likeness of the person first. I might do a simple portrait, or at least a thumbnail sketch, where I am focusing only on likeness and no exaggeration. I've written about how to draw realistically here (look for the chapter on proportion for some tips on how to get the angles and proportions right).

After I feel I have a rough portrait down I start to think about what makes this particular face look unique. Some faces lend themselves to caricature extremely well, others require a bit more analysis. Some faces are simply not suited for caricature at all (the really generic faces without anything in particular that stands out). If a client asks for a caricature of such a person a just slightly distorted portrait might be the best option.

When analysing a face look for the general shapes: The overall head shape, the size and placement of the eyes, the shape and size of the nose and mouth and their relation to each other. Is there anything else that stands out? The expression? The hair? Some piece of clothing? The hair?

Tom Richmond gives excellent advice in his book "The Mad art of Caricature". One thing that particularly stuck with me is how he thinks of the head as a lump of play-dough. You only have a certain amount of mass to work with - if you (for example) make the chin big you have to take that play-dough from somewhere else (and in this case maybe make the forehead smaller). Relationship is key in caricature. If you want to make something big something else has to be small. If you want to make something narrow something else has to be wide, and so on.

One common misconception about caricature is that is should be obnoxious or "ugly". This is not at all necessary. Think rather of caricature as a portrait that is more than a portrait. A good caricature should bear more likeness than any portrait or photograph ever could. Think in terms of "the feeling of that person".

Collect many photographs of your subject. Decide on one for your main reference, but keep a few other as well close by - sometimes they are useful if a certain feature is not really clear on the main reference picture.

Step 2: Sketch

This is arguably the most important part of the caricature process, so don't rush it. Make a few thumbnail sketches, try out different things. At least for me the temptation is usually big to jump straight into the painting phase (thinking I'll fix the mistakes there) but the caricatures where I take my time on the sketch usually turn out better. Think of it as building a foundation. The sketch should be quite detailed before moving on.

After you have a couple of thumbnails, decide on one and take it further. Decide on what the caricature will focus on. Does the subject have a big nose? - Make it even bigger! Does the subject have a huge forehead? - Make it gigantic! But remember the play-dough-rule: A gigantic forehead might require a small chin, and vice versa. You cant make everything big, or everything small. Something only looks big in relation to something small.

There are millions of things to look for, and millions of relationships to bear in mind. Luckily a caricature can not contain every bit of information there is in a face. Decide on one main thing, and a couple of minor things. To put it another way: there are more than one way to make a caricature of the same face.

Think of a standard face - how does your subjects face differ from it. Look for the head shape, the placement of the eyes (are they above or below the center line), the nose's relationship to the eyes (narrow eyes usually makes the nose look longer, wide set eyes require a shorter nose). Look for the placement of the mouth (how big is the distance to the nose vs the distance to the bottom of the chin?). Are the ears set high or low on the head? Is the nose or mouth crooked? Does the eyes have an angle?

Always think of the face as a whole - try to see it in your minds eye in 3D. Visualize it popping out from the paper. Draw "topography lines" if you need to. Look at your drawing in a mirror (or flip it horizontally) to spot mistakes. Fix them!

When the sketch feels detailed enough - start painting!

Sketch caricature of artist Wouter Tulp. All rights reserved, Sebastian Dahlström.

Sketch phase: Caricature of artist Wouter Tulp. All rights reserved, Sebastian Dahlström.

Step 3: Paint

I usually start the painting process by only thinking of values, not colour. If you paint digitally this is easy, but if you work traditionally or otherwise prefer to start out directly with colour that's fine too. Still, divide the face up into lights and shadows (again, refer to my blog post on realistic painting, look for the section on value).

Sketch caricature of artist Wouter Tulp. All rights reserved, Sebastian Dahlström.

Painting phase, doing a 5-value scale and starting to block them out. Caricature of artist Wouter Tulp. All rights reserved, Sebastian Dahlström.

After you have divided the face into lights and shadows, start with a five-value-scale. Three values for lights, two for shadows. The shadows are (almost) always darker than the darkest light. Put the five values down, then start to divide them up into in-between-values. Be careful not to smooth everything out, at least not in this early stage. This is the block-in stage. Think of it as painting blocks of different shapes and value.

Still bear proportion in mind all the time. Correct previous mistakes. Try not to see anything else than a patchwork of shapes of different values. Work from large to small. Introduce colour when you feel ready.

Towards the end, start to shift focus more on edges. Look for the sharp edges, and the smooth. Make them sharper or smoother if you like, but keep the relationship between the edges intact. Just as values, think of edges as a scale from sharp to smooth.

In my final caricature i utilised edges to create a focal point around the eyes and mouth, while the hair is very smooth and a bit out of focus.

Caricature of artist Wouter Tulp. All rights reserved, Sebastian Dahlström. Work in progress.

Painting phase, a little further down the line... More details in place, the in-between values are starting to show. Caricature of artist Wouter Tulp. All rights reserved, Sebastian Dahlström.

Step 4: Details

This is the final step. If the caricature is supposed to be in color this is where the final adjustments to the colors are made. The same goes for monochromatic paintings, where we make the final adjustments to the values and edges.

All the analysing is already done, and all elements of caricature should me made. Now it is time to focus on the details. In this painterly style of caricature I usually try to represent them realistically. No need to caricature the small details on the skin, for example - or the bright reflection in the eyes. Paint the details as realistically as possible and pay close attention to your reference picture.  

This is also the step where the caricaturist can add certain artistic elements. These could be some expressive brush strokes, or really expressive edges (out of focus-in focus-relationships). On my final caricature I left some areas quite loose on purpose, in order to draw attention to the areas where I focused on a lot of details. (Compare the eyes and teeth to the hair and shirt on my caricature to see an example of this).

At this stage follow whatever rules or choices you'd like that applies to any kind of painting. Let your unique voice shine through.

A short video that sums up the caricature process of my caricature of Wouter Tulp.

Scroll to the top to take a fresh look at my finished caricature. Do you see something new in it after reading this blog post. If so - I'd be happy to hear about it. :)

When writing this blog post I realised there are so much to be said about caricature. This is only a rough overview. I'll probably go in to more details in future blog posts (hit subscribe and you'll never miss any). And should you happen to have any questions - feel free to ask!