Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Walt Disney

"Animation is different from other parts. Its language is the language of caricature. Our most difficult job was to develop the cartoon's unnatural but seemingly natural anatomy for humans and animals."

A caricature is a drawing that is based on observation of something's specific distinct features. A caricature artist has to have a good eye for what makes something or someone look different than others of its kind. What makes this man unique from all other men?
What makes a rabbit unique from a skunk?
These caricatures are by Marlo Meekins. She really has a gift for this ability.
When you caricature, you have to abandon your preconceived notions of how things look. You have to be let your model show you what a nose looks like, or whether the space between the eyes is close or far.

A caricaturist should really be wary of developing a style.
Or worse, to steal a famous caricaturist's style. How many Al Hirschfeld and Mort Drucker clones have you seen? Are any of them as good as the originals?

When you try to emulate a famous caricaturist's "style" you are undermining the usefulness of doing a caricature. Now you have to filter what your subject looks like through "Gee, now how would Al interpret this person?" So you are not really getting the most of what you can from the subject. The subject is the style.

Of course there are tons of bad caricaturists-you see them at the theme parks usually. They draw everyone to look the same and just change the hair. These aren't really caricatures.

Caricature is really important in animation because animation tends so much to reuse designs from the past and the whole assembly line process of animation allows a succession of artists to retrace the first artist in line's initial pose or expression. And each time it gets traced it gets toned down a bit until the actual drawing that appears on the screen doesn't reflect the animator's idea. How many animators have complained about getting a bad assistant who tones down her or his work? I even hate tracing my own rough drawings because I myself tone down my first sketch.


An underture is the opposite of a caricature.

It takes out specific features. An underture is a drawing that says nothing about the character it portrays. It is the absence of opinion or definition.

Undertures are less interesting than real life.

Here are some famous undertures from animation:

These are considered subtle and "realistic", when actually they are neither. Real people have distinguishing features and subtleties. Nobody looks like this. It's neither cartoon, nor real. It's just nothing. It's no ideas, an excuse for not having to create anything.

Now, I'm ready for the few of you who will rush to justify characters like this. There'll be some reason like, "Well, John those are the HEROIC characters! They have to be subtle and bland and have no distinguishing features."

Milt Kahl would disagree with you. He hated animating the Prince and any kind of "realistic" characters. He wanted to go back to fun stuff like Br'er Fox and I agree with him.

Now, here are some real life heroic characters from the movies.None of these characters (well maybe the last one) are bland-either in look, or in personality.

Do they have distinguishing features? Would you rather watch a movie with stars that you can't recognize because they have no faces?

Even heroic or "handsome" characters can have distinguishing features:

Here's an underture of the most beloved leading man in the movies. It's less specific than the actual man himself in real life.
The same thing applies to female characters. Here are some undertures.
Here's Mary Blair's version of Alice. It's still bland, but a lot more interesting graphically than what they settled for in the movie.
Sleeping Beauty is very well drawn, but has no distinguishing features. The angles give her some graphic interest, but as a character she is not remotely interesting. Every girl you know in real life is more interesting than this.
Maleficent has some mildly specific features, at least compared to the average animated humans. She has a pointy chin and a hooked nose and big heavy lidded eyes.

Here's a real life beautiful person.

Our real lives are filled with potential inspiration for our cartoons. We don't have to have bland characters if we choose not to. I mean, why are we cartoonists in the first place? To tone down real life?

Even general types can be caricatured.

Here's what babies look like:

Here's an "animation baby".
It's as if the artist had never seen a real baby. He just copied some other animator's baby who copied a previous one who copied a previous one.....

I used to caricature babies all the time because they are so funny looking. I wish I had some to post. Maybe Eddie can find a couple for me.

Here are some Undertures to collect and trade:


akira said...

Great advice! okey you've already talked about how characters like pocahontas are somewhat lacking in construction... but do you think that they are at least more specific looking or caracatured than disney heroines of the past? or are they just bland designs with a few ethnic emphases?

i'm trying to think of the best caracatured female in animation, and i'm coming up with cruella de'ville (maybe medusa has best caracatured acting?).. betty boop is definitely unique but she seems more created from shapes than inspired from real life to me. who gets your vote?

Kunster said...


here's a good example

Trevour said...

I've been fortunate enough to make a living as a caricaturist for the past 2 years, but I'm nowhere near the point of calling myself good. I'm sure you could place me in with the "theme park" type, but I'm still learning. 2 years ago, I never drew a single caricature in my life. Funny though how I look back at my drawings every couple months and see how much I've improved.

Above all, drawing caricatures every day has changed my perception of people all around me. I find myself pointing out facial features on complete strangers, without even thinking about it.

cemenTIMental said...

hehe some great characatures!

"underture" is an interesting idea, never thought of it like that but very true!

ChristopherC said...


I remember not to long ago you did a Tom Cruise caricature which was hilarious, you should add that again to this post.

Kali Fontecchio said...

Marlo has a great eye for caricature!

I love yours too!

Why does underture even exist? Every artist should make fun of the people around them, not tone it down. That's like saying, "I don't want to have fun today."

Anibator said...

The differences you're pointing out are of a little thing called 'subtlety' which you obviously dislike.
I can point out many details in Sleeping Beauty's design that relay points about her character... but they're more subtle.
Once again, while my tastes happen to be in agreement with your thesis that "caricature is more fun to watch" I can also point out many examples wherein subtlety is more appropriate in servicing the story than caricature. It's a matter of "the right tool for the right job."
But don't bother telling me I'm wrong because I know there is no hope that you will consider the possibility that an opinion contrary to your own might have some validity.

Kali Fontecchio said...


Holy crap, Tom Hanks is ugly. Great drawing of him!

Trevour said...

Oh yeah, and that top caricature by Marlo is of fellow caricaturist Lar deSouza.

Max Ward said...

Art Lozzi once told me, "Each one of us is a unique, separate universe and so much revolves around us. Whole planets." I think caricature can really support this. If you caricature something completely unbias, only using the model, it will look different than anyone else's caricature of the same thing. Everyone's interpretation is different, and that's a real neat idea to me.

mdouglas said...

Excellent Post! I have been dealing with the same "package feature syndrome" for years, but I just overcome that by observing what makes the person unique and reinterpret those features to how I see them.

Muppet Pro said...

John, Check out the work of Fluck & Law!!!!!!! I mean it, check them out!!!!!!! Their the masterminds of the kick butt adult puppet satire program, Spitting Image.




Crap, nobody does cool stuff like this anymore!

_Eric ;)

Rodrigo said...

Interesting post. . .

Those celeb caricatures, btw, are fucking great.

It's interesting to see how beauty is often bland-ified. I think generally, we associate a pretty face with no blemishes, symmetry, and big pretty eyes. Perhaps, this is why we've seen the same stock girl face over and over in Disney movies. (And in Anime, you get those girl faces showing up in male characters WAAAYY to much)

I did some caricature practice outside of a restaraunt, only to have a couple little girls ask if I'd draw them. I reluctantly did, worrying the whole time I'd get arrested. Yeesh.

It's hard to think of a serious hero or heroine drawn with distinct features, but what about some of Disney's last 2D flicks. Granted, these films in their entirety aren't that great, but don't you think that Hercules and Tarzan's faces aren't the usual stock hero?

Then there's Powdered Toastman . . .

stiff said...

My attempts at caricatures always end up too rigid/photographish/not caricatures as much as line-drawing portraits. Like this. Any suggestions for how to get over that? John, anybody?

Anonymous said...

caricature is something that i really need to work on...among other things.

John_Fountain said...

I've never been able to understand why anyone does "realistic" looking cartoons. If you're trying to make a realistic looking film why not just shoot it with live actors? It's easier to point a camera at something and film it than it is to draw it anyway. The whole reason to use animation is for its ability to caricature reality.

Lee said...

Brilliant post, John. I've been wondering what makes for a good caricature. I know what I think looks good, but I've never been able to articulate it. Bingo on the "wannabes." Copying other people's styles never works out well, does it?

I'd love to see some of your baby caricatures. I've been struggling with drawing babies and I can't figure out where I'm going wrong.

Corey said...

your cariactures are awesome, post more.

Julián höek said...

marlo is so talented and so HOT!

Gabriel said...

when you do caricatures, do you think about construction at all?

JohnK said...

>>The differences you're pointing out are of a little thing called 'subtlety' which you obviously dislike.<<

I knew someone would say that even though I didn't.

I'm all for subtlety.

Subtlety doesn't mean, "don't do anything".

It means "do things that are unique and hard to capture" which caricaturing teaches you - if you let it.

Sleeping Beauty has lots of subtle actions and it's the best animation of a generic girl ever done, but that's Marc Davis animating very slowly and with the help of rotoscoping. There's no one today in that league or in a studio system organized well enough to allow it.

Even so, a real girl will be a lot more specific and subtle.

Roberto González said...

I have never pictured Peter Pan's Wendy as a non-entity character. There is something so old fashioned about her clothes, hair that makes her quite specific for me. Maybe she was less specific at that moment.

I can see it very well in the prince characters.

About the Alice drawings I am unsure, the mary Blair drawing is pretty cool in a way, but...she doesn't really have a face or any distinct features other than the odd pose and nice colours.

What do you think of Tinker Bell? I think she looked a little different with the hairdo and the face expression (50% innocent,50%"bad")

My opinion about this? Perfect heroes are boring in general but mainly because of the concept, more than the drawing. Principal Charming like characters don't do anything interesting, so they don't look interesting. I actually think most of the female girls are a little more specific usually in their behaviour and look. Or maybe I'm more interested in pretty girls, anyway.

Shawn said...

It's a lot more fun to caricature people who most likely won't see your drawing. Then you can exaggerate as much as you want (even be mean) and end up with some really funny pictures without being labeled as a horrible jerk. Most caricature artists at theme parks draw really boring caricatures...Maybe that's because they are too afraid of offending the people they draw (aside from being a bland artist). In Dan Clowes' comic "Caricature", the main character is a pathetic artist who says:

"The main rule you have to learn as a caricaturist is very simple: Flatter the customer. You pretend to exaggerate their faults, but really you do anything but. Once, a rather large woman paid for her drawing and then proceeded to rip it up into little pieces right there in front of me! I wanted to cry! The people standing around said it looked just like her...Too much, I suppose..."

I prefer caricatures by real cartoonists who seem like they don't give a shit as long as the art is good and creative, like you and Marlo.

Gabriel said...

The differences you're pointing out are of a little thing called 'subtlety' which you obviously dislike.

Behold: the most subtle caricature ever!

Anonymous said...

Even in real life, it seems people prefer a cookie-cutter model when it comes to beauty. People have preconceived notions of what is beautiful and what is not. It seems the most unique-looking individuals are often deemed "ugly." I've seen far too many guys look over interesting and unique girls and drool over so-called foxes who look all the other brainless bimbo trophies, and vica versa. I mean, you look at every Disney priness and prince and they look the same, perhaps with different coloring.

I've always enjoyed your animation style and techniques and enjoy reading this blog. Even though I can't draw to save my life, reading your entries makes me appreciate the art behind cartoons (when there is art) more than I used to.

Jenny said...

Seeing Marlo's brilliant caricatures here is just painful--because where in the hell is she, John? Canst thou spake for Marlo?

Jesus, I miss some new bloodletting from her talented wrist.

Yours are hot too. You devil.

The caricatures, I mean.

MTK said...

Hah... that quote you used is a tad funny. Considering Walt shares his fair amount of responsibilities when it comes to those 'undertures'.

I noticed you mentioned that tracing over your old drawing tones them down. I am subject to the same fate. I absolutely hate inking and avoid it at all costs. I don't even usually like putting down dark pencil over the blue pencil lines I've made.

Any chance you'll be posting on how to keep the original energy in drawing while inking/tracing it?

Roberto González said...

What about Daniel Clowes characters? Is this caricature or underture?


I guess Enid (the girl with the glasses) is a little peculiar, but Rebecca has a very average face. Also the shape of their face, etc. is not especially exaggerated or original.

I love this kind of drawing in a comic book, but I don't think it would work in an animated feature. That's why I think this comic was done in a real action flick and something like Peter Bagge's Hate should be done in a cartoon instead, IMO.

Crumpled Up John! said...

Gerald Scarfe has some of the most brutal caricatures of politicians I have ever seen. My favorites of the ones he's done of Margaret Thatcher.

Ape Lad said...

I still can't find the full article, but here's Al Hirschfeld: "[in 1937, criticizing Disney's "Snow White."] "Snow White, with her full complement of fingers and fingernails, eyelashes, one-dimensional head, bare arms without solidity, and un-inventive neck, is an awkward automation. These awkward symbols do not articulate, and the lovely voice with which she is endowed only heightens the effect of a ventriloquist's dummy. The illusion created by a well-directed pen line is an art not to be confused with the gingerbread realities of Snow White."

Tim said...

>>Behold: the most subtle caricature ever

Looks just like me!

Wow, I'll be honest, before I found your blog I never held Caricaturism in high esteem. Yes, I know I deserve to be socked in the face for that, but thanks.
...and Mr. K? Would you mind ripping apart this video for me?

Trevour said...

Shawn, good post - I don't understand people who sit down for a caricature and then get offended by it in the end. What do they expect? The types of people who are literally freaking out every five seconds, asking their onlooking friends, "How does it look, HOW DOES IT LOOK?!?" I personally don't give a flying %#?&! whether or not I'm flattering a customer. I draws 'em as I sees 'em.

As for the underture, I've seen plenty a paid "caricaturist" do just that in their own work. *ahem!*

Trevour said...

...and Mr. K? Would you mind ripping apart this video for me?

Wow Tim, that's utensils with 'tude!

A.M.Bush said...

"What about Daniel Clowes characters? Is this caricature or underture?"

Dude, do you really need John to tell you that those are undertures?

Mr. Semaj said...

You love using the Batman pic for boring sketches, do ya? :P

Karley said...

Hey John, first time commenter.

It seems to me that underture doesn't just affect animation. Look at the celebrities of today, and compare with those of the past. Now they're all unremarkable looking 20-somethings. Could you imagine, say, Bela Lugosi getting a leading role for Dracula today? It seems that unique features drive the suits away.

And don't get me started on women. They are almost always made blander and homogeneous looking to appease our narrow beauty standards. More so than men. I'm looking at my crap "how to draw comic book characters" book. There's several pages full of different body types for men. There's only two for women- the Lara Croft bimbos, old ladies, and pear shaped moms.

Paul B said...

hey john and all of you
come to visit my blog
i hope you like it
i post some new stuff

see ya later

ChatRabbit said...

I was under the impression that some of these underdone characters are designed to be unimportant. Like in a still life, how the apple in the front looks really good, and the bg just fades away. It's not that the bg is not important, just that it's not the main focus. Snow White wasn't really about her (despite the title), or the prince...it's all about the witch and the dwarves. Same with Sleeping Beauty, and Alladin, etc...it's the "evil" guys and the "helpers" that are the real story movers.

Ted said...

Either every one of those drawings is an underture because they're all less interesting to look at than the picture of Marlo, or they're all caricatures as they're all more interesting to look at than the photo of Liz Taylor.

Ryan Kramer said...

i wonder if anyone will ever be as good a caricaturist as Sebastian Kruger.

Trevour said...

i wonder if anyone will ever be as good a caricaturist as Sebastian Kruger.

His Marilyn Monroe is one of my favorites.

As for any contenders, I think the torch will be passed on to Joe Bluhm. He's definitely on his way... give the guy another decade or two and he'll be right up there with Krüger.

A.M.Bush said...

I think a lot of people are better than Kruger. Kruger just has the most lifelike rendering of caricatures.

David Germain said...

On the subject of caricaturists, let's not leave out . His is a freaky genius that cannot be ignored.

mike f. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin Williams said...

Every time I see an emasculated Disney prince, I wonder if they disintegrate at the sight of a man's man like Kirk Douglas.

mez said...

Well in defense for "theme park" caricature artists, there are some talented artists in this business. And it can be a breeding ground for cartoonists to learn how to draw quickly and funny and help train their observation skills.

But just as you John had to schlep it for "the man" and work on some TV shows just to make a buck, in theme parks we have to draw cartoons that people will BUY.
Marlo is a very talented lady but she is also the only caricature artist I've ever known that got asked to leave a private party for drawing the guests "too jacked up."
That may sound cool but it won't always put food on your plate.

I enjoy reading your blog and debating with my fellow employees the points that you bring up about the lack of skilled animation on TV and movies nowadays. In fact most of my employees are students trying to get into the animation industry. I often tell them to check your blog about topics you post on.

And you just got to make one of those blanketed statements about theme parks being filled with bad caricature artists… Man, let me tell you! If you only knew how many of them that didn’t dream of working in the “exclusive club” that is feature animation! These are the kids that you are looking for your “revolution”. But then yah just got to go and kick dirt in their faces like a badly drawn hairy lifeguard that runs backwards.

Working in theme parks, is just like having that dreaded corporate executive standing right over your shoulder watching every line you put down. Only the executive is a middle-age housewife from Arizona and your drawing her 3-year-old brat for $20.

Now are you going to constantly jack up that kid’s face and draw him looking like a googley-eyed pile of crap or are your going to draw him looking cute like the precious little angel? I can tell you right now 9 times out of 10 which drawing will sell, and then later you can have that $20 bucks to buy art supplies and draw big-titted beach bimbos at home.

the plummer said...

"ChatRabbit said...

I was under the impression that some of these underdone characters are designed to be unimportant."

I was thinking the same thing, and in theory, it could work. But then you look around as to how popular Prince Charming and Princess and other bland characters are in the masses. So much in fact that it leads most to believe that characters like that are the more sophisticated and sought-after; so they're copied the most, drawn by budding artists the most. Like saying "Candy looks good and tastes good so it must be good ALL the time!" and everyone eats lots and gets fat. People are obese on bad art.

Chloe Cumming said...

Ooo this is so exciting! You post new stuff so quickly, I'm lagging behind!

Don't anyone ever accuse John of not promoting subtlety. He is a force for the extermination of stagnant blandness. He's an eye opener. The world here is rich and full. If you can't see that, you're not very subtle.

I find drawing/caricaturing pretty people really fascinating. It is literally mathematically true that beauty comes down to uniformity and evenness of proportion. And yet, the things that actually make a face attractive or appealing or engaging are subtle weirdnesses. And then there are the unique expressions people do, and their unique postures...

Since you started your blog, pretty much, I've been on a sort of caricature journey... something clicked when I saw your caricatures, and Marlo's... Something happened to me... I suddenly started seeing more in faces... more distinct weirdness that I really needed to extract. I feel like I can see a million different grades of peculiarity and uniqueness in even one face, and as I feel I get a handle on the drawing, I see still more... possibilities multiply and it can seem sort of infinite and make me giddy... and I'm only just getting started in really following this logic through to its culminations.

Marlo keeps saying she'll update her blog, but she hasn't yet. Oh woe is me! The internet is a more wondrous place for having her drawings in it.

Right I'm getting hungry. I'm sure I've forgotten to say things.

That Hirschfield Cary Grant looks like George Clooney. Perhaps Clooney was not designed by God.

Roberto González said...

""What about Daniel Clowes characters? Is this caricature or underture?"

Dude, do you really need John to tell you that those are undertures? "

That's what I thought...but I'd want to know John K's opinion about this. I am unsure about the purpose of the post. It is more or less objective, he said what's caricature and what's underture and that's mainly the thing...but at the same time he implies underture is a bad thing, or worse than caricature. So I'd like to know if he thinks something like Dan Clowes' art is ok or not. i think it's a pretty recognizable style,even if the characters are not that peculiar. Though it's probably the same with scooby doo characters.

I'm just a little confused cause I don't see underture is always a bad thing, i guess, though i totally think it is in some Disney flicks.

Rafi said...

also, have to mention I feel exactly the same as Chloe on this:

"Since you started your blog, pretty much, I've been on a sort of caricature journey... something clicked when I saw your caricatures, and Marlo's... Something happened to me... I suddenly started seeing more in faces... more distinct weirdness that I really needed to extract. I feel like I can see a million different grades of peculiarity and uniqueness in even one face, and as I feel I get a handle on the drawing, I see still more... possibilities multiply and it can seem sort of infinite and make me giddy... and I'm only just getting started in really following this logic through to its culminations."

It really has been one eye opener after another this past year John.

Adam G said...

There's A BBC Documentory series about faces that's hosted by John Cleese. Part of it is about charicatures. I guess some phschologists did a study which showed that people will recognize a face in a caricature faster than an actual photo of the same face. Charactures are aparently closer to how we actually remember faces. It must be the specific differences from the norm that we remeber.

JohnK said...

Yeah, I think Dan Clowes is very talented! He has a very distinct style and outlook.

S.G.A said...

Here's a baby by me.http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/2104/2527/1600/scan0046.1.jpg

Jack Ruttan said...

Mez, you said it! There's stuff which does sell, and it's the auto-pilot kind of drawing, just like Bob Ross and his "happy little clouds."

I'm afraid I do scary and crazy stuff to please myself, and then mellow it down for ads, contracts, and things to sell. People don't like being upset when they open their paper or magzine. God bless the genuises who can draw from their hearts and change the world, but that doesn't happen too often.

Ape Lad said...

An Artist Contests Mr. Disney, by Al Hirschfeld.

Todd Oman said...

I don't know if I would agree with you on every character being that bad but you made some good points and it was very funny stuff.

Sarcastro said...

I've always thought those Disney protagonists and love interests were made so bland in order to facilitate the audience's projection of themselves - and their love interest - into the characters. If there are no distinguishing features there's nothing that really says "that isn't me" or "that isn't Johnny from 4th period".

Not that designing a character to be representative or iconic should be an excuse for bad design.

Adam Sacks said...

I've never tried caricature before, but this post made me feel like giving it a shot. If anyone feels like giving feedback, you can check them out here http://adamsacks.blogspot.com/

Hammerson said...

>Seeing Marlo's brilliant caricatures here is just painful--because where in the hell is she, John?<

Marlo is back! Check out her blog for a terrific new update. She's the Goddess of Caricature.

BrianB said...

Hey John,

what do you think about the character designs from Brad Bird and crews newest flick - Ratatouille?




I thought the female's design is quite good and at least a bit bold for the current state of female designs in animation. She's not very traditionally pretty. Big cheekbones, long sweeping nose, a mouth that forms around the wider face, slanted eyes. I know Lou Romano and Teddy Newton are pretty funny guys and good caricaturists. Do you see any of that getting through?

Aodhan said...

Hi John, which Disney character designs, be it from Shorts or feature do you believe are good designs, caricature or otherwise?