Cartoon illustration: Caricature

Even as a five year old I was a keen observer of human behaviour, often coupled with a sense of the absurd, so it’s not surprising that caricature became part of my cartooning repertoire from an early age.  Comics and cartoons, to a child of my interests, were a form of sociological and psychological text, mirroring and amplifying human idiosyncrasy, an infinite compendium and field guide for life. This was invigorated by the fact that, by the earliest 1970s, my parents had defected from ‘society’ to the ‘counterculture’, and I was surrounded by colourful characters who provided no end of cartoon inspiration.

One of my earliest cartoons depicted a skinny naked hippy couple, with exaggerated hair, swirly eyes and crazy grins, clutching oversized joints and genitals dangling (alas, I think my mother later ‘disappeared’ the drawing – perhaps my observations were a tad too accurate). A similar character from that time is pictured at right.

One of my earliest remaining artifacts, around 6 yrs old.

During the 70s I was an obsessive MAD Magazine collector. The magazine was a reservoir of high-calibre cartoon artists, each with a distinct signature style; my autodidactic drawing skills developed rapidly in those years, and my MAD collection (dating back to the 1950s) was a limitless reference library. Virtually any technical element of drawing was demonstrated in its pages, including caricature – here ‘masterclassed’ by no less than one of the planet’s most respected caricature artists, the superlative Mort Drucker.

I studied Mort’s drawings meticulously (ie autistically), analysing his linework, intently copying not only its visual qualities but its fluid feeling. Over time I came to understand Mort’s style as more like ‘cartoon portraiture’, different from the kind of caricature that focuses on overt exaggeration and distortion (which, in the right hands, I also admired, but requires its own set of specialised skills).  Because he was depicting familiar movie celebrities, drawing them from many angles, and recurrently over the years (as the actors continued to appear in movies), I could more easily connect my memory of the celebrities’ faces with the lines and shapes I observed in Drucker’s drawing. 

Early attempts at copying (ie learning from) Mort Drucker, 1975, age 10.

As I practiced my own drawing, I noticed how the slightest shift in a line – the angle, the curve or length – could make a huge difference in the look of any particular facial feature, and consequently could make or break any likeness. I also came to observe that there were certain subsets or types of features – eyes, noses, mouths, chins and head shapes – that were shared by people I met in real life; for example, I might recognise someone as having the same kind of nose, eyes or mouth as Paul Newman, so in recalling Mort Drucker’s drawings of Paul Newman I was able to borrow the same lines to create a likeness, identikit-style.  This also helped sharpen my observation of faces in general, details such as the space between features – nose and upper lip, lower lip and chin, eyebrow and hairline, are of the utmost importance in a caricature.  Of course, many artists learn these things first in formal life drawing classes; being apparently too young to enter Art School by about 10 years, I taught myself instead via whatever resources were immediately available – using my own attentive observation and relentless hands-on practice, fuelled by my sheer love of drawing.

Caricature drawing is quite a specific skill, as distinct from other forms of cartoon drawing, and I don’t consider myself especially good or original at it.  For me the challenge is not only in capturing a likeness, but hopefully also something of the subject’s essence, their presence (if I have met them in person).  As a boy, I often made drawn gifts, typically a caricature of them ‘in their element’, for people I really liked or knew well – either as a thank you, a birthday gift or even just expressing a moment of feeling happy to know them.  I was very exacting on myself about getting the physical likeness right, and often tested a new drawing out on whoever was at hand, insisting ‘yes, but does it look like them??’

Despite my high expectations of myself, there were often times that viewers could recognise the subject even if I hadn’t captured a good physical likeness – that is, something about the drawing communicated the individual presence of the person, and this was immediately recognisable.  As a boy I found this element of drawing anyone both fascinating and capricious, and I eventually came to understand it as a skill in itself, one of ‘sensing’ the person behind the face. I honed this ‘sense’ more consciously in later years, particularly when I drew Essence Portraits in the 90s, and later when I worked as a ‘live’ caricaturist at corporate functions.

The MacDonald Monsters, 1975: a comic strip based on a primary school swimming pool excursion. Includes our teacher Mr Omrod, Melba the bus driver, and a few of the more memorable students.

Local characters

By the time I reached adolescence I had been practicing caricature to varying intensity for nearly a decade, and while my observations of people were fairly precocious, my technical understanding still needed to mature.  Growing up in a rural community, among all kinds of eccentric & colourful characters, lent itself well to the larrikin spirit, and my caricatures of locals were meant as a good-natured celebration rather than a denigration of their character – unless, of course, they were known as questionable characters, in which case they were considered fair game.  In my youthful cartoonist mind, I think I saw each person’s idiosyncrasies as unique, and it was easy (not to mention fun) to imagine them all as distinct cartoon characters.

During 1977 – 78, when I was 12 & 13, my mother & stepfather managed the kitchen of the Wiseman’s Ferry pub, and I worked there on weekends collecting plates from the (three level) beer garden and sometimes serving snacks at the Saturday night disco.  The Wiseman’s pub culture was a very different mix of characters to those living only an hour’s drive further up the MacDonald Valley in St Albans (where we lived). Most of the pub regulars lived just that bit closer to city thinking and the darker workings of violence, drug abuse, misogyny and racism, and dysfunction in general, that typified the late-70s. On weekends, Wiseman’s pub drew a mix of biker gangs & ‘sinbin’-driving disco yobs, a few less-timid hippies, hillbilly mountain men ‘out on the town’, local oldtimers, prawn fishermen and speedboat hoons, and Sydney cityslickers out for a taste of ‘the country’ to ‘get away from it all’.

The cluster of regulars I knew at Wiseman’s pub were in the 20 – 40 age range, most were essentially good people, but scattered among them were a yahoo or two, a convicted rapist, a few heroin problems, several alcoholics, serial brawlers and other miscreants. Most also had regular dealings with Bill the local copper, who was a nasty piece of work himself. My caricatures of these locals, while never demeaning, weren’t always appreciated or taken in quite the same good humour as with their ‘countrier’ cousins across the river. The sketchbook examples below give some idea how much work I put into developing these caricatures:

Political caricature (1974 – 78)

The 1970s were also a rich, colourful time in Australian politics, and by extension, Australian political cartooning. I was very much a product of the Whitlam era, and standard newspaper reading in our household consisted of Nation Review, The Digger, National Times, Sydney Morning Herald and the occasional tabloid for the weekend comics liftout. In my personal reference library were several books on Australia’s early political cartooning history, as well as collections of such contemporary cartoonists of the time as Bruce Petty, Leunig, Ron Cobb and Larry Pickering.

Pickering was another of my drawing ‘masterclassers’: his ‘cartoony’ style of caricature with its clear, simple lines and irreverent characterisations, was immediately accessible to me, and I mimicked his style intently for a few years. From late 1974 – 78 was my ‘political’ period, and while I rapidly evolved my own versions of politicians from that time, they were obviously derivative, and I still found the technicalities of getting a likeness elusive. Nevertheless, by 1977 my drawing style had matured, even if my political insight was naive.

In terms of ‘serious’ caricature, it was the more sophisticated ‘cartoon portraiture’ of John Spooner and Ward O’Neill that amazed and fascinated me, and would have a more enduring effect on my own caricature efforts when I worked for the Newcastle Herald a decade later.  Both Spooner and O’Neill were masterful draughtsmen, whose crisp ink penmanship acknowledged an older tradition of Australian caricature harking back to Norman Lindsay and David Low’s work in The Bulletin during the early 1900s.  Other international masters of this style during the 70s included David Levine (USA) and Wally ‘Trog’ Fawkes (UK), but it was the local work of Spooner and O’Neill I most admired, and even collected newspaper clippings whenever their work appeared, to add to my reference library.

My Gough story

My father was a journalist / reporter / news editor for ABCTV during the Whitlam years, and there was a thriving progressive Labour sentiment among the ABC staff then.  One time he was sent to cover an appearance by Gough & Meg Whitlam, opening an Oktoberfest (German Beer Festival) in the Sydney suburb of Fairfield, apparently one of Gough’s old stomping grounds.  I was about 9 years old, and only just beginning to try my hand at political caricature; I had a stylised ‘Whitlam’ I was drawing at the time, and I decided I would tag along to the Oktoberfest, give Gough one of my drawings of his good self and ask for his autograph.  Incredibly, in those days, it was actually that simple. 

I waited (diminutively, among a throng of adult fans & media-mongers) behind the open-air stage, watched in awe as Gough (as seen from behind, mere meters away) delivered a rousing opening speech and downed a full stein of German lager to much applause, wiped his mouth and turned to leave the stage.  He and Meg descended the stage steps, both of them towering majestically as the crowd parted to let them through.  Clutched in my hand, a small hope of paper, a drawing of Gough in a suit, button popping off said suit, a recently emptied beerglass in his hand and a burp issuing from his mouth.  I was a couple of meters down the aisle of people, a little longhaired hippy kid who timidly tugged at the Prime Minister’s suitcoat as he passed: ‘Excuse me, Mr Whitlam, can I have your autograph?’. He scribbled indecipherably in my autograph book and I handed him my drawing, which he swept up in his enormous hand, looked at and guffawed, stuffed it into his pocket and shook my hand, thanking me, then was off.  It all happened so quickly, and I often wondered later if he actually kept the drawing, or whether it was disposed of by some laundry person cleaning his suit – neither of which matters: I shook Gough Whitlam’s hand, I made him laugh, and for a split second I impressed myself on his consciousness.

My first rendering of Gough Whitlam, c. 1974. The drawing I gave him was in this style. I only used this version briefly, before replacing it with a version inspired by Pickering’s style.

Judging by my sketchbooks from that time, it wasn’t long after this incident that I discovered Pickering’s work and realised he distilled Gough’s features better than any other cartoonist at the time, and so I developed a ‘Whitlam’ that was more Pickering-inspired.  A decade later, working as a cartoonist / caricaturist for the Newcastle Herald in the mid-1980s, I had the opportunity to caricature Whitlam in my own style, and with better respect for a true likeness, which put to rest an old dissatisfaction in myself about how I used to depict him (see slideshow above).  Interestingly, in one of life’s curious ourobori, the Herald’s editor John Allan (my boss) had been the editor that launched Pickering’s career 20 years before.

RAM Magazine 1979: published!

By 1978 (age 13), my explorative passion for rock music (and album cover art) took priority over politics, and over the next couple of years I created a number of caricatures & portraits of favourite rock stars. Many of these ink pen drawings were created with the ‘stippling’ technique: hundreds of layered dots, shaped gradually over many cross-eyed hours, that gave the portraits a semi-photographic effect.

In 1979 I was regularly reading ‘music mags’ Rolling Stone and Sydney’s weekly street press Rock Australia Magazine (RAM), and decided to send some of my music caricatures and cartoons to RAM. They liked them and printed a few over about 5 issues, even commissioning a Dylan caricature for a feature on his newly-released ‘Christian’ album Slow Train Coming. 

I think the first thing RAM printed was a comic strip that was a meta-caricature of sorts: I based it on the topical satirical rock song ‘Mug’s Game’ by Dave Warner’s From The Suburbs, itself a scathing caricature of popular Australian stereotypes; I supplanted the characters in the song for Australian politicians of the day, with Mal Function (Malcolm Fraser) as the song’s narrator, lamenting that he wasn’t as cool as Gougho, Billy (Hayden), Neville (Wran) or Deadhead (Bob Hawke). I didn’t tell the editor I was only 14 because I wanted to test the cartoons in their own right, but ultimately I soured the relationship with my immature attitude and inexperience in business matters. Nevertheless, I was pretty chuffed to be published in a ‘street cred’ music mag, while still in high school.

Keef Richards

Newcastle Herald (1984 – 86)

By the time I began working for the Newcastle Herald in late 1984, I had developed a style of caricature that blended elements of Mort Drucker, Spooner / O’Neill, and a touch of childhood hero Robert Crumb.  In the two short years I was at the Herald I was given plenty of opportunities to flex and refine my style: editorial caricatures of national & international politicians, business and academic figures, the occasional entertainment celebrity.  The dominant faces of mid-80s politics were Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard et al in Australia and Ronald Reagan in the US. One of my caricatures (billionaire Robert Holmes A Court) had the minor historic distinction of being the first colour cartoon to ever grace the Newcastle Herald’s front page, when it introduced colour printing for the first time (sounds medieval, doesn’t it?). Holmes A Court later bought my original drawing from the newspaper, as apparently he had a fetish for collecting all cartoon art that was about himself. I suppose the drawing now languishes in some family vault or other…

For a time I was given the job of providing a weekly caricature for the Herald’s sports section, usually depicting a local sporting hero – very alien territory for unsporting me.  Even delivering the drawings to the sports journalists each week was daunting, they represented such an antithesis of my reality at the time. Mind you, there were very few people at the Herald that I had any sense of shared reality with…

During those mid-80s years I also produced a few band posters featuring caricature.  Newcastle had a thriving underground music scene back then, I played in a couple of bands & had friends in most of the others, so it was fun to contribute to our shared culture.  The ‘Musical Uprising’ cassette cover was for a live recording of five of those bands – the characters depicted were translations of certain known characters in the scene. The Giddy People caricature was for the Newcastle Herald’s weekend entertainment liftout, The Weekender; the Giddy People were a fantastic musical theatre group better known as the Castanet Club – Steve Abbott (‘Sandman’), Angela Moore (‘Shirley Purvis’), Glenn Butcher and Maynard F# Crabbes. The Battle Of The Bands poster contains caricatures of American Western icons because the night featured Sydney cowpunks The Johhnys (who I carefully silhouetted in the doorway of the saloon). The Ramjets poster is a personal favourite. The copy of the Deadbeats poster (my first band) pictured below was used by my younger sister to cover her high school Maths book (which I think is pretty cool).

My final newspaper caricature was published in the Sunday Herald (Melb) in 1990, for a business article about Alan Bond and John Labatt. I’d left the Newcastle Herald 4 years earlier and had no particular interest in pursuing newspaper work again, but I was chuffed to be published, albeit briefly, in a Melbourne broadsheet. That was my first year living in Melbourne, and I’d been doorknocking at various newspapers and agencies to generate freelance work (no website then!). Having to locate all the businesses I’d targeted meant navigating the city and suburbs on trams, train & foot, so it was a great way to get to know Melbourne. I spent so much time on trains that I often carried a sketchbook in my backpack and drew other passengers in the carriage, or characters I’d seen elsewhere that day. I noticed that the social stereotypes of Melbourne in 1990 were somehow more vivid than those I’d known in Newcastle – not so surprising given Melbourne’s many generations of multicultural influence. Below are a few consistent stereotypes I encountered in my survey, plus a couple of 90s pop stars and some miscellaneous:

The 2000s: A useful sideline

Apart from the odd commission, I didn’t give much focus to caricature work again until I moved to Tassie in 2001.  Between 2007 – 2012, Ochre Recruitment commissioned B&W caricatures of all their staff, with each staff member using their caricature in their email signature.  Another odd job was a lifesize cutout caricature of then State Premier Jim Bacon wearing nothing but a pair of Speedos, to be presented to him at some event or other.

Ochre Recruitment staff caricatures, 2007 – 2012.

Skills put to the test: Live caricature

As an occasional sideline to my teaching work, I joined the books of Island Entertainment as a ‘live’ on-site caricaturist for corporate functions and events.  I did quite a lot of these gigs from 2013 – 2017, and in all kinds of settings.  Generally I’d be set up at a table out of the way, offered as a free ‘entertainment’ for whoever wished to avail themselves of the opportunity. Possibly the strangest was at a huge gathering of Tasmanian gun enthusiasts: about 300 people, kids included, crammed into a big hall somewhere in the sticks, mounted animal heads & antlers decorating the walls – everyone mad about guns.  In Tasmania, the line between ‘redneck’ and ‘greenie’ is sharp, and the slightest thing can put you in either camp even if you avoid both, so I made sure I was especially tactful in conversation that night.

I’ve drawn people from all walks of life, and every individual brings something of interest in the moment, even if they are silent. Naturally some remain guarded or contained while I’m drawing them (am I stealing their soul?), while others relax enough to become quite reflective, thoughtful and confiding. And in drawing such a wide variety, I get to see the same basic themes of humanity unfolding in us all.

These live gigs require intense focus – I’m often only hired for a couple of hours and have to draw quicker than I prefer. When a person arrives at my table, I have roughly 15 minutes to simultaneously put them at ease, chat with them if they’re chatty (silent if not), while carefully observing their facial nuances, any sense of their personality, all the while frantically hoping I produce a likeness that wont offend or upset them.  It certainly sharpens my attention & hones my skills, good practice for mindful awareness.

I definitely prefer more time to develop a caricature, so I can take more care with the likeness. It feels wrong to rush it, but at these gigs that’s the economics of it.  Most people are delighted with the results, but occasionally I either don’t hit the mark, or I hit it too well!  For some people, getting a caricature is just a bit of fun over drinks; for others it’s quite an intimate & reflective experience, and a confronting one.  A lot of other live caricaturists seem intent on distorting their client’s faces without care for capturing a likeness, and often the drawings are deliberately demeaning.  My preference is to aim for as honest a likeness as I can, and create a drawing that affirms the person somehow – either depicting them doing something they love, or in some kind of fun fantasy of their devising.  In the end, I’d rather have the person feeling good about themselves as a result of the total experience – including a symbol (the drawing) that they want to keep because it has been activated by meaning.