Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Chewing the Fat: Caricaturing the Mildly or Morbidly Obese

This poor girl's discomfort at being caricatured sadly turned
her into an internet meme. That, and she got a lousy
caricature, too. 
Well here's a topic I can, ahem, really sink my teeth into. Unlike my post about racial features, I can speak completely openly here and offer a helpful (I hope) insider's perspective. I'm a bit of a fatty myself. I can talk to other fatties without feeling self-conscious. And sometimes my own fat ass lets me get away with stuff that might not fly if it was coming from a size 4 caricature artist. 

And it's nearing the end of the holidays, when most of America probably feels like fatties--so it's the perfect time to dissect some approaches (both psychological and anatomical) to handling your standard overweight caricature patron.


This is what 9 out of 10 customers ask for when they sit down. "Take twenty pounds off!" (or fifty, or a hundred and fifty) is such a common quip that I get happily surprised when I DON'T hear it within the first ten seconds of a drawing. And I used to try and follow that directive, way back as a beginner caricature artist. Now I think doing so is a huge mistake. I think people who ask me to "draw them skinny" don't actually mean it. I've come to translate that plea to mean "please don't draw my fatness in a mean way that picks on me."

Let me tell you a little secret: fat people know they are fat. They see it every damn day, on the bathroom scale, in their oversized pants, in the photos on Facebook, in their reflection in shop windows, and in their shadow on a sunny day. You are not going to blindside them with a stunning diagnosis if you represent their mass in the caricature. They know.

What they are hoping is that you won't pick on them for it. And, like so many other aspects of live caricature, that can be a fine line. And it can depend on the relationship you can form with the model over that several minutes they sit for you. 
In an alternate universe . . .

I'm going to sound like I'm putting a gender spin on this, because I'm talking mainly about fat women. They are, in my experience, the ones more sensitive about weight. Fat guys have been laughing at fat caricatures of themselves for ages, and I generally don't ever have problems navigating how I should handle drawing them. Fat guys often do live up to that "jolly" archetype, and--whether by conditioning or biology, who knows?--they seem pretty okay with being chided about their mass. Look at how many sitcom couples feature a svelte, tiny-waisted wife paired with a rotund husband: Fred and Wilma, The Honeymooners, Peter and Lois Griffin, Homer and Marge, Kevin Arnold and any woman he's ever shared screen time with. The list goes on and on. I cannot, however, think of one popular sitcom that features a husband that's in shape but an overweight female as his mate. Not one. Guys find it more acceptable to chide their male friends over weight--when a fat guy sits down for a caricature, half the time his buddies are encouraging me to get all his rolls and blubber in the picture. No female friends do this to their overweight bff's, not ever. A woman's worth is still consciously tied to her figure, and that creates baggage that we, as caricature artists, have to sometimes help people handle.

"Fat" versus "Curvy"

So let's say you get a woman sitting for you who is nervous about her girth and mentions it to you, asking you to draw her skinny. There's a few ways to approach this problem. I have seen a spectrum of approaches, like one artist who grumpily told a woman "Look, if you're fat, I'm gonna draw you fat." He ended up not working at the booth long, as the woman took her fat butt right to mall management and complained. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, the eager-to-please artist that indeed, draws a glamorous female with no chins, cheeks, or arm fat, and feels like a sellout during the entire process but is resigned to the fact that the customer is the boss.

Lord knows I've gone wrong in my approach. My first year drawing caricatures at Excalibur, which favored a front-view style as opposed to all my years drawing profiles, I was indeed stymied by how to softly (or harshly) represent a chubby face that had no discernible chin line. I guess I was feeling particularly brave one night--this was probably right after a caricature convention--and decided to go rogue and not cut any corners when a portly gal sat for me. She had a chin that popped out of a flat wall of neck flesh due to her extra weight, and I just took a deep breath and drew it. I may have even exaggerated it. Straight lines from ear to shoulder, pretty much. Well, I turned it around, hoping for the best but expecting the worst, and she simply looked surprised for a moment, then paid me, and even chuckled a bit. Her friend, however, was quietly livid, and as they left she bent down and said angrily in my ear "I hope you know that that's going straight into the trash!" Well, all right then. A moment of regret, but it struck me that it wasn't the fat woman, but her friend, who was upset. And she had paid me, it was not rejected. As I said, fat people know they're fat.

As is my typical standby, I rely on humor these days to try and lighten the mood. I don't want to resort to slimming generic-cature, but I also don't want people getting angry every time I draw a double chin. Let's talk about words. They are important. First off, I try to banish the term "double chin" when talking to a customer, it's just a phrase so laden with hatred and ugliness--no sensitive female is going to take well to an artist saying "I'm going to include your double-chin,"but you can get away with saying "You have a soft chin, and I'm going to include that--if I put harsh angles there instead you would look like an anorexic or a bodybuilder." If someone says "make me skinnier!" as they sit down, I hold up the blank paper and say well, if you hold it this way (turning the paper at an angle) you can be as skinny as you want!

There are a huge array of words that mean fat but are nicer on the ears than "fat." I have worked a few into my repertoire: curvy, bodacious, zaftig, Ruebenesque, curvaceous, bountiful, and on and on. You can make up words as long as you say them with attitude and a friendly, even flirty way. A young lady who sits down and says "Don't draw me fat!" can suddenly giggle with delight and even shed a bit of self-consciousness if an artist responds with "Girl, don't even worry, you are boom-shaka-laka and I am going to do that justice!"

And then, by golly, do it justice. Caricature master Glenn Ferguson did a tutorial a few years back for ISCA trade magazine "Exaggerated Features" on how to capture large people in a retail-friendly way. His tips and tricks were very valuable--like throwing a shoulder up in a flirty pose (to make a large woman look seductive and playful rather than just a lifeless mound) or getting an expression just right so that the eye isn't immediately drawn to what the patron sees as flaws (double chin, chubby cheeks, etc.) but instead gets hit with the whole effect of "wow, that's me!" I wish I could link directly to his tutorial, but I'm afraid you'll have to search it out in the archives--it's bee a while!
She laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and then caught her breath,
then laughed some more. 

One pose I long ago stole from Robert and have used a few times to great effect, plays on a woman's size relative to her boyfriend. This pose requires an overweight, busty gal (preferably wearing a low-cut top already) and a smaller fellow, not only smaller in mass but also shorter than his mate. You definitely want to ask if they have a sense of humor before you go for it. But oh my goodness, does it go over well. 

As a fat gal myself, I do have a few arrows in my quiver that not everyone can use. I have shared bits and pieces of what eventually has become this blog post with fat patrons as I drew them, and it has seemed like it made a difference in their thinking here and there. As a member of that club, sometimes I can talk more freely with them and not make them feel offended or picked on. When they ask for weight to be taken off, I can even jokingly say "Why? Are you telling me fat people aren't sexy???" and put on a look of feigned offense, and they laugh along with me.

My Big Fat Caricatures

What exactly defines "picking on" someone for their weight? Well, I've been drawn literally hundreds of times. And I can tell you of a few instances that pushed my buttons--and a few instances that made me delight in how my proportions were drawn. Mind you, I am a far throw from the average caricature patron. I am a longtime caricature artist. Just like Lutefisk is a smelly, repulsive thing to most people but regarded as a delightful delicacy by some Norwegians, so are actual, exaggerated-yet-accurate caricatures delightful to my palate but certainly too strong for the average booth visitor.

I have been rankled by artists (usually inexperienced ones) completely altering my body type in a drawing, making a point of tacking on a size-zero, bikini-clad body on what was supposed to be a caricature of my face but instead looked very thinned down. My gut reaction to this type of treatment is "Really? You think that I think I look like this?" I'm fat, not delusional, just draw what you see, please. My intellect is insulted, my mental bravado--and I take far more pride in my intellect than my waist size. It also sends a message that what the artist sees (a fat girl) is so repulsive, so awful, that it must be lied about. Oh, the horror! My fat must be censored! The other extreme is when someone ignores all other features and just draws a cookie-cutter version of a fat person that may or may not resemble me. That simply strikes me as lazy. I am fat in my own particular way (a pear shape, thank you very much), and no decent caricature artist should just lump every plus-sized model into some category of "fat person" and draw a generic swelled-up body shape. No one likes to be stereotyped. Deciding that I am a fat person and that's all that's necessary to get my likeness is also insulting; it implies that you cannot look beyond it, or even at it in order to draw it correctly!
Whaaaa ha ha ha ha ha ho ho ho ho.

So, what caricatures have I thought captured my heft well, and also been pleasing to me? A couple years ago at an ISCA con, the aforementioned Glenn Ferguson drew me and Robert in that scene from Return of the Jedi, with "the bikini" and all. But, unlike the dreaded "generic bikini body" I mentioned above, Glenn put in every roll, every crease, and every little pooch of fat, I swear, exactly as I have it. It kind of creeped me out--made me wonder if he had the room next to ours and there maybe was a pinhole allowing him to get a full view of me as I showered. But seriously, this just shows Glenn's attention to figure drawing for many many years, and his ability to render fat (no cooking pun intended). This drawing isn't just of a random fat body, this drawing is of my fat body. You can see the hips jut out disproportionately, how the gravity affects the rolls, how the chin still exists but has extra weight on it, how the metal of the brass bikini cup weighs down on the flesh like soft bread dough. I better stop now, I may be turning some of you on.  

Fastest fat on the track.
Another favorite was one a few years back drawn by Lar DeSouza. I was into roller derby at the time (and made quite an effective blocker just because I was hard to get around), and Lar drew me barreling through the house on my skates with a teeny tiny helmet and flamey-red pony tails. The elegance here is in the line and form, neither of which is heavily rendered. He has my mass, yes, but in such a dynamic way! What's not to love here? He pulled off the same thing Fantasia animators did when they made hippos delightful to watch as they danced in tutus . . . it's all about line and form. There is not one shape in this drawing that is not pleasing to the eye. Do they all add up to a fat girl? Yes. But is it still fun to look at? Absolutely. Lar is the master of whimsical form, elegant chubbiness, and perfect line quality. I have tried to learn as much as I can from him over the years.  

The next drawing I'm going to crow about isn't of me. My best friend of many, many years was overweight herself. A bit more than me. Growing up as a budding cartoonist, I drew my friends a lot. And I had SUCH a hard time drawing her. I was her BFF, and remember, girls don't comfortably chide each other about their weight. It curdled my blood to even consider drawing my best friend in a way that would upset her. So I thinned her down each and every time, focusing instead on her blue eyes, her wavy blonde hair, her anything-but-fatness. It never looked like her. Go figure. Then, in 1990 (our senior year of high school), she and our friend Andy got a caricature done at the newly opened Excalibur casino. And damn, it looked JUST LIKE HER. The artist included that dreaded double chin, yes, but it looked like her, nailed her cheeky smile and laid-back attitude, and she loved it. I studied that picture, it amazed me. At sixteen, I did not have the acuity to see how fatness can be drawn softly rather than rudely, so this caricature was like a magic trick to me. She kept that picture over the years, as people do, and we found it again when we cleaned out her house. My friend died from complications of gastric-bypass surgery in 2008. When we uncovered her caricature, I saw by the signature that the artist was Steve Thomason--a brilliant live retail caricature artist that managed Excalibur for many years and had trained Robert when he hired on as a rookie in 1992. I even took a seminar from Steve Thomason about ten years ago, right before he moved out of Vegas, and it proved an eye-opening three hours of instruction. It's a small world. This drawing is now doubly special to me, even though I only have a color xerox of it (Andy, the fellow in the caricature, called dibs on the original). And if Steve had chosen to generic-ature our friend Kari and thin her down into a blah version that bore little or no resemblance? Well, had he done that, this drawing would have been worthless. 

Reality Acceptance versus "Fat Acceptance"

Public health officials lament that we, as a culture, are becoming too accepting of fatness. We are "glamorizing" an unhealthy lifestyle and what it looks like. No question, there are some outliers on the bell curve of humanity that take pride in their girth. Some are extremely attracted to extreme proportions, and fetish pornography featuring ladies over 400 lbs is certainly not a new development. (But really, what isn't there fetish pornography about these days?) A more mainstream concern is the shift in America (and other developed countries) to reflect the ever-widening "average" waistband of their citizens. Advertising and manufacturers have, in their effort to cater to the widest demographic (no pun intended) "normalized" a larger body size. Clothing sported by waif models on the runway is mass-produced in sizes 3X and 4X for the herds of obese women shopping at Torrid, Lane Bryant, or even Walmart. Larger-sized females are sometimes portrayed as "more real" or "powerful" in media images or cinema. Mike & Molly are on the airwaves portraying an increasingly "typical" middle-class American couple.

Poor Barbie has been used left and right for statements for and against
different (or even impossible) body types.

I seriously doubt America is on the verge of undergoing a radical aesthetic change and making plus-size the new fashion. Just google "fat acceptance is" and the suggested ends to that query are "is stupid," "is wrong," and "is retarded."

What sets apart fatness from other features is that it's an outward reflection of something actually WRONG. Unlike race, or sexual orientation, or nose length, or freckles, or eye color, one's fatness is not simply a part of a person's set identity. It's an unhealthy condition, and we fatties are responsible for our fat--we are wearing our sins on our hips and chins. One can parse tons of data on genetic propensity, poverty correlation, and glandular issues, but the bottom line is that no one is born fat. And studies are showing that there really isn't a "fit fat" . . . If you're overweight or obese, it WILL impact your health negatively, the question is just how soon. I'm all about encouraging patrons to "own their face" and take pride in every feature they were born with, every wrinkly they earned . . . but how can we encourage anyone to take pride in what is, unquestionably, a preventable unhealthy state?

No matter how many gentle words I use, or how much spin I put on drawing a woman's sexy curves, I don't think overweight patrons walk away with their caricature saying "Yeah! I look awesome fat! I'm going to stay fat forever!" And I have to scowl at some of the finger-wagging opinion pieces I've come across that say the appearance of "glamorized" fat people in magazines, or likable fat characters on TV or in movies, is somehow going to make people be okay with their fatness. As if showing fat people will make America continue to get fat, and our health will all suffer, and the world will end. This view assumes that when people become fat we also become stupid. It also assumes that covering up a problem, ignoring a problem, or vilifying and picking on someone for having a problem will help them defeat that problem. It tends to have the opposite effect. 

Rather, when I draw people I like to assume they are in touch with reality (despite what they say to the contrary, like "draw me skinny," or "draw me with hair" or whatnot). I also like to think that if I can pull off a picture that captures them, with their body size as it is but in an elegant, fun-to-look-at sort of way, it might open them up to having a sense of humor about themselves, their appearance, and even their fatness. And sometimes issues that seem insurmountable can get cut down to size with a little dose of reality and a little bit of humor. And a sexy tilt of the shoulder never hurts, too. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Almost Midnight! A Short Post

Merry Holidaytime everyone! From our family to yours. (Apologies to Matt Groening.)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Reflections on Christmas Windows (Beware, It's a Nostalgic Post)

Holly and red berries with white swirly outlines,
the staple of the holiday window painter.
This time of year makes many people reflect on Christmasses past. I hope you'll bear with me on a little trip down memory lane. My holiday memories are a little more commercial than most. When I see store and gas station windows painted up with fluorescent tempera holly and snowflakes, I cannot help but think of my childhood winters.

My mother ended up raising four children by herself. While she had a varied skill set thanks to some fine art schooling and her work as technical artist for an aerospace company, it would have been impossible to hold down a full-time office job while we were very young. With no grandparents or relatives in town to help with child care, I remember it being very tough for her to cobble together an income while also making sure the four of us didn't burn down the house or wander into traffic (and if you know my youngest brother, you know there was a high probability of both those things happening). This was well before federally subsidized child care was made widely available to those who needed it, and, with four of us, private day care would have been a huge expense. Mom was exceedingly creative in her approaches, however, and brilliantly resourceful. Along with the part-time secretarial work, the custom vehicle painting, the paper routes, the holiday centerpieces sold on consignment at flower shops, the medical illustration, and the reselling of items at swap meets, she also took on Christmas window painting as a means of making ends meet.

Though we were all close in age (the four of us were born over a five-year span), I was often her main helper because I was the oldest. During the holiday season, helper meant "brush-washer," as I got to accompany her on early-morning painting trips. Did I say "got to"? I meant I HAD TO. She liked to start at sunrise so that she could be done by the time a business was open. This meant it was FUCKING COLD, and I was sleepy and probably a big sack of whiny attitude. But I also was aware that this was how we could earn some money, and money was a necessary thing, and in hindsight, I think that's important for a kid to see--and even to participate in. I guess my mother was pioneering "Bring Your Daughter to Work Day" way back in the early eighties. Except instead of learning how to file tax paperwork or operate a copier, I learned that through sheer necessity, improvisational learning, and hard work, one can indeed use artistic abilities to piece together a living.

It was a lesson she often tried to undermine, and with good reason. "Don't ever become an artist!" she advised me on many occasions. People will undervalue your work, people will expect you to work for free because they see it as fun, or something you have a natural ability for, and not the result of training and dedication to a craft. Maids and garbage men are better off, she would say--they have unions, they get a guaranteed wage, and people see their work as actual work. People saying "Oh you're so talented" is a bunch of bull, they're just giving you lip service, and that's worthless. Try getting a good education and a good job with a good paycheck instead.

Being the rebellious little twirp I am, I suppose I ignored all that. Well, not really. Not at first. I got decent grades, entered a great university on scholarship, graduated, and found steady, well-respected work in academic publishing. I definitely did not have my sights set on being any sort of artist.

But I knew by experience that it was possible.

And I knew to be wary of all the pitfalls, the dangers of thinking you're special because you can draw halfway decently, and the very real, everyday occurrence of artists being ripped off by people who undervalue their work. In fact, as I began taking on freelance art projects, I carried this baggage from childhood with me almost as a generational vendetta. I approached many client interactions like I was an artistic version of Inigo Montoya, always on the lookout for some cheap, unappreciative six-fingered man who would compliment my work only to rip me off later.

Allo! My name ees Celestia Ward, you ripped off my
mother . . . prepare to pay!

Which is not to say my mother's artistic endeavors were a sad tale of constantly getting ripped off. Oh, there were times! But there were also well-earned rewards and clever bartering deals. My memory isn't perfect on this, but a few bright spots certainly come to mind. Christmas windows were fairly easy to execute, and there was a hungry market for them when late November rolled around. Half her jobs were simply the result of walking around the local strip malls, paint tray in hand, and asking managers if they wanted her to paint their windows. Shop managers would then want her the next year, and the year after, and it grew kind of organically from there. 

In the shopping center right by our house, there was an independent record store where she painted a masterpiece of a Christmas window featuring Eddie, the ghoul mascot featured on Iron Maiden album covers. The shop owner was so impressed (and savvy enough to see the opportunity for some publicity) that he called the local paper, and the result was a neat little published photo of my mom, in her puffy but warm down coat, hard at work putting on the finishing touches. She told me later that she'd quoted a low price on that window and stuck to her original pricing, even though that job clearly took on a life of its own and the client received far more than he paid for. I also got to brag at school that my mom had painted that cool Eddie image on the record store.

Holy crap, this was in 1983? I was ten years old.

But I was just a kid, and record stores weren't as exciting as some other places. My mother painted the windows and some interior glass panels for our childhood Mecca, a delightful wonderland called Chuck E. Cheese's (the one on Vegas and Decatur, which was just a short walk from our home). This place no longer exists, and the Chuck E. Cheese joints that are around today do not hold a candle to the mega complex that existed back in the day. This palatial wonderland had the biggest video arcade a kid could imagine, with a fleet of skeeball machines, several different dining rooms with animatronic singing animal robots to serenade you as you scarfed down greasy pizza, a huge central pavilion to hold parties, and an obstacle course funhouse that featured the largest ball pit I have ever seen, then or since. For a token you could activate music and a strobe light in a tiny room for kids that served as a junior rave. My brother later commented, wistfully, that he remembers a lot of "inappropriate touching" going on in that room, which always filled up with random kids whenever anyone dropped a token into the wall slot.
Right to left: me, my little sister, and my childhood friend Michelle hang
out under a Santa my mother painted at Chuck E. Cheese's.

Anyway, we were by necessity a bargain-hunting family too, and we took advantage of the Chuck E. Cheese's fan club, which on Tuesdays allowed each member to get a foot-long hot dog, a bag of chips, and five tokens all for $1.25. Cheaper than groceries! Well, Tuesdays were pretty awesome for us. And I guess, over the course of all those Tuesday visits, my mother got to know the manager and they worked out a deal for her to paint Christmas windows. Again, I have no idea what she was paid, or if she worked out a deal to trade goods and services, but I remember the manager was beyond pleased with what she created. I also have a memory--one I am pretty sure is reliable, considering the adrenaline spike I experienced probably cemented it to my long-term databank--of the manager coming to our table and dumping a giant pile of game tokens all over it in a dramatic, noisy flourish. Shiny, golden, valuable Chuck E. Cheese's tokens, all for us, all as a grand gesture of appreciation for my mother's efforts. Four squealing kids nearly peed themselves when that happened.

As time went on, I learned a lot from my mother's Christmas window painting. I helped mix tempera, and I was allowed to draw a bit of our blueprint (using a washable marker that we then painted over). Eventually I wielded a brush and learned the quick, circular strokes, blotting, and white highlight line that produced holly and berries. I learned the importance of measuring and how to use tape and string to level out sections of large lettering. My mother deconstructed the work of other window painters, so I was able to see where someone had used a sponge or a stamp, and how to appreciate the difference between quick, sloppy work and quick, expert work. Though our aim was always to produce quality, I felt like my mother never actually belittled or dismissed the work of quicker window painters, even the sloppier ones--rather, she reflected on the fact that someone got paid for that, and she considered how she could take similar steps to quicken her painting sequence without sacrificing the level of quality she wanted to achieve.

That's a wise approach with any kind of commercial art, one I try to apply when I look at the broad array of caricature work out there.

Later on, mom put me in charge of my own window-painting project. It was for a little store down the road and it was for the 4th of July, not for Christmas. I was in junior high at the time, and I was well aware we were doing the window as a freebie so that I could get some experience. I remember being nervous but also pretty proud of myself. My mother swears she has pictures of it somewhere--I sort of hope they never surface, as I'm betting it was not exactly expert work. But it was experience! And experience does wonders. When I needed a job the summer before college and fell into a sweet opportunity to paint murals at a local school, it was my early experiences helping my mom with Christmas windows that made me think "Sure, why not?" rather than being intimidated and thinking I couldn't possibly do such a difficult thing. Windows, walls, tempera, latex paint, what's the difference, really? Even now, seeing windows painted up here and there in my neighborhood, or seeing the great windows my "Okie Artist" friend Teresa Farrington paints and posts on her Facebook page, it all makes me think back to chilly mornings washing out brushes.

As you can guess by the faded look of the photos here, my window-painting days were back in the time before cell phone cameras (no, those aren't tinted with an Instagram filter--they are the real deal). Therefore, I don't have many photographs of my mother's Christmas windows, but I am happy to have these few, and to share them with you. And, even better than photos, I got to have early experience as an apprentice that truly did help me wrestle a career out of a few skills, a bit of ingenuity, and some luck. All you parents out there who are wondering about the perfect Christmas presents to give your children . . . remember that experiences, and passing along skills, can be far more valuable than an expensive trinket or educational toy. We seem to be entering an age where a parent apprenticing a child and teaching them valuable skills is rapidly becoming an anachronism. That would be a damn shame. I think that, for the most part, kids understand when they are getting valuable knowledge and tuck it away--even if they are a sleepy sack of attitude at the time. 

And a note to any clients reading this: please don't tip me by dumping a bunch of Chuck E. Cheese tokens onto my desk. My tastes have changed a bit since then. Thanks.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Drawing the Race Card

Race is, sometimes, a hot button in the caricature industry. It's hard enough navigating the minefield of what a person thinks they look like, or what they might want to look like, but if you then add the factor of "otherness" into the mix--how they (and you) perceive their racial type and the physiognomy that goes along with it--things can get complicated! Behavioral patterns emerge in dealing with certain types, patterns that sometimes make me cringe. I have had quite a few California-raised young ladies of Asian descent exclaim "Omigod you made me look all Asian!" with pouty disgust as if Asianness were some kind of lesser state of being. I have had black, hispanic, and black-hispanic patrons ask for blue eyes and lighter skin. Granted, we in this business run into folks every day who ask us to erase their flaws: take off my wrinkles, don't get the double chin, make my ears smaller than they are . . . but when did one's RACE get lumped into the category of "flaw"? Or wait, that's a stupendously historically naive question. What I mean is: when will race finally NOT be considered a flaw?
Some folks have such a strong preference for bland, racially bereft caricatures
that they surgically turn themselves into one. 
White Europeans got busy early and went around spreading imperialism all over the darker-complected parts of the globe. Along with their diseases, their languages, their bureaucracies, and their measurement systems, they also imposed their idea of beauty. Darker races were measured by an imperialist eye: lighter-colored servants were favored, and children of mixed lineage who resembled the Caucasian side had a better chance of integration into the higher classes, or "passing." Now, we all like to think we're in a more enlightened time, those imperialist white guys were all racist jerks, and we live in a society where there is no preferred "racial type" when it comes to what is beautiful. But how deep does this notion really go?

As a pretty bland looking Caucasian gal myself, I do not have an insider's perspective on what it's like to own non-Caucasian features, but as a caricature artist I do have a front-row seat for people's insecurities. And emotional baggage over one's skin tone, lip size, epicanthic fold, etc. DOES still exist.

I work with an artist who is African-American in the accurate sense of the term. Chakamoi Laker-Ojok (we call him Chaka) was born in Uganda, the son of a native Ugandan and a white Midwestern gal, and he moved here when he was a young man of 19. Funny thing is, he's considered "white" there and "black" here. I've observed him interacting with black tourists and it's fascinating to see his dialect and mannerisms change depending on his clientele. He does not have an African accent when he speaks (thanks to his mom), so you'd never know where he was born unless he told you--but he can put on the cadences of a typical American black dialect with ease. When I asked him about this he told me it was something he learned quickly from hanging out with a wide variety of people. He said he remembered times when he would converse with his black friends in the living room, then converse with his mother in the kitchen, and though it was all English it might as well have been two different languages.
Chaka's self-caricature. This is a white
dude if you live in Uganda, and a black
dude if you live in Pittsburgh.

All good caricaturists seem to be mimics, or at least excellent observers, so Chaka's ability to blend right in with American black culture and dialect isn't surprising. And, he admits, he feels like his skin color gives him more freedom to draw caricatures that "celebrate the blackness" of his subjects with no holds barred. You just can't draw Jay-Z without having his lips take up half the page, he joked with me. Chaka and I have had a few neat discussions about race and caricature, and we share the opinion that "whitening up" someone should be seen as offensive. I mean, it should be, right? It's a dismissal of someone's actual color and racial features, as "too unacceptable to draw." But then, why do some people ask for it?

Chaka asked me if I'd ever heard of Willie Lynch and his writings. This West Indies plantation owner allegedly came to Virginia in 1712 to speak to slaveholders there on the best ways to mentally and spiritually break down the negro slave. Psychological warfare was employed, and slaves were manipulated to envy and distrust one another based on differences in age, status, gender and--yes--skin color. As Lynch put it, "I take these differences and I make them bigger."

Wait--hold on, Shit. Make differences bigger? I do that. I do that for a living. Shit. That sentence sure sounds like caricature. Shit shit shit.

Luckily for our art form, that's where the similarities end. In fact, a little more digging on the internet showed me that the whole Willie Lynch thing was regarded by nearly all historians to be a hoax (his infamous letter shows up around 1970 and contains too many anachronistic phrases to have been authored in the eighteenth century). Nevertheless, it is a letter that has resonated among the community and especially with rappers, and you can buy a book titled The Making of a Slave by Willie Lynch on Amazon for about four bucks. It is tagged as "required reading for various courses and curriculums on the plight of the African American," and reviewers suggest that it be presented as a fictional-but-plausible theoretical model that helps readers understand certain aspects of what the brutal practice of chattel slavery did to a population. Sometimes a story is worthwhile even if it's not true.

It is indisputable that light slaves were separated from darker-colored slaves, and it was far better be "lucky" enough to have light skin and get relegated to house duties than to have backbreaking work in the fields. It is also indisputable that slaveowners fostered a matriarchal society by separating families and selling off fathers in order to keep family bonds from forming and to skew the upbringing of offspring, weakening males from their early childhood. The Lynch letter advocates just that: "for FEAR of the young male's life, [the mother] will psychologically train him to be MENTALLY WEAK and DEPENDENT, but PHYSICALLY STRONG. Because she has become psychologically independent, she will train her FEMALE offsprings to be psychologically independent." Chaka brought up the fact that America's black population is highly matriarchal today, which has been touted as evidence that it takes a long, long time for cultural changes to occur--even when that "culture" was something harmful, imposed upon an enslaved people. Is that what we are seeing when we run into dark-skinned people who are annoyed by their color? A deep-seeded aesthetic holdover passed down generation by generation and still not completely gone? Is that one of the reasons why I can think of a dozen Hollywood starlets who are light-skinned black but have to
Grace Jones will kick your lily white ass.
wrack my brain coming up with a dark one? (And does Grace Jones even count as a starlet anymore?)

Now, again, as a Caucasian chick, it would be highly awkward (and condescending) for me to bring all this up the next time I draw someone of color who appears to be showing self-shame over their racial physiognomy. Plus it's not my job to be anyone's therapist or historian or cultural professor. Hell, I can't even comfortably do a blog post about it without referencing "my black friend" as an authority here.

But slowly, hopefully, we as a species are approaching the goal of celebrating differences rather than using them to fuel xenophobia or hate; and we are becoming more aware that erasing racial markers as a way to "beautify" someone is a bloody offensive thing to do. Did anyone else see that tidbit going around the interwebs showing
 Frida Kahlo photoshopped by some well-meaning but dimwitted person on Tumblr who bragged that he had "lightened her skin" and made other alterations to "beautify" her? A tumblr commenter named alisonofagun put it so well:
Frida gets an unwanted makeover.

"Kahlo's eyebrows and moustache were a purposeful rejection of white colonizer standards of beauty; she didn't just leave them on her face the way they grew, she groomed them and darkened them with makeup. Her appearance was beautiful, and it was intentional.

You lightened her fucking skin, what the fuck is wrong with you?"

Outrage--righteous outrage!--at the thought of throwing out Frida's markers of race, her pride and celebration of her heritage. Yet, would this defense-of-differences show up if we, as caricature artists, chose to Khalo-ize one of our average Latina patrons, adding emphasis to her unibrow and any moustache hairs we saw? Or would said patron beat us about the face and torso with their Louis Vitton bag while a crowd of onlookers muttered about the racist artist who draws rude pictures of people?

But, in my little tiny ways, I try to take a few steps to help folks of all races appreciate the things that make them who they are. No one becomes a good caricaturist by playing DOWN what makes people different from one another. I study features and try my best to be fearless about reproducing them in a nonjudgmental way. I try to encourage other artists to do the same. Learn how to draw and shade the texture for a believable afro. Learn how to color blend with indigos and purples so that you can capture the rich tones in a very dark-skinned black person without just making them muddy or a wimpy cocoa color. Look at how Asian eyes and nose bridges differ from non-Asian eyes. 
Study how some philtrums and lips on African faces differ from an average European one. Sometimes just being knowledgeable and nonchalant about physical features can give you an edge with patrons who have never studied anatomy and have no idea what the words philtrum and epicanthic fold even mean. Three Asian girls sat down once for me at a party gig, and they were laughing and talking about how everyone thought they looked alike even though they were "like totally not the same kind of Asian." They then asked if I could tell, saying flippantly that whites couldn't tell the difference. I wasn't completely certain, of course, but I made an educated guess and said "Hmmm, you're Thai, you're Filipino, and you're . . . Ummmm . . . half Japanese and half black?" And I had nailed it.
They were stunned, like I'd done a magic trick. No magic, just observation of slight average differences in face shape, eyelid folds, etc. as compared to what is typical for different populations.

And once you recognize these differences, DRAW them, don't ignore them. I won't lie, I often wrestle with how far to go with features that have become racialized. You are walking a tightrope, because you are working with a weapon that has been wielded to intentionally hurt and demean. And I'm not just talking about Willie Lynch's counterparts in the 1700s. Caricature has been used in the past to denigrate races even as late as the mid-twentieth century (look at the depictions of Japanese during WWII or the blackface cartoon characters that were in printed media and early cartoon shorts). Cartoonizing big lips, wide noses, slanty eyes, or a bandito moustache in a retail or gig setting is playing with fire--and if you want to run with something risky, your best safety net is a good rapport with your customer. The difference between an awesome, gut-bustingly accurate yet exaggerated drawing and a complaint to mall management is sometimes a matter of reading your clientele and talking to them--establishing a relationship.

Taking the risk to exaggerate racial features that seem taboo can prove very worthwhile. Depending on your client, you can often judge exactly how far you can go. I got a huge hug and a thrilled reaction from a heavy-set black gal who had bulldoggish eyes and an upper lip that started right under her nose, along with wild hair and a visible bra, all of which I certainly didn't cut corners on--because, as we chatted, I could tell she reveled in her lips and wild hair and uncontainable ta-tas. I once drew a trio of Asian college students who were teasing each other mercilessly, but with good humor. Two of them kept pointing out how super-tiny their companion's eyes were, and how they disappeared when he smiled. I decided to be daring and just flat-out left the eyes off him. When I turned the picture around, they HOWLED with laughter, loved it, tipped me, and had a really fun experience (yes, even the eyeless guy loved it). In both of these cases, I was lucky (or experienced) enough to read them correctly and, during the process of drawing, ingratiate myself with them to a level where they saw my drawing as a friendly joke, not a hurtful one.

Not every instance works out, and you have to take your lumps when you get them. My brother is happily married to a Puerto Rican gal who has skin on the darker side and a rather plump set of lips. When they were first dating, early on, they came to visit and I ended up drawing them. Since I can have a stunning lack of tact when I'm with just my family members, I simply blurted out as I drew, "Uh, do you consider yourself black or Latina?" to her. She looked surprised, a little confused and said, "I'm Latina" but not in a defensive way--just hesistantly, like she'd honestly never been asked. She probably hadn't. But I saw features on her that were certainly in line with the African-American population, and I was honestly curious. I later (much later) found out that her family had hated the drawing when they saw it, because she "looked too black." She told me this as she giggled, so it obviously didn't phase her a bit. My brother did well when he picked out his life partner. (I ended up drawing the two of them again later, for their wedding invitation, and I did find myself consciously trying to avoid over-emphasizing features that were associated with African American populations and skewing her drawing more toward the Latina category; I think her side of the family ended up liking it--they all came to the wedding, after all!) 

I would love to see an ISCA seminar on recognizing and drawing with an eye to racial features, as it is definitely an area newer artists (and seasoned ones) struggle with. But in all the years I've been a member, I've never seen one offered. The very notion of classifying people based on race is, understandably, a topic that can rub people the wrong way. Even at the convention, where so many no-holds-barred drawings pepper the walls, some topics are verboten. A member became enraged and walked out a few years back over what he fumed was an anti-Semitic drawing; the offending artist tried to explain it was an inside joke between him and his buddy, and the board members were perplexed at how to handle the situation. There really was no way to have it work out well. Someone was going to be offended, or someone was going to be chafed about being censored. Perhaps if a seminar was presented in a dry, straightforward scientific anatomy lesson, by an expert, it might go over well. Biology actually doesn't even recognize race as a real "thing," since genetic differences from individual to individual within a particular "race" far outweigh the differences between groups classified socially as races. If we focused on drawing various traits seen in several races and put up a big disclaimer that there is no one-size-fits-all way to approach drawing any individual from any race, maybe--just maybe--we could put on such a seminar without factions forming to shout "racism!" and "free speech!" From opposite sides of the room. Heck, perhaps my own insecurities about race are coloring how I imagine such a seminar might go. (Note to any board members reading this: I am not volunteering to give such a seminar, no way no how, ain't gonna happen).

Turns out this was from 1993. Dang I'm old. 
There was a TIME cover a decade or two ago that I remember because it depressed me. It featured a beige-faced woman, with the headline "The New Face of America." The woman was actually a computer-generated face with color, features, and bone structure assembled based on several races. She was the ultimate mutt: what humans would all look like if (or when) we bred the whole notion of race completely away. The editors, I think, meant the magazine cover as a hopeful futurist utopian kind of image. No race means no racism, right? But I found it depressing. Everyone ends up looking the same? What? No, I don't like that. And I suspect that (thanks to that biological fact that genetic diversity is far greater between two individuals than between two races) we won't ever see this bland homogenous future. Why, the blending of races has already produced some awesome faces that I've gotten to draw. Freckly kids with blond afros, or half-black half-Irish "chocolate gingers." My three step kids are biracial and one gets mistaken for Jewish, one looks vaguely West African, and one really takes after her Italian grandmother. There was recently a pair of twins born to a couple with mixed heritage, and due to the genetic Yahtzee cup spewing out a very unlikely (but completely possible) roll, one twin is blond and blue-eyed while the other is black with poofy more African-type hair.
Yeah, this was real. I checked on Snopes!

What an amazing array. And we get to study, draw, and make fun of this delightful smorgasbord of color and bone structure.

Penn and Teller have a very powerful bit they perform at their Las Vegas show. I've seen them do it at least a dozen times (yeah, I'm a fan), and it resonates every time. It's a beautiful  trick they developed back when legislators were trying to prohibit burning the American flag. Americans were offended by the notion of flag burning, they found it distasteful, and so they wanted to outlaw it. The trick Penn & Teller do involves "burning" an American flag in a magical flourish as Penn talks about the freedoms the flag symbolizes and how it's those very freedoms, the freedom of expression in particular, allow them to perform such a trick. "What if someone were to burn a flag," Penn questions, "not in disgust, but in celebration of those very freedoms that flag symbolizes?" Yeah, what if? That's kind of what I'm imagining when it comes to caricature. What if, someday, caricaturing a sloping Arabic nose, or African Lips, or narrow Mongolian eyes, or skin that ranges from white to wheat to pumpernickel, rather than eliciting a knee-jerk reaction of "that's racist," becomes instead a celebration of that diversity--a diversity present in all of our genomes but right now clumped into a handful of similar traits that pop up with more frequency in geographically separated populations that used to (how quaint!) hate one another because they looked different.

Yeah. That would be beautiful.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Starting the Holiday Card Crush

Well hello everyone! Tuesday has fast approached and I am determined not to break my streak of a blog post every week. This will be a quick post, and it will most likely not be very well written, or well researched, or even well punctuated.
Not the best photo, sorry. But this is the original.

 Why will this blog post be kind of shitty? Well, because I'm totally enveloped in work right now. The holiday party gigs are lining up, as they always do in December, and I'm just now starting on my batch of Christmas cards for the regular group of clients that are kind enough to call me back each year and send updated photos. I'm starting a little late this year, thanks to a big batch of proofreading that arrived late and ended up squashed into my Thanksgiving week. Nothing like being busy--beats being out of work, right? Anyway, this is the first of the holiday cards on my slate, and I figured I'd post it because it's a unique hybrid of sorts.

And here's the original with holiday patches applied.
I actually OLD-SCHOOL cut and pasted this baby. The client wanted just a regular airbrushed caricature of the two of them with their great danes and rottie on the family boat, and they were going to scan it and throw some holiday verbiage on there. I was struck with an idea that stemmed from my recent addiction to making cut-out vine videos. I volunteered to go a little extra mile and "customize" the airbrushed caricature to make it a better holiday card . . . I drew a few little accessories, cut them out with my fancy new Martha Stewart precision scissors, and stuck them on the caricature using tacky kneaded eraser bits, then scanned it at FedEx Kinkos (they scan 11 x 17 artwork for a dollar, it's proven so much more economical than buying our own oversized scanner!). The accessories peeled off the painting just fine, so the original they hang on the wall won't be festooned in Santa garb. I cleaned up the scan just a bit on photoshop (love that clone tool), sized it down to 5 x 7, and emailed them that version to make cards with. I'll send along the hard copy and a letter of reproduction rights so they can legally print it up.

So nice to get double duty out of one drawing, and I hope their friends and family get a kick out of the cards. Now on to the rest of them! Happy party gigging and holiday commissions to everyone out there--remember, fellow caricaturists, we'll sleep in January!