Sunday, March 30, 2014

Babies Suck

WARNING: This post was written as I finished up a long, miserable fair in Miami. And I'm in an airport now with a screaming baby fifteen feet from me. If you seek well-researched facts and clever insight, you might want to check back next week. If sarcasm, curse words, and wholly innapropriate violent thoughts toward babies are what you're after, read on, my friend! 

Babies are the caricature artist's natural enemy. And with good reason. They are little whiny bags of pee, poo, slobber, and vomit packaged up into a set of features that ranges from looking like a swollen pink raisin to an average potato. Yet these little masterminds manage to stupefy their parents into binkie-washing, diaper-changing cult members who worship the small deity in all its glorious perfection.

The first annoyance is always that tired, predictable question. "Do you charge for babies?" Do we charge for babies. Fuck yes we charge for babies. They are terrible models and require more sitting time and are prone to erupting like volcanoes mid-caricature. We should charge more for babies. One of my mentors in the business always said that he wanted to put up a sign saying babies were by appointment only, in the morning before business picked up. And not only would they cost money, but there would be an extra surcharge!

New parents have been lulled into a sense of entitlement after seeing their infant ride free on airplanes, eat free at Stuckey's, and not have to buy a ticket for the movies. So, they reason, no artist would expect payment after spending fifteen minutes drawing their darling sweetie precious angel!! It must be free for babies! It SHOULD be free for babies! Hell, the artist should pay THEM for the privelige of gazing upon this miracle of life they recently pushed out of their vagina!

At family-heavy fairs this gets tiresome. One dad read the sign, "Twelve dollars per person," and immediately held up his ten-month-old son and said "Are you telling me you consider my baby a person?!" as if personhood would be a grave insult to his youngster. I wanted to suggest to him: "I don't know, sir, why don't you try aborting him and see if you get prosecuted?" But, y'know, tact customer service, blah blah blah.

At a fair once, a coworker of mine was approached by a mother who was rather insistent that her baby should be free or at least half price. This was the last day of the fair and he was tired, annoyed, and in the middle of drawing a couple as this woman tried to argue him down from the side of his art desk. He said dryly, "Babies do not sit still or look in one direction. Now, if you cut the baby's head off and stick it on a pike in front of me so it remains absolutely still, I will draw it half price." She stormed off, and the couple he was drawing giggled nervously. 

Okay, so let's say you manage to explain to the parents that it will cost money, and despite their chronic sleep deprivation they understand you. Once they start heading into the chair, you have a list of things to consider: 

1. Baby sleeping right now? Nope, can't do it. I used to let the parents wake the kid up, but no more. I have seen parents not-so-gently SHAKE their baby awake and (big surprise) the kid is then a little ball of screaming--probably brain-damaged--rage that will not make for a good drawing. I have them walk around until the kid wakes up on its own. Sometimes--very rarely--I will draw the baby sleeping. You pretty much have no choice if it's a newborn--those things are only awake like an hour a day. Why the hell anyone brings a four-day-old to a State Fair, I'll never understand, but they do. 

2. If the frazzled parents pull out a phone and say "she'll never sit still, but I have a photo!" proceed at your own risk. New parents have an average of 8,000 photos of their darling little dictator on that smart phone. And they will page through and show you Every. Single. One. It can get awkward as you just sit waiting, and waiting, and possibly missing out on other business. I have sent parents away and told them to choose a good photo while they grab a cup of coffee or lunch, then I try to give them a quick tutorial on what makes a good reference photo: angle, clarity, expression, and so on. Plus babies change so quickly that the photos they took a month ago won't look like the kid anymore. 

3. Make the parent sit and hold the baby on their lap. Maybe I just work in the dumber parts of the country, but it always amazes me how many parents will immediately try to plop a kid on the bench by itself before the kid is even old enough to hold its head up well. They say "I'll set him here because I don't want to be in the drawing, just do him." No! Bad parent! Hold your damn baby! I do not have the insurance to cover any injuries your baby suffers due to your stupidity! Argh.

4. Once seated, are the parents taking out food, sippy cups, toys, smart phones, video monitors, bubble guns, a brass band, and other weapons of mass distraction? STOP THEM. Preferably before the kid sees the food and/or iPhone screen. YOU need to be the most interesting thing for the kid to look at. Once all the bells and whistles come out, you have very little chance of that. And if the kid SEES the goodies and then sees them get taken away, bang--you get a little crying ball of rage. Bad enough we have to keep the teens from texting while we draw them--with babies it's impossible, they look where they look. 

5. Position grandma (or dad, or auntie) DIRECTLY BEHIND you. I state this clearly so many times to families, yet "helpful" relatives STILL think they're doing me a favor by shaking a rattle and playing peekaboo from waaaay off in left field, or while sitting right next to the infant. Congrats, you got the baby to look anywhere but toward the artist. That's great. 

Those are just the issues before you even put pen to paper. Moving on . . .

Babies also have the nerve to not look like real human beings yet. Due to the sheer amount of evil their brains contain, their craniums are disproportionately large, like aliens. I think it was Joe Bluhm who I once heard telling a group of artists that thinking of babies as humans is where most artists start to go wrong. 

You CANNOT think of them as people. And, if you have spent most of your life learning to draw grown human people, with those half-third-third facial proportions, you might find your drawings of babies looking weird, sitting in that uncanny valley between squishy baby features and adult proportions. I drew so many awful baby pictures my first year in this business, it's embarrassing to recall. Even now, muscle memory sometimes takes over, or you take a misstep while attempting to exaggerate, and whifff! Likeness gone. I don't care HOW big that baby's chin is compared to other babies, it will not work as a stretch. Don't do it!

I drew with someone years ago who didn't seem able to make a drawing that looked under five or six years old. It was a chin thing. Still, you'd be surprised how many bad baby likenesses this artist sold with a cheerful "Aw, don't worry, he'll grow into it!" Ouch. 

Along with chins, noses and ears also get into dangerous territory if you try to enlarge them. The kid may have an awesome schnazz, or great big satellite dishes, but those features can age a face--not saying you shouldn't ever do it, just tread lightly and be aware those ingredients really de-baby your baby picture. Not surprisingly, I consider the baby dinosaur from that old sitcom DINOSAURS to be the ultimate baby caricature. What nose? What ears?

Face bones and features are just the half of it. Copious amounts of face-fat are fun to draw, but with a slight harshness of line you go from "Awwwww how cute" to "Holy fucking shit that looks like the Ghoulie that popped out of the toilet in that one scene!" Look at how old people's fat rests and how baby fat rests. Adult fat hangs on the face like saddlebags. Baby fat is more like rising bread dough, so you have to pay close attention to render it that way. 

Unless of course you're just feeling mean and doodling ugly babies for fun. 

The one on the right is Benjamin's. And the funniest thing about that creepy, vacant-eyed demon baby is that he sold it. Not to a parent, mind you--that's a made-up practice baby drawing--but to an unsuspecting couple. After he finished their caricature he flipped it around to show them and, in the process, showed himself (and me) that he'd accidentally used the back side of that baby picture. "Free protector for that couple?" I asked quietly. You betcha. He sealed it up and (if they never take it out of the cardboard protector) they may never ever find out that monstrosity is right behind them. Shudder. 

Anyway, babies--those high-maintenence little shits--also often require a super-fine marker (or pencil or whatever you use) to draw their hair. A line of regular thickness, just sporadically applied, will NOT look like downy baby hair. It will look like a cancer patient or Sloth from The Goonies. And smiles? Babies' mouths are weirdly shaped because they're made to just suckle and vomit, pretty much. That lower lip is usually huge and the divot in the middle is pronounced. Hey, at least any smile a baby gives you will be genuine--but boy will it be fleeting. And moving. Sometimes it'll be bouncing up and down as the parent horsey-rides the kid on their knee to entertain them (making you seasick in the process). Drawing babies will force you to hone your "photographic memory" skills. Get the shape of that smile in your brain quick, because it may only be there for an instant. 

Further, babies require that you keep working hard even after you have the face done. Because if you slap down a typical body, just miniaturized, it will make the kid look five or six years old. 
These two faces are identical. Yet the infant features suddenly become much older looking when you add a neck and shoulders. Babies simply don't have necks and shoulders. Their heads rest on a sack of pudding. Their bodies are misshapen because all their organs are squashed up in their midsection, an area that's made even bigger by the (often smelly, sometimes dripping) diaper. Those arms aren't good for doing much of anything (it's no wonder freeloading babies don't have any skills). So drawing them with any sense of control or articulation looks wrong. Note that baby arms just flail around or hover around the baby belly like they did while the kid was in the womb. 

And baby hands, uggggh... Artists spend ages learning how to draw hands. Hands are difficult. Then along come babies and you have to toss out the rulebook yet again! Because baby grabbers look nothing like grownup hands. Their fingers are chubby and short, but they are also tapered, not bulbous like toes. And their wrists and elbows look like string tied around a water balloon. And again, they are unskilled. Babies can sometines point--and when they learn how they do it a lot, those rude little jerks. But otherwise fingers just seem to get balled into fists or chewed and drooled on. Or they grab mommy's hair and yank it like they're ringin' a bell. Malicious little cretins. 

That about covers all my thoughts on babies. But just in case any of you still suspect I harbor a secret maternal instinct and some small part of me LOVES those little parasitic excrement cannons, here's a comic. Emily Anthony and I drew this up last year after working the Texas State Fair. The opening panel was actually censored in Exaggerated Features due to it's graphic nature! Ha! Yep, babies are gross. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Why I'm Not a Real Artist

Kids (and the occasional adult) ask me on a daily basis, "Are you a real artist?" I often hold out an arm and say, "I'm one-hundred percent real, I swear you're not hallucinating me. See, touch me, I totally exist."

They usually don't mean any harm in asking. Though (at one of the swankier Vegas hotels I ever worked retail caricatures at), I did have this one drunk douchebag ask me, with a voice dripping of snide malice, "Arright, go on and show me why you're not a real artist." He was being forced into the chair by his friends and oh-so-lucky fiancĂ©e. He continued making jerky comments the entire time, and I smiled through it, drew the asshole, and took his friends' money (plus their "sorry our friend is a jerk" consolation tip). I doubt the swanky hotel management, or my boss, would have approved if I'd told the guy my true thoughts about him and refused their business. I did make his ears extra big, though. So there.

I'd be lying if I said that drunk guy hadn't hit a nerve with his opening salvo. That question tugs at every caricature artist: AM I A REAL ARTIST? When exactly does one "graduate" from rinky-dink caricatures into the realm of being a true, card-carrying member of the artistic guild? Is this business a path to artistic greatness or a trapdoor through which one plummets into artistic mediocrity? Or both, depending on how you use it?

Well, first let's ask, have any "real artists" gotten their start with caricatures? 

I think, arguably, Leonardo DaVinci was the realest of the real artists. Most of you are probably familiar with his grotesques, which are often pointed out as some of the first caricatures. Lorenzo Lorusso, an Italian neurologist and author of Neuroscience by Caricature in Europe throughout the Ages, writes: "Leonardo was fascinated by people with "bizarre heads" (teste bizarre) and often followed them around to memorize their features, later copying or exaggerating them in his drawings." Hey . . . that's caricature in a nutshell!

Then fast forward a couple of centuries and we have the proliferation of political cartoonists and illustrators--Hogarth, Nast, Tenniel--"real artists," to be sure, but also cunning satirists, using caricature art to topple the mighty. French artists Charles Philipon and HonorĂ© Daumier conflated the round-faced King Louis-Philippe with a pear so effectively that they started a movement--with graffiti of pears popping up around Paris and wax pears offerred for sale as souvenirs to the politically discontented public. Our perception of Napoleon is permanently altered by caricaturist James Gillray--did you know Napoleon wasn't actually short? But in Gillray's biting caricatures, Napoleon was a miniature, dandied-up fellow in an oversized hat. Which is how he has come to be remembered in the collective consciousness. 

Moving forward still, to the last century . . . if Da Vinci dipped his toe into the caricature pool, Pablo Picasso certainly waded in up to his waist. His early work was caricature and portraiture, and his march into expressionism and cubism has been seen as a deeper plunge toward the type of exaggeration, distortion, and "capturing of essence" that one typically looks for in caricature. One of the major books about his work is titled Picasso: From Caricature to Metamorphosis of Style

Certainly it's hard to imagine Picasso or Da Vinci setting up shop somewhere to offer their quick sketches for sale to the general public.  But I would give anything to time-travel for a day, get them to try it, and see if they could pull it off. And, well, of course they could! We're talking about Picasso and Leonardo fucking Da Vinci. But how would the public react? My guess is Picasso would be swimming in rejects (but not care) and Da Vinci would have nice old ladies saying to him, "You're pretty good, ever think about being a real artist someday?" 

There was a social experiment set up by the Washington Times back in 2007 that you may have heard of (it went pretty viral). World-renowned violinist Joshua Bell set up incognito as a busker in a metro station and played some incredibly intricate Bach pieces on a violin worth more than a million dollars. Over the course of 45 minutes, six people stopped to listen, and they only hung around briefly. The experiment showed that people have trouble recognizing great beauty, or great artistic skill, when it appears out of context. 

And in our line of work, at least the live version of it at parties or carnivals, a brilliant "real artist" would indeed seem out of context. Yet people get drawn by brilliant artists all the time at events and never know it. I am not saying our ranks are filled with Da Vincis and Picassos . . . far from it! There are a ton of people plying the trade who do mediocre work and will probably never rise above the one-trick-pony routine of drawing a series of similar-looking heads with slightly different hairdos, and poorly drawn hands giving a thumbs-up or a peace sign. 

On really bad days I worry that I've become one of those. 

But any job--just like any school, or any experience--is what you make of it. And there are modern day examples of truly accomplished artists who got their start in party or theme-park caricature, used the experience to truly learn the human face, how to capture expressions, study light and shadow, master color, and add to their abilities each and every day. I have worked with folks who regularly have gallery shows, who specialize in impressionist painting or plein air, but who still sling caricatures here and there to pay the bills. Tony Shore, who was a rookie with me back in Baltimore's Inner Harbor during the early nineties, went from graffiti to caricatures to painting on black velvet and then ended up a celebrated sporting art painter and professor at MICA.

Jason Seiler, who was among the crop of Midwestern caricature artists showing up at ISCA cons (back when it was known as the NCN), recently scored the ultimate feather in his portrait-painter's cap and was commissioned to depict Pope Francis for the cover of TIME's "Person of the Year" issue.

Then there's wunderkind Joe Bluhm, who showed up at an ISCA con and swept the awards after doing retail caricature at Sea World for less than a year, if my memory serves. I was on the board that year and watched as the votes were tallied up. We all knew he had put up stunning work and deserved his accolades, but we just kept chuckling in amazement as his column of votes got larger and larger and larger. Along with worries that it might go to the kid's head, we also wondered what the future held for him: caricature is a broad pasture, but a wild buck like that would soon escape its confines to stretch his legs further. Turned out that the future held an Oscar (for "The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore") and a brilliant career in advertising that includes designing the Chipotle scarecrow ads that made such a splash last year. It's odd to think that just a decade ago Joe was dealing with Mr. & Mrs. Tourist and, as often happens, getting his live caricature work rejected. In fact, he compiled a whole book called Rejects that still makes every live caricaturist giggle when they thumb through it. Whenever a tourist tells me they had one done years ago, at Sea World, I tell them to check the signature! If any of these theme-park doodles has a chance of impressing the appraiser on Antiques Roadshow in 2075, it will be a Bluhm piece.

So are these guys real artists? Hell yes. Would they fit the general caricature-buying public's idea of what an "artist" is supposed to be? Maybe. The public has this notion of what constitutes the job description, and from what I've gathered it ranges from "learning computers so you can work for Pixar" to being a mysanthropic weirdo who paints all day and then cuts an ear off while in a drug-induced haze.

Fuck that shit. I'm keeping my ears. 

What I have seen, from time to time, and what saddens me, is when I see someone in the profession who fancies themselves an artist--or I should spell it artiste, the snooty way of saying the word--and they share the misguided notion that the public has about the job. They believe they are touched with that mystical drop of talent that should make them special and celebrated without the hard work that always, always, always precedes greatness. And, while being blind to what they need to improve on, they sit at the booth and await "discovery" by some imaginary art scout that will pick them out of the junior ranks of caricature and catapult them to the canon of great masters. These "artiste" kids rarely last in the business, and they get bitter quickly because they feel misunderstood. I want to take them aside and say "It's not that your work is hard to understand, kid, it just sucks!" 

(As an aside, I do know a dear fellow craftsperson, a very hardworking and humble gal, who puts "Artiste" on her name as her email handle--but she is using it ironically and does not suffer from the delusions I mention above.) 

A longtime friend in this business hates the title "artist" and prefers to think of himself as a craftsman. I like that. It sounds more stable, and conjures up a more realistic image of the profession. I show up every day, put on my work apron, set out my tools, and whittle away at peoples' faces, producing a quality product that will hang in someone's family room for decades. I mean, if the Met wanted to hang my art there I'd be thrilled (and a little confused at their severe lowering of standards), but having my work displayed in thousands of people's homes is quite nice too. And each and every day--or, at least most days--I try to learn a little more about my craft. 

So, when folks ask if you're a real artist, you can ask them if Da Vinci and Picasso and Daumier were real artists! Or you can say you go by craftsman/woman. Or hell, just hold your arm out and ask them to touch you if they need verification that you're not a figment of their imagination. 

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

People Made of Dumb

Another dispatch from the road. I'm in sunny, tropical Miami this week and next. 

Miami is the last Florida fair and wraps up my "fair season" for the spring. There are a lot of really awesome folks in Miami, and I've had fun drawing some really cool people. 
Like this mother-son pair of zombie hunters...

And the owner of this fantastic head of hair...

And this married couple who had their kids drawn early in the day and then meandered back to get theirs too... 

And this young man, who excitedly told me he'd lost a tooth while eating a corn dog earlier that afternoon (how could I NOT immortalize that moment?).

So I cannot complain that everyone in Miami is annoying. I have met some delightful people and drawn their pictures. 

But, like any state fair, there are also people here that are made of dumb. I was having a conversation with a coworker last night about the new science show COSMOS, and whether it will make a dent in the scientific illiteracy that seems to plague America's youth. As if on cue, a gaggle of teens walked up and rattled off the super-typical "dumb fairgoer" comments and questions, in broken English. (These were not bilingual kids who spoke with an accent, no, I mean they just hadn't mastered their native tongue). "It's foh dollah! We could all get in there for four dolla!" No, we explained, it's $4 for the plastic protector; a drawing is $12 or $18 per person. They didn't get it, the "per person" concept was beyond them. They recognized celebrities on the wall but could only stammer "It's that lady off the Jesus channel!" about Dolly Parton and "it's that guy! That guy! What his name?" about Elvis Presley. 

I shook my head as they left and lamented that COSMOS won't make a dent. We're all doomed. 

Maybe I'm slipping into the "I hate the general public" mentality that seems rampant among seasoned veterans in this industry. The old hands I know in this business do seem to share that opinion of people--not individual people but the big, swarming, ugly mess of hoi polloi that walks by your booth every day asking "Y'all could draw all eight of us for $12, right?" and "Hey, why'd you give her a moustache! Har har har!" Caricature artists spend years crafting "fool-proof" signs and displays, only to set up and discover that there is no such thing as "fool-proof." Nature just spawns bigger fools who ask dumber questions. 

And I'm not going to name names, but I've known guys who take a "screw-em-they're-all-visually-illiterate" attitude and do shitty work on purpose because of their disdain for the public. 

That's when it's time to quit. Finding another job, away from the public, might be best. 

We are kind of in a catch-22 in this business. Most of the good caricature artists I know are good because they are observant. And, as observant people, they notice stupidity (or jerk behavior, or rudeness, or willful ignorance), and it bothers them. 

Just today, I witnessed a coworker draw a pair of jerks who shrugged and said "we ain't got no money" after he finished. Their pals had filmed the whole thing on their iPhone. They had the audacity to tell him "No hard feelings man, high five!" and expected him to think it was hilarious. He said the only high-five they deserve would be one in the face. Before that, a woman had walked up and said she didn't have any money but she respected my art and did I have any ideas for a cover-up tattoo? She then yanked down her sweatpants and showed me her vagina. At the fair. It said "Frederico" and was half-obscured by pubic stubble. Not what I hoped to see an hour into my shift. 

See, there are stupid people. And there are jerks. The latter is really more of a problem. Stupidity can be guided. I can explain to a stupid person why it costs double to draw two people, and if I talk slowly enough they eventually get it. But not the willfuly ignorant. That's a whole different animal. 

Many of us can tell whether a customer is going to be an ass even before they sit down. There's a look, a series of questions, body language, many little telltale signs that we have been primed to notice over the years. We develop prejudices--not to shades of skin or ethnicity but to certain behaviors. Every once in a while I am surprised, and someone I had mentally sorted into the "jerk" category turns out to be quite decent after a bit of conversation. 

That small margin of error is what keeps me from going "full carny" (the condition where you hate just about everyone, all the time, at every venue, and only view people as walking bags of money that should be shaken violently so that a few bills fall out for you to harvest). 

I really don't want to turn into that. But a long stint at several Florida fairs gets me about as close to that mindframe as I tend to be. The stupid can, at times, get really thick here. 

So, if you'll excuse me, I have to go rattle some walking bags of money for a while. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Crime Story

I want to tell a story this week. If you've already heard me tell this story, well, too bad. If you haven't heard the story, well, it's a fun one. Criminal activity, a high-speed chase, courtroom drama . . . and caricatures!

Back in 2003 I bought a used '95 Saturn. I loved that car pretty instantly upon seeing it. It was in my price range and it was a sweet gold color! With tinted windows! I paid for it, registered it, and happily drove it over to my boyfriend's place so he could check it out. (I had started dating this big hunky guy, Rob, and it was getting pretty serious). Anyway, he made the appropriate ooooo and aaaah sounds, and the two of us went off to a movie, leaving my fancy new-ish car safely in the parking lot.

When he dropped me off at my car so I could drive home, I happily took my keys out to unlock my delightfully new(ish) car, which I hadn't owned for an entire 24-hour-period yet . . . and it moved. The car moved. I stood there for a moment not quite processing, but the car had jostled. It was dark, and the side windows were pretty tinted, remember, so I couldn't see in.

Someone is in my fucking car, fuck fuck fuck fuck, said my brain. "Wha--Oh!--Rob!--Someone's--Ohmygod--Rob!" is what came out of my mouth, I think.

From the passenger's side door, out popped a young man. In a stunning display of hubris, he turned and looked at me, then smiled at us before beating a path out of the apartment complex.

Rob chased after him while I fumbled my phone out and dialed 9-1-1. Quickly I described the guy from what I'd seen: medium-complected black man, young, between 17 and 22, around 5'10", medium to thin build, a little bit of facial hair, wearing a black "do-rag" and white and dark blue plaid top and dark jeans. The operator told me I had a very detailed memory, I thanked her. I started looking at the damage in my car . . . the ignition was gutted, and my door lock was certainly damaged. The 9-1-1 lady was asking me about the area and if I was safe, and I was telling her my boyfriend was chasing after the guy and my heart was racing but otherwise everything was fine. Then within about a minute and a half, I kid you not, she tells me "Stay where you are, officers have apprehended a suspect."

Talk about right place, right time. There was a patrol car very close by when the call went out. And, as I was told later, there was one particular spot in that complex where delinquents tended to hop a low wall for access. The officers went right to that spot. Rob isn't built for speed, but he cuts an imposing figure and I'm sure that put some hurry-up into the would-be car thief. So the kid ran as fast as he could, took the quickest way out of the apartment complex, and practically jumped into the waiting arms of the two cops.

Rob came jogging back, out of breath and annoyed that the guy got away; he was pleasantly surprised to hear that he'd flushed the guy right into a cop car. And, he admitted, he had gotten so worked up from the chase that he said he may have broken a few laws himself if he had managed to lay hands on the creep.

A second pair of officers drove me up to the location where the young man was being held, shine a gazillion-watt light on him as he stood hand-cuffed by the front of a second patrol car, and had me do an on-the-spot identification. That was the guy, I said. He wasn't smiling at me anymore, but that was the face. And the outfit was the same but he didn't have his do-rag. I mentioned that to the officers, and they informed me that they had found the do-rag in his shirt pocket; a common tactic when fleeing the scene of a crime is to change something quick about your attire (such as throwing a hat on or taking one off) so as to not be so easily identified. I filed reports until around midnight, and the cops were helpful and supportive.

Rob and I later analyzed what we'd seen and remembered of the guy that night, and it was a surprising little insight into the way each of us approaches caricature work in the chair. We both do a lot of the same things, but we lean toward different approaches. Rob has always been more analytical and deconstructs things feature-to-feature (or, if he's doing a studio piece, he works pore-by-pore) as he formulates a caricature. I tend to snap a mental picture and get a roundabout "feel" for a face much like a speedy gesture drawing. And, in practice, I have always been the faster one at parties (where a quick, gestural approach helps you create a spare likeness in minutes); Rob has been the better architect of studio pieces that have hyper-stretched but accurate exaggeration (where attention to detail and holding to an algorithmic approach can knock it out of the park). Both approaches have their benefits, and over the years since this little crime took place, we have certainly learned from each other's approach and (as married couples tend to do) ended up taking on some of the habits of the other person.

Anyway, that night I had "flashed" a quick mental gestural image of the perpetrator and was able to relay the details to the 9-1-1 operator. Rob had no time to process or concentrate, but rather was focused on the "fight or flight" instinct (or, rather, in this case the "fight or chase" instinct). Afterward he couldn't recall any real details about what the guy looked like or was wearing except for a vague memory of the color red (the cops said that people in a stressful crime situation where their heart is pumping blood furiously tend to recall seeing flashes of red).

Fast forward some weeks later, there was a trial date and Robert and I had to show up and repeat to a judge or jury that this guy tried to steal my car. The district attorney (or some deputy form of district attorney) interviewed us in a small room and tried to let us know what to expect. He looked through the paperwork and let us know this kid was still a juvenile but was on his "third strike" and had still been on probation for the first and second strikes on the night he broke into my car. Lovely.

So, the attorney cautioned, the defense lawyer was going to try to say that the identification was bad. It was at night, there was confusion, he was running, etc. etc. We answered questions about the level of lighting in the parking lot, and how far I could comfortably see. After going over all that, I shrugged and said "Well, this kid had the audacity to turn and smile at us before he ran." I remember being so annoyed by that display of "fuck you" criminal attitude, it really irked me. And then I added, "I'm not sure if this matters, but I'm a quick-sketch artist, and I've drawn three-year-olds that didn't sit still and smile as long as this guy did."

The attorney lit up and smiled. "You said you did what now?"

"I draw caricatures and quick portraits of people. So does he." Rob nodded.

"Like for your job?" the attorney asked.

"Yeah, it's my full-time job."

He smiled. "Oh yes, that matters."

That actually makes me an expert witness, he continued, and it changed everything. The district attorney left the room to go confer with the other lawyer and then came back a few minutes later, informing us that the defendant and his lawyer decided not to fight the ID. They had changed their plea to guilty. So, no trial. Or at least nothing we had to stick around for.

And, since Nevada has a victim's compensation law, I was awarded damages to cover the cost of fixing my ignition and door lock. It arrived in small chunks over six months, as the inmates earn money by doing work while incarcerated and then that pay is processed and sent out to their victims.

A very happy resolution. Despite the trauma my car endured on the very first day I owned it, that Saturn served me well for nearly a decade afterward. I even had the word "CARICATURES" and my phone number emblazoned on the back windshield, which got us a number of gigs. And only one voicemail complaining about my driving.

My sweet baby at the end of her life. Last year I donated her to a women's shelter, where volunteers kindly scraped off my advertising and auctioned off her working parts. (Sniff!)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Cheese Business: Smiles!

A friend of mine, when asked what he does for a living, sometimes replies "I'm in the cheese business." We, along with every children's photographer out there, have to make people smile. Except for us it can sometimes be an excruciating experience for the poor soul who thinks they have to hold that smile for the ENTIRE time we draw them. Or the self-conscious people who know full well that holding a smile gives them squinty eyes or crow's feet, so they try to fight nature and hold their eyes open during the process.

As a result, I often look up to see plastered, uncomfortable, angry mannequin smiles looking back at me. Ouch.

A fake smile can wreck the likeness in a photo, just as it can wreck the likeness in a caricature. The eyes don't match the mouth. It weirds me out. A genuine smile involves both voluntary and involuntary contraction of the zygomatic major (the corners of the mouth) and the inferior part of the orbicularis oculi (raising the cheeks, producing crow's feet around the eyes--which so many of my oh-so-politically-correct patrons react to by complaining "Omigod, I have chinky eyes!"). This type of contraction of the orbicularis oculi is involuntary, so in a way it really can't be faked. Psychologists call the genuine smile a "Duchenne smile," after the French physician Guillaume Duchenne, who studied facial expressions in the nineteenth century. As opposed to the Duchenne/real smile, the fake smile tends to just involve the zygomatic major muscles. The fake smile has an official name too, incidentally: it's known as the "Pan-Am smile" (named after the airline--or, more specifically, that airline's perky attendants). 

Now, I'm about to go on a rant against fake smiles . . . but as a disclaimer up front, there are always exceptions. Sometimes a fake smile is what you want to draw. Are you illustrating a politician and want to emphasize his used-car-salesman grin? Slap it on there. And often times a smile is unnecessary (or just a flat-out wrong choice) for a caricature. Are you drawing a kid who is sitting there all pouty and refuses to smile? Draw the pout if you can get away with it. The big, gruff guy refuses to smile even though his girlfriend wants him to? Ignore the girlfriend's plea, and just draw the guy gruff. Trust me. The one thing worse than drawing someone's fake smile is just making up a smile wholesale for someone who hasn't flashed you a single grin during the sitting process. 

I personally think there are levels of fake smile. A salesman (or airline attendant) might flash you a fake smile, which--if you analyzed it with photography--you could tell is a fake smile because of the absence of those micro-muscle movements. But a caricature model will go further. They have extra emotional baggage loaded onto their Pan-Am smile. They aren't just trying to look friendly, they are actively worrying about how they look. They are aware of their age, their flaws, their wrinkles, and the reputation caricature artists have for "accentuating flaws." They are on a mission--be it conscious or subconscious--to camouflage everything a real smile does to their face. And that results in a hyper-fake smile--a caricature of a fake smile, if you will. 

Paula Deen is the epitome of this caricatured fake smile. (I owe this example to Court Jones, who used her photo to illustrate a fake smile in his ISCA seminar on facial anatomy a few years back.) Poor Paula just looks worried about her appearance in every photo. The eyes are bugged out, with lots of makeup, and the smile is big to the the point of being painful, and the teeth are fake Hollywood veneers. Paula Deen is also in the demographic that seems to be most worried, and therefore most fake-smiley, when they get caricatured: the older females. 

And it makes sense that Paula, and many other ladies, take on this possessed appearance when they smile. Our entire lives we are hawked products that try and erase the Duchenne Smile and all the nasty, bad natural creases that come with it: eye wrinkle creams, botox treatments, microdermabrasion, the airbrushed/photoshopped 50-year-old actresses that appear on makeup ads looking like they walked out of the Uncanny Valley. We females are bombarded with messages that SMILING IS BAD unless it's FAKE. (Sure, there are guys who use eye cream too, but when was the last time you saw a guy in a commercial for it?) We ladies are conditioned to believe that we better accentuate our eyes! Hold them open when you smile, like a pageant queen! 

How do you, as an artist, undo this programming when someone sits for you? Well, luckily it's just a simple matter of getting your customer to really smile. A genuine laugh or two is all you need. I personally always try to get them to crack a natural smile when I'm starting on the eyes, because if you get the eye creases and squintiness right, you are getting a big chunk of what defines a natural smile. If they fake a super-cheesey smile for you later, you can still draw their dental structure from it just fine. So tell your best joke while you look at their eyes! Engage them! I have often just flat-out made fun of fake smiles when I see folks mugging too much like a wax figure. I say "if you hold your eyes open so hard when you smile, you look like you REALLY have to go to the bathroom." I bring up Paula Deen and do my impersonation of her smile--it always get a genuine laugh from older women, who, to their credit, realize they are trying too hard to keep their eyes open. And that realization makes them smile naturally. 

Okay, so: Smiling with fake wide eyes = weird. Smiling with too-squinted eyes = weird. But for every model there is a happy medium in there where the zygomatic muscle contraction matches well with the orbicularis contraction, and BANG then you get a good, happy, genuine-looking caricature that looks like the person's natural expression. I am constantly trying to keep this in mind as I draw, and trust me it's not a simple task. Remember, I'm not blogging as some high authority: I'm talking about my own struggles in the chair, and by writing about them and doing a little research, I'm hoping that I can learn something too!

In my experience, kids have a special kind of fake smile, which I theorize comes from endlessly being told to "SMILE SMILE SMILE SMILE SMILE!!!" by their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and everyone else in their camera-toting family. Kids are great little information sponges, they get simple principles like "smiling means showing my teeth." The more teeth the better, in fact. So with the little kids you get teeth, but it's a growly display of every tooth they can possibly show you through angry stretched lips. They look like they're about to bite me. 

Real young kids can give you a natural smile too if you make them laugh. I sometimes sternly say "I need you to SIT STILL, LOOK AT ME, and WHATEVER YOU DO, WHATEVER HAPPENS, DO NOT FART." Giggles ensue. Everybody giggles at farts.

Now, speaking of kids (who often act like little monkeys), what can we learn from smiling behaviors in other primates? Mammals show teeth as a sign of aggression, submission, or other negative emotions. Chimpanzees can smile as a sign of fear, while macaques show teeth as a display of playfulness. So, in short, smile behavior in the animal kingdom is kind of all over the map. But think about how humans use smiles (or grimaces, or other teeth-showing displays) to communicate: we can show love, happiness, sociability, amusement, pride, contempt, embarrassment, or anxiety by flashing our pearly whites. So we're kind of all over the map, too.

As caricature artists, this array of different types of smile communication can be mind-boggling, and intimidating! Just one wrong slip of the pen and your intended happy-smile could turn into a fright-grimace. And, as social animals with highly attuned abilities to pick up on smile cues, your customer WILL notice. They won't know WHY they notice, not in terms of muscle movements, but they will notice. Your patron, or their companions, might remark "Oh my gosh, I look scared!" or "Wow, he looks angry." And they'll be right. You can shrug it off and move to the next customer, and hopefully with each drawing (and with study), you will get better at creating the right kind of smile. The best way is to get a natural smile from your model and draw from that--but no one can hold a natural Duchenne smile for minutes at a time, so learn what to look for and how to fill in the information gaps once their smile fades. 

Tim Roth doesn't smile much, but it's a fun show.
Duchenne wasn't the only guy interested in smiles, by the way. Swedish anatomist Carl-Herman Hjortsjo, along with Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, developed an enormous taxonomy of human facial movements that is known as the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). And for you Netflix junkies: Paul Ekman has written a huge amount on facial expressions and what they can tell us, and he is the inspiration for the character Tim Roth plays on the show "Lie to Me." On the show, this character is depicted as a human lie detector and near-superhuman reader of emotion and intent. (It's a fascinating, fun show, even if the writers take Dr. Ekman's work and--well--kind of caricature it for effect!)

But back to the FACS. It was first published in 1978 and then updated in 2002, and indexes all sorts of expressions based on "Action Units" (i.e., "chin raiser" or "jaw thrust" . . . these are like the lego-building-blocks of what kind of expression our faces can build). Eckman and his cohorts came up with over 500 pages detailing thousands of deconstructed facial expressions and what emotions they communicated. Holy cow, and I thought WE were face experts! Psychologists, I tip my hat to you guys!  

Since the FACS was published, it has been used by animators to help create more believable expressions and it has also helped computer programmers working on facial recognition software. Really, I could write reams of information about what FACS has taught us and how it's been used, but there are only so many hours in the day for me to write this blog. So if you want to know more, go forth and google! See what you discover. You need not invest as much time as a psychologist studying cultural smiling differences or neuroscientists studying the micro-movements of particular muscles, but if you want to expand your expression repertoire, look up some FACS images and start doodling! Have fun! Or, in FACS language, have AU6 + AU12!