Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Artists and Mental Illness: Part 1

Recently, a bit of debate took place on a friend's Facebook feed regarding whether or not artists were more likely to buy into stuff like conspiracy theories and other . . . let's call it "nonlateral thinking." Artists have been stereotyped for ages as folks who think outside the box--and along with the creative tendencies, people also assume all sorts of negative things: we cannot balance our checkbooks, arrive on time, dress neatly, or think in logical ways. We're all right-brained nonconformists, after all. I've seen plenty of friends and colleagues refer to this stereotype quite conveniently as an excuse: "Don't put me in charge of figuring out the budget! I'm an artist dude, we just don't think like that!"
Ed Harris plays a nice, normal guy who likes to paint. Nah,
just kidding, he's a raging alcoholic with neuroses a-plenty.

People have, rightly or not, associated being an artist with all sorts of undesirable qualities: alcoholism, substance abuse, a variety of mental illnesses, or just being a general derelict. The list of famous artists and other creative types who sufferred from mental illness is indeed quite long and has helped ingrain this association into the general public's psyche. I cannot recall a single biopic movie about an artist that did not rely on the artist's not-exactly-sane tendencies to provide drama and move the plot. Then again no one wants to watch a movie about a rational, level-headed painter with no addictions, obsessions, or interpersonal strife who just works hard at his craft. Craziness makes for memorable material. Ask anyone on the street to tell you what they know of Van Gogh, and I'd bet that the first thing most everyone would say is that he cut off his ear. Brilliant but crazy, like so many artists, right?

Now, bear in mind the whole right-brain / left-brain thing is a myth. But do "artists" or "creative types" as a whole think differently than non-creatives? How much of this artistic stereotype is founded in reality? Are there any correlations between being an artist and having mental illness?

"Would you like black and white or color, ma'am?"
A recent article on CNN.com titled "The Dark Side of Creativity" looks at a few studies and, while speculating in a few interesting directions, sums things up with a journalistic shrug: "Clearly some people suffer for their art, and clearly some art stems from suffering. But it would be inaccurate to say that all creatives run the risk of mental illness."

There is an additional stigma, I think, to caricature artists as a whole. We are the street peddlers, a bit lower on the food chain than the gallery show ponies, right? My mother recently confessed that she worried for me when I first got into the caricature business as a teenager--since the field is rife with a lot of low-class degenerates and unstable sorts (I think that was how she put it). Such was her perception. 

I feel I should put a huge "present company excepted" here so as to not offend readers . . . and I think that phrase truly applies, as most of the folks who fit into the "low-class degenerate" category simply do not care enough to read blogs, join trade organizations like ISCA, or do much of anything to better their careers. They are truly "suffering artists." Some folks, as they say, have a lot of holes in their boat, but usually they are the ones holding the drill. Many of these artists don't last a whole summer in a retail location, or they get out of the business after a year or two, embittered that they never found fame or appreciation. This profession has a high turnover rate, but if you can last three years you will probably do it for the rest of your life (in some way or another). Likewise, I am NOT saying that mental illness = being an unstable degenerate. Mental illness affects many, and you likely know someone who has battled clinical depression or a mood disorder, but it's not like people advertise their diagnosis on a little lapel pin. In fact, one of the disorders mentioned in the CNN article was "schizotypy," which is a milder manifestation of schizophrenia; people with that disorder often display odd or quirky beliefs (like aliens, or government conspiracies) and peculiar behaviors (like wearing inappropriate clothing). Seriously, that sounds like quite a few people I know in the arts. But what I'm discussing here, in this first blog post about the topic, is the stereotype, the image of the "mentally unstable artist," and whether it's fair to say that artists live up to that image more so than people in other professions.

In addition to nice, "normal" coworkers who have simply had bouts of depression or substance abuse, I have also indeed run across some real low-class individuals and unstable sorts in this industry. Some of these coworkers proved to be just plain flakey, quite a few were habitual thieves, and others were in fact dangerous. At one operation, a registered sex offender was hired unbeknownst to the boss, only to be suddenly wiped off the schedule after a new arrest revealed his past (and present) offenses. 

At another location, long ago, I worked with a guy who just seemed broken from the start. This was twenty years ago, and I am betting he's no longer alive. But still, I'll change his name and call him Todd. He displayed signs of chronic alcoholism and social problems, but the boss took pity on him and gave him a few shifts. Todd had just passable drawing ability and seemed to get angry too easily. His rapport with customers was nonexistent and coworkers didn't like him. I didn't work with Todd often, but I don't recall having any squabbles with him on the shifts we did share. He was only 40 but looked so much older--I was 19 or so, and he seemed quite ancient to me. 

After a Saturday shift, a couple of coworkers complained to me that Todd had come by and "really creeped them out" during the busy night. Todd was angry and a bit jealous that he didn't get the really profitable shifts, and so to show his displeasure he came by and tried to rankle the guys on duty, apparently. He appeared drunk, or high, and was behaving really oddly. He shook a pair of marbles in the artists' faces and yelled "I lost 'em all! But I still got these two! Lost all my other marbles though!"

Needless to say, this freaked the guys out, but Todd wandered off before they had to call security or anything. 

I was working Sunday and heard all this during shift-change, if I recall correctly. Then Sunday night after my shift I headed out to catch a cab at the Hyatt, which was my habit if I had the cash (Baltimore isn't the safest city and I hated waiting around for the bus anyway). The cabbie who picked me up asked me if I was in a hurry or if I wanted a reduced fare in exchange for letting him pick up a regular first. No problem, a cheaper ride sounded great. His regular fare turned out to be an ER nurse at the hospital downtown, and she was exhausted. We chatted a bit, and she had a harrowing tale to share. 

An 80-year-old woman had been brought in during the wee hours of the morning, multiple stab wounds and slash marks. Her 40-year-old son, who lived with her and had a history of schizophrenia, had come home drunk and gotten violent. He thought she was stealing his money and hiding it in her mouth, so he had cut into her face trying to get at it. It takes a lot to upset an ER nurse. But seeing an elderly woman who had been stabbed and slashed in the face by her own son had clearly hit the nurse pretty hard. 

The cab driver and I were horrified as we listened to the nurse's tale. The police were just waiting, she said, because the old woman wasn't expected to live. Her son was in custody and they were expecting to charge him with murder, not assault. The nurse got dropped off, then the cabbie took me home; all three of us were rattled that night by the inhumanity of man and the tragedy that can result from those with untreated mental illness. 

But my true shock came at my next shift at the caricature stand. You have probably figured this out already. Yes, our fellow caricature artist Todd was the one behind bars for murdering his elderly mother. By uncanny coincidence I had just learned of the crime sooner than my coworkers--but I could never have guessed that the homicidal psychopath the nurse described was grumpy old Todd. The news rippled throughout our small crew and we were all sickened, a feeling I experienced yet again years later when we found out the annoying, socially awkward new artist was actually a pedophile. 

Was my mother right? Is our profession filled with this sort? Are all artists a bit sick in the head--some just "quirky" but others dangerously unstable? 

This is a really daunting topic to write about. Mental illness is a really complicated arena, and disorders range greatly in severity--there are points on the spectrum where it's hard even for professionals to agree on what is an illness versus what is non-pathological. Does your coworker have narcissistic personality disorder or are they just an egotistic jerkface? (Something many of my colleagues have wondered, no doubt). 

And I am no psychiatrist or psychologist, but I have a passing, maybe "slightly above average" knowledge (my minor in college was psychology, and I read more science news than the average layperson, I'd venture to guess). I do know enough to recognize that the general public consistently throws around psychological terms without knowing what they mean. How many times have you (or I) claimed "Omigosh, I am soooo OCD" because we are details-oriented or keep a neat house? People who actually have OCD (or have a loved one with the disorder) don't throw the term around so flippantly. When you cannot leave the house because of crippling compulsions to do things repetitively, or need medication to calm the urgent voices that tell you to perform ritualistic behaviors or something terrible will happen--THEN you have OCD. Otherwise you're just tidy. Oddly enough, no one ever does this with schizophrenia. No one talks about hearing "that little voice" in your head that tells you someone is cute, or that cupcake looks good, or maybe you should apologize to your friend for that fight you had, and says "Omigosh, I am soooo schizophrenic!" 

A Note on Generalizing, in General

It's also difficult to parse stereotypes or imagined frequency from real correlation. Stereotypes form, and are pernicious once formed, because our brains are super good at generalizing based on a few experiences and remembering selectively. Being shown just one or two examples of something matching a stereotype can really make you accept it as an overarching fact about a whole community. Further, when you see an example of something personally (or hear about it from your best friend, or a relative), you are up against another bias: that of anecdotal evidence, which is another form of cherry-picking. A personal example of just one individual can sometimes lead to a person dismissing a mountain of good research and data. (E.g. "They say cigarettes are harmful, but my grandpa lived to a hundred and smoked two packs a day! So that's gotta be a load of bull!") Cognitive biases and logical fallacies are like blind spots in our brains. We can compensate for them, the way a convex mirror can help reduce your blind spot as you drive a car, but only if we know they exist. 

An acquaintance of mine once took a stand against gay marriage because he felt they made awful parents: to back up why, he detailed the goings-on at his neighbor's household. He saw examples every day of a lesbian couple interacting with the daughter they were raising--and he was right, those two sounded like truly awful parents. I told him that when I was growing up I, too, had witnessed a neighbor couple doing some really awful things and being terrible parents, and it had left me with the firm conviction that Koreans should not be allowed to raise children. 

He got the point, I think. (And I have widened my outlook, thankfully, from when I was a twelve-year-old racist). A sample size of one means literally nothing in the grand scheme. 

So my tales of working with a murderer and a rapist, while they are probably going to remain in your memory far better than any statistical data I could spout off, should actually mean nothing when it comes to the question of whether artists are more frequently criminal types or sufferers of severe mental illness. If I had worked in, say, the postal service, would I have run into twice the number of unstable coworkers?  (Uh oh, there's that phenomenon of stereotyping by profession again!)

But sometimes one or two examples actually do represent truth. When you see one or two cockroaches skitter across your kitchen floor after you turn on the light, it isn't just conjecture or wild generalizing to say that there are dozens more where you cannot see them--that's a verifiable fact, just ask any exterminator or entomologist.

Now I'll Need to Go Do My Homework . . . 

I'd like to get a good idea, based on real data, not just leaping to conclusions based on one or two (or fifty) examples, as to whether this correlation between doing art for a living and being mentally ill really holds water. What sort of studies would tell us with clarity whether this is true? What might compromise a study's findings? What kind of factors influence the link (e.g., is it just plain harder to be a working artist and therefore more stressful, which certainly can affect mental health and well-being?). And if it is a real correlation, what does that tell us?

So part 2 will come next week. And don't get me wrong, this is a topic that would take years, maybe decades, to REALLY sort out. But my blog isn't up for any Nobel or Pulitzer prizes. I'm just skating along, exploring topics, and reporting back to you several dozen people who read it. And, for the first time in my blogging adventure, I have realized that I just couldn't do a topic any kind of justice in a few days of note-taking and Googling. So let's see what I can dredge up in the next seven nights. Until next week!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Caricature + Cake = Cake-icature?

I love cake. There, I said it. You love cake too. Who doesn't love cake? Seriously, tell me who doesn't love cake, so I can put them on my list of people who are liars. Cake is lovely.

I have been a little bit of a hobbyist baker for some time now. In fact, waaaaay back in the stone age, at my very first job (at Baskin Robbins), my boss immediately put me to use drawing things for cakes once it became known that I had some drawing ability. Between scooping ice cream and mopping floors, I functioned as a minimum-wage source of clip art. They just had me draw various things that were requested by customers ("Hey, Celeste, I need you to draw a drum set today! And a unicorn! Once you're done mopping!"). Then the boss would put plastic wrap over the drawing, trace it with black frosting, fill in with colored frosting, then set the plastic wrap in the freezer and flip it onto an ice cream cake once it firmed up. I was always kind of bummed that he got to do all the fun parts, playing with frosting and cake, and I just got to draw. Ho hum . . .

These days, having three stepkids who all have the annoying habit of turning a year older every 365 days provided me an opportunity to really dive into cakery--try out different birthday cake ideas, learn how to make fondant, buy little cake-making gadgets, all that fun stuff! Plus it was nice to have an audience who never ever complained! The other 364 days of the year we served up vegetables, but on birthdays I made cake. And, having always enjoyed sculpting, it wasn't long before the standard circular or boxy cakes got a little boring. 
Gotta catch 'em all!
I have always liked things that are more than they appear to be. The flowerpot "dirt" cake was a great little experience: we ate dinner with it in the center of the table, no one the wiser, then for dessert I ripped out the artificial flowers and used a trowel to scoop "dirt" onto each kid's plate as they stared at me like I had finally gone insane. One of the first "interactive" birthday cakes I made was a pudgy Pikachu for Mikayla's 6th birthday. I took a hint from Penn & Teller's How to Play with Your Food and had engineered a little blood compartment (made of food coloring, corn syrup, and grenadine). Let's just say the cake cutting was a grisly but fun surprise. I made Alex, the oldest, a cake shaped like a cell phone for his 15th. He was really hoping for a real cell phone, so the cake seemed like a cruel trick at first. When it came time for the traditional birthday wish, he said "I wish this was a real cell phone," closed his eyes, and blew out the candles. Then the cake started ringing. Alex was a very surprised and very happy teenager. I had hidden his new cell phone in a ziploc baggie in the cake before I frosted it, and I had dialed his phone number and hit "call" just as he blew out the candles. He dug into that fondant super quickly to extract his electronic gift.

Years and years of cakes.
Anyone remember Charlie's delicious death scene in LOST?
Other, less noisy cakes followed, and it was a kick trying to figure out what cake would be perfect for each kid as their birthdays approached. It was a long haul, as I typically started once the kids got to sleep and worked for at least three hours on a cake that I then tried to hide in the back of the fridge until the party the next day. So I was always hitting the hay around 2 a.m. on the night before birthdays--but it was worth it! I also made a few cakes for friends. We went through a pirate ship cake, a killer robot cake (with Kit-Kat treads and a laser pointer weapon), a violin-shaped cake, a Bakugon cake, a fancy painted anime cake, a chess-themed cake, a sushi-roll cake, a director's clapper cake, a pair of roller skates, and a "LOST" themed cake for a finale-watching party. I'm probably forgetting a few, but oh well.

Besides, this is a caricature blog, so I want to get to the caricature cakes. I am an avid reader of CakeWrecks.com, but I have yet to see them devote a post specifically to caricature cakes, so it looks like I get to scoop them on that. Take that, Cake Wreckers!

Might be hard to do these at a party!
So let's look at caricature cakes! I've certainly not made a career out of them, but I've tried my hand. And I tip my hat to the folks who have pulled off some really amazing edible faces. I started with something relatively easy--drawing with melted chocolate. One year as Christmas treats, I made my fellow retail artists large rice crispy treats with their faces on them: you can do this too, just make a big honkin' rice crispy treat and then melt some chocolate chips, then use a ziploc bag with the end cut off as a disposable squeezy tool and draw whatever you want. There's not a lot of control, but hey--if you mess one up it's still delicious.

I did experiment with various ways to immortalize the birthday kid in the cake (or non-cake birthday item). I found it easier to go minimalist, representing Patrick's hair and glasses with dark fondant . . . which requires a lot of black food coloring and will stain your hands a weird purpley-pink for a long time--so wear gloves if you want to keep your fingers their usual skin tone. These past years I've moved away from cake for the kids and experimented with carving watermelon (which made for a fun way to represent Alex's poofy hair) and putting together vegetable bentos. There are huge arrays of foods that can be used, and even several books on how to make unique bento art creations. Plus you don't have to feel the guilt you'd get from feeding kids high-calorie cake and frosting!
Let them eat cake! And fruit! And vegetables! 

While I have never seriously thought about doing cakes professionally (it would take a ton of time, effort, and require that I get the health department out to inspect my kitchen regularly--which ain't happening), a few years ago I did take on a challenge from a friend of mine who needed a groom's cake. The couple had spent countless hours on World of Warcraft and she wondered if I could immortalize their game characters and the groom's favorite weapon. I sculpted the topper out of sculpey so that it could be a keepsake, and the axe was made of rice crispy treat covered in fondant. It was a big hit, and my friend reported that it made the groom cry when he saw it.

Episode 19: The Gang Decapitates Frank
Now, I've never had reason to make a celebrity caricature cake, but I came across an amazing Danny DeVito cake on Reddit, created by a talented university student in Nottinghamshire named Mary Goddard. She made it for her 17-year-old sister, who apparently has an unhealthy fixation on Mr. DeVito (I guess Always Sunny in Philadelphia plays in the UK as well!). What a great caricature cake. His smile, the perfect roundness of his face, the little off-white teeth, the Pepto-Bismal pink folds of his chubby chin . . . my hat's off to Mary, and I thank her for kindly letting me use the image for this  blog. I think she may have started a trend. Because I kind of want to make a Danny DeVito cake now.

Maybe Danny DeVito will become the next Tom Selleck of cakes. That's right: Tom Selleck cakes are a thing. I had no idea how much of a thing they were until I googled some images. I must warn you, do NOT scroll down if you are averse to seeing moustaches and chest hair on cakes.

 . . . . . . seriously . . . there's a LOT of moustaches and chest hair . . .

. . . . see, there are dozens and dozens of Tom Selleck cakes out there on the interwebs, but hardly any of them had clothes on . . .

. . . well all right then, I warned you . . .

. . . feast your eyes, you perv . . .

One Tom, two Toms, Hairy Toms, nude Toms . . . 
So there's your Tom Selleck cakes. The lure of Mr. Selleck is apparently strong enough to make bakers of all levels try their hand at caricature. I'm not sure I understand it, but something about this guy makes people want to put his hirsute physique and steely blue eyes on birthday cakes.

What about someone more famous than even Misters DeVito or Selleck . . . how about the leader of the free world? There are some interesting edible caricatures of him floating around. The Obama cakes I found ranged from awfully amateur to a few really good likenesses. The airbrush artist who did the one on the top right (from CoutureCakesbyNika.com) may very well have been employed by Fasen or Richmond at some point, who knows? The one that impressed me the most was an immense cake sculpture (bottom right) reminiscent of the "Spitting Image" puppets done by Fluck & Law in the 1980s and 90s. I tried to find a bakery name so I could credit that one, but wasn't able to ferret that out of Google images. If anyone knows, comment below and I'll add that to the caption.

And does anyone remember the delectable caricature of Obama that made a splash in the news in March? While it's not actually cake, but gingerbread, this not-quite-elegantly-drawn cookie of President Obama was presented to him as a gift by the Kingdom of Belgium. While the cookie itself was apropos in many ways--the region is famous for spicy gingerbread biscuits, known as speculaas in Holland and Belgium, and the artist, Ronny Demedts, is actually a "famous cookie artist" (I didn't realize one could become a famous cookie artist . . . I think I want to change my profession now)--the likeness did not get a lot of accolades by the media and public. Some thought it wildly inappropriate, others called racism, and most agreed it was not a politically correct choice. I don't exactly see racism going on here, just poor drawing ability. Really, really poor drawing ability. Kudos to Obama, in every photo I saw of him with the cookie he is smiling graciously. But dang it, Belgian leaders! You could have gotten any member of the Op de Beeck family to caricature you an AMAZING cookie! You guys seriously dropped the speculaas on this one.

Now THESE cookies are fit for a president
  (Clinton would have loved them, I bet).
I made these for a friend who had, ahem,
an elective surgical procedure.
Well, that about wraps up my delicious tour of confectionary caricature. I'm off now, gotta run to the store and buy a few buckets of chocolate sprinkles and some pink food coloring so I can finish this life-sized cake of Tom Selleck making out with Danny DeVito. See you next Tuesday!

And P.S.: If anyone wants to see a very young Mikayla and her brothers reacting to poor little Pikachu bleeding out on the table, here's a video!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Now, if you live in Nevada, like I do, you probably have relatives who own bunkers just in case civilization collapses. Even if you live in one of the "softer" states, places that have a less deadly landscape and fewer rural militias, you probably have a pantry of nonperishables and a few gallons of water on hand in case of natural disaster (or if you don't, you should!). As a Christmas gift, my brother once gave me a duffle bag of MRE rations and a crank flashlight and radio. I have been taught how to handle a horse, fire guns (semi-automatics, handguns, and revolvers), shoot bows (compound and recurve), and dress a wound. I'm no Daryl Dixon, but if there's a zombie apocalypse and you happen to be at my house when it all goes down, you're in fairly good hands.
There's only one person who never needs an emergency kit,
and that's this guy.

But what about CARICATURE EMERGENCIES? We've all had them. I've had things go terribly, horribly wrong at gigs and lived to tell the tale. Some disasters cannot be prevented by having the right tools . . . like once I was given bad directions by a waitress and, as I tried to make my quiet exit from the wedding hall, heading through a back door down a very dark hallway, I set off the damn fire alarm (which must happen a lot at that venue, because the manager was over in about 30 seconds to shut the alarm off and had a look on his face like "here we go again!"). And at another event, years ago, which took place right after 9/11, the host gave a short speech and asked for a moment of silence to remember those who had been killed. I was way toward the back of the auditorium and quietly kept working, as is my habit unless told otherwise by my client. When I turned the picture around, my model (who I had not realized was quite tipsy), found her picture HILARIOUS and guffawed loudly while everyone's heads were bowed in respect for the dead. Suddenly all eyes were on us, and not in a good way.

So, drunk people and fire alarms aside, there are plenty of little disasters that can be avoided by having the right items with you. Now I'm not perfect--I don't ALWAYS have everything I'm listing, but I try to keep a majority of these items in my gig bag or in the vehicle when I'm heading out to draw for folks. For the sake of brevity, I'm not including drawing supplies on this list. Having extra paper, bags, and stuff to draw with is a no-brainer. Likewise, doing digital gigs is a whole other can of worms. Having ink cartridges, cables, and backup systems are an obvious must. Let's look at some of the stuff I've learned isn't so obvious but can save your butt sometimes. 


You should also have, it stands to reason, a spotlight to plug into that extension cord. Venues can sometimes be brightly lit until the very last second, and then WHAM, the party planner has the lights go down to dance-club level dark. It's a pain to draw in the dark, and I know from experience that not all clients read that fine print in my contract that recommends they place me by a wall outlet so that I can easily plug in my spotlight. So keep one of these babies in your vehicle just in case. But cords can trip people, so . . .


MacGyver is my patron saint, and this is one of his holy relics. It comes in handy! Taping cords down to avoid tripping hazards is the number one use for it, of course, but I have also used it to stabilize my easel on a swaying boat, affix quickly-made signs, and restrain wiggly toddlers to the seat (okay, I haven't actually done that last one, but I've thought about it plenty). Bear in mind, duct tape can also be used in a pinch for items 6 and 9 on this list too!


You might not have the luxury of an outlet, or you might find yourself drawing during an electrical blackout (it's happened to me!), or you might have any number of things working against you being able to plug in a standard spotlight. At a gig long ago that had really awful lighting, I was hired to be a "strolling artist" (I hate the strolling events, for the record). You can't exactly stroll around with an extension cord trailing behind you, but luckily I noticed the waitstaff all had these little LED plastic ice cubes in their tip jars to help them see well enough to write down orders.
These LED lanterns can be found in most camping
sections and are quite inexpensive.
I spoke with the bartender and got LED cubes for me and the other artists working the event, and, while not super bright, they did the trick. In lieu of little novelty ice cubes, these days I use a little camping lantern with four little LED lights that can be individually removed and placed however you might need them, and that has come in really handy. At a party held at one of the local "Gentlemen's Clubs" in town, I found myself in a nearly pitch-black room with no outlets anywhere nearby. I took one of the LEDs and affixed it with my duct tape (see item #1) to the back of my easel to light up my subject, and affixed another to the top of my easel to illuminate my drawing board. LEDs don't provide the greatest quality of light to draw by, but they can do in a pinch. 


Every once in a while those little tiny screws on your easel get loose
without you even realizing it. Loose screws might make for an annoying wobbly easel . . . or, worse, suddenly at an event your entire easel might collapse mid-drawing. I've seen it happen! So I've got a special pocket in my gig bag that has a couple of the screwdrivers that fit my French easel's hardware and a spare screw or two just in case one goes missing. And often I end up tightening everything up before a gig just to make sure it's all sturdy and ready to go. A leatherman tool or Swiss Army knife (also a holy relic of Saint MacGyver) can be a good go-to fix for these problems too, but if your easel hardware is tiny, get some tiny screwdrivers and have them with you.


If you are a lucky artist who books multiple gigs a day and has to cram drive-thru food down your gullet as you race across town to get to the next event, make sure you have one of these. Or invest in a bib and wear that sucker as you eat in the car! Because one drip of special sauce and suddenly you look like a slob when you show up to the next gig. But stains happen. Luckily we live in a modern age of delightfully effective chemicals and potions--and the instant stain remover stick is a miracle worker. Its a few bucks and it takes up a mere few inches in your emergency kit. 


Along the same lines, a lint roller is a must for any professional who has to wear formal black clothing on a regular basis. If you have a cat, or a dog, or a rabbit, or a guinea pig, or ferrets, or other humans, or any sources of fuzz in your home, then you likely already own one of these. Again, they are a few bucks and can really snazz up your appearance in a moment. 


Now I swear I'm not being paid anything to shill for Triple A. But I've been a card-carrying member for nearly a decade now and they have helped me out of quite a few scrapes. If you find yourself having car trouble on the way to a gig, you have good reason to panic. No magic bullet exists to make all your engine woes go away, but AAA is relatively inexpensive (around $50 a year) and they respond immediately in most situations. I have had flats fixed and batteries replaced so quickly that I was on the road driving again within twenty or thirty minutes of placing the call . . . and while none of those car problems have hit me
on the way to a gig, I'm relieved to know that I have the card in my back pocket if anything ever does happen en route to an event. If AAA can solve my issue in under 30 minutes, there's still a good chance I can get to my gig on time! (And I'm sure the readers paying attention out there are making fun of me right now for not changing my own flat after all that bragging I did about being ready for the zombie apocalypse . . . you got me, you got me. I freely admit I'd feel more competent decapitating an undead walker than I would jacking up my car, guilty as charged!)


Let's just say this has helped me and leave it at that. Ahem. 


You cannot put a band-aid on a bruised ego, so these won't benefit anyone you have drawn. But you can be a total rock star and save the day if a youngster at the event gets an owie and their parent doesn't have a bandage. I try to keep a few varieties on hand so kids can pick from camouflage or the Muppets or Hello Kitty, and let me tell you, they get used up. I owe several generous tips to the fact that I had a band-aid at the ready when some little kid walked by crying their eyes out and holding up their wounded finger like it was going to bleed out. Moms and dads are very grateful if you can help them calm their traumatized kid down, and colorful band-aids do the trick. 


Depending on your materials, sometimes these are a necessity between every few drawings! But even if you use marker and never get any smudges on your dainty little hands, there's no telling when Pigpen is going to bump into you. Kids have gotten ice cream on my elbows and dripped other sticky sugar-based things onto me and my easel plenty of times. Having a wet wipe right in my bag saves me a trip to the restroom for paper towels and a hand-washing.
There are adorable little plastic containers that new parents use for their diaper-bag, if you want something fancy to carry wipes around in, or you can just grab a few of the mini-wipes that restaurants give out (those little packets that look like condoms but are much less fun to use). They are easily tucked into a shirt pocket or gig bag.

That about does it for my emergency items. What do you keep on hand in case of emergency at your gigs? Energy shots? Ibuprofen? Let me know if there's any item you've found indispensable, as I'm always willing to add one more item to my kit! 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

From Glamour Shots to Selfies to Who Knows What?

Photography has changed quite a bit in the two and a half decades I've been drawing funny pictures. This instant availability--and easy manipulation--of photographs has certainly changed how I do my job, as well as how people archive images of themselves. I sometimes think the newer generations are becoming vain, selfie-obsessed idiots all eager to gather as many images of themselves as possible--then I remember that we were all like that too. We just didn't have the tools that kids today have.

Back in My Day . . .

When I began in this business there were no smartphones and no email. Hard to imagine that, especially if you're a twenty-something who has never been without these conveniences. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, email was a nascent form of communication limited to a few of the tech-savvy kids in college who posted to computer-engineer-populated message boards using a bunch of programmer-type symbols I didn't understand. AOL and Myspace hadn't shown up yet, and I regularly used an arcane little device called "a fax machine" at my first office job.

Polaroids were pretty expensive, so they were
used for really special occasions--like if your
super awesome kid was named J.T. McWilliams
Elementary School's "Jet of the Week." 
Now, photographs weren't exactly daguerrotypes when I was a kid, but it was a more involved process than tapping a screen and hearing a fake shutter sound. Moms had rolls and rolls of film in little black canisters, awaiting a trip to the photo-hut for development. Polaroids were nearly instant gratification (at three minutes, an eternity that would send the average teenager today into a swoon of boredom), but the film was expensive and some of the cameras required one-use flash bulbs which were also pricey. I doubt kids would be clicking quite as much if every selfie cost them a buck and a half, like Polaroids did. School picture day was a big deal, and you ordered a bunch of them so you could sign them and write messages and give them to your friends when you saw them in the hall. This was the same underlying principle that drives social media.  Look, a picture of me! And I wrote words! I like you, you're cool, I want to share this with you! It was like Facebook but with effort and supplies. But hey, no ads.

When I started doing retail caricatures, drawing from photos was certainly a source of the booth income. It was usually a parent with a wallet-sized photo of their kid, from that school year, and so it was always a decent photo to work from (professionally shot, good lighting, and with luck a decent smile on the kid's face too). Sometimes people would bring in badly-lit candid shots or older photos, but generally the process went smoothly in person. If someone wanted to mail in a photo though, that got a little complicated. Phone numbers and addresses were exchanged, they mailed in photos and payment (like through the US Postal Service), I drew the person, and then I mailed the photos and art out to them. It took a while.

Living in the Future! 

The process of drawing from photos has been streamlined beyond all my expectations. It still shocks me that I can get an email query, download the photo from 3G or wifi from wherever I happen to be, look at it on my perfect little iPhone screen, draw from it, snap a photo of the caricature with that same phone, text it to the client for their approval, then click on my Paypal app and zip them a bill, which they pay using their phone. Then I pop the caricature in the mail (if they want a hard copy) or email them the high-resolution version (if it was a digital order).

A helpful booth tip: to draw from a phone, you
can stick it in a plastic bag and clip it to your
drawing table. This frees up your hands, helps
ensure you won't drop the phone OR coat it
with airbrush paint or chalk dust, and screen
taps register just fine through thin plastic. 
Comparatively, the old way of taking photo orders now seems about as modern as tying things to pigeon feet (or, if you're a George R. R. Martin fan, to ravens' feet). But all is not roses in this fancy futuristic world. Along with all this convenience, there has come inconvenience. Nowadays, when a parent walks by and says "Oh, I want to get my kid drawn, can you work from this picture?" they don't pull out ONE professional school photo to hand you--they stand there for about twenty minutes shuffling through the two thousand amateur photos on their smartphone. And they show you photo after photo, many of them from bad angles or with weird lighting. Then, as you draw from their phone, it powers down every twenty seconds so you either have to keep tapping the screen or see if the phone's owner knows how to change that feature on their settings (they never do). And I still suffer from worries that someday I'll drop a customer's $500 smartphone and shatter the screen! But still, a good amount of the booth income does come from photo work.

Working on mail-order commissions (or, rather, email-order commissions) is a lot easier in terms of turnaround. If the photos the client sends your aren't going to work, you can communicate that and often have better photos within a few minutes. If you aren't sure you're going in the right direction with a drawing, you can email or text them a sketch and hear their feedback within minutes. When doing commissions at the booth, I can just snap a photo of the art on the drawing table and send it off for the client to preview. Some artists water-mark their final caricatures until the client coughs up the payment--and even that process is easily done now on smartphone apps. (I have skipped that step often by simply photographing the art with my hand somewhere in the frame, holding a pencil or something. It shows scale AND makes that photograph unusable as final art--unless that person doesn't mind having my big ol' hand in the image they print and frame, ha ha!). But, luckily, most folks are fairly trustworthy and well-meaning. Out of literally hundreds of photo orders, only once has anyone bilked me out of payment. That's a pretty decent track record.

But again, with this convenience comes some brand new inconvenience. First and foremost, I wish all customers understood pixels, resolution, and how photos work on the internet.

You say she's on the top, second from the right? . . . okay, zooming in . . .  well, she's a lovely looking eighteen pixels. 
I think some folks believe we have the (fictional) feature they see on CSI called "infinite zoom & enhance," whereby someone's class ring can be read from the low-quality security footage that captured them from across the street. Photos on Facebook or other sharing sites also compress the images to make them load faster, and any image you see on screen is going to be 72 dpi (that means dots-per-inch for any folks who forgot). So if the person's face is only half an inch wide on their Facebook profile photo, there will be 36 x 36 pixels making up their entire head. Oddly enough, thanks to our brain's awesome power at recognizing loved ones, that's enough for us to say "hey, that's Suzie!" if you know Suzie. But for someone who has never laid eyes on Suzy, it is NOT enough data to draw a picture of her. Creases or wrinkles are obliterated, dimples and smile lines are unreadable, and eye color? Hahahahahaha good luck.

So, sometimes instead of one really good photo, people email you a low-resolution photo that won't do you much good. or worse, a TON of low-resolution photos that won't do you much good. I have started giving really clear instructions when people ask if I can draw from photos. This is because without VERY CLEAR instructions, people can go really off the deep end. I tell them to not choose a photo based on how beautiful the person looks in it--rather, choose the one you would give to the police to put on the news if that person went missing. Pick the photo that looks most like the person, because plenty of photos lie. And for god sakes limit yourself. One couple sent me nearly a hundred photos of themselves, spanning several vacations and (from what I saw), at least five hairstyles between the two of them. I stopped opening the files after I saw the sheer number that had come in and told them they must pick three, ONLY three, and out of those three, tell me which photo is their favorite. Some clients have just sent me their Facebook page address and said "look through all of these [eight-thousand photos?] and pick whatever you need!" This task would literally take me longer than the drawing and painting process--not to mention, I have no idea which photos are great and which are awful at representing the person's likeness. Some photos just plain don't look like the subject. And there's one kind of photo that never seems to look much like the subject.

But First, Let Me Take A . . .

Purse those lips, ladies, because duckface is SEXY!
Ah, the selfie. Battle cry of a thousand self-absorbed teens and now a pop song. If only the selfie were simply a photograph of the self. But many of them don't really resemble the photographer at all. I am no lens maker or photography expert, but I have had enough selfies shoved my way to attest that the phone lens does something WEIRD to a person's face if the photo is taken from arm's length. A fish-eye warping occurs that sometimes makes ears disappear and features bug out. (And I love bugged-out features, but only if I am the one bugging them out, and only if they in fact should be bugged out because of the way that person looks!)

Check out this quilt of selfies I put together from a Google search. They illustrate a common nitpick I have with this type of photo reference. First, you can see the warping effect I was complaining about. Next, look at the guys on the left and compare them to the ladies on the right. Now, I'm generalizing here, so this doesn't apply 100% of the time but it sure seems to happen a lot . . . guys often seem oblivious to this warping effect of close-range selfie photos, but ladies seem to know instinctively how to use it to their advantage (and to a caricature artist's disadvantage). Notice how the guys look oddly bloated and seem to have bigger noses, and it looks like their ears have been pinned back a bit? The gals, on the other hand, are angling the camera so that the warp makes them look more elfin, babyish, and coy. Forehead and eyes are bigger, while the rest of them is smaller, and they cock their heads to look "glamorous." Some might even pull a duckface. Don't even get me started on duckface.

Long story short is that selfies are NOT TO BE TRUSTED! I hate them. I have had plenty of folks send me selfies alongside regular photos, and they rarely look like the same person. One lady sent me eight different photos of her teenage daughter and I immediately said "Are these all selfies your daughter had on Instagram?" She said "Yes. How did you know?" I replied "Because they are all low-resolution, taken at artsy angles with weird lighting, and run through effect filters . . . and while they all look very pretty, none of them look like they're the same girl. In half of them her mole is on her right cheek, in the other half it's on the left cheek. I have no idea what her face looks like straight-on, so if I draw from any of these I'm pretty much guessing." Happily, she sent me a school photo and I was able to work from that.

Vanity-Driven Photography Innovation and Other Mistakes

Hold those collars, ladies! Collar-holding is SEXY!!
I have a feeling that deep down, that lady's teenaged daughter would have rather I worked from one of the selfies. Because those were a tantalizing lie. It's a photograph OF me, but it's so much more glamorous than what I look like! Speaking of glamour, remember these, anyone? Ahhhh, the Glamour Shot. Before I hurl stones at this generation for becoming too selfie-absorbed, I have to remind everyone my age that we shelled out like a hundred bucks and dedicated a whole afternoon to getting photos that looked nothing like us. Photos that I would never want to draw a caricature from. (I'm sure these were the bane of caricature artists back in the 1980s). Feathers, cowboy hats, soap-opera-diva-level makeup, and soft focus lenses were the photographic drugs of choice back in those days.

Who wouldn't want to be "Perfect" all 365 days a year?
A brand-new technological trend has me a little alarmed. Imagine the bastard stepchild of the selfie and the Glamour Shot . . . there are a few apps available now that automatically "fix flaws" and add makeup to a photograph. Hate your hair in that picture? Change it up with a tap of the screen. The same facial recognition software that helps Facebook suggest whom you should tag now also helps you make a photograph look less like you. Y'know, because you can always be better looking, right? Why not give in to the tantalizing lie. It's a photo OF you, it just looks better than you. Just a little. Right? These apps can help you smooth out your skin, add lip color or eye shadow, darken those lashes, and even put a lilt into your smile by turning up the corners of your lips. Sound creepy? It sure can be. There are a handful of fun "touched up" photos of men (and cats too, because, y'know, the internet) created using these types of apps. They show us how this ideal of beautified photographs is teetering on the edge of the uncanny valley. Goodbye human features, hello mannequins.

Enjoy seeing this later in your nightmares, folks.
Right not there is a very public battle going on regarding how much photoshop is too much when it comes to professional models. A few fashion catalogs are taking a stand by not photoshopping their models at all--pretty radical, and it's at least getting those publications some press. It also calls out how many other things we see every damn day, over and over, are lies. Tantalizing lies. Looks like the model but not quite. Now the average teenager has, in the palm of his or her hand, the tools to create visually tantalizing lies about themselves. Is it any wonder Instagram is jam-packed full of them?

How Much Is Too Much?

I'm kind of glad I didn't grow up with today's access to photography. My school memories are in two photo albums, that's it. You can look at the entire extant record of my childhood in about ten minutes. But are we now becoming a population of visual hoarders (of this, I too am guilty), who rack up terabytes of photographic data but never seem to have the time to look at those photos or sort them into any useable form? Facing a pile of old CDs or an iPhoto library that's topping 10,000 images is scary. Scrapbooking becomes a painful process of whittling things down to "that perfect" shot.

But should we really be aiming for perfection? Life is more fun if you pay some attention to the imperfect shots. Because life is imperfect. Old photos of our great-great-grandparents are so much more interesting to look at than hyper-polished pouty-lipped fake-smile-tweaked selfies. Those folks who were photographed in the 1800s and early 1900s looked like they were more than their image. They were doing stuff, living life, and the camera just got in their way for a moment. Nowadays it seems kids are posing constantly rather than DOING stuff, and they are annoyed when life gets in the way of the camera phone.

Retro-daguerrotype-steam-fusion portrait
 of F. Andrew Taylor by Yasmin Tajik, 2014.
I am hoping that this photo-enhancing trend, like the Glamour Shots of my youth, will fade away until they are nothing more than a quaint memory and visual trope to be dredged up for laughs. Everything new gets old, and then what is old is suddenly new again, afterall.

Now I'm off to sort through some photos so I can draw some folks. See you next Tuesday!