Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Selling Lies

I had a weird day this week. I worked a retail shift with a good friend of mine who runs a caricature operation here in town, and he started discussing his cousin's kid, who has been in about a zillion pageants and is always showing up on his Facebook feed in glitzy not-so-age-appropriate outfits, pancake makeup, and with photoshop smoothing to boot. It creeps him out, understandably. We talked about over-the-top pageant looks, visual lies, manipulation, image, and all sorts of concepts that come up when child pageants are discussed . . . and, as caricature artists who regularly see moms primp and polish their kid before ordering the kid to sit down and project a fake perfect smile for us, we both had opinions.
"Now hold on, Brittany, let's get you
ready for your caricature drawing . . . "

If anyone's seen Johnny Knoxville's recent movie Bad Grandpa, there is a scene where his "grandson" is dolled up to look like an adorable (if scantily-clad and overly-made-up) little girl in order to compete in the Pretty Princess Pageant. That makes a big point about these pageants: it's so full of artifice that you can slather any kid with the trappings of pageantry and they can look like they fit in. Children's faces don't have sexual characteristics, there's no defined jawline or specifically feminine or masculine features yet, so it doesn't matter--boy, girl, potato--the thing under the makeup will end up looking however the mom (or stylist) decides to make them look. Total freedom to reinvent. It's all a visual lie.

But some of the kids LOVE it, right? The girls absolutely adore the pageant primping and being onstage, so it's okay, right? It's what they want. Even if the mom may have pushed it on her daughter a little, or a lot, at first, and sure, maybe mom could have instead pushed soccer, or gymnastics, or robotics club, or beekeeping . . . what's the harm, the kid has been exposed to pageant dress-up and loves it now, right?

Then after our discussion on child beauty pageants, I met one of the new artists as she came in to work the night shift. She excitedly told us of a little epiphany she'd had last time she worked: she had drawn one of the nearby vendors, an older lady, and after she finished, she asked for criticism and feedback. What did the lady like or not like about the drawing? Big shock, she wanted a few things to be changed about her appearance, had always hated her nose and wanted a different one, and to be younger and prettier. The hopeful newbie then did a second drawing with a much smaller nose, much more model-type good looks, and although it bore no real resemblance to the subject, of course we all know which one the recipient preferred. The new artist said she was just going to ask folks from now on, "Which features about yourself do you not like? What do you want me to change, and how?" It would be a great improvement in customer service, her patrons would be so much happier that way, she reasoned.

My coworker and I groaned and looked at each other. "No, you really don't want to do that." She was insistent and optimistic, saying "But I can, so why not? It's what people want!"

And I have to admit, I had a little trouble putting it into words why that was a bad idea. She had a major point: it does seem to be what some people really want. And they are the customer, they are paying you. I'm sure I had similar ideas when I started out drawing caricatures too. In high school, drawing my friends, I remember trying to "fix" things about my friends and then wondering why it turned out not looking like them--but they always liked the drawings and appreciated the enhancements.

On the drive home I mentally listed out the problems I had with this customer-is-always-right approach:

1. First, I would worry about turning the caricature experience into a buffet of artistic requests. I don't want to listen to an insecure woman rattle off all the things she wants drawn differently from her actual face. I mean, I have to listen to that anyway. If I were to actually INVITE the list, I fear how long that list would grow and how demanding some patrons would become.
"Can you fix my hair, like make it longer,  and can you add makeup? And
make my nose smaller than it is, and I don't want to show you my teeth
because they're all janked up, can you just make up a better smile?
I totally hate my brown eyes, can you make them blue? And add
eyelashes and fix my brows. And no double-chin. OMIGOD I LOVE
IT! But dang, why it don't look like me?"

2. Putting this into practice would be a good way to un-learn how to draw. Or rather, un-learn how to observe. You would be willfully ignoring what you see in front of you and instead aiming for some imagined, described ideal.

3. The people walking by will all think, "Wow, looks nothing like that person." An insecure person who wants to change their face might sit for a drawing, and they might like it if you lie to them on the paper, but spectators are impressed with truth. A good likeness is what gets their attention. They can see store mannequins anytime they want.

4. Because I've done it before. We all have. When faced with a demanding customer, who hasn't stretched the truth, or agreed to "fix" something on someone's face? And after you have a large number of drawings under your belt, you can look back and see that this approach has a good chance of BACKFIRING. The very fact that someone is telling a caricature artists to fix this or change that is a red flag that you may be dealing with a very problematic customer. Usually you can muddle by and reduce the wrinkles just a little, ignore the gap in the teeth, maybe not go too crazy on the nose wart that she is nervous about, or minimize the freckles that the kid is sensitive over, but still make it look enough like the person so you don't feel like a total failure. And with luck you will get paid. But the number one indicator that a drawing will be rejected is not the quality of the drawing, or the artist's temperament, or the price . . . it is whether or not the client sits down and immediately tells you how to do your job. When someone sits down like this at a fair, we all wince and know there's a better-than-average chance the drawing will end up rejected no matter what.

5. For me, personally, blatantly giving in and taking requests like this would completely, utterly, horribly, take away my job satisfaction. Do I like making people happy? Of course. But above that, it makes me happy to get a likenes. To pull off a drawing that is funny, whimsical, stretched, and captures the model. Deep down, I want to believe that the drawing will be more valuable to the person if it does look like them, with no interference from the model about what I have permission to draw and what I should replace with some feature from Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt. What are they going to do with a drawing that bears no resemblance? Will they keep it? Will anyone they know view it as something of worth?

At the first ISCA convention I ever attended, I remember Tom "Huf" Hofsteadt saying one thing over and over again during his caricature seminar: "If it has no likeness, it has no value." If ever there was a retail caricature mantra, I'd vote for that one right there.

But when you think about it, about our society today and the typical customer-service model, it's understandable if some folks expect to be able to dictate the rules of how they are drawn, and it's even understandable if some artists let the customer have their comforting lies if they want to pay for them. Commerce, capitalism, supply and demand. If someone demands their picture be a certain way, you need to supply it if you can--right?

There are many, many places where people can pay a professional to craft a nice lie for them. The ladies working the makeup counter will help you reduce the appearance of wrinkles and lengthen your lashes. If makeup is too temporary a lie, plastic surgeons will permanently reconstruct a feature you'd rather not live with (there is even an urban legend about a chinese man who felt so "lied to" because of his wife's extensive plastic surgery that he sued her when their baby came out ugly). The costume shop can turn you into a sexy pirate, even if you've never set foot on a ship. And there are those aforementioned child pageants that will turn your delightful toddler into a miniature version of an over-the-top drag queen and give her a trophy to remember the occasion.

Is the caricature booth one of those places? Should it be?

There are also jobs where lying is literally a criminal act. Lawyers cannot lie to their clients, nor can doctors--even if falsely telling someone their cholesterol numbers are totally fine would, in fact, be comforting to them. Plumbers, carpenters, auto mechanics . . . no one wants one of those professionals to be dishonest with them, even if, jokingly, you might say "aw, c'mon, please tell me that rattle I hear isn't the transmission! Tell me it's something cheap like a hose or a belt!"

Now, when I say something like this to my mechanic, I don't actually mean that I want him to lie to me. He understands I am kidding. He fixes my car, and my life can literally depend on him doing his job. And although caricatures aren't exactly life-or-death, they are actually kind of important to me. I like to think (in fact, I often force myself to assume) that when customers tell me to change this, fix that, alter these, etc., they are at some level, also kidding around. They must surely know that I'm a professional and I know how to draw them better than they could draw themselves. If they wanted to dictate the features used in the caricature, they could just cut out bits of celebrities from magazines and make their own for free.

One guy I worked with had a foolproof (if passive-agressive) system for dealing with this type of request-heavy customer. Whatever she/he asked for, this artist would say "Suuuuure, no problem. You bet. Absolutely. You got it, coming right up." And see, he'd be very soothing and then chat them up and have a good time. And he would ignore every single vain request he ever got and just draw how he drew. I found that he had a lot of success with this method, it seemed to work better than trying to explain that you don't want to alter features and educate a dumb-ass fairgoer on the whole philosophy behind caricature and why you have too much artistic integrity to sling generic Barbie cartoons. So he just agreed to anything, and the customer thought they were getting what they wanted, so when they saw the end result they liked it. I guess he was lying--just not in the way the customer was asking him to.

Customers can also be brought around with a smile, a joke or two, and a little tough-love honesty. When asked to "pretend" someone is fifty pounds lighter, or fifteen years younger, I often say "Sure, I'll pretend that. And YOU can pretend that I take requests." If you smile with the deadpan delivery, you won't get beat up. Probably. I haven't been yet.

My point is that I try to hold the gate, in my own small way, keeping this profession as honest as I can try and make it. I don't always succeed, but I try. And while I want customers to be happy, I also don't want them to start thinking of caricatures as drawings that aren't supposed to look like you. Everyone who does caricatures has, at some point, heard that line uttered behind them, and it sucks to hear. Nor should every caricature artist be treated like a pair of mindless artistic hands for hire that can be completely controlled (even when doing so results in a shitty drawing because of shitty requests for lies). Too many aspects of life these days seems to rely on lies or artifice. I have no idea how these young girls on Toddlers & Tiaras will turn out . . . but if they grow up and decide to get a caricatures, I sure hope they will have outgrown their need to have their faces covered up with falseness until they are bland Barbies in ruffles, all the same, without a flaw or a feature.


  1. Nice piece again, Celestia. Of course this discussion will go on forever. I like your statement "Do I like making people happy? Of course. But above that, it makes me happy to get a likeness." I believe there is a spot where both the artist and the customer can be satisfied. A good likeness and a smile when your work is shown.

    I'm a geezer and don't have anything to prove. My likenesses are improving, but not every one. So when faced with generic featureless folks, I work on the smile part. I've never drawn a face that wasn't attractive (to me) in some way. In the end it's just a cartoon portrait - honest and fun.

    1. Thanks for reading, Boomer Bill. I'm always happy to hear thoughts of fellow caricature artists out there, "geezer" or newbie. Honest and fun, you hit it on the head, that's what to aim for.

  2. Sometimes I would joke with the customer "I always draw the exact opposite of what is requested." Some would laugh and then some would beg for a double chin and big nose, etc. Fun piece. Took me back to my days as a theme-park artist.

  3. Nicely written. Hang on to whatever shreds of integrity you have left! I often respond to such requests immediately by saying, "I'm paid the big bucks to make you funny looking, not beautiful! Although, in your case, you've done half the work for me..." But I suppose working a retail gig, where the person you are drawing is always also the person paying you is a little different.

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