Lesson in ethnicity (PLEASE REMEMBER THIS WAS 1991 WHEN I WAS JUST STARTING TO LEARN HOW TO DRAW CARICATURES!)
From ISCA Group on FB: “I think one of the things that might make my stories interesting to this group is that I taught myself. I had NEVER actually paid attention to how anyone drew caricatures of anyone before so every challenge I came across was handled in the best way I knew how, -and clearly sometimes they were handled badly, lol. But what’s interesting to me is that the outcome of my decision might be completely different than what most ‘taught’ caricature artists would come up with after learning a style and having support from, say Kaman’s, Fasen or Richmond’s concessions. I really enjoy seeing the way some self taught artists handle different challenges because they are usually pretty unique.” Case in point:
The Ashland County fair went on and I drew lots of people. The drawings were so bad that when somebody shows me a drawing I did from back then I don’t know wether to be amazed, embarrassed or feel sorry for them. All yellowed and crinkly and crappy lookin’. I had no idea what “archival quality paper” meant… Unfortunately, the sharpie lines do hold up well, even if you have no concept of line quality… To that I will attest. Every now and then I see one and the image creates a sudden, depressing panic in me. Like when you were little and you peed in a dream and then woke up and find out that you had actually peed your bed, AT CAMP. If anyone reading this happens to have one from back then, please burn it! Lol! Please. I will draw a fresh one for you for free if you prove that you burned it! 🙂
I worked at a few more local events before I went away to school. Most memorably, I did the Bucyrus Bratwurst Festival where I charged $2 and was so busy I never got to even look around and eat a forced meat sandwich. (I did get a sweet festival t-shirt with silk screened lederhosen on it though!) My parents went with me and they were amazed at how long the line I had was and at the end of the night when I counted up my loot, I had collected $350! People will buy anything for $2 I guess.
After the fair, I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for my first quarter of classes. I enjoyed school. I had lots of fun partying, making new friends and finding my way around the BIG CITY of Pittsburgh. It was the first metropolitan area I had ever been in really. The school was right down town and I lived only a 5 minutes away. I felt like Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat up in the air! I was on top of the world!
There were a couple of festivals in Pittsburgh near downtown and since there is a big art school there, several of the festivals are art centric and caricatures are very popular at such events. My first year in Pittsburgh I went to the Three Rivers Arts Festival to check it out and see what all the hub bub was about. I saw some caricature artists there and thought “I can do that too!”. I wanted to sit there and do them but I was too late to get in on the action. I could have busked in the park there, but was told I’d get into trouble. So I went down to Point Park and sat under the bridge so as to be more inconspicuous. (Totally illegal by the way. The festival has a special permit to use the park for the concert venue every year. What is normally public property was being used privately per special license, therefore it was at this time private property and I needed permission to set up there. Didn’t know that then… Luckily nobody hassled me.)
2 milk crates a ‘jam box’, a sketch pad and a few markers is all I had. I think I may have taped a cardboard sign to a wall on the bridge that led into the park.. Only in the big city for a month and I was already ghetto as fuck!
I was asking for $2 a drawing or tips or something like that. My drawings were terrible at the time, but then again, they were only $2! I was still very green and hadn’t really had any experience or education on the matter to speak of. I drew a few people’s kids here and there and made a few bucks. Well, along came these 4 black kids who were going down to the festival in Point Park. They asked for a drawing and I realized with horror that this was the first time I had ever been asked to draw black people and I had no idea how to do it. It was not going to be pretty.
Clearly this is not something appropriate to be horrified by to most people’s standards, however, growing up in rural Ohio, in the middle of nowhere, I had only seen a few black folks in my life, and had never even SEEN a drawing of one that I could think of (that wasn’t intended to be blatently racist). Let alone one done in black Sharpie on bright white paper… My dorm room mate was a black guy but that doesn’t mean I drew him! I really had no idea where to even start! Being self taught, I knew I had to make some mistakes to learn the correct way to do things. This was one of those mistakes. It certainly was… I did some stupid things, but this probably gets the prize for the stupidest.
Folks… I really do apologize if this sounds crude, or racist or whatever. It’s not intended to be. Part of what I learned on this day is that you just have to be brutally honest sometimes and go with your gut, ya know? These kids were very dark skinned. Not ‘latte’, ‘mocha’ or ‘cappuccino’. more like full blown ‘espresso’. I thought back through all of my schooling and all of the ways I could think of to suggest different tones in black and white artwork. What came to mind was…
Slowly I began drawing the features of the first boy’s face. When I got most of the way done with the line drawing, I started putting darker lines around the lines I had just drawn. That didn’t quite do it. DUDE WAS DARK. Sitting in the shadows around the bridge I thought about the lighter shades I could see and I decided to draw him as dark as possible and add highlights. Maybe show that contrast… Yes. About 5 minutes into the drawing I had decided to draw his face entirely black and add the highlights around the lines I had just drawn.
I colored in most of his face black with a dumb ass, faded, sharpie marker before I realized I could not pull off what I intended to do. At all. It looked horrible and the other kids actually said something. I was starting to sweat and the old, chewed up marker I was using ran out and I had to start in with another one that was fresher and go back over some parts of it again. I was no where near being capable of the artistic craftsmanship it would take to pull off a stunt like this, let alone the flaccid and feeble attempt of a drawing of this child that I had ruined this shitty, cheap piece of paper with. I don’t remember exactly what they said. I know their mouths were hanging open and their lower lips dangled in disbelief, but I was kinda too embarrassed to look at them. Guessing, I would say they were all between 10 and 13. Luckily, their parents weren’t there to witness it… After about 5 more excruciatingly awkward minutes of trying to color in the blackness to a somewhat uniform tone, I gave up when the second marker ran out -And all of those young kids just about crapped their pants they were laughing so hard.
The kid I was drawing looked at it for a second, said something cruelly appropriate, crumpled it up got on his bike and rode away without paying. I was a little bit surprised I didn’t get decked, but one of the other kids watching wanted one now. Obviously because I must be a clown and they wanted to laugh at me some more.
Laughing, I told him I just didn’t know how to draw black people as it was my first time, and I had never tried to draw a black person before in ink. There was no middle tone. Just black and white. I did mention that they were so dark too, hoping to get the sympathy vote from him and the other 2. It actually worked! They were cool about it, and they even acknowledged that they were hella dark too and that they might be hard to draw because of that. They told me that basically just give them big lips and noses and stuff. I said I didn’t know many black people, but I was pretty sure they didn’t like being drawn with large, stereotypical features and I didn’t want to offend them by drawing them that way and they laughed again. “Duh, we got big lips and noses and stuff though!” is what he said. I asked them if they had ever seen another artist draw a black person and they all said no, so I started again from scratch.
This time I thought instead of going all ‘contrasty’, maybe I would use some cross hatching… Holy shit. Yes. I. did. If you thought I was embarrassed when they laughed at me for trying to draw the one kid entirely black, imagine how stupid I felt drawing straight black sharpie lines clean across the other kid’s face -for like 8 minutes. TOTAL FAILURE. LOL! THESE KIDS WERE LAUGHING HYSTERICALLY AT ME NOW!
The other kid’s mouths just hung open and when I handed it to him he said that doing that was probably NOT the right thing to do to it either and laughed at it/me. He was pretty cool about it though, considering. They all were. I was lucky. My stupidity didn’t seem offend them much, if at all. I wasn’t trying to be offensive in the least. I just had no effing clue what I was doing!
In hindsight, I’m really glad it was those kids and not somebody who would have taken greater offense. It could have went very badly for me! After that drawing they suggested again that maybe I try to draw them with big lips and noses and concentrate on the size and shape of the features instead of the tone of their skin. I thought about it, and decided to try that next time. Not surprisingly, neither of the other two wanted one. Lol! I discovered that not only was my mistake trying a drawing style that I was clearly incapable of pulling off, but I was drawing them with caucasian features and thought that merely changing the tone of their faces would make them look like black people. Their features were completely different than caucasian features, and after all, it was them who had pointed out that they HAD big lips and big noses so it must be something they’re comfortable with and I figured whatever I drew probably wouldn’t be as offensive as drawing them all in black or cross hatching over their faces!!
I didn’t immediately follow their advice unfortunately and did some other stupid mistakes but quickly got the hang of it. It took me years to finally let go and learn that emphasizing the most stereotypical features on ethnic people is the best (and funniest) outcome in this situation. Afterall, a humorously exaggerated likeness IS the point of a caricature.
A good way to practice drawing caricatures is to draw yourself in a mirror. (a better way is to draw some one else from a still on a DVD- but I’m getting ahead of myself) Many newbie caricature artists use this practice as a crutch. They learn how to draw THEIR nose satisfactorily, and don’t realize that they unsatisfactorily draw their nose on every person’s face that they draw from then on. Everybody does it. You can tell the care an artist puts into his craftsmanship by the different ways he can draw other people’s features. (but again, I get ahead…) In short, it takes some skill and time to discover a repertoire of different and acceptable ways to draw different people’s features and then use those standards relative to each individual.
We’re allowed to make mistakes. We all do it. It’s part of learning how to do something the right way. Understanding, identifying and learning the proper ways to communicate a person’s ethnicity (or any other defining feature) visually and aesthetically (and yes, in fact, exaggerating some stereotypical features) is very important in communicating a good likeness no matter what the ethnicity of the person you’re drawing. Political correctness has no place in the caricature world. That said, personality stereotypes are stupid. Just as important in my opinion is learning not to judge people based on personality stereotypes. Each person is an individual and if you look objectively at each person as such, and treat them like you want to be treated you can do no wrong. I don’t tolerate hateful intolerance and I don’t tolerate mistaking sincere objectivity for hatred.
All rights reserved on all content. Copyright, Adam Pate 2013