In 2014 I attended a caricature conference in Reno, Nevada. Among a ballroom full of ridiculously talented artists from around the world I happened to meet Celestia Ward, a caricaturist who’s also a skeptic. Naturally, I had questions for her. A longer version of this interview will appear later this year in the Skeptical Briefs newsletter.
1) Benjamin Radford: For those who are not artists or are unfamiliar with caricature, can you explain what it is?
Celestia Ward: Many people think caricature is just a bad cartoon drawing that gives you a big nose, but this is a vicious rumor started by bitter people who have big noses. One old boss of mine used to say it’s a “juxtaposition of facial relationships.” Illustrator John Kascht says it’s “a portrait with the volume turned up.” Basically it’s a drawing (or painting, or sculpture, or collage, or 3D computer rendering) that looks like a particular person but pushes the visual cues of that person’s face to amplify the perceived likeness to viewers. A good caricature should look more like you than you do.
2) BR: What’s your background? How did you get involved in skepticism, and in art?
CW: I started drawing young, and I started skepticism young-I was glued to the TV for shows like Ripley’s Believe It or Not and That’s Incredible!, and I started reading Isaac Asimov and Douglas Adams in middle school. I think my first celebrity crush was Penn Jillette, and reading Penn & Teller’s early magic books led me to James Randi. I was also a chronic doodler, but I looked at my art as a relaxing bad habit, not any sort of career path. While attending Johns Hopkins as an undergrad, I took a cartooning class (as a lark, to get a lousy elective credit) and it ended up leading to a summer job doing caricatures with the professor. Sure enough, like a bad habit, caricatures proved really hard to quit. I kept that “summer job” even after graduating with my degree. I’d ended up earning a B.A. in writing, not a B.S. in biology or physics like I’d originally planned-I had an early love of science, but the long lab hours pipetting solutions made me realize I might not have the patience to enter the field in any practical way. After college, I hired on as an assistant at an academic press and eventually worked my way up to senior manuscript editor, but I was still slinging caricatures to tourists on nights and weekends. Having two jobs for eight or nine years wears on you. I eventually wanted to have just one job, and so I took the plunge about a dozen years ago and gave up the steady career in academia for the life of a freelance cartoonist. And happily, it’s worked out.
3) BR: At first glance there may not seem to be an obvious overlap between skeptics and caricature artists, but it seems to me that there may be some interesting parallels. For example on a philosophical basis, caricaturists, like skeptics, seek to uncover the truth or essence. It’s their job to look at a person’s features and represent the person in all their imperfect glory; the parts they emphasize are selected and exaggerated, of course, but it seems there’s some common ground. Can you talk about the process of revealing truth through caricature?
CW: Well, as recent events in Paris [at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo] have shown, caricaturists working in the political arena can face dangers similar to those that plague skeptics and debunkers in hostile territory. Some caricature artists are purposefully inflammatory, to make their point, just like some outspoken public skeptics employ inflammatory language or mockery to drive their message home. But each believes their message is worth the risk. I cannot speak for all caricature artists, but I’ll do my best to be a representative sample of the profession. Unlike truth in medicine or physics, truth in caricature is at least a bit subjective. When dealing with the actual subject of the drawing, as one does when drawing tourists or party guests, it becomes HIGHLY subjective and you get a front-row seat to all the ways people fool themselves. “I’m not that fat/old/bald/funny-looking!” and on and on. I had one older lady exclaim “YOU GAVE ME FRECKLES! I DO NOT HAVE FRECKLES!” to which her daughter said “Yes, mom you totally have freckles,” and she insisted “THESE AREN’T FRECKLES, THEY’RE JUST BROWN SPOTS ON MY FACE!”
There are also subjective degrees of “truth” even when you aren’t having the artwork judged by the subjects themselves. A highly exaggerated caricature might resonate with some but not all viewers. Seasoned caricature artists will all disagree, to some extent, about how best to stretch a likeness. And, when working on a stretch you think you’ve nailed, you can suddenly notice something that just looks wrong and it unravels the whole likeness. So “truth” is a funny word to apply. We caricaturists seek a visual type of truth, beyond vanity and photoshopped blandness, sure, but it’s still a “truth” we know is founded on deep-seated perception biases-the ways our brains tell one human being from another. Those biases might have been formed by evolution, or culture, or accidents of our brain development, but it’s those quirks of perception that we exploit.
When working in the public eye as an artist, you also get repeated exposure to the woo that permeates our general population. Every live caricaturist hears daily how talented they are, how it’s a magical sort of “gift” that we were surely born with or received from some supernatural source. While there are no doubt artists who themselves subscribe to the magical-thinking version of things, most working caricaturists I know are well aware that their abilities came from study and practice, not a supernatural force. And most nod and smile politely while people talk about the mystical properties of their eyes, but they know how light and color works and they know emotions don’t change iris pigmentation.
4) BR: Can a caricature more accurately represent or reveal the physical presence of a person than a photograph? Of course the context of the image matters-if Putin and Obama are drawn as pro wrestlers, for example, that refers to a specific aspect of their lives-but what about a facial portrait? In the same way that eyes are said to be windows to the soul (or personal essence, in a more secular context), do you think a person’s facial features can tell their life story, in a sort of poetic way? Or does that get into the pseudoscience of physiognomy or phrenology?
CW: There is something to this. Of course phrenology and physiognomy are bunk: facial bumps and bony structure of the skull tell one nothing about personality. But expressions-how the muscles move over those bony bumps-are loaded with content. Paul Ekman’s work is pretty well known, and that annoyingly non-scientific (but still fun) TV show Lie to Me, based on Ekman’s work, certainly exploited the notion of mining expressions for data. While I’m not qualified to judge the psychological accuracy of Ekman’s conclusions, I can certainly add my anecdotal experience to the mix. People react strongly when a certain characteristic expression is “nailed” just right in a live drawing. My husband (also a caricature artist, and my partner at Two Heads Studios) once fielded this very question from a group of curious guests at a wedding we were attending.
Someone asked if being a caricature artist imbued us with any special abilities to “read people” and see into their personalities, etc. He gave the table a “non-psychic” psychic reading, if you will, and guessed something about each of the guests sitting with us. Sure enough, the one he guessed was a serious studious type was in fact a surgeon in training. The one he labeled as a “social butterfly, maybe a bit overly curious, nosy even?” blushed as her friends howled and said that was “absolutely her.” And so on, around the table he went. He then explained what clues he was exploiting: the surgical inte
rn had a continual serious expression and deep furrows in his forehead, more than he should have for a young man his age-which perhaps bespoke years of concentration. And the social butterfly was constantly smiling and her eyes darted around the room, soaking everything in. So, while no one’s cranial ridges were measured, it was simple observation of their expressions and demeanor that helped create a profile of who they might be.
5) BR: I picked up a few copies of the caricature magazine Exaggerated Features and found an article by you about pareidolia. It is of course something I’d researched and written about as a skeptic, but of course it fits perfects in a magazine about caricatures. Was that a form of grassroots skeptical outreach?
CW: Yes! And I was happy to explore the topic for an audience that would not be familiar with the term. A big part of caricature is how our brains perceive the human face, and the success of any caricature depends on how viewers perceive it. Just like magicians exploit deficiencies in human perception and, without realizing it, learn about aspects of skepticism, so do caricature artists learn by trial and error how to navigate pareidolia and other intricacies of perception. As social animals, our brains are highly attuned to recognizing individual members of our species. I owe my living to this evolutionary trait, and to pareidolia-as no cartoon would be recognizable as a face, let alone a particular face, without our brain’s characteristic ability to read meaning into patterns.
I have also blogged on a few skeptical topics that cross over into the realm of caricature and being a working artist. While my musings on the industry only reach a small subset of the population, it’s a neat way to introduce some critical thinking and skeptical notions to an audience that might not seek them out on their own. Likewise, when I gave a seminar this past November at the international caricature convention, I drew upon the information I’ve learned from skeptical sources. While talking about the psychology of client-handling as an artist, it was easy to introduce things like logical fallacies, heuristics, and a few other ways our brains fool us on a regular basis. My goal was not to “sneak in” skeptical thought under the radar-rather, since I’m often steeped in skepticism, it just seemed the natural way for me to explain a few things about client-artist relations and marketing.
6) BR: I notice that your model caricatures includes a piece of James Randi (see photo above). Can you tell me a bit about why you chose to do a 3-D caricature of him, and what was involved in the process? Is it true that you cast him from a life-size mold?
CW: That was a last-minute challenge. I had not done a piece for the studio competition part of this year’s caricature convention, and on a lark I decided to sculpt something quickly, in one night. Doing 3D work has been one of my specialties, so my process is pretty streamlined by now. Still, I knew I’d better choose someone with distinct features, fun to sculpt, and it would help if it was a celebrity I was familiar with and liked-the better to be inspired by. Randi popped up as a logical choice, and I hammered that out and painted it the night before the convention. And, having been lucky enough to meet The Amazing One in person several times now, I can assure readers that he is at least twice the size of my sculpture.
7) BR: Do you find that caricaturists, as a profession, tend to me more or less accepting of other people in terms of their physical flaws? After all, part of your job is to seek out and enhance a person’s features and flaws, and in many ways the more unusual a person looks, the more material there is for an artist to work from, and the more interesting a subject is. Squints, double chins, birthmarks, thinning hair, and the like seem to be fair game. Are there any facial features or subjects that are sometimes considered taboo, that many caricaturists will ignore out of kindness (maybe a lazy eye, war wounds, or something), or is everything fair game under the assumption that a person know what they’re getting into if they sit for a caricature?
CW: It really depends, from artist to artist, what is “taboo” or not. Some young, new, frightened artists shy away from drawing anything that might offend. Some seasoned artists try to go for the jugular every time. I suppose I’m somewhere in the middle. Scars, wounds, lazy eyes-those are things I sometimes ask about. And I try not to make it seem like it’s some hideous defect, I say “Awesome features! It’s all right for me to represent that, yeah? It would be hard making it look like you otherwise.” And generally I get no hassle about it. I myself LOVE drawing lazy eyes. If someone has one eye that looks right at you and one that leans toward the wall, or their nose, I get really excited because it makes for such a dynamic drawing. See, if someone has something like that ON THEIR FACE, they are typically aware of it. And, as they sit for you, they know you can see it too. So it generally doesn’t come as a huge surprise when they see the picture. I drew one gentleman who had a very peculiar eye deformation-it looked partially squeezed out of his socket and was misshapen, like it was melting wax about to drip out. I asked him if he could see out of that eye, and he said no, he’d gotten cancer in that eye as a baby and it had always been like that. No big deal. He was clearly just glad to not have eye cancer anymore. So I drew it as it was (just slight exaggeration, I wasn’t brave enough to draw his eyeball dripping out and pooling onto his lap or anything). He and his family agreed that it looked just like him, and it wouldn’t have had any resemblance at all had I chosen to lie about that eyeball.
What strikes me is how many people seem unaware that the vast majority of human beings walking the earth have “flaws” just like they do. I have explained hundreds of times to people shy about their “crooked smile” that asymmetry in smiles is perfectly natural and occurs for most people to some degree. Elvis had a famously asymmetrical smile! And squinting while one smiles is absolutely how our anatomy is wired to work. To drive the point home, sometimes I smile at the model while holding my eyes open unnaturally. The result looks like I’m doing an impersonation of a scary ventriloquist dummy-not the look anyone wants in a picture, caricature or otherwise! So squint when you smile, squint proudly, and smile your wonderful crooked smile, and get over it!
8) BR: What are the best and worst parts of being a caricature artist?
CW: The best part for me is that I get to indulge in a bad habit I’ve had for decades and I’m getting paid for it. As a side-bonus, I also get to have five to ten minutes of face-time with some of the most interesting people in the world. I have drawn at parties and conventions that put me in the center of very different demographics each week-from computer experts to public health legislators to adult film stars. I get to chat with them, ask them questions, and joke around. While I make fun of their face. It’s pretty sweet. The worst part-that’s hard to pin down. Many caricature artists complain about the lack of respect our field is given. We are sometimes seen as the underbelly of the art world, the gutter-level artists eking out a living at carnivals or tourist traps. I choose to look at it as grass-roots art. For many average people, a caricature is the only “real” original artwork they have in their home that’s not a reproduction or print. So I’m going to revise that: for me, the worst part of the job is falling into a rut, that dangerous pattern of drawing faces that start to look alike. At some point one’s “style” can become a crutch, an excuse to do bad work, to stop learning. It’s a big fear, and one I work against constantly–but not always successfully.
9) BR: I’ve had many caricatures done, but I’ve rarely if ever been asked what style I wanted. Is that common? It seems that most theme parks and trade shows offer a particular style, though most artists are adept at several different-often wildly different-styles. Do you typically ask your subjects what they want, or does the context or setting more or less set the style?
CW: You, as a patron, are seeing the end result of a few driving forces. At theme parks, many artists at a booth develop a similar style because they are trained to draw a certain way by the management in order to promote consistency of product. Sometimes a crew of artists has drawn together for years and naturally learned from one another-developing similar styles not because they were forced to but because it just naturally happened. At trade shows and parties, the artists have either been booked directly based on samples of their work online, or agents have put together the talent lineup. Someone booking a party for a bunch of rowdy plumbers might pick the funniest, stretchiest artists in their database to go work it. A convention for makeup consultants might be better served with artists who have a delicate touch and do drawings more akin to fashion portraits-agents know this, and they suggest the best-suited artist for the job.
As to whether or not artists can switch gears and have different styles, I’m not sure that’s always the case. The artists I draw with have distinct telling marks that identify their work even if it’s unsigned. I know a Nick drawing, or a Robert drawing, or a Shirley drawing on sight–it’s as easy as recognizing a loved one’s handwriting. Now, in a live caricature setting, one can always ask “How spicy do you want this picture?” and then go with more or less exaggeration depending on the answer. Maybe what you mean is artists are capable of different approaches. While I cannot make myself draw like another artist just by flipping some internal switch, I can of course decide to use different materials, use a different texture approach, draw more abstractly and rely on shapes, or dig in with ink and crosshatch heavily. In fact, doing one of those things is suggested if you find yourself in a rut-while you cannot change your “style,” your “handwriting” if you will, it can feel quite refreshing to switch pastels out for watercolor, or trade white paper for toned paper.
And there’s an element of risk involved if you start asking your subject what style they want. Many artists worry (rightly so) that, if given the opportunity, a caricature subject will try to back-seat-drive and take control of how they think the finished product should look. They might try to mold the drawing into something it cannot be, or expect you to draw in a style that would be impossible for you to adopt. Sure enough, I have seen my fair share of customers trying to cram every sort of request they can into a ten-minute drawing. I have found that it’s just easier and smoother if I say “Smile!” and then put pen to paper and do what I do.
10) BR: Let’s talk about caricature’s respectability, or lack thereof. Where is the line between caricature and fine art-or is there one? What’s the difference between a caricature done at Seaworld, for example, and a Hirschfeld? Obviously they are different forms-one’s a studio piece and the other is a street-style piece-but are the processes or products similar or different?
CW: This is probably self-serving, but I’m prone to seeing the art world more as a fluid spectrum, with caricature influencing many types of art. Da Vinci drew his “grotesqueries,” Picasso played with features as a caricaturist might, and many fine artists today do their share of party caricatures from time to time, it’s a fun way to exercise your gesture drawing and exaggeration muscles between gallery openings. Likewise, there are some really terrible artists out there selling to the public and barely getting by. Sitting for a caricature is truly a gamble: at a party or theme park, you might get drawn by a complete rookie who is barely passable, or you might get drawn by a webcomic artist with a huge following, a fellow who teaches impressionist painting at a highly respected art institute, or an award-winning colorist for a major comic book company (I have worked alongside all three). Art is funny. It does not have value until it has value. Joe Bluhm, who won an Oscar in 2012 for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore drew caricatures at Sea World for years. He compiled a book of caricatures that customers refused to pay for, titled Rejects. That book now sells for a couple hundred dollars usually, if you can find it. I have seen it listed for as much as eight thousand. Joe said once he saw an online listing for sixty thousand (he said he screencapped that)! This is for a book of drawings that were originally rejected by theme park visitors.
11) BR: For many people their first exposure to caricature may have been in pop culture media such as Gerald Scarfe’s work on Pink Floyd’s The Wall album and film, or Philip Burke’s Rolling Stone portraits of rock stars (I saw an excellent exhibition of his work at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007). Aside from your cartooning class at Johns Hopkins, what were some of your early exposures to caricature?
CW: There was a British TV show in the 1980s and 1990s called Spitting Image, which found its way to American TV and incorporated some of our celebrities and political figures. It was a satire show done completely with caricature puppets. And these puppets were out of sight-the detail, the sculpting, the exaggeration, the costumes. I could not keep my eyes off it. While I was aware of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Burke’s rock star caricatures (gigantic paintings, actually), my tastes gravitated more toward Mad magazine and Cracked. Like the puppets, these caricatures told a story and interacted with one another. Mort Drucker captured likenesses from any angle, any expression, any lighting-detailed or gestural, he nailed them in every panel. And I always loved Norman Rockwell. People don’t think of him as a caricaturist, but his work was very much in line with caricature.
12) BR: Who are some lesser-known contemporary caricature artists with really exciting or unusual styles that might be seen in magazines in coming years?
CW: Mongolian artist Choimbol Ganbaatar really impressed us all at the convention, taking home many awards for his first time attending. His style is rough and passionate, reminiscent of Scarfe but with more painterly elements. Ali Thome has a crazy style that I imagine will blossom even further with her webcomic work. Marlo Meekins can draw caricatures that make you a little ill just looking at them–she’s doing standup and possibly launching a show, but I hope to see her illustration flourish too. Paul Moyse and Court Jones are both accomplished painters and caricaturists whose work already is showing up in major publications. Jason Seiler, though still quite a young man (and yes, a former live caricature artist) was commissioned to paint Pope Francis for Time’s person of the year in 2013, and was asked again this year to paint one of the runners-up, so I cannot list him as an “up and comer”–but expect his body of work to grow to monumental proportions over the next few decades. It’s hard to say, though. There are many caricaturists I run across who have immense ability but lack the temperament to work seriously in publications (meeting deadlines, working with agents and art directors, etc.
13) BR: Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about the rock stars of caricature. Who have been some of your favorite guest speakers at the ISCA convention over the years? Who are some of your biggest influences as a caricature artist?
CW: John Kascht, Drew Friedman, Jan Op De Beeck (from Belgium), Sebastian Kruger (from Germany) have all b
een impressive speakers. I enjoyed David O’Keefe, especially, because he’s a strong sculptor and his work rivals that of Fluck and Law, who did Spitting Image. All of these artists have influenced me, but working in the chair live means you get highly influenced by those coworkers around you. For better or worse! So I owe a lot to the skilled artists I have sat next to over the past 23 years.
14) BR: Do you have a favorite caricature joke? One that involves caricature in some way but that may or may not be too obscure for civilians?
CW: Not really. Though when a caricaturist “drops in” on another caricature artist to visit unexpectedly, it’s typical to walk up behind them as they draw and ask a series of dumb questions, getting ruder and ruder, like “How long have you been doing this?” “Can you make it look more real, like less cartooney?” “What if I don’t like it?” “Are you hoping to do real art someday?”. . . until the artist looks back at you and realizes it’s just a comrade-in-arms.
15) BR: Have you ever had a weird dream in which you’re a caricaturist and a freak sits for you (like maybe a person with three legs, or Abigail and Brittany Hensel, the two-headed sisters) and you do their caricature as best you can, and it’s really good but when you show it to people they think you really screwed it up, because they don’t know that the person you were drawing actually had three legs or two heads or whatever, and then you are ridiculed and humiliated and spend the rest of your life trying to find the freak and bring him or her or them back to show your friends and clients that you weren’t crazy or a bad artist after all, but the freak(s) moved to Budapest or something and you can’t afford the round-trip ticket because your career is ruined, so you just end up doodling sad faces with your finger on fogged train windows? Or not?
CW: HOW DID YOU KNOW WHAT I DREAMT LAST NIGHT?