Friday 25 October 2013

Silk Purses & Sow's Ears

As anyone who puts their caricature services out there will know, you very quickly compile a set of requests and 'conditions' that you ask of your customer in order that they get the best possible piece of artwork that you can deliver. These can involve things like payment terms, lead times/delivery and reference images, etc. They exist to ensure that the commsission runs as smooth as possible with everyone coming out happy from the arrangement.

This post was prompted while musing on reference images: the photos that the customer sends of their boss/spouse/kids/best man, etc. which you're going to use to capture their likeness.
I always ask for clear headshots of the subjects, which are preferably taken somewhere between mid-to-close-up and not across the other side of a conference hall; and preferably in natural light. This last request is a bit of an 'ask' as most photos are taken indoors, often at dimly lit parties. As most caricaturists know, the reason for asking for outdoor images is that the natural light source provides good directional shadows and the architecture of the face is easier to discern.  A photo taken indoors with poor lighting - and with the subject's face lit up with a strong flash - does little to provide interesting contours and elevations - it only supplies the dimensions and positions - which are essential, but not sufficient. The other bugbear is the extremely low res' postage stamp-sized images - ones where all detail is impossible to see regardless of how well lit they are. If you end up with a combination of the two then you have every right to weep into your palette.
The above scenarios happen all too often and I am always suprised that people are willing to pay good money while supplying sub-standard images.

Below is a three-stager of a recent commission which had prompted my thoughts on reference images. The customer was great to deal with, but the deadline was tight and the supplied images of the three guys were very small. The artwork was originally going to be A2 size - a bit of a stretch to fill, regarding the reference image sizes - but just prior to starting the final artwork, the customer changed to wanting it at A3. This was for other reasons entirely - though probably for the best under the circumstances. The reference pictures had the further complication of having a weird form of pixelation, as though they'd corrupted somewhere along the way (I would show them here but I generally don't like to upload photos of people supplied in good faith and without their permission - so please just take my word for it). No more larger, clearer images could be supplied so I had to make good with what I had.

Unipin & Copic Ciao markers on smooth Gold line Bristol Board h/weight paper

All the above made me think further on the many factors that can hamper the smooth running of a commission. As with most jobs, a secondary skill is demanded of the caricature artist - the need for the ability to adapt to the situation. This ability is arguably equal to the primary one of actually being able to caricature in the first place - a fact that is taken as a 'given'.
So, when represented with bad reference photos, vague instruction, poor communication and very tight deadlines, only you can decide whether the commission really is do-able. But once taken on, the goal is to then make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.


  1. I am not in your league Russ, but I know all too well the problems with reference photos, and I have done a lot of caricatures from the most obscure pictures. The one you did not mention is that the photo was taken some 10 years ago and they have changed? They have sun glasses or a hat on, or a very common one is her hair has changed completely or they are now bald? I can never believe that they ask for a caricature before checking they have a good photo first? I am a great Fan of your work, Best Wishes.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, FatBoy. You're absoluteley right regarding out-of-date ref' pix. I've been lucky in the past inasmuchas the customer has provided notes where certain hairstyles must not be referenced because of this very problem. One other scenario I didn't mention was when I only get two reference images and neither of them bears much resemblance to the other. Which photo best represents the subject? Aaagh!