Friday, May 13, 2011

Pulling Punches.

I'm currently drawing my way through the middle of after-prom season, which means two things: 1) it takes me two or three days to recover from staying up all night, and 2) I spend hours at a time trying to avoid the awkwardness presented by the ever-growing age disparity between me and high school kids. When I was twenty-five, it wasn't really that big of a deal. Now, it's getting a little weird.

"Where did you learn to do this?"

"I was trained at an amusement park called Geauga Lake when I was fifteen."

"Wow. When was that?"


"Whoa! I was born in 1994! Ha ha!"

"(Sigh) Yeah, that's great, kid. I guess New Kids on the Block jokes are off the table."


"They're...uh, they're kind of earlier version of N*Sync."


"Never mind. Hey, listen, it's gonna be easier for me to draw your girlfriend's mouth if you take your tongue out of it."

I mean, I'm not going to lament any generational ignorance of boy bands, but that's one of many examples of how I have less and less in common with high school kids as I get older. 

Which, of course, is supposed to happen, and is a good thing. Which is precisely why most adults that aren't the parents of high school kids tend to try as hard as they can to stay the f*ck away from high school kids. About twenty hours out of the year, I don't really have a choice.

There are a lot of things that haven't changed much with high school kids, though. Most of the kids I come across are very friendly and polite. I will admit that the ones jacked up on energy drink at 3 in the morning can be a little hard to handle.

"Hey, whoever's next can sit down. Ladies?"



"Hey. Just the two of you?"

"Yeah. Draw us hugging."

"Uh...I'm just drawing faces tonight. You know, because there's a line of like fifty kids behind me, and I gotta keep my sketches under three minutes so I can draw as many people as possible..."

"Aw. Okay, just draw my arm around her."

"I'm...uh...not drawing arms. Just faces."

"Draw us holding hands."

"Wait, draw me punching her in the face. Like, just my hand."

"I'm not drawing your friend getting punched in the face by your...floating...ghost hand. Besides, your hand is technically part of your arm."

"Wait, draw me like I'm thinking really hard. Like this."

"Okay, your hand is on your face. What did I just say ten seconds ago about hands?"

"You don't know how to draw hands?"

"No, I know how to draw real quick...I'm just not doing it tonight because it takes too long and because if I draw your hands, then the kids behind me will want me to draw their hands doing something too, then the kids behind them will too, etcetera etcetera, causing a chain reaction that ends with me averaging four or five minutes a sketch, and then less of your classmates get one, which means that there will just be more of them around to whine at me when I quit drawing at 5 AM."

"Yeah, but..."

"There's also an outside chance that I'll get in trouble because some of your suburbanite poseur friends will try to flash gang signs, and I'm drawing you guys on school property. So, yeah. I can draw hands. I'm just not going to right now. Smile again."

"Make me holding her tongue with my fingers."

"No. Please stop talking."

"Can you write our names on it?"

"Yeah. Right next to our face. So we know it's us."

"You can tell it's you by looking at it. That's pretty much the whole point of caricatures."

"Yeah, but it's a cartoon."

"Kid, I didn't spend the better part for me real quick...the last two decades studying facial features and meticulously trying to work out the kinks in my sketch so I could come here to your high school and draw smiley faces with prom hair and earrings. If I did, I would hope to God that people wouldn't pay me to do this, and if they did pay me, I would hope that they wouldn't be stupid enough to keep bringing me back here every year to draw crappy sketches instead of finding a new artist. It will look like you. I can write your names on it if you want, but that shouldn't be the reason that you want me to."

"Wait, don't write my name. Write 'J-Dizzle.' With three 'z's."

"Yeah. Write 'B-Dogg' on mine. No wait, write 'B-Money'. Or 'Brizzle Drizzle'. With six 'z's."

"I'm totally hanging this up now."

"Put hearts all over it."

"Somebody please kill me."

A pessimistic view, yes, but I can say with honesty that, from my experience, most people that aren't artists either lack the spatial awareness to be able to tell if caricature artists capture their likenesses, or they just don't care. I've known this since I was a fifteen-year-old rookie trying to fake my way through drawing people. If I sold most of those sketches, and I did, it meant that either people couldn't tell that I didn't know what I was doing or that they were too polite to tell me how much I sucked.

Of course, back then, I assumed the latter, but now I think that maybe I was giving people too much credit. I think that this is why caricature artists draw bodies. The fact of the matter is, most people don't care if you know how to exaggerate the proportions of their faces. They don't care if you draw their cheekbones accurately and they don't care if you notice that their nostrils flare slightly when they smile. They do care, however, that you can accurately draw Kevin Harvick's stock car off of a picture, and they care that you can write the correct number on said car. They care that you can draw them throwing dice against a brick wall "with all my gold in it". They marvel at your ability to draw a simple golf club, because then, and only then, it "really captures me." Drawing bodies on caricatures, in a sense, is a total copout.

This isn't to say that bodies are a copout without purpose. People do care if a representation of them, regardless of accuracy, is characterized by performing an action that they like. Most people don't care if you know how to draw faces, because they can't really tell what they look like. They just want to look cool. I think of it as kind of the same basic principle as paintings of European royals I learned about in Art History classes, where Napoleon Bonaparte, depicted on his horse, looks like a commanding badass of totally average height in David's "Napoleon Crossing the Alps." Or every painting of the Spanish Habsburgs that gently airbrushed out the crazy underbites and other grotesque genetic deformities resulting from centuries of inbreeding. CarreƱo did an especially admirable job painting portraits of Charles II without making it look like his jaw was trying to escape from his face.

It's not like this is a brand new conundrum. Artists have been idealizing portraiture for centuries. What does that make us, artists that pull our punches in an effort to make our clients happy? Caricaturists and portraitists are selling a product, so are we engaging in a form of customer service, or are we just selling out in the most base way possible? Are we diluting the art form, if we can go so far as to call it that? I'll tear people apart if that's what I think they want, and some of them do, so I do it. That doesn't mean that I don't feel a pang of annoyance every time I have to draw shiny pretty pictures of high school girls because I know that if I really pronounce the one girl's overbite or the other one's wacky eyebrows, odds are that they'll freak out on me because of the stigma that, on prom night, they just might be as pretty as they get.

I've drawn alongside other artists that don't care about pulling punches. In fact, a couple of them make a point to tell people this specifically, and I respect the hell out of them for that, because that's the closest thing that we can do to "keeping it real." I can't. I drew in retail for too long to not have a knee-jerk reaction to draw people the way that I think they want to be drawn, even when the opportunity to upsell them on mats or frames is non-existent.

On the other hand, people might not care if you can draw them accurately, but they sure know what ugly looks like, and they sure won't be afraid to tell you that you drew something that doesn't look like the idealized version of how they visualize themselves. I found that out the hard way working in amusement parks.

"Okay, here you go."

"What...what the hell is this?"


"Why did you draw the gap in my teeth?"

" a gap in your teeth. It's there."

"Yeah, but why did you draw it?"

"Because...because it's there. It exists. You have a gap in your teeth."

"Yeah, but you drew it on there. That's mean."

"I...I wasn't trying to be mean. I was drawing your face. That's part of your face. It's one of the things that distinguishes you from the hypothetical mean that...uh...that caricature artists envision to differentiate your face from...from everyone else's."

"Hypothetical what?"

"The hypo...the average. What the idea of an average face looks like."

"Who has the average face?"

" one. No one does. It's hypothetical."

" you think I'm stupid?"

" Of course not. I..."

"Why the hell would I want to buy a picture of me with a gap in my teeth?"

"Because...uh...because that's what you look like? You wanted a caricature drawn of your face. I drew one. That's what caricatures are."

"I'm not buying this. I wanted one like that one." (points at demo on wall)

"That', but that's not you. That's not your face. That's Angelina Jolie."

"Can't you make it, like, half me and half Angelina Jolie?"

"Wha...why would....why would you want to buy that?"

"I don't know. Why would I want to buy a picture that just looks like me? That's dumb."

"BECAUSE THAT WHAT CARIC--*ahem*--Sorry. Because that's what caricatures are. We draw an exaggerated version of your face. Yours. That's the product we sell. We don't have a stand where you can mash your face and a celebrity's together. That doesn't even make sense."

"Well, I'm not buying this."

"Yeah, I could see that coming. Look, I can redraw it without the gap if you want."

"Hm...okay. Could you do me a favor though?"

"(sigh) Yeah. What?"

"Don't make my eyelids so heavy. And make my cheekbones higher, Oh, and make my lips fuller. Make me look thinner. And I want blue eyes, not brown ones. And put blonde highlights in my hair."

"Okay. Fine. Whatever."

"Why aren't you looking at me anymore?"

"No reason."