Capturing Likeness in Caricature
14.02.2020 by Charles Burns
Is it possible to make a caricature likeness in silhouette? This question vexed me for many years.
Early in my career as a silhouettist somebody asked me to cut a caricature.
“Go on, exaggerate that nose! He’d make a great caricature!”
Being young and inexperienced I did, and the result was a total disaster. It was wan’t so much that the silhouette was insulting (I don’t think they’d have minded that!) It was more that the distorted profile I cut looked nothing like him at all. The likeness had gone.
Likeness is a fugitive quality in any portrait. If you try too hard, it tends to disappear. Yet if you don’t study carefully, it was never there in the first place. I learned a lot about likeness during my days as a street portrait artist. For a street artist, likeness is really important. No matter how stylish the drawing, or engaging the technique, if the likeness isn’t there the client won’t buy it.
It’s a frustrating conundrum, made worse by watching a skilled caricaturist in action. Students of portraiture can spend long hours struggling to find the likeness. Yet, no matter how technically superb the drawing the likeness reminds elusive. Then, along comes a caricaturist. With a few carelessly deft stokes of the pen they draw something which no human head ever really looked like, and suddenly the likeness is plain to see. How does this work? It ought not to be possible, and yet it clearly is.
How does caricature work?
a 1990’s caricature of Nigel Kennedy from my street artist days
That a caricature likeness is even possible has something to do with the way we recognise each other. Our brains are hard wired to pick out one individual from other, and a caricaturist can play with this. It’s impossible to caricature an object: say a mug or a pair of scissors, because we see them differently. If an artist were to distort my scissors I’d just be holding a different pair of scissors. There’s no sense in which the viewer needs to recognise MY individual scissors. This is why drawing people is so much harder than drawing scissors.
Early in my career I dabbled in caricature as a sideline. I soon gave it up to focus on the silhouettes, which I found so much more fascinating, but I did learn a lot about caricature. I found it was possible to distort the chin and nose beyond all reason, as well as exaggerate the shape of the head. But the really important part was the eyes. These could be made larger, or smaller, but needed to be accurate. If the eyes are right, the likeness somehow persists. It’s the eyes which hold the viewer’s gaze and tell us who it is.
Silhouettes, however, don’t have eyes. For me, that seemed like a huge problem. Without the eyes to anchor the viewer, my silhouette caricatures were just distorted heads.
The search for a caricature silhouette
Soon after my first attempt at caricature likeness in silhouette I met two people, at different events, who both talked about having their silhouette cut as a child in Denmark. They said the artist cut both portrait and caricature versions of the silhouette at the same time. I thought the first person must be hallucinating, until somebody else said the same thing:
“She cut through two pieces of paper and gave us two silhouettes: one was a portrait and one a caricature!”
Now that’s a cool trick! How was it done? How can I learn? Who was this artist?
It was some years later that I came across the work of Inger Eidem!
INGER EIDEM spent nearly 40 years working as a silhouettist from a stall in Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen.
As soon as I saw her work, I realised this was the artist who appeared to cut portrait and caricature silhouettes at the same time. How did she do it?
Sadly, when I saw her work, it was immediately clear to me that she wasn’t cutting the portrait and caricature at the same time. It’s an interesting idea though, I still wonder how it might be done?
Aubrey Beardsley’s self portrait placed next to a profile photograph of him (photo: by Frederick Evans)
Instead, a more useful clue came when I saw this self-portrait caricature silhouette by Aubrey Beardsley. I have looked, but I’ve been unable to find any others. As far as I can tell this is the only portrait silhouette Beardsley ever created. I suspect he painted it in a capricious moment!
It’s typical of this young, but brilliant artist that with this single silhouette he could set a silhouettist like me off in a whole new direction. At first, the silhouette looks highly caricatured, but of course it isn’t. When placed next to his photograph it becomes clear that his nose really did look like that!
This was my “Aha!” moment. As, when drawing a silhouette one needs the eyes to anchor the viewer, so with a silhouette one needs the profile. Anything else can be altered, but not the profile. Of course, a bust-length silhouette is mostly profile, so Beardley’s instinct to miniaturise the body was exactly right.
A corporate family fun day
So began a long period of experimenting. At first I asked clients to book me as a a caricature-silhouettist, but nobody did. It seemed like too obscure a niche! So instead I decided to do them anyway and see what happened. I picked a corporate family fun day, one sunny summers afternoon, for my first experiments into caricature likeness.
Five of my first caricature silhouettes, cut at a corporate family fun day
Right from the start they were a success. I knew I’d discovered something. All day long I had a queue of people wanting silhouettes. This would probably have happened anyway, but there seemed to be something qualitatively different about the way people reacted.
They were laughing. I mean, they were really laughing! They found my work hilarious. Looking at the off cuts later I could see why, I was making completely a different kind of silhouette. They really were caricatures.
Change and evolution: finding more likeness in caricature
Those first caricatures were quite simple. Basically, I put a miniature full-length body under my usual silhouette head. The trick was in working out what to do with the neck, which joined the two together. Later on I became more adventurous. I began adding slash-cut collars and turning the bodies slightly, so the far shoulder appears. I also realised that by opening the mouth slightly, they become more animated.
Five caricature figures cut at a drinks reception at Australia House, London
The man with the hat later opened a bar in Brisbane. He liked his caricature so much he used it his logo there!
Today, I like to sprinkle in a few caricature cutting at almost every event I do. They’ve become part of my repertoire of work. I love them. They seem to mix up so many aspects of what I do (figure drawing, portraiture and cutting) and yet be so completely different, so ridiculous!
Have you ever had a caricature made of yourself? If so, what did you think?
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