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Since 3 Apr, 2012
Accessed 9 years ago

How to Draw Caricatures: The 5 Shapes

Tue, 02/12/2013 - 17:28 (updated 8 years ago)

The Five Shapes

The human face is perceived by many as an incredible complex object. There are about 52 muscles in the face, depending on your source and it’s categorization. Age, sex, race, expression (the face is capable of about 5,000 expressions) weight and environment can all play a role in the look and perception of a given face. Sounds pretty complex. Not really. Every building, no matter how complex, starts out with a foundation and framework. Look at this simple drawing:


Show that drawing to any human being in the world and ask them what it is. Barring a language barrier, they will tell you it’s “a face”. No other information needed. In it’s most simple form, the human face is made up of only five simple shapes:


Place these shapes in their proper relationship, and you have a human face. It really is that simple. Drawing the shapes accurately, so they recognizably represent the subject’s features, is the basis for a good likeness. Beyond that is nothing but details… things like dimples, wrinkles, eyelashes, cheekbones, etc. They are the decor to your building… the millwork, furniture and drapery that makes the place unique and filled with life. Without the strong foundation, however, it can all come tumbling down.

What does that have to do with caricature? Everything. I mentioned a single word in the last paragraph that really is the secret to caricature as a whole no matter what technique or approach you intend to practice:


It’s the manipulation of the RELATIONSHIP of these five simple shapes that create the foundation for your caricature. In fact, I’d argue that 90% of the entire caricature resides in how you relate these five simple shapes to one another. It is the foundation upon which the rest of your building is built, where the real power of exaggeration is realized. Make it good and almost all the heavy lifting is done, the rest merely referring to details. What do I mean by “relationships”? I mean the distances between the five shapes, theirsize relative to one another, and the angles they are at in relationship to the center axis of the face. Distance. Size. Angle.

In traditional portraiture, the head is divided into “classic proportions” (we’ll get into that more next time), meaning the relationship of the features are within a certain, accepted range of distance to one another, size and angle relative to the face and head shape. You achieve your likeness in a classic portrait, in it’s most basic form, by correctly drawing the shapes and then the details of each feature according to the model in front of you while staying within the framework of the “classic” proportions. Of course each face varies minutely here and there, but still you do not stray far from the classic formula. In a caricature, like a portrait, the likeness is also achieved by drawing the features as they really look… but you change the relationship of the features based on your perceptions of the face. The relationships you change are as I listed before: distance, size and angle. Look at these VERY simple drawings that demonstrate how you can change the relationships of the five shapes and create very different caricatures:


No detail, and all the shapes are basically the same with the exception of the head shape (again, more on that later… MUCH more) but all are distinctly different and when the details are added will make for highly varied caricatures. The difference is the relationships between the features, and how they have been exaggerated and changed. Caricature is not about choosing one feature and making it bigger, it’s about all the features together and how they relate to one another.

Here are some quick studies of the 5 shapes beneath a few caricature sketches:



The relationships differ in distance, size and angle from one another. The bigger the differences are from “classic” proportions, the more exaggerated the caricature. It’s much easier to see the differences when the details are removed and only the 5 shapes are left. It’s also much easier to create those differences at this simple, fundamental level. It’s easy to get caught up in details when the important information rests beneath the rendering.

How does one determine the “correct” changes to make to a given person’s feature relationships to make a good caricature of them? Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? That is were that pesky “seeing” comes in. In his book “How to Draw Caricatures“, Lenn Redman uses a concept called “The Inbetweener” as a basis for almost every observation. It is basically the classic portraiture relationships used as a point of reference for making observations. Every caricature begins with the observations the artist makes about the subject, and how their particular face is perceived by them. MAD legend Mort Druckerhas been quoted as saying that there is no “one correct way” to caricature a subject. Any given subject can have several difference interpretations with respect to the exaggeration of the relationship of their features… and each may be as successful as the other. That’s one of the unique things about caricature as an art form. Portraiture is basically absolute… Your drawing either looks like the person with the correct features, proportions and relationships, or it does not. Caricature is subjective to a point. The artists goal is to draw how they perceive the face, and exaggerate that perception. The result may be different than how others perceive that face, but if the three elements we described in our definition are present it’s still a successful caricature. Hirschfeld used to say he once drew Jimmy Durante without a nose at all, yet it was still recognizable as Durante.

That’s not to say that any observation is appropriate… after all you can’t give someone with a small, button nose a gigantic potato schnozz and call it “exaggeration”. That’s not exaggeration, it’s DISTORTION. You can, however, choose NOT to exaggerate the nose’s smallness but rather find something else to exaggerate. That is the caricaturist’s task, to find what it is about the subject’s face that makes it unique and alter those relationships to exaggerate that uniqueness.

Next time We will delve more deeply into the relationships of features, what to look for and some rules to follow when changing those relationships that will make the rest of the face fall into place. 



karim's picture
Thanks, interesting!
Tue, 02/12/2013 - 17:29

Thanks, interesting!

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