What Is A Caricature?

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A caricature is generally a drawing that shows the features of its subject in a distorted or humorous way and the practice has existed for hundreds of years. But what likely began merely as a personal amusement quickly evolved, in many cases, into political commentary; and some even argued for it’s artistic value in its own right. 

The word caricature comes from the Italian word caricare, which translates into English as “to charge or load.” Many have interpreted it to mean “a loaded portrait,” which does suggest something beyond mere entertainment.

A chief component of caricature drawing is not only to exaggerate facial extremities, but also to enhance features that are already prominent in a way that is recognizable by viewers familiar with the subject. In this way, attributes nearly take on a personality of its own. 

It is believed by many that the original mission of caricature drawing was merely to amuse and entertain. But soon artists began using their creations to mock. In such cases the exaggerations became focused on perceived shortcomings or attitudes of the subject. For example, in the 1970s caricatures often focused on the size of Richard Nixon’s nose, a non-too-subtle reference to the perceived lack of truth in Nixon’s statements concerning the Watergate scandal.

The earliest known caricatures were drawn by the British around the mid point of the 18th century. Mary Darly’s A Book of Caricatures was first published in 1762, but some believe it was preceded by works by a British general named George Townshend who drew images of another British general named James Wolf. Townshend characterized his work, which he completed during the Battle of Quebec in 1759, as “Deformed, crass and hideous”. He claimed at the time that his work was done simply to amuse his fellow officers. 

Two other names closely associated with early caricature drawing are Englishmen Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) and James Gillray (1757-1815), close friends who effectively demonstrated the duel purpose of caricature. Rowlandson was an artist who took his subject matter primarily from every day life, while Gillray was more of a satirist who regularly  commented on the politics of the day. Both appear to have accepted the work of the other and even celebrated it.

Caricature also circulated among aristocratic circles of Italy and France, where they were shared privately as a means to amuse. 

Some early works by Leonardo da Vinci cut close to the world of caricature. He went so far as to seek out deformed subjects for his work, which in hindsight appear similar to distortions made in caricatures. However, the use of deformity instead of intentional distortion suggests he wasn’t seeking the same product as caricaturists. 

In her 1982 MIT master’s thesis titled “The Caricature Generator,” Susan Brennan formally defined caricature as the process of exaggerating differences from an average face. For example, if Bill Clinton has a more prominent nose than the average person, in his caricature his nose would be much larger than normal. 

Brennan’s system essentially created a template for caricature artists. First, locate a drawing of an average face for comparison and draw a grid measuring lines laid across the subject’s face. Next, make a frontal drawing of the subject in a standard topology and add a similar grid to map the subject’s face. Finally, the subject’s face could be caricatured simply by adding or subtracting from the drawing of the average face. In this way an effective caricature can easily be made.

Others, however, argue against Brennan’s method, suggesting that caricatures must vary based more on the artist in a way that cannot be captured in a single definition. The system utilizes machine learning techniques and automatically learns and mimics the style of a particular caricature artist.

In more contemporary times computers have been employed in the creation of cartoons, movies and even video games that have borrowed heavily from caricature traditions and stereotypes. In all these forms the use of exaggerated features are often used to create or share personality traits. Just as in hand drawn examples, computers exaggerate head, nose, chin, eye and even mouth size in a way that is distorted similar to that in caricatures. 

Although there are few (if any) computer applications designed specifically to create caricatures, there are several that automatically distort human facial portraits into something resembling them, but the results are arguably not of the same quality as those produced by human artists. For example, most applications are restricted to full frontal poses while most manually drawn caricatures prefer an off-center three-quarters pose. 

While Brennan’s caricature drawings were also full frontal-pose line drawings, more recent applications are able to produce caricatures in a variety of styles, even including direct geometric distortion.

In a similar vein, the rise in popularity of bobbleheads, particularly those of sports and political figures, traces its roots directly from caricature art. Large heads and small bodies are the norm, further exaggerated by the use of springs to make the head jiggle and move in an erratic fashion.

Demonstrating the artistic importance of caricature drawing, the past century has seen the rise of several museums dedicated to the art of caricature. They have spread throughout the world with the most prominent being the Museo de la Caricatura in Mexico City, the Muzeum Karykatury in Warsaw, the Caricatura Museum Frankfurt in Frankfurt, the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hanover and the Cartoonmuseum in Basel.

Beside political and public-figure satire, most contemporary caricatures are created for use as gifts or souvenirs and are often drawn by street vendors. Today caricature artists are readily found at art fairs, amusement parks and other purveyors of fun and they remain particularly popular at tourist sites such as oceanfront boardwalks, artist communities and even historic destinations. Some caricature artists even hire for parties, where for a small fee, they will draw caricatures strictly for the amusement of their hosts and guests.

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