Lately I’ve been getting a lot of requests to draw iconic celebrities for the twenty dollar sketches I do. I’m leery of getting trapped into one thing, especially drawing things I don’t own or can’t do whatever I like with, but drawing celebrities, especially those with interesting faces, is great cartooning practice. You have to reduce that recognizable personality into a group of simple lines and shapes, and somewhere in the process you have to make that person’s face yours. Here’s one I’m especially proud of, perhaps you’ll recognize him:
The big challenge, for me, is that I’m usually working from some kind of photo reference. Nothing’s worse than a drawing of a photo, but I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding those traps, mainly by using a bunch of photos and getting a general idea of the shapes that make a person’s face recognizable. By then drawing those shapes rather than just translating a single photo, you end up with something between an accurate portrait and a lively, interesting drawing, regardless of its subject or the relative verisimilitude of the likeness.
The bigger challenge is when a person isn’t particularly recognizable and there are very few reference photos to be had, which is the problem I had over the weekend with Ralph Steadman. The photo at right is probably the best that I found, out of maybe 3 or 4 that were usable (the commission request was for “Ralph Steadman (older)” ). The problem is that Ralph Steadman is well-known for his drawings, not his face. Not that there’s anything wrong with his face, but it’s certainly not as wild and wooly as his drawings. Plus his face is a good one, and this is a great picture, but there’s nothing really out-sized about it.
I knew the one thing I wanted to avoid was copying Steadman’s style. Not that I mind drawing in other styles, but the person who bought the sketch suggested he might be giving it to Steadman as a gift: what could be less useless to a cartoonist than another drawing in their own style, or a muddy approximation of it, by someone they don’t even know?
Here’s my first attempt:
Besides the fact that it makes him look like a crusty old troll, I drew this one before realizing that the few pictures I saw of him wearing a hat like this and a cigarette holder were in reference to Hunter S. Thompson, his famous creative partner, not himself. I’ve never read a Thompson book and somehow missed his signature “look” — or, at least, completely forgot all that until I was mostly done drawing this one. Anyway, it’s terrible.
I like this one better, but it has two main problems, the first of which is that it doesn’t look like Ralph Steadman at all. There’s something alchemical about drawing a likeness, at least how I approach it, and in this case there was no gold in the result. The second problem is that nothing about the drawing, from the jaunty tilt of his head to his weird grin to those crazy stars, has anything to do with Ralph Steadman in a way that would communicate to a person looking at it. I think it’s more likely that I just like drawing all those things: smiles, stars, jaunty heads.
This one works, mostly. It’s not perfect, but as a third complete drawing, it was all the time I could spend on a twenty dollar drawing. It still doesn’t do it for me, but it’s a fun drawing, and I can imagine Steadman himself getting it and not being a) completely insulted, or b) completely bored. Having already spent an hour drawing the guy, I just ignored all the reference and tried to draw him from memory, and that seemed to produce the least inert drawing. As I say, still not 100% happy, but I feel okay because I’m going to give the buyer all three drawings, so I don’t feel like I cheated him somehow.
A more successful result in the same drawing session (and for the same buyer) was Chuck Jones, another person more visually recognizable for his work than his face. I had pretty much the exact same problems, until I decided to use some “Chuck Jones” eyes in place of the ones I’d drawn in, as seen above in a photo of the pencils I’d posted to my Instagram. But a couple of people commented they’d thought it was Salman Rushdie, and sure enough as soon as they mentioned it I couldn’t UNsee that. So here’s the final, much more Grinch-ified:
So! Just a little peek into a couple of challenging drawings, both of which I spent way way too much time on for $20, but both of which were educational. You can buy your own $20 sketch here — be sure to look at all my little rules and all that, before you request something super specific and wild — and the whole group of them to date (169 so far) is right here.