Drawing Caricatures - The Thumbnail Sketch

Drawing Caricatures - The Thumbnail Sketch

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Drawing Caricatures - The Thumbnail Sketch

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Mark as Completed

Welcome to part two of Caricature Drawing Fundamentals. In this lesson, we’re going to start putting the principles of exaggeration into use and learn some different ways you can find out the caricature techniques that work best for you.

First, it’s important to know that there are probably a million different ways you can caricature a person and still get a great and funny likeness. There is never just one right way. A great caricature can appear highly realistic and three dimensional, done with just a few simple lines, or even be more abstract.

How you render it is entirely up to you, and I encourage you to experiment with different styles. My intention with these lessons is to give you the core principles, which you can apply to any style of drawing. But of course, I demonstrate drawing caricatures with an emphasis on realistic anatomy and rendering forms three dimensionally, because that’s the way that I prefer to work.

How to begin: Thumbnail sketching

christopher walken caricature process

The big secret of good caricature drawing is that it doesn’t take place over a single sketch. It’s a process of development and experimentation over several stages. In my experience, I find that the best way to begin is to start by doodling small, loose, quick pencil sketches.

christopher walken photo and final sketch

What most artists would call “thumbnail sketching” or “concept sketching.” I usually start pretty small so that I can move quickly from one concept sketch to another, not getting emotionally invested in any single drawing. Each new quick sketch that I do, I try to change the size relationships on the face. On one sketch, I might do a long thin head shape, on another; I might try a shorter or triangular shaped head. There are many people whose heads can be exaggerated in a wide variety of different shapes. You won’t know how many, until you try. At this stage, the goal is to exaggerate as much as possible and to not repeat yourself. Variety and experimentation is key. You have to push it as far as you can in this stage, so that you can figure out what works and what doesn’t. A mantra that I repeat to myself over and over while drawing like this is: How far can I take it? Or “How far can I push it and still maintain a likeness?”

The Process:

Vladimir Putin Caricature

Here are the steps I usually follow when drawing caricature thumbnail sketches: I start with the big shape of the head, rather than with the facial features, since that’s the method that aligns most closely with my core beliefs about drawing and caricature. Which is: get the big idea down on the paper first, and work from the big shapes down to the smaller ones. Don’t try to figure out the details before you have the overall structure figured out. The head shape will determine where everything else goes and how exaggerated the final image will be. So the head shape needs to be bold and decisive. And don’t worry about failing or making a bad drawing. If you create a lot of bad caricature sketches, at this stage, you are actually on the right path. That means that you are experimenting and making bold decisions.

Helpful Hint #1: Squint!

Since you are looking for the big shapes and the big relationships on the face that make your subject different from the average it helps at this stage to squint your eyes at your photo reference to blur it out and make the details disappear

You should primarily be concerned with the biggest most obvious shapes. When you can see only the big shapes in your subject, you will see what is most important to your subject’s likeness.

squint your eyes to blur the image court jones

Helpful Hint #2: Go fast!

The faster you sketch, and the more you do it, the more flexible your mind becomes. You’ll find that your sketches are looser and less timid after you’ve warmed up a bit. A thumbnail sketch should only take between 2 to 3 minutes. Any longer and you get too involved in unnecessary details. And as I said earlier, don’t worry if these sketches are poorly structured, or are ugly and scratchy. Make exaggeration your number one priority, with likeness being a close second. Later on, you can work on the structure and refine the likeness. Think of your thumbnail sketches as your rough draft. You’ll be able to fix any problems and refine it in the next stage. All you are after here is to figure out your basic concept.

Helpful Hint #3: Lots of reference material

drew barrymore photos of your subject from different angles

It really helps to have several different photos of your subject from different angles which you can lay out and view at the same time. Certain angles or different types of lighting will show a better likeness than others.

And you will get a better sense of the person’s likeness in three dimensions. You can use multiple photos in one of two ways, You can either:

  • Use one favorite photo to do all of your sketching from, while keeping the other photos in the back of your mind.
  • Or you can do

  • Several sketches from all of the different photos you have.

Although, some illustration assignments will require that you show the subject’s head looking in a particular direction, so you won’t always have the luxury of choosing whichever head angle you want.

drew barrymore different thumbnail sketches from different angles

After you have done several small thumbnail sketches, look them over for whichever one has the most potential for further development. It doesn’t have to be the prettiest sketch, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just should have strong exaggeration and a good likeness.

Helpful Hint #4: Change up your tools

Another technique you can use to improve your sketching is to try a variety of materials. Instead of a pencil, maybe try a ballpoint pen. If you want to try sketching with block shapes and values, rather than with lines, try a fat felt marker, a dipped ink brush, pastel or charcoal.

different mediums sketching tracey morgan

Switching the drawing tools often shakes you out of your comfortable tendencies and habits. If you use a different tool to sketch, you may just end up making choices you wouldn’t otherwise have made with just a pencil. Happy accidents are an artist’s friend.

What’s Next?

In the next lesson, I’ll show how I use my thumbnail concept sketches to create a more fleshed out rough sketch and strategies for improving the exaggeration in the process.

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About instructor
Freelance commercial illustrator and caricature entertainer. He’s done a lot of editorial and product illustration and concept work for film and TV.
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