Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Art of Cheating At Caricature

Really too tired tonight to make this a polished blog post full of clean prose. Besides, the following was an experiment; the kind of dumb exercise I often find myself attempting over a bank holiday weekend.

It began on Saturday afternoon. I'd been browsing the web and I followed a link that took me to the webpage of a fairly well-known illustrator. I had a look through his celebrated caricatures, which were all truly brilliant, yet I'd also noticed something strange about them. I though I recognised a few of the faces.

Now, that shouldn't be odd. He was drawing famous people so I would obviously know the faces. Yet it's wasn't that I knew the faces as much as I recognised the faces as they'd been originally photographed. A few minutes of googling later and I'd confirmed my suspicion. They might have been pulled and squeezed a little but they were exactly the same as the original photos. I was pretty sure that the bugger cheats!*

I couldn't be certain, of course,  and I'm still not certain. However, having spent a little time looking into the work of other digital caricaturists, I realised that cheating might not be as uncommon as I first suspected. There are dozens of the little buggers out there making a nice little fortune by using this technique. I therefore set myself a challenge. Not having done anything like this before, I set out to cheat.

I began by spending Saturday afternoon painting a caricature of Michael Gove. After a couple of hours, I had this... And believe me when I say that I hand painted every single detail. Click the image to see it bigger. You can see my brush stokes and the places I missed.

Now, I didn't have time to finish the tie and, frankly, wasn't sure what to do with it at this point. So I thought I'd try another, this time of Syria's Assad, which I finished sitting in a hospital cafe this morning. Yes, it really is that basic a technique. There's really no skill involved. With the Assad picture, I was much less careful about colouring in the patches. I rushed it with no concern for the 'art'. I just wanted to test the method. This is the result:

Normally I don't really care too much about using technology to help the process of creating something. I use spell checkers when writing and (much to the disgust of Stu), I use tippex when drawing cartoons in ink. Yet these two paintings genuinely make me feel so ashamed that I haven't (and won't) even bother signing them.

But let me explain the method, though it's so obvious and straightforward that you've probably figured it out already. I found two high quality images on the web and loaded them into Photoshop. I then applied the Liquify filter and followed the usual rules of caricature to distort the faces. In the case of the second, I then created a standard mock up of Assad with a noose around his neck and lifted the hand from Austin Powers (no more than ten minutes work). I then load it into a painting program and use the colour picker to pick the colour of an area which I then painted over with not much care. Rinse and repeat for a couple of hours and bingo. You get results like the above. In the case of the Assad, I used a blending tool to smooth out the patches. I also added the background myself after the original proved too difficult to copy. It accounts for the fact that it's the most amateur bit of the painting.

Now, some people would say this isn't cheating but I beg to differ. Is my effort of a few hours that much different to my simply applying a Photoshop paint-effect filter to my original composition which took about ten seconds?

Yet I guess people will say that I'm being harsh and perhaps I am. A few of the people who I suspect of using this technique do so as a start and their finished results can look spectacular to the point that they can take your breath away. And perhaps that's all that matters. Teller & Penn (the director should get the first credit, I think) made a brilliant documentary last year called 'Tim's Vermeer' which detailed how a non-artist could create 'great art' using a relatively simply mechanical process. Do people say Vermeer was any less talented an artist simply because he copied directly from nature?

Having said that, I personally don't like it. I know I could improve the technique if I invested more time into it. I could adapt it to produce more 'painterly' or stylized effects. Yet I can't help but feel that whilst they look impressive, they're somehow hollow once you know how they're done. In future, I think I'll stick to drawing my caricatures the way I've been learning for the past few years. I'd rather fail trying to learn the techniques of Gerald Scarfe or Al Hirschfeld than succeed by turning myself into a copying machine. I prefer my results won by hard work, trial and error, and plenty of mistakes. I just know that the next time I see one of those amazing caricatures you often see on the cover of magazine and newspapers, I'll be a little more suspicious about how they came into existence.

* 'Cheating' is, I know, a strong word. Perhaps you feel like it's also the wrong word but, for me, I think it's correct. Unless you admit to painting over a photograph, you are giving people the belief that you've achieved your results through your own skills. That's not to say none of the finished product is without skill but the 'likeness' is the caricaturist's most prized 'skill'. Getting a likeness is the hardest part of the artist's craft, especially when  pulling the face into contorted shapes. Gerald Scarfe is a genius because he can do that more than any other artist. If you're achieving the same through a mechanical process,** then I think it's correct to call it 'cheating'. If you're not cheating but producing amazing results, then congratulations: you really are a true artist.

** Of course, there's a second question. What constitutes a mechanical process? Does beginning with a grid count as mechanical? Well, I guess it does but this is about scale. All art is (or should be) about the craft and a craft is a mechanical process. A grid can still go wrong. It takes skill to make it work. Even a lightbox takes some effort to produce reasonable results. However, simply painting over a painting, using a colour picker to ensure exact colours is something else entirely. A machine could do it and often does it when applying filter effects. The only difference between that and a person doing it is that the human brings a degree of incompetence to the copying,  producing a more random effect, which makes it look hand drawn. It's our human inexactitude that makes the deception all the greater.

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