"You're mean!"

There is a perception that exists among customers (and people, in general) that I will never understand. I can see it... I can fathom it... I can expect it... I can try to prevent it... I wait for it... I try to avoid it... but no matter what I do, it will never go away.

I spent nearly 5 years drawing live caricatures as a day-job. It is an affair that I will never get over. I love the challenge of having to scratch out a 5-10 minute cartoon face that looks undoubtedly and uniquely like the person in front of me, whom I've JUST met for the first time in my life. It's a great feeling when you get a good likeness. Once you master that approach, taking the drawings further, sillier and making them more unique is the next interesting endeavor. I will always love the live sketch.

(This cute baby was drawn in San Jose, CA in 2006. See?.. no need for
smiles to get the expression and overall cute look of a child.)

Every now and then I get asked to train caricaturists across the country (and around the world) by simply drawing next to them and talking to them throughout a work day. I love this setup, because I am asked to do nothing more than be myself, decide which drawings to take to the limit and which to bang out in seconds, and talk shop with other interested and interesting artists. It's a great gig, and hard to say 'no' to.

Recently I was asked, by my good friend Matt Zitman, to drop by the Six Flags theme park in New Jersey (just a 1.5 hr train ride away) and do such a training day. It started out slow, but I had a great time getting to know the artists a bit and doing a drawing here and there; basically brushing the dust off of my "live drawing chops". All was going well until I had that one customer that I've seen a thousand times:

A middle-aged couple and their 4 year old daughter are looking at the price signs, quietly. I ask if they'd like a caricature, and they say, "Well, maybe for HER, but she won't sit still."

TANGENT: One of the biggest MISCONCEPTIONS about caricatures is that they are cute and for little kids. This is WRONG. Caricatures are for ANYONE who WANTS one and usually for OTHERS to enjoy. Getting a l
ittle kid drawing makes no sense, when they are more interested in their Dora the Explorer sippy cup, while the parents are the ones laughing at the sample caricatures! Doesn't it seem logical to get one of YOURSELF? Even so, they are meant to capture the person as they are, in that moment. There is no other frame of reference, be it something as simple as hairstyle or something as heavy as a personality, for which to base the 5 minute scratchings.

So back to the parents... I responded enthusiastically and playfully with, "Well, surely YOU TWO will sit still! Why don't you get one of yourselves?!" They chuckle and the mother says, "Okay, how about you two." (pointing at the father and daughter).

First they take the hair down on the little girl, which is a bad idea, because her hair was in a pony-tail all day. I saw this over and over again. "Let's put her hair down so she looks like a girl in the drawing." Did they walk around with a little transvestite all day? Were they ashamed at the restaurant this morning at their little "boy-girl" freak? NO- they had a beautiful daughter with a pony-tail, but instinct and ignorance leads them to assume that the artist in a theme-park can't draw a girl unless the hair is long.

"He'll fix it in the picture," they say about her messy hair, being all crimped and bent from multiple rubber-bands and sweat.

So taking a deep sigh, I let all this go and put on a smile. "Okay, have a seat right here, you two."

Now my job is to capture them as best I can... the little girl starts screaming. Something about not wanting a cartoon or the strange man is looking at me... the usual. I do my best to capture her interest, with a patronizing child voice: "Don't you like cartoons? Do you want to be a cartoon? What's your favorite cartoon?" This works well, and she calms down.

I do my best to get her expression of contentment down, and it looks fine. Not offensive, not silly, and a good likeness.

I get stopped half-way through the drawing by the mother saying, "Honey, would you like to see it?" She hops of her father's lap and takes a peek, only to start WHALING and crying because she's not smiling in the picture.

"Can you fix the mouth... so she's smiling?"

"We draw in permanent ink on paper, so the only way to do that would be to start the drawing over."


(The parents of this boy, drawn in Carlsbad in 2006, enjoyed the fact that he could
be best represented without a smile, and still be cute... how he really is.)

I continue to draw the father as the little girl SCREECHES in my ear about looking sad and mean in the drawing. The mother persists:

"Don't you have White-Out so you can fix things? Like maybe just white out the mouth and fix it?"

"No, we don't have White-Out... your only option is for me to start it over."

"Oh... okay," her voice trailing off, as though it's no big deal. I finish the drawing quickly and show the father who looks very underwhelmed.

At this point, it's customary to attempt to sell a frame or matte with each piece, to protect it or prepare it for hanging in one's home; "I don't want ANY frame," she starts, "I'm not very happy at all... you should have white-out for the mouth, so you can fix things... I thought you were going to make jokes (she gestures with her hand, as though it's some sort of blinking light via fingers, like I'm some sort of party magician) so she'll smile, then draw her smiling."

"I'm sorry if you don't like the sketch. I tried to banter with your daughter, but she clearly wasn't in the mood to be drawn. I did my best and represented the expression on her face. It's what we do. That's why I suggested that you two get YOUR caricature drawn, because it's a bit more fitting and easier for adults."

"Well, I'm not satisfied." She signs her credit card receipt, grabs her bags off the ground in a huff and walks away with a purpose.

What constantly fascinates me is that because an individual may not understand or grasp the intention or fun in a caricature, they feel that we should intuitively know to mold our profession around their specific, changing needs. I see it so often, yet it still intrigues me. It's as if someone enters a Taco-Bell saying, "boy, I love fast food! I eat at McDonalds all the time... give me a #1!" then being dissatisfied because it's not a burger... lesson learned, right? Wrong. They go to the manager and ask them why they made their tacos wrong.

The customer may "always be right" but it doesn't mean that they have any clue. I never hold this against them, but it will never fail to amuse the hell out of me and baffle my brain.

Ah, humans... They're freakin' weird.


Scott Fertig said...

Sometimes it's the parents who need the spanking.

G R I G O R said...

ur my hero!<3 <3 <3

good seeing ya at the con! loved the book! >U< yer fan always and always - G -

Scott Fertig said...

Actually, I think it's even worse when the child is perfectly calm and content and then the parents work them up into a frenzy trying to get them to pose "right". The kid starts crying and getting out of the chair and the fun is ruined for all involved.

Alex said...

Oh man, Thats rough.
I talked to my boss "Chris Chua" yesterday, and immediatley gave him a hard time for not telling me that you were going to be at six flags, I told him "Dude, I would totally make the trip to get a caricature from joe!"

anyway, I got a chance to look at some your sketches that chris photographed, it always amazes me to see what you come up with. And as I was looking at the photos, chris told me the same story, about how you made the little girl cry. After hearing it I completley empathized. Most of the time I prefer to draw people in the expression that seems most defining. Some people just dont look like themselves when they smile... if that makes any sense.

Afterward, I was commisioned to draw a baby "I usually try to give babies a smile." but I went straight for mouth, and gave the kid huge floppy cheeks, and a big frown.

I think its one of the best ones Ive done. I guess my point is that when you draw things the way you see them, its always going to come out better than trying to please an uptight tourist. I dont think I would enjoy my job at all if I didnt ignore the customer and do what I wanted sometimes. :P

Tim Bye said...

Great pictures Joe! Really fabulous. I bet it was a really great picture you drew at the theme park too!

AB5000 said...

When a customer comes to my office, they don't tell me how we're going to run the gas line and convert the furnace. We're the experts. We know how to do it and do it right.

When a tourist comes to your office for a sketch, you know how to do it right. :)

Zitman said...

Almost positive the lady left a complaint for ya as well. We got a note that said call this Lady..."a Caricature issue" Ill keep you posted though. I sent you those pics of the girl crying in your ear as well.

Anyway Thanks again for making the trip man. Talk to you soon!

Brian Vasilik said...

I find most people think getting a caricature drawing is like getting their photograph taken. Smile for the camera.

Anonymous said...

I also feel pressured each day to "entertain" my subjects in ways that I'm definitely not required to, and that don't really come natural to me- like I'm some kind of clown or comedian. The other day this really intense looking father (being drawn) commented, "You're awfully quiet over their Ryan..." (even though he hadn't said a word since he sat down). I replied, "Because I'm concentrating..." People don't understand how labor intensive our job is, as artists...
Love your book Joe- very inspiring!

Noodles2go said...

awesome entry. your next book should be all in text, just your stories as an artist. "Confessions of a Reject Artist"! haha... not really... but really. Freakin' humans.

Skim said...

I think it's just amazing that, putting likeness and all else aside, people can't simply recognize a beautiful drawing. I can sorta understand when customers come prepared with all those petty complaints and expectations if they were expecting to pay $20 for a TYPICAL park caricature sketch but when they see an unmistakably great piece art in front of them I can't comprehend how they can complain, let alone walk away form it (but thank god for REJECTS!).

Anyway it was nice meeting you at TCAF! Thx again for the caricature, I really love it :)

Me! said...

great entry, sounds like a million customers i've had before, except im usually at a loss for words to defend my art. i love it when the parents tell their kids to smile through the ENTIRE drawing. and they always say: you can do a nicer smile than that, or not that smile, show your teeth. sometimes I'll say to them: don't worry, im drawing your hair (or whatever) right now, i'll tell you when i need you to smile.

i also think it would be a great idea for you to sell a book full of stories.

Jeffrey W. Meyer said...

Its like clockwork dude. Happened to me today. White out... thats funny as hell! With almost every job I've ever had I encounter that type of person. You can't hold it against them. Just a bit naive. Hell, in some fields we may have been that same customer.

The Gaber's Sketchblog said...

Soooo you sold the sketch? HELL YA thats my boy!!! You better sell it.
But they walked away without the frame? Its okay, we'll get'em next time kid.

Natalie said...


I know this scenario all too well.

I've also gotten...
"My little 4 year old can color the picture."
"I want you to draw my 9 grandkids, but I have no photos with me. I'll..."
-"uh....maam, that may prove diffi..."-
"No! It's not hard. I will describe them to you!"

Hey, good luck!!! The read was a real treat! And I also agree with previous posters that your work is art and the average person who wants a sketch has no idea that you are an "artist". Your work always rocked! :)

Aaron said...

Joe, that's awesome. I put it down just the way I feel it.

or weitzman said...

after doing live caricatures for nearly 5 years, all i can say is that i HATE people, all of them. those stupid kids with the questions, that stand too close to you. and eat in your face. and the little 2-4 year old kids that never smile or sit sitll...or the mother that don't get what humores caricature is....and everyone in between. tell ya, this gig was great if it weren't for all the costumers.