Facing Art and Skepticism: Caricaturist Celestia Ward
In 2014, Skeptical Briefs Editor Benjamin Radford attended a caricature conference in Reno, Nevada. Inside a hotel ballroom full of ridiculously talented artists from around the world, he happened to meet Celestia Ward, a caricaturist who’s also a skeptic. Naturally, he had questions for her.
Benjamin Radford: For those who are not artists or are unfamiliar with caricature, can you explain what it is?
Celestia Ward: Many people think caricature is just a bad cartoon drawing that gives you a big nose, but this is a vicious rumor started by bitter people who have big noses. One old boss of mine used to say it’s a “juxtaposition of facial relationships.” Illustrator John Kascht says it’s “a portrait with the volume turned up.” Basically it’s a drawing (or painting, or sculpture, or collage, or 3D computer rendering) that looks like a particular person but pushes the visual cues of that person’s face to amplify the perceived likeness to viewers. A good caricature should look more like you than you do.
Radford: What’s your background? How did you get involved in skepticism and in art?
Ward: I started drawing young, and I started skepticism young—I was glued to the TV for shows like Ripley’s Believe It or Not and That’s Incredible!, and I started reading Isaac Asimov and Douglas Adams in middle school. I think my first celebrity crush was Penn Jillette, and reading Penn & Teller’s early magic books led me to James Randi. As for drawing, I was a chronic doodler but looked at my art as a relaxing bad habit, not any sort of career path. At Johns Hopkins as an undergrad, I happened to take a cartooning class and it ended up leading to a summer job doing caricatures with the professor. Sure enough, like a bad habit, caricatures proved really hard to quit. After earning a BA in writing (not a BS in biology or physics like I’d originally planned), I was hired on at an academic press and eventually worked my way up to senior manuscript editor, but I was still slinging caricatures to tourists on nights and weekends. Eventually, I realized I wanted to have just one job, and so about a dozen years ago I traded academia for the life of a freelance cartoonist.
Radford: At first glance there may not seem to be an obvious overlap between skeptics and caricature artists, but it seems to me that there may be some interesting parallels. For example, on a philosophical basis, caricaturists, like skeptics, seek to uncover the truth or essence. It’s their job to look at a person’s features and represent the person in all their imperfect glory; the parts they emphasize are selected and exaggerated, of course, but it seems there’s some common ground. Can you talk about the process of revealing truth through caricature?
Ward: Well, as the January 2015 attacks on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo showed, caricaturists working in the political arena can face dangers similar to those that plague skeptics and debunkers in hostile territory. Some caricature artists are purposefully inflammatory, to make their point, just like some outspoken public skeptics employ inflammatory language or mockery to drive their message home. But each believes their message is worth the risk.
I cannot speak for all caricature artists, and certainly I’m not one of the brave inflammatory political cartoonists, but I do have experience with subjects face-to-face as a retail and party artist. Unlike medicine or physics, caricatured “truth” is subjective. When dealing with the actual subject of the drawing, it becomes highly subjective and you get a front-row seat to all the ways people fool themselves. “I’m not that fat/old/bald/funny-looking!” and on and on.
I had one older lady exclaim: “You gave me freckles! I do not have freckles!” to which her daughter said “Yes, Mom, you totally have freckles,” and she insisted “These aren’t freckles; they’re just brown spots on my face!” There are also subjective degrees of “truth” even when you aren’t having the artwork judged by the subjects themselves. A highly exaggerated caricature might resonate with some but not all viewers. Seasoned caricature artists will all disagree, to some extent, about how best to stretch a likeness. And, when working on a stretch you think you’ve nailed, you can suddenly notice something that just looks wrong, and it unravels the whole likeness. So “truth” is a funny word to apply.
We do seek a visual type of truth, beyond vanity and photoshopped blandness, sure, but it’s still a “truth” we know is founded on deep-seated perception biases—the ways our brains shorthand a likeness and tell one human being from another. Those biases have been formed by evolution, culture, or accidents of our brain development, but it’s those quirks of perception that we exploit.
When working in the public eye as an artist, you also get repeated exposure to the woo that permeates our general population. Every live caricaturist hears daily how talented they are, how it’s a magical sort of “gift” that we were surely born with or received from some supernatural source. We also see how easy it is to fool people’s senses (“Oh my gosh, it didn’t look like him at all, but then you drew the top of the hair and that’s totally him now!”) or how easily people form wrong-headed notions and proudly repeat them (“My eyes are usually green but whenever I’m sad they turn a strange sort of turquoise; it’s so peculiar but I swear it’s true!”). Honestly, I wish I had a nickel for every person with dark brown eyes who insisted they were “hazel green.” While there are no doubt artists who themselves subscribe to the magical-thinking version of things, most working caricaturists I know are well aware that their abilities came from study and practice, not a supernatural force. And most nod and smile politely while people talk about the mystical properties of their eyes, but they know how light and color works and they know emotions don’t change iris pigmentation.
Radford: Can a caricature more accurately represent or reveal the physical presence of a person than a photograph? In the same way that eyes are said to be windows to the soul (or personal essence in a more secular context), do you think a person’s facial features can tell their life story, in a sort of poetic way? Or does that get into the pseudoscience of physiognomy or phrenology?
Ward: There is something to this. Of course phrenology and physiognomy are bunk: facial bumps and the bony structure of the skull tell one nothing about personality. But expressions—how the muscles move over those bony bumps—are loaded with content. Paul Ekman’s work is pretty well known, and that annoyingly non-scientific (but still fun) TV show Lie to Me, based on Ekman’s work, certainly exploited the notion of mining expressions for data. While I’m not qualified to judge the psychological accuracy of Ekman’s conclusions, I can certainly add my anecdotal experience to the mix. People react strongly when a certain characteristic expression is “nailed” just right in a live drawing.
My husband (and partner at Two Heads Studios) once fielded this very question from a group of curious wedding guests. Someone asked if being a caricature artist imbued us with any special abilities to “read people” and see into their personalities. He gave the table a “non-psychic” psychic reading, guessing something about each of the people sitting with us. Sure enough, the one he guessed was a serious, studious type was in fact a surgeon in training. The one he labeled a “social butterfly, maybe a bit overly curious, nosy even?” blushed as her friends giggled and said that was “absolutely her.” And so on, around the table. He then explained what visual clues he was exploiting: the surgical intern had a continual serious expression and deep furrows in his forehead, more than a young man his age would have—which perhaps bespoke years of concentration. And the social butterfly was constantly smiling, with eyes that darted around the room constantly. So, while no cranial ridges were measured, simple observation of their expressions and demeanor helped create a profile.
Radford: I picked up a few copies of the caricature magazine Exaggerated Features and found an article by you about pareidolia. It’s something I’d researched and written about as a skeptic, but of course it fits perfectly in a magazine about caricatures. Was that a form of grassroots skeptical outreach?
Ward: Yes! And I was happy to explore the topic for an audience that would not be familiar with the term. A big part of caricature is how our brains perceive the human face, and the success of any caricature depends on how viewers perceive it. Just like magicians exploit deficiencies in human perception and, without realizing it, learn about aspects of skepticism, so do caricature artists learn by trial and error how to navigate pareidolia and other intricacies of perception. As social animals, our brains are highly attuned to recognizing individual members of our species. I owe my living to this evolutionary trait, and to pareidolia—as no cartoon would be recognizable as a face, let alone a particular face, without our brain’s characteristic ability to read meaning into patterns.
I have also blogged on a few skeptical topics that cross over into the realm of caricature and being a working artist. While my musings on the industry only reach a small subset of the population, it’s a neat way to introduce some critical thinking and skeptical notions to an audience that might not seek them out on their own. Likewise, when I gave a seminar this past November at the international caricature convention, I drew upon the information I’ve learned from skeptical sources. While talking about the psychology of client-handling as an artist, it was easy to introduce things like logical fallacies, heuristics, and a few other ways our brains fool us on a regular basis. My goal was not to “sneak in” skeptical thought under the radar—rather, since I’m often steeped in skepticism, it just seemed the natural way for me to explain a few things about client-artist relations and marketing.
Radford: Artwork, and caricature specifically, can evoke strong feelings. Let’s talk about caricature as a form of insult comedy. Obviously sitting for an artist is not the same as being skewered by Lisa Lampanelli or Don Rickles in the front row at a comedy show, but there are some interesting parallels. In both cases, people choose to put themselves in a situation where they may be made fun of. But it seems that edgy caricature, like edgy comedy, can sometimes go wrong. How do you as a caricaturist deal with the racial aspects of your subjects? If an African American subject has prominent lips or an Asian sitter has the classic epicanthic fold, how do you draw the line (so to speak) between caricature and racist depiction? You want to accurately, creatively, and humorously exaggerate the features, but that very process can blur into seeming accusations of racism. How do caricaturists handle that?
Ward: This was actually the topic of one of my most-read blog posts. Racial features are indeed a hot button. In my own live caricature, I rely heavily on forming a rapport with the subject before I figure out how far to take any stretch. That said, I once drew an Asian guy with particularly small eyes and chose to just leave his eyes out completely. His friends (who were also Asian) howled with laughter, doubling over, and he loved it too. Far from insulted, they tipped me generously and were thrilled. Unlike a stand-up comedian, I get to chat with my target for a few minutes as I begin the drawing. By the time I get to any “danger zones,” I typically have a good idea as to what I can get away with. Heck, plenty of caricaturists begin their process with the question “So, do you have a sense of humor? Can I go crazy with this?” Many people are totally fine with a lampooning of their features; some really want an edgy drawing. Some don’t.
Every artist should recognize that caricature has a history of being wielded as a weapon—on Jewish people, Asians, African Americans, you name it. Added to this history are also the individual racial sensitivities each person brings to the table, which can be anywhere from slight self-consciousness to absolute, raging delusion. Working with the public, you do see plenty of Asians who ask for bigger eyes (or blue eyes!), people of color who ask for lighter skin or thinner lips, and people with grand Semitic noses who feel that any drawing capturing that feature would be a grave insult. This is a shame, and I hope it will change eventually. I feel that minimizing racial features is itself the worst kind of visual racism. It’s erasing a trait because that trait is associated with a particular race—how can that not be a grave insult? It says “your phenotype is so repulsive that I’m going to leave out those awful features and make you look more European. There . . . now you’re presentable.” Screw that. If someone really does seem filled with shame over a facial feature that identifies them as a particular racial type, I sometimes just try the straightforward, rational approach. Ask them “why?” when they tell you they want that feature changed. I mention what I like about it, what I like about drawing it. How strong, or graceful, or statuesque it is. I talk about how bland the world would be if I only drew generic faces, and I throw in a few technical terms like “epicanthic fold” or “philtrum.” Granted, I have five to ten minutes with these folks, not a whole hour of therapy on a couch. But with the right word choices and approach, sometimes I see a change in how they look at themselves. And I at least get them to buy the drawing!
Radford: I notice that your model caricatures include a piece of James Randi. Can you tell me a bit about why you chose to do a 3-D caricature of him and what was involved in the process? Is it true that you cast him from a life-size mold?
Ward: That was a last-minute challenge. I had not done a piece for the studio competition part of this year’s caricature convention, and on a lark I decided to sculpt something quickly, in one night. Doing 3-D work has been one of my specialties, so my process is pretty streamlined by now. Still, I knew I’d better choose someone with distinct features, fun to sculpt, and it would help if it was a celebrity I was familiar with and liked—the better to be inspired by. Randi popped up as a logical choice, and I hammered that out and painted it the night before the convention. And, having been lucky enough to meet the “Amazing One” in person several times now, I can assure readers that he is at least twice the size of my sculpture.
Radford: Do you find that caricaturists, as a profession, tend to be more or less accepting of other people in terms of their physical flaws? After all, part of your job is to seek out and enhance a person’s features and flaws, and in many ways the more unusual a person looks, the more material there is for an artist to work from and the more interesting a subject is. Squints, double chins, birthmarks, thinning hair, and the like seem to be fair game. Are there any facial features or subjects that are sometimes considered taboo, that many caricaturists will ignore out of kindness (maybe a lazy eye, war wounds, or something), or is everything fair game under the assumption that people know what they’re getting into if they sit for a caricature?
Ward: It really depends, from artist to artist, what is “taboo” or not. Some young, new, frightened artists shy away from drawing anything that might offend. Some seasoned artists try to go for the jugular every time. I suppose I’m somewhere in the middle. Scars, wounds, lazy eyes—those are things I sometimes ask about. And I try not to make it seem like it’s some hideous defect; I say “Awesome features! It’s all right for me to represent that, yeah? It would be hard making it look like you otherwise.” And generally I get no hassle about it. I myself love drawing lazy eyes. If someone has one eye that looks right at you and one that leans toward the wall or their nose, I get really excited because it makes for such a dynamic drawing. See, if someone has something like that on their face, they are typically aware of it. And, as they sit for you, they know you can see it too. So it generally doesn’t come as a huge surprise when they see the picture.
What strikes me is how many people seem unaware that the vast majority of human beings walking the earth have “flaws” just like they do. I have explained hundreds of times to people shy about their “crooked smile” that asymmetry in smiles is perfectly natural and occurs for most people to some degree. Elvis had a famously asymmetrical smile! And squinting while one smiles is absolutely how our anatomy is wired to work. To drive the point home, sometimes I smile at the model while holding my eyes open unnaturally. The result looks like I’m doing an impersonation of a scary ventriloquist dummy—not the look anyone wants in a picture, caricature or otherwise! So squint when you smile, squint proudly, and smile your wonderful crooked smile and get over it!
Radford: In your experience do caricaturists seem to be any less judgmental of other people’s minor physical flaws than others since they are able to easily see them in everyone around them?
Ward: Yes and no. I often joke that I find myself staring at weird looking guys in public, and then have to rebuff their subsequent interest by saying “No, no. I’m not undressing you with my eyes; I’m just drawing you in my head.” I’m joking, of course, but it’s rooted in truth. Whether we are judgmental of flaws is a loaded question. Just replace “judgmental” with “fascinated by.” And, to pick apart your question even further, I hate the word flaws! So many people use the word flaws to describe themselves, their faces, their racial physiognomy, even their children’s adorable faces! Unless something about your face prevents you from chewing, breathing, or seeing, it’s not a flaw, it’s a feature (as engineers and artists alike would say). That said, working with people’s features so closely, and so often, does sometimes hyper-sensitize us to deviations. Mad magazine artist Tom Richmond talks in his book about having an entire play ruined because the lead actor had an unusually large forehead, which became a mesmerizing distraction for the entire two hours. While we all appreciate “standard beauty” on some level, it’s just more fun for us to look at faces that are not so plain.
Radford: What are the best and worst parts of being a caricature artist?
Ward: The best part for me is that I get to indulge in a bad habit I’ve had for decades and I’m getting paid for it. As a side-bonus, I also get to have five to ten minutes of face-time with some of the most interesting people in the world. I have drawn at parties and conventions that put me in the center of very different demographics each week—from computer experts to public health legislators to adult film stars. I get to chat with them, ask them questions, and joke around—all while I make fun of their faces. It’s pretty sweet. Many caricature artists complain about the lack of respect our field is given. We are sometimes seen as the underbelly of the art world, the gutter-level artists eking out a living at carnivals or tourist traps. I choose to look at it as grass-roots art. For many average people, a caricature is the only “real” original artwork they have in their home that’s not a reproduction or print. So I’m going to revise that: for me, the worst part of the job is falling into a rut, that dangerous pattern of drawing faces that start to look alike. At some point one’s “style” can become a crutch, an excuse to do bad work, to stop learning. It’s a big fear, and it’s one I work against constantly—but not always successfully.
Radford: For many people their first exposure to caricature may have been in pop culture media such as Gerald Scarfe’s work on Pink Floyd’s The Wall album and film, or Philip Burke’s Rolling Stone portraits of rock stars (I saw an excellent exhibition of his work at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007). Aside from your cartooning class at Johns Hopkins, what were some of your early exposures to caricature?
Ward: There was a British TV show in the 1980s and 1990s called Spitting Image, which found its way to American TV and incorporated some of our celebrities and political figures. It was a satire show done completely with caricature puppets. And these puppets were out of sight—the detail, the sculpting, the exaggeration, the costumes. I could not keep my eyes off them. While I was aware of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Burke’s rock star caricatures (gigantic paintings, actually), my tastes gravitated more toward Mad magazine and Cracked. Like the puppets, these caricatures told a story and interacted with one another. Mort Drucker captured likenesses from any angle, any expression, any lighting—detailed or gestural, he nailed them in every panel. And I always loved Norman Rockwell. People don’t think of him as a caricaturist, but his work was very much in line with what caricature artists aim for in illustration.
Radford: Who are some lesser-known contemporary caricature artists with really exciting or unusual styles that might be seen in magazines in coming years?
Ward: Mongolian artist Choimbol Ganbaatar really impressed us all at the most recent convention, taking home many awards for his first time attending. His style is rough and passionate; it reminded me a bit of Scarfe but with more painterly elements. Ali Thome has a crazy, funny style that I imagine will blossom even further with her web-comic work. Marlo Meekins can draw caricatures that make you a little ill just looking at them—she is kind of her own brand now, doing comedy and possibly launching a show, but I hope to see her illustration flourish too. Paul Moyse and Court Jones are both accomplished painters and caricaturists whose work already is showing up in publications. Jason Seiler, though still quite a young man (and yes, a former live caricature artist), has already been commissioned to paint Pope Francis for Time’s person of the year and was asked again this year to paint one of the runners-up—so I cannot list him as an “up and comer” but expect his body of work to grow to monumental proportions over the next few decades. Seo Kim’s delicate, cuddly work has quite a following already, and her work on Adventure Time will only increase her audience. It’s hard to say, though. There are many caricaturists I run across who have immense ability but not the temperament to work seriously in publications (meeting deadlines, working with agents, etc.).
Radford: Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about the rock stars of caricature. Who have been some of your favorite guest speakers at the International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA) convention over the years? Who are some of your biggest influences as a caricature artist?
Ward: John Kascht, Drew Friedman, Jan Op De Beeck (from Belgium), and Sebastian Kruger (from Germany) have all been impressive speakers. I enjoyed David O’Keefe, especially, because he’s a strong sculptor and his work rivals that of Fluck and Law, who did Spitting Image. All of these artists have influenced me, but working in the chair live means you get highly influenced by those coworkers around you. For better or worse! So I owe a lot to the skilled artists I have sat next to over the past twenty-three years.
Radford: I understand that there were some grumblings among some caricature artists that the 2014 guest, Sebastian Kruger, had changed his style and moved away from exaggerated caricatures to more straightforward (though brilliantly rendered) portraits. What does this say about the line between a caricature and a portrait? Does any exaggeration transform a portrait into a caricature?
Ward: Ha. Yeah, Kruger said something to the effect of “I feel like I have betrayed you all” when caricaturists questioned him on the newer direction his work is taking. His agent and website describe the work he’s been doing lately as “New Pop Realism.” If you look at Kruger’s body of work prior to that, it really pushes caricature to the limits of recognizability. His paintings inspired a whole generation of caricaturists to stretch further, get bolder, and feel the likeness “down to the bones” as Kruger described it. For him, when questioned about it, he simply said this was the next thing for him. I look forward to seeing what he does in the next twenty years. Geniuses do surprising things when they get bored with one artistic avenue! While exaggeration does push any portrait further along into the realm of caricature, if you look at any portrait close enough you will find some deviation, some exaggeration. Portraiture cannot be wholly cleansed of caricature elements. And vice versa.