On Exaggeration, Tony Abbott’s Nose and Capturing a Likeness: aspects of caricature

January 2, 2012

The key to caricature is exaggeration. Exaggeration is also the key to pornography. I’m not sure what caricature and pornography have in common beyond that, but both are capable of generating deeply-felt responses. Why is the art of the caricaturist so appealing? Why should exaggeration be so cathartic for an audience, especially when linked to humour? Exaggerated physical features are fundamental to the circus (and to ritualised reversals/dystopias characteristic of holidays and festivals) and certainly the circus provides some common ground for physical caricature  in terms of clowning, for humour, for voyeurism and, by inference, sexual titillation. I must go back to reading Bakhtin.

I’ve long been a fan of The Insiders, a show for political junkies on ABC TV – especially the weekly roundup of photos and political cartoons. I need to laugh at politics because otherwise I’d cry. Here are my initial sketches of the Federal Opposition front bench, with an eye to Mick Armstrong’s “How to Draw ’em”. Politicians are part of our lives: we see them on an almost daily basis on television. They are losing their influence (as is the nation-state) and we are less ruled by them these days than the faceless men of the multinationals. It is not presidents and queens we need fear, it is businessmen. And with them that particular, interesting set of people, the  commentators – shockjocks and newspaper columnists. I agree with Don Watson that these should be the objects of the caricaturist’s attention, not the politicians.

While sticking to Armstrong’s structural foundation, I’ve introduced more straight lines than he would have liked. I guess the thing now is to work larger and fiddle with the lines. By sticking closely to Armstrong’s style, they will take on  a World War II/1940s black-and-white “look”. By delving into colour and tone, they will become automatically “updated”, more contemporary. Cartoonists David Rowe and Bill Leak uses very subtle and convincing colour, for example.

I’ve worked from photos, but a better source is the dreadfully boring doorstep interviews broadcast at unpredictable times on ABC 24hours TV. The camera stays on the politician’s face, close-up, for minutes at a time, which is far more effective than the visual grabs on the evening television news. For example, I’ve been rivetted by Tony Abbott’s nose recently: the way the light falls on it, you get the impression he broke it in his youth. You don’t get that in the press photographs of him, not that they do any retouching. I’ve been careful to show that in my initial sketch above. Caricature and portraiture certainly sensitise one to looking more: sketching faces and skulls recently, I tend to be ‘seeing’ interesting facial features wherever I go lately (especially the vertical muscles between cheek and jaw).

I’m discovering books published annually of political cartoons are not necessarily an ‘easy’ source for caricatures: other things are happening in cartoons in terms of narration, so it is not purely visual.


Armstrong, Mick. “Armstrong’s How to Draw ‘Em: my “shorthand” way: an amusing instructional drawing book for the Young Artist, specially prepared by Armstrong, cartoonist o fthe Melbourne Argus“. Melbourne, Lothian, 1944

Radcliffe, Russ. Intro. by Don Watson. Best Australian Political Cartoons 2003. Scribe Publications. All black-and-white, except for colour on the front and back covers.

Cagle, Daryl and Brian Fairrington, eds. The Best Political Cartoons of the Year 2006. Que Publishing, 2005. All black-and-white, except for colour on the front and back covers.


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