When caricaturing Barack Obama, first and foremost pay attention to his eyes. That’s not unique to Mr. Obama. It’s true for ALL caricature. The key to caricature is in the eyes. And by “eyes,” one should include eyelids, eyebrows, eyelashes, the bone structure of the eye sockets, and the bags, puffiness or whatever configuration of flesh exists below the eyes. You don’t get the eyes right, you won’t capture the subject’s personality.
As subjects go, Obama is easy to caricature. I wish he were genuinely funny, but at least it’s easy to capture his “essence” on paper. His eyes are dramatic. Not because he’s particularly expressive, like a comic actor, but because his eyes are framed by strong eyebrows and fringed with dark eyelashes.
One of the most interesting thing about Obama’s eyes is the slight blue tinge to the flesh below his eyebrows. It’s also visible on his eyelids. It’s as though he’s wearing a bit of eyeshadow. Don’t know if it’s actual blue pigmentation, or just the effect of light bouncing off the skin stretched against his eye sockets. But it adds a nifty touch whenever I’m drawing Obama’s caricature in color.
One interesting point to make about the color of Barack Obama’s eyes: He is one of only three or four U.S. presidents, since 1900, who have had brown eyes. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are the other two, for sure. William McKinley (1897-1901) may have had brown eyes, as well, but I haven’t been able to confirm this. Counting back from McKinley, it’s harder to determine presidential eye color, given the dearth or complete absence of photographs. Presidential portraits can be unreliable, though in the case of Andrew Johnson (1865-1869), his eyes were clearly brown.
…Several of our earliest presidents were described as having “gray” eyes. But that was the fashion of biographers back them. Actually, their eyes were either blue or green, or sometimes “hazel” — though the definition of “hazel” seems to be in the eye of the beholder.
Demographic trends suggest brown-eyed presidents may become the rule, not the exception.
But I digress. Take look at Obama’s mouth. Many people have told me that they think the mouth is the most critical component of someone’s personality. I disagree. The mouth can only confirm what the eyes have already told you.
Nonetheless, that confirmation is important — making the mouth the SECOND most telling facial feature when it comes to caricature. And Obama’s got a great one! His lips have some real definition to them, with the upper lip coming to a decided point in the middle. But it’s kind of a blunt point, not a sharp one. The lips also appear to have a bit of blue or purplish pigmentation, but this is no illusion. Again, it’s great for color caricatures.
As for teeth, Obama clearly has the finest set of choppers seen in the White House since Hillary Clinton. Only better — probably the best in U.S. presidential history. By “best,” I mean structurally flawless, not humorous. This is impossible to verify, of course. There are no pictures of Lincoln smiling. Perhaps Lincoln had a dandy set of pearly whites, worthy of a spokesmodel for Crest Whitestrips? Or maybe he only had six teeth left when he became president, several lower teeth having seceded after his election?
Barack Obama’s grand smile makes for great caricature. More importantly, it makes for easy identification with even the quickest sketch. But many presidential smiles have been equally memorable: from Nixon’s killer bite, to George W. Bush’s primitive ape-smirk, to Carter’s @#%&-eating grin. In fact, ever since Teddy Roosevelt became the first president to smile for the camera, editorial cartoonists and caricaturists have had plenty to chomp on.
Now for the facial extremities, an area where commentary can be risky. As I caricaturist, I deal in stereotypes, whether ethnic, racial or political. But I look at physical stereotypes more as “generalities,” made after careful observation of tens of thousands of faces. Often, my own stereotyping runs counter to more common notions. And there are always exceptions to the rule!
Take Barack Obama’s ears. They’re big. No, make that elephantine! They protrude from his head at a 45-degree angle, or thereabouts. Size and angle are emphasized by the fact that Obama keeps his hair cropped close to his scalp. You can hide a lot about your ears if you have longer hair. I know this from personal experience. My own ears protrude as much as Obama’s, and one of my many unflattering nicknames when I was in grade school was “Dumbo.” My mom insisted I have a “crew-cut” until I was 12, which only made matters worse. As a child, I endured so much ridicule about my appearance, in general, it’s no wonder I became a caricaturist.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama got the “Dumbo” treatment when he was 8-years-old. Only he would have had to grow quite a big “afro” to hide his ears. I suspect he looks better without one, and best with his hair as it is today. It shows off his fine African cranium.
OOPS, there it is — a racial stereotype committed to print! But it’s not the stereotype most non-blacks consider. They should. Truth is, people of African descent generally have better-shaped skulls than their Asian or European brothers and sisters. There are exceptions, of course, and “better-looking” is subjective opinion. But test out this stereotype yourself. Watch some NBA games, and make note of all the shaved heads. Most of the black ones look pretty good. Like fine sculpture. Most of the white ones do not! A bald, toe-headed white guy, with a protruding Adam’s apple and no discernible chin, is not a pretty sight. I wonder if beards came back into vogue shortly after the invention of the camera, because white men of high standing began to see themselves in profile? A beard provides a good antidote to an ugly Adam’s apple.
…Barack Obama, like most men of African descent, appears to lack a larynx. He doesn’t, of course. It just doesn’t jut out for all the world to admire.
But let’s turn back to Obama’s big ears. There has been some grumbling about caricatures that emphasize those saucers. That somehow, to exaggerate them is being racist. But that’s nonsense proffered by people who don’t observe the human head very closely. Most African-Americans have small ears. Some have what I would call “micro-ears.” Ex-football star Herschel Walker comes to mind.
Small ears appear to be a common trait among people of West African descent. But Obama’s black ancestors are from East Africa. Africa is a huge and ethnically diverse continent. Obama’s big ears may well have come from his Kenyan father…or his Kansan mother.
Finally, there’s Obama’s nose. A lot of people associate caricature with the nose — and, clearly, distinctive noses are easily remembered: whether the ski ramp nose of Richard Nixon, or Bill Clinton’s giant honker with the bulbous, penile bulge. Obama has a prominent nose that looks strong in profile. It’s a serious, adult nose. Judging from the many official campaign photos of Barack Obama in profile, he and his handlers clearly like his nose and how it looks on his face. I suspect they’re already imagining his profile embossed on a coin someday. Given the direction of our current economy, that coin might not be worth much.
So, there you have him, Barack Obama, in all his glory: dramatic eyes; a grand smile; a strong nose; a nifty-shaped head, great big ears, all stuck on a skinny but well-tailored frame. A fine specimen for caricature.
… Curiously, Obama looks skinnier in a suit than he does on the beach in his swimming trunks. In a suit, Obama doesn’t look like someone who can boast of six-pack abs. Perhaps his shoulders, which are rather narrow, make him look thinner than he really is. Myself? I look darn skinny in a suit and downright anorexic on the beach. Trust me, you don’t want to see it.
Now that we have our first African-American president, I hope people will relax about caricaturing African-Americans. For some, the whole notion of “caricature” has had an evil connotation when it comes to blacks. It raises the specter of “Little Black Sambo” and pickaninnies. Or, even worse — Ted Danson in blackface.
…But that whole notion is not what I, or the caricaturists and cartoonists I know, are about.
I enjoy dissecting every new face that comes along in politics, entertainment or sports. Some faces are easier to caricature than others — easier to peel back the layers and capture that “essence” of personality. To me, the only bad faces for caricature are boring faces. A few people possess such faces, and I feel sorry for them. Barack Obama has a fine face for caricature, and that’s all that matters to me. As for those who find caricature a perverse art, allow me to paraphrase King — Rodney, that is: Can’t we all just get along…with each other’s ugly mugs?