This is how I tackle a typical caricature commission. You can click on any of the pictures to make them bigger. Enjoy!

The first step to any caricature is receiving pictures from the client of the subject and instructions on how they want him or her depicted.

In this case, the client’s instructions were as follows:

Hi John

I’ve sent a number of pics through. The list I think would be great is:

  1. The bike (and it has an Akrapovic exhaust. Just in case, that’s in the pic.)
  2. Route 66 sign as that is what his dream is to travel one day. Can we have some bullet holes in it too ha ha!
  3. He has to be wearing that stupid water polo cap, blue apparently.
  4. The Italian flag coming out the back of his bike.
  5. If you can, you will notice the bike has travel cases on the back. He goes nowhere without a bottle of Chianti and a cuddly toy of a tiger. Don’t ask! But we were trying to get them somewhere in the pic.
  6. A gecko! One of those horrible lizard creatures. Apparently there is a big joke with his mates over this. He has blue boxer shorts with white ones on them that he wears when they win at the polo.
  7. Can we put him in a red t-shirt and blue jeans as long as the t-shirt has the Belstaff or Dainese logo on it somewhere.

The client also kindly supplied me with some reference pictures of the bike and the logos she required for the clothing. Usually, I have to source my own reference material, which in this day and age, usually involves Googling images on the internet. In the old days, sourcing material was a chore and could involve trawling through magazines and catalogues and sometimes visiting speciality shops to ask for a brochure. (It’s amazing how you don’t know what something actually looks like until you go to draw it, even if you are familiar with it!) Now, all I have to do is type what I’m looking for into a search engine and save them into a file on my PC, a process that usually takes, at most, half an hour. I then print them out as they’re easier to draw from than a computer screen. Although the client had sourced most of the reference material, I still had to look for gecko lizards, a ‘route 66’ sign, a water polo cap, a bottle of Chianti and a stuffed tiger toy. (By the way, you may recognise ‘Hobbes’ the tiger from my favourite comic strip, ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ by the brilliant Bill Watterson.

The very first thing I draw is a very small, very rough sketch of how the final caricature will look. This is called a ’thumbnail’ and I usually draw them in biro or pencil. (Biro is a great medium for sketching in – it has a rough, raw quality that I love). The thumbnail usually only takes a minute or so and I might do two or three but I find them invaluable for positioning figures and the different elements in the caricature. There is usually very little deviation from the final art in terms of positioning. The thumbnail is not meant for anyone else to see – it’s for my own use, so it can be really, really rough.

Thumbnail sketch


Using my thumbnail sketches, I begin to draw out the caricature in pencil; a process that is known as…’pencilling’. I don’t know why! I use either a heavy cartridge paper or illustration paper known as Bristol board, but I don’t have a favourite brand of paper, other than I prefer white to off-white. Generally, I just use what is at hand. I usually start with an oval for where I want the head to go, because the subject’s face is the most important element of any caricature. The oval normally goes near the top of the page, but I allow some leeway because at this stage, it’s only a rough estimation and when the hair goes in, you don’t want it too near the edge. Most people usually frame their drawings and the frame can cut a few millimetres off the actual finished piece. It’s paramount not to put any important elements near the edge of the page, though sometimes I break my own rule!

In this case, I knew the drawing was going to be landscape shape because of the motorbike, but depending on the subject matter, it can be difficult to decide whether to go landscape or portrait. This was an easy decision to make here.

Next, I rough in a skeletal body and a very loose sketch of the bike so that I know where the wheels will go etc. Then I quickly add the other elements like the sign and the gecko lizards.

The pencilling process is one I enjoy far more than inking, but I do tend to get a bit carried away, using loads of lines which I know I’m going to have to erase later, and I hate erasing! Still, it doesn’t prevent me from going a bit mad with tons of pencil lines. (For pencilling, I use a 0.5mm mechanical pencil – the ones that you click and the lead comes out a bit at a time. There are two reasons I use this: a) I get a consistent line, great for working in details and also good for filling in large areas and b) I £$*%ing HATE sharpening pencils! A bigger waste of time I know not!) I also darken the areas I know will be solid black or a dark colour later. (Lots of artists just put a little ‘X’ in where the solid blacks have to go, but I like to put in all the shading as it helps me balance the lights and darks).


 Then, using the reference material, I go back over the rough outlines and just keep tightening up the drawing. I work on little bits here and there – in this picture, I worked on a small bit of the bike engine, then worked on the face, then the geckos, then the body, then the engine again. Working this way keeps the drawing interesting and varied for me.


Finished pencil drawing

 As a caricature artist, I’m expected to exaggerate the heck out of the subject’s features, but I tend not to do this too much (unless specifically requested!) Some other caricature artists can distort their subject’s features to ridiculous lengths and still make it look like the person. As a lifelong fan of the American ‘MAD’ magazine, I prefer the more subtle (but brilliant) facial parodies of celebrities as depicted by Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, Angelo Torres and of late, Tom Richmond. Richmond, in particular, has had the biggest influence on my caricature art and continues to set the bar to the highest standard.

So this subject’s facial features aren’t pulled or pushed in any one direction. I made his grin a little bigger and his jaw a bit leaner, but that’s all. I like to think of my subjects looking at the caricatures I’ve done of them for years to come and liking what they see as opposed to despising it. Caricaturing is an art that is traditionally caustic, providing social commentary at the expense of easily-targeted politicians and celebrities, but I like to think it can, like a superhero’s powers, be used for good or evil! With great power comes great responsibility!

Because the bike was very specific to this person, I had to make sure the detail was as accurate as possible, which can be a chore sometimes but can be fun too. I always bear in mind that a caricature is something a person will have for a long time and I’d hate to think there was an aspect of it that niggled at them because it wasn’t quite right. That’s why I always check what the subject’s eye colour is if it’s not clear in the photos. (Photos sometime have ‘red-eye’ or are taken from far away, making eye-colour identification impossible). And so I took my time with the engine detailing, ensuring it was (mostly!) correct.

So, after a few hours, the pencils are finished. Sometimes a client will ask to see the pencils before I go onto the next stage, in which case I scan the drawing in and email it off to them. The odd time, the client may suggest a few small changes which is OK at this stage as it’s far easier to re-work a pencil drawing than it is a fully inked, fully coloured one. In this case, the client requested to see the pencil drawing and I duly obliged then shortly received this text message:

“It’s absolutely fantastic! I’m really happy with it!”

I took that as the A-okay to proceed. (Texting is often a way I keep in touch with a client to check things such as eye colour quickly and efficiently).

So with the client’s approval, I moved onto the next stage – placing permanent ink on top of the pencils.


I have a love-hate relationship with inking. It is a necessary process, as a pencil drawing can fade away over time and the inked image is sharper and clearer. I think pencil drawings have a wonderful vitality and dynamism that can get dulled in the inking process and it can be a real chore going over lines you’d already drawn not hours before. Also, inked drawings are the traditional method of cartooning (because cartoons were often published and inked lines are more easily reproduced than pencil ones) and who am I to mess with tradition?

However, inking is a different animal entirely to pencilling. With a pencil, you can go a bit nuts with the lines – if one doesn’t work, you just slap down another one. Inking is a more disciplined skill, where a steady hand is required. Once this line is down, it’s down! (There are, of course, ways to correct an amok pen line, but the solutions are often laborious and sometimes messy!)

So it’s fast with the pencil and slow with the inks. (I can often pencil out a caricature ready for inking in as little as half an hour. Inking can take four or five times as long). Carefully, I select the pencil lines I want to go around (notice I said ‘go around’, not ‘trace’ as it’s not tracing as all comic book inkers will profess!) I mostly use Staedler pigment liners for this job as they are wonderful pens – sizes 0.3 for finer details, 0.5 for medium lines and 0.8 for heavier lines. I think it’s important to vary the weights of the ink line as one line width can produce a very dull drawing, even if the pencils are dazzling. So what I tend to do is draw a heavier ‘contour’ line (the line around the outside of a drawing) which produces a pleasing result. I will sometimes go over these lines again with a thin marker, usually a Sharpie or more usually with the fantastic Pilot Signpen. (All these drawing implements are available from your friendly-neighbourhood stationery store, folks!)


Another reason for varying the line weights is a little more magical and is where I think inking comes into its own. In order to create the illusion of depth, artists will make foreground objects more detailed and the contour lines thicker than those in the mid or foreground. In caricatures, I tend to not use a foreground, just a mid and background. (Foregrounds tend to be used very effectively in comics where say, a character is peeking through a canopy of jungle leaves. The leaves act as a frame through which the character looks out at the mid-ground and beyond, the background. They’re not required so much in caricatures.)

So, the thicker lines tend to be reserved for the main focus of the picture – the person who is being caricatured. (This reminds me of medieval times when artists were required to make the most important subject of their pieces i.e. a king or nobleman much bigger than the surrounding peons, and perspective be damned!) Their contour line is consequently thicker, while less important and further away elements are inked with a lighter weight line. The hitchhiking gecko in the background is an example of this. Compare his contour line with that of the motorbike’s front wheel. Although it is a nice little detail, in the overall composition, the little gecko is not as important as the subject or his motorbike. (Awwwwwwww…)

The unimportant gecko

Finally, I ink in the solid blacks – large areas with a fat black marker and smaller areas and areas near a line with the Sharpie or Signpen. Once I’m happy I’ve smothered my lovely pencil drawing with permanent black ink, I erase the pencil lines underneath, thereby wiping clean the only proof of its existence. (Cartooning is a very nihilistic profession at times!)

Unfortunately, the pencil lines are not all that the eraser rubs out: it can take ink with it too, usually the large black areas which then become lightened as a result. I then have to ink over these areas again. Sometimes I’ll inadvertently rub out a line I’d forgotten to ink and have to redraw it again. Fine if it’s not important, like a tiny background detail, not so fine if it’s subject’s nose! So, frustratingly, I’ll apply the ink again, resulting in drawing the same line up to as many as three times in the same drawing!

Erasing is a laborious process, but it needs to be done diligently.  It is important to get rid of all pencil lines as they’re just ugly after the ink has been applied. This means doing a general erase, covering large areas with the rubber, then sweeping off the rubber ‘flakes’ (dunno what else to call them!) then erasing smaller areas. Rub. Sweep. Rub. Sweep. In one direction only, as opposed to a rapid back and forth motion. (I know this sounds patronising, but there really is a technique to successful erasing!) This ensures a few things: a) that one area of the paper doesn’t get worn down too much; b) that you don’t accidentally rumple and crease the paper and c) it is simply more efficient and effective – you tend to get all the pencil lines in one go with longer, considered strokes.

Finished ink drawing

And so, with all my beautiful pencil lines erased forever, it’s onto the last stage of the caricature process:


When I first started out as a caricature artist, I used to colour everything with colouring pencils. This was very time-consuming and colouring pencils tend to have a more washed-out, almost pastel feel to them, even the vibrant primary colours. And so I discovered markers. I use Letraset markers – the kind that you can refill again and again. They’re expensive, but are worth every penny and they last for ages. As well as that, you can cover large areas very quickly and their two (or sometimes three) nib system means you can switch rapidly from colouring big swathes to doing tiny details in seconds. With pencils, the results are less satisfying and the process more time-consuming.

Colouring, to me, is largely an instinctive process, but it does help to know a little colour theory to help balance a composition. You know, ‘warm’ colours are reds, oranges and yellows and ‘cold’ colours are blues, greens and purples. Not enough time to go into the entire gamut of colour theory here, but suffice to say it helps when you’re trying to balance colours in a harmonious fashion.

With a caricature, certain colours are a given – the person’s skin tone and hair colour for a start. They’re colours you definitely have to use. When I have to draw a football player, for instance, their strip colours are usually also decided (as most football caricatures I do tend to be of someone who’s a fanatical supporter of a certain team), as is the surface they’re on, i.e. grass. You can then decide which colours go best with which from that point on in order to balance the composition. In the footballer example, their strip may be blue, therefore there’s a lot of ‘cold’ colours, making the overall picture cold. Any other elements I add will tend to be warm colours to help balance things up. For instance, I will make the opposing team’s strip red, so that it not only varies the colour scheme and help warm it up, it also gives the eye other points of interest to look at. The radiating ‘aura’ I usually draw around the subject’s head will also tend to be yellow and orange, again to help maintain the colour balance. (Or I will change this aura to blue if the rest of the colour scheme is predominantly warm colours.) Also, as red is my favourite colour, I will attempt to drop it in at every opportunity!

Similarly, in this piece, a lot of the colours were decided for me: the yellow of the bike, the red T-shirt, the blue jeans, the white road-sign, the yellow-green of the gecko lizards. It was a fairly straightforward matter to balance these colours harmoniously.


So on go the colours, which is a process I enjoy almost as much as the pencilling. The picture begins to come to life. I add darker shading with grey marker where necessary, and scribble on top of the marker with colouring pencil to suggest texture. As the markers tend to produce flat, consistent patches of colour, the ‘scuffing’ of certain textures, like clothing, grass and other organic surfaces is a good idea, whilst the sleek machinery of the motorbike is maintained by the flat colouring, producing a nice clean look.

And that’s about it. Once all is done, I give the drawing a once-over, to make sure I’ve not forgotten important details, like an eye or a leg, that all the pencil is completely erased and that all parts of the picture that needed colour are coloured. Incidentally, the white of the page is a very effective colour and there is no need to fill every inch of white space when doing a caricature, even though again, I sometimes break my own rule! Only one thing remains, and that’s the signature! I try and put it where it’s not too in-your-face. Sometimes I integrate it into the drawing, sometimes I write it vertically up the side, whatever feels right for the picture.

The signature!

And so, a final word about the art of caricature. Some people have looked at my drawings and have said they actually make the person look better than they do in real life, which to their mind is traditionally the opposite of what their notion of caricature is about: politicians with huge noses or impossibly bushy eyebrows saying nasty things about each other. Or spoilt-brat celebrities depicted as stick-thin socialites simply famous for being famous. To me that’s not what caricature is about. I feel I should not so much flatter the person, but depict their personalities by poking gentle fun at them. That’s why in my caricatures you’ll see someone tangled in a fishing-line even though they’re world-class fishermen, or kicking punctured footballs towards their own goal even though they’re superb athletes. Where’s the fun in showing someone at something they’re good at? And besides, everyone, including the fastest, strongest and best of us have an off-day where nothing seems to go right. All my caricatures do is remind people they’re only human after all, complete with frailties and foibles and that after they’ve experienced the worst, things can only get better. At least you can’t fall off the floor, as my old grandma used to say.

All the best and happy caricaturing!

John Farrelly

PS By the way, this is how my client responded to the caricature she commissioned for her friend:

“Oh fantastic! You have surpassed yourself this time. Wonderful.”