Quick draw artists make people laugh at their looks

Artists from around the world converged here last week at the National Caricaturist Network Convention.

What did they do? They drew each other.

On the job, caricaturists draw guests at conventions and street festivals, at casinos and theme parks, at store openings and trade shows, at birthday parties, prom parties, weddings and company affairs.

But at work, they've got to make the customer happy. When drawing another caricaturist, they can pull out all the stops, says Network President Roger Hurtado.

"I come to learn from other artists," says Harold Wirk of Sparks. "Techniques to speed up drawing. Doing a small profile character goes faster and means I can charge a cheaper rate."

But caricaturists are not the proverbial artists who starve in a garret. On the job, they bill $100 to $150 an hour. A weekend gig at a customer-appreciation day can gross over two grand.

National Caricaturist Network exists to expand appreciation of caricature as an art form, says Hurtado. And some became revered as Old Masters.

Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci did caricature. But that was a dangerous time to draw, says Hurtado. An artist of the era was executed for producing an unflattering caricature of a political figure.

More recently, a caricature of the prophet Mohammed sparked riots throughout the Middle East. And in this country, lawsuits have been filed over caricatures. Barbra Streisand sued artist John Kascht for a flattering caricature.

The line between portraiture and caricature is a fine one that makes artists stress out over what they should draw.

"You're a psychologist," says Hurtado, who will intensely psychoanalyze a subject the first five seconds into a drawing and continue throughout the session.

"You become expert on a person's personality within the first five minutes. "Frat guys want funny. But younger teenage beauty queens want to be beautiful. Parents want cute kids. Some-times a woman will say, 'Don't draw me fat.'"

An ability to measure vanity is helpful, too.

"I try to see how much vanity a person has," says Harold Wirk of Sparks. "I kid around and see how far out I can go. If they say, don't go there, I'll draw restrained."

Women, 60 percent of his customer base, are more open to exaggeration, he says. Children comprise another 20 percent, and 80 percent are younger than 30.

"Sometimes people of a certain vintage want you to draw them younger," says Hurtado. The artist must temper the desire to caricature with restraint and humanity.

"To draw something so close to the truth it looks like them and that's why they're so offended."

It's a power that some abuse, he adds.

"Some people wear it as a badge of honor if they make someone cry. But I want to make little kids laugh, clap their hands," Hurtdao says.

To train for the field, he suggests taking a degree in fine art with an emphasis on portraiture and anatomy especially facial.

"I make a very comfortable living as a character artist," he adds. "A caricature artists needs business skills and people skills; then be the best artist you can possibly be."

Jeff Hickman of Reno got an art degree at University of Nevada, Reno and went on to build a career in commercial advertising. But seven years ago he hung up his hat as ad agency art director to turn freelance.

"I concentrate on private parties," he says, which pay caricaturists $100 to $150 an hour.

Wirk majored in art at University of Minnesota and worked as a commercial artist. Now he turns to entertainment agents to book him gigs in the western region. Closer to home, he sets up on the promenade at Silver Legacy on weekends. Tourists ante up $10 to $20 for a likeness done in 5 to 8 minutes.

Reno artist Erik Holland, who plied his pen this summer on the plaza in downtown Reno, says, "I'm a kinder, gentler kind of caricaturist. When I work with Harold, he makes me laugh. He really nails'em. I'm more of a realist. Some people want a more realistic portrait and it is safer to do than the exaggeration."

Caricature isn't all laughs. It's no fun being stuck in a studio 12 hours a day, says Hurtado, and Wirk says keeping busy can be a challenge during the off season.

But the work has its upside. "You get lots of pats on the back," says Hurtado. "It's a great ego boost. And you get to travel a lot."

"It's a fun job," says Wirk. "You're dealing people who are happy, on vacation."

Adds Holland, "I get to draw pretty girls and wonderful old men. "Their eyes light up. It's life."


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