27 May

The Art of Cheating At Caricature

Really too tired tonight to make this a polished blog post full of clean prose. Besides, the following was an experiment; the kind of dumb exercise I often find myself attempting over a bank holiday weekend.

It began on Saturday afternoon. I’d been browsing the web and I followed a link that took me to the webpage of a fairly well-known illustrator. I had a look through his celebrated caricatures, which were all truly brilliant, yet I’d also noticed something strange about them. I though I recognised a few of the faces.

Now, that shouldn’t be odd. He was drawing famous people so I would obviously know the faces. Yet it’s wasn’t that I knew the faces as much as I recognised the faces as they’d been originally photographed. A few minutes of googling later and I’d confirmed my suspicion. They might have been pulled and squeezed a little but they were exactly the same as the original photos. I was pretty sure that the bugger cheats!*

I couldn’t be certain, of course,  and I’m still not certain. However, having spent a little time looking into the work of other digital caricaturists, I realised that cheating might not be as uncommon as I first suspected. There are dozens of the little buggers out there making a nice little fortune by using this technique. I therefore set myself a challenge. Not having done anything like this before, I set out to cheat.

I began by spending Saturday afternoon painting a caricature of Michael Gove. After a couple of hours, I had this… And believe me when I say that I hand painted every single detail. Click the image to see it bigger. You can see my brush stokes and the places I missed.

gove

Now, I didn’t have time to finish the tie and, frankly, wasn’t sure what to do with it at this point. So I thought I’d try another, this time of Syria’s Assad, which I finished sitting in a hospital cafe this morning. Yes, it really is that basic a technique. There’s really no skill involved. With the Assad picture, I was much less careful about colouring in the patches. I rushed it with no concern for the ‘art’. I just wanted to test the method. This is the result:

Syria Test2

Normally I don’t really care too much about using technology to help the process of creating something. I use spell checkers when writing and (much to the disgust of Stu), I use tippex when drawing cartoons in ink. Yet these two paintings genuinely make me feel so ashamed that I haven’t (and won’t) even bother signing them.

But let me explain the method, though it’s so obvious and straightforward that you’ve probably figured it out already. I found two high quality images on the web and loaded them into Photoshop. I then applied the Liquify filter and followed the usual rules of caricature to distort the faces. In the case of the second, I then created a standard mock up of Assad with a noose around his neck and lifted the hand from Austin Powers (no more than ten minutes work). I then load it into a painting program and use the colour picker to pick the colour of an area which I then painted over with not much care. Rinse and repeat for a couple of hours and bingo. You get results like the above. In the case of the Assad, I used a blending tool to smooth out the patches. I also added the background myself after the original proved too difficult to copy. It accounts for the fact that it’s the most amateur bit of the painting.

Now, some people would say this isn’t cheating but I beg to differ. Is my effort of a few hours that much different to my simply applying a Photoshop paint-effect filter to my original composition which took about ten seconds?

Syria Test3

Yet I guess people will say that I’m being harsh and perhaps I am. A few of the people who I suspect of using this technique do so as a start and their finished results can look spectacular to the point that they can take your breath away. And perhaps that’s all that matters. Teller & Penn (the director should get the first credit, I think) made a brilliant documentary last year called ‘Tim’s Vermeer’ which detailed how a non-artist could create ‘great art’ using a relatively simply mechanical process. Do people say Vermeer was any less talented an artist simply because he copied directly from nature?

Having said that, I personally don’t like it. I know I could improve the technique if I invested more time into it. I could adapt it to produce more ‘painterly’ or stylized effects. Yet I can’t help but feel that whilst they look impressive, they’re somehow hollow once you know how they’re done. In future, I think I’ll stick to drawing my caricatures the way I’ve been learning for the past few years. I’d rather fail trying to learn the techniques of Gerald Scarfe or Al Hirschfeld than succeed by turning myself into a copying machine. I prefer my results won by hard work, trial and error, and plenty of mistakes. I just know that the next time I see one of those amazing caricatures you often see on the cover of magazine and newspapers, I’ll be a little more suspicious about how they came into existence.

* ‘Cheating’ is, I know, a strong word. Perhaps you feel like it’s also the wrong word but, for me, I think it’s correct. Unless you admit to painting over a photograph, you are giving people the belief that you’ve achieved your results through your own skills. That’s not to say none of the finished product is without skill but the ‘likeness’ is the caricaturist’s most prized ‘skill’. Getting a likeness is the hardest part of the artist’s craft, especially when  pulling the face into contorted shapes. Gerald Scarfe is a genius because he can do that more than any other artist. If you’re achieving the same through a mechanical process,** then I think it’s correct to call it ‘cheating’. If you’re not cheating but producing amazing results, then congratulations: you really are a true artist.

** Of course, there’s a second question. What constitutes a mechanical process? Does beginning with a grid count as mechanical? Well, I guess it does but this is about scale. All art is (or should be) about the craft and a craft is a mechanical process. A grid can still go wrong. It takes skill to make it work. Even a lightbox takes some effort to produce reasonable results. However, simply painting over a painting, using a colour picker to ensure exact colours is something else entirely. A machine could do it and often does it when applying filter effects. The only difference between that and a person doing it is that the human brings a degree of incompetence to the copying,  producing a more random effect, which makes it look hand drawn. It’s our human inexactitude that makes the deception all the greater.

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26 May

Electric Trains Hit The North

I’m on the first of two days of having to sit in a hospital coffee shop waiting for those closest to me have scans of one sort of another. However, today, once the scan was complete, we could escape and decided to head into Manchester. Nothing notable about that. It’s on the same train line and it has the best restaurant and bookshop in the form of Waterstones on Deansgate where I’m typing this, rather blissfully, if the truth be told.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the day was my first voyage on an electric train. Well, perhaps not my first if the Tube trains are electric and I suspect they are. However, for the North West, electric trains have been a long time coming. For years we’ve been putting up with engineering work on our main line between Liverpool and Manchester, all in the promise of a better service.

The better service arrived this morning and it felt largely horrible. Not that there wasn’t plenty of room because there was. As a taller than average bloke, I appreciated the legroom. The seats seemed oddly low but that’s a minor thing. Yet the train stank like an old radio that had overheated. It’s hard to describe except as ‘ cooked electrics’. What was worse was the noise. Jesus on a moped! It was like having your ears drilled by the Highland regiment of bagpipes and cat stranglers. I suppose the positives were more acceleration out of every station and once the speed was up, the horrible whine disappeared. But was it worth the years of waiting? Was it really work being unable to get into or out of the cities at night except by a slow plodding replacement coach service?

Well, I suppose it was. It’s cleaner and it felt quicker. Yet it also felt refurbished. I believe these new trains are refurbished, with ‘new’ for the North meaning what was too old for the south. London always seems to get new trains. We get something that looks a bit bolted together. In our carriage, there was an ugly post stuck right in the centre of the carriage. I guess it was conducting something (perhaps the juice from the overead lines) down into the undercarriage but really not that good on the eye. The whole thing felt second rate.

On a better note, Manchester Victoria station looks amazing. It’s long been considered one of the worst stations in the country but it’s had an almost complete rebuild and it’s breaktaking. Open, light, elegant. Just a shame about the bloody trains…

[Update: Too knackered to write anything polished but thought I should add that the train home changed my opinion somewhat. This time there was no smell of burnt radios. The new electric trains seem to be much longer and therefore have many more seats. Made for a pleasant change from the usual cattle trucks I’ve been used to in the past. They’re also *fast*. The acceleration is a bit of a punch in the kidneys and once they get going they seem to really fly. However, there’s still that ‘whine’. Perhaps I’ll get use to it.

The bad part is still the interiors which are pretty shoddy for ‘new’ trains. They’re not a patch on the supposedly ‘old’ trains being run by Arriva on the North Wales line. Given a choice, I’d probably choose Arriva but it’s tighter than it used to be. I like the new Victoria station (I think it will be genuinely spectacular when finished) and I might be tempted to take the electric line simply to get there quicker and to be closer to Waterstones when I arrive. Yet I still think that after years of promises, the new electric trains are a bit of a disappointment.]

 

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22 May

Dolly Mixtures

So, I was researching something I was thinking of writing and my fruitless search for information had come up with bugger all. However, I did come across the name of a band called ‘Dolly Mixture‘, which struck me as being a particularly bad name for a band, especially one that’s labeled post-punk/new wave. It’s a name that’s overloaded with meaning and, for me, is a bit off putting. I mean dolly mixtures were a bag of toffees you’d be bought as a child and the name evokes too many memories good, bad, but mostly sweet. They were basically an the more sugary alternative to licorice allsorts but without the promise of a good bowel movement.

And then I started to listen to the band of the same name and I began to wonder again how talent can so easily go missed and unrecognised. Somebody has posted their entire Demo Tapes on Youtube and I think they’re worth a listen.

Maybe I just don’t know good music but I wonder if they’d had a better name and had been American, they’d have been bigger and I’d have already heard of them. Dolly Mixture feels like a name plucked from the 1960s, when female bands had to have clever quirky names like The Liverbirds and The Debutantes. Call them the ‘Razor Blades’ and you’d have had a different perception of the band going into your first listening.

 

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20 May

New ink!

Ink

Well, I have a day of deep nozzle cleaning ahead of me, which sounds like the sort of thing a man should either enjoy or fear. The reality is much more banal. New ink arrived for my printer which has not tasted ink in a very long time. I used to use the printer daily but, for various reasons, the old beast has been slowly gathering dust on the end of my desk.

I am now in the process of trying to wake it up. Initial print test patterns look good but I’m having trouble with the nozzles on my cyan.

There is a chance that none of my efforts will get the old printer working again but the alternative is to buy a new printer and that way madness lies.

Printers come in two types: cheap and expensive. If you buy a cheap printer, you will usually end up paying a fortune for ink over the course of its lifetime. Not sure if printer ink is still as expensive as gold but it still comes in at ridiculous prices for small amounts. Yet if you buy an expensive printer, then the ink will usually be cheap, which says to me that printer ink is essentially a scam. The trick, I think, is to buy cheap ink unless you really want your documents to be ‘archive quality’. I’ve never bought original ink for any of my printers and I’ve generally not had much trouble. This Canon MP620 has been running years on the kind of ink that the manufacture would tell you would bring it to its knees. (Apropos of nothing: electric shavers. I bought a shaver years ago and the instructions told me to change the blades every few months. That was years ago and it’s still cutting the stubble every day or two. So what game where they playing, expecting me to fork out £20+ every few months? So much in the world seems to be a scam.)

Back to printers: Epson have a new ‘tank’ system which looks clever as hell but is also expensive as hell up front. [Dear Epson. Any chance of a test model to review?] It claims to come with two years of ink which, when I get printing in heavy duty mode, would save me about £100 (though that’s buying really cheap non-OEM ink from Inkredible). Yet £100 off the £250 still makes it an expensive printer to buy.

But as I type that, another sheet emerges from the old Canon MP620. Colours seem to be clean and solid. Cyan is working! I can proceed with my plan. That machine is a beast!

New ink in my printer is only part of the reason I have a new ‘private’ blog, which is now alive and open to regular readers. Not that this now becomes my ‘old’ blog. This is still my main blog, where I’ll continue to post the occasional bit of work. However, maybe not as many cartoons. Day to day, I want to live over there where things will be grubby and disorganised and, more importantly, ‘unpublished’. Only a crazy fool gives all his best work away for nothing and I’m tired of being a crazy fool. So, if you do read regularly and want to come look in, send me an email or leave comment. You are most welcome.

 

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19 May

Going Dark

I have a secret private blog which I’ve not updated since Friday, 17th June 2011 and I hadn’t looked at since… Well, possibly, Friday the 17th June, 2011. Tonight I opened it and started to read.

It’s really strange going back to a blog you had largely forgotten about. Yet, at the same time, it’s my favourite blog. I had more fun writing that one blog than any of my blogs. I guess it’s because it was more of a real blog, I was completely myself among friends and it dealt with an interesting period. I wrote the blog for about two years and there are nearly 1,400 posts, most of which contain a cartoon or graphic. It covered the writing of about three or four projects and most of the work there I’d simply forgotten about.

Not all of it was particularly good. The blog is really as much a catalogue of my failure as it is my success. I can see now that I was desperate for success. I was also learning to draw and I was jumping between book ideas too rapidly and my energy wasn’t matched by my skill with the pen. I was drawing too much too quickly and there’s more failure there than there is success.

Yet, oddly, not all of my ideas were crap. It’s just that I seemed to latch onto my worst ideas and see them through to the end.

Anyway, this is one of the oddities I found. A reader of the blog went on holiday and took this picture.

India 177small

I’m as embarrassed today as I was the moment I saw it.

Good times…

Which brings me to the reason for looking at the blog. I’m seriously thinking about ‘going dark‘. I gain nothing by putting all my work on show. I’m thinking about retiring back into a private realm where I can work and post things which I might later try to get published. I have two ideas that I’d like to try out but, obviously, not for public eyes. Yet I like getting feedback and, hopefully, some of you might enjoy watching me stumble about in the dark.

I’m not entirely sure if I’ll do this (or how I’ll do this) but should you be a regular reader and think you could stomach becoming a little closer to the daft things I do, then email me. If I have a few readers willing to follow me, I might consider giving this a try. I might just turn on this blog’s registered users section. I might create a new blog here. I might simply invite you to the old private blog and let you see the 1,400 posts. Yet, part of me just wants to start afresh.

Anyway, that’s my thought. Might or might not happen. I just feel that I need to change my routine.

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18 May

Reboot

Last week is now a strange blur. I built the new website for ‘The What and the Why‘ in a record time of about three days, including transferring over all the posts and comments from the old site, and getting a new server up and running. It was hard work and very long hours but all utterly pleasurable. It’s strange now looking at it, since unlike any of my own websites, it’s a website that actually gets traffic.

I have a zero success when it comes to traffic. I have never written a site or blog that generated much in the way of regular readers. My sister ran a news website for a few years and it had huge readership. It was back when the internet seemed new and exciting. However, she ran afoul of her own good conscience. She actually paid for every photograph she published on the site and supported it with a small subscription model. Another site stole all the photos and pretty much put her out of business.

I know my lack of success lies with me and I’m just about coming to terms with that. This week, I want to reboot myself and think more carefully about what I’m doing. A certain person has also reappeared in my life. All I’ll say is that I’ve been writing letters…

I also want to keep drawing more cartoons for myself. So, if you find that you don’t like my daily cartoons, please try to remember it’s because they’re drawn to my own warped tastes and not because I hope they’ll ever be published in a magazine.

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17 May

Where Prince Harry can stick his National Service…

Bleary eyed, I read the morning headlines and saw that Prince Harry believes we should bring back National Service. Even half asleep, I could immediately spot the problem with this bleary brained nonsense.

His argument is based on the fact that he believes he would have ‘gone off the rails’ if it hadn’t been for the army. Let’s assume that it’s true and that youthful Harry would have become even more synonymous with having a good time than he’s already become. Yet isn’t it a bit of an overreaction and just a mite selfish to force the entire nation into conscription just to keep him off the front pages of the tabloids?

And since when should the rest of us measure our worth on the slightly bent would-be ruler that is Prince Harry? I never went off the rails. I imagine quite a few of you who read this blog didn’t go off the rails. In fact, I’d guess that most people didn’t come even close to going off the rails in their youth. So why the hell should we be stuck doing laps on a parade ground simply to save the skin of some thick necked Palace dodo?

What worries me more is what National Service would have done to me. Oh, I like to think that I’d have taken to it like the proverbial water-bound duck. Inside a month I’d have been leaping from aircraft with a dagger between my teeth and a backpack full of fury. The reality, I think, is that it would have broken me. If I hadn’t become ‘Private Pyle’ in Full Metal Jacket, complete with the 1000 yard stare, I’d have just gone off the rails, which is precisely what the experience of army life was supposed to save me from. I’d have rebelled and caused myself all kinds of grief. So, whilst Prince Harry would be enjoying rugby (a game I detest) with the lads, I’d have been trying to climb the electrified fence or caught trying to flee into Belgium or some much more enlightened country where I could just go sit in a corner with a coffee and a good book.

Not that there’s any chance of National Service coming back but we do have a government led by a leader who has repeatedly proven that he’s not immune to dumb ideas thrown casually into the public domain by celebrities. Given that the government have a problem with the size of the army and that they’re never above forcing people into cheap labour, I’d be slightly worried if you are young and the thought of living in barracks appals you. Or perhaps they’ll just make it a condition of entry into the UK. You can come in but you have to do three years in the military. Inside a couple of years, we’d have armed the entire youth of Eastern Europe who would turn on us and take the country by force…

These are crazy days filled with stupid ideas. National Service begins to look sensible compared to the breakup of the Union, petitions for the North of England to join with Scotland, and Britain leaving the EU.

There’s just too much madness about today and I’ve not even finished having my breakfast.

 

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16 May

Exhausted

Exhausted.*


* Yes, I release that’s a bit short for a blog post but what’s a man to write when he’s completely lacking in energy. It’s been a mad four days since I agreed to build the website late on Tuesday evening. However, it’s been damn fun. Intend to get back to proper blogging tomorrow, perhaps even draw something tonight.

Of course, if I had the energy, I’d make this footnote long enough to prove that I do have the energy to blog. But I don’t. I’m knackered.

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