Tuesday, November 15, 2011

SCAD/MAD: Tom Richmond

Richmond's originals on display at the SCAD MAD exhibition

One last followup post on the roster of events surrounding the SCAD MAD weekend: as a graduate student in the Sequential Art department I had the opportunity to volunteer as an assistant to some of the various gigs, and I doubled up for one creator in particular. While Tom Richmond is a well-known illustrator for MAD magazine, his career and artwork spans across an incredible range of clients and publications. The chance to listen and learn firsthand from one of the top talents in the field was something not to missed, and attendees were rewarded with a personal and candid sharing of his experience, along with gaining insight on both his professional process and how the industry works. From Richmond's website you can check out his informative blog, which I've used as a teaching resource in my own comics classes, and now he also has self-published a book on caricaturing, which will be a must-read for anyone interested in the art of caricature, or for that matter, just drawing.

Richmond put in several appearances during the conference, including a portfolio review session, a workshop, and a public demo which I'll cover in detail below the fold.

From 2-3pm on Friday afternoon, on the third floor of Norris Hall, home of the Sequential Art department, a limited number of students were treated to a portfolio review. A half-dozen artists from the NCS and MAD crew (including Sergio Aragon├ęs, Sam Viviano, Jack Pittman and Andy Smith) were on hand to look at works. The sessions were on a first-come, first-served basis with each student (five senior undergrads + one graduate student in this particular group) that had signed up getting approximately five minutes each with the artist.
Tom began his review with an overview of what doing illustration work exactly entails, mainly that it requires both visual communication skills and the ability to work with others to have a commercially successful career. He recommended artists to look at (often specific creators that he felt would resonate with a student based on their respective styles), and suggested researching the industry to see what's getting published and to get a feel for what the market trends are. His advice to "get paying gigs down first" before hinging everything on the success of a personal project was pretty sound, and that was counterbalanced with a comment "don't fight your natural inclinations" when it comes to a genre or style that you gravitate towards. Tom also gave good advice on developing both a thick skin and perseverance for working in the field, and to "keep throwing stuff on the wall until something sticks." This was the kind of information that was crucial to hear, especially from an artist of Richmond's stature and experience, as he was keen on giving us the "nuts & bolts" for "what you need to get a job."

Flipping through each student's portfolio, Richmond would often pause to comment and critique specific pages as to what he noticed first and why, and what might be some possible solutions to any problems he saw in the work. He stressed the advantages with a formal, classical training in traditional mediums such as painting and life-drawing so as to get a better understanding of basic anatomy and the underlying structures of elements that might appear in an illustration. Another aspect he focused on was whether or not a page was balanced: using spot blacks and also areas of contrasting value and simplicity to let the eye rest and not overwhelm the reader with texture. To these ends he employed a "squint test" to "look at the whole page not just the panel." He noted the tendency among many artists including himself to effectively develop a sort of tunnel vision and consequently overwork a particular area or panel, and that often the "hardest thing is to just back off," call it good, and move on to other areas of the drawing.

Being a caricaturist Richmond of course stressed the emotive power of facial expressions so as to liven up the drawings of a character as they appear throughout the pages of a piece. He also recommended for some of the weaker renderings of people to simply stage the shots for quick reference pictures instead of just "making it up out of your head" - for instance a tricky pose or fold of clothing during a specific action pose. That being said, he also cautioned "don't just copy it - look at it" for a convincing and effective representation, and in this way eventually collect a mental repository of stock imagery - part of "building a visual vocabulary."

There was a couple minutes at the end of the review, and seeing as how nobody had asked any questions, well, I had some of my own - the most relevant one being along the lines of "what do you wish you saw more or less of in portfolio reviews?" Richmond's advice was to target the client with only specific pieces that they would be interested in, no extraneous material, only the relevant content that would apply to the publication or company in question. In other words, when talking with a horror comic publisher, don't bother showing them funny animal cartoons, or try pitching illustrations about cute babies to a paramilitary trade publication. Along these lines, and maybe too many unfinished pencil pieces, most of the work offered up for review reflected a countervailing perspective that one should instead show everything you've got, more of breadth versus depth approach, to a prospective client or employer, a scattershot approach to portfolios that demonstrates diversity. By far the strongest portfolio came from the one graduate student, whose work then elicited in turn the strongest criticism since there was actually something to work with. 

Tom was very gracious and diplomatic with his individual comments, and overall very supportive and encouraging. Portfolio reviews are intense, on-the-spot experiences, and it takes a lot of guts to shoot from the hip and critique aspiring talents, balancing honest appraisals against the blunt realities of a competitive job market. His final piece of counseling was for us to objectively present and conduct ourselves, along with our work, as "confident but not complacent"- excellent advice for both students and professionals.

Despite the number student sign-ups being a little thin, it was telling to see faculty members in attendance for the Saturday afternoon workshop session, as they, more than many of the students (unfortunately caught between Scylla and Charybdis with finals week - one more reason to always be ahead of deadlines) knew just how invaluable an opportunity this would be. Richmond actually gave a bonus two presentations instead of the planned one, and offered countless examples of both his own work plus related trivia, backstory, and technical insight about particular projects and the behind-the-scenes processes that went into each piece.

He began with a quote from caricaturist John Kascht: "A caricature is a portrait with the volume turned up," and cited a recent Wired Magazine article study on how caricatures are now scientifically proven to be much more recognizable than a standard portrait picture. Juxtaposed with the lecture he showed a series of ten-minute freehand caricatures done w/airbrush, and though Richmond has long since switched over to Photoshop for coloring, he still uses pencil & ink for pieces before scanning the linework - citing the "tactile sensation" of a physical drawing vs digital.
As opposed to the more well-known venues such as MAD, and the big-ticket clients such as Marvel, National Geographic, Utne Reader and Sports Illustrated, Richmond shared with us the variety of clients that can be found in niche markets, for example doing work for Risk Management, Financial Planning, and Broadcasting & Cable publications. There was an interesting aside with the comment on how the market for traditional movie parodies has been steadily being eroded as a result of films having a much shorter shelf-life as opposed to TV shows, which effectively shuts out publications with a longer publishing cycle for periodicals like, for example, three-months for MAD). Another piece of insight was the admission that as a hire gun pen he doesn't differentiate or discriminate against political parties ("they're just opinions") but draws the line against work for big tobacco, and no pornographic images either.

Richmond went into considerable detail about the underlying mechanics of caricature, pointing out how more subtle, but oftentimes just as powerful, attributes and characterizations can be revealed through expressions. On that note he said that as an artist, charging your depictions with wide emotive range means essentially that "you are directing actors," and to try and vary the expressions as much as possible, as opposed to same-old cookie-cutter, stock looks of many a cartoon (such as what predominates in my own work). He also distinguished between exaggeration - which includes not just features but other aspects of personality - as contrasted against mere distortion ("exaggeration for no reason").

Richmond will work primarily off what he terms a "keystone" image: a core image that he will then modify according to the needs of the scene or story: one character may appear multiple times throughout a piece in a variety of situations. Unfortunately he isn't paid per caricature, which translates into the massive multiperson/group-shot spreads being a time-suck (often taking up days), with and today's art directors there is no more bidding - it's just a simple matter of either taking what the client has budgeted the funds for, or declining the gig.

Richmond went on to list what he considers to be the three primary elements of a successful caricature: 1) recognizable, 2) exaggeration, and 3) a statement (for more details on this, buy the new book!). He also covered the Five Basic Shapes, and spoke about how it's the relationship between these features that will constitute a good caricature. One specific insight that I thought was really thought-provoking was his "rule of constant mass."This is how changing one relationship affects the others through cause & effect - mass is moved from one area to another. So like building a clay model of someone's head when you take a chunk off the forehead, you don't just get rid of it, it gets moved to the cheeks or chin, for example. Richmond also reiterated the importance of acquiring basic art skills and the advantages of learning the traditional methods of, say for example, painting - and even for portraiture artists to learn caricature, as it will in turn better inform their more serious pieces.

Some of the questions I peppered him with (which also derailed the session enough that, even running a half-hour over, we still never got around to actually drawing anything) were of a more practical nature, and he obliged us with his "Diary of a MAD Job" lecture. This was a lighthearted expose on the entire sequence of events that transpires from the initial layout of a piece, which comes off a script with the ballons/dialogue already laid out - he interestingly doesn't waste time filling in the blanks behind the balloons - to the penciled rough, which is submitted for editorial review & approval before a final pencil is created. This is drawn up (approx. 21 x 32" or "twice-up size") on a light table, over the enlarged rough, on Strathmore 400/500 Bristol, before inking (using a Gillott 303 nib - I didn't ask what brands of ink he uses), scanning, and using a Cintiq for digital coloring (@ 150% size). It was also of note that MAD still employs artwork under the work for hire provision, which was the issue at the heart of why my personal MAD hero, Don Martin, became estranged from the original MAD publisher William Gaines.Fortunately, ownership of the original is a moot point when it comes to digital work, and Tom made mention of the many posters ion his studio that are signed by the full cast members of many hit shows.

One cool thing I learned was the lucrative ($8-10k per summer) opportunity Richmond provides to a stable of around sixty other artists working at half-a-dozen concession stands located at a handful of Six Flags theme parks around the country. Many a time I've paused in admiration of such artists working in the proverbial trenches at the local shopping mall, and been envious of the speed and confidence it takes to knock out in 10-15 minutes something for a live audience. Did I mention there's now a book on these techniques?

On Deck for Demos: Sergio Aragon├ęs, Sam Viviano, Tom Richmond, Paul Coker and Jack Davis (L>R)

After the NCS regional meeting earlier in the weekend, everybody adjourned across the street to a special workshop put on by the "Usual Gang of Idiots." Richmond went to bat with a demo on how he goes about creating a caricature, while the image was projected in real-time up on a wall in front of the spellbound audience. His brief narration encapsulated the significant details covered in turn during both his portfolio review and the workshop, but this was a chance to see it happen right before you... another in a long series of exceptional opportunities and memorable moments.

A big thanks to the faculty of the Sequential Arts department for hosting and organizing this once-in-a-lifetime event, and a special note of gratitude for Tom Richmond and the other NCS/MAD members who came down to Savannah and spent their weekend sharing with folks in the SCAD creative community - his, and the rest of the speakers' advice will resonate far and wide throughout the department, and it inspired many professionals, educators and fans alike.
(More pics here, and Tom's blog post about the weekend is here)

Selena Gomez goes under the Sharpie


  1. Great piece -I've invested in Tom's book and also have an origional from the book .I just wish I had the opportunity to sit and watch .Well done

  2. Thanks - I wished I wouldn't have been to busy taking notes to draw something myself, but it was more than enough to just watch all these guys do their thing!

  3. And don't forget that, even after the workshop ran over by 30 minutes, Tom was awesome enough to stay a little longer and look at a student's final project and offer some advice. I won't ever forget that. :)

    It was also nice to meet you there Jamie!

  4. Nice to meet you too - and nice work as well!