Many Faces: Dickens and the Art of Caricature

JAN / FEB 2012: BY KATHARINE TAYLOR

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“He had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red brown so unsheltered and unshaded that I remember wondering how he went to sleep.”

Most people find the art of caricature irresistible. The ability to capture a likeness in something so simple with only a few sketchy lines seems magical. Techniques for drawing them can be taught. A basic knowledge of the anatomy of the human face is helpful—the rules of thumb that are often taught in art classes. The eyes sit just above halfway from the chin to the top of the head, for instance. But once you have the introductory knowledge, you approach a caricature much differently than an accurate portrait.

First, you must observe. Drawing a caricature requires being able to see what makes each face distinctive; what slight variations from those universal rules of thumb give a person individuality and character. You must also have some insight into what people are like internally, into their minds and souls, to be able to capture that essence we call personality.

Second, caricature also requires boldness. Having noticed the subject has large eyes, you learn to exaggerate the obvious characteristic. It doesn’t work if you make the eyes just slightly larger than normal. To be a caricature, you make them large like a lemur’s! If the ears stick out, they must stick out like an elephant’s; if the neck is long and slender, you make it giraffe-like. Caricatures are meant to be funny as well as insightful, and a timid one that barely exaggerates at all, is just not funny.

Third, you simplify. You can’t exaggerate every single feature. Instead, you decide which ones predominate or give the face character and focus on those. You may emphasize it by minimizing detail in the rest of the face. Caricature does require a certain inborn knack, though. Even if you understand how to draw one, you may or may not have a quick and natural eye to be very good at it. Even some artists who draw beautiful portraits are not able to do caricatures.

Caricatures exist in books as well as in art and Dickens was a great master of them. There are other authors, such as Jane Austen or even JK Rowling, who sketch out interesting characters with boldness and humor, but Dickens had a surpassing knack for capturing personality with few words. In fact, he is so famous for his ability that bizarre or vivid characters in other works are often referred to as “Dickensian.” Even those who have never read David Copperfield have heard of Uriah Heep!

The same principles that govern a good caricature apply to Dickens’ characters. Just as a good caricature begins with an observation, Dickens’ people display a piercing insight into human nature and internal motives. Take the mysterious Mr. Tulkinghorn, who propels the plot of Bleak House. Dickens sketches him with one brief typical paragraph on our first meeting yet we are given the key to his personality: his dominant characteristic is secrecy. “There are noble mausoleums rooted for centuries in retired glades of parks among the growing timber and the fern, which perhaps hold fewer noble secrets than walk abroad among men, shut up in the breast of Mr. Tulkinghorn.”

Bold exaggeration is the technique that makes this author’s figures memorable and where he outshines others; he accomplishes an exaggerated caricature by means of a clever, effortless metaphor. The effect is funny but also sticks in the reader’s memory—a useful quality in novels with huge casts. To return to Mr. Tulkinghorn, in that first paragraph Dickens uses a visual metaphor in his description: “One peculiarity of his black clothes and of his black stockings, be they silk or worsted, is that they never shine. Mute, close, irresponsive to any glancing light, his dress is like himself. He never converses when not professionally consulted.” Of course it can’t be literally true that no light reflects off a person’s clothes ever, but the image of the man absorbing everything like a human black hole is vivid and effective.

Take the description of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.” Scrooge doesn’t literally have frost on his brows but what an excellent way to describe him and at the same time set a wintery atmosphere appropriate for the Christmas background! Dickens’s prose has a poetic rhythmic quality to it; he never just tells us flatly that Scrooge is mean and tight-fisted. That would be boring.

Dickens is using the principle of simplification. He carries the metaphor right through a description by focusing on the dominating characteristic of his subject. Another technique that aids in simplification is his use of repetition. This is what gives so many of his descriptions their outrageous humor, even when he is being cynical or sharp in his observations of human nature. Wegg in Our Mutual Friend is certainly not sympathetic but the way Dickens reduces him to a wooden carving is brilliant. Every word is chosen to magnify the impression and the description of his laugh is funny because it’s so over-the-top yet realistic: “Wegg was a knotty man, and a close-grained, with a face carved out of very hard material, that had just as much play of expression as a watchman’s rattle. When he laughed, certain jerks occurred in it, and the rattle sprung. Sooth to say, he was so wooden a man that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg naturally…”

One of my favorite examples is this one-sentence zinger that describes Pip’s sister in Great Expectations: “My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap.” It’s only one small detail that Dickens chose to exaggerate, yet it tells us everything we need to know about Mrs. Joe.

As an artist, I know how deceptively difficult it is to draw really good caricatures, and that is why I admire Dickens’s characterizations so much. It’s only one part of his skill with words and ability to craft a good story, but it’s a distinctive element of reading his work. What would Dickens be without those surprisingly insightful and hilarious metaphors? Or without the brilliantly depicted characters, even the most minor ones in his stories painted with memorable detail? ♥

janfeb2012

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