“SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE” likes to play to the crazy.
Last weekend, the gifted Kate McKinnon pulled out her ever-sharpening impersonation of Hillary Clinton, and her take again struck a familiar chord. As this kinetic candidate leapt upon unsuspecting beach-side tourists, determined to meet every last voter (and their tots), this Tasmanian Democrat was a bundle of rabid ambition while giving off — as she sprinted in that signature pants suit — more than a whiff of desperation. We’ll call it Eau de Overcompensation.
As she literally ran for office, McKinnon’s Clinton was chugging along a well-trod comedic through-line for “SNL.” Amy Poehler’s sharp impression is always lurking in the 30 Rock rafters, particularly from an inspired 2008 debate, as Poehler’s Hillary could barely mask her contempt for Tina Fey’s “maverick-y” Sarah Palin. At one point, tearing the wood from her lectern like some stumping coil of polyester-clad disbelief, this Clinton said with incredulous sarcasm that yes, her problem as a candidate and lifelong political animal must be that she didn’t want the presidency “enough.”
And this satiric caricature, like Tina’s take on Palin, took hold — a grip that persists today — because at the center of “SNL’s” broad brush was a tight portrait that captured a common voter perception, one with roots stretching back two decades.
So pivoting from “SNL’s” Hillary-sketch caricature, Comic Riffs today aims to evolve its Hillary caricature sketch.
But first, I should note: This Saturday in Washington, the National Cartoonists Society will honor legendary MAD magazine artist Mort Drucker — presenting him with a newly created career award — and whenever I sit to sketch a caricature, the influential legacy of Drucker rests, much diminished by the translation, in my muscle memory. From studying Drucker’s genius brushwork and pen lines in his decades of Hollywood parodies, I can’t unlearn how to seek out the building blocks of face shapes. By gazing at greats like Drucker, and David Levine, clear back to Daumier, you see how faces aren’t just lines, but intersecting planes — a continental drift of surfaces on the page that somehow come together in a gradual visual dance of elusive identity. Because hey, you’re not only illustrating a face; you’re also illuminating an attitude.
When you put instrument to page, you necessarily render not only perception, but also judgment.
So in the spirit of the mighty Mort: Here comes the judge.
1. I start with a thumbnail to necessarily root this visual progression in “the real.” At the outset, by looking at scores of photos, I simply want to capture a representative look that, in a few lines, reflects her true proportions:
2. As I search, I choose lines to bring to the fore, creating a few contrasts in width and tone to see how this just might shake out. If this is a dance, we’re merely finding our space on the floor:
3. Next, I pull back by switching from pencil to pen and brush, as I aim to quickly — based more on reaction instead of ponderous thought — isolate the essential lines, all while preserving a fluid movement:
4. Now, I want to move into the full looseness and freedom of this visual dance, so I switch back to pencil to roughly build up some of her features:
5. Next, I aim to imbue this sketch with some attitude. I decide the upward gaze really reflects Hillary as repeat candidate (as opposed to, say, her widely smiling first go-round, or her Secretary of State-era meme as ensconced executive, throwing shade from behind shades, exuding an air of departmental control). This, now, is older Hillary, as though she’s decided that the right campaign tone is of dynastic, “the-nomination-is-mine-thank-you” nobility:
6. Now I pivot to pen lines to push the concentrated emotion more — does this feel right as caricatured attitude, or does it read as TOO angry, providing too little mask of practiced “message”?:
7. Whoa, that amped up rather easily. Let’s try to dial down the overtones of the aspirational fury — perhaps lift the chin to reflect a royal air of implied political-throne presumption:
8. And let’s add some spot color, to test the coolness vs. warmth of the caricature “under the lights” of some actual tints:
9. Hmm. Okay, time to pull back some from seeing her face merely as “lines” — in this three-dimensional game of visual “Star Trek” chess, I need to understand her face better as rounded “planes”:
10. Again, a splash of spot color, to check in on how we’re looking “under the lights”:
11. Okay, now, without time to over-think, I want to let my hand find some natural resolution — to “find the through-line” in all these aggregated aspect sketches, like the rounding-out of a personality (in “no-photo” blue):
12. Now, let’s line up the geometry along our theme of “veteran ambition, image-staged as assured noble air” — reflecting both personality aspect and its campaign mask:
13. Again, we put this “under the lights” and — pop! — all the flaws come into high relief. Yipes. I’ve pushed the caricature too far into “Disney puppet,” with the too-broad features (is that Rose Marie from “Dick Van Dyke”? Or Betty White now?) — as the Keane-y eyes overly grow from “ambitious” to “alien close encounter meets cult indoctrination”:
14. OK, by dialing down the facial features — give the eyes a tighter focus, purse the smaller lips, bring the nose back down from LBJ/Nixonian proportions — I can now draw in my “final” lines of facial architecture:
15. Now let’s build up all our warm and cool color tones, as we apply several coats of personality and political attitude and — yes, necessary editorial judgment — in our caricature. And the final result:
Hillary, like most all politicians, has many faces and phases, but here is merely a single take as she seeks the just-right, durable campaign pose in the long march to 2016.
Who knows? By January, as her campaign changes, I may have to start all over again, in some aspects from scratch — not unlike, say, a candidate who’s previously traveled this path toward the presidential nomination’s ever-beguiling flame.
That fire, after all, always makes for the most interesting and illuminating artistic light.