Drawing a Laugh
Case Western Reserve Alum and longtime New Yorker illustrator Tom Bachtell talks about the timelessness of satire and why good-looking people are harder to draw.
If you're a regular reader of The Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, Time or Newsweek, Tom Bachtell has been entertaining you for more than two decades with his line-drawing caricatures of the world's most prominent personalities. Since 1992, he has contributed hundreds of illustrations to The New Yorker's "The Talk of the Town" section. A 1980 Case Western Reserve University alum, Bachtell says that from the time he was barely out of diapers, his first love has been drawing a laugh.
When exactly did your love of drawing begin?
The very first caricature I did was of my mom in Magic Marker. I was 5 years old, although I had started drawing earlier than that. In talks I give occasionally, I use that caricature to show the beginning of my work. It tickled her, and that was one of the things I responded to. I could tell, in retrospect, that I nailed her.
Since that precocious debut you've drawn dozens of world leaders and celebrities. What's the goal of each new drawing?
I hope that through my drawings readers get a little more perspective or an enhancement of understanding about a person or events. I don't want to hit you over the head with my humor, but if I see something like pomposity or superciliousness in somebody and can make it funny, I love doing that.
You depicted former President George W. Bush countless times, and now Barack Obama appears frequently in "Talk of the Town." Do you ever feel like, "Oh, no! I've got to draw him again?"
There were times with Bush at the end when I felt a little that way. I had more or less figured out his face, so I could practically draw him in my sleep. Still, even though he had a very small range of apparent emotions, I would surprise myself in finding new things. Right now, I'm still getting to know Obama. He's complicated. There's plenty of material, but there's still a lot to learn.
What do you do when a subject just isn't coming to life on paper?
There are times when the lines lose all meaning to me. They become scratches. So I have to put the drawing down, take a walk and come back. A caricature has to look like the person without a sign underneath it saying who it is.
Do you get much feedback from the politicians or celebrities you draw?
The feedback tends to be from people who follow my work and complain about the way I'm drawing somebody: "Why did you draw Obama's ears like that? I don't understand that." A lot of politicians don't care if it's a positive or negative drawing. They just like being drawn.
Caricature never seems to lose its popularity regardless of the political times or cultural climate. Why is that?
Caricatures are essentially snapshots in line. They're satire. People need that as much as they need written satire and humor. They like lively perspectives on things. When caricatures work best, you can convey a world within a drawing.
Is it true that you had no formal training as an illustrator?
I didn't train as an artist, in part, because what I liked about drawing was cartooning, and that didn't seem a legitimate career choice. It wasn't until after I graduated from Case Western Reserve that I had an epiphany and decided I could be a cartoonist. I had a very steep learning curve when I first got into it. I was kind of faking it for a while.
Having friends and acquaintances goad you into drawing them must be an occupational hazard.
Yes, but it's very hard to draw people I know. There's a certain looseness to my drawings that makes people think I should be able to sit down and draw them quickly: "Come on what's the matter? Just sketch me." They're not always aware of the effort it takes to make it work.
Are certain people more difficult than others to caricature?
I tend to get stumped by very attractive people. A lot of contemporary entertainers, like TV stars, are interchangeable. There are people who no longer look like themselves if I move their features a quarter of an inch. The example I used to give was Pierce Brosnan. I couldn't draw him for the life of me.
You've been doing this kind of drawing for a long time. Do you ever think it's time to move on to something else?
It's not easy work, especially the fact that I do this every week for The New Yorker. But I realize I'm so lucky. I'm being paid to be an observer, to convey what I see, and that's a privilege. There's always something new to see.