Story by: Wilfred Lee, Photos by: Kim Dong-geun
In a faraway, almost-forgotten place in Ohio, Aaron Philby began his journey as a caricature artist by drawing during his younger years. Now 32, his passion for drawing has not waned, and he continues to draw live caricatures of people wherever the vibes are good and the pay is enough.
Artist’s Journey’s Wilfred Lee sat down with Philby to draw up some observations and ideas about the strange world of caricature.
Groove Korea: How did you get involved in caricature?
Aaron Philby: I started drawing caricatures at Cedar Point, Ohio, a place that’s all about having fun, making money and friends, long summer workdays, late-night shenanigans and doing paperwork amidst heaps of dead and dying muffleheads, which are like docile mosquitoes wearing funny hats.
How do you define caricature?
Portraits and caricatures are approaches to drawing people. Caricature says it’s a joke, though, and the great thing about a joke is you get to say true things that you can’t say if you’re bound to honesty. So it’s ironic. Don’t you think? So as soon as we all agree that portraits and caricatures are both about likeness (which they are, but don’t tell anybody), it’s all out the window.
What are the elements of a great caricature?
A caricature ought to look like something you’ve absolutely never seen before; that’s one element, and the other element is that it ought to look like this customer who you’ve, incidentally, also never seen before. Simultaneously, there ought to be some sense of harmony to this mess, and that’s the third element, and that’s all just the ideal, mind you — in my opinion.
Who or what influences your current style?
Pablo Francisco, Jim Carrey, (comedy duo) Tim and Eric, Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, Bob Dylan, The Mars Volta, of Montreal, the concept of (blues musician) Robert Johnson, the ambition of David Foster Wallace, something about Larry David, Abbot and Costello, Norm Macdonald, Alfred Hitchcock and (animator) Eddie Fitzgerald.
What has it been like to draw caricatures in Korea?
The good thing about drawing caricatures in Korea is that I don’t have to understand what the customers are saying, and the extent to which I am able to understand their nonsense is the extent to which I can feel good about my Korean language progress.
The downside is that Koreans, as a rule, value the idea of “the professional”: the idea of someone who can provide a satisfactory product under all conditions. That’s something I would like for myself, sure. But at the same time, Koreans, as a rule, don’t like being singled out and made fun of. This is what caricature professionalism is all about, but not exactly.
That sums up the challenges in drawing Koreans. Caricatures aren’t about drawing mean-spirited or ugly pictures of people, but they’re more like figuring out, how can I do a drawing of you that’s definitely you and nobody else, without using your most unusual elements as my very basis? What can a caricature artist aspire to if not, at the very least, to give everybody a different drawing?
The answer would be to temper it with a genuine sense of humanity and good cheer. This is exactly how I would like to temper my drawings, but first I need to make sure I actually draw the person. Humanity and good cheer are natural, non-forcible, non-fake-able things; such is their importance. Even as I put that into words right now, I can’t help but understate it.
How do you deal with a customer who does not like a caricature?
Poorly. I clam up. I switch into fight-or-flight customer service mode when that should be my time to shine, where I open up like a flower and get into real genuine back-and-forths where the other customers look around and say, “Golly, we’re really in the middle of something here.”
I don’t mean that I want to get into fights with customers, but that’s closer to what I want to be doing than what I do now, which is run off with my tail between my legs. It should be like if I got a rejection and then I realized I was actually in a dream but I couldn’t get out of the dream, so I went around giving all the parents noogies and high-fiving the kids. Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto?
How has being here influenced your own personal drawing style?
I would only be guessing wildly, but I would guess Korea has influenced me to a sort of cautious way of not wanting to pick up the habits of a very specialized approach to caricatures — as in, the culture, people’s faces and ways of seeing faces here are different from the rest of the world.
I don’t want to leave Korea unaffected, of course, but I also don’t want to be the guy who can sidestep a would-be Asian reject with a vengeance, then have the average customer blank-face me on the reaction. I guess I don’t want to be out of touch. So that’s my conscious influence, and then my unconscious influence would be lots of habits having to do with big eyes, V-lines, dark circles and mouth wrinkles.