Caricaturing the Caricaturists in Paris: Then and Now.
A Sad Discovery About the Artistic Hub of Paris 13 years later.
December 27th, 2023
I first hit the summit of Caricaturist Everest 13 years ago. I had no idea what was waiting for me (or how naive I was about it.)
At the time I didn’t realize what a tourist trap it was, more akin to Times Square than some bastion of fine art held in high esteem. Still, Montmartre wasn’t a place I knew about beyond glimpsing it in Amélie, so I was very curious to see it for myself.
It was 2010, and I was on my way to the Shrewsbury Cartoon Festival in the UK. I stopped in France for just two days. I’d never been to Europe so everything I experienced was so mind-bendingly new to me. I read my naive diary entries from back then and laugh at how the smallest things sent me into raptures; cartoons on billboards, movie posters, bookstores full of comics (bandes desinée), and exhibitions dedicated to comic art.
I’d only just moved to Melbourne from Perth, my only exposure to other working artists being at the annual shindig of the Australian Cartoonists Association. My teeny 20-something brain exploded when I discovered there was a culture on the other side of the planet that revered cartoonists the way Aussies worship cricketers. Uttering the names Sempé, Uderzo, or Hergé in Belgium to the French elicit gasps of excitement usually reserved for Taylor Swift fans.
Cartoonists aren’t really a well-respected bunch in my homeland, sadly— we have to scrap and beg for every inch of space we occupy, and even then it’s not enough to make a living. In France and Belgium however… cartoonists are celebrated as actual artists; it’s a real, legitimate job. It’s not easy, but it’s actually possible.
Speaking with a couple of artist friends here in Paris this week, I learned there are very distinct tiers of professional work available, and if you don’t know the right people/have the right agent/publisher/style/attitude it can be made even more challenging. With that said, there are grants, exhibitions and residencies for cartoonists in France that I could never even have dreamt of in Australia, let alone the US.
I revisited Place du Tetre today with Sophie (video above) to try and find the caricaturist I’d met all those years ago.
Considering the words above, you can imagine my disappointment at discovering that the few remaining cartoonists had been relegated to a tiny corner of the square. The majority of the people set up to draw were doing realistic portraits and watercolors of Paris landmarks and people’s pets from smartphone photos. I guess whatever sells is what they’ll favour most; Nothing new about that, I guess. (Just take a look at what sells at Comic-Con and you’ll see the same trend-chasing tendencies.)
When I asked about the guys you’ll read about below, I was told that some were dead, and others only worked in the summer, if at all. The heavily unionized and regulated square of artists seems to be less of a tightly-knit group of colleagues and more of a smattering of disparate mercenaries.
After the story you’ll read below about 2010, it was disappointing to see it the cartoonist contingent recede.
April 17th, 2010
This morning I set out North in search of the artists Mecca known as Place du Tertre. Okay, some say “Mecca” others say “God’s waiting room for old French cartoonists.”
I marched up the cobbled streets towards Montmarte, getting higher and higher as my kneecaps ground further and further into a fine powder. After thousands of steps, I finally made it to the top of the Sacre Coeur Basilica to find breakdancing soccer-tricksters entertaining crowds of onlookers. Just like Jesus would have wanted.
The view from the top of Sacré-Cœur is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. On a clear day you can see all of Paris from theses steps. The only place you’ll get a higher vantage point is the top of the Eiffel Tower.
It only registered after I wandered out of the cathedral how cold it was. Despite the bright sunny skies, the air had a deep chill to it. I couldn’t feel my face. Literally: my hands were touching my cheeks but I couldn’t feel either one. I was lucky to still be able to operate my camera.
I walked the cobbled streets, jaw agape at the amazing neighbourhood of the great artists and writers who once thrived here when rents were cheap. These are the streets Van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso called home. The Moulin Rouge, the little restaurants and cafés amid tiny cottages on winding roads.
I eventually made my way to the place I’d been really hanging out to see since I arrived in Paris - Place du Tertre. I remember reading about Tom and Anna Richmond’s account of their experience there in 2006, and it helped me know what to expect when I arrived. I rounded the corner to find a scene even more overwhelming than I’d imagined.
Dozens of artists, caricaturists, portrait painters, landscape painters all with their easels propped next to one another - samples of their work (and in some cases, other peoples’ work) presented proudly at their stand, enticing passing tourists to trade a hefty wad of Euros for a one-off piece of art.
The main interest I had were the caricaturists. The people who do exactly what I do for a job, (minus the tacky tourist part) and some of them are truly amazing. Others… eeehh notsomuch.
According to Tom’s friend Rick Tulka, this seemingly loose collection of artists is actually a very tightly controlled union ruled with an iron fist. Trying to just show up and start drawing is a good way to get your fingers broken. Doubtless, to have a spot in the Place de Tertre itself you pay a lot of euros in rent and have to have seniority.
In any case, there were other artists wafting around the streets of Montmarte trying to get a look-in to be considered for the ‘all-prestigious’ Place du Tertre. I wandered slowly through the square, stopping to look at each artists’ work, interested to see what samples they had displayed.
The guy who’d been displaying Tom Richmond’s caricatures of Busta Rhymes, Marilyn Monroe, Julia Roberts and Joe Bluhm’s caricature of a co-worker were still up there. Without someone telling him to take them down I suspect they’d stay up there as long as the Mona Lisa will stay up in the Louvré.
I’ve always found it bizarre that that scammy caricaturists will put up samples of other artists’ work. Surely when the person has theirs drawn and finds it’s not of the same standard, they realize they’ve been had. (and have no real obligation to pay, since the ballsiest of false advertising was the reason they sat down in the first place?)
As I continued wandering through, I came to a bustling corner where four caricaturists of varying ages had their work set up.
It was like a heirarchy - with the old, bearded Gandalf-like caricaturist sitting, smoking an endless chain of cigarellos and watching over the younger caricaturists around him. He was watching on in approval as the skinny old guy in leather next to him, (I call him Skeletor) was finishing off a portrait of a young girl in charcoal.
I moved in to take a picture of him working, when ‘Gandalf’ moved in and started speaking some beard-muffled French in a raised tone about not taking photos.
He pointed at the girl’s father who was standing behind me with a disapproving look - like I was trying to take photos of his daughter like a creep. I apologised to the dad and explained I was just taking a photo of the portrait as the guy was working on it. The dad was American, so understood me just fine - and said “No, that’s fine. I was just under the impression these guys didn’t want you taking photos.”
I looked around at the other caricaturists, all of whom now weren’t working, and were squinting at me, curiously. Gandalf slowly sat back down and lit up another cigarello, laughing to himself as he took the first puff. I felt kind of guilty about the whole photo debacle, so wanted to make amends. I walked over and said “How about you draw me?”
He raised an eyebrow at me, as if I’d asked something silly of him- almost as if I’d asked Mozart to just ‘play me a tune.’ He said something in French as he pointed to the caricaturist off to his right who quickly picked up his drawing board and charcoals and nodded at me.
As he gestured for me to sit down he said “He doesn’t speak English. I, uh— un peu— speak a little.”
This guy was friendly, very polite, and could clearly draw. I later found out he’d studied as an art student and was drawing caricatures because they paid well. He was passionate about the craft and considered it a artform worthy of respect. A Daumier devotee.
I made a very conscious decision before I’d sat down, not to mention that I’m a cartoonist if I get my caricature drawn.
Not only am I way below par to these guys, but it felt presumptuous to just stroll into these guys’ territory and say that I do what they do. These guys have been doing it way longer, and its pointless to bring it up. What are they going to do - give me a job? Get me to fill in on their break?
Above all else, I didn’t want to sit for a caricature and tell the other caricaturist “Okay - I do this for a living. You’d better be good… Go!”
The moment I sat down I realised it was the first time I’d sat for a solo caricature. I mean other caricaturists have drawn me at gigs…
…and Tom Richmond used my dorky face as the example for his caricaturing workshop at the Stanleys Conference last year - but I’ve not sat for a solo caricature as a punter, one-on-one with a caricaturist I’ve not met.
The funny thing about caricaturing someone live is that people tend to ask you the same old questions while they’re sitting there; no matter where in the world they’re from, no matter what age - it’s always the same:
“So, how long have you been doing this?”
“What’s your REAL job?”
“What, are you like an art student or something?”
“What do you look for when you draw someone?”
This seems to ease the subject’s nerves to try and distract them from the fact that you’re staring at all of their features - and it is unnerving when someone starts looking at every inch of your face before grinning or squinting as they look back down at the page and scribble away.
So you always have the standard answers to these questions ready to go so you can keep drawing while you talk and put them at ease. You don’t want to have a whole bunch of caricatures of people looking uncomfortable.
Then, of course, you have ‘The Heckler.’
The Heckler is the person (usually a guy) who walks behind the artist, looks at the drawing and then at you, then back at the drawing and say something like “His ears aren’t THAT big!” or “Her eyes aren’t THAT far apart!” -and laughing hysterically - quickly undoing all the work the caricaturist has done to put the subject at ease.
These are the people who would never in a million years sit for a caricature themselves, but are more than happy to sit back and make fun of the artist and the person being drawn. Threatening to draw them next is a pretty effective method of dispersing said douchebag.
That all said - we had all the regular players this day.
Three or for different American tourists came up and did the ‘look at caricature - look at me - look at caricature - “Oh, his nose isn’t THAT big!” followed by an incessant cackle. Another passed by, said roughly the same thing, laughed and moved on.
The third heckler walked past and said “God, he’s really missed the likeness there. He’s way off - looks nothing like you!”
Now, when someone says that, there are two things you can do as the caricaturist: You can pretend you didn’t hear it, ignore it, and keep on working.
Or, you can say something.
The caricaturist drawing me decided to take option 1, but I could see in his face when he looked up from then on, he was worried and it had clearly affected him. He gave an awkward and uncomfortable chuckle and drew a little bit slower - pulling the page back to look at it more carefully.
The heckler gave one more “Nope. That’s not him at all.”
I then decided to take option 2.
“Sorry chief - I didn’t hear him ask you what you thought. And I certainly didn’t.”
His devious grin promptly disappeared. In my book, his final jab entitled me to a free “Respond to the douchebag” token.
“Well, it doesn’t look like you.”
“Right. But you could do a better job, yeah?”
“Well no, I.. But I’m not an Cari.. caricaca… carickick..”
“Caricaturist. Exactly. Now, shut the fuck up.”
He opened his mouth to say something, but instead just grumpily moved on. The guy drawing me had to stop drawing from laughter.
I looked over at Gandalf and Skeletor who were both having a big laugh. Gandalf pointed back at the caricaturist drawing me, so I turned and he was ready to go -this time with a smile.
He hadn’t smiled til now, and in doing so, he revealed two, big, widely spaced front teeth.
My hand twitched.
As his face stretched out from the smile, it revealed a whole new dimension to his previously stoney face. Cheek wrinkles started to present themselves, crows feet, his chin shape changed, his eyebrows went from straight across, to a new sort of perfectly flowing, almost aesthetically pleasing shape across his brow.
I gritted my teeth.
This guy was a caricature and I hadn’t even realised it. He would make a fantastic subject, (and I’m sure he was aware of it too.)
I found myself studying his face for more detail: for proportions, for relationships between the features (til now I’d consciously switched off the part of my brain that does this with people. It can get distracting,)
I tried to distract myself by talking to him. I told him I realised caricature isn’t meant to be kind, it’s meant to exaggerate and distort and parody the person being drawn - not airbrush out features they’re uncomfortable with.
But saying this was only making me focus more on how I’d draw this guy. My brain started sketching the shape of his face exaggerating his jaw-line, his teeth, his bulbous nose, and those freaking eyebrows.
A good 25 minutes had passed as he started drawing the obligatory Eiffel Tower in the background, and asked, “Where are you from? You English?”
“Non, je suis Australien” (I winced, as I worried he’d put something like a shrimp, or a kangaroo in the background.) “Aah Australien! You are on holiday oui? What do you do in Ozzie?”
I bit my lip. Smiled. Thought of anything else - “Taxidermist” “Hitman” “Accountant”…
“Uh. I’m ….I uh.”
Ah, fuck it.
“I’m a cartoonist”
I think his eyebrows shot up through the brim of his hat as his toothy smile made an encore.
“Vous plaisantez! Vous êtes caricaturiste! “
I wasn’t entirely sure what he said, but I repeated “uh Oui, uh. vooz ez caricatureeeste.”
He hadn’t signed the caricature yet, so he still wasn’t finished. This meant I couldn’t get up and pay him to make a swift escape. I signalled to the guy selling tubes while my caricaturist began happily gesturing to Gandalf and the crew as he exclaimed, laughing “Vous ne croiriez pas ! Cet homme est caricaturiste!!”
They all spun their heads around to look at me like someone had infiltrated their base and had been unmasked.
A tense moment. Then…
“Ahahaha!!!” Gandalf clapped. They all belly laughed excitedly.
Whew, that could have gone either way.
They started asking me questions in French, and I could only just make out what they were saying. My guy finished off the caricature of me, then showed it to me.
I laughed - probably a little too loudly, and through dorky snorts issued a “Merci beaucoup!” It looked a little too much like Michael Bublé after a severe stroke, but it was better than what I could do.
He took a photo of me with the caricature on my camera, and I got up. He unclipped the page from his drawing pad, rolled it up and put it in the tube I’d just bought for a small fortune.
It was as I stood up and stretched out in the freezing cold that he’d noticed the five pens hanging out of my pocket. (A double-tipped Tombow N15, a Pigma, an Artline 210, a Pilot Fineliner and a new double-tipped Japanese pen I’d bought a day earlier.) I pushed them back into my pocket as Gandalf’s friend said “Haha - you take your studio with you, yes?”
“Ha! Everywhere!” I said uncomfortably.
I asked the guy how much did he want for the caricature, (I knew it was 30Euro but I thought I’d ask to be sure.) He said - “Usually is 30, but for you I give for 20, oui?”
“That’s very generous, merci boucoup!”
Just as I pulled out the twenty, he looked over at Gandalf. Gandalf had planted another cigarello between his hairy lips and was mid-way through lighting it when he stretched his wrinkly finger at my guy, smiled and paused for what seemed like a minute and said..
My face filled with heat while the rest of my body was frozen solid. I probably looked like a radish wearing a scarf. I laughed nervously, and considered for a moment the mental study I’d just made of this guy’s face. “No, no that’s—”
Skeletor gestured towards my guy’s chair “Oui! Do it!”
My guy handed me his drawing board with 5 or 6 pages left clipped on to it, and offered me his charcoals. I said “No - that’s okay” and pulled out my Tombow.
The Tombow marker is the one I use when I do live caricaturing gigs. It’s double-tipped, with one side as a brush tip, and the other side as a finer felt-tip for hatching. They run out quickly, they smudge, and they’re expensive, but they’re my weapon of choice. Everybody’s got something different.
We switched chairs, and I propped the board on my knee, and propped my right foot on top of my sideways left foot to get some height.
My hands were still freezing.
Not just the kind of cold where you can rub them and they start to warm up again, but I’m talking numb, stiff, frozen fingers sticking out of an ice-plate of a palm. I started rubbing my hands together in vain trying to warm them up, but to no avail. I shook them out, huffed into them, nothing. I should have worn gloves.
Just then, Gandalf opened up a little case, pulled out a Cohiba cigarello and handed it to me. The offering quelled my nerves, which up 'til now had welled up at feeling uncomfortable, like some presumptuous little upstart kid, coming in and showing off.
I grabbed it, nodded a silent thanks and pulled out a box of matches I’d taken from a café the night before. As I lit the stick and took a couple of puffs, a curious crowd who had seen the exchange of caricaturists switching seats started to form behind me.
Just then, another caricaturist to my left, seeing the crowd form said “Okay... well I draw you while you draw him!”
Oh God. This is getting ridiculous.
A clump of people clapped and laughed at hearing this, so I chomped down on the cigar and took another few puffs as I took the lids off the Tombow marker.
Gandalf and Skeletor were impressed with the pen —I’d be surprised if they hadn’t seen it as they’ve been around for a while. Then again, these guys use charcoals, chalks and paints so maybe they hadn’t tried using them. All the same, their eyes got a bit wider as they looked on, skeptically.
I looked up at the hunter-now-hunted caricaturist who had a worried look on his face. I’m sure he’d seen the crowd behind me and saw potential dollar signs in his eyes. For this reason I decided to be doubly-quick so he could get on with earning his money.
I started with his eyes, following the line of his heavy brow, moving as quickly as I could with my solid nubs of ice. As I moved on to each feature- right eye, left eye, bulbous nose, the caricaturist next to me said “What - no guides?” I think he was asking why I was just drawing it straight on to the page without doing any fine outlines or a guide shape of the face to follow as some caricaturists find helps.
I didn’t have time, and I wasn’t about to make this some great piece of art for all to revere - I was just going to politely knock up a quick scribble and be on my way. I was already way out of my depth.
My hands were only marginally less frozen than before, but I still didn’t have anywhere near the range of movement I usually have in my fingers ( so it was all coming from Elbow-Town!)
The crowd grew and watched on, laughing and talking about the drawing as I hit the 2 minute mark. I hadn’t realised, but this whole time in a desperate effort to get warm, I’d been puffing madly on this cigar while I was furiously scribbling away —getting quicker as I went— so it had burned down to half-way.
The caricaturist to my left who was drawing me was still roughing in his outline as I looked over and continued hatching with my right hand. He said “You slow down or I won’t be able to draw you while you’re here!”
I looked back at my guy and asked him to smile— it didn’t take much. He’d already relaxed into it and was pleased there were so many people around his stand, pointing at his work and the other caricaturists (who now all had subjects to draw, plucked from the crowd.)
As he smiled, I drew in those two big front teeth, and hatched in the waved eyebrows I’d been marveling at earlier. I hit the three minute mark and got down to the body. I started to draw the body and he said “Neck already! Small body?” “Oui” I said - “Small body” as the cigar wound down to 1cm. (I hate the massive head- tiny body caricatures, but what are you gonna do.)
I shaded in the shoes and pants, and quickly drew in an Eiffel Tower, as Gandalf said something in French off to my right and laughed. His old friend Skeletor translated “He said ‘draw the Sacre Couer Basillica!’”
The crowd laughed, then I started drawing Sacre Coeur, and the caricaturists lost their shit. I knew he was kidding, so I drew it to take the piss. They liked that.
Minute four, and I doused the cigar on the cobbled street below me, put the pen in my mouth and held the caricature back to have a look from arms’ length and get one last look . I wasn’t happy with it, but I guess I never am.
The crowd clapped, so I guess it was done.
I signed it, spun it around for the caricaturist to see, and got a warm handshake from him with a “Thank you - very very much. ” He translated from Gandalf “You got him!”
Frankly, the caricature was sloppy, and the likeness was barely there. I wasn’t happy with it but I wasn’t going to complain. I took the compliment and thanked him for letting me draw him.
I handed him back his board and turned to the crowd to gesture ‘Quick! Now you get one done!’ - He was very happy at the gesture. I put my pen away, shook my guys hand, and waved goodbye to the others. The guy drawing me had abandoned the sketch at nose stage as I’d already finished and stood up by then.
Just as I was leaving, Gandalf gestured for me to come over to where he was sitting. I shook his hand and thanked him for the cigarello. He kept shaking my hand, smiling and chuckled and asked “Australie eh?….” I nodded. Then he slowly croaked “Good.”
I wandered off into a little café called Le Consulat to get an espresso and thaw out. I sketched Gandalf and laughed at his old friendly, monosyllabic approval. “Good.”
There’s something magical about the desk. I fixed it up with an inordinate number of screws and old nails that I’d found around the place just to hold the thing together long enough to survive the next deadline.