Design and character


Dear Artist,

Yesterday Kerry Waghorn dropped by for lunch and a visit. Kerry is one of the world’s top caricaturists — his work syndicated in more than 400 newspapers, books and other publications. You’re probably familiar with his remarkable drawings of Barack Obama, John McCain, the Clintons, Celine Dion, Bruce Willis and more than 7000 other celebrities over a thirty-year career.


illustrations by Kerry Waghorn

Likeness is a tough order. Caricatures present even more problems. Faces need to be simplified, yet personality and character still need to shine through. Working from a vast morgue of wire photos and collected reference, Kerry roughs in a general idea in “perhaps five minutes.” Then he works up his drawing with woodless graphite pencils on as many as five tracing-paper overlays. Lines are found afresh and his distinctive design and personal touch forms up. When the character he wants to see appears, the top tracing is once again pencilled in, this time on Hi-Art Illustration Board (No. 62 or 79) with a rickety old homemade projector.

The final India-inking is done with both pen and brush, mostly Hunt’s 102 and 104 pen. Mistakes are corrected with an electric eraser. Kerry seldom uses opaque white because of the frequent need to throw on a watercolour wash for certain publications. He releases three to five caricatures a week.

One of the examples illustrated here is a fairly complex book illustration. Here the 13 faces depicted are of no one in particular, but all are nevertheless distinct individuals. The same process has been applied, one overlay metamorphosing into another, the work appearing holistically. Multi-generational refinement contributes to design and character.

For Kerry, all this takes place in the haze of eye problems. He has had cataract surgery and lives with inferior peripheral vision and no depth perception. He uses close-to-the-side reference and works both upside down and sideways. These factors also influence his distinctive style. Working at home and alone, far from the folks who are skewered by his work — and who often try to collect it — he has developed his private methodology. “An inconvenience,” says Kerry, quoting Confucius, “is an unrecognized opportunity.”


illustration by Kerry Waghorn

Best regards,


PS: “It’s ironic, but creative folks often have to deal with some sort of disadvantage. Like Oscar Peterson kept going on the piano even though he had arthritis.” (Kerry Waghorn)

Esoterica: Speed is vital in the publishing game. Editors don’t want to wait half an hour for a download. When Kerry completes a work, he scans it, purges noise and cleans it up in Photoshop, reduces it to two sizes — 1200 dpi and 200 dpi — and sends it via FTP as a tiff file. Kerry works in Vancouver, B.C., and delivers to Universal Press Syndicate in Kansas City, MO. He is one artist who sells his copies and keeps his originals. Kerry is sitting on his retirement fund.


Kerry Waghorn










Waghorn “finds” character with onion-skin overlays in pencil before final inking in. Individual types are brought together graphically, some more refined and developed than others. This illustration is from Squandering Billions by Gary Bannerman and Don Nixdorf. The book is a critique of the medical subculture.


Overcoming difficulties
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Wood Farm Oaks and Palms”
oil on panel, 14 x 18 inches
by Linda Blondheim

Many artists are handicapped. I am legally blind in my right eye and have been since birth. It is a problem for me with depth perception and with linear perspective. I have learned to ignore it. Painting the landscape as a focus for my work has helped. Visual accuracy is less important with trees and so forth. Being a representational expressionist has also helped. My goal has never been to copy nature but instead, to move it around to suit me. I also have Rheumatoid Arthritis, but overcoming difficulty is a normal routine for artists. From the beginning we learn that our profession will have many challenges, so handicaps are just part of the routine.


Working with limitations
by Caroline Thompson, Boulder, CO, USA


“Iris Season, II”
oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches
by Caroline Thompson

Thank you for today’s letter about Kerry Waghorn’s imaginative work, and his challenge with eyesight. I’m struggling with arthritis in my hands and a chronic sprained wrist. As an oil painter of large abstracts I find this very frustrating and limiting as to length of time I can work. Today’s message spoke to me. I shall “work” toward more tolerance of my limitations and be joyful that I can at least still do it, if not as fast and furious as I once could.





Perfection overrated
by Leza Macdonald, White Rock, BC, Canada


original painting
by Leza Macdonald

I wonder if Kerry Waghorn’s work would be as wonderful if his sight was perfect. Would he see his subjects as he does? Like El Greco, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas and Rodin, their disabilities helped to make their work so unique and identifiable. Kerry is right in saying that somehow creative people are most likely to be attacked where it hurts the most. Georgia O’Keeffe in her 90s started working in sculpture because of her declining sight. I too have declining sight. Waghorn and these artists are an inspiration to me and take away the fear of not being able to work without my 20/20. Perfection is highly overrated, especially in art.




‘Just an illustrator’
by Hugo, Calgary, AB, Canada


original painting
by Hugo

I recognize the struggle you describe that Kerry Waghorn goes through. Painters I know sometimes call me “just an illustrator.” I labour about where the lines go, and to do justice to my subject (regardless if it’s a squirrel or a person), to represent the essence. And then when it comes to apply the paint (or colour when I work on the computer) there is more struggle — because I am colour blind. But I just carry on (sometimes I have to get help with colours), because the work needs to get out — completed — to be shared. Just another one of those letters of yours that was right on!



Does Kerry know Jerry?
by Camille Muller, Toronto, ON, Canada


“City Angels”
collage painting, 24 x 31 inches
by Camille Muller

The info about Kerry was most interesting, perhaps because I have a school chum who works in the same field. His name is Jerry Dowling and he’s from Ohio. Jerry is also an award winning artist. I only recently (at a high school reunion last Sept. in Windsor, Ontario) learned of his career. When we all go our separate ways on graduation, we so often lose track of friends. Perhaps Kerry knows Jerry.



Working in isolation
by Jack W. Jones, UK

Time and again you mention the work of artists who persist on their own and in isolation. There must certainly be many roads to Rome in the caricature business just as there is in other forms of art. There is really something to be said for being forced by circumstance or remoteness to figure out unique methodology and having this methodology eventually determine style. With Kerry Waghorn we have an artist who determined to keep the job simple and stick to a formula that gave him independence and international fame. I for one can attest to this system and its value in keeping one off the streets.


Coming back after an accident
by Teresa Hitch, Saltspring Island, BC, Canada


mixed-media, 20 x 48 inches
by Teresa Hitch

On Christmas Eve, 1999, as I was undoing my seatbelt on an airplane, another passenger opened the overhead bin above me, and a heavy box hit me on my head. The blow left me unable to stand, walk, etc., and unable to do my precious raku. I struggled cognitively as I never had before. I seemed to have lost my sense of self. My motivation had never been lower. One day I saw Donna Dewberry on the Shopping Channel creating roses and tole art florals, and my inner voice said, “Give this a try.” My MFA inner voice was not impressed. However, I was painting again, and achieving small things. “Small things eventually build up to great things,” said Mother Teresa. This painting led to more complex paintings, as my MFA inner voice increasingly expressed discontent, and I tried to please her. But my motivation was returning! Physically I had many difficulties with painting, but I was determined to discover what my body would allow me to do, as well as find my new individual artistic voice. I had many failures. Yet, with each failure came knowledge and definition. For everything I couldn’t do, there was a reason for my work to be unique and recognizable as my own. Not only was I finding myself again but rediscovering my individual creative voice! With encouragement from others, and by being determined to create, I am getting back on my feet. The high standards I had set as a young artist have returned.


Trust is the ultimate technique
by Alex Bilu, Brooklyn, NY, USA

What about the value of the amount of time used to create a work? I’ve recently found joy and a new direction by creating paintings that at one point use a single, continuous action to create the main subject. There is additional work done, but never disturbing a certain line that basically gets done in a matter of seconds. I paint in acrylic on canvas. I found in the recent past, that I was painting too much on any particular painting. Layering and rediscovering and often, imposing myself on top of something I should have left alone. But I liked the journey. I liked the under life that existed behind the final painting. It was like a past for the life of the painting. But I realized I had this rhythmic stroke that I’ve always done. It started with graffiti in high school in Brooklyn. I’ve been doing these lines my whole life; doodles, penmanship, signature etc. I feel it’s time I just trust it again. And do it. And do it once. And leave it alone. I like the phrase “Trust is the ultimate technique.”


Delighted to open you up
by Jack Turner, Philadelphia, PA, USA

Thanks for the story of Kerry Waghorn. One of the truly spectacular things about your letters is that you give informed technical input as well as brilliant philosophy and psychology regarding our lives in art. I know of no other with professional connections as well as financial and creative success who can give thought and motivation as you do. No one else cares as far as I know. As a subscriber for some time I’m always delighted to open you up on Tuesdays and Fridays and find out what you are talking about now. By bringing these concerns and ideas into our studios you enrich us and show us a bit of the wider world of artists. Also, you never seem condescending or dismissive of anyone, amateur or professional. Refreshing. Definitely the best thing for creative people on the Net.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Design and character



From: Brad Greek — Apr 25, 2008

For some reason I didn’t receive this newsletter on Tuesday. I thought something bad had happened for it was the first letter that has been missed. I’m grateful that everyone is still here, even with all of their setbacks, handicaps and misfortunes. Time and again it has been shown, throughout time, that art will produce itself no matter what ailment an artist is faced with. Art, like electricity, takes the path of the least resistance.

From: Jill Klaehn — Apr 25, 2008

I too missed Tuesday’s letter and now Friday’s as well. I feel deprived! I hope the “glitch” is fixed soon.

From: Brigitte Nowak — Apr 25, 2008

Hey – me too – no letter on Tuesday April 22 – I figured the computer gremlins had devoured it!

From: David Read — Apr 25, 2008

Hello, my name is David, and I am an addict. I did not fully realize this, until I opened my mailbox last Tuesday, and found no letter from Robert. How could this be? I checked, and all the planets were still in proper alignment, the Earth was still flat, but no letter!

To the artist in self-imposed isolation, this contact with the other artistic souls out there is very important, and I really look forward to those two special days of the week. I shall never forget the “once weekly newsletter” of April 22nd., 2008.

Robert, please keep up the good work …………. you, and the artist responses, are a tonic.

From: Regina Stahl Briskey — Apr 25, 2008

I was mulling about trying to think of how to say you always hit the nail on the head with your letters,when I read the response from Jack Turner, who says it exactly.

From: PD — Apr 25, 2008

It’s not just artists. No one is perfect. It’s how we deal with our problems that makes our personality and in this case our art. It’s how we see things and what processes we enjoy and can execute. Who do you know that doesn’t have some kind of physical or mental or personality problem? I think being perfect and having no problems would be a huge problem.

From: Judy Gosz — Apr 25, 2008

I, too, missed my Tuesday inspirational, but was able to go to the web-site and avoid a melt-down. What did we ever do before Robert Genn?

From: Jennifer — Apr 25, 2008

I must be special–I received Tuesday’s letter.

From: Liz Reday — Apr 25, 2008

It’s precisely because we’re all artists painting (or making art stuff) alone in our respective studios that we rely on our Twice Weekly to keep us grounded and going. This has got to be the biggest art club on the planet.

From: Marsha Savage — Apr 26, 2008

Regarding the problem of working with an injury, etc., I had carpal tunnel syndrome for the last year and it was excruciating. But, I painted and never stopped, even when I had to stop every minute or two to shake out the numbness in the hand and fingers. I had the surgery in February and everything is wonderful now. Still have a little weakness in the wrist where the incision was made, but no longer dealing with the pain in the hand and fingers. Life is wonderful!

From: Mary — Apr 28, 2008

I, too, did not receive last Tuesday’s email and Friday’s also. I really missed it!

From: Eleanor Lipkins Steffen — Apr 29, 2008

Wow, another Tuesday without my Genn fix. At least I know now that I am not alone in this and that I am not alone in my need for my fix.

From: Anne Moody — Apr 30, 2008

As artists, we are all challenged by vision problems of some sort. Many of us view life through various filters imposed on us by the culture and environment we come from. In some cases we are saddled with the filters of racism and bigotry, in other cases we see the world through “rose-coloured” glasses. Cultural preferences stick with us for life as in Scandinavian and Japanese preferences for simple clean lines in architecture and furnishings or the gilt associated with some Mediterranean cultures. We all have a “vision” determined by everything that makes us who we are. We are all compelled to share this “vision” with others and the really talented few succeed in achieving the magic point in their intended audience when that unique vision becomes shared.

From: Jan Ross — Apr 30, 2008

I am severely hearing impaired as well as legally blind, requiring contact lenses, glasses and a magnifying glass to paint my watercolors. (Most people who know me are unaware of these conditions as I haven’t mentioned them and have convincingly appeared, “normal.”) However, I am still able to ‘feel’ my subject matter and interpret it in a convincing manner. An instructor once told a workshop class I attended to, “paint as if you were ‘sculpting’ with your brush.” I mentally touch my images as I work.

While some people may consider me to be ‘handicapped’ I certainly just paint with my heart, my hand and my knowledge from academic studies. Shouldn’t we all do just that?





Madam X

oil painting, 11 x 14 inches
by Diane Morgan, Palm Springs, CA, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Barbara Yalof of PA, USA who wrote, “After reading about Kerry Waghorn I have absolutely NO excuse not to pursue my art despite aches and pains, and to stop feeling that physical problems should in any way be a factor in artistic enthusiasm and production. Thanks for the push!”

And also Jerome Thome of Chartres, France who wrote, “An electric eraser, now that’s going a bit too far. Pourquoi?”

(RG note) Thanks, Jerome. Yep, and darned handy they are too, just like the electric pencil sharpener. Deadlines mean time is money. Electric erasers take away ink nice and easy. Some studios can’t get along without ’em.”




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