Barry Blitt: “A joke cuts through everything”


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Barry Blitt
Short Profile

Name: Barry Blitt
DOB: 30 April 1958
Place of birth: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Occupation: Illustrator

Mr. Blitt, as an illustrator for the New Yorker and a political cartoonist, how do you know if a drawing is funny?

I mean, ideally, I’m trying to make myself laugh. That’s the point, that’s part of the process, it’s as un-self-conscious as possible. I’m not worrying about any of the drawing at that point, I can just try and put ideas down. The best ideas are unlaboured, a joke comes to you and it just makes you laugh, or at least you say, “That’s funny!” That’s the way a cartoonist laughs, I think, is by saying, “That’s funny.”

A recent article about you included the line, “Nothing cuts through our overtaxed frontal cortexes like a simple visual joke.” Would you say that’s true?

A joke cuts through everything! Laughing at something is just a pure reaction. And very often political cartoonists are making a greater point, they are advocates for a system of government or a way of life. And I have to admit, I’m a lefty and I have certain thoughts about the way things should be but… Really I’m just going for the jokes. I’m just going for laughs — and physical gags, for me, are the purest form of laughter.

“I think there’s a mischievousness in being a cartoonist.”

What do you mean?

When there’s no words involved and it seems like it’s a more direct reaction somehow. For example, there was a scene in Curb Your Enthusiasm that I mentioned where Larry and this woman are running to make a doctor’s appointment and they’re racing down the hallway and it’s just… It’s so funny that to me it’s almost beautiful. It’s pure. I cry when I see it, not from laughter but like crying from going to the opera. It’s the perfect funny moment. I think there’s a mischievousness in being a cartoonist, you know, I was doing it in school as a class clown, drawing tasteful but insulting drawings of my teachers.

How do you go about capturing someone’s likeness in those caricatures?

I’m not really a caricaturist. I’m sort of borderline… There are some people, Philip Burke, Steve Brodner, Ed Sorel, who really mock a person or really go wild — and I just love the way they do it.

So what would you say is the difference between a caricature and the kind of cartoons you draw?

My stuff tends to sit somewhere in between. I might have a cruel message or I’m trying to say something in a drawing but it’s not a punch in the head. There’s a certain restraint in what I’m doing, I think! The jokes that I’m trying to get across or the message, they work better when they’re not screamed. They’re whispered or muttered out of the corner of my mouth.

How do you portray someone in a cartoon but retain your subtleties? Is there a certain feature that’s essential; maybe the eyes?

As I’ve learned, it’s not really my impulse to go too far. I think it’s completely different with every person. With Trump, for example, you could leave out all his features and draw the shape of his head and his hair and you’d have it! But some people it’s their nose. With Bill Clinton, the shape of his head is amazing! Obama’s face, too, is amazing, it’s the ears, obviously, and the shape of his head is very interesting. Hillary Clinton, her mouth is low to her face. So if you’re concentrating the eyes on everybody, you’re probably not looking. Every person is different, and what makes them different is what you’re aiming for. 

Do people’s personalities also appear in their physical likeness?

Absolutely! And ideally. I mean, Trump looks exactly like who he is, you know? He’s performance art without opening his mouth. But yes, a good caricature will tell you something about the person. It needs to.

So how do you do that exactly?

I think I’m carrying biases, obviously. Here’s an example: I’m not the greatest Hillary Clinton fan but before the election, I did one cover of her where I made her look way too young. I was just way too kind to her. It was done at the last minute and we tried to fix it digitally after the fact, you know, I added some crow’s feet and some extra lines. But I couldn’t get around the fact that I was sort of rooting for her and I put that into the drawing. I think I made her look too good. Anyway… A lot of good that did!

“I think it’s a certain blandness that makes someone undrawable. Weirder looking people are usually easier to draw.”

Elizabeth Peyton said that she tried for years to paint David Bowie but for some reason was just unable to get his face right. Is there a figure that has been uncapturable for you?

It's crazy, but for some reason I have a hard time drawing Steve Bannon, who is probably every caricaturist's dream subject, what with his exaggerated features and cartoonish appearance. I seem to pull back when I draw him as if he's already gone too far as he is. There’s a lot of bland media and news anchor people whose faces I don’t know if I’ll be able to capture. I think it’s a certain blandness that makes someone undrawable. Weirder looking people are usually easier to draw.

Apparently in your sketching process, it’s usually your first drawing that gets used even if it doesn’t look quite as much like, for example, Hillary Clinton, as your second or third drawings.

Right.

You’ve described that as losing the magic.

Yes, I wish I could explain that a bit better but truthfully, I don’t understand it! You’re trying to get a drawing that looks improvised and fresh, you know? Usually the first drawing I do, I’m not happy with it and I’ll go to a second one or I’ll redraw it several times… But the line becomes laboured, so it always really is the first one. It’s probably some kind of Zen thing where you’re not worrying too much or you’re not overthinking it. There’s nothing like an improvised fresh line that’s there the first time you do it. First thought, best thought.