Portrait of a caricaturist


JOB SATISFACTION: Don gets immense satisfaction from seeing the smiles on his customers' faces when they see his work.

FROM royalty to political figures, celebrities and Bollywood stars, caricaturist and cartoonist Saadon Ishak has met, charmed and captured them all on paper.  

Saadon, or Don as he is popularly known, made a name for himself in the early 1980s as one of the pioneer cartoonists for the popular local comic series Gila Gila (Malaysia’s version of the famous Mad comics). 

“I actually got involved in the business of drawing caricatures by chance. I wanted to be an architect. But circumstances were not permitting and I ended up first as a cartoonist and then later, a caricaturist,” Don recalls. 

He first started drawing when he was in school. “My brother is a designer and he used to stay with a group of friends who were all artists and designers. I used to stay with them during the school holidays; that’s when I was introduced to art, comics and comic art. But still, at that stage I did not dream of becoming a caricaturist or cartoonist,” he says. 

Nevertheless, things had a funny way of working out and when he left school, Don found himself staying with the creators of Gila Gila and was drawn into the world of comics. Subsequently, he became one of the comic’s pioneer batch of cartoonists. 

Though he enjoyed working on Gila Gila, Don felt he wanted to do more. 

“It was fun but I wanted to do more than create comics that were primarily for humour’s sake. I wanted to start a magazine where I could use my cartoons to spread and teach values. So I joined a group called Karyawan, but we ran into some problems and were banned. It was unfortunate but life had to go on and so, seeing the potential of starting a business doing caricatures I started what became my career,” he recalls. 

He started by doing contract work for hotels and clubs as a caricaturist for functions and soon found himself booked for big events like trade shows and exhibitions by clients like Microsoft, Swatch, Citibank and Estee Lauder. He was even commissioned to draw sketches of the Bollywood stars who came to Genting Highlands for the International Indian Film Academy Awards in 2002. 

Apart from such gigs, Don rents a booth in the fashionable and hip Bintang Walk in Kuala Lumpur where he draws most nights. 

“My main income comes from contracts such as functions and trade shows. However, I maintain my spot in Bintang Walk as I need a fixed source of income as well,” he says. 

As such, after maghrib prayers at dusk, Don heads down to the hip and happening Bukit Bintang area where he draws mainly cartoon portraits for tourists.  

“I started out doing caricatures but soon found that not everyone could appreciate them,” he says. “Unlike a portrait, caricatures tend to exaggerate a person’s most prominent feature. I remember early on in my career, I was hired to draw caricatures for a function. It was an enjoyable event and everyone seemed to appreciate the sketches I was doing. However, when the person I was sketching saw his caricature, he blushed and was not too happy. This incident made me realise that people don’t really like to be portrayed via caricatures. Everyone likes to be portrayed as looking good – a parent would want the sketch of their child to look really cute; ladies would rather not have their double chins etc. As such, I started doing more cartoon portraits and fewer caricatures.” 

For an acclaimed and experienced artist, Don charges a reasonable RM35 to RM45 for a simple caricature or cartoon portrait.  

And, in keeping with the times, Don is “going digital” with his work. A recent development in this area was when he was asked to sketch the portrait of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Putra Jamalullail on a tablet personal computer. 

What does a caricaturist do? How do they differ from artists and cartoonists? 

Although artists, cartoonists and caricaturists all draw, many people are not aware that the work of these three are very different. For example, portraits done by artists are very realistic representations of the subject, while a cartoon portrait is a realistic sketch albeit in cartoon form. Caricatures, however, tend to exaggerate one prominent feature or facet of a person – for example, if you have a large nose, a caricature of you would have a larger-than-life nose. 

What qualifications do you need? 

You may be a great artist but that does not mean you can be a good caricaturist. It is actually a long process and not something you can just jump into. While you don’t need any particular paper qualifications, a basic requirement, of course, is that you need to be able to draw.  

More importantly, you need to constantly build on your knowledge and talent. This means constant practice and research. What do I mean? During the World Cup two years ago, I got many customers who said they wanted a sketch of themselves wearing the jersey of their favourite football team. It may be a famous team like Argentina or Brazil but it also may be a less popular team. Whatever it is, as an entertaining artist, you need to know these things as there is no time for you to refer to pictures or magazines while your customer waits.  

So, what I mean by research is that you have to be well-versed in a wide range of areas, especially current events. From my experience I can say that customers’ demands follow current trends. For instance, during the F1 (Formula 1) season, many will ask to be sketched with the Ferrari or BMW car, or with Michael Schumacher or Juan Pablo Montoya or any of the other F1 personalities. You are expected to know these characters and events if you want to be popular. In fact, I remember a few years ago when the film Titanic was in the theatres, couples would ask me to sketch them on the “Titanic”! 

Therefore, you need to do your homework and practise. I still practise a lot when I am at home. Practice and an understanding of drawing are also essential because you need to do a proper sketch in not more that 10 or 15 minutes. Not many people are willing to sit still for you for longer than that, unless you are doing a portrait. 

Of course you need confidence and the ability to communicate and entertain your customers and put them at ease while they pose for you. This is why I say that caricaturists are actually “entertaining artists”. 

As your own boss you also need business acumen and I personally found that my years of experience (being a cartoonist and in publishing) helped a lot. 

What are the career prospects? 

The future in this area is quite good I think. There is a huge market out there as there are presently very few entertaining artists like me. However, you must be able and willing to work on it. 

What kind of personality best suits this job? 

Unlike artists who mostly stay in their studios creating their works of art, caricaturists like me meet people on a daily basis. Actually, drawing a total stranger’s caricature can be quite an uncomfortable situation. Imagine a total stranger sitting in front of you for about 10 to 15 minutes while you sketch him. It can be quite unnerving for both parties; so caricature artists need to be entertaining artists as well. You need to put your customers at ease. I found through my years of being a cartoonist and caricaturist that people expect showmanship as well as skill. 

It is also not easy drawing in front of an audience. Most artists need their space to work ? in a studio or at home but definitely not in public with a huge crowd watching and waiting to see your sketches. But as an “entertaining artist” you have to get used to this. You must be confident and know how to hold the crowd’s attention. Since my customers are mainly tourists, I talk about Malaysia ? about our culture and practices, which they find very interesting. 

What is the best part of your job? 

There are many good points to my job. Firstly, I no longer have deadlines as I did when I was working in publishing. Another great thing is that I get to meet a lot of people, from all walks of life and from all over the world everyday.  

Also, unlike a job in which you are paid at the end of the month, my job is purely “cash and carry” – I get to take home my day’s income based on how much I do and how much I want to do. If I feel I want more, I just have to put in extra hours. 

But the best part is seeing a customer’s satisfaction and joy upon seeing your sketch of him. That is very rewarding and makes me feel very good. 

As I sketch for a lot of tourists, I can say that my art is all over the world, hanging in the homes of people in France, Switzerland, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Spain, etc. 

And the worst part? 

Rejection. This happens once in a while, mainly because some customers don’t realise that a 10-15 minute sketch cannot be all that detailed. Some expect a portrait drawing, not realising that this takes more time, costs more and uses a different medium.  

What is the income range? 

Firstly, it depends on how hard you want to work. Also, in my experience, the work is seasonal and depends a lot on the political, social and economic climate, both locally and worldwide, especially since my target group of customers are tourists. For instance, during the political and economic turmoil in 1997 and 1999 and the SARS outbreak last year, my business was affected and I had to find other avenues of earning money.  

For me, the biggest overhead is renting a stall or booth, which can range from RM3,000 to RM10,000 a month, depending on location. I choose spots that have many tourists as they are my niche market but my pricing takes into account local customers as well. 

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