Robert Risko


Robert Risko is one of the foremost caricature artists working today. His work appears in a wide range of iconic publications, including Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Playboy. Having moved to New York from his native Pittsburgh in the mid 1970s, Risko impressed Andy Warhol with his portfolio, and he began working at the legendary Interview magazine. His work is just as instantly recognizable as the celebrities he depicts and can be considered a delightful and amusing visual record of the ever-changing landscape of celebrity and fame over the past four decades.


You seem to have been fairly precocious artistically, where did that come from? Was it a particularly artistic household? 
No it wasn’t, but it was a crazy household. It was a kind of a free-for-all. My mother let us do whatever we wanted; she was entertained by us as kids. She let me draw on the wall in my room. As long as it wasn’t in her living room she encouraged us and was fascinated by us. We were her entertainment, let’s say.

“I used to draw Blondie when I was little – from Dagwood and Blondie…”

So, I’m guessing then that you were exposed to a lot of visual stuff – art or comics?
Comics, definitely. Comics, the Sunday paper, and my mother herself did like to draw the comics. She always used to like to doodle and stuff and show us how she could draw certain cartoon characters from her era. There was something called Maggie and Jiggs and – I’ve never seen it, I should actually Google it – she used to draw the woman’s profile. I used to draw Blondie when I was little – from Dagwood and Blondie – Blondie was always in profile, and there was something about drawing a woman’s profile with the lips that was fun to do.


In school, guys used to ask me to draw women in profile. But not their faces.
[Laughing] More like those curvy rubber mudguards on the semi trucks.


Exactly. And in relation to your early style, you have mentioned in the past that your early style was ‘black and white deco’. Are you talking about a kind of an Al Hirschfeld style? Like a linear, black and white style?
Well, you know Hirschfeld was actually more art nouveau. He was not deco. He used line qualities that were very curvy. I was more into shapes and angularity and color. People often compare us. But really, the only comparison that you could make between me and Hirschfeld was that we both would go after the essence of the person with as minimal decorative stuff as possible- the essence of the whole body and the personality, and I think  that’s where Hirshfeld and I went. Some of the other caricaturists that I stylistically would be like are more from the 1930s full-color page era – Paolo Garretto and Miguel Covarrubias – but those guys focused more on superficial aspects of the person. Their style and their physical characteristics on the outside – the icing on the cake so to speak. Whereas I did go after more – like Hirschfeld did – the essence and the body gesture of the person.

Al Hirschfeld work sample.

Al Hirschfeld work sample.


Are you trying in a way to reduce the image down as much as you can?
Yes, that’s it.


Your Michael Jackson ‘deathmask’ image for instance. Jackson is almost too good to be true. You barely need to do anything at all and you know who it is.
I know. It’s just there. You know, there are a lot of people that are really good like that. You don’t necessarily have to do much you just draw what you see.


I was looking at Rosie O’Donnell. She’s another one. She is basically a bowl of porridge with two berries strategically placed. I mean, there’s nothing much there. But you can see who it is.
Exactly. It’s lovely to have those kind of subjects.

“…in the mid 1970s, I linked up with Warhol, because in the movies he was making, he was interested in reintroducing that old Hollywood aesthetic.”

The celebrities of today. They’re very symmetrical and a bit samey. Do you find the celebrities of today – when compared to say, the celebrities of the 80s and 90s – they’re less interesting today to look at?
Most of them definitely are less interesting. A lot of it has to do with technology though too. It was a problem when I was starting out in the 1970s because the 70s was a very non-graphic era. It was a very soft era stylistically. People were wearing loose clothes, it was a sort of an anti-Hollywood of the 1930s through 1960s look. The technology of the early Hollywood and even the early Technicolor eras was that the camera’s eye needed to reduce people to graphic images, and consequently people looked very glamorous. Women needed a lot of definition to be recognizable because cameras were more primitive. So when I was starting out in New York in the mid 1970s, I linked up with Warhol, because in the movies he was making, he was interested in reintroducing that old Hollywood aesthetic. And we were interested in resurrecting that beautiful idea of Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties, so there were of course some celebrities with a strong graphic image, but many celebrities were soft and undefined.

In the 1980s, things got more graphic. Shoulder pads came back in, the Republican era was more about looking good on camera, and visually it was more interesting for my style. The 80s introduced a more visually graphic era harking back to the 1950s. The 90s I think became more individual. People expressed themselves more and it has continued to this day. You don’t have a lot of cookie-cutter people. People are highly individualistic in their style.

Miguel Covarrubias work sample.

Miguel Covarrubias work sample.


Going back to your initial encounter with Warhol, were you intimidated by him or was it a case of being young and bulletproof?
I think it was more to do with being bulletproof. Yeah…I did think that. And to some extent I still do. When it comes to creativity I feel confident.


Why do you think Warhol advised you to be ‘more geometric’ in your work. What do you think he meant by that?
Well, it’s not that he advised me to be geometric because I already was. I was kind of working in two styles at the time. The popular airbrush style of the time was one that was more three-dimensional. It was one that you could liken to today’s Pixar movies, you know where everything looks 3D in the 2D illustration and people were doing that with airbrush, and I liked airbrush. I like that the effect looked so manufactured and slick but I didn’t want to create that ‘3D world in 2D’ look. But I did feel a pressure that that’s what people wanted. That’s what was selling. And so I had a little bit of that kind of work in my portfolio and I also had things that were flat and cubistic looking because that was really what I was taught – that a true painter never tried to create three dimensions in two dimensions. I wanted to keep this purist attitude toward my work. I always loved that idea that 2D should be 2D and 3D should be 3D – keep it flat and cubistic. Andy, when he looked at my work, he looked at that stuff and said “I like these better”.


So around this time you were working for Interview magazine.
Oh yeah. I remember having a very long conversation with Gloria Swanson one time. I did a caricature of her that she loved. She loved caricature and she loved cartoons and she always used to hang out at the cartoon studio in the 1950s and they all loved her own individual look. There were a whole load of interesting people coming through the doors.


Do you prefer using pictures of celebrities in an unguarded moment? We are bombarded these days with paparazzi pictures of celebrities picking their noses, or with no make up on. Do you prefer using the glossy kind of red carpet photos?
I hardly ever like the retouched, posed, press release pictures, although I will look at them just to say “oh, so this is what they like to see from themselves” but then I look away and mostly I actually watch video than any still pictures at all. With video you can really pick what you want. Any one photo is really only one millisecond of one photographer’s choice and it doesn’t always represent the subject, so I prefer video and YouTube is fantastic for me.

 “This is something they try to hide so much in today’s technology – the actual 3D person.”

You’ve worked as a photo retoucher as well so you know the lies that can be spun on someone’s face.
Absolutely. If you look at a clip from the 1920s and 30s of a camera panning the Oscar dinner party and you see Clark Gable or whoever. These peoples’ faces were anatomically so structured that the way the light hit them, and the way the women’s false eyelashes and the hair and the lips were put on them, they were really three-dimensional objects. And this is something they try to hide so much in today’s technology – the actual 3D person. People are much more flat and there are so many different tricks that can be done. I am always looking for the 3D thing going on in a person’s face – how deep are their eyes, how far does their chin come out, how does the light play on their face like a statue. Hirschfeld had the advantage of doing a lot of theater and people cast in that theatrical light show more of their anatomical structure than they would on a camera.


That’s interesting. The bone structure would be far more obvious.
Oh yeah, and Hirschfeld admitted that he developed his style from going to Bali and seeing the harsh sun light hitting peoples’ faces. It was the high contrast that made him think that he could capture the contours in line. Before that he was working more in shape and in color. So that’s how his style developed. And even though my style isn’t line, I’m still looking [in the same way] because it simplifies the person when you see them. You can’t really change that with plastic surgery. You can maybe shorten this or that but you can’t really change certain things anatomically and that affects the person’s animation as well – how they move and laugh and how their face moves.

Hirschfeld In Bali

Hirschfeld In Bali


Was it a difficult transition when you moved from traditional airbrush to the computer?
It was definitely a challenge. And there’s a definite learning curve. My photo retouching skills came in handy and I was playing around with images and sending them to friends. In the beginning it was definitely pretty hairy.


All your caricatures seem to be pretty affectionate. Have you ever had any problems with a celebrity after you have done an image of them? Woody Allen is supposed to be a pretty sensitive guy.
Well Woody Allen won’t really accept any image of himself at all. He just doesn’t want anyone to interpret him – that’s his whole bag. He wants control over it. It’s not even that he likes or doesn’t like an image. He just doesn’t want a depiction of himself.


It’s a shame because he’s got a great face for caricature.
Yeah, it’s just his thing. He just doesn’t want his likeness used. I was working on a poster for  the movie Scenes From a Mall. And Bette Midler loved, loved, loved her image but Woody Allen, there was nothing I could do to make him happy, he just absolutely said flat out ‘no’.


Do you actually care if the person in question likes the depiction or not?
Well, you said that you think my work is affectionate….


I do. I think they all are. But you never know what someone thinks of their own image.
That’s exactly the point. You just don’t know. I mean people don’t like photos of themselves. You can never guess. With some people, you could be totally outrageous and they love it. There really is no guessing. When I’m working, what I’m most concerned about is that the readers of the magazine think that it looks like the person because it’s those people who have the say about if it looks like them. Most people don’t know what they look like. They just don’t know. I just try to be accurate. I don’t try to be one way or the other. And a lot of it also is the media’s spin on the person. When celebrities are smart, they will look at an image and think “oh, so that’s what people think of me”. It has a life of its own. And I think if I had a separate career I could be a spin doctor for celebrities. Some of them are in such a bubble they just don’t know how they appear.

“Michael Jackson was smart, because as he became a caricature, he would play on that even more. In that respect he was a genius person that embraced media coverage and went further with it.”


Are you still getting a buzz out of what you do?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. I mean even the J. Edgar Hoover I did [for Vanity Fair]. That was such a funny idea. The most unlikely person to be in drag. A man like that. The most hideous….It’s like Dame Edna, or something from decadent, Nazi-era Berlin. These kinds of things make me laugh. So I guess part of what makes me happiest is not the likeness per se. I like to do a caricature of the media image. Like, the Michael Jackson we knew is not Michael Jackson the person. It’s a brand. So what I like to do is an impersonation of the brand so accurate that it trips on itself. It’s the product of Michael Jackson. What he’s selling is an image.

Another way to look at it is I’m an impersonator. When I was growing up there were lots of impersonators like Rich Little and Frank Gorshin. And Frank Gorshin would do someone like Kirk Douglas. And the next time you thought of Kirk Douglas you would think of the impression before you would think of the real person.

Michael Jackson was smart, because as he became a caricature, he would play on that even more. In that respect he was a genius person that embraced media coverage and went further with it.

(Left) Robert Risko: Michael Jackson 'Deathmask', (Right) Robert Risko Self-Portrait

(Left) Robert Risko: Michael Jackson ‘Deathmask’, (Right) Robert Risko Self-Portrait


Warhol loved Michael Jackson.
Oh yeah, they both understood how it all worked.


Can you talk a bit about Paolo Garretto and Miguel Covarrubias.
For me, Paolo Garretto is up there in the pantheon. I have a bundle of correspondence I had with him before he died. Covarrubias gets a lot more publicity because he has done a lot and has a lot more machinery behind him. Garretto would be considered mainly a portraitist – he wouldn’t have the whole panorama of effects and storytelling that Covarrubias has, but for me the beauty of Garretto’s work is beyond compare. The simplification of the portrait. Beautiful color and design. He to me is the Billie Holiday and Miguel Covarrubias is the Ella Fitzgerald. Most people like Ella because her voice is happy. Billie Holiday is more tragic and bitter sweet and I think I fall in the bittersweet department. There’s always a bit of sadness to the truth.

Paolo Garretto work samples.

Paolo Garretto work samples.


Do you think caricaturists are an endangered species? Whose current work do you admire?
I don’t want to name names because if I do, I’m going to forget somebody. There are a lot of good people out there. I don’t think we’re an endangered species really. I think we’re riding out this fascination with computer technology. You still can’t really do what a caricaturist does with technology. There’s a lot of decision making on what aspect of a person to bring out. It’s not a mechanical process. It would be like saying comedians are going to die out. We still need the human factor. Don’t get me wrong, I still love technology. But there’ll always be the human touch.


What are you working on at the moment?
Right now, I am working on Daniel Radcliffe for Vanity Fair, because he’s on Broadway and I’m doing him for the Proust Questionnaire. He’s got a very strong face but he’s not as easy as you might think.

Apparently he’s got a really huge head but his body is very small.
That’s what I’m doing. I’m definitely doing that. But he’s also got a very square jaw now that he’s gotten older. His eyes are sort of close together, his face has sort of widened out and he’s got this little mouth that’s very, very well defined. But what happens with a lot of these people is you draw them and you start to articulate these things and then people say “oh no, he’s so soft”. They are only seeing the blue eyes. They don’t really see all the defined features and other stuff that is going on. That’s my job. RR_SELFPORTRAIT_winking

Neil Ardiff
Irish. Bookish. Oldish. Warmish.
Neil Ardiff
Neil Ardiff
Neil Ardiff

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