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Caricature artist accentuates individual uniqueness

Friday, October 25, 2013 | 1:27 p.m. CDT

HANNIBAL — Jeff Niffen is an illustrator by trade and an astute people watcher. The soft-spoken artist from Pike County makes a study of facial features, looking for nuances that set people apart from the crowd. He then uses these unique traits, exaggerating them just a bit, in order to create caricatures that not only represent who the people are but also what they're doing at the moment.

"They say that caricature is exaggerating your flaws; I think it is accentuating what makes you unique," he said.

For the second year in a row, Niffen recently plied his trade on the historic streets of downtown Hannibal during the Folklife Festival.

An art graduate of Hannibal-LaGrange University, Niffen is no novice to the art world. While an HLGU student, he entertained fellow classmates with a unique comic strip published in the school newspaper titled "Where Fools Tread," a Far Side rebuff.

"I've always been interested in illustrations, cartoons, comic books," he said. "I did a video in college, a spoof movie. It was an hour long. I showed it to the kids on campus, and they really liked it. That was a best experience. To hear people laughing from something you created is its own reward."

He also writes screenplays, and "as soon as I get my camera I want to make a short film. It will be 10 minutes long, a horror film. Along the vein of Tales From the Crypt.'"

And while his art interests are diverse, this weekend he will home in on the art form he began studying nine years ago, that of a caricature artist.

The caricature artist working at Six Flags in fall 2003 captured his attention, and he thought, "I could do that."

Niffen inquired about working at the booth and was told to come back next season.

Tom Richmond, illustrator for Mad Magazine, owns the Six Flags booth and initially trained Niffen. "He was there my first day and he taught me," Niffen said. "I spent the rest of the summer learning under Ryan Roe, the supervisor. I was glad I was able to learn on the job in 2004."

Niffen quickly learned that caricature art is vastly different than what he was used to.

"It is a different way of learning to draw. Normally I do sketching and preplanning. With live characters, you don't have time for that; you have to draw what you see right then and there. Pretty much you have to learn to draw all over again.

"I learned how to use an airbrush, learned how to communicate with customers, joke around with them so they feel more comfortable — that's something I'm still working on," Niffen said.

"I also have learned how to draw fast. I don't have a lot of time to think —see, draw, see, draw."

Over the years, he has learned to make a study of faces and their structure. For example, "the upper part of your ear matches with the curvature of the jaw, the cheekbone and the jaw, the zygomatic arch," he said. "A lot of things I learned by on-the-job training, I didn't necessarily know before."

"I learned how to exaggerate certain features without going overboard and offending people," he said. "Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't."

He looks for features such as "a big chin or a larger nose or bigger ears or smaller ears, whatever works, whatever sets them apart from the average person. The more different they look, the easier it is to draw."

What is important is for the person being drawn to "just have fun with it."

After all, a caricature is not a portrait.

"Far from it," Niffen said. "A caricature is done quick; portraits take a number of hours."

"I like drawing kids because they tend to have the most fun with it. Old people have the most interesting features to draw. Anybody willing to have fun with it and who isn't worried about being overly offended by it" is a good caricature candidate. "It is supposed to be fun."

Niffen now works as a graphic designer for the Hannibal Courier-Post, and in his free time he draws caricatures for events such as Project Proms and corporate gigs. He still works at Six Flags off and on. "I went back this summer. When (my supervisor) needs my help, I go down and help out; I helped train a few newcomers this year."

So what trait in his own facial structure stands out for this caricature artist?

"People say I have a Jay Leno chin, so I accentuated my chin in my self-caricature."


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