SOUTH DEERFIELD — Caricature artist Alex R. Hughes sits behind an easel on a recent Saturday surrounded by a crowd of smiling onlookers watching him draw two customers at Yankee Candle’s Flagship Store.
I’m seated next to him, residual airbrush paint hanging in the air, pen in hand, poised for the next customer. I’ve drawn caricatures for about six years. Hughes hired me in spring of 2010 when he was a manager at Richmond Illustrations, a caricature vendor at Six Flags New England.
Essentially, caricature art is cartoon drawing that accentuates features — and personalities — of people. While there are many different methods, including drawing with pencils and coloring with pastels, Hughes outlines using markers and colors with an airbrush.
Over a few summers, I spent long hours in the blistering sun behind the easel, cranking out drawings at a breathtaking pace. One day, I drew a little more than 50 faces. Now, I occasionally work for Hughes at his booth in Yankee Candle.
Unlike myself, Hughes is a caricature artist full time, drawing at the candle company’s Deerfield flagship store, Six Flags New England, The Big E and at various freelance gigs.
Today, the candle sniffing crowd is festive, excited by the holiday spirit and the chance to see Santa Claus, sample fudge and splurge on gifts.
Hughes’s marker lines are confident and precise, capturing the cartoon essence of his subjects in just a few minutes. He’s a master of the cartoon craft, boldly going where few artists are brave enough to venture — tackling the difficult, and at times frustrating trade of improv performance art.
“It was a little happenstance — (I) wasn’t looking to draw caricatures — just happened across a poster,” he explains after the customers had left. In 2002, he spotted a job advertisement in downtown Northampton for a caricaturist at Six Flags New England.
At the time, he was working at Cutchins Programs for Children and Families, on Pomeroy Terrace, as a counselor. A year earlier, he’d completed a bachelor’s degree in design from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Before that, he’d studied sculpture at Mass. College of Art and Design.
He was hired by Richmond Illustrations, owned by Mad Magazine artist Tom Richmond, and later became a manager.
Fast forward four years and countless caricature drawings: Hughes opened the booth at Yankee Candle in 2006, and has been drawing goofy portraits for candle patrons ever since.
“It’s definitely a niche — a pretty small niche,” Hughes continues, while commenting on what’s made his business successful. “It runs against the archetype of what an artist is — that most artists are sensitive and shy and can’t be bothered. Caricature kinda turns that on its head — forces you to be social.”
“Caricature motivated me to get out of my shell — work a crowd, and invent myself on the spot,” he says.
In every respect, Hughes is a showman. His blue holiday sweater, scally cap and artist’s apron accentuate a quick wit and faster hands — over the years, he’s developed a large cache of comeback lines and jokes.
“There’s just so many funny things that’ve happened,” he adds, relating a story about another caricaturist he met during a six-month stint drawing at Universal Studios Orlando. That caricaturist’s customer asked “not to make me ugly.”
In response, Hughes relates, the artist said, “‘God makes you ugly, I just draw you.’”
“You’ve gotta say it with a smile,” he laughs.
Years later, one of his own customers came for a drawing of his children for five years in a row — with the previous year’s picture tattooed on his back. “Besides him, I’ve had two or three other customers with my caricatures tattooed on them,” Hughes adds.
For many people, sitting for a caricature drawing is an annual tradition around the holiday season — especially at Yankee Candle.
“I have one family that comes every year — they come on Christmas Eve every year, solely to get a caricature,” Hughes says. “It’s pretty cool, I see them once a year. They’re so loyal. I’ve drawn them for eight years.”
Despite how easy Hughes makes it look, caricature art is incredibly challenging. In order to stay on the top of his game, Hughes constantly pushes the envelop. For freelance gigs, Hughes started drawing digital caricatures recently, using a Surface Pro and a stylus.
“Same idea,” he notes. “The images are printed on the spot, and they’re also uploaded through a cloud service — available to anyone who wants them. It’s a trade show thing.”
For more information, and to see his work, visit www.alexrhughes.com, or www.facebook.com/alexrhughesartwork. For email inquires: AlexRHughes@gmail.com.
You can reach Andy Castillo