A talented freelance illustrator and designer, Sarah Goodwin has worked behind the scenes at animation studios and as a product and textile designer for major home retailers in her native San Francisco Bay Area. To create human and animal portraits, caricatures, and never-before-seen characters, Sarah cites as her most significant creative influences her life-long love for animation, comedy, animals, 1960s and 1970s aesthetics, and The Muppets. I was lucky enough to secure Sarah as the illustrator for my book, How Could I Forget You! A Creative Way to Remember Names and Faces.
Brent: What is your process for scanning people before drawing them?
Sarah: Before I draw someone, I think to myself, "what makes this person visually different from the person next to them?" Beyond the obvious visual cues for age, gender, and ethnicity, I look for literal shapes. What shapes are jumping out to me on a face, or what does the overall shape of the person body remind me of? I often link a person to an animal.
Brent: This sounds intriguing! What are some examples using well-known people?
Sarah: Well, I've always thought Bon Jovi looks like a lion cub and Jay Z like a stegosaurus, primarily because of the shapes of their noses and how they connect to the shapes of their mouths.
Brent: Here they are for our readers to consider:
Sarah: I've assigned all kinds of animals to people in my life, ranging from sharks to deer to moles to sea otters. When an animal reference comes quick to my mind, the easier it is for me to delineate someone's specific defining features.
Brent: How do you render a person identifiable without falling into grotesque exaggeration?
Sarah: You would be surprised how the tiniest adjustments in facial features can make huge differences in overall appearance. I believe Jennifer Grey (the actress from Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Dirty Dancing) learned this after her very slight nose job; simply altering the tip rendered her nearly unrecognizable from her 80s fame.
Brent: Interesting! When you draw, do you lead with the distinctive feature?
Sarah: When I draw a face, I start from a distance and work inward to the finer details. I'll put the general size shape down on paper first then tweak and fine-tune the smaller features slowly.
Brent: I attended a really fascinating lecture once by a criminal justice professor named Jennifer Dysart, who specializes in eyewitness identification. She maintains that people scan faces holistically, that, subconsciously, we take in all the general and specific features of a face.
Sarah: I think that’s true.
Brent: That said, how can non-artists train themselves to describe what makes people distinct-looking? Say we had to describe a suspect to a police sketch artist, how can we be of maximum use to the artist?
Sarah: I think a very helpful way for a non-artist to become aware of others' distinct features is to first ask, "who or what do they remind me of?" It can be another person, a celebrity, a cartoon character, an animal, a vegetable, an object, anything! If you can land on a reference, then ask yourself what the parallel features are between the two. It helps to not let “politeness” enter into your process.
Brent: Right, just as professional magicians should never reveal their secrets, artists should not divulge to others what their face reminds them of. So, what happens if no special trait pops out?
Sarah: If you can't land on a reference, then congratulations! You've found one of those tough people that feels impossible to describe. Even us artists can get caught in this frustration. It's with these types of people that I tend to lean on personality traits—an emotional presence or feelings the person induces in others also guides me.
Brent: That’s what’s prescribed for people who suffer from prosopagnosia, or face blindness. If your brain can’t help you make sense of a face, look for mannerisms or body language, listen to their voice, or zero in on their temperament.
Sarah: Occasionally, I've had to illustrate people I've never met. In those cases, I often will ask whoever is commissioning the piece for a list of personality traits that define the person in addition to photos.
Brent: OK, here’s the last question. What animal, vegetable, or personality do you see when you draw yourself?
Sarah: Ha! That's funny. I've been told by my artist friends that I'm one of those frustrating tough-to-reference people! When I see myself, I tend to be a little self-deprecating, so I see small teeth and big cheeks, making me a bit “gophery.” I've had people tell me I remind them of Maya Rudolph, which I'll gladly take as a giant compliment. And I've also heard that Dave Roberts (the former San Francisco Giants outfielder and current Dodgers manager) looks like he could be my brother—also a compliment in my mind.
Brent: Thanks for being so forthcoming, Sarah. It was great fun to work with you on the book, and I look forward to collaborating again.
Sarah: Me too! Thanks for interviewing me.