Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Beginnings: Busch Gardens, Tampa, Florida

My name is Chris Collins. On April 29, 2005, I began training in the art of retail caricature at Busch Gardens, in Tampa, Florida. Professional caricaturist and photographer Dion Socia, the head of the Kaman's caricature concession there, patiently taught myself and the other newbies the basic techniques and I owe much gratitude to him, plus the many artists in the National Caricaturist Network who have been helping me along. In particular, Tom Richmond, known by most for his work for MAD Magazine.

Tom had written a in-depth series of articles concerning the art of caricature and cartooning in general. I would post my early efforts on the NCN's forum, and Tom was gracious enough to take the time to offer critique and encouragement. Also, Joe Bluhm, who in his early 20's was already considered among the best. He visited us often as Busch Gardens, and I drove to Orlando on several occasions to watch him at work at Sea World. Joe introduced me to a lot of the other caricaturists in Orlando, like Glenn Ferguson and Keelan Parham. It was like having a backstage pass to a whole underground subculture of caricaturists. I wanted so much to be a part of it all.

My main job was teaching Photoshop at a college in Tampa. But there’s something really satisfying about drawing people’s faces from life.

I’ve dabbled in different sorts of painting over the years, after having the good fortunate in 1983 to fall under the tutelage of art professor Jack Girard, at Transylvania University, in Lexington, KY. And I have been interested in caricature since seeing the work of Mort Drucker in MAD Magazine, back in the '70's. Whenever our family went to a theme park, I just wanted to hang out and watch the caricature artists. So with that, one day in April, 2005, I went to Busch Gardens to meet the caricature artists and ask for a chance to try this out for myself. At the time I was living only a few blocks away from Busch Gardens, and it was an opportunity that I did not want to let slip by.

So the next thing you know, I have my uniform and cap and drawing supplies that Dion provided, and am working next to him with a sign posted above my easel that said, "Artist-in-Training." Was that ever an understatement. I was totally in over my head and would get a lot of self-doubt accompanied by cottonmouth. We draw with special markers and it takes practice to get a good line quality from them. As soon as I got slightly comfortable, I forced myself to draw them in a 3/4 pose whenever possible. That introduces issues of perspective. With practice, the whole experience started to become a lot of fun: You open your caricature stand with the park still closed, get your gear all set up and then hope some interesting looking adults might drop in for a drawing. Mostly though, you get kids, and so the goal then is not so much exaggeration, but to produce something more like a cartoony portrait that has some humanity in there. Here is a brief account of this adventure:

Above is the first drawing I actually sold. It was on my first full working day. When you have the "Artist-in-Training" sign above your easel, guests have the option to purchase only if they like the results. Most would just pass. I remember being very nervous at what I'd gotten myself into.

Looking back, I feel that just through careful observation, I was able to get a good likeness right from the beginning. That leaves issues of cartooning, line quality, coloring, and exaggeration, things I'm still struggling with. Sometimes you really "see" ("feel" might be a better word) the exaggeration, but when that was not happening, I could at least resort to a cartoony portrait with a good likeness.

Anyway, here, in chronological order, are some select drawings completed during my tenure at Busch Gardens. (Click thumnail for full-size image.) But first, here are a couple shots of me at work, the first with Matt Zittman (foreground), and the second with myself, Matt, and Nick Mitchell.

We would draw each other a lot. Above is one of Sean Gardner, who started about the same time I did.

Above is one I drew of my cousin Dominic, during a day off.

And finally, below, was the last caricature I sold, on my last day at Busch Gardens:

By then I had moved to Clearwater and it was such a long drive that I put in my notice at the theme park. I still do private gigs, but there is nothing like the retail environment -- it forces you to improve.


  1. hey man this is great, i hear so many stories about you from dion, carl, sean... i wish i could've worked with you... i started in 07 and i am still there. you should try going to the con, this year it'll be in ohio. or may be you can come to an art night.

  2. Hey, Really impressed with your drawings!! the first one you did was amazing. How long did you need to train with Kaman's for? Have been practicing for ages and can't seem to get the same quality. Hoping to get selected for a job in B.Gardens!! Any tips would be great!!!

  3. Hi Chris, excellent work! I just got the Caricature bug myself about a year ago and I just came back from my first ISCA Con...Amazing To meet so many talented people it was a blast!

  4. Berto I had the pleasure of meeting and working with Chris On line and at the convention in Orlando and he's a super guy! I can honestly say he had a LOT to do with me honing my "subway surfer persona" and helped me to crack the exageration code. Chris, it's eerie seeing that early picture of Sean who has gone on to become one of the NCN's "superstars. and you caught him early! Before the trademark beard and hair!!

  5. Hi Chris,

    Your work is very good, but I have a question for you. Did you ever meet a Caricaturist by the name last name of "Moran" at Bush Gardens? He/she created to caricature drawings of my two younger sons back in 96, but my oldest son wasn't there and I'd like that person, if possible, to make one of my oldest son from a picture of him when he was 14, so I have one of all three of them.

    Any help with this would be greatly appreciated. :-)