John Cuneo, the Woodstock-based cartoonist and illustrator whose latest New Yorker cover captures our President building a wall around himself on his Oval Office desk, says it’s been a while now that he’s been drawing Donald J. Trump.
“My first Trumps were decades ago, probably for Entertainment Weekly magazine back in his TV Apprentice days,” he said this week. “I still haven’t forgiven the producer Mark Burnett for his part in polishing this craven walking id of a New York bottom feeder into a palatable celebrity for the deluded masses.”
Cuneo’s been considered one of our more original, and funniest illustrators for a long time now. His style’s been noted for drawing from the Alice in Wonderland drawings of John Tenniel, as well as Mad magazine and a host of other cartooning greats. He’s got a recognizable sense of line, coloring, and most of all humor…dark, sacrilegious, id-conscious. He’s been drawing since an infant, soaking up every sort of illustration imaginable, from Rembrandt to his contemporaries. He had mentors throughout school, mentors when he began doing line drawings for advertising. But he also focused on his own originality, which blossomed when he moved to Woodstock years ago.
We asked how he starts a caricature.
“With a whimper,” he replied. “Each illustrator has a different jumping in point. I used to start with the nose and work out from there. Now I tend to go with the shape of the face or head and try and hop back and forth between features and proportions. My clients prefer more of a ‘humorous likeness’ to a more extremely exaggerated caricature in order to not distract too much from whatever concept is going on.”
Cuneo noted, with appreciation, how some of his colleagues “can magically capture the President’s visage with an orange circle, a shock of cotton candy on top, eyebrows and a pink bow of a lip. In those illustrations, the caricature is the concept. My art directors want something less stylized in order to serve a larger idea.”
Were certain faces, and people, easier to draw than others?
“Generally, the more conventionally beautiful, handsome and ideally proportioned a face, the more difficult it is to exaggerate and maintain a likeness,” he noted. “Trump is rather elusive for me, at least in a black and white line. That hair does not lend itself to pen and ink. Often, it’s not until I drop in some orange that he starts to come together.
At this moment, the nation’s cartoonists are surely thanking the Caricature Gods for delivering them Roger Stone as a respite.”
We asked about the ways an illustrator or cartoonist works with editors, knowing the fast pace of deadlines one must maintain to keep such a career up and running. And whether Cuneo’s work gets sold, or even collected, in other ways beyond the books he’s had published.
“Almost all of my work is commissioned by magazines or newspapers. An article is sent and I am supposed to find a humorous element or point of view and draw a picture of it,” he said. “New Yorker covers don’t work that way, they are not assigned. Loose idea sketches are pitched by anyone who feels inclined to throw their hat into a very crowded ring. The odds are depressingly remote and I rarely have anything worthwhile to contribute to that scrum. This last ‘Wall’ cover is probably my last…And now I’m depressed.”
So goes Mr. Cuneo’s humor…
“I sometimes hear from people who want to purchase the original art. It’s rarely politicians, as they are not usually portrayed in flattering terms,” he continued. “Portraits done for business magazines or cultural interest publications are mostly what sells…A cast member of The Sopranos, Ringo’s ‘people’ will call, or a secretary for a CEO will get in touch. With so many folks working digitally, there is a dearth of actual final artwork on paper I guess. I’m still fumbling around with ink and watercolor after all these years, so these things exist and are occasionally requested.”
Getting back to the Trump work, Cuneo said he has oodles of unpublished works that are “usually crude, angry images — and certainly unfit for general publication — but I am told by Françoise Mouly, the New Yorker art director, that many of them wind up on a private Wall of Shame in her office.” Did he worry about Trump lackies, maybe even Rudy Giuliani, showing up in his yard to yell at him?
“I do hear back from folks who are very angry and who will advise me to do anatomically impossible things to myself. Sometimes it’s more than insults and once in a while it’s a little unsettling,” Cuneo responds. “I think I’m safe here in the woods and assume most of those folks don’t have a GPS anyhow.”
He recalled how much more of a sense of camaraderie he and other cartoonists had in “the prehistoric days of Faxes, when private and profane sketches would be feverishly exchanged and even edited or added onto and sent back like some kind of adolescent game of gross out.”
“Drawing alone in a room for many years can stilt maturity to a pathetic extent,” John Cuneo added. “Nowadays we just throw up that stuff on social media and contribute to the visual din. I’m pretty sure not many minds are being changed and there is much preaching to the choir, but it’s nice to have a voice in the chorus.”
And the role these Trumps he commands play in his world?
“I post the occasional Trump drawing on Instagram, selfishly, and as a catharsis mostly,” Cuneo the cartoonist and Woodstocker said. “I am not as stoic or evolved as Michelle Obama. When ‘they’ go low, I go lower.”