By Todd Savage
Tom Bachtell wanted to be a cartoonist, but he thought that drawing caricatures–like the ones by the art students he knew who worked at carnivals and street fairs–was a depressing dead end. “I thought that would be a life in hell,” Bachtell says. “I could just see myself sitting on the street drawing. ‘That doesn’t look like me.’…And people stoning me.”
Bachtell has had little reason to fear for his safety. Instead of rendering images of street-fair denizens, he spends his days drawing likenesses of movie stars, politicos, and other media fixtures for the New Yorker and a host of other magazines. In his 19th-floor studio on State Street, he sits on a stool and leans over his cluttered desk, where there’s hardly a surface free of magazines, sketches, and other papers. His left hand moves rapidly, dipping a brush into a coffee mug of black ink. Bachtell strives to give the drawings a fluid, spontaneous feel. With a few strokes of the brush, faces of the famous come into focus.
His style is entirely self-taught. As a child, he loved cartoons and enjoyed thumbing through his parents’ New Yorkers to admire the work of artists like Peter Arno, Charles Addams, and Al Hirschfeld. When he was ten, his parents hosted a cocktail party at their Ohio home. He recalls using a portable chalkboard to create a drawing of his impressions of the party: adults standing around in fancy clothes, drinking and laughing. “I remember having a blast doing it,” Bachtell says. “It just came out, and it wasn’t premeditated or anything. I realized that it was good. But it had an element of social satire–that was when I discovered it.”
Bachtell studied English at Case Western Reserve University and piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and started a modern dance company in his early 20s. But even though he had continued to draw cartoons, he avoided art classes. He’d taken a drawing class in college but worried that formal courses would rein in the looseness of his emerging style. “They seemed stilted and formal to me and not fun,” he says. After he moved to Chicago in 1983, Bachtell found a day job as a copywriter and started sending out his drawings.
One day in 1989 Bachtell was stunned to get a call from the New Yorker’s art director, who’d seen his work in another magazine. Soon his first drawing, a sketch of David Byrne, appeared in the magazine’s “Goings On About Town” section. Over the last decade, he’s contributed hundreds of his stylish black-and-white illustrations to its pages, and for the last five years he’s been the sole illustrator of the “Talk of the Town” section.
There’s a sly sense of humor to his drawings: James Joyce and Winnie the Pooh confronting each other, Mariah Carey and her dog puffing out their chests, I.M. Pei as a Beanie Baby, Linda Tripp burning at the stake. While the New Yorker has been a steady client, his work is all over the newsstand, appearing in the Chicago Tribune, Entertainment Weekly, and Town & Country, among others. One of his drawings, the Marshall Field’s “Jingle Elf,” has even been made into a balloon for the city’s Thanksgiving Day parade. He designed the poster for this year’s Printers Row Book Fair. And when the set designers for Cahoots, a 1930s-style screwball comedy at Victory Gardens, wanted to evoke the world of theater and movies but found the drawings of Al Hirschfeld prohibitively expensive, they turned to Bachtell. About 30 of his drawings–everyone from Jackie Gleason to Lucille Ball to John Malkovich–have been painted on the set. “I sort of regret that I didn’t live during the great heyday of theater, Broadway, and movies,” says Bachtell. “Because those people were fun to draw. Nowadays celebrities are really bland.”
While Bachtell’s skills as an observer of faces and anatomy enable him to capture a person in a quick, deceptively simple rendering, it can take him another 100 sketches to fine-tune one of his drawings. “If I saw you across the street from far away, I would know it’s you,” he says. “Why would I know that? What is it about you? I always have to ask myself those questions.”
As a caricaturist, “Tom is really able to look,” says Owen Phillips, deputy illustration editor at the New Yorker. “He learns the face, and he can maneuver it any way he wants. He’s really seeing it, not just copying it.” He notes that Bachtell has developed his own repertoire of characters like “big fat matronly women and scheming bald businessmen with martinis” that evoke the classic New Yorker, “but then we can shoot him Christina Aguilera in the next hour, and he’ll come through on that too.”
Bachtell has his own way of measuring success. “Sometimes when you see theater or puppets you start forgetting that these are actors, or they’re little things that are being manipulated,” he says. “I think it’s the same way with a drawing. All of a sudden you don’t see the linework. You don’t see the mechanics. The drawing takes on a life of its own.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.