Adam Street is bring the sexy back—literally. The former Marvel Comics artist has created a booming business with Draw Me Sexy, caricatures of women that are at once sexy and empowering. We spoke with Adam about second-act careers, and how how he’s changing women’s lives, one beautiful caricature at a time.
How did Draw Me Sexy come to be?
In 2004, I left my day job as an insurance agent to color comic books full-time for Marvel Comics. Things were going well but I knew I didn’t want to be coloring or drawing comics with them for the rest of my life. My passion had always been to be a good girl or pinup illustrator. My favorite art is from pinup artists like Gil Elvgren and Al Buell. I also love pinup style cartoonists like Dean Yeagle, Bill Ward, and Don Flowers. Back then I wanted to be a pinup artist, but I didn’t think there was a market for it.
In 2009 Disney acquired Marvel, and I became a little nervous. Although we were told there were no plans to cut our jobs, I still wanted to look around. I had always wanted to be a character designer for animation, so I decided to move in that direction. At the time I had no idea how to begin so I started digging around. Luckily, I found an old podcast by veteran character designer Stephen Silver. Silver said if you want to be a character designer, you should start by drawing caricatures. Silver has worked for companies like Walt Disney, Dreamworks, and Warner Bros. I thought if Silver recommended drawing caricatures, that’s probably where I should start. A few months later I was drawing caricatures in my neighborhood mall on weekends and I continued coloring comics.
After I drew caricatures at my first party, I had a woman who didn’t want a caricature because she was afraid I would make her look fat. This didn’t make sense to me because my drawing style is based on comic book men and pinup women, so my caricatures are generally very flattering. I soon learned that although most people won’t say it, almost everyone wants to look good in a caricature. Some people don’t mind being drawn silly, but they still want to enjoy their picture.
In 2011 I started Draw Me Sexy because I wanted to overcome the negative stigma of caricature. This worked as expected but there was one thing I didn’t plan on, some people who might consider me to draw at weddings, birthday parties, and Bat Mitzvahs were nervous because of my name. If you’re curious, no, I won’t draw grandma in a thong bikini at your wedding reception, but I overcame this by sending those events to a different site.
People don’t usually equate caricatures with being sexy. Why did you decide to give them a more sensual style?
I do caricatures in more of a sensual style because I believe that’s who I am. I’m over 40 now and I’m not as muscular and lean as I was in my 20’s, but I still feel like the same person. As the old orange analogy goes, you squeeze an orange and out comes orange juice because that’s what’s inside. I’m able to do what I do because I have “sexy” inside of me. When I look at people I see the sexy inside of them. For some men it may be their chin, or an expression. For a woman it could be her hair or the way she carries herself. Most people think I just automatically draw everyone in bikinis or bodybuilding trunks but I don’t.
Some people’s sexy is very loud. Think Kim Kardashian, Kate Upton, or Beyonce. Their sexy is so vocal you can see it across a room. On the other hand, I would argue that Michelle Obama or Reese Witherspoon is just as sexy as those women, their sexy is just quieter. It doesn’t matter if your sexy is loud or quiet, my job is capture it in a picture.
What has the response been to Draw Me Sexy?
The response to Draw Me Sexy has been great. Since most people still think of caricature as exaggerating to make your face silly, Draw Me Sexy reverses that meme. When I do trade shows it’s funny to see the responses of people. About 33% of the people stop and look around, 33% are curious but won’t don’t stop, and the other 33% are outraged. You only have to read the body language to learn quickly who is who.
You’ve worked for some top comic book publishers, such as Marvel Comics and DC Comics. What was it like making the transition from comic books to caricatures?
The transition from comics to caricature was tough because I had been the comic industry for a long time—even before Marvel. In comics most my business came from referrals but in caricature I started with zero clients, so I had to learn how to market a different type of art business. And with ‘sexy’ in the company name, that gave me another set of obstacles to overcome.
On the other side having Marvel and DC on my resume helped open a lot of doors for me. Even though the comic book market is very small, there’s still many people who grew up with superhero cartoons, TV shows, and now movies. Most people don’t meet comic book artists let alone have them draw at their events or portraits, so people were excited.
How would you say your style has evolved over time?
My drawing style is and will always probably keep evolving. My style is fundamentally the same but I’m finding myself getting more detailed in my work. I used to try to keep the face very simplified like animation and add more details in the painting phase. Now I’m capturing more lines and planes of the face and my painting is getting more detailed too.
Would you say that your drawings have helped women have more self-confidence, or view themselves in a more positive light? How so?
Women’s reactions is partly what cemented me into the world of sexy caricature. When I was at the mall and still very green, I drew a woman with her baby. The lady struck me as being insecure or not having a lot of self-esteem. When I showed her the finished picture she started to cry, and she asked me, “How did you do this?” I didn’t understand what she meant so I didn’t have an answer for her. She just kept staring at her picture fighting back tears. Back then I didn’t get it but I understand now. I captured the beauty of her and her child. She saw the beauty in her baby, but she didn’t see it in herself and she wanted to understand. That experience blew me away.
I did a pinup caricature of one lady who said she lost 25 pounds and after seeing the caricature I did of her she said she felt sexier than she’s felt in years. Sometimes when I draw live I’ll get little old ladies who look at their caricature, and give me a kiss on the cheek or a giant hug, and say thank you.
What are some of your plans for Draw Me Sexy, both currently and in the future?
My plans for Draw Me Sexy is to get it out to more people. My goal is for caricatures to be like photos. I want people to have a Christmas caricature, a fall caricature, one for their birthday, football season, etc. I’m currently revamping the website and I am planning a new ad campaign. One of my long-term goals is to have a Comic-con type event for us ‘sexy’ vendors. If you’re an artist, hairdresser, make-up artist, etc. or have products that make women look or feel fabulous, this show will be for you.
What have been some of your success stories?
I have lots of success stories but what I enjoy most is exceeding people’s expectations. I drew a wedding portrait and my client told me she not only loved it, she loved it more than her actual wedding photos. Now that I’ve been doing this awhile I meet people at events who tell me I drew them previously and how much they loved the way they look, or how I changed their negative opinion on caricature artists. I never imagined that I would ever be able to change anyone’s mind on anything by drawing a picture.
How do you balance being a dad with your career?
Caricature has actually made parenting easier. The portraits that I paint in my studio don’t generally take as long as comic book pages, so I have more flexibility with my schedule. The same is true with live events, I may draw for a few hours and then go home. The main drawback is I work a lot of nights—mostly Fridays and Saturdays. When my family has events, we often do them on Sundays.
When I was mainly doing mainstream comics, I do admit I could freely work with my office door open. Now that I draw sexy so often my office door is closed more than it’s open!
What does your wife think of women asking you to draw them sexy?!
First and foremost, I think my wife, Tiffany, accepts who I am. It may have been hard for her in the beginning because when she met me I was in college studying music. On the other hand, she has always been one of my biggest supporters. She works trade shows with me and she’s seen the transformations in the women I draw firsthand. She enjoys seeing women’s reactions and hearing the positive feedback. We have a friend who I’ve drawn twice, and she said my art has turned them into “caricature snobs.” My wife loves hearing stories like that.
Do some people think you perpetuate the stereotype that all women are only pretty if they are rail thin and with big boobs?
I think what separates photos of models or even general pinup art is, most people see them as independent beautiful structures. Many women would love Cameron Diaz’s lips or Christina Hendricks’ bust size. Those structures are beautiful—on them! When it comes to a sexy caricature portrait of you, it has the effect of a vision board and you get very different and more visceral positive emotions.