DAVID DOWNTON INTERVIEWED BY TONY GLENVILLE
How did you become a fashion illustrator?
– I am not really sure. I didn’t set out to become one. It happened very gradually. I spent about 15 years as a freelance illustrator taking on whatever came in – and enjoying it too. Sometimes, because of my style of drawing I was asked to produce fashion images- but I think during that time I covered almost every subject matter. From children’s books to a sex manual. My first job was a cover for Which Computer magazine in the early 80’s.
Were you interested in fashion?
– Not particularly – but I loved the work of the great fashion illustrators, Gruau, Antonio and Eric and always appreciated them as artists.
What drew you to illustration in the first place?
– I was always drawing. As a child, my idea of a treat was a big sheet of white paper. I didn’t realise, until much later, that you could make a living from drawing.
What triggered your move into fashion illustration – was there something specific?
– Absolutely. In 1996 I was sent to draw at the Paris haute couture shows for a magazine. Like most illustrators I sit listening to Radio 4 with an angle poise for company, so I was very excited to get out of the studio – and a paid trip to Paris sounded good to me.
What was your reaction to that first trip to couture?
– It blew me away! I was totally unprepared for it. Couture really is a parallel universe – I’ve heard it described as the kingdom of indulgence, which is true, but it is also extremely inspiring for an artist or illustrator; the worlds most beautiful women, designers working without constraint – the sheer theatricality of it all – there is a lot to draw!
What makes an interesting fashion subject?
– I think the most important thing is the sense of the body in the clothes. After that, proportion, colour, a detail. Anything can catch the eye – but what is interesting in fashion terms isn’t necessarily what makes a good drawing and vice versa.
Lets talk about your work methods. How do you arrive at the elimination of detail?
– For me this is the hardest and the most interesting thing. In order to leave something out, first you have to put it in, or at least understand how every thing works. I do dozens of drawings on to layout paper taking the best from each one as I go. When the drawing looks right I start to eliminate, to de-construct if you like. I keep working until it looks spontaneous.
What methods do you use to apply colour?
– It depends on the result I want to achieve and what is most appropriate to the subject. I use watercolour or gouache for small scale pieces. If I need flat saturated colour I use cut paper collage and then apply line using an acetate overlay.
What about the pure line drawing?
– I use black Indian ink on acetate or paper.
– So how do you draw on location, say at the Paris shows?
I don’t actually draw during the catwalk shows anymore, I find it impossible. I take photographs or I just watch – I draw whenever there is a chance that the model will stay still, backstage or at fittings sometimes even in the car between shows. When I first started I thought it was my responsibility to draw the clothes as they came down the catwalk. The first show I ever saw was Versace couture, I just about managed to draw Kate Moss’ arm before she disappeared!
What for you makes a successful fashion illustration?
– Fluidity, mastery of the medium – capturing a sense of the moment, layout and use of space and most important of all, strong drawing. You can’t be too good at drawing.
Which fashion illustrators do you admire?
– Gruau for his graphic genius, Vertes for his humour, Bouché for his lightness of touch and Eric for his draughtsmanship.
What about the illustrators of today?
– That’s harder but there are probably half a dozen strong, individual fashion illustrators in the world today who have anything like the panache of those I have mentioned, not many.
What is your attitude to the computer?
– Well, I have one, I think its probably a necessary evil, but nothing can compare with that first flash of black ink on white paper.
What prompted you to start painting portraits?
– Again it wasn’t planned. I met Marie Helvin when she came to an exhibition of mine in London. I asked if I could draw her and was delighted when she agreed. The drawing turned out well and I began to plan a book of drawings of the world’s most amazing women.
Are you still planning a book?
– Absolutely, I’ve just given up worrying about when it will be finished.
So would you call yourself a portrait painter?
– No! Absolutely not. Lucien Freud, Graham Sutherland and Jenny Saville are portrait painters.
Does your approach for the portraits differ from the fashion work?
– The aims are the same, simplicity, a fluid line, the illusion of effortlessness, of course there is the added dimension of having to capture a likeness.
– Is that important to you? Do you find it difficult to achieve?
It is very important and strangely I don’t find it difficult. It is more a knack than anything else. Some great artists don’t have the knack some mediocre ones do…
You have worked with some very famous women – why do you think they agree to sit for you?
– You’d better ask them!
And why women by the way?
– The illustrators I mentioned earlier Gruau, Bouché and Antonio always drew the most beautiful women of the era. Also, I like women, it’s a great job.
– Tell me something about the sittings themselves
They normally take about two hours and usually I go to the sitters’ house or a hotel suite. I drew Anna Piagggi between couture shows in Paris while they were taking the chairs away around us. Marisa Berenson was drawn on a boiling hot October day in New York on a roof terrace. You have to be flexible.
Are you trying to say something new about your famous sitters?
– No, I draw what I see – I wouldn’t presume to know someone after two hours. I am dealing with the public person not trying to expose the person behind it or get at some inner truth – but the best drawings are true collaborations.
So, you do a complete drawing in two hours?
– No, I complete the work at home in my studio – a safe environment – and I never let the sitter see what I am doing, I don’t have the confidence. I have to have time to evaluate it myself first.
Who would you like to have drawn?
– Staying with women, from the 20th century – I’d say Sylvaana Mangano, Lee Miller, Audrey Hepburn, Josephine Baker, Ava Gardner, Edith Sitwell… it’s a long list.
– How do you escape from the world of style?
By not living in it. I escape to it from time to time which is great also. I have two children who couldn’t care less about who I am drawing – which probably helps.
+ his biography…
1996- He was sent to draw at a Paris Haute Couture shows for a fashion magazine.
1998-1999-His work has been exhibited in solo shows at the Conningsby Gallery, in London.
2002-Collaborated with supermodel Erin O’Connor on a number of occasions including shows at the Rootstein Gallery in New York
2003-Joyce Ma Gallery, Palais Royal, Paris.
2006-Another exhibition at the Couture Voyeur show at London College of Fashions Fashion Space Gallery.
Also, in the same year, Commissioned by Brown’s to design the Christmas window display and invitation for their South Moulton Street street.
2007-his work featured in the Daily Telegraph on the front cover of a special edition of Jane Austen’s Emma.
Also, on the cover of Cally Blackman’s 100 Years of Fashion Illustration.