Wednesday, 14 September 2011

David Downton - Couture Voyeur

Thursday 8th ended up being quite a profound day for me. Firstly, I received news (which I can't divulge) in regards to my own illustration work that will in no doubt change and potentially help define my career. Presumptuous to say so I know, or to even talk about it. So, straight after this news, I was off to attend David Downton's talk at the Fashion Illustration Gallery on Cork St, a talk that I jumped at the chance of attending the moment it was announced. On the way out of the tube at Oxford Circus I even noticed the new posters for Fenwick's Autumn Winter ad campaign, beautifully done by David himself. David's talk, coupled with aforementioned news, left me feeling almost emotional at the level of passion I felt towards fashion illustration, and how I'm absolutely confident in knowing I want to continue with it for as long as I can.

More after the jump . . .

So, once I had arrived, there were a handful of tables laid out in the gallery space, along with assistants in gloves, showing us many of Davids originals and prints, all to see in their beautiful large-format glory. It's incredibly reassuring that his work is near enough exactly the same as the image as you see in print. There are no noticeable adjustments made in photoshop in order to create the final image, something I've relied on once or twice myself and generally illustrators have the opportunity to rely on.

Once we were all seated, David introduced himself, and began to speak about how he came to be a fashion illustrator. I've read enough interviews with him to know the general story but it was fantastic to hear it from a more personal angle. His family were very sports based. He grew up in a family where his father and brother were professional cricketers, and a career involving fashion and style was an unusual pursuit. He spoke about how he was praised very much as a child, his feelings towards being an art student and dealing with levels of expectation and self-expectation (something I completely empathize with). He discussed the great artists and illustrators whom he studied, who whether conscious or subconsciously, influenced his style of work.
To quote him directly "nothing is original, everything is re-interpreted, there's nothing wrong with copying in order to learn, just copy from the best". A very similar quote that Westwood once made about studying Dior's new look endlessly in admiration, in order to gain her own visual language.

A great piece of information he shared with us was discovering the original illustration that he used to stare at and draw continuously as a child. In his parents LP collection, he became obsessed with the only LP cover that was illustrated, shown below, 'Never On Sunday.' He studied it continuously, the way the models' weight was shifted in that particular stance, the way her bag was drawn and the way the linework was used to full effect. The influence on him is clear.

David then proceeded through a presentation of artists including Rene Bouche, Bob Peak, Gruau and the other artists that he looked to for inspiration to show how his own style has developed through influence. It was great to see his admiration for Viramontes again and informed us there will be a new book on his work coming out (see the last blog post on Decoy for more info on Viramontes). Leading up to work in the 60s and 70s, he informed us that his original desire was to illustrate film posters, which of course we know is now sadly non existent. It's clear that the element of iconography has always been a major factor in David's work, that drive to illustrate charismatic models and people, and create an iconic image, not just an illustration of anybody, or a forgettable face. He manages to create the striking element of simplicity in an image, the immediacy of star quality and great style.

As the story goes with Downton's career, it's widely known that at 36 his career took the turn of fate when he received a phonecall asking him to illustrate the couture shows. Being at the Versace show, and in his words 'watching Naomi, Kate, Linda, these gorillas of fashion' saunter down the catwalk, he could barely sketch fast enough. He spoke about the surreality of drawing Amber Valetta in a couture fitting with Valentino, the dogs playing about, and having to make himself able to detach himself from being in awe of the situation in order to get the sketch done.

Jokingly he stated that he was jealous of himself, never taking it for granted and always being amazed and grateful to be around and work with such incredible talent, which is understandly important, that level of awe becomes the driving inspiration and context for work. He began to start signing his illustrations with 'dd', something which he felt became a persona and helped detach him from the surreal world of the industry and the briefs he was getting. He wasn't doing all this, 'dd' was doing it all. He showed us a fantastic photograph of Linda Evangelista, posed in front of him while he sat sketching in Philip Treacy's studio, Linda in one of Philip's pieces.

Another example of work that he discussed was an older illustration for Thierry Mugler. It was one that might not be immediately recognisable as David's style, but the elements are still there. As you can see, the image is in a paper-cut style, and David emphasized the importance of respecting a designer's style as much as your own, which the illustration manages perfectly.

We were treated to one or two looser rougher pieces of work that David stated aren't really for a brief as such, but fun and important to play around with, and incredibly satisfying. As an illustrator myself I know I like to create really simple rough work to exercise some creativity when I can, even if the illustration is only for myself.

One of the more important and inspirational points of the talk was when David stated that a lot of contemporaries who he started out with either no longer do illustration or have changed career. I recently met up with Richard Gray (another member of the elite illustrators at F.I.G) who said the same thing to me, that a lot of illustrators seem to burn out in five years, and their popularity begins to fade. Richard pointed out it's important to establish your identity as an illustrator but also need to diversify in order to not become associated with the past or a particular time. To quote David: "if you find yourself in fashion you'll also find yourself out of it again, it's not possible to stay on top, fashion by nature means replacing with the new". A slightly disheartening (because it's true) statement, and shows just how aware and self-aware illustrators like David and Richard are. David explained that to some extent he is almost 'uncool', as his work is, at the end of the day, seen as reflecting a bygone era, yet at the same time, his line work and style keep him in a contemporary context, without being too directional to become dated in a few years time.

As David continued, he brought up the point that fashion illustration is still everywhere but the mags; it's seen as a side alternative, it's more artistic but it doesn't sell the product as strongly and at the end of the day, we all know the mags are ruled by the advertisers. 'Cooler' mags will use illustrators to appear more forward and directional but will soon give up on it if they get bigger.

As for his clients, he mentioned that models and actresses work differently with illustrators. It's very easy in their careers to say no and very hard to say yes, their image is there career and what they earn from, and it's completely rightfully understandable for them / their agent to be in control over it. They put their image in the complete hands of the illustrator, whereas with photographers there is the element of control and discussing back and forth. With an illustrator, it's completely in the illustrator's construction. (gossip: he also announced as part of his residency at Claridges, he has just illustrated Sarah Jessica Parker). When asked by a member in the group, he said he would love to illustrate Julianne Moore, Tilda Swinton and Charlotte Rampling, amongst others. Classic Downton women for sure.

David manages to instill the faith that a career in fashion illustration is not only possible but also long lasting, providing your enthusiasm and determination for it come from a genuine place, and I was probably not the only person to walk away from the talk feeling even more passionate and driven about fashion illustration than ever before.

go to his site

purchase a copy of Masters of Fashion illustration

See the Decoy review for Masters Of Fashion Illustration

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