Bil Donovan for Christian Dior Beauty
Whether fashion is art is a perpetual topic of debate. Conversely, we'd be hardpressed to find objection to the idea that those who document fashion, in an inspired way, are indeed artists. Fashion illustrators possess that magical combination of technical skill and provocative flair that is essential in bringing their subject to life.
Bil Donovan is one of today's most accomplished and revered fashion illustrators, and a true artist - deemed so by Christian Dior Beauty who named him their first Artist-in-Residence in 2009. Based in New York, he is also an educator, currently as Assistant Adjunct Professor at the city's prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology where he was once a student; and a fine artist working under the name William Donovan, a pursuit that allows him to engage aspects of his creativity in an expression unique to that of his fashion-focussed illustrations.
In 2010 Bil published his first book, Advanced Fashion Drawing/Lifestyle Illustration through Laurence King UK. It's a beautiful textbook that "promotes the idea of observation, thinking and selectivity through a series of exercises and demonstrations that explore the concepts of line, shape and composition." For illustrators looking to broaden their perspective, this hugely inspiring and challenging book is a must-have. Bil's introduction alone is of immense value; his story will surprise you.
I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Bil, my favourite fashion illustrator, about his work. I look at his pictures when I want to feel happy or elated; it's something in the combination of his precise, elegant brush strokes and how he chooses and uses colour. I'm drawn to his bright hues, though some of my favourites are mostly monochromatic - Bil is a master at summoning an exhilarating energy with his use of light and transparency and translating the space and proportion of a live event into two dimensions without compromising a shred of its vitality, even taking the beauty to a higher level. I would like to live in Bil's world.
DG: First, congratulations and big thanks for your book, a truly original and invigorating approach to fashion illustration instruction. It's hard to believe you were once told you were not a natural and that you should 'rethink your artistic pursuit.' That professor would prove to be instrumental in shaping your path early on, when you took her advice to 'draw draw draw'.
I think you may be about to change the lives of others yourself by revealing this bit of information in your book - t’s a universal given in our minds that true creative talent is something we're born with, that comes easily. You've proven through your achievements that with insightful guidance and nurturing, anyone with the commitment to be a good illustrator can indeed be one.
Do you feel that without the specific education you received from several extraordinary individuals that you would have eventually found your way to where you are now, or was it absolutely crucial to your success?
BD: I believe that regardless of the degree of talent one person may possess, that individual needs to nurture, perfect and explore that ability through practice as well as understanding the fundamentals related to that field.
It is important to get a different perspective and evaluation of your work through the eyes of another and of course this would occur in a class. I know that studying with a variety of instructors sharpened my thinking and pointed me in the direction of pursuing my personal vision.
Would I have developed my eye, or draftsmanship without that experience?
Absolutely, probably through practice, but each teacher brings a distinct viewpoint and perspective to a class and those factors influenced my perception of drawing and nurtured my style.
I love the theatrics of a circle of easels occupied by artists surrounding a model perched on a model stand. Imagine this arena energized by the presence of an instructor who circles around the room pushing, encouraging, inspiring and challenging you to see, think and create work in a different light…the energy is palpable and courses through your body pulsing through your veins into your hand holding the pencil onto the paper…There is nothing like that. I’m still addicted and still take classes.
DG: The fact that you’re still taking classes will either be reassuring to young illustrators or totally intimidating! Then again, learning is a life-long process.
Do you prefer the easel circle to the live event? Does the spontaneity of the live event force you to adapt your style?
BD: Each is unique. The studio setting is a more controlled environment and the energy is generated through the model, the instructor and of course the other artists present. If I create work alone at my studio then the energy is collaboration between the model and me.
Live events have a kinetic energy generated by the state of flux. You have no control of the surroundings and events occurring and it is great to allow that spontaneity to filter into the work. You have to be in the moment and constantly edit and adapt your process, rather than style to meet the challenge. There is no room for preciousness.
In September Ralph Rucci invited me to document his Spring 2011 collection and it was exhilarating to witness his brilliance and world; to capture that experience as models floated by in these gorgeous creations, for the press, editors, buyers and privileged guests…it was an Ahhhh moment and everyone took a pause at the beauty of his collection, they actually gasped, but I had no time or I would have missed it.
I had to let go and just trust that the essence of that moment would rise to the surface.
At Chado Ralph Rucci, New York Fashion Week, September 2010
DG: You conveyed the structure, textures and lightness of the Chado Ralph Rucci collection beautifully. We love to look at fashion drawings and paintings; they go even further in creating that ideal world, the fantasy, and capturing the essence of a collection than the fashion show itself. They can be so enchanting.
So why isn’t illustration a more regular part of documenting fashion today, alongside the photograph? Fashion week is typically fed to us through a singular view – there’s the catwalk and the wall of photographers at the end of it snapping the models in identical poses without facial expression. We could use a more fanciful narrative!
BD: Amen! I wish I had the answer to that question. And those who are in a position to choose the editorial content and create the narrative could best answer it. The fashion world is a business, and the editorial and advertorial markets revolving around that world must promote an image that meets the demands of a particular audience in order to thrive. However, I believe that this audience is underestimated in their ability to appreciate an illustrated narrative over a photo-realistic one. It is also the responsibility of the illustrator to reinvent the genre of fashion illustration with energy and concept to seduce the eye and capture the attention of a new audience.
DG: During a discussion earlier this year between Imran Amed from The Business of Fashion and Nick Knight for BoB’s series Fashion Pioneers, Nick declared, “I think photography is dead” upon reflection of the notion that as a medium it can’t evolve. He also downplayed the importance of the printed medium and claimed that ‘fashion will be shaped by the internet’, an idea which was supported by the massive public response to McQueen’s live streamed Plato’s Atlantis in 2009.
As an artist who also documents fashion and the curator of the January's exhibition Fashion Illustration: Visual Poetry, do you see a unified movement amongst fashion illustrators toward the use of specific technologies to create both the art and the means of access? How does the concept of evolution apply to the classic art form of fashion illustration, and it is imperative that the genre evolve in order to be influential in shaping fashion?
BD: All art has to evolve, high, low, commercial or fine and Fashion Illustration is no exception. Technology nurtures that evolution by providing a creative arena for exploring possibilities beyond our imagination.
We are witnessing Video, Animation, Drawing Painting, Photography, Performance and Music accompanies one another and move beyond the printed page. That’s entertainment!!!
However, I am a firm believer that your digital skills are only as effective as your traditional skills. Those with a foundation in drawing painting, composition and theory will have a competitive edge over those who to rely on the digital technology to make their work.
Anyone can scan a photo-distort-posterize and process it through a filter. But what makes it unique? Does technique dictate the work or do we dictate the technique to communicate and enhance our vision? Intuition is idiosyncratic and has as yet to be incorporated into digital technology.
Social networking has changed the landscape of how work is seen, perceived and promoted, unimaginable a decade ago.
DG: There seems to be an element of critics who dismiss beauty at its most simple and pure as fluff, as if meaningful expression can only be found in the edgy, hard, damaged, or ugly. How would you respond to that?
BD: Work that is from the soul whether it is dark or light should never be dismissed.
My personal work is dark and my fashion work is light. It took me a long time to calibrate the two and realize that one does not invalidate or surpass the other.
Thank you, Bil. It was an honour.
For Chado Ralph Rucci, New York Fashion Week, September 2010
For Vanity Fair Italia, 2011
For more about Bil Donovan visit his website, and if you're in New York you have a unique opportunity to see him work live:
All illustrations © Bil Donovan