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Mr. Drawbertson

Profiles
Illustrator (and Instagram sensation) Donald Robertson.

By Ted Loos, Illustrations by Donald Robertson

Starving artists everywhere are praying that they’ll someday get a two-book deal and a massive social media following for their work. And there are plenty of others who would happily settle for a well-paid career as a creative executive at a high-end cosmetics company. All of those people probably despise Donald Robertson, aka Donald Drawbertson, who lives both those lives at the same time.

At 52, the Westchester commuter dad—he has five children to add to his two careers—is one of the first art stars minted via popularity on Instagram, where he now has more than 84,000 followers (@donalddrawbertson). He does a lot of his drawing on the train on the way to his day job in Manhattan, where he’s a roving creative director for the Estée Lauder beauty empire, which includes Bobbi Brown and MAC Cosmetics, a brand he helped found three decades ago.

mixed media illustration donald robertson

Although his hobby sounds high-tech because of its delivery system, the painterly, brushstrokey and tossed-off style of his drawings is a kind of throwback to an earlier era. There’s a sense of old-fashioned fun in his lineups of bathing beauties (the typical Robertson post has a row of jaunty figures) and his explosions of lipstick kiss marks.

Despite some comparisons to Andy Warhol, Robertson is coming from a very different place, and the storybook quality of this work is what keeps people coming back. “It’s not computery, it’s not tech—people love that,” he says, comparing the appeal of his work to Wes Anderson’s aesthetic. “I have to make sure that it doesn't get too slick—I have to keep the hand in there. They have to be able to see me making it.”

donald robertson signature style cherrios box

Robertson’s most famous drawing to date showed Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour seated at her desk, with a glasses-wearing giraffe named Mitford showing her a memo. “There was so much commotion about that giraffe!” says Robertson with a laugh. Not only was the image regrammed zillions of times, it led to a two-book deal at Viking, one of which will follow the adventures of Mitford, the intern-giraffe, in the “fashion zoo.” The other subject is still to be determined.

Among his other commissions of late, Robertson has an eight-page spread coming up in Harper’s Bazaar UK. “Whoever heard of such a thing for an illustrator-painter?” he asks, still in disbelief. “It’s the kind of thing Mario Testino would get.” When Robertson posted a cheeky drawing of Vanity Fair Editor-in-Chief Graydon Carter, suggesting that his skin tone was that of a Ritz Cracker and he should therefore be the brand’s spokesman, Vanity Fair regrammed it—and Carter himself asked to have the original. “It was like something that could have happened in 1935,” says Robertson, referring to the small-world feeling that Instagram, at its best, can foster.

studio space donald robertson

And he sees himself in the mold of an earlier time. “I like the idea of the guys in suits in the 1930s who were painting Vanity Fair covers as their main job,” he says, referring to illustration all-time greats like Miguel Covarrubias. “I’m at work at MAC in my suit, and painting these illustrations on the side.”

Robertson’s path to fame was remarkably straightforward. The Toronto native attended art school “for two minutes,” he says, before deciding that it wasn’t for him. “I want to start a movement called Leave College Immediately: it’s a waste of time for a lot of creative people.”

signature motif donald robertson

He helped found MAC Cosmetics in Toronto in his 20s, decades before boomeranging back to the brand once the Lauder family had acquired it. In the intervening years he worked at Condé Nast, largely under the legendary Editorial Director James Truman, and quickly became a leading creative director there. “Whenever one of those grand dame editors left, we’d reposition the magazine,” he says, and his stints included Glamour and Cargo.

donald robertson artwork

Robertson, who is married to decorator Kim Hastings, now sees his creative director work and his drawing hobby as cut from the exact same quirky cloth. “This is what I have been doing all along, but now the curtain has been pulled back,” he says. He certainly found the perfect medium with Instagram. “Facebook feels like suburbia, and I didn’t like Twitter—it’s for talkers,” he says. “Instagram is for lookers, and it’s a global superhighway. This morning, I talked to friends in the Mideast, my friends in London, and Mexico. Oh, and January Jones.” The “Mad Men” actress saw his work and asked for a portrait, and Robertson happily obliged. And to his credit, personal fame isn’t Robertson’s goal—though he’s enjoying that a lot. He wants to boost the whole art form of illustration, which has suffered as photography came to dominate periodicals.

“I just started selling things on the app Trendabl, and all these illustrators saw that and started sending their work in,” he says. “Now there’s a whole art section. I’m really happy about that. All these kids are coming up, and usually people don’t give illustrators the time of day. I mean, how many illustrators can you name?” Well, given his soaring popularity, at least one.

 

 

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