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David Downton: Portraiture Perfection

Cate Blanchett, one of the subjects of illustrator David Downton.

Cate Blanchett, one of the subjects of illustrator David Downton.

By Jessica Michault

You know you have finally made it into the pantheon of fashions most illustrious players once David Downton decides to draw your portrait. For decades his classically sophisticated and yet contemporary takes on fashion’s faces and looks has made him the go to artist for magazines like Vanity Fair, Vogue and Harpers Bazaar and top tier brands like Chanel, Dior and Tiffany’s.

We take a look back at our interview with the charming Mr. Downton—just as he was readying to release his first monograph in the fall of 2015—where we spoke about his dream sitting, what he thinks of the current renaissance of fashion illustrators and which designer clothing he loves to draw.

Downton, photographed by Tim Petersen.

Downton, photographed by Tim Petersen.

How did you first get interested in illustrations and when did you realize you could make a living at it?
As a child I was always drawing, it was the only thing I felt I was good at. I never believed I had the talent or the disposition to be a fine artist, so I became a commercial artist, an illustrator. In a way, I wanted the specifics of a brief, the discipline of pleasing the client and working to a deadline.

Who have you yet to do a portrait of that you would love to sit for you?
From the past I would have loved to have drawn Ava Garner, Josephine Baker and Edith Sitwell. Ursula Andress in the 60s. And now of course I’m not going to name anyone. Except Angelica Huston. PLEASE.

Downton's illustration of Linda Evangelista.

Downton’s illustration of Linda Evangelista.

What is your most memorable sitting and why?
I couldn’t answer that, but I love working with Erin O’ Connor, Carmen Dell’ Orefice, Linda Evangelista, Amanda Harlech, Dita Von Teese…it is a long list but what they have in common is a visual intelligence.

How has the industry of fashion illustrations changed the most since you started?
Fashion illustration has changed beyond recognition over the last decade. There are no rules, no restrictions and no prescribed way of working. Hand-drawn and digitally-made imagery have an equal validity today.

Lady in red, Dita Von Teese.

Lady in red, Dita Von Teese.

How have social media platforms changed your industry?
The role has completely changed over the years. When I began, it was only about your work. Today you have to put yourself in the picture, so to speak. I see it as a game; you have to play it, you might as well enjoy it.

What qualities does an illustrator have to have that say a photographer does not?
Of course, drawing pre-dates photography by centuries, right now I think it looks more considered and in a strange way, more modern. As long as we have designers we will have artists and illustrators inspired by their work. Drawing tells an alternate story of fashion.

Downton's illustration of Iman.

Downton’s illustration of Iman.

Which current fashion designers work really get your creative juices flowing?
Christian Lacroix, for his matchless sense of color. Jean Paul Gaultier for his wit, Valentino for lightness of touch, the newly revived house of Schiaparelli for the artistry in its DNA. Fashion illustration is really about absorbing someone else’s creativity and reinterpreting it. And when it is successful it represents the best of both of you.

Model Erin O'Connor.

Model Erin O’Connor.

What is your creative process?
I draw most days, for most of the day. I don’t have to be ‘in the mood’ the drawing sets my mood. I don’t believe in lack of inspiration either, although there are days when everything flies (and flows) and days when paint feels like lead.

What is the best piece of advice you ever got and who gave it to you?
My art teacher at Grammar school used to say, “If it looks wrong, it is wrong!” And he was right.

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