Bil Donovan’s Whimsical Watercolor Illustrations are Fashion World Treasures

Coinciding with London Fashion Week, a new exhibition spotlights the world’s most acclaimed fashion illustrators, one of which is Bil Donovan. As the principle artist-in-residence at Christian Dior, Donovan’s live watercolor drawings have become industry favorites for their vibrant, hand-hewn brushstrokes and impressionistic style.

From sketching his college roommate’s toothpaste to couture fashion’s erudite clientele, Bil Donovan’s rise to prominence as Christian Dior’s maiden artist-in-residence has earned the New York-based artist a place next to fashion’s most prominent illustrators. Combining the improv nature of live drawing with a training in fine art, Donovan’s inimitable style has landed him a prestigious client roster spanning European luxury houses and glossy magazine titles. Ranging from Bergdorf Goodman and Givenchy to Vanity Fair and Vogue, his signature watercolor works are the focus of a new exhibition, “Drawing on Style” (through Sept. 29)a survey of contemporary illustration masters such as Ali Mahdavi, Gladys Perint Palmer, Jason Brooks, and more. 

As the show opens at Cromwell Place, in London, we checked in with Donovan to discuss his secret to drawing fashion, the evolution of the runway, and the serendipitous encounter that lead to his first-of-its-kind residency with Dior Beauty.

What spurred you to pursue a niche profession like fashion illustration? 

As a child, aside from Hollywood movies, I was fascinated by the fashion illustrations I would see in Vogue and Bazaar. My friend’s mother had a dress store, so she was a bit more sophisticated than the women in my neighborhood, which were blue-collar and working class.  The women all had their own particular beauty but my friend’s mother would wear suits and dresses adorned with pearls and earrings. We used to peruse her magazines to look at illustrations by Kenneth Paul Block and Fred Greenhill while we were in high school. That was when I fell in love with drawing and knew it was what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to draw a tank or an army guy, I wanted to draw fashion. 

How did you hone your craft? 

I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. What I realized was that, as most of us do when we begin to pursue something, we think it’s maybe a very short end: I’ll do this, I’ll do some drawings, and I’ll be famous. It was a long journey, it basically came to my attention that I had no natural talent for drawing. I could not communicate what was literally in front of me. We would have models in class, and my head would be at the top of the page, and my feet would be five feet below the paper. I struggled so much and I was so frustrated because I wanted it so badly. My teacher pulled me aside and she suggested I go into textile design because I couldn’t draw. We all come to those crossroads in our lives where we have to make a choice, so I explained how I saved money for this and how much I wanted it. She gave me some important advice: draw from life every single day. I got my sketchbook, I had five roommates and I was 19, and drew them and our cat, whatever cats roamed into the apartment, whoever was sleeping over in the apartment. I improved, it wasn’t great, but I kept practicing.

How did you develop your individual style? 

When I graduated, another instructor, Anna Ishikawa, said, Donovan, you need to go to the School of Visual Arts and study with Jack Potter, a legendary illustrator in the 50s and 60s. He had a very disciplined class and didn’t tolerate any foolishness and he was six foot four and had a bald head, a blue shirt, blue pants, and his uniform and he would walk around and just say “I don’t want any weak drawings. You have weak drawings, get out of my room.” I was petrified (I’m five foot six). I fell in love with his teaching because I realized I was mimicking Kenneth Paul Block, and what Jack was saying was that I had to discover my own style. A big misconception that a lot of students have is ‘I need to have my style,’ and you can’t really get a style, the style has to get you. To me, that’s through experience and an exploration of different media or classes. I was intrigued by studying with different instructors as each one had specific knowledge and a formula for drawing, painting, or composing that they brought to you. It was like being a chef: the more recipes you had, the more unique you could be in making your meal.

How did you first break into the industry?  

I had a small job at a company that did presentation boards for JC Penney. My boss would go to Europe and she would buy Gaultier and Claude Montana. This is in the 80s. She came back to the states and they would knock off the garments. She got to keep what she bought, and they would ask me to draw them in this gross plastic fabric, but to make it look like couture—to make it look like high fashion. I earned my legs there at that company, learning how to paint, and do prints. It was time to leave so I went with my friend to Europe. We landed in Milano and I got work with Fashion magazine. I stayed for six years and it changed my life.

When I came back to the states in the mid-90s there was no illustration work for me. I had a really nice career in Milan, so I decided  I wanted to study Fine Arts because I was always intimidated by art speak and abstract expressionism and I didn’t understand references like Rothko and Jasper Johns. I went to SVA because I really needed to do something new. There was a drawing class with this marvelous teacher, Judy Mannarino, called Drawing Larger Than Life. She pinned up sheets of paper that were maybe five feet long by three and a half feet wide and gave us these long four-foot-long bamboo sticks with big chunks of charcoal taped on the edge. She said, “you’re going to draw with this stick onto that paper” and “I’m going to put these blindfolds on you.” [It forced me] to draw what I feel instead of what I see. She broke down my preconceived notions of drawing and painting. I was born again, a fine artist. I went back and got my degree in Fine Arts and that is what I incorporate into my fashion.

That’s quite the journey! How did you end up working at Dior?

They found me! I was working a Vogue event, drawing the environment and whatever’s around. I’m a documentary artist so I like going out to sites and actually drawing what’s happening. A young lady, who was an attendant, came by and asked me to do her portrait. She asked me to make her look beautiful so I made her look like Brigitte Bardot: I popped up her lips, I blew her hair out, I gave her more fabulous eyes. Vogue saw it and loved it, and they invited me to work at a holiday event with Christian Dior on Madison Avenue. It was beautiful. They served champagne and caviar with models walking around in Dior couture and a three-piece band. I did fashion portraits and the clientele loved it. Dior approached me and asked if I could draw some of their clients at their salon.  

After that, they offered me a contract. On April 16, 2009, Women’s Wear Daily published an article titled “Bil Donovan: Dior Beauty’s First Artist-in-Residence.” My life changed from that moment.

What are some of your takeaways after working at Dior for 12 years?

What I’ve learned from the opportunity is to always respect the brand. You’re basically a representative of that brand so you have to behave accordingly: always look good and be well turned out. What I love is that they send me around the country doing portraits of their clientele. My goal is to make each woman feel as if she is the most beautiful woman in the world. I can’t explain it, I actually fall in love with each of them: their insecurities, eyes, eyelashes, the slant of a cheekbone. They are all beautiful in their own right, and I can pull that out. It’s a great formula for creating intimacy with the brand and its clientele.

As someone who draws fashion for a living, I’m really interested to hear how you think the runway has evolved.

The fashion runway was a way to create an intimacy between the audience, the designer, and the collection. It was very quiet—the clothes took center stage. Bit by bit, I think because of society, culture, and our short-term attention span, entertainment began to enter more into the equation. The shows became spectacles where there’s a lot of sets and information happening. I’m not saying that it’s not fantastic because some of them really are incredible, but I tend to gravitate to those designers and shows where it becomes a little bit more about the clothing, rather than the background. I’m not a critic, I’m only speaking from my viewpoint as an illustrator. I like to see the hair, the movement, and the cut of the garment—the refined couture. To me, that should speak louder than the spectacle. I think we lost a little bit of that intimacy, and perhaps after what we’ve all been through and are still going through, people might want to have that connection again.

Your work has a distinctive quality to it that really depicts the raw essence of fashion. What is the key to great fashion illustration?

Knowledge, craftsmanship, drawing. I’m an advocate of understanding anatomy and earning your place through working hard and drawing live; not tracing and drawing up a bunch of lines to camouflage the weakness in the drawing. Often, through time, those drawings don’t really sustain the credibility they might have had been based upon a solid knowledge of drawing skills. It’s almost like dance, music, or any of the arts. In dance, if you’re going to do a modern piece, you need to have an understanding of traditional dance and ballet so you can stylize it. For me, the same holds true in fashion illustration. Just because you elongate a figure and throw some curvy lines on it doesn’t validate it as a fashion illustration.

No offense to fashion designers, I love them, but they’re not illustrators. Traditionally, design sketches serve the purpose of communicating that design to a pattern maker or draper who can reinvent it on a dress form. Whereas fashion illustration was built upon drawing from a live figure in front of you. That may not be the reality today. The ability to draw live and understand where the lines are on a figure, you can reinvent that by looking at a photo, you don’t need a live figure in front of you. But you need that training. I have many people who will say to me on Instagram, “I want to do what you’re doing. So I’m going to try this.” It doesn’t work because what I do is spontaneous. That brushstroke is probably a second, a millisecond. It’s like taking a Van Gogh and trying to emulate his lines. That was done spontaneously—he didn’t think “oh, I’m gonna put a little crosshatch here,” he was simply painting.

Talking about this ephemeral process when it comes to creating art, you describe how you are in the moment as you channel your passion. As technology continues to innovate, physical drafting is almost being overtaken by digital art. In the context of fashion illustration, physical sketching is a timeless practice, but access to digital mediums expands the ability to draw to a greater audience. Where do you think the balance lies?

Both have their assets. I certainly scan my work into Photoshop, and I may play with color, or shift the background. But everything I do is done by hand. I see the possibilities inherent in using digital technology and it’s essential. I also think that moving images, animation, and taking an illustration and having it come to life is more important than it ever was, especially with social media. I teach my students, who may use Procreate, that anyone can do that and what separates them from amateurs, or people who don’t have a background in art, is the ability to actually draw live or compose live—to have an understanding of what the blueprint is beneath digital technology. Otherwise, you fall victim to relying on Photoshop or Illustrator to make work.  For me, it’s limiting, despite how many different variations you can do. 

What advice would you give to up-and-coming fashion illustrators in regards to developing an authentic style?

First and foremost, be true to your soul as a young artist. No one can get into your head or your sense of style. Every student and every fashionista has something particular that is unique to them, it’s important to get in touch with that and let it shine because it makes you different. 

My other advice is to take classes somewhere else besides the institution you study at so you don’t come out of school with the template of St. Martin’s or the Fashion Institute of Technology—you need to break it up a bit. It took me a long time to evolve, to have an appreciation for absence and what’s present in the visual. I try to play with negative space because I understand shape and how to frame that negative space. It’s intuitive. That’s why when people say I want to do what you do, well, you can’t get into my head. I can’t tell someone why I made a choice. Some of it’s based on graphic design but sometimes it’s just a flow. Early on, when I was trying to be an illustrator and I took classes, I would be frustrated because the drawings weren’t perfect. I did a drawing of a model one time and it wasn’t perfect, but there were hints of what I liked. It allowed me to know that those hints would become prominent the more I practiced. I always say to the students who are starting out: you probably have hints of greatness in your work, allow them to shine over time.

Drawing On Style will be on show at Cromwell Place in London through September 29. 

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