I FINALLY MET DAVID DOWNTON!!!! Words can't describe the feeling, He is THE master of fashion illustration to me. If you don't know who he is, look him up because he is simply amazing.
I saw him twice, at his book signing, where I got my signed copy, and at the Saatchi Gallery Talk, where he talked about his story, his challenges and failures, he talked about fashion illustration then and now and finally he shared the story behind the book he launched last week.
(After the talk I sneaked into the private lounge to meet Mr. Downton in private, I'm so glad that I did! No regrets!)
So here it is the full conversation between Mr. Downton and Martha Ward.
David Downton started the conversation of by saying how he thought he was a genius up until he went to Collage and realised that everyone could do what he did.
What were you drawing back then?
I was copying film posters, this was back in the 60s by the way. I was sitting on the dinning room table, with a pencil and the evening standard spread out with posters of films. All I wanted to do is be a film poster artist. I’m very glad that didn’t happen, because there is no such thing today, way back then it was an art form.
And then when you left collage, where did you then take it?
I worked in london in a call centre, I was doing telephone interviewing for a year and I didn’t look at my portfolio because I thought it wasn’t worthy of anything. I was quite happy, I thought this is my job now, this is my life. Everyone else in the office were someone creative there were singers, actors, dancers, writers. One day they asked me "what do you do?" I said I was an illustrator, so one day I took in my portfolio to show them, they said "wow what are you doing here answering the phone?”
So I took my portfolio next door to a teenage magazine, I thought well I’m risking nothing, it’s next door! I thought I’m crap, it’s a crap magazine, we suit each other really well and they gave me a job.
"I thought then, that the only way to keep working is to keep working."
How old were you, and what were you drawing for them?
Early 20s. Anything, a M&S tracksuit, the first digital radio, really whatever, for 12 years I drew anything I was asked to do. I wasn’t a fashion illustrator, I never studied fashion, I’ve never seen a fashion show. Everything thats happened to me is when fashion mugged me quite late in my life. But for 12 years I was a general wagging my tale when the phone rung illustrator. So I drew what you would ask me to draw and that included wine labels, theatre posters, teenage fiction, romantic fiction and a sex manual famously! I thought then, that the only way to keep working is to keep working.
Where there other people doing what you were doing?
There were lot of people, because I had no speciality, in the 80s there was a lot of work for illustrators, you were allowed to fail publicly. I could do a terrible job one week and I would still get a job the next week, because I had no specialism I had no idea what I really wanted, I was trying things out. I was able to do whatever I was asked and hope for the best. It was never about if it goes wrong, its over. It was like plucking fruit from trees then, you didn’t have to be good to get work, it’s interesting.
Which is really different today!
Do you have inspirations, I've read that Rene Gruau was one of them?He is THE genius to my eye. I said I had no experience in fashion but I loved fashion illustration from the time I was in collage. Rene Gruau to me is the master of it. Back then I didn’t relate to it, I never thought I could of had a career as a fashion illustrator because at that time there was very few to look at.
You mentioned fashion mugged you, how, what happened?
I had a phone call and phone calls believe me in life as in fiction can change your life. They said “oh, do you want to go paris to do Couture?" and I said "yeah, whats couture?” I’ve never been anywhere on someone else's money, to work. I was waging my tale whenever the phone rung but this sounded special to me. I’m exaggerating, of course I knew what couture was, I knew the legendary names of fashion, I bought Italian Vogue, I knew who Karl was and Valentino but it never related to me in any way until that phone call. They told me to go to the Valentino fittings at the Ritz and because I genuinely knew very little I wasn’t afraid. If you would said it to me now I would be geared up for it. So I went to the Valentino fittings at the Ritz and it was like someone parted the curtains into this magical world I've never seen, only read about and suddenly I was in it! It didn’t feel like home but I felt something. When I was back on the Eurostar, I knew I had to get back to Couture in 6 months time. I had to figure out a way and I haven’t missed one for almost 20 years now.
"Now for the first time I think there is a genuine revival of interest in fashion illustration, now is a very great time to start because all the rules have been rewritten."
How did you get back in the following year?
Well I discovered once I knew what I wanted to do, I found for the first time a focus and ambition which I never had because I didn’t know what to focus on.
There seems to be a real revival of interest in fashion illustration, you must take some responsibility in that!
I’ve been interviewed for five years for the "revival of interest of fashion illustration" and it used to make me so angry. I would ask the journalist "When did you last commissioned a fashion illustrator? I know you’re commissioned to write a story about fashion illustration but when did your publication last used one?" and they would always look at their shoes.
There’s been this rumbling that fashion illustration is back, the truth is fashion drawing never went anywhere! it found it’s own level, what happened was, it dropped out of mainstream high gloss magazines and found somewhere else to flourish, and that might be in limited editions, theatre posters, prints, animation, collaborations with designers. It’s never died.
Now for the first time I think there is a genuine revival of interest in fashion illustration, now is a very great time to start because all the rules have been rewritten.
Let’s come back to that. You are in residence in claridges, what does that mean?
On paper I have a normal quiet life, I live in sussex but when I’m in London I’m an artist in residence at Claridges hotel. They have an easel in the basement if I need it, I know most of the staff, the keep half my clothes and I draw extraordinary people. It’s a total fantasy life.
Do the people volunteer?
No. It’s a secret list at the highest possible level, of people that the hotel would like me to draw that are connected to the world of fashion and style but who have a story and a narrative with the hotel. They’re not interested in them because they are famous, because there’s famous people there everyday. I've drawn Diane Von Frustenberg, she designed some suits, Paul Smith who spends every New Years eve there, Daphne Guinness who lived there for 2 years, Dita Von Teese who always stays there.
Do they sit for you, how long does it take and whats your favourite medium, how do you set your self up?
Yes they have to be in the room. I can draw people from photographs but I don’t feel confident about it, I don’t find it engaging or interesting. They have to sit and they are the drawing, they are giving you what you need. How long I get with them depends entirely up to them.
I never finish the drawing on the day, I finish it at my studio it’s my safe space where no one’s looking. I take what I can get. For the sketches I sit with a sketchbook and I use a cartridge pen that makes a nice line and some soft pencils. The sitting is getting the raw material for the final piece and the talking and observing is as much apart of it as anything else. I also take pictures of the person.
I never ever let them look at the sketches because I feel if I’m not confident they won’t feel confident and everyone gets nervous. I always tell them I will show them when I think it’s good because if I think it’s good and you don't at least I know that’s the best I could do.
And do you mind if they don’t like the drawing?
Yes they need to be happy. I've had two real failures, it was very interesting in both cases. In one I’ve done this profile which I thought it was great and she looked at it and said "I hate my profile!” I thought how did I not pick that up, I was in a room with her for two hours! Normally the conversation and the whole thing you pick up a lot about a person. I completely missed it. And then very recently I drew someone and again she looked and said "My fathers mouth!" she didn’t quiet say it but she said “He left the family when we were young”
It’s my job to make people happy so I redid them.
"The great thing about drawing is, it’s never good enough, it’s a life long quest."
What is the key to capture the likeness of the person you’re drawing?Well it’s a knack. I’m really grateful, there’s so many things I can’t do, so many things that challenge me. Everyone thinks I just draw this line and it’s done, but in reality it’s a bloodbath.
Your book was published this week, what’s it about?
To go back slightly I became a fashion illustrator out of nowhere, I had a solo exhibition in London in 1998 and Marie Helvin came to the exhibition. And somewhere I heard myself saying “Can I draw you?" and she said “Sure!”
And again my life changed, because when Marie saw the drawing she said "You should draw Catherine Deneuve, Joan Collins, Iman" and she wrote them all a note. We did a postcard of my drawing of her and they all said yes! So I went from knowing nobody, to knocking on the doors of these extraordinary women. I knew then that one day this will be a book.
How do you respond to imitation?
Imitation is killing me. Everybody has influences, I had influences and I totally accept it but you do have to find at some point your own response. Some people will shamelessly rip you off, I don’t find it flattering I find it creepy. It’s not something you can control.
The positive side there's no rules or limitation because of this wonderful digital revolution, it changed the way people receive and understand your work, if your starting now and you're obsessed with Prada you can Instagram it to Pradas palm.
The great thing about drawing is, it’s never good enough, it’s a life long quest. The only thing I wanted was to draw for a living and I achieved that early on.
How do you value your work?
It's a nightmare and it never goes away. If you work for a publication they have a budget, it’s always a negotiation. If it’s a portrait it’s worth what people will pay. It's very difficult, you need support, you need someone around you to say “Don’t undervalue yourself!" those insecurities don’t go away for most artists.