The Water and Ink World of Illustrator Bil Donovan

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Bil Donovan (-) Jean Paul Gaultier

We meet the fêted fashion illustrator and artist-in-residence at Dior Beauty, whose delicate drawings feature in a beguiling new exhibition, Drawing on Style

Amongst the sea of iPhone’s capturing identical images from the front row, a fashion illustrator documenting the essence of a runway look in a brushstroke is a rare sight. "The first show I sketched at was Carolina Herrera," enthuses the New York-based illustrator Bil Donovan. "…I entered this room where they were doing hair and makeup, and there were tons of photographers…I’d brought a tray, my brush and inks, my paper, and I propped myself down in the middle of the floor and thought, 'Well Bil, be a documentarian!'"

Now for the first time, a selection of Donovan’s impressionistic illustrations, deftly capturing the ruffled volume of a gown or the allure of a rouged pout, are on display at the annual Drawing on Style exhibition at Gallery 8 in London. Including sketches from New York Fashion Week – "you have anywhere from thirty seconds to five minutes," – Donovan adds, the exhibition also features pieces by the renowned illustrators Rene Bouche, Carl Erickson, Antonio Lopez, and Rene Gruau. Gruau gained recognition for his illustrations of Christian Dior’s New Look, a visual dynasty continued by Donovan, who has been artist-in-residence at Dior Beauty since 2009. Here, he muses on the emotive power of a line, his affinity for Audrey Hepburn and the spontaneity of creation…

On the sophisticated spirit of Christian Dior...
"The elegance, the line and the materials of the house really play into the hands of fashion illustration. Christian Dior himself was an illustrator before he started designing, and he was able to communicate sophistication in a simple line."

On his artistic inspirations
"I love Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain series. I also love Louise Bourgeois and artists who create work that have some sort of organic sensibility… Of course, Egon Schiele is one of my heroes and I think Willem de Kooning’s line was incredible. Anybody that can pull emotion out of a line – because a line can speak volumes, and that's what I try to do."

"A line can speak volumes, and that's what I try to do" – Bil Donovan 

On the splendour of negative space
"I was living in Italy, and I was working for Vogue Italia, and I had a job doing a catalogue of illustrations for a silk mill in Como. I had to be very precise because the aim was to communicate and sell the material. To play off the exactness of the textiles on the figure, I started to let go of it. I became more and more interested in what was being left out of the illustration, and how far I could push that without taking it to a point where it was totally abstract."

On the enduring elegance of Audrey Hepburn
"I remember watching Sabrina, and Hepburn enters a ballroom, floating in a Givenchy gown. I was like, ‘'Oh my God, what is that creature?’' She was like a swan floating across the room. This white gown with a full trim and beading, and her hair was short and she had an elongated neck. I wanted to recreate that moment again because it was so special…I wasn't interested in designing it or taking a photograph, I wanted to draw it."

On the aesthetic appeal of water and ink
"I love the spontaneity and the riskiness; it’s a very capricious medium! Some of the pieces selected for the show actually have marks on them… There are a lot of accidents…the temperature, the humidity, the texture of the paper, the chemical compounds of different inks – sometimes the mix can create a blob and a mess, but other times something extraordinary."

Drawing on Style runs at Gallery 8 until September 20, 2016, presented by Gray M.C.A and in association with the British Fashion Council.