David Downton



David Downton in conversation with Tony Glenville
Extracted from ‘New Icons of Fashion Illustration’ published by Laurence King

What is your earliest drawing memory?
I was always drawing. As a child, my idea of a treat was a big sheet of white paper, which I bought from WH Smith (the stationers) every Saturday. I used to copy film posters from the newspaper using an HB pencil. It would take a whole day. My parents worried that I was not socialised enough. I remember saying that I saw my friends all week at school, which was enough.

Any particular childhood influences – travel/movies/people/etc?
I grew up in a household that was pretty unconcerned with fashion or style. My family was sporty; my brother played cricket for England. My earliest influences were all from the cinema. I lived at the cinema; Hammer films when I could get in, Carry On and James Bond – the things you might expect of someone growing up in the 60s.

What was your first professional work?
I started out first as a general illustrator, taking on whatever jobs came along and learning as I went. I considered myself to be ‘successful’ (by which I mean I was working more or less every day), but I was bored and frustrated at my lack of direction. I developed the self-employed mentality of ‘wagging my tail when the phone rang’. I don’t think there was any subject I didn’t tackle. I did a long stint in romantic fiction, worked for an educational press, and worked on cook books and wine labels. I even did a sex manual, which was a high point of sorts! From time to time, I got a fashion commission, but I certainly didn’t consider myself a ‘fashion illustrator’. That came much later.

Do you have a preferred medium?
My working method changes depending on the brief, or my mood, or what I want to get from the finished result. I use watercolour or gouache for small-scale pieces. If I need flat saturated colour I use cut paper collage and then apply line using an acetate overlay. Fluidity, capturing a sense of the moment, layout and use of space are all-important elements, but most important of all is strong drawing. The great thing is you can’t be too good at drawing. And although, unfortunately, your reach may exceed your grasp, hope does spring eternal…

Do you work in silence or with background music/radio?
I can go for stretches working in silence then I get hooked on Radio 4, which has been my education – I know a little about a lot. Then I listen to the music Jo, my assistant, has put on my iPod. I love it because I never know what’s coming – it might be The Best of Bond, or Bob Dylan, or Montseratt Caballe; often it’s someone I haven’t heard of. Sometimes I can’t switch it off fast enough!

What would be your ideal commission?
Drawing the cast of Mad Men on set in LA and writing the copy to go with it.

Are you a slow and careful or quick and speedy draughtsman?
Both. I aim for a controlled spontaneity. A lot of my work involves elimination of detail. I like to leave a ‘breathing space’ in a drawing, which allows the eye to fill in the gap. But in order to leave something out, first you have to put it in, or at least understand how everything works. I do dozens of drawings on layout paper taking the best from each one as I go. When the drawing looks right I start to eliminate, to de-construct if you like. My mantra is to keep working until it looks effortless.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yes, in a drawer to my eternal shame! I don’t do nearly enough work in sketchbooks, which is ironic because I find other people’s fascinating. The only time I really use a sketchbook is when I am sitting around waiting for a fashion show to begin. Sometimes if I am eating alone in a restaurant I like to draw the other diners. I think it makes me look interesting rather than lonely…

How would you describe your work?
I try not to describe it. I think we become very hung-up on the notion of style. In my experience you don’t find a style, it finds you, eventually. It is something you develop, work with and modify. The worst thing is when it comes to dominate your thinking and approach. I did though like the way Ian R Webb of Elle once described it as ‘Contemporary Nostalgia’. That pretty well sums up what I’m trying to achieve.

Do you research your subjects?/How do you research?
Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes not. As with everything, it depends on the job. I recently did the cover for the re-release of Belle de Jour on DVD. ‘Research’ was watching the film through twice and looking through the YSL archives – YSL did the costumes and the brief was to give a fashion slant to the image of Catherine Deneuve – all of which was a pleasure, of course.

How does your personal work relate to your professional output?
A commissioned piece of work is only half mine. I do the best I can within the confines of the brief and all the factors that go into making the job a success. The most important thing is that the client is happy; if I can’t always produce exactly the piece I’d like, I accept that. It is part of what being a commercial artist means. For my personal projects, I’m prepared to open a vein. I work and work and rework them, and as the only person that needs to be happy is me, it can be a long process.

Your style is very recognisable and you have quite a few imitators today. What is your attitude to them?
They are certainly proliferating! To be honest, I think it upsets other people more than me. Friends keep sending me images, things they find online or wherever. There is one guy who ‘does’ René Gruau, when not ‘doing’ me. He has even started emphasising one eye much more than another – an odd quirk I have. A great friend of mine, a highly successful fashion illustrator, was incensed and suggested I started drawing three eyes to see what he would do then. I might try it!

Anything else you wish to say/share/tell the reader?
Who knew that 40 years after the ‘death’ of fashion illustration it would be undergoing such a revival of interest? The depth and breadth of talent today is extraordinary. The truth is that we will always need artists to record and interpret a designer’s work. It’s a symbiotic relationship; one art-form describing another.