Varnished Truth

From Dita to Deneuve, it's a tough job – but illustrator David Downton makes it appear effortless. Grafik asked him about his new book, and what it's like to draw the world's most stylish women.

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Dita Von Teese

As a fashion illustrator, David Downton has drawn a raft of beautiful women. His new book is his first collection of celebrity portraits – as well as his exquisitely crafted illustrations, it contains his fascinating commentary on his subjects and the stories behind the sittings. We caught up with him to find out more about his book and what it's like to have one of the the best jobs in illustration...

You must have drawn so many people who would qualify for the label of  '
world’s most stylish woman,' how did you choose who to include without offending anyone?
I have included almost everyone who has sat for me over the years, except in a very few cases where the drawing didn’t look strong enough to my, or the editor’s, eye. A bigger problem was the number of amazing women I’ve drawn since the book went into publication, including Ali MacGraw, January Jones, Leslie Caron and Anna Cleveland. But I suppose that just makes a case for volume two.

You mention that some of the portraits in the book were the result of ‘courtship and coercion’. It’s hard to believe that anyone would be reluctant for you to draw them, is this really the case?
Well, it’s got easier over the years. Starting out, I had no contacts, so I had to use all my ingenuity. I remember I wrote to Charlotte Rampling several times. Eventually I ran into her at a party, plucked up courage and introduced myself. She had received my letters. “What should I do next?” I wanted to know. “Write again,” she said. About ten years later I drew her for Vanity Fair, and was able to remind her of the ‘courtship’. It was a wonderful sitting, more than worth the wait.

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Erin O'Connor

It’s very interesting to see photographs of you at work but at the same time it feels quite voyeuristic, as the relationship between artist and sitter can be quite intimate, even if it only lasts for a short time. Do your sitters ever share their secrets with you?
Yes, and I with them. But secrets are secrets. I would never betray a confidence. For that reason writing the book was a challenge. I wanted to give a flavour of the sittings without being indiscreet. The politician’s art.

Like everything which appears effortless, it must take a lot of hard work to create your final pieces. Is there a computer involved at any stage, or is everything done by hand?
It takes work because I do not find it as easy as some people assume. Everything is a struggle; the struggle for spontaneity and control; the struggle to let the drawing breathe; the struggle to leave well enough alone….It is all done by hand. The best thing I never did was to learn the basics of computer skills. That said, if it is a drawing for a publication, I might fiddle about with the colour balance of an image, or have my technical right hand get rid of Tip-ex or other tell-tale mistakes.

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Carmen Dell'Orefice

You’ve drawn some of the world’s most beautiful men and women, but have you ever refused a portrait commission? Has anyone asked you to draw their pet?
I refuse commissions if I am unable to meet the sitter and have to work solely from the photographs they supply. I am not confident of getting a likeness if I have never seen or spoken to the person. I have been asked to draw a pet; a flat refusal.

Your (very popular) Instagram feed often feels quite nostalgic, with some amazing images from the Sixties and Seventies in particular. Who from that era would you like to go back and draw?
I love Instagram, although for me it is not, primarily, a way to promote my work. I don’t particularly like how my drawings look in the format. That said I do, as you’ve noticed, enjoy posting images that inspire me. There are a lot from the 1960s and 70s. I guess that’s generational. If you know me from Instagram, you’ll know my idols are Ursula Andress and Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale. I would love to have drawn them. And Alain Delon and Orson Welles and on and on….

In the book, there’s mention of you not fitting in to the fashion world – do you think that being able to dip in and out gives you a better sense of perspective on it?
Well, I feel very comfortable there now. But I am still passing through. I live down in Sussex near the sea and can tune in and out, to a degree. I am very grateful to the fashion world; it has provided me with a wonderful subject matter. Fashion is easy to mock (Ab Fab was the first reality show, after all) but it is also the most inspiring parallel world…

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Paloma Picassso

Many of your sittings seem to take place in swanky hotels, including of course Claridge's. What are your highlights from the time you've spent there as artist in residence? 
I am still at Claridge’s and it has been the best time. I knew the hotel before, I knew about the service and the luxury, but I didn’t know about the magic. I always feel that I am in a dreamscape there. I know how hard the staff work, but again, they make it appear effortless

Despite the Royals being fashion icons, royal portraits are invariably pretty awful. Would you take on a royal commission if asked?
Of course. What fun.

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Catherine Baba, Virginia Bates and Jacqueline de Ribes

David Downton: Portraits of the World's Most Stylish Women
Published by Laurence King, £40.00

Find out more about David's work here and follow him on Instagram here.