From London to New York: A Don’t-Miss Fashion Illustration Exhibit

Friday, September 1, 2017

“I really want America to wake up and realize what an incredible art form fashion illustration is,” says Connie Gray, co-founder of specialist art gallery Gray M.C.A. To take her goal one step closer to reality, she’s bringing Drawing on Style: Three Masters of Elegance—the annual exhibition she curates—from its home base in London to New York for the first time.

From September 5 to 10, there will be 60 pieces by the late Kenneth Paul Block as well as Bil Donovan and Jason Brooks, on view and for sale at TriBeCa’s Cheryl Hazan Gallery.

“Each illustrator has a very individual style and way of working,” says Gray. After being contacted by the Kenneth Paul Block Foundation, she spent three days sifting through archives in box files to make a selection of pieces for the exhibition. “He is one of the most influential fashion illustrators to date,” Gray says of Block, who worked with designers such as Ralph Lauren, Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta. “We feel it’s important to showcase a retrospective of his pieces in the U.S., where his entire career was based.”

“I would trace Kenneth Paul Block’s drawings from the Sunday Times to see how he [did] it,” says Donovan, in his Brooklyn studio. As a boy growing up in South Philadelphia, it was the rhythm, fluidity and gracefulness of these illustrations that got him every time. It was also comic strips and old movies playing in the local theater that sparked Donovan’s interest in art. “I remember watching Funny Face, where Audrey Hepburn’s character works in a bookstore, then becomes a gorgeous model who wears haute couture. I’m very much captivated by the idea of an ugly duckling becoming a beautiful swan—I love that moment, that transition,” he says. “That’s what I tried to emulate. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that was high fashion.”

While studying at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), Donovan was tasked to bring in his best work and sure enough, he submitted two pieces inspired by Block. During a critique, the professor pointed out that he needed to find his own style. “I got rid of my markers and tried pastel, photorealism, collage, oil and acrylic,” says Donovan, who is now a professor himself at SVA, the Arts Students League and Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) through various semesters of the year, in addition to working as the first artist-in-residence for Christian Dior Beauty. “But you can’t find a style, it has to find you, and that happens through a process of elimination. “You start to see what you don’t want to do, which gets you closer to what you do want.”

While working on a commission for Vogue Italia, Donovan was given a very specific set of instructions to work on a catalogue of illustrations focusing on textiles. In that moment, he realized if all the figures were drawn precisely, it would appear stiff. “I started to let go,” says Donovan, whose personal aesthetic has evolved over time; he is now known for his distinct use of watercolor and ink. “I edited out parts of the face and neck, using selectivity to shape what was there.”

The opening night of Drawing on Style coincides with the launch date of Brook’s New York Sketchbook (Laurence King Publishing), which features illustrations of Manhattan through the four seasons. “In a city as overflowing with images and dramatic scenery as New York, the challenge was to capture something of its essence and translate that into artwork which I hope feels authentic, evocative and interesting,” says Brooks. 

The London-based illustrator studied graphic design at Central Saint Martins college, where he won the Vogue Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Award, and earned a master’s degree in illustration at the Royal College of Art. When asked his advice for aspiring fashion illustrators, Brooks says, “Be intensely curious. Learn from the great masters but ultimately, pursue your own style and keep drawing. If you can create a strong aesthetic, then collaborators, partners and collectors will gravitate towards what is unique about your work. I believe completely in originality—it’s a vital ingredient to having success as an artist in any field.”

To attend the opening night of Drawing on Style on September 5, email Connie Gray at The exhibition will be open to the public on September 6-10, from 11am to 7pm, at Cheryl Hazan Gallery, 35 North Moore Street.


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