Focus On: Illustrations
By Valli Herman
Along the gallery walls of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum this June hung 100 framed sketches of costumes created during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Signatures from such luminaries as Edith Head, Bill Thomas and William Travilla identified iconic costumes from movies like “Ben Hur,” “The Gazebo” and “Never Steal Anything Small.” Collector Christian Esquevin, the City of Coronado’s library director, shared his hobby with the museum not just to show the skill and beauty of the artwork, but also to capture a bit of the behind-the-scenes process that brings a costume to screen.
“There’s a whole story to these that have nothing to do with them being art,” he said. “I’m trying to tell that story about the industry you don’t see.”
These illustrations, all hand drawn and elegantly rendered in watercolors, gouache and pencil, were never meant to survive, said Esquevin. They were considered a byproduct of the busy workrooms where character concepts crystallized into a costume. Many were discarded.
Today, the hand-drawn costume illustration seems ever more a relic of another era as digital tools give artists efficient new methods to create and share the details of a costume. The speed and precision of digital illustrations also are helping reshape the role of the illustration and the illustrator.
Costume illustrator Phillip Boutté, Jr., has witnessed a rapid shift toward digital illustration since joining the guild in early 2007, a time when his tool kit consisted of pencils, watercolors and a light box.
Today, he comes equipped with a laptop, monitor, external hard drive, scanner, printer and drawing tablet. By contrast, Lois DeArmond, an assistant costume designer and illustrator, paints by hand and enlarges her watercolor, gouache or pencil portraits with a bulky device called a Lucygraph.
“That’s the only machinery I use,” said DeArmond, who also uses a printer, copier and scanner and may sometimes run to Kinko’s to make color copies or reduce her larger-scale drawings. Though DeArmond uses different tools, her character portraits achieve the same utilitarian end as any digital illustration.
“My intent is to show exactly what the costume is going to look like,” she said of her realistically rendered portraits.
However, the illustrations Boutté can produce in Photoshop offer more than the proposed look of a costume; they’re almost a detailed pattern.
“Now we are much more part of the whole process from concept to finished product. You can sculpt pieces if you are precise enough that can be printed out on a 3D printer and worn—things like helmets, jewelry and armor,” he said.
By providing detailed drawings that act as finished pattern pieces, costume designers also can avoid overreliance on outside party involvement, such as a sculptor at a costume shop, Boutté said.
The digital illustrator has become more of a collaborator who can realize the costume designer’s ideas more completely, according to Boutté. Though hand-drawn illustrations also help guide construction, some drawings are often used to set a mood rather than detail a garment.
The fully rendered drawings that are commonplace among digital illustrators may offer a nearly photorealistic concept, but there’s a downside to that when presenting ideas to producers and directors, Boutté added.
“It’s a double-edged sword. You have to present something visually that they can read, but you don’t want to be so literal that they are making you do exactly what you drew,” he said.
Costume Designer Anne Dixon illustrates many of her own designs, but has had to adjust to technology’s march into her field. She won the Ontario Arts Foundation’s 2014 Virginia and Myrtle Cooper Award in Costume Design, and is using the $15,000 prize to retrain and retool for the challenges of new illustration technology.
She purchased a Wacom Cintiq 13HD drawing tablet that acts like a digital version of a sketchpad, pen, marker or brush. She said the challenge is learning to translate to the screen the effects of the art supplies she’s used to.
“It’s a different vocabulary you have to learn,” she said. Still, Dixon appreciates how the digital tools allow for easy revisions—just click and delete; no redrawing required.
“I did a feature in the Rockies and I was having a discussion with the director. I had my iPad, and I drew it quickly and the director approved it. I emailed it to the cutter down the mountain who had a mockup ready for me to look at when I drove down the mountain later,” she said. “Those tools we have are really helpful.”
The transition to digital technology isn’t always easy and it doesn’t arrive along an obvious path, said Gina DeDomenico Flanagan, who had a thriving career as a costume illustrator working mostly in gouache. After taking a few years off to raise her young children, she returned to illustrate for Costume Designer Sharen Davis and was shocked.
“There it was–the sea of boys and computers. I was like, Who are you and what is that thing? The illustrators were all women when I left. When I came back, it was all technical, digital,” she said. “I fought it for a couple of years, then I went on a job and people were coming into the office and laughing. They looked at my paint and said, What is that? I guess it was like working with film and a darkroom.”
The technology was daunting. “I think I cried for six months. It was the most difficult transition I made in my life,” she said.
Through the Costume Designers Guild, Flanagan found a source for lessons and eventually paid the instructor to tutor her privately. In a few months, she became quite proficient, harnessing the technology to churn out eight digital illustrations a day, compared to one in paint. Photoshop allowed her to import photo headshots and bodies, thus skipping drawing faces and poses. She can also quickly change color or scale without starting an entirely new painting.
Despite the seeming productivity improvements that digital technology allows, Costume Illustrator Oksana Nedavniaya counseled that it’s not the end for traditional techniques.
“A lot of people have a misconception about digital being easier or faster. You still need to learn proportion, anatomy, gesture or color,” said Nedavniaya, who teaches fashion figure drawing at Woodbury University and taught herself to use the Wacom Intuos tablet. “I look at the computer like another tool.”
Traditional illustration is also under pressure because the film and television industries are not so subtly moving away from the kind of work that lends itself to hand-drawn illustrations.
“Some kinds of costumes and some movies lend themselves much more to the digital drawings—especially the futuristic, superhero and sci-fi movies,” said DeArmond. “My work is kind of character.” The sci-fi blockbusters also come with big budgets that, without much argument, can hire an illustrator, or four or five, she said.
Despite the efficiencies and razzle-dazzle effects of digital drawing technology, even its fans agree that something is lost. It’s harder to establish a recognizable style with pixels than with pen, pencil or paint. The painted illustrations are a much more tangible record of a costume’s development and history. A wayward brushstroke rarely becomes a serendipitous innovation. Most of all, painting isn’t really like painting anymore.
“There is a sensual pleasure of brush moving on the board or a pencil drawing on the surface that I don’t think you get with the digital process,” said DeArmond. “Typing and clicking? Where’s the sensual pleasure in that?”