From sewing patterns to advertising to editorial work and beyond, fashion illustration has a long history in the illustration world.
What about fashion illustrators today? I interviewed nearly a dozen illustrators about their roles and work within the world of fashion illustration. In this article we’ll explore their histories in the way of project experience, what artists need to know to create fashion illustrations, what makes good fashion illustrations, and more!
Consider this your guide to working as a fashion illustrator.
What Do Fashion Illustrators Do?
Let’s start with a breakdown of some of the roles and areas in illustration filled by fashion illustrators:
- Editorial Illustration: Magazine and blog illustrations focused on fashion, accessories, and more. Illustrators may find well-known magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan or smaller media outlets need illustration work and fill up pages or spaces with their design work.
- Fashion Design: Brands, designers, and fashion media often want to showcase new designs, fashion trends, or something else that needs an experienced illustrator to create beautiful illustrative work to showcase their concepts. Whether it’s adding something not yet created to their lookbook, illustrating new runway looks, or focusing on various trends, fashion illustrators and the world of fashion itself often go hand-in-hand.
- Books: From “chick lit” to young adult novels to a variety of art and craft books, the world of publishing definitely relies on fashion illustrators to add a touch of design to their book covers or interiors. You’ll likely often find fashion illustration on books and printed media aimed at women, girls, and related demographics.
- Product: It’s quite common for makeup brands and various fashion-related product creators to need fashion illustration for their products. Whether for apparel, packaging, advertising, or more, products may go a bit old school and hire fashion illustrators to bring their products to life in the way only fashion illustrators can.
- And More… Really fashion illustration is almost any illustration whose focus is on fashion, accessories, and related media. Rather than telling a story about the illustration subject, fashion illustration tells stories about clothing, handbags, shoes, jewelry, and more. Almost anything that calls for illustrated work could contain fashion illustration, and specializing in this sort of design work makes for a broad range of client possibilities.
"Editorial jobs are the most exciting and challenging for me. The deadlines are very tight, and the subject matter tends to skew conceptual. Book jobs are rewarding but slow-burns. They require a lot of patience! Advertising campaigns are sometimes the most limiting because there can be a lot of red tape around a company's branding guidelines." — Bee Johnson, illustrator
Who Needs Fashion Illustrators?
Almost any company or client that wants to focus on fashion, fashion design, or fashion-related products may need a fashion illustrator. While, of course, it’s been incredibly common to simply use photography, fashion illustration has a long history, much longer than photography, as the go-to for illustrating various concepts in fashion design.
Consider the illustrations that still appear on sewing patterns today. While many companies that manufacture sewing patterns have turned to actual photographs of the craft product itself, many of them stick to the age-old style of drawings and paintings showing the pattern designs in completed form on imaginary models. Companies like Simplicity and McCall’s still use fashion illustration on their products, as well as continuing to produce vintage patterns whose packaging design styles have inspired fashion illustrators for decades.
Many fashion magazines focus on expensive photo shoots featuring world-famous models and photographers modeling incredibly expensive clothing. On occasion, however, readers are treated to illustrated work either accompanying the models or taking over the pages entirely. Notable examples include the various international versions of Vogue magazine, Nylon magazine, and more.
"Among many others, I’ve worked with luxury brands such as Analeena; magazines and publishing houses such as Washingtonian Magazine, Penguin Random House, Anaya Multimedia and Montena; or brands such as Oysho (Inditex), Delush Polish, AdelitaAdelita, etc. My work has also been presented at the GBK Luxury Gift Lounge in the New York Fashion Week 2014." — Cristina Alonso, fashion illustrator
How Do Fashion Illustrators Work?
The majority of the illustrators I interviewed are freelancers and work with a variety of clients from their homes or studios. As with other freelance illustration jobs, fashion illustrators are running a design business and as such have to keep up on generating income, organizing clients, organizing their own time, and meeting deadlines.
Many fashion illustrators work from their websites or portfolio websites, displaying work and information for clients to reach them and commission them for artwork. Some work with an agent, rely on word of mouth, or work additional illustration and design jobs in order to increase their income or commission opportunities.
"I’m a freelancer since 2009. [...] My childhood dream was to become a fashion designer one day. So when I started drawing, I drew what I could do best at that time and that were girls in fashionable clothes. And eventually those became my personal style." — Svetlana Makarova, fashion illustrator
Pretty much everyone I interviewed has a good, well-viewed social media presence. Whether on Instagram, Behance, Twitter, Facebook, or other sites, each artist connects with their public, regularly updating with artwork, prints or products they produce themselves, or in-process pieces meant to engage the viewer and get more potential clients to their accounts and portfolios. When it comes to niche design jobs, you want to do everything you can to sell your work on your terms and get the word out that you’re available for hire or have artwork for sale.
Speaking of which, it's also quite common for freelance fashion illustrators to sell prints and assorted art merchandise, whether handled and printed themselves or by a third party, in order to increase chances for a steadier income. It's, of course, entirely up to you if you wish to offer printed works of original pieces, but establishing the marketability of artwork is often a plus for freelancers.
"My customers find me on design online sites. I have many online portfolios: Behance, Dribbble, Nabaroo, Tumbler, Instagram etc. I have my own group in the social network which is Russian clone of Facebook. I met my first customer there, a girl blogger. Later she told to her friends about me.
"In general, the Internet is a top aide in the search for clients. I’m trying to be pleasant, open to feedback, flexible, responsible and fast; it's a guarantee that art directors will hire you again." — Elina Novak, illustrator
What Do Fashion Illustrators Need to Know?
As is common in these art career-focused articles, not all successful artists have a formal art education. Some of the artists I interviewed attended art schools, studying illustration or fine arts, or have taken art classes at some point. Others developed their skill set and work on their own or through years of working in various art and design related disciplines.
Regardless of where an artist’s skill set is formed, there are some key areas that fashion illustrators should practice or build up foundations in if they want to create a strong portfolio:
- Life Drawing: While many fashion illustrators have highly stylized work, the basic foundations of drawing figures from life and anatomy are necessary in order to create figures in a variety of poses, with and without reference, for most any project. No one says you have to be a master at life drawing. Rather, an understanding of the human form allows an artist to distort it as they see fit to create interesting and stylized figures that can fit a variety of projects and the needs of clients.
- Folds and Drapery: Clothing is a big focus for fashion illustration. Really, it’s one of the main focuses, and what often makes fashion illustration successful (which is something we’ll discuss in depth below) is an attention to the way fabric moves on and around the figure wearing it. Often clothing can be used to illustrate a more dynamic pose or draw attention to an area within a composition. Having a good understanding of folds, drapery, how clothing hangs, and the limits of different kinds of textiles will allow you to use space and your design medium to your advantage when creating beautiful fashion illustrations.
- Texture and Textile Types: Knowing how to illustrate different textile types goes hand-in-hand with understanding how clothing works. The viewer wants to know if a dress is made of silk or tweed. They are such different types of textiles that perhaps just the way they move over a figure may be enough. If, however, you’re trying to illustrate the difference between chiffon and organza, you’ll need to know how stiff or soft each fabric is, how textured it feels, whether it’s opaque or translucent, or which fabric is typically used for certain dress styles or occasions. Being able to communicate these details to the viewer without having to label them is a brilliant skill to have. Practice this by drawing swatches of fabric and studying various types as well as studying how other illustrators have tackled textures within their design work.
"The human figure and portrait are generally the hardest ideas to illustrate. It is my opinion that today’s generation of artists and especially digital artists are too restricted in their work by using photography [as a sole resource]. In fashion illustration it is important to have the experience of gesture drawing or painting the body in motion." — Mateja Kovač, fashion illustrator
- Objects in Space: This is basically perspective. A great way to study objects is by setting up a still life or drawing various objects around you in a less formal setup. Things like bags, shoes, and hats can all be constructed out of boxes, spheres, and other basic shapes. Understanding how they fit into a scene will go a long way to building your skillset up so that when you have to illustrate a new line of products, you’re ready.
- Understanding Fashion: This is easier said than done; the world of fashion can be just bananas. Keeping an eye on current trends, seeing what’s walking down fashion runways, and even learning about fashion history will make you a stronger fashion illustrator overall. Also, really, filling a portfolio with current fashion trends is as easy as drawing each and every fashion design that goes down the runway during a Dior, Marchesa, or the designer of your choice’s show. It’s a never-ending stream of inspiration and may go a long way to helping you fill up a sketchbook, increase your skill set, and get your work noticed by clients and fans.
"The knowledge of design and cut of clothing, silhouettes, variations in finishes and accessories is also one of the basic moments in fashion illustration, otherwise your illustration will be simply unconvincing and the model will be in a shapeless sack instead of a dress.
"You must sort this out and understand where and why this or that line passes. Only this way your illustration will be significant and in demand." — Ir Ma, fashion illustrator
What Media Do Fashion Illustrators Work In?
Really, they work in most anything: graphite, paint, vector, other digital media, collage, and more. It's entirely up to the artist. I love learning what other artists dig, however, so here are a few quotes about preferred media from the artists themselves:
"It’s usually paper and pencil with some watercolors, but I like to vary the types of paper. Sometimes I’ll do only pencil with just a splash of watercolor, and others just watercolor. I’ve been trying to draw with just the brush and watercolor, which is much harder because you don’t have as much control as you do with the pencil, but the result can be very interesting at times!" — Camila Gray, fashion illustrator
"I work with both traditional and digital media, however the biggest job is done with the use pencils of varying lead hardness ranging from 8B to H. I'm constantly learning how to master smooth shading useful for realistic drawings and that's why working with pencils comes in handy in this case. Each drawing is scanned and edited a bit in Photoshop, which I find very useful to clean up the composition, adjust the contrast and work with the colors." — Ewelina Dymek, illustrator
What Makes a Good Fashion Illustration?
Art is subjective. By extension, fashion illustration is subjective. What makes something “good” will depend on the project, client, designer, and viewer. The needs of one piece may not fulfill the needs of another. That said, however, I still like to ask the opinions of illustrators on what they think makes for good work or what they look for in their own work to find satisfaction. Below are some fantastic answers for what could make a good fashion illustration:
- Stylization sets fashion illustration a part from copying photos and design.
- Movement, texture, and color communicate design and ideas to the viewer.
- Go back to the classics: traditional media, gestured design, and vintage style.
- Practice, practice, practice! Work on your skill set to create successful illustrations!
"For me, I like it when illustrators take that look to another level, and not just try to put exactly what they see on paper. It should be a new perception of the look, or that look with a new feeling." — Camila Gray
"A good fashion illustration for me is the one that does not look overworked. It needs to be easygoing and extraordinary, it needs to stand out. A good illustration is never overwhelmed or done by a strictly mechanical approach. At the same it's exactly the overall level of your drawing technique that makes one stand out." — Kato, fashion illustrator
What Is a Typical Project Like?
It’s a hard question since freelancing is often atypical. That said, I wanted to better understand what a day in the life of a fashion illustrator could be, so I asked everyone I interviewed what their typical project is like and collected some fantastic answers:
"I get requests from potential clients via email asking if I'm available and explaining what they would need me to do. I then draft and send them an estimate for them to sign. I first do a rough sketch, take a picture of it to send to the client for validation. Once it's been okayed, I finish it in black and white and if needed, I add color later using pencils as well.
"Once I'm happy with the result, I scan it so I can fine tune it in Photoshop (adjusting contrast, colors, or adding effects). All I have left to do then is sending in the file together with my invoice." — Myriam El Jerari, fashion illustrator
"So once I know the theme, I look though the looks of the given fashion designer’s collection, choose the one/ones I like. Then I just have a break, letting my mind juggle with these images for while, until I feel something being gathered together into some kind of story. Usually this ends up with a mix of fairy tales, or something like that.
"Then I start putting my thoughts together on paper with pencil. I might be doing this several times, drawing a general composition, and then detailing some parts of it. When I’m more or less happy with the rough sketches, I scan them and put into Photoshop. Then I draw a final sketch. After that I step over to vector." — Svetlana Makarova
Advice for Artists
"According to me it’s important to have a good trained hand and eye and be passionate to what you do. Look through a lot of other artworks and creative things for inspiration. Sometimes [it's helpful to] copy art to learn something new, practice and improve your skills. Be curious and a hard worker!" — Irina Kaygorodova, fashion illustrator
"If one door closes, another opens – don't be discouraged by a commission which falls through because there are plenty other opportunities waiting for you. If you already exchanged some emails with a client, there's still a chance that he'll remember about you the next time and/or will recommend you to other potential clients. Take it as a lesson of enduring such situation humbly." — Ewelina Dymek
"Getting exposure is not always easy, we are in a competitive industry, so you should build up a solid web presence. I consider having a clean, eye candy and updated professional life online is very important to get your work seen: website, blog, social networks, specialized sites such as Behance, or maybe a newsletter. I found Instagram the best social tool for fashion illustrators" — Cristina Alonso
The experience of fashion illustrators may vary, but the desire to create an imprint upon the world with fashion or translate clothing and accessories into a different visual medium seems to be what ignites the fires of creativity beneath them.
As with most freelance illustration careers, creativity, organization, dedication, and a love of the subject matter (in this case all things fashion) are necessary skills for illustrators. Projects and clients may vary, but the need for fashion illustration always seems to crop up for a variety of reasons, and fashion illustrators will be there to fill the role.
The artists I interviewed had a lot to share about their experiences, which you can find in quotes throughout this article. Their work showcases not only their skills, but their know-how when it comes to creating fantastic figures draped in luxurious clothing. I hope you've found this interesting and inspiring.
Many thanks to the fantastic illustrators who took time from their busy schedules to answer my questions. You can, and definitely should, check out more of their work at the links below!