Bil Donovan – Illustrator and artist-in-residence at Dior Beauty

The View magazine hooked up with Bil Donovan, illustrator and artist-in-residence at Dior Beauty. We chat about the start of a journey into creativity and the arts, his life in Milan, illustration and Dior, and much more.

TV: Hi Bil, how are you? What have you been doing lately?

BD: Working. I work a lot… fortunately! I prefer to be busy and I am involved in a lot of different venues, which keep me focused and efficient. I just finished two personal appearances drawing fashion portraits for Dior Beauty clients at Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. I am working on a few commissions at once: A book cover of a legendary woman, I don’t think I can disclose the info yet, a poster for the Windsor Polo Charity in Vero Beach Florida to benefit Alzheimer’s Association, some illustrations for a luxury resort in Miami, and beginning to create the illustrations for the Fall 2015 Couture Collections for a spread in Luxure magazine.

I am on the board of the Society of Illustrators, and facilitate special drawing events, and I chair an Advisory board for the Frances Neady Collection of Fashion Illustration and today I am organizing a field trip to view some pieces of collection for some advisory board members. Tomorrow I go to the VA hospital with the SOI to draw portraits of the veterans, then to the studio to finish up some deadlines.

Bil and Dianne Vavra, Senior Vice President Dior Beauty.
Bil and Dianne Vavra, Senior Vice President Dior Beauty.

TV: Tell us a bit about yourself.

BD: I grew up in South Philadelphia, an Irish/Italian blue-collar working class neighborhood. I attended Catholic school for twelve years and on Sunday I was an altar boy and a paperboy during the week. As a kid I played sports, half ball, baseball, touch football and at one time was on a Little League team as a half back. I was not a fan of sports, I liked baseball but I was not the gifted athlete. My favorite sport was to run. I was very fast and loved the sense of speed whether it was on a bike, skates or in a pair of high-tops.

My favorite recreation was dancing especially to Motown. South Philly was a dancing in the street city and my friends and I did.

I also loved to draw, and dreamt of being an artist, but that was an anomaly in the neighborhood, boys did not draw, as it was considered effete, so I kept it to myself. While the other boys were checking out the daily newspaper for the sports scores I was checking the comics to copy a comic strip of Brenda Starr, glamorous reporter created by Dale Messick. That was my early dose of fashion illustration.

I was not studious. I was much more interested in art and drawing then geography and math, and I frequently got in trouble in class due to my nature of trying to make the girls laugh. I could be very silly and a prankster. I still am.

In high school I met my best friend for life, Kenneth Bonavitacola, who also liked to draw fashion, and we would encourage one another and share our dreams. I dated girls because that was expected, but I knew in my heart that I was different from the other boys and as a devout Catholic boy I suppressed my feelings living with the anxiety that I was different, and I was, I was Gay.


TV: How did you get in touch with creativity, and has that defined what you like to do in life?

BD: I was always creative, I just did not realize it, I remember one time thinking how interesting it would be to carpet the streets and neighborhoods, I could visualize ideas in my mind, I thought everyone could, but when you are a child it is just considered nonsense, today it would have been an installation. I took a Color and Design class in Philadelphia, and we had to come up with different solutions to the given assignment. It was in this class that the instructor told me I was very creative. That was the first time I heard that and it instilled a bit of confidence to continue to pursue art. Yes, creativity and the genesis of ideas drive my work and fuel my passion. To invent and see solutions differently is an extraordinary gift, one I never take for granted.

Live at NYFW
Live at NYFW

TV: You’re known as an illustrator first and foremost, but have you tried other types of visual arts before that?

BD: I went back to school to get a Bachelors degree in Fine Art at the School of Visual Arts. I entered a drawing class where the instructor Judy Mannirino blindfolded us and handed out five foot long bamboo sticks with charcoal to draw onto huge sheets of paper hung on the wall. She then placed unidentifiable objects in our hands and said, “Draw what you FEEL!”. Whoaaaa… talk about being outside of your comfort zone… I was lost, after years of drawing from life I had to reinvent my preconceived notions of drawing. I loved the freedom and my art was reborn so to speak. I have a fascination with the figure, and use it in my personal work as a metaphor for life experiences to create work that is emotional, expressive, raw and dark, the antithesis of my fashion where the ideal is beauty.

Spread for Luxure Magazine Fall Couture Collections 2015/16.
Spread for Luxure Magazine Fall Couture Collections 2015/16.

TV: Why does illustration have so much attraction for you?

BD: I am not sure it is illustration so much as fashion illustration, which allows me to indulge my fantasies and ideal of beauty onto a piece of paper. As a child I saw an old Audrey Hepburn movie on Television, Sabrina. In one scene Hepburn floats across a ballroom in a Givenchy gown, I was enthralled with that moment it was a vision I wanted to last forever. So I began to draw figures in fashion, to emulate or recapture that ethereal moment.

Illustration is different than Fine Arts. I believe the goal in Illustration is to entertain the viewer; it is a commercial entity, whereas Fine art (Ideally) is created to share a vision without regard to an audience. Both have merit and of course can overlap in certain instances, but illustration is more entertainment and I think a bit of me wants to entertain. I am moved by the grace and simplicity and complexity of line, a marvelous shape, thought and color, the thinking behind the drawing or illustration that is what entices me and I use and share that premise to hopefully entice the viewer.

Drawing is breathing for me, not to be dramatic, but there is a something magical about a blank piece of paper and a pencil conjuring up an image akin to a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Christian Dior Suite at the St. Regis NYC.
Christian Dior Suite at the St. Regis NYC.

TV: Take us through your career.

BD: My passion for drawing eventually led me to enroll in evening classes at the Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts. After two years I enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology to major in Fashion Illustration. Drawing was a challenge, but I persevered and worked hard. My draftsmanship and observational skills improved and I continued taking classes at various schools for seven years.
I then set off for Europe to fulfill a life long dream, landing in Milano on a Monday and finding freelance work on Friday. I remained for six years, an experience which changed my personal vision and style of my work. I was doing well, I had work with several magazines, Vanity and L’uomo Vogue, Marie Claire and Donna to name a few and a wonderful commission with Italian Vogue for Setarium Couture, silk mill in Como.

I returned to the States for family reasons and to resume my career. It was not a good time. Photography monopolized the market and fashion illustration had been pushed off the page. It was a low point in my life, I was broke, and with no prospects of work and worse was the fact that the AIDS crisis had ravaged the creative world. My friends and acquaintances were dying or dead, people just seemed to disappear and no one in power was addressing this, or seemed to care. It was horrific. I became political and an activist and divorced myself from fashion illustration and began painting to communicate my experience of the world. During this period I was invited to teach at FIT and enrolled in the BFA Fine Arts program at SVA to find my voice.

I gradually re-entered the illustration market by creating narrative and conceptual illustrations for the Travel, Entertainment and Lifestyle markets, and was commissioned by Harper Collins to illustrate a book on the Legendary Costume Designer Edith Head.

Legendary fashion illustrators. L-R: Kichisaburo Ogawa, Glenn Tunstull, Bil Donovan, Carlos Aponte, Steven Stipelman.
Legendary fashion illustrators. L-R: Kichisaburo Ogawa, Glenn Tunstull, Bil Donovan, Carlos Aponte, Steven Stipelman.

Sometimes things happen all at once and in 2008 my life changed dramatically.

I met the legendary artist Robert Richards at my studio, Robert was putting together an exhibit of fashion illustration and a mutual friend suggested he look at my fashion work. I pulled out about 20 or more pieces and when I asked him which piece he wanted for the show…He said, “All of them…. of course!”. In 2009, The Line of Fashion opened at the Society of Illustrators with a wall of my work, that gave me a recognition I had not had and at the same time, The Edith Head book was published, I was working on a textbook, Advanced Fashion Drawing/Lifestyle Illustration for Lawrence King and working on illustrations for the St. Regis when Christian Dior Beauty named me as the first artist-in-residence, a role I continue to honor and serve in today.


TV: Looking back to when you just started, what have been the biggest changes in terms of style, taste, voice of your own work, and that what the brands and consumer like to see?

BD: In the beginning like most artists I copied others whom I admired. I went though my Antonio, Kenneth Paul Block , Jim Howard, George Stavrinos and Michael Vollbracht periods. I went from early watercolor illustrations to magic marker to charcoal, and pastel. This evolved in the 80’s to a technique or style, with rapidograph and a ruler to make drawings, followed by watercolor with some hints of the lines, then collage, Graphite and pastel replaced the collage and gouache entered the picture, a brief flirtation with digital and eventually back to watercolor.

When I was doing the illustrations for Setarium Couture, the creative director, Alberto Nodalini at Vogue Italia gave me specific directions. Since it was a silk print mill the fabrics had to be very precise, so to balance the rigid precision of the prints I began to edit and loosen up the figure. A style and premise I continued to evolve and utilize today.

I believe my clients expect me to communicate an idea with a undertone of luxury, sophistication and elegance, style is subtle yet impactful, that is my goal.


TV: Can you share a bit about your workflow?

BD: I will research thoroughly….all and anything about the commission, I need to be well informed, almost obsessed. Then I plant the text in my head…I might sketch out a couple of thumbnails…and after some time…ideas begin to show up… do pencils/roughs from the ideas, which will be translated into color for the finish. I always give a personality to my figures, I create a narrative around them to instill a bit of spirit and soul. It’s character development, and intuition directs the color and emotion of the piece.

Backstage at NYFW at Designer Rosie Assoulin.
Backstage at NYFW at Designer Rosie Assoulin.

TV: You have illustrated for both some of the largest fashion brands as well as several books, how different is that? How do you approach a campaign assignment vs. a book project?

BD: A book is a marriage, it is a long time commitment, and it lives with you every minute of the day until the work is complete. Usually a year between the initial assignment. Reading the text, developing ideas, research, refining the ideas, and presenting roughs. Some revisions or edits for the rough ideas, then once approved work on the finishes for the book. Last is the Cover art. then you wait for the publishing.

A campaign is different yet has some parallels to the creating work for the book. With a campaign you should be familiar with the brand and the intent of the brand, I do my homework and usually there is a brief with information. You have to respect the essence of the brand/campaign and then I follow the same steps above.

Live Demo event at the Society Of Illustrators NYC.
Live Demo event at the Society Of Illustrators NYC.

TV: You are the artist-in-residence at Christian Dior, very nice title, but what is it you exactly do?

BD: As Artist-In-Residence for Dior Beauty, I work in three areas for the brand. Beauty, Couture, and Promotion. Six years ago I was hired by Vogue to paint at some promotional events, during the evening a woman asked me to do her portrait, which I did as a fashion portrait. The next thing I knew I had a line of women waiting for a portrait. Vogue led to a special event with Dior and three months later I was offered an exclusive contract as the first artist-in-residence for Dior Beauty. As such I am sometimes on call to create illustrations for special clients with Dior Couture or fashion illustrations of the collections for promotion, or charity and travel around the country painting live fashion portraits for special Dior clientele at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.


TV: At Dior, I can imagine that working for a single brand and being on top of it constantly, enables you to really develop the brand’s story, at least visually?

BD: It’s an honor and privilege to be affiliated with the House of Dior. I am respectful of my position and attempt to promote and honor the brand of Dior through the spirit and vision of the brand. Dior’s legacy is legendary and there is a history of fashion illustration through the extraordinary work of Rene Gruau, so I am very proud, and humbled to have a small role in perpetuating that legacy.

L-R: Kathy Doiban, Vice President Christian Dior Couture, Bil, Taylor Olson, Director of Client Relations Christian Dior Couture.
L-R: Kathy Doiban, Vice President Christian Dior Couture, Bil, Taylor Olson, Director of Client Relations Christian Dior Couture.

TV: Already at the top of your game, are there still other things that can challenge you?

BD: I love a good challenge, BRING IT ON! Recently I illustrated an animation for L’Occitaine, titled “Dance Into the Season” which was invigorating but challenging. Almost every single element of the animation was hand painted then layered and composed in Photoshop to allow the animators to move through the illustrations. I worked from April through August seven days a week with an amazing visionary, Quentin Moenne Loccoz, the producer for DDB Paris, gave me the commission with the freedom to play. We worked as a team with the creative’s and animators to create something truly magical. I would love to do an animation for a major studio…with a fashion illustration sensibility, which would be on my list of challenges.

Designing and or collaborating…I think that would be an amazing experience but it has not happened yet. Creating some prints maybe a line of ties, scarves or accessories, I think that would be fun but not a fashion line. I defer to and respect the designers who know the language of fabric, draping and design.

Thom Browne Racks.
Thom Browne Racks.

TV: Last but not least, after weeks of hard work, what is the number 1 spot you love to hang out to be away from your job?

BD: Fire Island at the beach. Sand and waves to body surf; topped by a glass of wine with my husband Ken Nintzel is my idea of total bliss.

TV: Thanks Bil!


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