One of the first things that caught my attention while talking to Bil Donovan was when he said, "Everyone can take a picture, isn't that strange?' and as average as that may sound, the brave and bold illustrator who has been experiencing illustration since the 80's, when he first graduated from The Art Institute of Philadelphia, asks himself this question as he is accustomed to work, learn and teach a technique in order to develop an image.
"It’s crazy how cyclical the fashion industry really is because as I was working for New York Magazine by covering the shows, I asked the editor just out of curiosity why she hired and illustrator," said Donovan. It turned out for Bil to realize this was all a mystique, the editor wanted something more raw and unique. Something no one was doing.
The cards turned out well for him as he realized that to be able to draw, something that he physically and mentally prepared himself to do for more than a decade, had now become something so unquestionably positive as it was turning heads in the fashion industry.
And that’s part of the reason why now, Bil and I find ourselves cool and composed as we sit down and have a chat at his Williamsburg studio in Brooklyn. Prior to the day of the interview, I wasn't very concerned or even nervous about it though. I had a sensation it would turn out fantastic. And this feeling was built upon me thanks to my previous email exchanges I had with him during my years as a student in Paris. Ever since then, Bil has been so special to Cestlulu. He is peculiarly exceptional as he is the one person that opened up the door for me to write about illustrators in the first place. From the very start he carried that sense of charisma and genuine persona. His rawness explained the painful path of becoming a real artist and being able to face his own daemons, while every day, maintain his own craft. These are one of the things why Bil's words of wisdom made me nothing but curious among him as well as other artists and illustrators around the world.
As this constant curiosity of mine remained, I found myself three years later, knocking on his door on a late cold day of January.
“I am at a point in my life where people hire me usually because of what I can do - they don't try to micro manage it,” said the illustrator. For him to say this sentence though, and elaborate on it, has taken him almost a lifetime to do so, and it all started and remained thanks to the love of he has illustration and fine art.
As much as the dream started when he was a kid, so did the battle. While every kid at a young age went to labor and mechanics, Bil wandered how he could push through something that actually meant something to him. And as art provoked Donovan at an early age, it was education that made him progress. For this, he took sculpture classes, color in design classes and drawing classes.
"I was terrible in both drawing and sculpture classes; but that’s when I thought to myself… Bil, this is going to be a long journey," said the illustrator, and pausing, he added, "Something I was good at though, was color and design class - something that made me realize I was very creative."
At that point Donovan's teacher loved him, as what he did, appeared to be beyond creativity for her. And due to this notable recognition, Bil immediately felt he had something. Good overcame the bad because he chose to see it that way; and this is how he was able to shape and nurture not only the creativity he had, but the big and exciting career ahead of him.
"The point is not about trying to draw something correctly," said Bil, "it’s about training your eye, then, you are able to draw anything."
This he realized after having had written a textbook on the principles of drawing, a very unique and genuine book which took him five years, and unfortunately, didn't even end up being published. But at the realms of failure he also questioned: "What's next for me?"
His genuine sense of belief battled and overcame the walls of denial and strain. And as Donovan's faith became a capability, he was able to handle harsh criticism by one of his teachers; with comments that went like; 'you can't draw buddy - you're failing'. Injuring words for him at the moment, yes; however, he endured through them once more. "I want this!!!" he said, "I've saved money for this, what can I do?"
Donovan understood and committed to the fact that he had to draw every day, not just because that’s what the teacher told him to do so - but because he listened to his own gut.
The best part about this is that eventually, everyone's taste and technique evolves – at least, it should - and as I have followed Donovan’s throughout these years, I have seen it become deeper and remarkably relevant. I wonder how much work it might have taken him, I wonder if a technique he might have had in the past remained, and that’s when he tells me,"I love the figure. I will always use the figure as it isn’t about either fashion or beauty, it comes from the soul," he says. At this point I realize my doubts have been answered by his authentic words.
This is why unlike most commercial fashion illustrators, Bil has remained true to his own tasks and his own style, he not only makes sure to find remedies to a reinvent his preconceived notions, but also, be able to carry a flow.
"For me, the flow won't happen on the first day, but the second," he explains, "I always give myself three or four days, as sometimes you are tired, and it doesn't communicate."
Having originally trained from the Fashion Institute of Technology and the School of Visual Arts, Donovan also learned through teaching later on in his career at FIT that, an illustrator’s overall performance should have a life and spontaneity. "If you're doing it in the sense that 'you need to get it done', you're dumb. If you also think ' I have to be the best, 'you're also dumb. You have to let go, don't you think?"
I’m trapped by this – I’m trapped and leaned as to how well he has managed to sit in discomfort, how well he has managed to avoid jumping from one thing onto the other for the discomfort of not knowing, and by this, he has also brought a clear example as to how the unknown offers a bit more vision too, a dash of more fantasy. This is why well-respected worldwide brands such as Dior and Vogue have given him the freedom to do what he usually does, which is doing a craft with no set of rules for him to follow except his own. Recently though, Bil found himself pleasantly surprised by an offer he got from Vogue Magazine on November 2015.
”When I got an email from Vogue’s corporate artistic director, Raul Martinez, saying, ‘We really fancy your work, we’d love to have you on a project for Vogue and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.’ I’m just like – THEY KNOW MY WORK?!”
Bil looks at me with an expression of ‘pinch me’ right after he actually says it. He has all the right to do so as his work just currently was displayed at the MET, and will also be featured in a book for the museum.
“For me the best is to be able to punch it and explore things and be confident, which is what I want always. And that comes a little bit with age and experience, and now I’m just like -whatever happens, happens.”
Donovan’s willingness, makes his art be used as a vehicle of emotions – and I mean positive emotions. Even though there may be a dark side to this profession, Bil chooses brightness. And he does this in ways in which he makes his images come to life with his dynamic reds and unforgettable blues, his realism and effortlessly polished figures. And as he does this, he likes to mix things up by making people become his images; which is to say by making portraits of them, and that’s when ‘Dior’ comes in the picture.
“I started with Dior by drawing people at their events, I remember drawing a large woman, she looked a bit like Bridget Bardot, so I pushed that,” said Bil. The following twenty minutes there was a long line - waiting to be drawn through the eyes of Bil Donovan. And as the line grew, an opportunity for Bil too, as he started collaborating with Dior right after the incident.
“Dior changed my life,” Bil said, he has been working for them since December 2008.
But let’s be honest here, as Bil said it himself, “I’m not curing cancer or helping children,’ but it’s his optimism and technique that are making a difference. He gives advice on a daily basis to many illustrators at The Fashion Institute of Technology, School of Visual Arts and ‘The Society of Illustrators’ by pursuing and developing their technique. He continues to help people that surround him on how they can deal with complicated career situations or by just making them overall inspired.
As I come to close this interview, I find myself staring in the middle of his studio, admiring his illustrations that can have either red or bronze lines twisting upon themselves in three dimensional forms in a dress, or even just a single continuous line throughout that plays along well with a drawing; and whether it’s fashion he does for clients or nude figures he does for pleasure, it seems the balance works well for him.
Among other things, it is knowledge that makes him be the acclaimed Bil Donovan. A beneficial knowledge that isn’t found in a book, or painting; but in his own nature, a nature that is willing to be shared and flourished at its best.