Tips for Sketching Backstage

After my backstage sketching adventure at the Spring 2018 shows, I received some questions about how exactly it’s done. The process is definitely different for everyone, as each illustrator has their own style and uses different media. I personally favour liquid and heavy acrylics and ink, which turned out to be a huge challenge to use quickly under tight time constraints, but I really wanted the challenge of bringing my painterly style to a live sketching environment. Although I’m still not an expert by any stretch at this, here’s what I wish I had known going into the experience.

1. Arrive about 1.5-2 hours if possible before showtime to allow yourself enough time to get settled

2. It’s all about being suggestive - not every stroke or colour has to be exactly as what you’re seeing (tough for us perfectionists) 

3. Don’t overthink it, just get it down on the paper! Move your hand rapidly so your lines don’t end up looking too calculated 

4. Buy one of those all-in-one portable sketch tables that you can hold while grabbing supplies from its side compartments. This way, you can stand anywhere instead of being confined to the floor like me (sigh)

5. If you also like to do illustrations of a collective of items or girls as I do, come with compositional ideas ready in your mind so that once you see what inspires you backstage, you have a ready way of representing it 

6. Some of the most interesting scenes to sketch are the interactions between the dressers/sewers and the models - pay attention to those moments! 

7. Don’t be too ambitious! Start with a realistic goal of a few sketches that you want to complete while on site, so you’re not rushing too much and possibly compromising on the quality of your work

8. Use dry media…. for your own sake. Please don’t do what I did and bring little flutes of liquid paint and a cup of water and think that a piece of floor will be available…cause it won’t always be!

9. Stay back well until the runway show is over! You will have more time to finish a sketch, and once you’re done, you can take a photo of it in front of the garments once they’ve been hung back up - it’s all for the ‘gram!

10. In general: don’t get caught up in staring at famous people that have now manifested themselves in the flesh. Yes, I get it, those models and designers are your idols. But they’re also people, and people who are under an incredible amount of stress trying to do a job, just like anyone behind a desk. They’re all there to work, and now, so are you, so focus and get cracking!

Fashion Month from a Backstage Illustrator’s Perspective

I was really only supposed to be in Europe for five days, and I ended up staying for three weeks. This was my first fashion month experience, and when I say it was surreal and overwhelming, that is an understatement. I have been working full-time as a copywriter and part-time as an illustrator for about a year and a half when the Spring 2018 runway season rolled around, and by then I had decided to see if I could get into some shows at London Fashion Week. My intent was to develop some backstage sketching experience; although I have done many live sketching gigs before, there was always a model patiently sitting in front of me, so I thought trying my hand at capturing the random chaos behind the scenes of a show would be a fun challenge. 

Thanks to the kindness of clients who have now become dear friends, I was able to swing some backstage passes for Preen by Thornton Bregazzi and Roksanda, entrance to Huishan Zhang’s presentation and even a front-row seat (!!) at Topshop. I felt so fortunate to have gotten into these shows alone, and headed off across the pond without any expectations for what the week would bring. I simply told myself I was going to have fun, try to do my best in case any curious eyes would be watching, and most importantly, I was going to make sure I wouldn’t get in anyone’s way backstage - nightmare scenarios of a designer tripping over my paints were looping through my mind. 

It was the best first fashion week experience I could have asked for. I felt welcomed at every show, and those working for the brands backstage graciously took the time to talk to me as they walked by and peeked at what I was doing, which actually gave me anxiety! “Don’t you have a million more important things to do than to stand here with me,” screamed my brain. I didn’t really devise a formula for sketching before I left; I wanted a process to fall naturally into place. Because some of London’s shows had a long prep time, I was able to take my time sketching the models standing around dressed in their looks without needing to take photos and paint furiously. 

At the first show I attended, I was approached by a member of the Marie Claire fashion team, who was keen on the idea of having someone contribute to their fashion month content as a backstage illustrator. A couple of days later, the night before Milan Fashion Week began, I received confirmation that I would be able to get into shows for the Milan and Paris circuits, and so on a whim I went, sending a letter of resignation to my full-time workplace in between making Airbnb and flight bookings at the last minute. I had been waiting for a great opportunity to come along that would encourage me to quick start an attempt at full-time illustration - what better moment than this? 

Milan was a much tougher experience than London. I now had expectations to fulfill and the shows were a bigger, more high maintenance production. Backstage, I tried my hardest to do some sketches, but I found it to be too chaotic for me to find a place to sit or have enough time to get an idea of what the clothes looked like on. Having a detailed style of drawing and using predominantly wet media also does NOT make it easy to work quickly. I needed to rapidly learn how to translate my time-consuming painterly style into a condensed, time-conscious version. So for some pieces, I would take photos, try to do what I could backstage and film my hand at work, and then finish up the illustrations at home. Even on a day I wasn’t attending a show, as was my experience in Paris, I still painted something that came off the runways in the last 12 hours. 

I averaged about one illustration a day for two weeks, and from this type of project, I discovered a lot about myself. For one, I was pleasantly surprised to discover I could still retain my creativity and imagination, and keep my stress levels down under daily deadlines. I realized I truly do enjoy painting. I also learned to accept what I was hesitant to face - I am indeed a slow drawer, as I love to take my time and get even the smallest details down. And that’s ok! Not every illustrator can be everything to everyone, and that’s why so many of us can exist. 

All in all, I am glad this experience demanded that I forgo staying in my comfort zone because that offered me a chance to grow as an artist, and as a person, really. It may have all looked and sounded glamorous, but it wasn’t always. It was all-day, every-day work, thinking about what to paint next, trying not to let awful personalities get the best of me, scouring cities for art stores; and in general dealing with feelings of isolation, unpreparedness and doubt in my abilities. Sure, I had the privilege of being in the midst of so many creative minds that I have admired for so long, and was within arms lengths of works of art swinging from the hangers, but even in these enjoyable moments, I was thinking about how to leverage every opportunity, and mostly importantly, focusing on trying to do good work. 

If this opportunity ever presents itself again, I would take it without hesitation, but if not, I feel completely content now knowing what it feels like to have done the fashion month circus…I mean circuit. In this moment, something Giambattista Valli said at a talk I attended as part of Altaroma 2017 rings in my ears. The designer emphasized that one really doesn’t need to be in an “inspiring” city in order to create something inspired; that it’s all really in the mind. After this three-city jaunt, I find that to be indeed very true and incredibly liberating, because even though I am now in unfamiliar waters, being a full-time illustrator, I at least am confident that with hard work and effort, creativity will surely follow no matter where my base is.

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