in the words of live runway sketchers

Before I went to New York in January, I was writing an article about live runway sketching prompted by Jazmin Welch, a fashion student who was commissioning articles for her graduate magazine project, CONTOUR. I chose to do an adaptation of this post, a collection of notes I discovered while searching for any information on live fashion sketching. To add to the archival material, I decided to email working artists who live sketch at fashion shows and ask them questions. This research not only supported the article I wrote, but also the talk I gave at the Apple Store in Soho.

I couldn’t include all of the great responses in the article and talk, but Final Fashion knows no limitations. What follows is the work and words of the practicing live runway sketchers from Toronto, Montreal and New York that I corresponded with. If you also have experience and sketches too, I’d love it if you would share in the comments. I’m very curious to hear more European perspectives.

NOLCHA Fashion Week FW13 by Mara Cespon

Mara Cespon –

The first fashion show I’ve sketched live on (also the first fashion show I’ve ever been on) was Oscar De La Renta on February of 2011. My professor at the time Karen Santry was able to get our entire class into the show. It was really fascinating. I was able to do some really rough sketches by marker but I had to give up and use my camera because we (the students) were pretty much huddled together on the side balcony and there wasn’t much room or time for drawing. Still I enjoyed having experienced it and I’ve learned a lot about runway sketching since then.

I try to experiment every once in a while just to figure out what would do well in a really crowded and time limited situation. Lately, I’ve been using the refillable brushes just so I don’t have to worry about spilling. Watercolor inks are my favorite. The process changes every time because I’m constantly trying to figure out which approach is best with the given time I have to look at the models when they’re on the runway or backstage. 

I don’t really see anyone sketching during shows apart from Lauren Gowdie, who I went to school with. I’ve been lucky enough to go on some shows with her. She does a lot of lovely fashion illustrations. On the other hand, I really like Bil Donovan‘s work. I haven’t seen him in action but his works are beautiful! Also I love Clym Evernden‘s live illustrations. They’re simple but really fantastic! I’m also a huge fan of the Japanese illustrator Ohgushi. I haven’t seen him do any runway illustrations but I absolutely adore his other live works.

I don’t really get to decide where I’m supposed to sit. Sometimes I get to be in the front row and sometimes I’m at the back. It all depends on which seat the client got for me. When I end up at the back or anywhere else that’s not up front, I take pictures instead of sketch because the space to move my arms is very limited. People would be taking pictures too so my vision is obstructed quite a few times. So a camera is a must.

Tents by Bil Donovan

Bil Donovan –

[In 2007,] I was teaching a Documentary class at the Fashion Institute of Technology in which I would lead the students around town to draw live on site. I thought I should attempt to do a fashion show as well.

I admire and I am inspired by the work of Ralph Rucci, and asked his permission to draw live backstage and also capture the show from the audience. I practiced before Ralph’s show by attending other shows, so by the time I was documenting Ralph’s show I knew what to expect. That being said, you can never be comfortable, it is an organic experience and that is fueled by adrenaline and hopefully that unique energy and experience be communicated into the finished work.

It is all intuitive…from the minute I leave the house till the minute I return home….I am in the zone of documenting. I have always drawn in sketchbooks from my days at FIT as a student, so drawing live is natural to me.

I recently was asked by New York Magazine to document fashion week live on site, backstage. There were no guidelines as to what I should or should not capture. So I just allowed my eye to be my guide and put aside my fear of being noticed, (I like to blend into the background), and drew whatever was present and whatever came into my peripheral vision. I just went for it and utilized my knowledge of anatomy and observation, I came away with ten to twelve illustrations per show. I was tempted to play and enhance them, and aside from three, that needed some defining, I sent the originals to New York Magazine who was thrilled with the results, which made me so happy.

(Bil sketched the FW14 season for The Cut too.)

It was practically unheard of then years ago…. but with the influx of smart phones and instagram and the ability to take a shot and publish it…the idea of drawing live is unique with a particular charm and allure…. Hallelujah! 

I see more and more artists online publishing the work they did at the shows, but I don’t believe that the majority of the work was done live…it is too precious.

When I was a student, the incomparable Joe Eula was amazing at capturing the shows live as was his work for Halston.

I don’t see anyone doing what Eula did at the shows although I do admire Richard Haines courage and confidence. There is no mistaking that the work is done live, witness the energy and life in his drawings.

The ability to throw away the usual preciousness will make the finished result more so.

Ben Liu Marcus Kan WMCFW

Ben Liu –

It’s more intuitive, I’m adept at using a digital tablet, but I still prefer the pen-paper marriage.

I’ve been invited to corporate soirées, media launches, after-parties and other design or fashion events, in order to sketch celebrities and fashionistas. I feel like big companies are more and more interested in this.

The position has never been an issue for me.  I think it really depends on how we feel at the place. In the first row I tend to concentrate more on the details, or a part of the mannequin. When I’m farther from the runway, I usually play with bigger lines and daring smudges. I don’t really care where I’m seated – I just make the best of whatever position i’m given.

Marcus Kan of Draw A Dot, who introduced me to Ben and Jocelyn (he’s seated next to Ben in the photo above) –

Live sketching at runway shows is still a “new” method to present the runway collections for many publications, so most of the  time I only see these kind of works on blogs. As for style, I still see a lot of watercolor and pencil sketches as I believe illustrators are still used these traditional mediums. When it comes to live runway sketches, due to the fact that illustrator has only 1-2 minute(s) to finish a sketch, viewers will only be able to feel the vibe of the collection. If they are looking for detail works, then these sketches will not be able to satisfy their needs.

Back in October 2013, I worked with a few illustrators on a digital runway sketch project and they found using touchscreen devices to sketch was very different. They told me that it was a bit difficult to control the pressure of the brush on a touchscreen, which some of them preferred to use back the traditional mediums.

I have also noticed a lot of online publications such as SHOWstudio and A Magazine have recently commissioned different illustrators to work on some illustrations right after the shows. Unlike the live runway sketches, those piece are more polished and the viewers can see the details of the garments clearly.  In my opinion, fashion illustration is definitely making a comeback to the fashion scene.


Jocelyn Teng Toronto Fashion Week fall 2013

Jocelyn Teng –

I cannot recall the first fashion show I ever sketched. I do remember feeling excited and nervous about not being able to draw all of the details. I quickly realized that besides the fashion, it is more important to capture the feeling and key “moments” of the presentation. I think it took me about 2 full shows to find my own personal style.

My field kit is easy, black ink and paper. To me, live sketching is all about expressing the show’s liveliness and movement of the clothes in the limited amount of time. I let my adrenaline take over, emotions go, and draw whatever captures my eye…it is definitely more of an intuitive process.

I haven’t met many artists at the shows. Last season I did work along side with a few local illustrators, which is great to see. However this field is still limited, especially in Toronto. I can’t really tell if there is an increase of artists at the shows.

I attend the shows I have been invited to so I know I have a seat to work on my drawings. Seating wise, being in the first couple of rows is definitely a bonus, but I am okay to sit further back if it’s an elevated spot.


live sketching by Lily Qian

Lily Qian –

The first fashion show I remember attending and drawing was around age 6 at a student fashion show in Beijing.

For live drawing events I often use watercolor, ink, or charcoal for quick drawing sessions.  Other misc things in the bag: palette, water bottle, small cup or rinsing, drawing paper, tissue paper, calligraphy pens, and various brushes. Sometimes I am also photographing the show/event, I will jot down quick notes and sketches and develop them further right after the event.

There’s a higher trend in fashion retailers hiring illustrators for live drawing at store events.  The role in fashion illustration is different now, but that’s not a bad thing, it’s more special.

Brandon Graham of WYRT often partners with designers and magazines to bring opportunity to fashion illustrators to draw live or cover fashion events.  I often help organize, review portfolio, or document events for WYRT.

Actually its a much nicer experience to just watch the show and enjoy since it’s only 10 minutes.  When you’re busy working you really don’t see or absorb much at all.


Badgley Mischka by Claire Thompson
Claire Thompson

I sketched at my first fashion show a few years ago at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. It took me a while to develop my style. It’s much different than my regular illustration style, so for a while I had to teach myself how to break away from that and develop a new type of style that worked for runways. I practiced a lot even when I wasn’t at a show;  just illustrating people walking down the street in New York.

The fewer materials I take with me to a show the better. By doing so, I no longer waste as much time selecting the colors or the mediums I want to work with. It’s difficult to prepare too much before a show. You are never sure what is coming down the runway, so having a blank slate is the best route. During a show I only use my watercolor palette and about 2 or 3 brushes.

Many news publications are beginning to take an interest in live runway illustrations, and so are emerging designers. For a designer, having live runway illustrations from their show is a unique way to sell the ‘essence’ of their collection to their customers.

I don’t see too many illustrators illustrating at shows, except for the very well-known illustrators like Richard Haines, Gladys Perint Palmer, and of course you, Danielle! I believe I was the only illustrator in the photo pit last season at fashion week, but I would love to see more illustrators attending these shows. Ideally, I’d love to see a split between illustrators and photographers in the photo pits.

Access can be difficult at times, because many people don’t expect to have a live runway illustrator sketch a fashion show. I usually sit in the pit if I can, or will stand in the back so I have a better view of the runway. I’ve been turned away many times, and other times I’ve been given front row seating and backstage access to shows. Once people see what I am doing they are usually intrigued and end up liking the idea of a fashion illustrator sketching at a show. I think it’s just a matter of time before live runway illustration becomes more accepted– and encouraged at shows.

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