Illustrating the beauty in all of us

Bil Donovan has the ladies lining up.

No, he’s not a rocker or a Chippendales dancer but a fashion illustrator par excellence, one who knows how to bring out the best in the makeup, couture and women he depicts in watercolors.

We first encountered Donovan’s artistry during an afternoon of curated shopping sponsored by Harper’s Bazaar and The Westchester. Donovan — an artist in residence for Christian Dior Beauty — was sketching guests briskly at Louis Vuitton, which, like Dior, is part of luxury giant LVMH. He captured us, holding a pink Louis Vuitton handbag, in all our kohl-eyed, red-lipped, salt-and-pepper joie de vivre — so much so that the image appeared in the December issue of WAG. Other subjects seemed equally enchanted with their portraits.

“One of the principles of fashion illustration is an acute awareness of anatomy and how to exaggerate it so it becomes about showing off clothing, the figure and beauty,” he says. “You’re editing out those areas that don’t nurture beauty. But you’re still capturing the essence of the person.” In this regard, negative space becomes critical in what you’re creating.

Black Narcissus promotional illustration inspired by the Dior Archival Couture Collection. Courtesy
Bil Donovan.

Donovan works quickly. His sketch of us took no more than 10 minutes. That’s partly by training and partly by design. Some 70, 80 years ago, before fashion photography became popular, couture houses relied on fashion illustrations to convey their designs in the print media. Donovan adores the intimacy of the work and also because watercolors dry fast, the spontaneity they necessitate. 

The reaction is equally immediate and mostly complimentary.

“I’ve had some people who, let’s say, didn’t appreciate the process,” he says. But he adds that professionalism trumps personal feelings. His goal is to make every woman look exceptional.

And every man, too. Donovan finds it easier to draw men, noting that you can exaggerate their character lines. On women, they might look like wrinkles.

It’s hard to imagine that there is a subject or medium that wouldn’t benefit from Donovan’s wizardry. His is a fusion of talent, training and technique with a passion for fashion discovered in his native South Philadelphia. 

“I loved to conjure something up on a blank piece of paper with a crayon or pencil,” he remembers. “It was magical.”

More often than not, that “something” was fashionable, like Audrey Hepburn’s swanlike silhouette in “Sabrina.” (“She was a walking fashion illustration,” he says.)

But growing up Irish-Italian in a working-class neighborhood right out of “Rocky,” Donovan understood early that drawing fashions was not what boys were supposed to do.

“So I kept it to myself and played sports.” But a friend’s mother had a clothing store and the two began sketching fashion photographs by Richard Avedon and Francesco Scavullo. Donovan and his friend, Kenneth Bonavitacola, would go on to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan — Bonavitacola to study fashion and Donovan, fashion illustration.

At FIT, Donovan discovered tough love in the form of a teacher who didn’t think his work good enough. He committed to his craft “24/7,” studied with Jack Potter, who did the Coca-Cola campaigns of the 1940s and ’50s and at Parsons School of Design.

“The more you train your eye, the more you can finesse the work,” Donovan says.

Bil Donovan’s painting of the Brooklyn Bridge. Courtesy
Bil Donovan.

All that training, along with six years of fashion illustration in Milan, “changed my life,” he adds.

But in the ‘90s, the field of fashion illustration dried up. Donovan did storyboards for advertising firms, began teaching at FIT and studied fine art — which he had shied away from — at the School of Visual Arts.

“I fell in love with making the work of the soul,” he says of fine art painting.

Still, illustration was not done with him. He took an opportunity to write a textbook on it, did cocktail illustrations for the St. Regis New York and created illustrations for a book on Hollywood fashion designer Edith Head, fulfilling his childhood dream of drawing Audrey and other movie goddesses like Sophia Loren. And he exhibited with the Society of Illustrators, on whose board he now sits.

It was all the perfect prep for that day in December 2008 when Vogue sent him to the Christian Dior Boutique in Manhattan to draw the event. 

“A young woman sat down and asked me to do a portrait of her. ‘Make me beautiful,’ she said. Before I knew it, there were 30 women in line.”

In April of the following year, he signed an exclusive contract with Dior “that pretty much changed my life.”

Editorial illustration for As If Magazine. Courtesy Bil Donovan.

The work has kept him traveling to Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue stores, making “after” portraits of Dior makeovers for the company’s best clientele. There are work trips to Bal Harbour and Boca Raton in Florida, speaking engagements in Detroit, days when he teaches drawing and painting at FIT.

When he’s not doing all that, he and his artist-husband share critiques in their East Village apartment. “It makes me mad that he’s often right.” (Donovan also has a Brooklyn studio.)

Having discovered fine art, he’s not about to give it up.

“My personal work is about love, loss and spirituality. I lost a lot of friends to the AIDS crisis.”

These days, however, Donovan is not defined by loss.

“Life is full,” he says. “And I love it.”

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