They can bang out a tiny artwork in 10 minutes, record a whimsical wisp of our fashionable self in pen and wash that is treasurable forever. Janice Breen Burns meets four illustrators changing the nature of selfies…

(This article first appeared in The Weekly Review)

Art by Mads Francis

Art by Mads Francis

Mads Francis has such a whimsical and lovely way with pens and paint that, a couple of years ago, Melbourne caterer The Big Group flew her and world-renowned illustrator Megan Hess to a royal wedding in the Middle East.

The pair was installed in a musk velvet bower of flowers to sketch, portrait by portrait, a room full of gob-smackingly glamorous women. “Every girl was beautiful,” Mads says. “Every outfit couture (sigh) …”

Mads was just 23 and Melbourne’s love affair with illustrators was beginning to bloom. Soon every party planner worth her iPad would have a squad of illustrators on standby, ready to whip off dozens of quick five to 10-minute portrait sketches at galas, frock shows, bat mitzvahs and, of course, trackside at the Spring Racing Carnival. You name it – anywhere guests frock up and fancy a memento of their outing.

“I think that’s how it started; as an interesting alternative to all those selfies,” says Kate Warren of PR and events company Kate&Co. “Something beautiful to take away from an event.”

In fact, beauty is key; most fashion illustrators render everyone near-perfect. “They get pretty excited when they see themselves [in illustration],” Melbourne illustrator and teacher Angie Rehe says. “They go; ‘oh, I look great’, and I think, ‘well, that’s because you’re actually five foot five, but I’ve drawn you six foot five, fixed the weird things on your outfit and smoothed out all the lumps and bumps’.”

Little wonder that fashion illustration is having a moment. Luxury brands such as Dior, Prada and Tiffany & Co line up to work with Melbourne’s own illustration superstar Megan Hess, who – with a few long, inky strokes of her favourite Mont Blanc pen – can capture a spirit of luxury and glamour much more easily and effectively than a photograph.

“There’s so much visual information around these days that brands are using lots of different media to attract attention and tell different stories in their campaigns,” Megan says. “You’ll have Prada, say, doing a full campaign shoot with models and a photographer in the traditional way, but they’ll also do some things completely differently as well, like illustration, for a social media campaign.”

It’s not just branding. As well as luxury campaigns, Megan has produced best-selling books and her illustrated vases, cushions, cocktail trays, even re-useable coffee cups, are sold around the globe.

“Illustration has had periods historically where it’s dipped in and out of fashion but it’s really being embraced now in this new little niche,” she says. “I think maybe part of that is also because we’re valuing things that are hand-made and hand-drawn more.”

The works of Melbourne artist and illustrator Melwitz Folino are prized precisely for that reason. Her observations are deeper, her illustrations quirkier than the average. “Everybody is different,” she says. “And I find beauty in everyone.”

She says live sketching can be a fast, expedient process: “Ten minutes and that’s it – I’ve captured something extraordinary.”

It can also be the opposite. Once, for instance, at Melbourne Fashion Week, when Melwitz was installed with her pens and washes to live sketch in the Melbourne Town Hall foyer and the queue for her work stretched out the door, her artistic sensibilities snagged on a girl called Jessica.

“She looked extraordinary,” Melwitz recalls. “So beautiful, I can’t tell you; I had to spend an hour and a half just on the eyes.”

Angie Rehe says illustrators need a steely temperament for this chop-chop party version of their art which, in normal circumstances, is a solo meditative process. “A lot of illustrators just can’t do it,” she says. “It’s really high pressure; you’ve got to keep smashing out these actual real little artworks every 10 minutes.”

But the popularity of live sketching doesn’t falter: “Well, who wouldn’t be happy to take home what’s actually a little artwork of themselves?” Angie says. “And it’s not a selfie.”

Janice Breen Burns, jbb@voxfrock.com.au