Columns / Insights

Painting from the Runway

Kelly Beeman
How did you first begin to incorporate fashion as a tool into your paintings? It happened gradually. I spent many years making figurative paintings and had started to feel that they were missing something important. Around the same time, I was studying sociology and had always enjoyed scholarship on fashion, so using fashion in my artwork was ultimately an intersection of interests. I became obsessed with clothing and the way it can change the characters of a painting. 

Once this obsession began, I began a quest to find the right clothing to paint—the most distinguishing for the character wearing it. This led me to runway fashion. It took years of trial and error to figure out how to use runway fashion in my paintings. Typical fashion illustrations were not the point—I was more interested in fashion’s cultural significance and narrative capacity and how to create artwork in which clothing is a vital part, but not the sole focus. My paintings are not about the clothes any more than fashion is merely about the production of garments; both clothing and fashion tell stories about the people wearing them, individually and collectively.

“Shopping” for the right look has become an integral part of my work process. When I am working on a painting, I ask myself, “What would this person wear?” and I dress her or him up. It’s an acknowledgement of our fashion-driven culture, and clothing also helps me create context and the unique personality of each character I paint.

How do you infuse your work with narrative? None of my paintings’ stories are explicit, so I employ things that function literally, aesthetically and symbolically to tell an open-ended story. Objects, clothing, activity, interactions and backgrounds all provide clues. Often, these are pulled from personal experiences, so they have their own subjective meanings. But I would like them to have a universal one, too, so I look for common objects that can do both. For example, a recent painting showed two girls picking flowers, dressed in Loewe. I used everyday imagery—scissors, houses, flowers, clothing—to suggest the possibility of a metaphor that anyone can create using her or his own imagination and experiences.

My paintings are not about the clothes any more than fashion is merely about the production of garments; both clothing and fashion tell stories about the people wearing them, individually and collectively.


What is the relationship between culture and fashion? Why is this important to you as a fashion illustrator? It’s a complex one. There’s a lot happening: tradition is becoming replaced by trend, fashion is now truly global and not confined to a few cosmopolitan cities, and the fashion world feels more inclusive than ever. We have a greater degree of freedom now to decide what to wear than ever before. While historically these decisions were informed and limited by tradition, socioeconomic status and, in many cases, even sumptuary laws, we use fashion in today’s world to express individuality, and we have a wide array of options, all of which require a balancing of personal—and sometimes even moral—values with spending power. This is actually very revolutionary.

Yet trends really drive the fashion industry. By virtue of being new, they are inherently exclusive: Once they are widely adopted by the mainstream, they lose their allure and fail to convey the same notions about the wearers. They’re quickly replaced by newer, more exclusive trends. I am fascinated by this cycle and the ways in which people participate, which may not include owning the products themselves, but knowledge of brands, identifying with their narratives, engaging with them on social media, following them and being an active member of an audience. It’s about following a story. So one way that fashion has achieved greater importance is by embracing its immaterial side. I am interested in this as an artist because I want to portray who we are at this particular moment in history: the choices we make and the things we deem important, as we depart from previous cultures and societies.

When working as a fashion illustrator, my role is to enhance the intangible and subjective aspect in fashion. Fashion illustration makes a brand seem more personal to its audience, and it creates an experience that goes beyond product. And yet, it wouldn’t succeed if its clothes did not already have a deep significance to people.

Which fashion designers or types of clothing inspire you to pick up your pencil and draw? I make decisions based on my intuition—the clothes give me a feeling, or they resonate with an idea I already have and help me bring a painting to life. I’m not looking for clothes to wear; I’m looking for clothes that make enticing characters, so the decision process is very different. The clothes have to express an attribute that I want to be present in the painting. 

Where do you turn to for inspiration—besides fashion? I love watching people. When I used to work in restaurants in New York, I enjoyed observing guests and would sometimes make little sketches of them to give them to my coworkers. People are my greatest inspiration; within us all, there are these vast, internal worlds that are complex and confusing, and as an artist, I can only offer clues as to what is happening within them. With real subjects—mine are usually invented—your only tool is intuition, so the human subject is mystery.

I’m also very inspired by my own experiences, feelings and memories, and trying to find ways to relate them to something greater. It is a feeling about what makes someone unique and what is ultimately our bond as human beings. In spite of the countless ways we go about setting ourselves apart, we also do so much to participate and belong. These contradictions inspire me.

As far as visual inspiration goes, everything I love in art gets archived somewhere in my imagination and comes out later, but not consciously. I notice the connections after a painting is starting to take form, that perhaps the flowers resemble something I saw in a medieval herbal painting or a modern one by artists like Joan Miró. Or maybe the figures are inspired by classical sculpture and the gracefulness and harmony in its forms. Or the overall flatness of the artwork is inspired by the early graphic arts from Germany and Austria. Or the facial expression is inspired by Roman encaustic portraits... I could go on and on. But it all comes from something I felt a connection to; somehow, it comes together in one image. I love history and the idea that with so much historical record behind us, I can pull from many different eras and collage these references in one painting, unconsciously even.

How do you keep all of your skills sharp, from painting to drawing to art direction? A lot of drawing. I often go back to something very fundamental and start over as if I know nothing. So I’ll revisit the human figure, perspective or color theory. Sometimes I’ll go to museums and look at masterpieces to speculate how they were made and why the artist may have made certain decisions. I also try to observe everything around me—you can learn a lot by looking at your environment. Your skills stay sharp when you stay inquisitive and observant and practice all the time.

What excites you about illustration and the fashion industry right now? The fashion industry is embracing the work of artists and illustrators with a diverse range of styles from a variety of backgrounds, paying little or no attention to whether one has formal education, an agent or an established reputation. The focus is entirely on the artwork and whether it fits with the brand. In addition, many of the barriers between artists and companies have been eliminated thanks to the ease by which artists can share their work on social media and the increased chance that potential clients will see it. So between social media and the need for brands to communicate in new ways, art and fashion are coming together by ignoring the institutional criteria that used to determine whether one was a “professional” artist. Fashion is narrowing the gap between fine and commercial art.

Someone who comes to mind is London-based artist Helen Downie, who just started painting a few years ago, documenting her progress on social media, and has since become a phenomenon in the fashion community thanks to her work with Alessandro Michele at Gucci—and her beautiful work itself! A story like hers, and perhaps my own, are probably quite rare. Even less than a decade ago, it would have been impossible. 

There was a great article in Artforum a few months ago wherein renowned photographers who work in fashion discuss their relationship to it as artists. I think in photography, it is understood that you will work in the art and commercial realms to make a living; often, these boundaries are murky and can be crossed within the same work. But perhaps painting is still regarded as too sacred—too much a part of the fine arts tradition—for this to be widely permitted. Just as fashion has made creating both fine art and commercial imagery possible for photographers, maybe it will for painters, too. Not everyone will carve out a living exclusively on gallery exhibitions, and the fashion industry is creating commercial opportunities that celebrate and showcase our work, enabling us to continue painting with a little more financial stability—which is very exciting.

Loyal clients in fashion did so much for me at a time when an illustration or artist representative would have rejected me for being unknown. For a new, emerging artist, this offers many exciting opportunities. And if you handle them the right way—by always learning, evolving and making the best work that you possibly can—others follow.

Kelly Beeman is a self-taught artist and fashion illustrator based in New York City. Her diverse body of work consists of simple, black-and-white contour drawings of nudes that evolve into fully rendered watercolor paintings, portraying a vivid world composed of clothing, everyday objects, nature and interior spaces. Beeman is interested in the relationship between fashion and culture, and is inspired by fashion as an important fixture of everyday life. By “dressing” the characters in her paintings, she uses fashion as a tool to create personalities, narratives and context, and explores the significance of trends and personal appearance in modern culture. Beeman’s work has been published in Interview magazine, Marie Claire Italia, Vogue China and more. Her clients include Elie Saab, J.W.Anderson, Loewe, Massimo Dutti and Tory Burch.

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