PRIME BRIEF. What Cate Did

Mon 21 Sep 2009 by Jo_Moore

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In a return of our occasional series a BiG member shares a particularly juicy job with us. This month legendary fashion artist David Downton explains the pleasures and pitfalls of drawing one of the world’s leading actresses and beauties Cate Blanchett. David’s stunning artwork of the actress has recently graced not one, but four simultaneously released covers of Australian Vogue. Jo Moore gets the full story. 

Q: David, let’s start at the beginning; in simplistic terms, what was your brief and when did they first contact you?
A: Australian Vogue contacted me in March. It was quite vague at that point; they mentioned Cate Blanchett and the fact that it was their 50th anniversary issue. They also asked if I would go to Sydney if the project went ahead. I agreed (of course!), but it coincided with two long-haul trips I was scheduled to do in April, to San Francisco and Hong Kong, and I was secretly was dreading a third. Later, they called and confirmed everything: they wanted four covers of Cate wearing four different designers, and the sitting would take place in London (where she would be making a film) in May.

Q: To run with an illustrated cover (rather than a photographic one) must be a rarity in fashion magazines, have you set a precedent? You had to do not just one cover, but four, did that pose any particular problems?
A: Vogue has a remarkable history of illustrated covers, but they haven’t used drawing in a consistent way since the early 60s. I think I am probably the first person to do four illustrated covers for one issue, but then, that’s quite a recent marketing strategy.

Q: You have drawn many beautiful and famous women, have you met Cate Blanchett before?
A: I was commissioned by Universal Pictures to draw her in costume as Elizabeth the First for the film The Golden Age a couple of years ago, but it was done from photographs. I did meet her briefly in a hotel lobby a while later, but I don’t think she remembered it.

Q: Tell us about the choice and selection of garments that were proposed for the sitting. Who made the final selection?
A: The selection of the designers was Cate’s. They were Armani, Balenciaga, Alexander Mc Queen and the Australian designer, Martin Grant.

Q: Where did the sitting to take place? Was that your choice or the clients?
A: It was at the Dorchester. I had worked there before and I suggested it when they decided a hotel might be better than the studio they had originally envisaged.

Q: What preparations do you make before you have a sitting?
A: My main concern always is not to run out of anything. I take reams of A2 cartridge paper, dozens of graphite pencils, assorted pens, and two cameras. I prepare as best I can, thinking what I might like to do, but things invariably change; we plan and God laughs!

Q: Tell us about the day itself.
A: It felt like a long day. My call was for 10 am and we went on until around 5.30 pm. As I was nicely ensconced in a suite at the Dorchester, I didn’t have to brave the morning commute (there are definitely perks to working for Vogue). There were a total of 10 people involved; the hairdresser Sam McKnight and his assistant, Dotti the make up artist, a manicurist, Cate’s publicist from LA, Kirsty Munro, the editor of Australian Vogue and her assistant, a lighting technician, Cate and me. Also, at one point, a model who had wandered into the wrong suite and spent an hour leafing through Hello! before anyone twigged that she should be at a shoot somewhere else…

Q: That must have taken some arranging?
A: Yes, and luckily it was nothing to do with me.

Q: You have drawn portraits of many people, both famous and unknown, is it easier working with someone who is used to being in the public eye?
A: On balance famous people are easier. They are used to posing, to being scrutinized and are generally not shy about it. And there is the advantage that you can canvas other opinions when you feel you are losing your way.

Q: It must be very easy to be overawed by the situation and the person, how do you cope with this, after all very few illustrators are required to ‘perform’ in public?
A: I have trained myself; I am very nervous before a sitting and afterwards I am a little stunned in a “what just happened?” sort of way. While I am working though, it’s fine. I forget who it is and don’t worry about anything else. It all comes back to drawing.

Q: And dare I ask; what is Cate like?
A: Cool in the best sense. Down to earth. Challenging. Fun. Tall. Pale. Beautiful.

Q: After the sitting, how do you then work from this ‘raw material’ to produce the finished artwork.
A: In a way that’s when the work begins. I look at the drawings carefully. Most are not very good, but there are clues as to the way things will develop. I also access the photographs and try and relive the day on paper, in the studio.

Q: Compared with similar jobs you’ve done, did this project have any tricky issues to overcome?
A: Self-imposed pressure mainly. I knew the stakes were high. Cate has her choice of projects she works on and publications she appears in. Covers, as we’ve already discussed, are a great rarity and they are the main tool by which a magazine is sold. My biggest fear was letting myself and everyone else down. Also, there are technical things with covers: you must show eye contact and leave space for the strap lines. The images have to work as part of the cover design and independently (they run inside the magazine too) and my brief was to incorporate both portrait and full-length drawings.

Q: How was the client to work for, were they particularly demanding?
A: Brilliant. Not at all demanding. I was surprised how relaxed they were, how open to suggestion. From that aspect it was one of the least problematic projects I’ve worked on.

Q: The drawings are all fabulous, how do you feel about the final covers?
A: I’m actually very proud of them…which is very unlike me.

Q: What was the response to the covers? Wasn’t it the fastest selling issue of Australian Vogue of all time?
A: The response in Australia was amazing; there was a big launch party in Sydney, and blow-ups of the covers were unveiled to loud cheers apparently; the art director had a deluge of emails about them; there are dozens of pages on the web and yes, I’m told, they were the fastest selling issues in the magazine’s history. All of which feels like a blow for drawing…it also feels a world away.

Q: Have you had any follow-up work as a result of your images being so high profile?
A: None!

Q: Do you know what Cate thought of the drawings?
A: I understand that she was very happy. By then she was back in Sydney rehearsing for a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. The world turns…

Q: Do you have anyone else in your sights to draw that you can tell us about?
A: I met my boyhood idol last week and asked whether she would sit for me…I’ll let you know.

Thank you.

Unfortunately, this issue of the Vogue Australia was not released in the UK. To see more of David’s work visit: or to see David’s own fashion illustration magazine visit: