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Pick Me Up 2012 Special: An interview with fashion illustrator Jason Brooks

We caught up with Fashion Illustration legend Jason Brooks at this year's Pick Me Up at Somerset House. As well as being utterly delightful he had some great words of advice for all those aspiring fashion illustrators out there.

Written by Alia Gargum

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum

As a self-proclaimed lover of illustrating and in particular illustrating fashion, I eagerly made my way to this year’s Pick Me Up Contemporary Graphic Art Fair at Somerset House. Pick Me Up is a massively important date for anyone interested or involved in Illustration and Graphic Design, and was excellently reviewed by fellow Amelia’s Magazine illustrator Emma Block this year, most definitely worth a read, here as well as of course by Amelia herself.

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum All photography by Alia Gargum

It was it a perfectly sunny London day, and I had an extra little spring in my step as Fashion Illustrator legend Jason Brooks was going to be illustrating live alongside the other guest artists and designers. You might not immediately recognise Jason Brook‘s name but you will surely know his slick, feminine style. He now has an impressive and growing client list, including Virgin Atlantic, L’Oréal, Vogue, Elle, and The Sunday Times Style Magazine, where I first remember seeing his work in print.

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum

I immediately approached the friendly-looking Jason Brooks who was chatting to visitors while illustrating, hanging up his work to create a makeshift gallery. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I certainly wasn’t expecting him to be so open and easy to speak to, willing to give his time and simply chat. While we talked favourite materials to use and the loveliness of ink, I noticed that he was looking at me very carefully, which is when he confessed that he was illustrating me. Moments later, a beautiful ink illustrated version of me was produced, created on a page from an old french dictionary. He had been illustrating visitors all day, drawing inspiration from them and selling the portraits to those who wished to take an original Jason Brooks portrait home. I cannot thank him enough for the long chat, and the questions he answered so well, the best of which are written here.

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum

You’re one of the first modern-day Fashion Illustrators I remember seeing in print just as illustration made it’s massive (and continuing) comeback. What was your first big commission?

My first big commission arrived when I was in my early twenties studying Graphic Design at Central St Martin’s, which at the time was in Longacre in Covent Garden. It was an exciting place to be and every day there had an almost party-like atmosphere, buzzing with creative energy, conversation and ideas. One day a message arrived from Vogue (before e-mail) for me to come in with my portfolio as I’d recently won an illustration competition they were running. I was immediately commissioned by Vogue to illustrate a story about New Orleans which ran over about six pages and included a whole double page spread. I remember buying a copy from a newsstand as soon as it came out, feeling on top of the world. I used coloured oil pastels on black card for this first important commission, giving the work a very direct and vibrant look. I then became a regular contributor to Vogue under the wonderful art direction of Paul Eustace. I used it as an opportunity to experiment with different media and styles in print, including some early computer illustrations, so I was the first to use a computer to illustrate for Vogue back at the very beginning of the nineties.

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum

You’ve drawn at Paris Couture shows for The Independent, which led to more catwalk illustrating for a range of publications like Elle and Visionaire magazine. What do you love most about drawing at the shows?

Backstage is the most interesting place to draw at a fashion show. Not only is everything much closer, but the variety of poses and activities going on provides a whole range of Degas-like subjects. Models sitting in front of mirrors being carefully made up, impromptu fashion shoots going on, camera crews, interviews and striking people are everywhere as subjects. Drawing directly from the catwalk is more difficult to do well because outfits are only visible for a limited time, but nowadays it’s easy to take lots of digital photographs and work up drawings later. I love the drama and art front of the catwalk at fashion shows too, the crowd is always fascinating. The fact that every catwalk show is a one off performance, with high stakes for those involved as well as ever-increasing production values can create really intense theatre, so I love that too.

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum

What advice would you give to a graduate who wants to get some experience in illustrating from the catwalk?

I started off by working for magazines who would give me accreditation and passes to go to shows as a photographer, after a little prompting from me. I would then simply take my sketchbook instead of a camera. I think when you are starting out it’s all about first of all putting together a portfolio that you feel confident to show people, and then making appointments and really pushing your work out there. I would speculatively arrange lots of ‘go sees’ and then jump on a plane to New York or Paris and try to get work, but perhaps business was more often conducted in a face-to-face way at that time. Going to the Paris couture shows with the Independent began because their editor Marion Hume approached me after I left the Royal College of Art. Luckily, I had work and sketchbooks from travelling to different places that I was able to show, so I would also say that travel drawing is a great foundation for drawing fashion. As a graduate, or anyone for that matter, some catwalk shows are much easier to get access to than others, so if you are interested in drawing at shows it might be best to start with more accessible fringe and off-schedule designers at fashion week and then work up from there.

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum

Thanks to the rise of digital design, a lot of Fashion Illustration has a slick, smooth, and sharp look to it. You were doing this long before it became popular. What drew you to this technique?

I was striving to create a look from using areas of flat colour for a long time before I started using computers on a regular basis. As with my Vogue commission, I used oil pastels to try to achieve this but I also really liked collage, cutting up books and magazines and experimenting with very flat gouache paint. Computers first came to my attention as a way of making pictures in the late 80′s and early 90′s, and once scanning drawings became an option I was able to combine my familiar drawing on paper with computer colouring techniques, and that particular look was born.

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum

Your style is undoubtedly feminine and luxurious. Has this always been the case or did it develop gradually?

The luxurious aspect perhaps is just from my idea of drawing things that are well designed and have an aesthetic appeal to me, so it was never a grand plan, just something that has happened quite by accident. I suppose it has developed over time to a certain extent because my taste has changed as I’ve learned more about architecture, fashion, design, film and so on. Looking back, I think my work has also been a reflection of a glamorous time for the western world where mid-century modernism has really come back and been reinvented through magazines like Wallpaper and through the activities of a whole generation of tastemakers in all areas of design. I happen to love drawing women because I think they can create powerful images, so in all it has been fun for me to reflect our culture’s interest in luxury and design through my illustrations.

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum

What are your favourite materials to work in and which digital techniques do you find yourself using again and again?

I love good old pen and paper. Biros are actually very subtle drawing tools, but I also use 4B pencils to draw out ideas and sketches which I then scan into my computer. I mainly use Photoshop and Illustrator to create my pictures digitally so I definitely still combine very basic old school technology – the dip pen, the pencil, etc. with the latest computer programmes. They are however all just tools, and I would be equally happy working in clay or building a sculpture out of sand on a beach.

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum

This year was your first as a guest artist at graphic design fair PIck Me Up at Somerset House. What did you enjoy and what surprised you about the whole experience?

It was a great chance to simply play with inks and coloured pencils. I made about 30 pictures or so, scribbling in an old french dictionary and on pieces of coloured paper throughout the day, which made me really enjoy the experience creatively. What surprised me was meeting so many new people who were interested in what I was doing, it was really rewarding to have direct contact and chat to them about their creativity too.

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum

You’ve had an impressive career so far, what do you think has been the reason(s) for your success?

Thank you, although I really don’t see myself as being successful yet. I guess any success I’ve had so far could be because I started at a very young age and have put a lot of effort and practice into my illustration because I enjoy it so much. I was fortunate in a way to have had a childhood without the modern phenomena of ‘screen time’ so I was able to immerse myself in my imagination through drawing worlds of my own instead of exploring ones created by other people. This lead on to college when creating work on paper was still very important, giving me the benefit of a ‘traditional’ academic art college experience with very little modern technology available unless I sought it out. I’ve always loved experimenting with all kinds of art forms and media, so when the digital revolution arrived in illustration and art I was very open to it and in a lucky position to be able to ride that particular wave from the beginning.

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum

What can we next expect from Jason Brooks?

I’m just finishing my first book called ‘A Paris Sketchbook’, which is due out in 2013. It is an eclectic collection of my own drawings and illustrations and a homage to a city which I love, published by Laurence King. My dream is that it will be the first in a series of travel sketchbooks covering different iconic cities. Aside from this I’m involved in a number of commissions with different companies and brands around the world, which is a part of my work that I really enjoy because it gives me the chance to collaborate with so many interesting people, adding a sometimes unexpected variety to what I do. I’ve also just signed with a new agency in New York called Traffic, so that’s exciting. Recently, I’ve completed a new collection of artwork for sale on my website called ‘The Gelato Series’ – all about girls eating ice cream in retro, sexy colours.

Jason Brooks Pick Me Up 2012 by Alia Gargum

It’s fascinating to hear from someone who has managed to carve such an astonishing career in fashion illustration. What a lovely guy. Be inspired! See more of Jason Brooks’ work online hereAmelia

Jason Brooks portrait


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