Since she stepped into full-time illustration seven years ago, Autumn Whitehurst has become a star in both fashion and publishing. She tells Garrick Webster about style, colour and how to beat creative block.
The arrival of Autumn Whitehurst on the illustration scene was a defining moment in digital creativity. Sure, there were talented digital illustrators out there already. However, Whitehurst's combination of vector line work, delicate texturing and a real eye for beauty gave art directors something more: a dreamy kind of digital perfection beyond what the camera is capable of. In 2002 Whitehurst took the illustration world by storm, and ever since then she's been working hard for clients in the top echelons of fashion publishing. She has also evolved her style, making her images simpler, clearer and, dare we say it, even more beautiful.
Computer Arts: So, it all started in a diner, with a copy of Vogue magazine and a supportive boyfriend. Tell us about your big leap into illustration.
Autumn Whitehurst: I graduated with the intention of someday becoming a painter, but at the time was really just focused on paying bills and taking care of my student loans. So I worked for several years as a waitress, a make-up artist, a scenic painter and in pre-press. But I started to notice that something was happening in the world of illustration that I wanted to be a part of, particularly in fashion illustration. Then I read an article in an issue of British Vogue that set my wheels spinning. I had the magazine under my arm when I went out to meet my boyfriend at a diner one night, and he suggested I make that leap of faith - and so that's exactly what I did. I began to put together a small body of images, which I posted to an online portfolio site and the work began trickling in.
CA: How would you characterise your early style?
AW: My earliest work was mostly vector based. The commission that changed everything was one from Ecko Red. They requested I reinterpret a photo of a model they'd sent me. She was covered in a glaze of oily sweat and I was taken with the texture of her skin. It was the first illustration in which I'd really rendered part of the [image], but I liked the contrast between her flesh and the flat black of her clothing. Almost every commission that followed was an exercise in which I was trying to make the most of that contrast.
CA: What is your approach to colour?
AW: I love colour. I love the infinite possibilities that are created when different hues are juxtaposed side by side - there's a conversation that happens, during which there's shouting and murmuring. I tend to keep my colour choices very simple because I'm partial to a monochromatic palette with a touch of something in sharp contrast, so as to make that area jump a bit.
CA: Last time we spoke, you were renovating your style. Why did you decide to evolve it?
AW: I was beginning to get commissions [where] the client wanted me to render everything, and it occurred to me that the way in which I was working seemed to defeat the purpose of illustration. Some of the rendering began to feel unnecessary, as though I was describing areas of the image that would have been more interesting with much less visual information. I wanted to reintroduce a playful quality and be able to take more creative liberties.
CA: Making your work simpler came at a time when many young illustrators were becoming more decorative. What do you think of that trend?
AW: I envy those illustrators. I personally can't handle having to introduce so much detail to an illustration, because I become overwhelmed with all the choices that are involved. It's easier for me to congest my efforts into a very defined area that swims in a field of empty space. But I think that ornate illustration style is popular because it successfully conveys the mayhem of youth culture. There's some great work that comes out of these trends though; needless to say, it can be dangerous for an illustrator's career if they fail to rise above it.
CA: Has the new style meant a change in who you produce work for?
AW: It hasn't really changed the kind of client that I get, which does surprise me. Trying to evolve the [style] while I'm still working has been a tremendous challenge; I don't want to confuse my clients [and yet] I don't want to become stagnant either. I always ask them which of the two styles they prefer; if the project's beauty or fashion-related, they prefer the simpler style.
More recently I've been getting a lot of requests to do portraits of male musicians, and the highly rendered approach lends itself to the grittier quality that's necessary when I'm drawing men. Though my client base is the same, I have more flexibility now.
CA: Which creative people have inspired your work?
AW: I love George Grosz's drawings - always have and always will. And I was a fan of Richard Gray's long before I'd considered becoming an illustrator. He has an inexhaustible vision that's never dull. My most recent infatuation is with Le Corbusier. He's the first architect [who] has really inspired me. I'm not quite sure what to do with that inspiration yet though, other than to just enjoy his work. I never would have imagined that I could have such a strong affection for concrete.
CA: Are there any creatives out there that you'd love to collaborate with, stories you particularly want to illustrate or brands that you'd really like to work with?
AW: I've never considered a collaborative effort, though if I could it would more likely be with a designer because I have no design skills whatsoever, and I imagine that working with a designer would teach me how to look at what I do with new eyes. Unfortunately I'm unfamiliar with the design crowd, so I'm not able to name someone I'd like to work with.
As for a job I'd love to tackle, it would most likely be a label [such as] Lanvin, because Alber Elbaz's aesthetic is often unusual but beautiful without being too ornate. I think I'd also be happy to unleash the kid in me on some vinyl toys - but that's not a facet of myself I've made public yet.
CA: They say that inside every designer is an illustrator trying to get out. It's a bit like Russian dolls - maybe inside every illustrator is a fine artist trying to get out. Working in commercial art as you do, how important is artistic integrity?
AW: I think artistic integrity is terribly important because the creative decisions I have to make need to be sincerely mine. But the part of me that I invest in my commercial work and my personal work comes from two different places. In my commercial endeavours I'm using my skills to answer someone else's questions, not my own. In either, I'd use the same skills but the approach would be entirely different. Creative freedom in the context of a commission doesn't entirely let loose my personal voice, but it does allow me to make unconscious choices, which flow into each other more seamlessly.
CA: What do you do when you get a creative block?
AW: I try as hard as I can to pretend I don't have any work to do, because I tend to get my best ideas when I'm daydreaming. If that doesn't work, then I pour through my folder of inspiring images. Then I might also have some wine and do some scribbling to see if I can generate something useful. And if that doesn't work either, I sit upright in my chair with a bell on my pinky finger until I fall asleep.