“I see a face that I have never seen before every single day of my life. Isn’t that just incredible?”
Dahren Davey is a London-based artist who specialises in portraiture. Soon after graduating with an MA in Fashion Design from the Royal College of Art, Davey began working in the studio of Vivienne Westwood. He went on to freelance as a designer, fashion illustrator and researcher for magazines and both high street and designer brands.
Alongside this, he has worked as a senior lecturer teaching within the field of fashion for the past 20 years. He currently teaches at the London College of Fashion. Tending to focus on male subjects, Davey uses a combination of wet and dry media. We chatted with him to discuss the importance of faces, colour and fashion in his work.
What is it about the style of portraiture that interests you?
I love faces. A face conveys so much, and the variety of things that can be said in a face is immense. It’s obvious when someone is happy or someone is sad, but how about when someone is confused or lonely? Character, emotion, beauty, diversity and ambience are all important to me. People are beautiful and the faces they possess are incredibly varied. I see a face that I have never seen before every single day of my life. Isn’t that just incredible?
I enjoy attempting to convey subtle emotions in my pieces. My mostly male subjects are models more often than not, and although these men are ‘beautiful’, they also have character and live in the real world. I want the observer to impart their own understanding of the models’ emotions in my pieces. Take my pieces ‘Gotta Keep On’, ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Siempre Triste’, for example. How might these men be feeling? I think different people will see different things.
The portrait format can, however, be quite limited. I only draw heads and shoulders, but this pushes me to find new ways to be creative within the discipline. Somehow the restriction works for me creatively. I’ve also inevitably become known for it.
You approach many of your portraits from a fashion perspective, with menswear brands featuring regularly. What interests you about the relationship between illustration and fashion?
Illustration is one way to express fashion. It can impart many things such as a mood, ambience or vibe. An illustrator can present clothing in a multifaceted, complicated, imaginary or contemporary way.
Fashion is about continual change. Fashion illustration then inevitably also changes with the times. I always attempt to try to push for something new in my work. The observation and representation of current fashions enables and helps me to do so. I enjoy the concept of attempting to express fashion through contemporary drawing, and then in 20 years time it being referred to as ‘of its time’.
If you had to say, is it the colour, texture or movement of clothes that excites you the most?
That’s a no-brainer for me; colour first, then texture. Fashion is an incredible source of both as inspiration. My work is often highly saturated in colour which, upon first impression, gives a bright, joyful feeling to the pieces, though in reality the subjects are often more stoic – even unhappy – in their expression and mood. The huge range of materials that are available to artists can evoke colour in a multitude of ways. The ways in which media can be mixed, layered and juxtaposed is limitless, and the way in which one media will react with another in beautiful unpredictable ways inspires me. It is a personal pursuit within my work.
Can you describe your typical process?
I start by finding a fashion reference that resonates with me – it might be down to the composition, the colour or the person. I then imagine it as a portrait and I simply begin. I will never have a plan – though sometimes I wish I did! I enjoy letting the process occur naturally through a constant, mostly intuitive, evaluation of the work as it progresses. I use a variety of media and a wide set of aesthetic principles. Yet I also do have a set of design principles that do not alter much from day to day, such as exaggerating eyes and ears or changing the proportions of the head and neck slightly.
During the season, which brands do you anticipate the most?
The list is endless. Personal favourites include Comme de Garçons, Junya Watanabe, Rick Owens, Marc Jacobs, Raf Simons, Craig Green, Lemaire, Jil Sander, Prada, Dries Van Noten and Balenciaga, to name a few!
Diversity and inclusion are becoming staple ethos of brands. Have these developments affected your practice or the way you view fashion?
I will say that they are all incredibly important. Diversity and inclusion are things that I will hopefully always express in my work. I live in London – one of the most diverse cities in the world – and so some of my work is a reflection and response to my surroundings. It is important for all types of people to be seen.
How do you think mistakes can benefit an artist?
I approach my work playfully. I enjoy making mistakes and encouraging them to belong to the piece in a comfortable manner. I like to think of mistakes as opportunities. It’s too easy to erase a pencil line that you think shouldn’t be there. I suggest working over it – adding something instead of taking away. Worrying about mistakes and one’s work not being perfect can take over your thoughts, and the creation process can become hindered. I’d advise other illustrators to relax and encourage these ‘mistakes’ to sit comfortably within their work. Use them as a way to express a new mark, an aesthetic choice or even a more natural development of the work. My piece ‘No Reason’ is full of what could be viewed as mistakes, but they are happily included in the finished work.
Do you have any ‘studio hacks’ that you’d like to share?
I enjoy mark-making, and I would say that anything can create a mark. If I am throwing something out or recycling it, I wonder how I might use it in my work. Most things can be dipped in ink or paint. If the object can absorb or hold onto the media, even better. (With this in mind, I do look forward to my toothbrush getting worn out!)
Do you have one piece of advice for artists just starting out?
Keep creating. Through regular repetition and practice any artist improves in the long run, though you don’t have to do the exact same thing time and time again in order to improve. Develop and build on your own methods in all directions to find your own strengths and weaknesses and continue to always push forwards. Whatever you do, however you do it, keep at it.
All images are courtesy of the artist. Click here to see more of Dahren Davey’s work.