London-based artist Elyse Blackshaw is on a mission to reinvent fashion illustration as an inclusive art form that explores identity and promotes sustainability. She hosts interactive workshops for schools, colleges and non-profit organizations, with a focus on sustainable fashion illustration to encourage young creatives to think about their material and consumer choices. Blackshaw recycles her artwork through collage, reflecting the need to value materials in today’s throw-away culture. As a judge at this year's Graduate Fashion Week, she will present a free hands-on workshop using Winsor & Newton materials to celebrate ten years as a fashion illustrator. She chats to us about her favourite materials, best-loved products and the wider impact of her work.
Can you tell us about the moment when you decided to use your practice as an illustrator to raise awareness about the lack of sustainability in fashion?
It was during my time at the Royal College of Art. Through my research I realised one of the greatest barriers to sustainability within the fashion industry are consumers. As a consumer myself, I know that we buy garments online solely based on the image provided and how we imagine ourselves in the image. I began questioning how images, specifically fashion illustrations, could intervene with consumerism.
As research, I interviewed a range of current fashion illustrators and, although they had sustainable practices in their personal lives, the issue of sustainability was not something they communicated through their illustrations. Fashion illustration is typically a form of beauty, fantasy and escapism, and I saw an opportunity to reinvent the purpose of fashion illustration.
What materials do you repurpose in your work, and how did you start working this way?
I started at my mum’s house in Greater Manchester, where a lot of my work is stored. I create so much work that is never used or seen in public, so I started utilising unused illustrations from my archives to collage and craft new illustrations, instead of drawing on a fresh piece of paper. I also source from scrap stores and keep packaging, as second-hand clothes have a greater positive environmental impact than buying new. I am always on the lookout for repurposed materials; I recently found a crate full of unwanted yet fantastic risograph prints!
Do you have a favourite art material that you are drawn to?
It’s hard to choose a favourite as I work with mixed media. I go through phases of loving a certain type of process and experimenting with different materials. For example, this year I have had fun exploring Winsor & Newton’s Galeria White Gesso Primer. For my fashion illustrations I have always remained loyal to Winsor & Newton’s Promarker range – my favourite side of the markers is the broad chisel. My style of drawing is very quick, bold and textured. Promarkers are easy to use but so versatile. The dual nibs allow me to depict a range of fabric textures and layer colours effortlessly.
What recycled material do you most like to work with?
Paper and cardboard. Not only can they be recycled and repurposed, but they are also easily accessible to everyone and easily transformed, enabling us to explore our imaginations.
You have been running live workshops for several years now. What do you enjoy most about the workshops you present?
I love observing participants’ unique and individual interpretations of the same task, and how each of their ideas are so different. It’s also refreshing to see my old work reused and reinvented in ways I would never have imagined.
Your large installations have been created in places as diverse as Westfield shopping centre and an elementary school building in Camberwell. How do you approach these projects differently from your fashion illustration work?
For these types of projects I use digital software to illustrate and collage instead of hand processes, but they still incorporate my fundamental values of diversity, inclusivity and environment. Collaboration is also a huge part of my approach when working on public artwork, whether it is with production teams, teachers or children. For Westfield, I was able to reinterpret my fashion illustrations as characters in an eclectic scene. Working with the school, I was digitally illustrating the children’s drawings rather than my own ideas, but collaging and composing in my own way.
What does a typical day in your studio look like?
I would say that there isn’t a typical day; every day varies. I am usually working on several projects simultaneously at varying stages. Sometimes I am drawing, and there are papers all over the floor. Other days I am making a mess of my table with paint or binder. Perhaps a typical day in my studio looks messy!
Do you have any rituals that you use to get yourself focused for the day?
I enjoy tidying my studio. Sometimes I can spend a whole morning sorting through collage papers and organising them into different categories. Other times I like rearranging my wall space with images that feel inspiring or are important to me. Clearing up allows me to feel productive, whilst having time to digest my current workload and think about where I am going.
Are there any collaborations you wish you could take part in?
I would like to collaborate with retailers on public installations. Recently I admired Selfridges’ celebration of 2D illustrators. It would be wonderful to be part of something that connects with the public on that scale and makes illustration immersive.
Are there any current or upcoming projects that you’d like to share?
In June I will be revealing a window installation in collaboration with Shop from Crisis in Peckham, London. The window will be created from repurposed materials and aims to support ‘fashion that ends homelessness’. I will also be running an in-store workshop so that the public have an opportunity to create their own sustainable fashion illustration.
All images are courtesy of the artist. Click here to see more of Elyse's work.
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