Fashion illustration is a crowded and, at times, clichéd marketplace. But the refined pen of Swedish artist Liselotte Watkins has always been above the fray. Drawn in heavy black ink, Watkins’ cool on-paper girls are romantic, full-lipped beauties with micro-details that bring bored expressions, expensive eyewear and edgy haircuts to palpable life. In black and white or full-blown color, her illustrations have been as beguiling on the front of MiuMiu dresses as they have been on advertisements for Bergdorf Goodman, while a new series of collage-based artwork is debuting in March.
Watkins has always worked behind the scenes and out of the limelight for high-profile clients such as MAC Cosmetics, Valextra and H&M, as well as The New Yorker, Vogue and Elle. She began her career as a young artist in New York, cramped into the communal living quarters of the YMCA before catching her break designing weekly beauty ads for Barneys in the New York Times Style section. “At the time it was the coolest store ever,” Watkins recalls of Barneys in the early 1990s. “It was a great time to be in New York.”
Since then she’s lived in Stockholm, Paris and, for the last six years, with her husband and two small children in Milan. “I actually like Milan,” she says, debunking the city’s undeserved reputation as a creative death trap. “I get a lot of inspiration here. Even in this apartment—it’s very exotic for someone like me.”
Watkins grew up in a small village an hour and half outside of Stockholm. “There was nothing cosmopolitan or sophisticated about it, which is good I think,” she says. “It worries me for my kids. I don’t think it’s bad for your creativity to grow up in a very quiet environment. I think it’s better. Stimulation is good but if you have too much you don’t hear what’s inside you.”
Watkins’ elegant fourth-floor apartment doubles as her work studio. After scooting the kids off to school, she shuts the two old-fashioned wooden sliding doors that join the living and dining rooms, closing herself off in a working wonderland in the latter. At night, her work table gets repurposed for dinner with the family.
While Watkins’ preferred medium is an Artline thick and juicy 0.5 Drawing System pen, lately she’s picked up a pair of scissors and began a new series of cut-paper collages. Although they are less trend-centric than her literal fashion illustrations, the collages are nonetheless informed by clothing. “I’ve been a little bit fed up with fashion recently,” the stylish artist admits. “So I went back to what I like most about it—shape, silhouette, color and volume.”
The abstract artwork will go on exhibit in Stockholm on March 20th and will be published in Conversations and Illustrations, a book Watkins conceived with her best friend, the Swedish stylist Naomi Itkes and graphic designer Stina Daag. The book features prominent Swedish women’s quotes on values, integrity and creative inspiration, as well as Watkins’ artwork. “This is how I used to work before computers,” she says of the striking collage pieces. “It’s a little bit like going back to my roots as an illustrator.”
– J.J. Martin