Life drawings: Illustrator Megan Hess on the story behind the artist

Milan. Paris. London.
Michelle Obama. Kate Moss. Gwyneth Paltrow.
Prada. Louis Vuitton. Christian Dior.
Vanity Fair. Time Magazine. Vogue.
Palazzo Versace. Bergdorf Goodman. Monte Carlo Beach Club.
No, we’re not outlining our dream list of people and places (although this is indeed the truth), but rather – above relays a look at just some of the locations and clients that illustrator Megan Hess has worked with. And this is only a small selection.

Since been “discovered” in 2008 when she designed the book cover for the New York Times best-seller Sex And The City Megan has gone on to become one of Australia’s major success stories. With a career that tantalises visions of fantasy, we sat down with the illustrator and author to discuss everything from getting her first big break to her recent collab with Shoes of Prey and all that lies in between.

How did you get into illustration?
I always loved drawing as a child, but I never realised you could actually be a fashion illustrator for a career. So I just drew every day, and that was the thing I loved to do as a child. When I left high school, I studied graphic design more so because I thought that was a career in the artistic world that I could actually get paid for. I started in graphic design and then I eventually made my way into illustration, and then eventually to where I really wanted to work which was fashion illustration.

What was the career path of this evolution?
After studying graphic design, I worked as an art director. I worked in a lot of different creative agencies in a lot of different roles. In one of the jobs that I had as an art director, at Liberty department store in London, we had a lot of projects that needed to be illustrated. Rather than commission someone, I said to my boss: “Could I actually illustrate this?” And so that was the beginning of me making the transition from a graphic designer to an illustrator.

I then worked for about a year and a half as an art director, but also taking on every single illustration project that came my way. And then I had enough illustration projects that I could do that full-time. But none of it was what I really wanted to do, which was work on beautiful fashion projects and things like that. My big break came when Candace Bushnell commissioned me to do the cover of Sex And The City. When that cover came out, I was also commissioned to illustrate all her other covers. They were released in New York and all around the world on the same day on billboards in Times Square and on taxi tops and buses. And that’s really where my work was shown to the world for the first time. I got an amazing agent in New York after she saw my work, and from that moment I started doing illustrations for Chanel, Dior, Tiffany & Co, and Vanity Fair and I’ve been really busy ever since.

What have been some of your career-defining moments?
Definitely when I got my big break. Since then there’s been a lot of projects that have really challenged me, but sometimes the harder projects and the more challenging ones are the ones that you feel most satisfied when you get to the end of them. I’ve been commissioned to illustrate an animation for Prada in Milan that was a really exciting project, and it was just a great creative experience collaborating with them; from my little studio to them in Milan! Other moments have been illustrating live for Fendi that was an incredible experience. Another one was creating illustrations for Dior Couture, animations for Salvatore Ferragamo, Cartier for Paris Fashion Week… almost everything I get to work on these days are dream projects and projects that I dreamt of working on in the very beginning.

What inspires your drawings?
I’m very inspired by a lot of different things, it depends what it is. If I am creating a new print collection that I would then sell in my own online shop and have in the gallery I just take inspiration from whatever it is in that moment that I’m feeling really inspired by. Often I’m inspired by things I’ve seen when I’m travelling. I think travel is the biggest form of inspiration because you see so much architecture, people, everything from street style to different fashion and trends that are happening all around the world. It’s kind of a collective form of inspiration.

You’ve worked with the likes of Michelle Obama and Candace Bushnell. What was that like?
Working with Candace Bushnell was incredible and she remains a mentor to me today I love her enormously. Drawing the portraits of Michelle Obama was a highlight in terms of career because I admire her enormously as a person. I was terrified of getting the portraits right! I had to do 10 in total. She wanted them to be very much true to how she looks, true to what her office looked like in the White House (this is when they were in government) and it was challenging. I had to draw her children as well at one point. A lot of my fashion illustrations are completely imaginary and the characters are completely made up, so portraits are a completely different ballgame. They take a lot more work; a lot more concentration because they have to actually look like someone. So that was a really challenging project, but one that was extremely satisfying when I got to the end and felt like I’d done a pretty good job. I felt a great sense of accomplishment when I finished that.

You’ve experienced and been part of so many incredible projects, but have there been any super tough times?
Definitely. Before I was commissioned to do the cover for Candace Bushnell, I was literally living paycheck-to-paycheck. I was working really hard on a lot of soul-destroying projects everything from horse manuals to pizza-topping illustrations. I had to take every single illustration project that came along to pay my rent. Everything up until I had my big break, I was struggling in a career-sense and definitely felt like giving up on it before that moment.

What does a normal day look like for you?
No day is ever exactly the same. When I’m in the studio, I get up in the morning, get my children up and ready for school, breakfast, and out the door. Luckily my studio is just metres from my home, so I walk down to the studio and it’s really nice to have a separate space to work in. Once I get into the studio, I’m probably working on about 10 to 15 different briefs all over the world on any given day. Some are small projects which just include or involve one small illustration, others might include a series of 10 to 15 illustrations that then need to be animated the full scope of work. Each project varies in scale and size and level of detail, but there’s always about 10 to 15 on at one go.

If I’m not in the studio, then I’m travelling. If I’m travelling, I could literally be anywhere in the world depending on what the project is. I might be in the Middle East doing something with Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, I could be in London doing something with Dior Couture, or could be in Paris doing something with L’Hotel it really varies depending on what the project is.

Just one of the incredible illustrations found on Megan’s Instagram: @meganhess_official

How much time do you spend illustrating?
A lot! When I’m travelling, I’m not so much illustrating, I’m more just getting quick sketches to then come back and illustrate properly in the studio. But nine to five, Monday to Friday I’m pretty much illustrating in the studio.

Do you find you get to keep it to 9 to 5, or does this sometimes blow out?!
I used to work all hours, and the hardest thing is to not work all hours when you do the type of thing that I do. But I really try and keep it to Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 although I’ll often have to still finish off some things on the weekend. My goal in life is to just get it done from Monday to Friday, 9 to 5.

What work goes into creating one or your illustrations?
It really varies. Some illustrations might be very quick and it’s just a sketch of an object or one person, whereas other illustrations will take much longer. For example, I’m the artist in residence for the Oetker Collection which is a collection of masterpiece hotels and every one of their illustrations has probably the highest level of detail in all of my work. It has hotels in the background, it has very detailed interiors, and then it has lots of different people scattered throughout the foreground. That type of illustration takes the most amount of time, and could take anywhere from a week to a couple of weeks to get those illustrations finished. The illustrations I do for my Instagram I always do a Friday illustration and a Monday coffee most times I’ll give myself 15 minutes to draw those. It’s a massive difference in timing depending on what I’m working on.

What do you do to switch off?
To me, it’s hanging out with my husband and kids and just grabbing a coffee or travelling somewhere, reading a book, seeing friends, cooking… just doing anything that is separate to illustrating. I think you always need that perspective – you can’t be creating 24/7 or you lose sight of what you’re actually working on. Something other than illustrating is how I wind down.

Megan models a pair of the gold heels she designed for Shoes of Prey

You’ve recently collaborated with Shoes of Prey on a shoe collection. Can you talk me through the collaboration?
This collaboration was pretty much every girl’s dream come true to collaborate and create your own collection of shoes. As a brand, I think they’re incredible. I love the creative aspect of Shoes of Prey, the fact that anyone can go online and really tailor a pair of shoes to exactly what they want. For my collection, I really wanted them to be all gold because that’s very much a signature thing of my work in terms of accessories. I really love gold and I love it in a highlight sense. So we decided to do some really fun sparkly flats, I’ve got a higher pair that are very much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and then I’ve got a pair with a bow… they’re very feminine. It’s been a really great collaboration; a lot of people that have bought my prints and have always loved my work were really excited to see this extension of my designs into a shoe collection.

Can you see yourself getting into more fashion design?
I actually think no. I’ve worked with a lot of fashion designers and I know how difficult it is. I know how intense the cycles are that you need to maintain to do it, and I think that specific form of design is probably not something that I would get into although I love collaborating with fashion designers. I love working with it on the fringe without actually being a fashion designer.

What is your top tip for someone wanting to get into illustration?
A lot of students ask me how can they find their particular style, and I always say to them “if you just keep drawing, your style will actually find you”.

Where should we expect to see your career in five years’ time?
I never know how to answer this question! Honestly, if I was still working in my studio of a day and still able to work on the types of luxury projects that I work on, and still able to create all my own print collections and different things I liked to create then I’ll be really happy.

Main image: @MeganHess_Official

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