Artist of The Week: Blair Breitenstein
You’ve probably seen her smudgy-eyed, watercolor fashion illustrations reposted on Instagram, flipping through Vogue, or on a tube of Fresh Soy Face Cleanser. Having worked with the big names like Oscar de la Renta, Gucci, and Prada, Blair Breitenstein has a knack for pulling viewers into her colorful world. In the midst of a rainy fashion week and running errands, we caught up with the New York-based illustrator to learn about her process and what she’s currently working on.
So first off, you’re in New York, you’re currently based there—how are you involved in fashion week; what’s on your agenda this weekend?
The past two seasons, so September and February, I did all cities, which was truly a dream come true; but this season is much more relaxed. The only thing I’m working on right now is portraits for a really small, intimate Carolina Herrera dinner hosted by Karlie Kloss.
Amazing. And you’re from Mercer Island, right? When did you move out to the East Coast?
I moved to New York about four years ago. I’m from Seattle. In college I didn’t major in art, it was my minor in college, but I didn’t go to an art school. I studied communications, and I always loved drawing, and when I graduated from college I just started using Tumblr to post my artwork. I no longer have an account, but it really built my confidence in sharing my artwork. I had an Etsy shop, and I started using Instagram. I think that was the platform that changed my life, because with Instagram I was able to tag people in the industry, and it just gave me the ability to reach fashion houses that I wouldn’t have normally been able to before that social platform existed.
Do you remember the first message, or like, or comment on Instagram that you couldn’t believe?
I would love when any brand that I would tag would regram me. A story that I always tell, and that really sticks out to me is when I tagged Oscar de la Renta in a post, and a couple days later their PR team reached out to me and they were like, “Hey, we saw your drawing of our past collection on Instagram, and we’d love to invite you to the show.” It was just such an immediate reaction that I got from that post. So I was like, “I wonder if I do this more often and tag more designers, and more PR people, if I can get invited to more shows and get more work.” That was definitely a defining moment.
Was that the first project you were commissioned to do?
I remember six editors from Harper’s Bazaar chose their favorite looks from fashion week, and I drew those for their website—I think that was one of my first.
How do most of your collaborations work? Your work is very spontaneous. I read that you don’t use pencils and that you don’t use erasers when you’re creating. How much freedom do you get to create what you want when you’re doing a commissioned piece?
It totally depends on the brand, I think the trick to making it work for everyone is working with brands that are in my style wheelhouse. So working with MAC Cosmetics, which is a very quirky and colorful brand, they let me do what I wanted with my markers and my pastels. As long as I work with a brand and can identify with their style, it’s not an issue being spontaneous; they appreciate that spontaneity. And if I am working with a brand that’s a little bit less quirky, it’s a really collaborative process. I don’t change my approach, but it will just take longer. I don’t use pencil, and I don’t edit digitally, so it will take many more times to get something right.
In terms of the look of your work, you’re often depicting women, with larger, interesting features; there is a sense of drama. Does this exaggeration translate to other parts of your life or would you say it’s more of an outlet?
“Outlet” is a really good way to put it actually. Really exaggerated looks give me a way to use color in an interesting way. I love color and I love shapes, so I find inspiration in the beauty industry, but personally, I don’t really wear makeup. It’s definitely an outlet; it’s a way for me to be a part of that world that I love, but not be fully in it. I want to be a part of this beauty world because I think it’s artistic and fascinating, but it’s also not who I am physically.
Where’s your favorite place to work?
I work at home, in my living room, on the floor.
Do you have to have music playing or like a cup of coffee in hand? What is the perfect scenario?
Perfect scenario is having cold brew basically every morning. I drink a lot of coffee; it helps me focus. Everything else doesn’t really matter. When I’m drawing, I can really work in any type of atmosphere. My roommate will come into the living room and turn on a movie, and I can still sit there and draw. As long as I have coffee, I’m fine.
Do you work from reference photos?
Not totally—thank God for the Instagram “Saved” feature. It’s usually a collection of photos that I’m inspired by. I think it’s really important that you don’t work directly from a reference photo. You can end up with a really great product if you look at something, put it away, and then add your own spin onto what you remembered, so it’s not exactly the picture.
Typically how long does it take you to create one of the pieces?
I would say fifteen minutes to two hours, and that is based on whether it’s something I’m doing for myself or for Instagram, or whether it’s for a client. With clients, it always takes more time because they have revisions or some restrictions, and that can kinda get in my head a little bit. It’s more like a puzzle; I have to figure out what I’m going to do. A lot of the drawings that I do on Instagram are much shorter. I get in this headspace, and I can do them really quick. It’s also important to know when to leave it alone. I don’t think that I have to work on something for a really long time for it to be my best piece. Usually, the quicker I do it, the better it turns out.
So what are some of your favorite tools?
My favorite thing in the world are Tombow markers.
What have you learned about art when it comes to business? What were you surprised to find out about that merging of the worlds?
Art can fit into a lot of different spaces. I didn’t go to art school because I was under the impression that I wouldn’t be able to do anything with that skill. Now I see that there is art direction and creative direction; well there are creative teams with every company from a business standpoint, I think confidence is really important. Having the confidence to make money from something that is really personal and emotional can be really hard and intimidating, but it is a skill that not everyone has. So you should be charging for it, putting restrictions and giving terms—if you want it to be in business, it is a business at the end of the day. You’re adding value, and I think that’s important.
What’s your dream collaboration?
I would love to work with Miu Miu in some capacity. I really identify stylistically with that brand; the colors, the whimsical side—there is always a tinge of vintage in the clothing and usually the campaigns. It’s very fantasy to me. I remember they did something recently with a new fragrance they came out with and it had all these white fluffy cats…. Miu Miu always creates an alternate dreamlike world.