Image courtesy Martha Napier
Interview

Martha Napier

02.16.15

What do Grace Coddington, Bill Cunningham, and Linda Fargo have in common? They have all been captured in fashion action through live illustrations by artist Martha Napier. Wind, snow, sleet – nothing comes between Martha Napier and her watercolors. She’s the chic, daring blonde sitting outside Lincoln Center with her paints and paper. What started as a lark — capturing the fashion crowds entering the shows — has become a seasonal ritual. Martha’s keen eye for fashion was honed as a designer for Michael Kors, her style finessed by watching her dear Grandma, the most fashionable woman in Palm Springs, and her painting perfected at Parsons The New School for Design. You can catch her this week at her Lincoln Center “studio,” and, if you are lucky, she may capture you on canvas!

Interview

How did you make the leap from designing at Michael Kors to illustrating?

Actually, I have always been an illustrator—or at least, for about ten years now. While I was designing womenswear at Kors, I often spent nights illustrating for clients. I like to get my hands dirty—using paint, gouache, markers, you name it. At that point, my business was strictly generated by word of mouth. But there was enough momentum there, that it gave me pause to think “what if?” I made a very difficult decision to leave a company and a team that I had grown to love, and decided to invest in my own destiny. Nothing was going to happen in the universe to help me make this decision—it was up to me. The actual process of apparel design and illustration is surprisingly similar. I use the same “creative tools” to develop a beautiful illustration, as I would approaching designing for a season’s collection. The only real difference is now, my hands are covered in paint by the end of the day, and I love that!

When did you make your first appearance at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week at Lincoln Center?

My first “appearance” at New York Fashion Week was a complete accident. I lived near Lincoln Center and decided to venture out of my comfort zone by taking my ‘studio outside,’ and setting up shop in front the entrance to the show. I was literally sitting outside, on the pavement, in the freezing cold. I had NO idea I would receive the response that I did, and within moments of quickly sketching a few of the street style looks in watercolor, I had developed an audience of photographers, bloggers, media, and the curious passerbys. I decided to stick with it, and have now continued to ‘live illustrate’ at both New York Fashion Weeks, as well as other high-end events, making ‘live illustration’ a key element in my business.

What is it that you love about illustrating live at fashion shows and events?

Live-illustrating for events is something I particularly love doing because it allows me not only to paint from life (always better than photos!), but also, allows me to interact with those in attendance. It’s part documentary, part entertainment. People will come up to me, and ask me about my process, my background, etc., and I will hold a conversation with them while continuing to paint the scene. I find that the pressure to capture a moment quickly, challenges me to get my ideas onto paper, FAST. I have less time to over-analyze, and am forced to make visual decisions immediately. The process results in super fresh, whimsical work—a totally different approach than sitting in my studio and working from photographs.

How quickly can you illustrate a fashion or event moment?

So now, it takes me about 30 seconds to two minutes, depending on the look, and the detail I am trying to achieve. The ‘real answer,’ however, to many people’s surprise, should be something more like ‘several years.’ Truth be told, I am able to illustrate quickly because I’ve had LOTS of practice – it’s taken me a long history of both formal education (Parsons), and self-teaching, and frankly, lots of trial and error. Watercolor often has a ‘mind of it’s own,’ so I try to allow the medium to do it’s job, while I still do mine—some of my favorite pieces are when I’ve given up control, and allowed the medium to speak for it’s self (unexpected colors mixing, splotches of paint, drips and blobs to make a beautiful composition). In my studio however, an illustration might take me two, four hours or even several days, depending on the subject and composition. What’s great about capturing moments, is it forces me to get the idea down fast. The result is a new kind of freshness and simplicity, that I find refreshing.

How do you assess and interpret a person’s style and personality so quickly?

It’s pretty simple, actually. I like people. I’ve been told I’m a sensitive person to begin with (still trying to grow that thicker skin), but as it turns out, when you’re an artist, being sensitive is really an advantage. I can read people pretty quickly, and with years in fashion, my eye naturally notices what people are wearing, and how they put themselves together. It’s also all about that attitude. If someone is standing with confidence, they better be illustrated that way, tenfold.

What was your favorite NYFW encounter? Is it a tie between Bill Cunningham and Linda Fargo?

Ha! Yes, I think I’d have to say it was a tie, though my experience with Bill Cunningham was pretty special, and one I’ll never forget. It was outside the Michael Kors runway show actually, and I was just painting, sitting on the sidewalk, while the other photographers bounced around trying to capture the celebrities, editors and bloggers as they walked in. Suddenly, I became aware of a man in a blue coat (!) pointing his lens towards my direction. It was Bill! An icon in his own right, I kept on painting, but quietly freaking out inside! What a major, and totally unexpected moment! Two weeks later, I was featured in the New York Times, Style Section. Just another ‘pinch me’ moment.

How do you combine your sense of humor with color so effortlessly?

Color is everything. I can’t get enough of it! My palette is always full of bright hues, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think the humor comes through more in style. I’ve been told my work is very whimsical. I try to balance whimsy with a sophisticated hand, to create work that is both fresh, and approachable. Fashion, in my opinion should be fun—never too serious—a tool, to increase the beauty in one’s life, and give confidence in self-expression. If I can capture that same confidence in my illustrations, then I’ve done a good job.

Why do you think that illustration is so in fashion at the moment?

Yes, it’s a great time to be an illustrator. I honestly think it has a lot to do with the fact that we are so bombarded with images today. With so many people having smart phones, and that’s just one of their devices (!)—we see so many photographs every single day. Brands are realizing they need to find a new way to communicate with their customers, which will stand out and also be memorable. Illustration does this—and I would argue, also creates an emotional connection with the viewer. Illustration begs you to think about the artist who created it, as the presence of the hand drawn element reminds you of that human touch. I think this is what makes it precious and “in vogue” for the moment—and I’d be willing to bet, here to stay.