Fendi, Karl Lagerfeld, Marie Claire, The New Yorker, Vogue — the names snuggling up to each other in António Soares’ portfolio are enough to make him one of the heaviest hitters in fashion illustration: but he has a very light touch. He says he began painting because he didn’t know how to write, he falls in love with the faces he immortalises in watercolour on paper more than with clothing, and this profession was never a plan for the future but rather something that happened randomly. No wonder: a first draft is always needed to get started in fashion and it’s in this super-perfected world in which we live that illustration — and António — find their essence in the chimera of the present: vulnerability.
You studied fine arts and painting at the Porto School of Fine Arts. When did you turn to illustration?
My entire childhood was spent in an interesting way. I remember things that fascinated me, and drawing was one of them. It didn’t matter if I drew well or badly. I liked it a lot, I took risks, I liked drawing lines and tearing paper. My mother was a primary school teacher and she asked me to draw for her. Drawing was always part of my life — and illustration is drawing. It’s a way for us to communicate; it’s what made me choose the course I took. At the time there was no drawing course, otherwise I’d have taken that. The illustrative aspect was always part of my investigative process, drawing for myself and also professionally for a schoolbook publisher at that time. Fashion illustration itself, this took time — it started more out of curiosity, from the time when I was invited to teach at Citex (now Modatex). I always liked fashion and I was responsive, but I never fell in love with fashion and it was never planned. It was an accidental path — Joana Borbon, director at the time, invited me to teach fashion illustration and fashion illustration techniques, which for me was quite exciting. I was already teaching drawing techniques, so it wasn’t very different because the techniques are already applied in the illustrative part, but the theme was different. Then I started researching and drawing for myself, experimenting and exploring, and things just began out of curiosity. It wasn’t — and still isn’t — my ambition to work with the label of a fashion illustrator. I really like what I do but I think I’m a volatile type, as long as things give me pleasure I like doing them.
When you started to work more closely in the field of fashion, did you feel the need to immerse yourself more deeply in this area?
Yes. I had the foundation for fashion illustration through classical painting, which is a narrative that illustrates behaviours, foods, architecture, religion and — of course — clothing. But there were no specific terms: there was an adaptation and it was very rewarding. I did a lot of research and soon got to know people who were working in this field. I asked them a lot of questions — Joana, Alexandra Moura — people with whom I have a good relationship.
What fascinates you about this area?
In the beginning it was the exploration, in an instrumental way, then I started getting a kick out of the adrenaline from the professional assignments given to me. Now I don’t get seduced by the rush, I like to do things calmly, although in this field it’s difficult. You need good time management, and even if you get that right, it’s still stressful and that cools the passion a bit. I started by doing portraits, portraits of people dressed by Portuguese designers, for my personal portfolio. And the internet did practically all the work. It was a project I cherished. From every edition of ModaLisboa and PortugalFashion I’d choose two or three collections, not the ones I liked most but the ones that had something I wanted to draw at that moment, the colour palette, the print, the type of dress that the woman I chose liked to “wear”… I was doing fashion-themed portraits.
I guess you started intuitively.
When you started, fashion illustration was virtually non-existent in Portugal…
There was, sort of — my contact with fashion was minimal, but I was always going into fashion via an indirect route as a “snob.” Here in Porto there was a shop called Barraca that I liked a lot, and for many years Código sold Portuguese designers. And there were times when I went past and got a kick out of certain clothes, and that’s how I came into contact with Portuguese design. It began to seduce me through the difference, the texture, there were very different things that have now disappeared like João Tomé and Francisco Pontes, an incredible duo who created men’s and ladies’ clothes. And it was in that shop that I began to browse through certain magazines — Capa was wonderful — and I ended up discovering the work of Júlio Vanzeler, who became my colleague at Citex. It was the first time I recall seeing the first fashion illustrator in print. We’re talking 2004/2005, when people were beginning to experiment with digital. I also remember a CTT book, a collection of stamps and postcards with illustrations by Portuguese designers like Alexandra Moura, Luís Buchinho, Osvaldo Martins — who’s incredible, and at the time I was amazed at his drawing — and fashion was already the theme.
Did you soon create your own narrative? Or was it a process that has evolved?
It was an accidental journey and it’s always experimental. But it’s never stopped being figurative. I love the figure, the classical aspect, making love to the face.
What does making love to the face mean?
It’s the way we touch ourselves, massaging the face at the end of the day and feeling ourselves. I don’t touch my own face like that, but I like to touch the face I’m painting like that.
Is that where it starts?
In the beginning it was always that way. A head. Designers will have to forgive me, but I never thought of them first. I compartmentalised the research process: I looked for my woman, I chose the type of dress, prints, colours, palettes. I tried to coordinate and it was successful. One of my first orders came from Joyce, a multi-brand group in Hong Kong, and they criticised me because they wanted the face to be less important than the clothes. And they were right: it was and still is my biggest flaw. But a face has to be exciting.
You mentioned Joyce. How did you start getting these international projects?
Always online. I had Facebook and Tumblr — it was out there. After the collections I’d send stuff to some, a few contacts I’d made, but the internet does its job.
What projects were you getting?
I’m very grateful to have work in this area. I was very lucky when there was a boom in illustration and things were popping up. A lot out there: China — I liked working with Vogue China a lot — Arabia, Dubai… Work started coming from unexpected places and getting to know these clients was very interesting. I learned a lot working with them because at that time I didn’t have a manager. I learned to manage timing, briefings. I knew nothing about budgets… I remember one time I received an email from The New Yorker asking for a portrait of a singer I didn’t know — Tove Lo — and that’s also the cool thing about the job, sometimes you get job offers from clients and projects you’re not familiar with, and it’s very rewarding. It’s a gigantic world. Luckily, outside photography there are people with vision and an interest in illustration.
From then on I started checking my spam (laughs) because a lot of job offers go to spam. They send an email at nine o’clock at night, Portuguese time, and they want the assignment ready two days later. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, I didn’t have a social life so as to be able to deliver. I don’t regret it, it was a pleasure to work. They’re very demanding clients but they’re also thankful and they give feedback. The work with Vogue China and Karl Lagerfeld changed my working style a lot — I learned to be less romantic, less “António”, and give customers what they want.
Can you list the highlights of your career?
I don’t like to make lists because I’ve really loved working with so many names who aren’t considered “top”.
What’s your definition of a good job?
When the client likes it. That’s the most satisfying.
Do you often look at work by other artists?
Yes, if not my life would be cultureless. Look at this year — how much was culture worth to us? Everything, in order to survive. We have so many artists… Listing some would seem like I’m excluding others. Going to a museum is enough for me. I’ll sit down in there and look at a painting. But fortunately we also have the internet and social media.
The advantages and disadvantages of social media have been widely discussed. Do you think they work for you or against you?
I think they’ve always worked for me, whether they’re used for good or bad, because it’s through social media that I’ve received a lot of work from abroad. They’ve shortened the distance between us and those we think of as big — and they’re not that big, they even respond! In the beginning I’d tremble when they responded. I see kids who like my work and do a print screen and stories when I give their work a like. It’s wonderful. I went through the same thing. We’re very close to our future client and he’s flexible, he speaks, he says good night and thank you.
What advice do you have for those young artists who want to take their first steps in illustration or are looking for a career in this field? What do they ask you?
They want to reach the top of the world, that’s the question they ask me. The only thing I say is they have to really like what they do, because it will show. And work hard. I worked hard — I still work hard! If I don’t paint every day my hand doesn’t work.
The fact that it involves using your hands as a work vehicle — is it a tool that has to be used or else it’ll rust?
The head thinks, if the hand doesn’t respond… It’s something I tell my students: our heads are always working, the difficult part is applying our hands. If our hand doesn’t get a workout… the communication fails. And I need this exercise. Some people run: I paint or draw lines. I try, even if it’s only for half an hour. I’m not a role model for anyone. I always said “this comes with time” — what is success? It’s so relative. Success for you isn’t success for me. I just want to work.
What’s your work method and creative process? Where does it start, what materials do you use, how do you know when your work is finished?
My work is all manual. I chose watercolour because it’s a material I really like. It’s a learning process, it dries easily, I can carry it in a backpack with paper. I’m infatuated with oil painting, with the colour and atmosphere of oil, but imagine painting illustrations with oil! I’d never be able to deliver to the client (laughs)! Afterwards I scan, clean, get into the digital part, Photoshop. Digital seduces me, but it’s still very experimental for me. It’s for my eyes only, not something I want to show to others.
In the modern world, where everything seems designed according to an idea of perfection, is illustration still essential because of its irregularities?
The fact that it’s not perfect is like it has my DNA. The way we slide and accentuate the brushstrokes differently makes us unique. It’s like writing. There must be few people or — I hope — only one with my pressure or lightness. It’s our identity.
Is it one of the reasons why you like what you do?
I still like what I do, I like the surprises that pop up when I have exciting jobs and clients. More and more I find myself running away from clothes a bit and getting sucked into the diversity of accessories — I really liked a job that came up from Fendi, some marvellous wallets. Jewellery is very difficult on an instrumental level, but it’s easy for me and I like it a lot because it relaxes me. What I like most about my work is that I’m able to learn. It’s a world that I already found extraordinary, but it never ends. It’s fascinating.
“Portuguese Soul” is ten years old — and in fashion we have a strong tendency to look ahead. Let’s take a look back. What has illustration given back to you?
It’s given me friends, which is nice. Very interesting people. Really cool stories. Thank God I make a living in this profession, I also give private lessons and I love it. It’s brought me inspiration. It brings me peace. Stress. It brings me life.
It was never my plan for the future. I’ve been lucky because it’s not an easy field. And it’s brought me happiness and love. I love what I do. It seems like I’m looking back, but it’s just like today — every day I feel like I’m starting out.
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