An Interview with Illustrator Pipa Johnston

I met Pipa Johnston last year when she had returned from interning in New York. She’s lovely, cute and very talented. Pipa then interned with me for a short while before heading back to the US. Pipa’s now back in London and we had a chance to catch up!

When did you first become interested in fashion illustration?
At the age of 12 I told my family that I was going to be a fashion designer. I was going to study at Central Saint Martins, and I was going to live between Paris and London. That didn’t quite happen!! But the love for drawing fashion designs did begin there, and I filled scrap books with my ideas. However, it was always the drawing itself that I loved; capturing a powerful or intimate expression on a woman’s face; finding a fresh mix of colour; deciding what details to put in and what is better left bare. The final garment designs, I later realised, were not the object of desire for me.

Do you have a signature style?

My work tends to combine photorealistic drawing with bold brush strokes or ink splatters. I usually start off with just a pencil, bringing to life the features I have decided to highlight, (the eyes have always been a focus point for me). But I then like to add a new dimension which makes the illustration more unusual or exciting – often this will be a hit of colour, or a graphic element added in Photoshop.

What are your inspirations?
Having had experience in both fashion design and styling, I will always be inspired by photoshoots I see, whether new or old. The aspects that make a photograph successful are often the same for an illustration – the balance of light and dark, the model’s pose and expression, the garments and accessories, an unexpected prop or background feature. So I am constantly sourcing magazines, ripping out pages that I’m drawn to, even if I’m not sure why. Living in London is an amazing source of inspiration, both inside and outdoors. Of course the exhibitions and buildings that are on view are staggering, but the array of people wandering the streets is just as mesmerizing to me. London style is so brave and charismatic.

Where did you study?
Having completed school at Marlborough College, I immediately began my foundation course at Central Saint Martins, and went on to specialise in Fashion Design and Marketing. I had a year out, to gain experience in the industry, where I worked with Derek Lam in New York. The run up to the fashion shows was crazy, but the adrenalin rush as we stood backstage dressing the models made all the long hours worth it. Thank god for coffee and chocolate – without those I’m not sure I would have got through it!

Are you enjoying your work?

I adore what I am doing at the moment, and I am very excited about the future ahead of me. As I am freelance I am able to work with all sorts of different creatives, and produce such a variety of illustrative pieces. Having only started my website in January, I have created works for magazines, party invitations and table illustrations, t-shirt designs, commissioned portraits and wall art, and I am about to begin doing a series of illustrations for a new personal concierge business.

Will you stay in London?
I will certainly remain in London for a year or so, but if an opportunity came up which took me to New York I would find it very hard to resist!

What are your career highlights to date?
Whilst working at Derek Lam I was asked to design a signature ram’s head metal piece that could be used on bags or belts. I came up with a variety of options, but I hadn’t realised how major this design was going to be. For the A/W 2010 show, my ram’s head was featured on bags/clutches/wallets/belts and has continued to be the label’s trademark for the coming seasons. When I decided that illustration was the direction I wanted to focus on, I sent out some examples of my work to magazines. A month or so later I received a call from my best friend in New York, telling me that one of my images had been published in Nylon. I was ecstatic! I am looking forward to June, when both Computer Arts Magazine and Pocketful Illustration Magazine are featuring me and some of my illustrations.

Where do you like to shop?
If I’m honest, I have to be very strict on myself when I’m out and about, as the craving to go shopping is very high! I am a sucker for highstreet stores such as Zara and Topshop, but it never feels as good as finding a one off piece from a vintage shop or a market stall. I love searching through all the goods in Portobello market or Spitalfields market, and there are some great pieces to be found in Carnaby street too. When in New York I make sure I allocate a whole morning to Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market, where I have picked up some real wonders. At only 5ft 1, I have a weakness for heels, but that is something I am trying to tame!

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