The world's most renowned starlets through the eyes of fashion's favorite portraitist

Story highlights

  • Fashion illustrator David Downton has painted the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Dita von Teese
  • His new book, David Downton: Portraits of the World's Most Stylish Women, features his favorite portraits
David Downton

(CNN)For the last 20 years, David Downton has won the hearts of some of the world's most glamorous women.

The London-based artist is one of the fashion world's most renowned contemporary portraitists, capturing the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Diane von Furstenberg and Catherine Deneuve for premier magazines (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar...the list goes on), and London's historic Claridge's hotel, where he's been the artist in residence since 2011.
    This fall, he has dug into his star-studded archive for his first monograph. David Downton: Portraits of the World's Most Stylish Women (Laurence King) brings together 46 of the world's modern style icons, from director Sofia Coppola and burlesque performer Dita Von Teese to octogenarian model Carmen Dell'Orefice.
    "What unites them is tenacity, humor, strength of character, individuality and -- of course -- style," says Downton.
    Style, yes. But what exactly he means by that ... well, he's not quite sure either.
    "I'm not sure I could describe what makes a woman stylish; you have it or you don't," he says. "The concept is easier to draw than to put into words."
    Creating the book required sifting through and deliberating between hundreds of sketches, paintings and drawings, before narrowing the final selection to almost 200 without getting repetitive.
    "My rule of thumb was every drawing had to earn its place and say something to me -- if to no one else -- about the moment in which it was done."
    A portrait of Sarah Jessica Parker, say, might bring to mind a barefoot sitting in a Claridge's suite. A black-and-white illustration of "lynx-eyed" Charlotte Rampling? An easy-going, stylist-free session at Paris' Hôtel Costes. Donatella Versace ("D-I-V-A," he writes) means laughter and a lit Marlboro Red.
    And then there's the artistic quality of the images themselves. Most of his watercolors are intentionally lacking in detail, counting on surrounding white space to fill in the blanks, and singular points of interest -- an intense gaze, a scarlet mouth, a sharp jaw -- draw the viewer in. This might explain why many of his subjects have strong, distinctive faces.
    "Pretty does not work in a drawing. That is for photography. Strong features, long lines, and a sense of self all inform the drawing and make it fly," Downton says.
    But the portraits he cherishes most are those of his repeat subjects, women like Dell'Orefice and Von Teese, who have become close friends over the years.
    "The difference that makes, as with any working relationship, is that they know the rhythm, the shorthand. You want the same thing, ultimately, from the drawing," he explains. "It makes for a great creative harmony."