Deanna First Gives Voice to Fashion Illustration and What Inspires Her

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Deanna First, a NYC-based fashion and lifestyle artist, is inspired by David Downton, one of the world’s leading fashion artists, who has stated, “Paul Clay said that drawing is taking a line for a walk. I think fashion drawing is taking it dancing.” First exemplifies this concept in her artwork and in her style of live sketching, where she focuses on the fluidity of the feminine form in all of its beauty and grace as she seems to hear the music within each subject and is able to underscore it so that we can all tune in. Her ability to work in a variety of mediums, including pencil, charcoal, marker, and watercolor, as well as digital editing, along with her broad range of illustration styles, has led to her successful partnerships with such noted brands as Hermes, Diane von Fürstenberg, Alice + Olivia, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger, among many others.

Diane von Fürstenberg, who Deanna works with often, has famously noted that “the greatest natural enemy of women is insecurity.” First’s live sketching work combats this enemy as she creates “personal illustrations” that dazzle with crystals and pearls while illuminating the subject’s best features. While much of her work had been concentrated on these live events around the country, First tells us about her pandemic pivot, lessons learned, upcoming announcements, and her plan to expand her portfolio in the future. She also personally curates an art gallery wall using her favorite pieces!

Fashion Reverie: First, tell us a little bit about yourself and what makes you different from other artists?

Deanna First: I’m a NYC-based fashion and lifestyle artist originally from Cleveland, Ohio. I knew I wanted to be an artist since preschool and am so happy I am following my childhood dream! What sets me apart from other artists is my variety of styles. I can draw very realistically where I capture every detail (those can take a full day to complete) and I can also sketch very fast, in a more loose and artistic style, which takes only a few minutes.

Having several styles, I’m able to appeal to a variety of people. This comes in handy when clients book me since they can pick which style they want me to recreate the reference photo in. The magic is, even though the styles are quite different, you can still tell I created them and they somehow still look cohesive.

FR: What artists inspire you and how does their work make you feel?

Deanna First: I love artist David Downton. His work makes me feel transported to another time period—a more simple yet glamorous era. My senior collection was draped eveningwear so I really enjoy his use of movement and softness with watercolor and charcoal while illustrating the most fabulous women in gowns.

FR: What color palettes do you tend to gravitate towards and is this reflected in your work?

Deanna First: For my personal artwork that I would hang in my home, I love neutrals, soft blues, tans, blacks, and whites. Most of my pieces are for custom commissions so my personal style is not always reflected. It depends on what the client wants, but the palette ranges anywhere from bright and vibrant colors to muted tones. It just depends.

FR: You were creating art over ZOOM during the peak of the pandemic. A lot of your work is based on “personal illustrations.” How did the dynamic change when you are not in person? Do you think that this option is more difficult or do you think it has opened even more windows of opportunity for you? 

Deanna First: Most of my work was based on my live events—I would say 70% of my business was prior to the pandemic. It made me realize not to put all my eggs in one basket. I would do a few custom commissions in the past, but they were not something I heavily marketed since I was so busy with my sketch events. I still think most people like in-person sketching more than ZOOM, in my opinion. It’s opened a few doors, but my focus really isn’t on that as much since things are opening up again.

Something that has really taken off in the pandemic has been my custom matchbook illustrations. People can pick which restaurants or hotels they love and have them translated into a custom and memorable gift for anniversaries, birthdays, weddings, and more.

FR: You often illustrate attendees at in-person events for Diane von Fürstenberg and Alice + Olivia, and attempt to emphasize best features. How do you do this and what elements do you attempt to capture? Do you have any memorable stories where someone’s confidence was boosted by one of your illustrations?

Deanna First: If someone has really cool, curly hair I make it extra voluminous or if they are wearing unique glasses I might make them a little bigger so they pop off the page during my live sketches.

So, the features I emphasize could also be pieces I pull from their look. I also add pearls and mini crystals to most of my live sketches which gives guests a little surprise towards the end that they aren’t expecting. I try to keep each person’s sketch around 7 minutes so those small details really are crucial to helping the live sketch come together.

What’s great about offering live sketching at events is that not everyone wants to be photographed so this is a fun alternative from a photo booth where they still get to take home a memory from the event. Many people actually end up getting them professionally framed! In a few instances, people will come in and feel a bit shy about being sketched— especially if they are struggling with insecurities. I try to take the focus off of the actual sketch for a bit and get to know them while I’m drawing. By the time I’m done they forget they were being sketched and are always pleasantly surprised to see how I interpreted them. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard “I want to look like the sketch version” or “I’m flattered.” The goal is to have everyone smiling by the end of the process.

Deanna First x Anne Cate Collection image courtesy Deanna first on @Instagram

FR: You recently collaborated with Anne Cate to create a wallet and clutch collection with 4 printsJust Peachy, Chanel, Lady Liberty, and City Chic. What made you choose these 4 prints as one collection?

Deanna First: Yes! That was such a fun collection. We actually have another collaboration in the works as we speak that will be launching during summer, so stay tuned. City Chic was a custom commission done for Anne Cate and her brand. They actually have it hanging in their showroom as well and have been using it for marketing for their brand, in addition to the clutch collection.

I sent Anne a selection of my favorite sketches that I thought would translate well on the clutch. These were all existing pieces so I knew they would do great since I was already able to see how my audience reacted to them in the past. I also wanted them to be diverse enough so that they would appeal to a variety of audiences.

I think Just Peachy would be a fun vacation summer bag, though, to take your sun lotion, lipstick and mini journal. Lady Liberty is such a great gift if you are planning a trip to NYC or know someone who loves the Big Apple. This one is unisex so you can use it for packing/traveling/art supplies/passport … so many possibilities! Chanel is my personal favorite since I love the realism and muted classic tones.

FR: Philanthropy and the arts are often linked, many times with philanthropists donating to the arts. But we see that you, the artist, have used your talents to support other philanthropic efforts, such as City Harvest, Sneakers for Heroes, the Babies Heart Fund, and several animal rescue organizations. Do you feel you have a greater purpose as an artist and how does this tie into philanthropy?

Deanna First: I believe my purpose is art. It’s an bonus that I can use my talents to help others. The emotion and messages art evokes are sometimes more powerful than words. It has the power to connect to anyone regardless of their background, religion or language. I’ve always had a soft spot for animals, so I would love to do even more with animal organizations in the future and bring awareness to adopting pets and looking into cats being housed in basements in NYC without proper food and light. Tons of people don’t even know this is even going on, but many cats are being used strictly to catch rats and never see the light of day. It’s horrible and something I would love to bring awareness about to spur change.

FR: If you could build a gallery wall of about 6 to 10 pieces from your artwork, what pieces would you choose?

Deanna First: Oh, that’s a tough one.

Image courtesy of Deanna First

 “This is such a classic piece. It reminds me of my days in fashion design and the runway shows in the city. The muted tones bring all the emphasis on the details.”

Image courtesy of Deanna First

 “I love the sultry look of her red lips with the contrast of the black and white paint I used for the leaves.”

Image courtesy of Deanna First

 “I find myself always craving the ocean and nature. This piece reminds me to take a breather, cleanse my energy and spend time outdoors.”

Image courtesy of Deanna First

I did this piece a long time ago and it still always makes my favorites list. This sketch reminds me why I love using charcoal. She oozes confidence and is such an icon.”

Image courtesy of Deanna First

 “This piece is the definition of elegance and grace. I sketched this for “Christie’s Auction House” menu cards years back and it still brings such great memories.”

Image courtesy of Deanna First

 “This piece is a background to a piece originally commissioned by designer Adrienne Elliott. I would want to be surrounded by sketches that make me feel at peace and relaxed while in my apartment and this piece does the trick. There is something so soothing about the pale pink and green combination and overall color palette.”

Image courtesy of Deanna First

 “I love this piece because of the over the top sun hat. It was inspired by Blair Eadie (@blaireadiebee) and you can’t help but smile when looking at her style combinations. This one makes me daydream of packing my bags for a tropical vacation every time I look at it! I want to surround myself with art that makes me feel good.”

Image courtesy of Deanna First

 “These are always fun since you can mix and match your favorite restaurants into a custom piece of art. It’s a great conversation piece, which is why I would include it in a gallery wall.”

Image courtesy of Deanna First

 “This piece was a twist on a book cover I did for author Tasha Ray and I loved the movement! I feel free and weightless when looking at it.”

FR: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Deanna First: Yes! I’ve been in the process of doing a lot more book covers lately, so stay tuned for those releases. I am trying to connect to more publishers as well since I really do enjoy doing them. Regarding updates, I’m branching out into more lifestyle illustrations so I’m looking to draw new and exciting concepts, not just fashion and beauty related. I can draw food, restaurants, hotels, cars, animals—basically anything. I’m excited to switch things up a little bit in my portfolio this year!

To stay connected with Deanna First:

Follow Deanna First on Instagram

Visit Deanna First’s Website

—Tessa Swantek

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