Fashion Illustration 101

Sometimes I come up with style ideas for new projects, or styling details that I’d like to follow up on later.  The problem is that I have no way to record them – a textual description doesn’t capture the vision that’s in my head, and it means nothing to me weeks and months later.

Also, I look towards a potential future of creating garments for others – where it would be useful for both myself and the client to have a clear picture in our heads of what we’re working towards. So, I saw illustration skills of some sort as an important thing for me to effectively create original designs.

With those thoughts, I enrolled in the introductory class in Fashion Illustration at City College of San Francisco.  The instructor is Paul Gallo, whose classes I have taken before, and is an excellent instructor.  He has two classes in draping and bias design on Craftsy.  I had a great deal of trepidation leading into this class – I don’t really think of myself as an artist or illustrator – but I am familiar with Paul’s teaching style and figured if anyone would make this topic comfortable, he would be it.

The course was taught in a six-week intensive format, with three full days of instruction (including lab time) each week, plus drawing assignments as homework outside of class – usually six full illustrations to hand in at the start of each week, sometimes more.

The course began by introducing us to drawing female figures using a 10-head proportion – meaning the body is 10 heads tall from head to toe.  Classic human proportions are drawn in 8 heads, but the 10-head format for fashion illustration came into common use in the 1920’s, and elongates the figure from waistline to floor in an elegant way.

Our illustrations were all done from photo references – I spent a lot of time leafing through fashion magazines clipping out head-to-toe photos in various poses.  The photos gave us realistic poses to work from, and also allowed us to learn principles of weight distribution and balance.  A plumb line drawn through the model’s neck allowed us to see how weight is distributed in the pose, and helps avoid unrealistic drawings of people floating in the air or leaning in impossible ways.

From there, we learned how to draw details such as face, feet, hair and hands.  At first, we drew unclothed figures from front, side and back views so we could learn how the figure looks like from these angles.  Also, understanding the underlying figure from all these angles helps us learn to draw clothes that look like they are hanging on a body.

Here’s an example I did, using a photo from Laura Mae’s sewing blog Lilacs and Lace as the reference.  Laura Mae always does great shots of her creations from all angles, and I really like this vintage floral design.

First, the figure is gestured in pencil, using the plumb line and the 10-head scale as reference.  This figure can be saved as-is, and traced off to use for future drawings.

Then, the clothing is drawn over the figure, using colored pencils, markers, pens, or watercolor.  This particular drawing uses markers for the blue fabric and skin tones, colored pencils for the hair and green leaves, and a white gel rollerball for the rose petals.

We learned how to clothe the figures including realistic wrinkles, folds and shading, as well as how to render a wide variety of materials, such as suede, wool, velvet, denim, sheers, leather, patent leather, gold and silver, and fur.  Here’s some example showing the fabrics I drew, from midway through the course:

After our introduction to figure and clothes drawing, we learned how to draw the male figure, as well as draw structured garments such as suits and jackets for both men and women.

For our homework assignments, we taped a piece of tracing paper over top our drawing.  The instructor used this to draw in corrections and suggestions for improving our work.  It was very useful for me to improve my skill with figures and proportions going forward in the class.

Another aspect of working from photos as references is that you are not limited to rendering exactly what is in the photo.  Nor are you limited to using a single photo as your reference.  You might make an illustration that takes a pose from one photo, facial features from a second, and clothing details from still more references.  In this way you can make original fashion illustrations by combining elements.

Our final assignment was very open-ended.  We were encouraged to draw four illustrations inspired by fantasy, cosplay, red carpet, haute couture, avant garde – anything unusual, dramatic, over-the-top, or otherwise out of the ordinary.  Here are my four illustrations from the final.

Each of us laid out our illustrations on tables, and the entire class viewed each other’s work, discussed it, asked questions, and offered suggestions.


Though the compressed format made the class very demanding on my time and energy, I felt the intense focus really helped me progress and develop my drawing and illustration skills.

I surprised myself by what I was able to accomplish in the class. Though I am by no means producing professional quality illustrations, I am doing way better than I thought I could.  And I discovered I really enjoyed drawing.

Originally, I thought I would take only the first semester class, just to get the basic skills that I thought I needed.  Now I intend to take the second semester illustration class, though I haven’t finalized my decision yet in the face of the other classes I have signed up for in the fall semester.


If you would like to experience some of the class, Paul Gallo has a four-part series of videos on YouTube that go through the process of drawing a figure and coloring it.  I’ve included them below. The videos take about an hour total, and correspond to topics we covered in the first week or two of the class.

One thought on “Fashion Illustration 101

  1. Testosterone

    Paul Gallo isn’t simply a captive creation on the Craftsy compound? He’s teaching in real time, and in your ‘hood?!?!!!!!

    Michael, yours is a world chock-a-block with charm (any envy in my tone is purely habitual, not intentional).

    Those illustrations are the missing link between inspiration and materialization.

    One last question,

    Laura WHO??????????

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