NEW YORK—When she was 7 years old, Katie Rodgers’ aunt threw in the towel on her engineering career to concentrate on being an artist. She also gave her niece some watercolor paints and taught her how to use them.
Katie’s siblings were also taught, but nobody took to painting the same way she did.
Fast forward to the present and take a look at Katie Rodgers’ Instagram where she posts time-lapse videos of painting fashion illustrations.
The watercolor technique leaves no room for mistakes. Once the pigment hits the parchment it is instantly absorbed, and unlike oil paint, it cannot be blended in, over and over again, for a smooth finish. Rodgers has learned to have a hand that is assured and light at the same time.
I met her in a small cafe near the Fashion Institute in Manhattan right after a recent snowstorm. The streets were slushy, and in a race to get to wherever they needed to be, New Yorkers had donned gumboots and somber colors, clutching protein shake flasks in one hand and totes that fit another pair of more presentable shoes in the other. The city is still buzzing in the aftermath of Fashion Week and so is Rodgers, but she keeps her eye on the whole circus from a safe distance.
She is wearing black, smiles a lot, and has the aura of someone who is in the right place, at the right time, doing what she loves most. She is fortunate enough to be able to create a world of beauty and, by default, inhabit that world for most of her working hours.
“I was interested in fashion since I was young, but I grew up in a small town in Georgia so I knew nothing about it,” she said.
Starting Out in New York City
Luxury apparel company Coach spotted her talent in 2009 and hired her to do fashion illustrations soon after she moved to New York City.
“It blew my mind when they reached out to me. I thought ‘Wow, this could be something.’ Because I had no intention of it being anything. I was just doing it for fun,” she said. “I never really thought that I should do art, because I thought I’d never get a job.
Her “plan B” was to study industrial design since it had the promise of employability—except she was always “a little bit freaked out by the saws” required to make the prototypes. “I liked the drawing part, but I didn’t like the building part, where I had to take my drawings and build it in wood or whatever,” Rodgers said.
Serendipity smiled on Rodgers again when she found herself studying fashion accessory design in Florence, Italy. A supportive professor got her tickets to the Milan Fashion Festival. She was only there for one semester, but the experience crystallized in her mind that the fashion industry was where she wanted to be.
Before moving to the Big Apple, Rodgers spent three years working for Reebok in Boston after her studies in industrial design. While working as an apparel designer, Reebok saw her potential as an illustrator and gave her increasingly more work to foster that talent.
From Fashion to Digital Fairy Tales
She counts an educational children’s application, the brainchild of Alicia Keys, as one of the more challenging projects to date. Rodgers had to illustrate the stories that were developed into cartoons. This is something she’s interested in pursuing and is already drawing animations in her spare time.
Big name designers are asking her to illustrate their shows and big brands contact her, not just for her talent but because they also see the mutual benefits of working with someone who has over 120,000 followers on Instagram.
But all of that rests on her talent and illustrations. I ask if she thinks that there is a revival in the genre of fashion illustration:
“I think that with everything being so digital, people appreciate the handmade quality of it. This is what is bringing it back,” she said.
It is true that by comparison to the fashion photography or digital graphics that we see in advertising, the hand painted stands out in refreshing contrast. But the advent of social media has also enabled artists like Katie Rodgers to make themselves seen and able to pick the plum assignments that are in line with their creative paths.
Fashion illustration is something that Rodgers produces almost compulsively, though no doubt with age and experience that may also change. She sees great potential in textile design and would also like to design wallpaper, among many other ideas.
Before we part she tells me that the day before, one of her paintings that she put hours of work into has just been ruined by the melting ice outside of her window—somehow the water got inside and totally ruined it.
Rodgers shrugs her shoulders and says smiling “Oh well …”
When I see her reaction, I weigh in: “Well there’s more where that came from.”
She explodes into girly laughter: “Yes, that’s right.”
And we can hardly wait to see them.
Some of Katie Rodgers’ New York City Favorites
Which fashion designer(s) do you like at the moment?
Delpozo is an absolute favorite of mine. Everything they send down the runway embodies what I strive to get across in my own work—it’s feminine, romantic, and whimsical, yet still captures something different, mysterious, and unique at the same time.
Do you ever paint or sketch places in New York City?
On occasion, but not too often. I find sketching outside of my space to be distracting sometimes … when you work out in the open you’re inviting people to watch and talk, and to me I need to be alone with my mind to get deep into my art. If I do sketch outside of my workspace, I’ll find a nice quiet spot in a park, somewhere serene and full of nature on a pretty day.
Where do you go for total relaxation?
A few places. I enjoy long walks through Central Park or going to a show or movie on my own. It’s incredible how much more involved you can get in a show when you’re by yourself. It’s the most relaxing and rejuvenating time. When I used to have a car, I’d go on random drives for hours—incredibly relaxing with the right music.
Your favorite food and coffee place.
What era or decade do you wish you could go back to in history?
The Roaring ’20s of course! I’m a huge jazz fan, and I think it would’ve been so much fun to experience jazz as it was happening and to see Louis Armstrong live! I love the fashion from the ’20s as well.
Favorite visual artist?
Degas. There’s not a piece of his that I’m not completely in love with—they never get old.
Favorite music to listen to while painting?
I prefer music without lyrics while I paint, like jazz, classical, etc. For the past few years though, I’ve been completely in love with movie soundtracks. They tell the stories on their own and let my imagination make up the visuals. Some of my favorites are the Finding Neverland soundtrack, Hugo, Pinocchio, Atonement, and Ruby Sparks. Some of the composers are Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, John Williams, Philip Glass, Rachel Portman, Hans Zimmer, etc.
Where do you want to be in 10 years time?
I’m not sure where exactly I’ll be, but more importantly, I hope to feel the same way I do right now. Excited about my work, inspired, and passionately happy about what I do with the days I’m given on this earth.