Liselotte Watkins Falk: Willpower and wild imagination

A lot of kids in my class drew better than I did. It is just that I wanted to do it so badly.

Illustrator Liselotte Watkins Falk grew up in the Swedish countryside. She has been drawing since an early age and can not imagine herself doing anything else for a living. She would not call herself talented though, instead she prefers to portray herself as having “willpower combined with a wild imagination”.

– I was surrounded by grownups who believed in me and encouraged me. For example, I remember my mathematics teacher saying: “ She is not that good at maths but at least she knows how to draw”. I guess a lot of kids in my class actually could draw better than I did. It is just that I wanted to do it so badly. For as long as I can remember I have had this sense for shapes and colours. I quickly understood how I could transform something that I see into a drawing, Liselotte explains.

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Now, at the age of 42, Liselotte has been working as an illustrator, stylist and set designer for around two decades. She has lived in New York, Stockholm and Paris. For the last six years her hometown has been Milan. Here, she resides in a grand 1920’s Milanese apartment with her husband Jonas Falk, their kids Wim and Ava and a lovely Dachshund named Hundis. The apartment is also her studio and she is currently working on 23 large pieces that will be exhibited at the restaurant Riche in Stockholm during fashion week, end of January.

– Normally when I work with illustrations for fashion magazines the sketches are almost like photographs. They are very accurate and close to reality and they also get digitally finished by me. When I started to make the images for this exhibition I was not planning on showing them to anyone at first. I just wanted to work in a more abstract and non-digital manner. There is not really a theme, as far as I can see for the moment, but just non-figurative bodies, which together with the faces I have drawn come to form these women.

The pictures consist of different coloured pieces of paper that Liselotte mount on to a white background until they eventually form the shape of a body. The paper cutting creates piles of paper and Liselotte has noticed that she often finds herself using a piece that was originally designated for the bin. 

– This is why I like working in this manner. Small mishaps end up being a part of the final artwork. That never happens for me when I work digitally so it boosts my creativity and the process of buying the material is a pure joy in itself. Here in Milan the tradition of craftsmanship is strong and they really love their paper. When you first visit a shop you might encounter a certain amount of suspicion. However, when they realise that you are serious and dedicated you will eventually find yourself in some dusty room together with an old man digging around in large piles of paper, she says.

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Liselotte works with all kinds of clients, such as fashion brands, department stores and magazines. For Swedish Elle she sometimes draws entire editorials where she will do everything from choosing models, garments and styling to deciding the look for hair and makeup. In order to prepare herself she photographs the model in different poses, in which the model pretends to be wearing the garments that Liselotte will later draw on to the body. She needs the photographs in order to get the model’s facial expression right.

– I have always studied fashion photography in order to learn how you can work with different poses and most importantly, how you get the eyes to look alive. To capture a moment is actually easier being a photographer compared to being an illustrator. I want to create a presence and a personality in the person that I am drawing. There has to be something there, in the gaze. I really like it when people tell me that my characters seem to have a real life. I think that is because in life I tend to gravitate towards people with an obvious personality.

Liselotte likes to read biographies and often finds herself completely captured by someone’s life story. Recently she kind of obsessed around Marchesa Luisa Casati, a modern Italian woman who lived an extravagant life at the turn of the century. She was an artist muse and said herself that she wanted to be perceived as a living work of art. Sadly enough she burned all her money and died poor and alone in the streets of London. When it comes to style and modern day examples, Liselotte has always dreamed of having a consistent uniform and for that matter finds author Fran Lebowitz utterly inspiring.

– She has always looked exactly the same and that is wonderful. I like fashion but I am completely uninterested in consumption. Even if it is quite funny to follow how fashion shows will create different trends each season, I myself do not care about them when it comes to dressing. The concept of a uniform is therefore very appealing to me. My uniform consists of pieces in different shades of mostly blue and black. For example: jackets, pants, skirts and coats, in wool or some other thick material if it is winter. In summer I prefer cotton, linen and silk and I almost always wear men’s shoes or Nike Air Max’s. What is important to me is the silhouette being wider below the waste and never too perfect. The pants that I am wearing right now for instance, I bought them for like five euro at a thrift store and then I cut them off just above the ankle so that they are neither long nor short. I will also buy sweaters and patch the elbows. In that way I make the garments my own so to speak, greatly inspired by the classical book Cheap Chic: Hundreds of Money Saving Hints to Create Your Own Great Look, she says.   

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In general Liselotte believes that people buy too much stuff, understanding that one might find it fun to look trendy and cool but still stating the fact that we really have to stop comparing ourselves to others.

– Be inspired by the things you see, but be smart and work towards you owning the garments and not the other way around. Buy second hand and create your own look. I do not like cheap and newly produced garments. I mean if a sweater costs ten euro someone else has obviously paid a higher price along the way. This might sound boring but I think that it is a fact worth repeating. If you get this urge for buying something just try to relax and ask yourself – why? It is not a race, the one who buys the most is not the happier one. It does not work like that! 

When it comes to her own work Liselotte does not waste any time contemplating. She is self-critical and constantly striving towards being better.

– I hate looking back and never save any of my work. I just want to move forward and not dwell on the past. I work with much dedication but when the job is done I hardly ever think of it again. When looking back, I find it easy to be self-critical. I mean, of course it is good that I have been trying out new techniques and constantly challenged myself. However, I sometimes wish I had been more consistent, like the fashion illustrator Mats Gustafson. He has never done anything bad. But I am just not that talented. A simple fact that I have to swallow, she says smiling.

Each day aspiring illustrators contact Liselotte asking her advice and opinion. But as a matter of fact she herself has never had a structured plan for her career.  When she started out in the nineties there were few others she could compare herself to. She believes that it was a blessing that she could work and develop her style in her own little bubble, far away from the social media platforms of today, such as Instagram, where it is easy to loose yourself in self-doubt and comparison.

– My advice is that you have to be able to see what might bring you forward. Seize the right opportunities and be patient in finding your own style. Not everything will yield immediate success but somewhere along the line I believe eventually it will. Try to find out what you really want to say without thinking about what anyone else might expect from you. Do not always look for the confirmation of others. I for one could never start a project bearing in mind the result. I have to begin in a liberated and creative mood, allowing myself to follow my gut feeling without being too pragmatic or practical. It is not until further down the line that you have to get your stuff together.

Words by Rebecca Öhnfeldt

Images by Francesco Pizzo

Apart from working on her upcoming exhibition, Liselotte Watkins Falk can be seen in the December issue of the Italian edition of L’Officiel magazine, where her abstract ladies cover some eight pages carrying different designer bags. She also works with prints for a clothing company in Dubai and has a long-lasting cooperation with the Swedish brand Rodebjer, amongst others.