The Australian Ballet

Drawing Wonderland

Our resident illustrator, the renowned fashion artist Megan Hess, has dreamed up all manner of marvels for our 2017 season. We caught up with Megan to talk ballet, inspirations and the joys of drawing by hand.

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What are your childhood memories of drawing?

I actually can’t remember not drawing. It was the one thing I loved to do, and I’d use it to relax and escape. I grew up with it. In primary school, I would draw my classmates. It’s very natural to me.

What attracted you to the world of fashion?

Even when I was very little, it intrigued me. I would look at illustrations of fashion – like the old sewing-pattern books – and I loved the idea of drawing fashion much more than I wanted to be a designer or make clothes. That led into me really enjoying drawing people, and creating the world in which I like to sketch today.

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Tell us about your relationship with ballet.

Like every little girl, I grew up loving to watch ballet. I’ve always seen the world of ballet from afar and just been mesmerised by it. Ballerinas, as subjects to draw, are captivating. They’re so elegant. It’s the movement as well as the costumes. A lot of fashion sketches are quite still. What’s incredible about drawing something to do with ballet is the movement and the action and the flight.

When I was little, I did a mixed ballet, jazz and tap class. It almost makes me burst out laughing now, the thought of me doing that! I’m sure I was terrible, but I felt like a prima ballerina at the time, as we all do. Since then, I’ve just enjoyed watching it, in different countries, different places. I’ve always felt that seeing an incredible ballet performance is just like escaping everything. You forget about everything while you’re watching it.

Do you have a favourite production?

Right now, I cannot get [David McAllister’s] The Sleeping Beauty out of my mind. The performances, the costumes, the sets … it felt like it went like that *snaps fingers*.

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You draw a lot by hand. What do you think that gives you?

Ultimately I think there’s no right or wrong way to do anything. I love illustrating by hand, and I strongly believe that as the world becomes more automated and more computerised, hand-drawn and hand-crafted things will become even more valuable. There’s something about line work, whether it’s painted or drawn with pencil, or charcoal, or ink, as my work is – there’s a fluidity and motion about the hand that I think can’t be captured by a technical device. I think there’s something very personal about something that’s hand drawn. It feels less mass-produced; it’s not perfect, there are all these little scratchy marks that weren’t supposed to be there, but they’re part of it.

What’s your relationship with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?

I can’t remember how old I was when I first read it, but I remember the playing with scale in it was what I was really amused by – a door is some tiny thing you have to squeeze into, but the leg of a chair is the size of a house. I loved the quirky friends that Alice met along the way. I think the story is truly imaginative, and it still resonates today. I’ve got a daughter who’s eleven and a son who’s seven, and they love it as well. It’s timeless, and the little key elements that make it magical are always there in every rendering of the story.

Which of those details did you bring out when you were drawing the Alice playing cards for The Australian Ballet?

For each of the characters, I really focused on the thing that I found funny or interesting about them as a child – like the rabbit with his very dapper waistcoat and his little watch, the Mad Hatter with his giant hat. I wanted them to be a little bit different, though. For instance, the Mad Hatter has quite a tailored look, that’s the way I imagine he’d dress.

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How do you decompress creatively?

Downtime to me is just when I’m not sketching. I’ve learnt that in order to keep creating and to keep loving it and enjoying it, you need to step away from it at times. I get a lot of good ideas when I’m travelling. It’s a two-part process: I need to formulate the ideas in my mind, and then once I can really see it, it’s like a runaway train: I can’t wait to draw it.

If you were to have a choreographer make you a ballet to design, what would it be?

One of my books is based on Coco Chanel’s life, and I wrote and illustrated that because I’ve always found her very inspiring: she was a little orphan who came from nothing to create what we still know today as the biggest fashion brand in the world. I would love to see her story in a ballet! What would be incredible would be to reinterpret the Chanel style into ballerina costumes. Tweed tutus, little buttoned jackets … That would be fantastic!

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