Donald Robertson

For launching an art career with a kiss.

Donald Robertson
Loose lips pay bills:Donald Robertson’s illustrations featuring bright red lips have been featured everywhere from New York to Paris and on everything from T-shirts to Cadillacs. [Illustration: Donald Robertson]

Bright red lips are one of Donald Robertson’s favorite artistic inspirations. “It’s a bold, universal symbol that can be rock’n’roll or super feminine,” he says. Also, he adds, “Lips have paid the bills.” During his working hours, Robertson is a creative director at the cosmetics giant Estée Lauder, where he develops products and devises marketing campaigns. Other times he’s @Drawbertson, an illustrator with 131,000 followers on Instagram, whose fashion-savvy work has graced T-shirts sold at J.Crew and been shown in galleries in New York and Paris. Balancing the two callings requires dedication–Robertson wakes up at four every morning and paints in his underwear for four hours before heading into the office–but his working life and his artist life often intersect. At last December’s Art Basel, for instance, Robertson celebrated the launch of a new lipstick by painting dozens of pairs of lips on a Cadillac and driving it around the fair, handing out samples. “If you’re a real creative director, you need to be making creative things,” he says simply. “It can’t all just be about making ads.”


Bonus Round

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

I get super inspired by Instagram. I’m really into those pictures, and I follow a lot of people who make things, who are creative, a lot of people who are funny. It helps me sort of stretch and figure out new things to do.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

The first thing I do is make coffee. I drink a lot of coffee. Then I literally start painting in my underpants. I’ll have some picture in my head, or something will hit me, and I’ll just be like, I can’t even get dressed. Then somebody usually wakes up and tells me to get dressed.

What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?

You would think [the beauty industry] would be something that would be very feminine, and it’s a lot of guys jockeying for commissions and space. It’s funny how tough guy it is. The floor plan of a beauty floor in a department store is more of a football game than a football game. Where everybody’s positioned, who’s where, who’s what, and how they all jockey for those positions–it’s like a football game.

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

I wouldn’t say it’s about one, it’s about 50 that all sort of blend into one another. You really don’t want just one, but a mix. You want to go from like, [model] Alexa Chung (@chungalexa) to @thefatjewish to @fuck_gary to [fashion designer] Jeremy Scott (@itsjeremyscott) to @britishvogue to National Geographic (@natgeo). It’s an Instagram cocktail made for people with ADD and it’s never ending. I also like following kid illustrators and all the kids who are just starting out. It’s really interesting to watch them and promote them and help them. I’m always looking for fresh art talent.

How do you keep track of everything you have to do?

I say no to a lot of stuff. I only do very, very specific things, and I try to keep geared towards things fashion related. I’ve started created ground rules for myself and it’s helped. It’s all on my phone, just a calendar.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

So what I do is, I work with different kinds of materials. I’ll spend a day working with just gaffer tape to be super gritty and super rigid and super graphic. That’ll be one day: gaffer tape, gaffer tape, hard lines, hard lines. Then the next day, I’ll be completely figurative, painting bodies. Then the next day, I’ll be sculptural, and I’m turning garbage into something you don’t want to throw out. I think we throw out way too much stuff, and I think if you keep a milk jug a little bit longer than normal it can turn into a cool thing.

I’m always trying to work within those three mediums and switching it up so it doesn’t get boring, and it kind of helps me. It all works with one another. Then I’m doing all these collaborations with outside people. Then you have a new fresh perspective on what you would normally do.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

I’m very, very inspired by anybody who makes something. I know too many people who move puzzle pieces around all day. That’s a way to make a lot of money but I’m not interested in it at all. What I find fascinating is when people actually make something. When Giles Deacon sits down and figures out how to print his favorite photographers’ pictures on silk, and then makes clothes out of them, I think it is the best.

I have a friend, Lisa Marie Fernandez, who makes sexy bathing suits. Then you have Pharrell, who’s constantly making things, whether he’s doing polka-dot sweatshirts for Adidas or making music for movies or starring in Chanel videos. I’m fascinated by anyone that’s making stuff with their hands or conceptualizing things. That would include artists as well, like Wes Anderson, for instance.


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut