Deskside: Donald “Drawbertson” Robertson

Deskside: Donald “Drawbertson” Robertson

Creative Director, Estée Lauder; Illustrator. New York

Welcome to Desksides, The Coveteur series in which we sit down with leaders in various creative fields and figure out how they got there. We guess we could've also named this, "how the hell do I get your cool job," accompanied with a "help me I'm poor" GIF from Bridesmaids, but then realized going the mononymous route was a little more succinct.

If you haven’t heard of Donald Drawbertson and his hilarious, completely addictive Instagram feed and its featured illustrations, get out from under your rock already and join us out here. As beauty executive (he got his start at MAC and now heads up creative at Estée Lauder) and former magazine creative director at Hearst and Condé Nast, he already deserves our undivided attention. But it’s thanks to good old Instagram (and you thought it was just a handy procrastinating tool) that he’s now rubbing shoulders (or, at the very least, trading regrams) with the likes of Kim Kardashian, Carlos Souza and Carine Roitfeld. And guys, he’s as excited as we are. After visiting him at his Union Square studio, we got him talking about doing special projects for Colette and Giles, putting on art shows every 10 minutes and why Pharrell is responsible for his big break.
“I basically got booted out of the house because my art has too much energy. My wife found this space for me and said, ‘Go there!’ I was like, I don’t know what you’re talking about, and then I looked at all my stuff and I was like, oh, okay. I’ve been here about year. It’s a very cool artist building; it's like the last full-on artist building in Union Square. It’s like a community—it’s New York, so people aren’t super friendly, but there are artists on every floor.”

“This is what I do. I go from crazy-busy drawings to graphic stripes. I get tired of doing figurative and so I do stripes. Usually I’m painting and posting everyday, so I would say I spend no more than two days on any one piece. It’s quick and fast.”

“It drives me crazy when people say, ‘Think outside of the box.’ There is no box! What we all need to do is create a box. When brands, artists and designer are really, really good, they have created a box and they’ve stayed in it. What I've done is created a box for myself and in this box I have very limited materials: I have gaffer tape, paint, fashion and pop culture. I basically work within that box and [sometimes] I’ll add in a surprise element or something, like walnuts, but it all matches with everything else I do. In my figurative painting I use gaffer tape vertically and in my graphic paintings I use gaffer tape horizontally. What I'm doing is literally trying to push out the parameters of the box I've created. It makes it easier for me because otherwise there are too many things to pick from and focus on.”

“I find a lot of inspiration on Instagram. The front row of Yeezy’s fashion show that he just did for Adidas nearly made me explode. You know what I mean? It was just so crazy, everybody was there. The Kardashians and Justin Beiber trying to squeeze in with cool dudes, and Jay Z with Beyonce sitting there with the kid, and just when it couldn’t get any better Anna Wintour squeezed up there. It was just the best. My good friend Pat McGrath was doing makeup for the show, so I heard about the whole thing, and then you read about the whole thing on Instagram. Then I post about it on Instagram and two seconds later Kim Kardashian has regrammed my painting that I did of her and Kanye at the Grammys and the whole thing just becomes a giant awesome circle.”

“I consider myself illustration paparazzi. I go after things that are happening in real time in an artistic manner. And I think that’s part of the reason why people react to it, because it’s so fast and people are smart and they get it, globally.

This is the other thing: I'm working on projects for Turkish Vogue. When I was a kid illustrator, I want you to imagine I was sitting in a white room with a phone and that was it. You could sometimes call people to get appointments, but it was almost impossible. Now, I’m sitting in this room with a million doors and a million windows because it’s all-access to everybody, globally. Harper’s Bazaar will call me and say, ‘Donald, want to do an Oscars takeover?’ Systemically, I go through all the people I love, like Jeremy Scott. ‘Oh, I’ll draw Jeremey Scott.’ Next thing you know, Jeremy Scott is on Instagram on Harper’s Bazaar saying, ‘I love this!’ Then, I do this funny thing with Serge Normant sort of poking fun at the Oscar prep with Julia Roberts, and then Serge is like, ‘This is fantastic,’ and he regrams it! And I’m like making stuff up, like, Meryl Streep lost her outfit, someone call Carlos Souza, and he likes it. It’s so much fun! All these people are so cool. 15 years ago, I would have had to call Carlos Souza’s office and I never would have got him. Now we are, like, buddies and he is offering me his house in Brazil. It’s crazy. And I’m a schmoe from Canada. I could not be more of a ‘least likely to.’ Now I’m literally friends with the world in fashion. In a nice way. And I’m making fun of them. And everybody is just in on the joke and we are having the time of our lives.”

“Half the time I’m a creative director at Estee Lauder. So I work with brands and especially the new brands, which is something I’ve done my whole life. I started in Canada at MAC as their first creative director and I’ve been doing it ever since. That’s sort of how I pay the rent. I have five kids so I can’t really be full bohemian. I can only be bohemian light.”

“I was Mr. Blackberry. And my kids were like, ‘You need to get all this stuff on Instagram, just do it.’ A year and a half ago I got an iPhone and that was it. Normally, I would have just sent a drawing to Jane Larkworthy, the beauty director of W, and it would have been a ‘haha’ between the two of us. Now I post on Instagram and she regrams it and there’s people in China that are liking it. It’s crazy.”

“I was in a hotel room in L.A. and Pharrell Williams announced that he was doing a fragrance collaboration with Commes Des Garçons. That is, like, all my stuff—my two favorite people. I was losing my mind and I had no art supplies, all I had was my phone and room service. So I literally bit toast to make his [Vivienne Westwood] hat and I made a Commes Des Garçons ketchup drawing on the plate and I posted it as an awesome collab coming out. My phone blew up and I couldn't figure out why. Pharrell had regrammed it; I was just like, that’s ridiculous. Right?

So that’s pretty much what it’s like all day long now. And then you can pick people you go after; you can pick the people who are fun and in on the joke. Now I’m literally booking flights to Paris, because I'm doing a walnut painting at Colette in Paris. Sarah Andelman has asked me to come in and paint walnuts with the French people. This is the best! Colette. Paris. She said it was perfect for fashion week, and I’m like ‘Okay! I will be there. You get the walnuts, I'll bring the paint.’”

“I’ve always drawn. People who work with me have a bazillion drawings. The only difference is that now I'm sharing it and you all know about it, which is awesome.

Nothing drives me crazier than the idea of doing an art show every 10 years. I want to do an art show every 10 minutes. Now I can! And nobody seems to be complaining: my numbers are going up, so it’s like I have permission. I like doing  a million different things, so I don't want to have to be specific to one thing, I don't want to be known for just doing stripey things, I certainly don't want to be known for fashion illustrations. And I dont want to be known for just doing commercial work. I want to be more of an all-over the place, hot mess.”


“I’m full time, working on a million things. It actually works perfectly because I’m doing this huge Sephora Smashbox art show. I’ve done little paintings on lipsticks and gel liners, exactly what i would have done normally, but it’s going to be on a Sephora gondola: a little tiny art show in every Sephora. Each lipstick and gel liner has a different painting on it.

Or, I wanted to go steal all the attention at Art Basel, so I had Smashbox buy me a Cadillac and I covered it in lips and drove around Art Basel. I got more press than the people that were doing big expensive installations out of bronze. The thing is, everybody wants kooky now: it’s not about hiring a big model and doing a great shoot with a fancy photographer. And they want crazy stuff, like a Cadillac covered in lips or a mini art show on a Sephora gondola. Then The Coveteur calls and does this whole thing on you and that becomes press. The whole thing overlaps.”

“What I love about the beauty industry is that it is completely and totally recession proof. You never have a bad year. Ever. I tell all my sons, go into beauty, and they just stare at me, and I’m like alright fine, but you'll be rich. You can't have a bad year. Look at Lauder’s stock. Just Google it. It just goes up. Woman love their beauty products. Shoes, bags, that can all go, but creams and beauty products? Slam dunk. They will go without food before they go without their makeup.”

“I was a starving artist in Paris, and this makeup artist, Frances Hathaway, was over there, and she took me in, completely and totally. I had minutes to live, I was so hungry, and she took me in and said, ‘When you get back to Canada, there's two guys, Frank and Frank, and they’re starting this cosmetic line. They don't want to use regular models, they want to use illustrations.’ Basically, I went in and started drawing and painting for them and that’s how it all started. It was kind of a fluke, but now M.A.C. is the biggest cosmetic brand in the world.”

“All the M.A.C. people, none of us had green cards, so we all had to scam to get in and out of the country. I ended up going into magazines to get my green card. I worked at M.A.C. half the time and magazines the other half of the time.”

“It’s very similar in a lot of ways. I did magazine in the heyday when we had money and we could fly around the world. It was nothing to go to Paris and shoot with Patrick Demarchelier. I was literally at Conde Nast and I watched them take out the international magazine rack and replace it with chips. I was like, uh-oh, shit’s going down. Remember in the ‘90s you would go to a magazine rack and it would turn the corner? Now it’s like chips. I was like, I need to find the next thing, and the next thing was international beauty in Asia.

Again the thing I love about Instagram, is it’s not about just North America, it’s about being global. You need to talk to China and England and Italy and Brazil, because everybody is cool and everybody is sophisticated. Why would you just want to talk to Americans when you can talk to everyone? Women in Turkey are makeup freaks. They love it! Women in Asia are skin freaks! That was the difference for me: becoming a global thinker as opposed to just being an American magazine guy.”

“The thing about the beauty industry is, you can get in on so many different levels and you can have such an effect. I just met with the guy who started Too Faced cosmetics; he was a sales person at a Macy’s counter. And now he has one of the most popular brands at Sephora. It’s not that hard… What you have to do is turn off the TV. Stop watching those serial sitcoms and start making stuff. That’s it. Make something. Look at all the people. And just make stuff and stick it up there. People will notice.”

“Still to this day, the best thing was when Giles Deacon called me to do his collection; when he called and asked for my lip paintings. That was the best because they were just so cool. And the Brits were so cool, and Gwendoline Christie, his girlfriend... the whole thing was just so fun. We did this fashion show and the whole thing ended in a pub in London with Cara Delevingne and Katie Grand and Gwendoline Christie and Giles. It was like my Instagram is: it was fun and low-key, but super hooked up. That’s the nicest thing: all these people that you wouldn't normally have access to, that are open to sharing and collaborating. That’s the best thing.”
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