Features Legend: Darrell Warner
The British artist’s costume design convinced an A-list actor to join the new Pirates of the Caribbean film. Gary Evans finds out how he did it
We talk to the opinionated artist whose costume designs are behind many a Hollywood blockbuster.
Pirates of the Caribbean needed a new villain. The team behind the franchise wanted a big name to play a cutthroat ghost-pirate named Captain Salazar. A conversation between the film’s directors and costume designers landed on a certain leading actor they hoped to recruit. But a casting agent said it would be difficult to persuade him to move to Australia for filming, because his wife had just had baby. And that’s when Darrell Warner stepped in.
“It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked to execute a drawing of this nature,” says the British artist and costume illustrator. “And I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last.”
Darrell worked on all four of the previous Pirates of the Caribbean films. He also counts among his film credits Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy and forthcoming Marvel movie Doctor Strange. A member of the costume team on Dead Men Tell No Tales – the fifth Pirates movie, which is due out in May 2017 – came up with an idea.
She proposed that I do an all-singing, all-dancing illustration to persuade the actor to take on the role
“She proposed,” Darrell says, “that I do a bit of an all-singing, all-dancing illustration to present to the actor, to persuade him to take the role. Whether it actually had anything to do with me, I don’t know. But he was shown the illustration and a deal was struck and he did take the part.”
“I want the viewer to automatically and subconsciously retain a character’s profile as if etched in their mind – like a Batman or Jack Sparrow. You’re employed not simply for your ability to draw, but also to convey ideas.”
Darrell worked as costume illustrator on upcoming Marvel movie Doctor Strange. Unlike art department employees – who work on a film project for around two years – Darrell’s role in the costume department usually lasts about three months. Doctor Strange took nine.
He enjoyed the “coming together of a group of individual artisans”: jewellers and embroiderers, shoe makers and leather workers, specialists in many and varied fields, more than 40 people involved in the fabrication process alone. But in the beginning, there are only around eight. Darrell and this small team gathered research as it looked at the script and character breakdowns.
“At this point, quite often we’re attempting to get to the core. Not just the costume, but the overall flavour of the character. When it came to the Zealots, the dark force in the story, the influence very much came from simple traditional Chinese and Nepalese layered garments. They had a given quality that was immediate. Thus a basic language for our characters was born and developed into a language. The development of individual costumes can be very organic. Over a period of a few months, recurring themes start to develop into a very strong visual language.”
Throughout pre-production, Darrell and the team presented their work to the director, producers and Marvel visual development department every few weeks: “Marvel has a very unique approach to film making. It firmly believes in visual development. These guys, Marvel employees, they are the big-hitters. They know the characters inside out, the heritage, the provenance. They have the visual comic history to hand and have the task of redefining the characters for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They look at photographic reference of where the costume designer is coming from, in order to amend or push a character forward.”
Darrell worked closely with the fabric cutter to make sure costume designs looked correct on a real body. This part of the process has become more important in recent years, he says, since concept artists tend to focus on the power of their images, rather than functionality. Darrel says it’s also important the costume makes the actor feel comfortable and gives them a sense of what the character is about.
Costumes usually change quite a bit after the first fitting. But on Doctor Strange,
Darrell says the team nailed down the theme and the appearance quite quickly. With his background in portraiture, he can add an actor’s likeness to design, which helps to sell the costume to studio executives, director and actors.
“My costume work is purely information led,” he says, “pure, informative illustration. I like to think of my drawings as blueprints of the design. They are truly amazing pieces of art in their own right. It’s a joy when something you’ve drawn finds its way onto screen. That’s very special.”
It has to be learnt
Darrell first painted in oils at just nine year old. His father kept them in the house, so they were readily available. At 13, he took life-drawing classes and later attended the Falmouth School of Art. Here Darrell made the switch from oil to watercolours, which he continues to use today.
His favourite tutors at Falmouth worked as commercial illustrators. In the 70s and 80s, he read the Society of Illustrators annuals. The work of artists such as Gary Kelley, Bernie Fuchs, Michael English, David Grove and Robert Heindel fascinated him.
Time Life Books paid Darrell £75 for his first commercial illustration job. His second earned him £1,500. “Suddenly I was a wealthy student! It was great. My whole desire was to figure paint. Via the vehicle of illustration, I began to see a way of gaining an income. I became hooked on earning money through my ability.”
Darrell left “the utopia that was art school” with distinctions in painting and drawing and spent the following summer freelancing. In 1985, with several exFalmouth students, he formed his own successful illustration studio. “It became a very fulfilling, if exhausting, period of time,” he says. His spell with the group became a kind of “commerce apprenticeship”. He learned the nuts and bolts of his trade: how to give a pitch, take a brief and negotiate fees. But the long hours got to the group and Darrell decided to go it alone before the studio folded in 1990.
In the late 80s, CGI grew and the economy shrunk. Darrell, known for his watercolours, began to struggle for work. He wanted to step away from advertising and took more publishing jobs. His heart wasn’t in it. But from those commissions he learned the narrative of image making. “From art school onwards, I knew I thought differently from others,” Darrell says. “I realised I could really paint. I think visual communication is something you
immediately have a gift for. You instinctively understand what it takes to tell a story visually, in 2D or otherwise. But you have to study artists like Alphonse Mucha or the grandfather of illustration, Howard Pyle. In other words: it can be learnt.”
That creative feeling
“I love the meditative state of sharpening pencils,” Darrell says, “the task and smell of stretching paper, of oil and turpentine, the feel of a brush on paper or canvas, the claw of the paper against the drag of the pencil, the happy accident of a watercolour wash doing its own thing while I make a cup of tea, paper everywhere, general studio mess.”
Darrell paints and draws exclusively with traditional mediums. He likes to have a physical object to show for all his hard work: “It’s a commodity, something precious. I feel that digital art has become throwaway. It has a shelf life, despite the fact that it can be online for infinity. There’s also a huge amount of dross and it’s laborious researching new talent. Also, I’m finding concept stuff online changing. Maybe it’s just my artistic third eye, but I sense that concept art is becoming the new impressionism. To me, through dint of sheer volume, it’s just becoming noise.”
Darrell paints in his studio overlooking a lake in Gloucestershire. The studio has no TV and no internet connection, but is only a six-minute drive from his home. He uses simple, inexpensive materials and a simple setup: desk, easel, drawing board, a long table for references, plan chest, book
Don’t be afraid to talk about money. Research, observe all forms of art, create your own brand and enjoy it
I subscribe to the unfashionable idea of pulling in the viewer
shelves and a materials cupboard. His one luxury is an Artemide anglepoise lamp. The studio has oak floors, floor-to-ceiling windows and decking that leads out to the edge of a lake. “I have to pinch myself at times,” he says. “I love spending time there. It’s quenching for the artistic soul. It’s my refuge.”
Most of Darrell’s future film projects are top secret. He’s currently working on an indie sci-fi horror called Life, and Disney’s Nutcracker and the Four Realms. What he will says is that while art becomes increasingly more disposable, he will continue to work the way he’s always worked: slowly, thoughtfully, building up an idea until it’s ready to become an image, then working on that image until it’s something that will not only captivate his audience, but move them in some way.
“Over the duration of the past 16 years working in film, I’ve adopted the mantra of going to work as an artistic commodity. That’s what I do. I offer a service I’ve honed both practically and intellectually. The viewer drives my artistic want. I’m really about engaging them. Getting them to really look, rather than just glance, to arrest their gaze and have them absorb the images. It takes freedom of mind to absorb a painting. I levy intelligence upon the viewer, hoping in return that they get it.
“I’m not by nature a political creature and have never craved pop culture. So in effect, I don’t stand out from the crowd. I subscribe to the subtle and unfashionable, maybe even the old-fashioned, idea of pulling in the viewer. This is becoming increasingly difficult in an online world that’s saturated with imagery.
“What I have is an informed and intelligent approach, so ideas are carefully honed and fleshed out. The ideas have to come first. Then I plan the painting, hopefully well enough that the onlooker dwells within the painting, attempting to garner some emotional response.”
city of pirates Darrell Warner was working in advertising before breaking into the film industry.
jack sparrow Costume illustrator Darrell worked on all five Pirates of the Caribbean movies, including next year’s fifth instalment, Dead Men Tell No Tales.
Asgard Darrell often draws detailed sketches of costumes in their corresponding settings, like this drawing of Asgard from 2013 movie Thor: The Dark World.
Maleficent The British artist became interested in illustration while studying at Falmouth School of Art.
butch cavendish If the hat fits: Darrell’s portrait of the ruthless outlaw Butch Cavendish from 2013 movie The Lone Ranger.
thinking Darrell works solely with traditional materials. He likes, among other things, the “meditative state of sharpening pencils.”
king kinloch From the 2014 film Maleficent – a part, played by Peter Capaldi, that was eventually left out of the final cut. colour In all of Darrell’s work, he doesn’t put pencil to paper until he’s fully fleshed out an idea. His aim is always to “garner some emotional response.”
Howard Stark Darrell enjoys working with Marvel, as the team puts visual development first.