Hollywood costume concept designer Darrell Warner
The costume concept illustrator behind some of Tinseltown’s greatest blockbusters doesn’t reside in the Hollywood Hills, but in a lakeside studio near South Cerney. Candia Mckormack went along to find out more
This Somerset boy done good.
One day you’re a hardworking art student, beavering away and honing your skills at college in Falmouth, then 20 years later you find yourself creating the costume concept art that becomes the iconic look for Johnny Depp’s best-known role as Captain Jack Sparrow. And then of course there’s Wonder Woman, King Arthur, Doctor Strange, Maleficent and The Lone Ranger.
I think we probably need to back-track a little, so a cuppa lakeside at Darrell Warner’s South Cerney studio is in order…
“Even as a student I was working,” he says in his charmingly soft-spoken manner. “I’d been doing some editorial stuff for Time Life magazine, and this guy saw the quality of work and approached a group of us saying ‘I’m thinking of setting up a studio; would you all be interested in coming in as a group?’”
It was 1984 and Darrell was thinking of the struggles he may have to endure setting up as a portrait artist and trying to make a living at it, and so naturally he made the decision to get onboard. To the young artist, it seemed the perfect scenario as it would take some of the pressure off being an art graduate with no solid prospects of long-term work. Also, as he didn’t want to follow the well-trodden conventional course of getting an agent and seeking his fortunes on London’s ‘streets of gold’, he decided to go for it.
At the time a company called Linolite was leaving its Malmesbury premises, and so
Darrell et al bit the bullet and decided to take on a mortgage and set up in business. Although it was a townhouse, it was perfectly set up for their needs.
The fledgling business was incredibly successful and concentrated on the M4 corridor, getting work sent their way through ad agencies. “We were all self-employed, and obviously there was a little bit of hierarchy in terms of who was better at certain things.”
In 1986 Darrell found himself producing an enormous print for Ford Europe celebrating 75 years of their dealerships in the UK, starting with a portrait of Henry Ford at the top, then all their major landmark achievements up to 1986, when they launched their new Ford Grenada. “It took me three months to do and was a bit of a baptism of fire,” he says. “It was pure illustration, being a painting, but also it had to be descriptive and went on to sell as a limited-edition print. This became the start of ten years of work in that genre for Ford, and so I guess I cut my teeth in the commercial world of Ford.
“As a student, my first job for Time Life was £75, which I was amazed at… and then my second job was £1,500!” Imagine, if you will, being a student in 1984 when a job of that calibre comes out of the blue from Wincanton Transport. Probably unheard of now.
The Malmesbury studio ran from 1985 to about 1992 when, because of the amount of work they had coming in, they had to employ other illustrators. “We became managers, which I loathed,” says Darrell, “and, invariably, things started to fray around the edges and eventually fell apart. It wasn’t quite as much fun, I guess.”
As computers began to play a bigger part in design in the 1990s, Darrell realised that he didn’t want to be part of that world, as his work was “very figurative, with a painterly style. It felt like the rug was being pulled from under my feet, and I thought where on earth do I go from here?”
At this point he decided that, although he would remain as an illustrator on the company’s books, he would go it alone. “On reflection, though, it was a fantastic apprenticeship,” he acknowledges, “most students don’t think they’ll be able to make their living as we did. So, my advice would be to them now, if someone decides to take you under their wing I’d say go and do it as it gives you an insight into the business, from producing the artwork to dealing with usage and copyright.”
Right from the beginning, though, Darrell decided he would do things his way.
“I’ve always very much wanted to be in control of my own destiny. I remember in the summer of 1997 going to all the top artists’ agents in London. They were all very impressed with the work, but then there was one guy who said ‘Yeah, yeah, your stuff is really good, but you don’t specialise’. When I asked him what he meant he said – and I’ve always hated this phrase – ‘the cream just rises to the top’.” Darrell was determined not to be pigeonholed, though, enjoying the various aspects of what he did and wanting the variety and challenges it presented. “It was a cathartic moment and I decided there and then that I really didn’t need an agent and that I was going to do things my way.”
And you can see this in Darrell’s work now. Although he has built up an incredibly successful career as a costume concept illustrator for many of our blockbuster movies, he is also a talented, independent fine artist, producing both equine art and astonishingly sensitive portraits, such as his watercolour of sculptor Ian Rank-broadley.
One of the many highlights of Darrell’s career was winning the ‘Best in Show’ award at the Society of Equestrian Artists in 2013 for his watercolour portrait of a beautiful bay
‘Costume concept illustration is very much about pushing the boundaries of what’s possible’
called Carlos. Being superstitious, however, the woman who commissioned the painting didn’t want it done until after the horse’s death, and so Darrell had a call when it became evident he was reaching the end of his life. He went out to meet the horse and take reference pictures, and the resultant painting captures the spirit of the animal that Darrell came to know. An emotional and solitary experience, and a very different process to that which he experiences in the world of film.
“In the costume world you come together as a group on a film – I’m loosely termed as part of the design team – and you work together with that team on a number of projects. The great thing is that when you go your own ways at the end of the project, they take your name with them and you get recommended to another designer, or assistant, or supervisor.”
Working as a cog in an enormous, multimillion dollar machine, though, does it mean you can’t be too precious about what you produce, I wonder?
“Yes, I churn out loads and loads of drawings,” he says. “My standard day is doing lots and lots of conceptual profiles of characters and their costumes for film.”
But it must surely be a challenge for any creative, I persist, and there must be times when personalities and art styles clash?
“Everyone has their own way of working,” he says. “There’s a designer called Penny Rose who works on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and I’ve done all of them with her. I’ve known her 20 years – she actually got me into film – and I’m full of admiration for her work.”
Part of Darrell’s job description is to find a solution to a problem. Understanding how costume works, how leatherworkers and armourers do what they do, and liaising with them is an integral part of a costume concept illustrator’s role. As an example, he cites the working relationship he has with Alexandra Byrne, who works on the Marvel films and won an Oscar for her costume designs on the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age. “She has a very different approach and says ‘OK, Darrell, this is what I’ve done, this is the stuff I’ve researched, here’s the set of characters, there are all your references, now go and have a play’. She recognises that I’m there on my merit, and that’s great as I then want to deliver much more than she’s expecting of me. “Costume concept illustration is very much about pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with the materials, what we can make of the character, and will that make the character? Some designers are perhaps more stylists, others are more design-led and others still are more fashion-led… and some are completely bonkers! You very much have to try to get on to their way of thinking.” I realise at this point I’m probably looking slightly nonplussed, and admit to Darrell that this is a big, wonderful, exotic world which I’m completely unfamiliar with. “Costume is all purely mechanics,” he says modestly. It may be mechanics, but it takes an artist’s eye such as his to breathe beauty into it.
Blackbeard from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Costume watercolour. ©Disney Studios
Above: Ian Rank-broadley, British sculptor. Watercolour by Darrell Warner
Above: Darrell Warner in his studio
Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. Costume watercolour by Darrell Warner. ©Disney Studios
Above: Darrell’s award-winning portrait of Carlos Below: Peter Quill from Guardians of the Galaxy. Costume watercolour by Darrell Warner. ©Marvel Studios