First’s rendition of three looks by Tibi

Illustrating the World of High Fashion

By Emme Martin | Artwork by Deanna First

Artists have been drawing and painting other people for as long as drawing and painting have existed. For most subjects of those drawings, it is always interesting to see themselves through someone else’s eyes. A good artist can capture us in our best light, quite literally. When it comes to modern photography, the same is not always true.

Equipped with a pencil, markers, watercolors, and digital editing, New York City–based artist Deanna First is here to bring her viewers into the world of haute couture, runway shows, and other stylish events. I was fortunate enough to chat with Deanna this spring about her journey to becoming an artist in NYC and some of the wonderful experiences she has had in the fashion industry.

First, who is also a cat lover (during our call, she was caring for her feline who had a recent spinal injury), describes how she has always been interested in art—since preschool, to be exact. She recalls a story from elementary school when her teacher asked the class to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up. “I actually drew a little girl with an easel,” she shares. The story takes an intriguing twist when she tells me she studied fashion design in college. After graduating from Kent State University in Ohio, she moved to New York in 2012 to start her career in fashion. She soon became frustrated by the amount of time spent at a computer. First’s greater appetite was for using her artistic skills, and everything changed when she discovered fashion illustration. “No one ever told me you could be a fashion illustrator when I was growing up in Ohio,” she laughs. The trade was a perfect blend of First’s two favorite worlds.

Fashionista Blaire Eadie sketched by Deanna First

She already understood the proportions and concepts of fashion illustration from studying fashion design, but, as the saying goes, good things take time. First explains that a lot of practice and effort went into getting where she is now with her business: “I worked part-time jobs for two years and moved over eight times in New York City.” She also tells me how she applied to paint supply stores because they have flexible hours and would allow her to be around others who shared the same love for art.

When I ask if she ever thought of giving up, she insists, “When you know something is your passion, and you’re meant to be doing it, you just take it day by day. Giving up was never an option.”

First, the daughter of two logical teachers, says she didn’t tell anyone when she quit her part-time job and began illustrating full time. She still stands by making her own decisions without fear of pressure or judgment from others. “I just follow my intuition and go with it,” she says confidently.

Matchbooks from NYC destinations sketched by Deanna First

Fortunately, her instincts were spot on when it came to her career. First now illustrates full-time and has an impressive clientele, including brands such as Hermès, Saks Fifth Avenue, Goop, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Diane von Furstenburg, L’Oréal—the list goes on. Particularly trendy and in-demand are her live sketches, which she has created for New York Fashion Week, store openings, weddings, birthday parties, and more. “Any event you can think of, I can probably be part of it,” First laughs. For live event sketching, First can draw each guest (and their outfits, of course), taking about five to seven minutes for each. A lot of practice has been essential for her to develop the confidence to sketch so quickly. She swears by meditation and having alone time to get into a creative headspace before she begins her work. “Living in New York City, the energy is great, but there are also so many distractions; you have to be careful not to compare yourself to other artists,” she says. As a self-described night owl, she claims working late hours helps her stay inspired and focused while dwelling amid the chaos of the concrete jungle.

Deanna First in front of her mural at Christie’s New York featuring YSL

Understandably, First is unable to name a favorite brand for which she has worked. Still, she shares some experiences that have been particularly exciting: “I sketched at Hermès for a dog-friendly event. Everyone brought their dogs, and I was able to draw everyone with their animals. I love animals, so that was fun!” First even offered to sketch my dog, which I definitely plan to take her up on—who wouldn’t? She then tells me about another pivotal point in her career, the day she got a call from fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg. “She had a sketch of mine sitting on her desk and was looking for an illustrator,” First recalls. “Long story short, I just couldn’t believe how this journey evolved so quickly!”

First always starts with a pencil or a micron pen, which is a skinny black marker. She then uses colored pencils or water-based Copic markers, which give her sketches the illusion of watercolor. These materials allow her to work quickly and fluidly, which is necessary for her live drawings. First describes her multiple artistic styles—a rare trait among illustrators, “My live sketch style has a lot of movement, and it’s kind of messy because it is done so fast.” She also has a realistic style, which can take six to ten hours to complete a piece. “Those actually look like the person,” she adds.

The Beverly Hills Hotel by Deanna First

As for her favorite subjects to draw, First says she is attracted to anything feminine and loves things with movement. Her top fashion icon is, naturally, Audrey Hepburn. She mainly draws women but has also drawn men in the past, and live sketches at events are still the most fun for her.

“I love interacting with people and seeing how excited they get about their sketch,” she gushes. She regularly gets texts from past subjects sending her photos of their framed sketches. “It just makes me feel good.”

First also explains how the past year has been challenging, as she hasn’t had the interactions she greatly values. However, she is excited to start sketching events again as businesses continue to reopen in the city. For now, she is busy illustrating book covers—an opportunity that arose from an abundance of new material produced by authors during the pandemic. “I have always been a fan of a good paperback book,” First says, excited about the opportunity. Another major project she is working on is Estée Lauder’s Best of the Best Awards, a yearly ceremony that honors everyone worldwide who has worked for the brand. She is creating personal sketches of over three hundred employees!

Sinking by Deanna First

As our conversation comes to a close, I feel inspired by First’s determination to follow her passion. For creatives, the right path for one does not always make sense to others on the outside. Deanna First’s ambition and ability to trust her intuition have served her well and are truly inspiring to those unsure about pursuing a creative career. Her work is also an excellent reminder for those who feel pressured to rent a photo booth for their next event; instead, consider hiring a live artist to create souvenirs you and your guests will surely cherish for years to come!

— V —

Follow artist Deanna First on Instagram @deanna_first or visit to learn more.

Share This Story!