As Head of Womenswear Design at Central St Martin's for 17 years, Howard Tangye's fashion illustrations have been highly influential to his students, most notably John Galliano, Stella McCartney, Richard Nicoll and Julie Verhoeven. Yet since he began formal training as an artist at St Martin's School of Art back in the 1970s, he developed a skill at life drawing known only to those who knew him well. It was when some of these life drawings were included in a book on Galliano by the writer Colin McDowell that people in the art world recognised an obvious talent. Casting the Line, a collection of works drawn over a period of two decades being exhibited at London's Hus Gallery, is his first solo exhibition.
Whereas fashion illustrations are focused on the clothes and at selling a product, it is the body that forms the centre of Tangye's drawings. "Clothes are a way to help me feel the body through them. I don't ask my sitters to wear anything special. They come as they are," he tells me as we survey the 25 works on show. The drawings, typified above by Katya (in George's Jacket) are delicate and elegant with an emphasis on line. Colour is used sparingly but subtly in order to help find the shape and form of the body while the line defines it. "My first tutor, Elizabeth Suter, explained about looking within the body, looking at the bones, and using form as a sculptural premise to start with", he explains. This approach continued when Tangye took a postgraduate degree in Drawing at Parson's School of Art and Design in New york.
Tangye's works are fairly minimalist with the emphasis on the line, shape and composition. Anais (above) is the most obviously so with barely a hint of colour. Like most of his drawings, it was completed in one sitting and, in this case, very quickly, just enough time to capture the essence of the pose.
"The drawing tells you when to stop. A minimal drawing is one of the hardest things to do I think as there's nothing to hold it all together."
The relationship between artist and sitter is always an interesting one. Tangye finds that their inclination to drift into meditative mode frees him from any fear that they're uncomfortable in their pose, and that they tend to revert to a natural way of sitting, an indication of their personality. He never directs them. If he can't establish some kind of connection, he derives no feeling for the drawing.
His more recent works have become what he calls a little more "painterly". In Oscar (above) he's drawn to the colours of the skin, not just the outline. Tangye uses a variety of media including using oil sticks directly on to the paper. He thins his paint before applying and also works with pen and graphite.
"What's wonderful for me is that after I've finished a drawing, I can appreciate the marks which when you're drawing intensely, you're not really aware of. It shows the journey you went on."
He claims that his style owes no influence to any particular artist though he is an admirer of abstract painters such as Rothko and Bridget Riley. He aspires to the thoughts of another minimalist, Agnes Martin, who wished to leave those who view her works with the feeling that they have "taken a walk to the beach and sat in a beautiful landscape".
Casting a Line runs at the Hus Gallery, 10 Hanover Street, London W1 until 15 March. The drawings are used with the permission of the Hus Gallery.