Mess up. So says the famed British illustrator Ralph Steadman, who believes going off track is the key to creativity. In fact, if it weren’t for his own clumsiness, Steadman explains from his home studio in Kent, England, the distinctive blot-filled illustrations that define his work and his decades-long partnership with the late Hunter S. Thompson would never have happened.
“There’s a saying: ‘In art there is no such thing as a mistake — a mistake is an excuse to do something else,'” says the 72-year-old artist. “That’s how I feel about drawing and writing. I couldn’t draw very well. I kept blotting things by accident, so I decided to make mistakes part of my work.” Which is how, he adds, his work evolved from the cleaner lines of illustrated books such as I, Leonardo and Sigmund Freud to the messier, frenetic style that later defined his most iconic creations, such as the drawings for Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Steadman’s first experience working with Thompson, in 1970, was riddled with missteps. Sent to illustrate Thompson’s story on the Kentucky Derby, Steadman’s trip to the U.S. began with him leaving his “colors” in a New York taxi. So he borrowed makeup samples from his friend’s wife, a Revlon representative, and used those to make his drawings. “It’s Gonzo. That’s how it works,” he says, referring to Thompson’s signature reporting style. “That was the first story we did together.”
In Louisville, it took Steadman two days to connect with Thompson. The two finally met and bonded over whiskey and beer chasers. Steadman, who sketches constantly, recalls the writer asking, “Ralph, why do you do that? It’s a filthy habit, Ralph, drawing like that. You never stop.” It was also making their fellow restaurant patrons uncomfortable, which lead to the team’s unusual exit. “Hunter had a mace gun with him,” Steadman says, “so he maced the restaurant so we could get out.”
Later, the artist recalls, it became clear that Thompson, too, was annoyed by the sketching — if only because he’d barely written a word.
Despite his own nonconformist tendencies, Steadman says he found himself playing straight man to the journalist’s unbridled, often drug-addled personality: “I was the one that was very sternly trying to play the game, stay decent … I was a Boy Scout — sort of. But I also have this side of me that is adventurous and curious about everything.”
Bottom line, Steadman says, he and Thompson, were a couple of “loose canons” who inspired each other. “When we did work together,” he notes, “we knew it wasn’t going to be a real interest for either of us if it was going to be conservative or conventional.”
At the recent Clio Festival in Miami, attendees were treated to an hour-plus presentation by the artist at the second Saatchi & Saatchi Hero Show. He discussed a range of his work, from pieces created in his days as a student to recent editorial commissions.
The presentation was anything but conventional. Steadman began with a talk on the “Elements of Chance in Creativity,” then launched into the history of Irish printing, and an imaginary conversation with Marcel Duchamp and Luis Bunuel. He also shared advice received in school — “Learn to draw; read as much as you can; and be as involved as you can in everything” — and his thoughts about the state of American politics. For this, he showed a portrait of Nixon he made in the ’70s and noted the U.S. “hasn’t learned much” since then. He ended his presentation by singing a song he composed, accompanying himself on the ukulele.
Introducing Steadman, Bob Isherwood, worldwide cd of Saatchi & Saatchi, called him “an unstoppable creative force.”
Apt words, says Steadman, as force is also needed to make art. “Creativity is a bit of a minefield or a bomb,” he says. “In a way, you try to make explosions. You are trying to make something happen that people would respond to, and that’s what your creativity is: the unexpected.”
Education: Attended East Ham Technical College and the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts.
First job: Cartoonist for Kensley Newspapers. Quit to freelance after new owners offered him a job inking crossword puzzles.
Big break: While freelancing for Punch and Private Eye, he was hired to illustrate Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 article about the Kentucky Derby for Scanlon’s Monthly. “It’s like hitting a bull’s-eye, isn’t it?” he muses. They remained friends and collaborators until the writer’s suicide in 2005.
Regrets: Selling his Fear and Loathing drawings to Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner for about $60 each. “I re-created a few of them on canvas. … I can tell Jann that he’s holding fakes.”