Ralph Steadman: “The white paper is the landscape that must be filled”

As a retrospective of his career opens in London, illustrator Ralph Steadman tells us about working with Hunter S. Thompson and how Revlon cosmetics were the key to his Gonzo visual style.

Portrait by Rikard Österlund, www.rikard.co.uk
Portrait by Rikard Österlund, www.rikard.co.uk

Update 2 May 2017: A new retrospective exhibition about Ralph Steadman is set to go on display from 4 May – 20 June at Sonos, 21-23 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, London WC2H 9LL. Entry is free. Read our interview with Steadman about his life and work below.

Over a 50-year career agitator and maverick Ralph Steadman has pioneered an uncompromising illustrative style, which helped define the visual aspect of Gonzo journalism and led him to collaborate with Punch, Private Eye, The New York Times, and cult writer Hunter S. Thompson. Steadman’s direct approach often meant showing brutal and uncomfortable truths and his work has covered a gamut of artistic, personal and commercial projects, with other clients including musician Frank Zappa and off-licence chain Oddbins.

Now he is readying himself for a retrospective exhibition Printin’ Backwuds, which includes his latest work. Among pieces being shown are 30 rare works, some of which haven’t been seen and several of which have been counter-signed by Thompson. Others contain bullet holes from the gun of William Burroughs.

We talk to Steadman about his work, getting into trouble and what he thinks of the current illustration scene.

Design Week: You’ve worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for various magazines and newspapers, illustrated books, book covers, stamps, ads… in which area do you feel most at home?

Ralph Steadman: Loose work! Reacting to something that might enter my subconscious and I remember it – I make a note and remember it for later. The white paper is the landscape that must be filled. I have just laid some colour on a piece tonight; I am not sure how it will turn out or what it will become. Creativity is a bit of a mystery.

Do you see yourself as a graphic designer?

An artist but graphic.

DW: You famously worked with Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson – how did you come to define the visual style of gonzo journalism?

RS: [On my way to meet Hunter S. Thompson to cover the Kentucky Derby for counterculture magazine Scanlan’s] I had lost my colours and ink pens – I had left them in a taxi on the way over to Scanlan’s editor Donald Goddard’s house.

I was having supper with Donald and his wife Natalie, who happened to be a representative for Revlon’s make-up. She gave me a whole load of samples which I took with me the next day on a flight to Kentucky. I used them in the preparation of colours for the pictures at the Kentucky Derby which began the process of Gonzo Pictorial journalism.

It was a man called Bill Cardoza who coined the phrase Gonzo. It’s a Portuguese word which means ‘hinge’. Scanlan was the name of a little-known Nottingham pig farmer. Put it all together and you start to get a sense of something fairly potent within this new direction of journalism.

DW: What was your working relationship like with Hunter S. Thompson; how would you approach projects together? 

RS: Initially it took us three days to find each other. Hunter had a particular habit of staying in bed till mid-afternoon, but I wanted to get going and he asked around if they’d seen anyone who didn’t look American. When we met he said: “Well they said you were weird but not that weird”, because I had a small goatee beard at the time.

Usually I did the drawings before he did the writing and Hunter felt he ought to just write things as things emerged and progressed – and write everything down as it happened. Instead of covering a story we actually became the story and he was surprised at how well the whole process worked for the two of us. I managed to keep up!

DW: What effect has collaboration with people like Hunter had on your career? 

RS: It has given it a direction and a sense of purpose. I think that working with Hunter was truly a unique experience and Hunter was the person for me to meet in America.

DW: Your work is famously often close to the bone. What’s the most trouble it has ever got you into?    

RS: I was sacked from The Times under the editorship of William Rees-Mogg. He thought my cartoons were seditious. But I always came to an editorial meeting with several ideas and they chose one and I did a finished cartoon.

DW: How did you feel looking back over your own career when preparing Printin’ Backwuds? 

RS: It brought back many memories of even my student days in East Ham Tech College when I started going to life-drawing classes with a wonderful teacher called Leslie Richardson, who sadly died last year.

DW: Do you think satirists and illustrators are brave enough today? 

RS: I don’t want to criticise them but I do think they are electronically bound and don’t break the rules enough to be sufficiently surprising. Occasionally I see one and go “WOW” but I can never remember who.

DW: Who do you most admire in graphic design and illustration today? 

RS: Tomi Ungerer, Steve Bell and Martin Rowson.

DW: What piece of advice would you give to young illustrators starting out? 

RS: Give up! Become a vet! No seriously: keep going and really learn how to draw with pen and ink.

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Printin’ Backwuds runs from 17 July until 13 August at Lazarides Editions, 22 Upper Ground, London SE1 9PD. Lazarides Editions is also publishing Nextinction, a new book by Steadman which he has created with conservationist and film-maker Ceri Levy. Four prints from the book are available to buy.

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