Ralph Steadman: Evocative Frenzy

I am unceasingly inspired by the artistic wizardry of Ralph Steadman, particularly his knack for evocative frenzy. Though clearly an expert draughtsman, he’s made a career out of twisting conventional imagery with a demented cartoon sensibility. What appears at first in his work to be frayed and chaotic ends up revealing character with a greater degree of expression impossible with straight realism.


Bathing in his splatters and scribbles is a great recipe for creator’s block, and luckily the Seattle Public Library recognizes the necessity of such work. Here are a few essential Steadman volumes in the collection:

Psychogeography, Psycho Too – Much has rightly been said about Steadman’s legendary collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson, the famed gonzo journalist whose proclivity for intoxicants and pranks is brilliantly matched by Steadman’s mischievousness. However, in British author Will Self, Steadman has found a new muse – less acerbic, but just as incisive. Self’s reflections on the psychological life of geographical places are uncanny, made only moreso by the immediacy of Steadman’s drawings.

Extinct Boids – One of my favorite books of all time. A showcase of extinct (and sometimes not-extinct or never-having-even-existed) birds, or “boids” as Steadman calls them. When commissioned for a single contribution to a conservation exhibition, Steadman delivered but then couldn’t stop delivering. So inspired by the creative challenge of painting species that don’t exist, he ended up with over 100 paintings of these impossible “boids,” enough for an exhibit of his own. The pieces are presented in chronological order in order to best tell the story of his rampaging inspiration.

Book of Cats
, The Book of Jones – Two books dedicated entirely to the feline. The Book of Cats is a lovely array of cat sketches in varying styles. The Book of Jones, fittingly subtitled “A Tribute to the Mercurial, Manic, and Utterly Seductive Cat” documents the quixotic life and attitude of Jones, Hunter Thompson’s farm cat. Steadman’s unassuming command of shape complements the thunderous energy of his line work. His Jones sketches possess great personality, and are a perfect salve for a stagnant mood.

Alice in Wonderland, The Devil’s Dictionary– Redefining renowned classics with his brand of contemporary hysteria, these established texts are complemented and commented upon by Steadman’s political and artistic consciousness. See how the Mad Hatter evokes a 60’s British acidhead. Check out how comparatively normal his illustration for the “Abnormal” entry is. Authors Lewis Carroll, Ambrose Bierce, and Steadman certainly share a similar subversive streak.

The Grapes of Ralph, Untrodden Grapes – One thing Steadman unequivocally loves is wine, having penned several books on the refreshment. In these pages, he journeys to renowned vineyards, meeting vintners, designing wine labels, and generally musing on the strange history of the world’s oldest booze. Featured are full page spreads of inimitable renderings of landscapes, stockhouses, workers, foods, anything you can think of surrounding the cultivation of grapes. Best read with a bottle.

And in case you are like me and love to watch artists at work, the 2012 documentary For No Good Reason focuses on Steadman, his techniques, and his relationship with Hunter Thompson. The film is a novel opportunity to observe the artist in his studio, discussing the wild ideas and sundry adventures that inform his vision. It is hosted by Johnny Depp, which is another reason to watch it.

     – posted by Sven

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s