Ralph Steadman, Gonzo Artist

Ralph Steadman, Gonzo Artist

SXSW Field Notes — Ralph Steadman talks to Huck about the art of being Gonzo ahead of his SXSW debut. The artist — and star of the documentary For No Good Reason — tells how Hunter S. Thompson taught him to stop worrying and love risks.

Ralph Steadman says he became an artist to change the world and for decades his jagged, splattered, distorted, gritty images have forced us to look at the hidden children, scoundrels, and monsters hiding beneath the seemingly mundane around us. The English artist caught the world’s attention through his partnership with the late American writer Hunter S. Thompson and together they created “Gonzo Journalism,” plunging into chaos together to produce stylish words and images that fed off of each other. Huck caught up with Steadman before his talk at SXSW, the music, film and media festival in Austin, Texas, where he is talking about his career and a new documentary about him, For No Good Reason, directed by Charlie Paul and starring Steadman and Johnny Depp.

Steadman shared some thoughts with Huck on craft, Gonzo collaboration and changing the world.

On Starting With a Mark

“The thing about drawing is not to pencil in first and try to go over it. If you have to do that, what are you trying to do? You start directly in an ink, or some implement that makes a mark that you cannot rub out. People say: ‘Don’t you make a mistake?’ Of course you make a mistake! But there’s no such thing as a mistake really. It’s just an opportunity to do something else.

On Ink, Paper and Technology

“I insist there must be some wet ink in the drawing first, or wet paint. I do not go straight to the computer, I can’t do that. I have to get an image on paper. It has to be a tactile exercise between myself and the image on the paper. Then if I decide to put in, like a few weeks ago when I did a picture of Alex Ferguson, the football manager who’s just retired, — I want to put in a football pitch or I just want to try adding I do it on the computer. It’s smooth as hell. With a computer it’s become much easier.”

On Learning to Be an Artist

“Learn to draw from the model — to really do that. There’s no tricks in this. You’re just confronted by a model and you have to draw. She may be beautiful, she may not be, in fact some of the fattest ones were the most interesting and so it didn’t matter.

“My teacher was Leslie Richardson, he’s in his 90s now and he’s a lovely man. We used to go around the art galleries in London together. I used to go to him for drawing lessons by going to the Albert and Victoria Museum, the Science Museum or the Natural History Museum and those were the places where I was learning to draw. I was drawing machinery, fantastic works, mechanical things, I would be in the dinosaur hall and drawing form that. I would be doing everything in all manner of places. That’s how I was learning.”

On Hunter, Risk-taking and Creativity

“I think he helped confirm in me the spirit that I already had of taking a chance. That’s what I always wanted to do was take a chance. I would try and control, it but in fact creativity is about being a free spirit isn’t it? You have to try to — not harness it — but exploit it. When it works, it’s almost pure hapchance. When it does happen it feels great. You feel like you achieved something. You’ve beaten it into submission.

“I don’t know what we’re doing here,” he’d say, “but it might work.” (Steadman says, imitating Thompson’s clipped, American accent.)

Gonzo Journalism and Entering the Story

“‘We can’t be out of here, we’ve got to be in here. We’ve got to go under the armpits of the officials on the door. We’ve got to get through there. We’ve got to get inside Ralph, we cannot be outside, we’ve go to be in there,’ he’d say. The thing about Gonzo journalism is we don’t go to cover the story, we become the story. That’s what Gonzo journalism is and that’s what Hunter always wanted to do and that’s why he realised that when we met that I actually became the story with him. Together we could do this thing, like a couple of mischievous boys, really.”

On Changing the World

“It’s an important thing. I was very concerned that the world was in a mess and it’s in an even worse mess now. But I did actually say what I want to do is change the world. I think I succeeded because it’s worse today than when I started.” (Steadman laughs.)

For No Good Reason will be released in UK cinemas in June.