Design Essay: Spring/Summer Muse, Ralph Steadman

Artist Ralph Steadman, Portrait Courtesy of Ralph Steadman Studio

Every class has a cool kid. A well-read and rounded character, whose outlook on life belies their years. For 4A, this was a floppy haired handsome boy called Daniel, who turned up to morning registration one day and handed me a book. Grinning, he said, “Read this. It’ll blow your mind.” This was June 1990. I was 16. The book was Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 

Words by Leanne Cloudsdale


“To me, he was just my friend. I don’t think we thought about being a duo – he was just doing his thing and I was doing mine; luckily, they worked well together. Hunter thought I was a matted haired geek with string warts when we first met.”

Ralph steadman

I took a quick flick through. It was stuffed with scratchy, brilliant line drawings. There were blobs of ink smeared across some of the pages, obstructing the words. The chapter titles rambled in prose that seemed to make no sense to me. Reading the opening line, I blushed. Daniel had passed me a portal to another world. My teenage rebellion had begun. 

Breaking Bad Water White by Ralph Steadman, Credit: Ralph Steadman Art Collection

Ralph Steadman was the force behind the illustrations in that dogeared paperback. His depiction of people, places and scenarios were nothing like I’d seen before – there was an explosive, warped energy running through each one, which matched the content perfectly. Together, Steadman and Thompson had pioneered ‘Gonzo’, a new method of storytelling. It flicked the bird to traditional journalistic values and put first person participation centre stage. Objectivity went flying out of the window with the same vigour as a drunken rock star hurling a TV from a hotel balcony. 

The pair met in 1970. Steadman was hired instead of a photographer to accompany Thompson during his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Commissioned to write the piece by Scanlan’s Monthly, the duo struggled to see the horse racing clearly from their seats and turned the article into a blistering account of the racegoers instead. It was a risky punt, but it paid off. Steadman’s political cartoons had already been tearing tyrants to shreds since the 1960s, but when his furious, expressionist splats were combined with Thompson’s unapologetic, hyperbolic commentary, it was the perfect creative collaboration. Their working partnership endured until Thompson’s death in 2005.  

Some readers will recall the 2012 documentary about Steadman, For No Good Reason. Narrated by Johnny Depp (who played Hunter S. Thompson in the 1998 movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) it explores the influence and impact of Steadman’s art, with most of the filming taking place at the artist’s studio at his home in Kent. Others might remember his caricature of Donald Trump as a red-faced pig wearing a stars and stripes nappy. Most will be able to recognise his razor-sharp (famous) illustration of Thompson in Hawaiian shirt, bucket hat, smoking cigarette and sunglasses.  

Credit: Christelle Bilodeau

Examples of Steadman’s work and candid snaps of his bespectacled face feature heavily on the Summer 2022 Cutler and Gross moodboard. Serious fans can even bag themselves a pair of the Steadman-inspired 1397 frames for the full Gonzovision. As a cultural icon with a solid fifty years in the industry, it made sense to interview Ralph Steadman for the ‘Design Essays’ series. I opened up the conversation by telling him I’d kept hold of that battered old copy of Fear and Loathing, given to me an astonishing 32 years ago (gulp) and asked if he had any idea at the time of how significant that piece of work would turn out to be. He replied, “To me, he was just my friend. I don’t think we thought about being a duo – he was just doing his thing and I was doing mine; luckily, they worked well together. Hunter thought I was a matted haired geek with string warts when we first met at the Kentucky Derby in 1970. He seemed to challenge my intelligence. You don’t know you are having your ‘big break’ until you are well past it, and then you look back and realise, ‘ah, that was the moment’. It was amazing that in all the world I met the one person I was meant to, at the right time. Serendipity.”

Most works begin with one fierce, deliberate flinging session of ink onto A1 paper, but occasionally, he’ll use the ‘dirty water technique’. I wanted to know a bit more about this Gonzo system. Nodding, he explained, “This is when I use the water that I’ve been washing my paintbrushes in to start a picture. I pour the water from shoulder height onto a new piece of paper on the floor. The dirtier (and smellier) the water the more interesting the texture is when it dries. I leave it for 3 days (it’s not smelly when it dries!) and then I put it on my drawing board and look for the image to emerge. The entire Critical Critters from the Gonzovation Trilogy were done like this. I would hold the blots up on Skype to show Ceri (Levy) and we would look for the endangered animal. Then I would coax it out of the ink, and the mess. It’s the element of chance and abandoning yourself to the gamble of it all that is probably Gonzo. Truly Gonzo things rarely need any planning.”

He is famously protective of his illustrations and paintings and is quoted as once saying, “If anyone owns a Steadman original, it’s stolen.” We get talking about how artists at the start of their career might undervalue their work and their talent. Turns out he has kept almost all of his original artworks. Preferring to give copies instead for publications – where possible. Revealing why, he said, “Well, I just don’t like to see the back of my work. People used to just take them out of newspaper offices in the early days without a by-your-leave, as if to say, ‘…oh there’s more where that came from’. What if there wasn’t? What if that was the last thing I did, and they just swiped it? Some editors used to actually write on them, adding notes and sizings and crop lines for the page designers. I think because they are on paper maybe people value them less than a canvas. Would you do that to the Mona Lisa or to a Picasso?”


It’s a fair point – and we all know that the answer to that question is, no. Most definitely not! 

“It’s the element of chance and abandoning yourself to the gamble of it all that is probably Gonzo. Truly Gonzo things rarely need any planning.”

RALPH STEADMAN
Ralph’s Studio, Credit: Chrisfloyd.com 
Book cover by Ralph Steadman, Credit: Leanne Cloudsdale

He is famously protective of his illustrations and paintings and is quoted as once saying, “If anyone owns a Steadman original, it’s stolen.” We get talking about how artists at the start of their career might undervalue their work and their talent. Turns out he has kept almost all of his original artworks. Preferring to give copies instead for publications – where possible. Revealing why, he said, “Well, I just don’t like to see the back of my work. People used to just take them out of newspaper offices in the early days without a by-your-leave, as if to say, ‘…oh there’s more where that came from’. What if there wasn’t? What if that was the last thing I did, and they just swiped it? Some editors used to actually write on them, adding notes and sizings and crop lines for the page designers. I think because they are on paper maybe people value them less than a canvas. Would you do that to the Mona Lisa or to a Picasso?”

It’s a fair point – and we all know that the answer to that question is, no. Most definitely not!

Discover the style inspired by Ralph Steadman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.