Ralph Steadman’s Earlier Work Shows the Artist’s Abstract Streak

As a student, the future caricaturist tried his hand at a different type of brushwork

Ralph Steadman student drawings
Student drawings (paint on paper) by Ralph Steadman, circa 1958. The artist attended art school while working as a newspaper cartoonist. Ralph Steadman / Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink, Published by Chronicle Chroma 2020

Best known in the States for collaborating with the “gonzo” writer Hunter S. Thompson in the 1960s and ’70s, Ralph Steadman provided that era with a signature visual style: satirical, strung out and suspicious of authority. A new book, Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink, reveals the U.K.-based artist as more than just a counterculture documentarian. His early sketches of London street life show a knack for capturing character in a few quick, precisely chosen pen strokes, and as an art student at East Ham Technical College in the ’50s, Steadman tried his hand at abstract watercolors that evoked the playful canvases of Joan Miró. Throughout his career, the artist—who at 84 still relishes turning his sharp pen on contemporary politicians—has remained open to serendipity. “Your white sheet of paper, it’s really an adventure playground, isn’t it?” he says. “There’s no such thing as a mistake. A mistake is an opportunity to do something else.”

Ralph Steadman's Earlier Work Shows the Artist's Abstract Streak
Left, The Doctor’s Call Out, ca.1960. Right, Door-to-Door Salesman, ca.1960. Ralph Steadman / Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink, published by Chronicle Chroma 2020
Ralph Steadman's Earlier Work Shows the Artist's Abstract Streak
New Technology, ca.1972. Ralph Steadman / Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink, published by Chronicle Chroma 2020
Ralph Steadman's Earlier Work Shows the Artist's Abstract Streak
Left, a publicity photo, ca. 1980. Right, Self-Portrait, 2006. Ralph Steadman / Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink, published by Chronicle Chroma 2020
Ralph Steadman's Earlier Work Shows the Artist's Abstract Streak
Aaarrgh! Hunter at Work!, 1979. Ralph Steadman / Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink, published by Chronicle Chroma 2020
Ralph Steadman's Earlier Work Shows the Artist's Abstract Streak
Left, Fear and Loathing Pastiche, 2003, from Psychogeography. Right, an illustration of Water White for the Breaking Bad Collector’s Edition DVD, 2014. Ralph Steadman / Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink, published by Chronicle Chroma 2020

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This article is a selection from the November issue of Smithsonian magazine

Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink

The definitive career retrospective of this revered and provocative UK artist