I first encountered Stanley Donwood’s work back when I was in art school. I knew his paintings not as Donwood paintings, but because they were the cover art for many beloved Radiohead albums [Editor’s note: Donwood has created all of Radiohead’s iconic cover art since 1995’s The Bends—from studio albums, to all the singles and EPs and imports us superfans nerd-out about.]. His images have a remembrance-of-things-past/madeleine quality for me, as particular paintings function as a trigger, propelling me back in time; to a long lost hike in L.A. for example, or to that time I was working late at night to hit a deadline for something or other. Taking me back to some breakup, with a Radiohead soundtrack, and a Stanley Donwood mystery image to ruminate over.
But who is this Stanley Donwood, anyway? When LOST WKND invited me to interview him, I Googled him of course, and got lost in the funny, self-deprecating language of his blog (although he assures me that blogs are for grandmas, and he’s mostly on Instagram now), and in the moody brushy world of his landscapes. His work appears in many contexts—art galleries, museums, book covers, record covers. But in that variety of contexts, it’s always recognizably his. It’s something about the horizon, and the end of language. This color palate—dark but punctuated by reds or chalky whites. A small figure in a large landscape. A puzzle to unravel.
So here he is—Stanley Donwood, in his own words.
Sue de Beer: You’ve often worked collaboratively with writers and musicians—most famously with Radiohead—but also designing covers for J.G. Ballard’s books, and most recently the cover of Granta magazine. Do you connect creatively with the people you’ve been commissioned to make work for? Are you in dialogue with them, or do they select images that already exist?
Stanley Donwood: I was very pleased to be asked to make the cover artwork for JG Ballard’s novels, although unfortunately he was dead by the time that happened. At times I really wished he was still alive; aside from being one of my favourite writers, there were questions that arose whilst I was working that I really wanted to discuss with him. I did once have the chance to have a meeting with him before he died, but I was too nervous and overwhelmed that I didn’t take up that opportunity, because I’m an idiot.
Before starting on the artwork I reread all his work (and read some of it for the first time) and tried to understand the underlying motivations behind his writing. I had the strange idea that essentially he wrote curious variations of the same book each time, and that one of his notions was to experiment on the psyche of his readers, to upset and confound his readers’ expectations, mindset, and mental conventions.
So I started by visiting various science laboratories, [and having] experiments carried out and [having] the resulting chemical reactions photographed as the basis and/or an ingredient of the work I eventually created. Ballard’s work is undeniably experimental, and I felt that with his medical training and association with doctors, scientists and psychologists and psychiatrists had a significant bearing on his thinking. I hope that his ghost is reasonably happy with what I made for his books.
Stanley Donwood. “charliebrownsxmas2,” (2006). Digital artwork. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.
Stanley Donwood. “there are no others,” (2008). Digital artwork. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.
Most of the other book covers I make are done with a form of collaboration with the author. Unless they happen to be dead, that is. Usually I send a few rubbishy sketches to check I’m heading roughly in the right direction, and then get on with it; although my sketches are usually so vague the author and publisher have to hope for the best… The most recent book cover I did was of a mountain in the Alps. I had no idea if I could draw mountains but it turned out that I could, luckily.
With Radiohead and Thom Yorke’s records it’s a bit different; I tend to begin on the artwork around the same time the band starts working on the record, and the artwork can change significantly (or completely) during the recording process. Most recently, with the record that became A Moon Shaped Pool, I had a good idea of what I was going to do; I mean, I’d even done some small scale experiments in my studio—but scaling up and using what I thought would be better materials was a complete disaster, and the work became utterly different to what I’d planned. Early on in the process I was quite frightened because I didn’t have a Plan B.
As the music develops and mutates from early ideas to something approaching completion, the artwork does the same. A lot gets discarded along the way, because it’s inappropriate, out of place, or just shit. Sometimes the work can be rescued, or maybe transformed into something else, but mostly it gets destroyed or deleted…
There’s not been a single record that I’ve worked on with Radiohead that hasn’t been a lengthy process and hasn’t ended up utterly different from my original ideas. And there’s not been a single record that I haven’t had a dreadful crisis of confidence somewhere along the line; ranging from about six weeks of bleak depression to about a week of blank and fearful staring into space. Radiohead records are not easy. But I don’t think I’ve fucked up too badly yet.
Stanley Donwood. “hotels, fire, glacier,” (2000). Digital artwork. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.
Stanley Donwood. “contagion,” (2016). Linocut. 70 x 50 centimeters. Courtesy the artist.
I read that you and Thom Yorke met as art students at the University of Exeter. What were you guys like back then?
That is true. I’m not really sure what we were like, but I’d hazard a guess that we were a) arrogant, b) scruffy, c) mouthy and d) utterly certain that we were right and all the tutors were wrong. Of course now we are much older and slightly wiser. And a bit less scruffy.
I teach at an art school, and in my more existential moments I often ask myself what is the purpose of art school? So tell me, what is the purpose of art school?
Well, maybe your students ask themselves that question every couple of hours. Along with several variations on the theme; “…of a career?” “…of my own existence?” et cetera.
For me it was a better alternative than either trying to find a job or being on the dole; you get to meet interesting people, there are fantastic facilities and equipment you’d never be able to afford otherwise, there’s usually a subsidised student union bar, there are a lot of parties and of course sex, drugs and whatever kind of music that happens to be around. Music goes with art; they kind of need each other. While I was at art college there was a fantastic second flowering of punk—Fugazi and stuff like that—and the explosion of acid house, illegal dance parties and warehouse raves. It was very fun. So maybe the purpose of art school could be that for a short time you forget about the purpose of art school, and of everything else. And you get to make a lot of art, too.
How do your gallery shows differ from your work with musicians and/or writers?
Everything’s bigger, for a start. Almost everything I’ve made for record covers or book jackets starts off much bigger than it is reproduced at; the covers for many of the Radiohead records are really paintings on canvases that are about a metre and a half square. So a gallery show is a good place to display paintings and drawings for real. For several exhibitions I’ve made installations, like Red Maze (in 2010, in The Netherlands), Black Labyrinth in London, and The Panic Office in Sydney, which was a huge construction about 40 metres in diameter, comprising rooms and corridors. The main difference for me—because the creative side of it isn’t that different—is that I have to be ultimately responsible for every choice that’s made. And I have to go to private views, which I really dread.
L: Stanley Donwood. “Crash,” (2014). Digital artwork. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist. R: Stanley Donwood. “Unlimited Dream Company,” (2014). Digital artwork. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.
Who are your creative influences? I see some Edward Gorey, or surrealists like Dorothea Tanning.
Edward Gorey! Yes! He was truly unique, and just from the evidence—I’ve had books by him since I was a young teenager—he must have been an influence. But my influences are pretty diverse, really, from Andy Warhol to Hieronymus Bosch. When I was at art college (see above…) I was more interested in having fun than going to lectures about art history, so unfortunately most of my knowledge of other artists is self-learned in the years after I left college. (Note to current students: try to visit the library occasionally, and perhaps some of the lectures aren’t as boring as you think they’ll be?)
But I’m also interested in the litter you find everywhere in the streets, and in graffiti (tags and amateur stuff rather than developed professional street art) and even advertising and street signage. Also photographs, children’s drawings, the marks left in muddy fields by tractor tyres, pylons, oil spilled on wet roads… I’m afraid I’ve never heard of Dorothea Tanning.
You fuse painterly content, graphic content, and schematic/technical diagrams together into moody, dreamy landscapes. What is your working process like? How do you find your imagery?
See above. I do try to keep sketchbooks/scrapbooks, which can contain everything from drunken scrawls to written ideas, newspaper clippings, airline safety instructions, junk mail, postcards—anything that catches my eye, really. I’m a truly terrible photographer, but my out-of-focus, badly composed snaps sometimes become very useful. I draw quite a lot, although not as much as I’d like (this goes for painting, too) because all of the other bits of life take up a lot of time.
So when I’m working it’s like having a fairly well-stocked kitchen but no recipe. And because my filing system is, to say the least, quite haphazard, nothing turns out how I initially imagine it. I suppose I just keep adding ingredients till it’s done. Myself, I wouldn’t call this a process; more a choreographed road traffic accident.
L: Stanley Donwood. “melancholy,” (2014). Pencil on paper. 75 x 57 centimeters. Courtesy the artist. R: Stanley Donwood. “the end of humor,” (2014). Pencil on paper. 75 x 57 centimeters. Courtesy the artist.
I like your blog a lot. And your website. Is social media important to you? Is written language different from visual language?
Hey thanks. I’ve become a bit slack with that lately; since I got into using Instagram and Twitter, I’d say. So yes, social media has been quite important lately, especially since I got an iPhone. When I first started using Twitter I really didn’t understand it—I posted everything from a laptop and didn’t get that I was supposed to follow other people. I started using Instagram along with my daughter when she was studying photography, so I think I got that a bit better; I followed people!
I kind of wish I still did my blog more regularly, but it feels as if blogs are going the way of postcards and letter-writing. Nice, but sort of a bit of a hassle…
Anyway, yes, writing is (for me) a very different thing to visual art. It feels as if music is the original art, followed by oral storytelling and visual art, followed a long way behind by writing. This isn’t a ranking system, just a way for me to try to understand how different strands of art developed historically. So writing is considerably more artificial—it’s constrained by letterforms, by language, and by historical context in a way that music and painting are not. But these limitations also lend writing a fantastic specificity and focus, a level of detailed prompting of the reader’s imagination that earlier forms of art lack. So you can deliberately write, arranging words in different ways in order to make people feel thrilled, sexually aroused, frightened, uplifted… (or in the presence of god if you’re writing the Bible or the Koran or whatever). It’s impossible for music or visual art to apply this very accurate pressure.
What are you working on now?
Hmm. Well, I’ve just had a holiday and now I’m starting up again. Hence doing this interview… I’ll be releasing a few print editions via my pop-up webshop and I’m going to be painting a huge and ridiculously ambitious piece in a museum called Bonnefanten in Maastricht, making new work for the 2017 Glastonbury Festival, and I don’t know what else. But the slightly less frenetic look of next year means that at last I’m going to write a novel. I’ve been stewing ideas for this for the last year and a half, so it’s time to get the fuck on with it. It’s a nasty story, and I hope people will like it.
I’m painting a lot more now—the Radiohead record took up a lot of time and involved a lengthy period of tapping on a keyboard and moving a mouse around, and now that it’s complete I’ll be able to get more involved in the physical act of painting again. So yeah—a novel, and a lot of painting and drawing.
Featured image: Stanley Donwood. “cocaine disko all you like,” (2006). Digital artwork. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.