If you’re feeling self-conscious about your creative abilities, I urge you to stop reading now. These ten musicians, as well as being deeply gifted songwriters, performers, etcetera, are all talented painters. While their styles and themes may vary, all of them have used their art as an extension of their creative process in the world of music, crafting large bodies of work that, in some ways, offer us greater insight into their inner lives than their music.
Artists and musicians share a lot in common. Both seek to evoke a powerful emotional response, and both have limited materials to incite it. David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Miles Davis: all of them work or worked in the same way, whether sat at a canvas or a piano. With both art and music, they sought to alter their audience from within, using their work as a source of comfort and inspiration.
As the work of these ten musicians-turned-artists demonstrates, music and art also share a mutual dependence on harmony, rhythm, balance, and repetition. Whether it’s recording a song or painting a portrait, success relies upon cohesion. Join us as we take a trip around the gallery floor to discover ten musicians with a knack for visual art.
10 musicians who are also brilliant painters:
As if he wasn’t content with being the single most iconic musician in the history of recorded music, Bob Dylan also established himself as a celebrated painter and sculptor. The ‘Blowin In The Wind’ singer has been given pretty much every award you can think of, including the Pulitzer Prize, The Presidental Medal of Freedom, the Nobel Prize for Literature, an Oscar, and the National Medal of Arts.
Dylan’s first solo art exhibition, Retrospectum, opened in the Modern Art Museum Shanghai and was visited by over 100,000 people in the first three months, establishing Dylan as an essential voice in the world of contemporary visual art. Dylan’s diverse body of work was collected in his 1994 book Drawn Blank. The Drawn Blank series was later exhibited at the Kunstsammlungen Museum in Chemnitz, Germany.
Bowie was a visual artist for as long as he was a musician. However, it wasn’t until 1994 that he revealed his work to the public. For the glam icon, painting was an essential part of the musical process. As he explained during a conversation with The New York Times in 1998: “I’ll combine sounds that are kind of unusual, and then I’m not quite sure where the text should fall in the music,” he explained, “Or I’m not sure what the sound conjures up for me. So then I’ll go and try and draw or paint the sound of the music. And often, a landscape will produce itself.”
Bowie was also a devoted art collector. He had a particular fondness for Basquiat. Of the artist, he said: “I feel the very moment of his brush or crayon touching the canvas, there is a burning immediacy to his ever evaporating decisions that fires the imagination ten or fifteen years on, as freshly molten as the day they were poured onto the canvas. It comes as no surprise to learn that he had a not-so-hidden ambition to be a rock musician […] His work relates to rock in ways that very few other visual artists get near.”
As a child, The Clash’s Paul Simonon was surrounded by art. His bedroom walls were a kaleidoscopic patchwork of his father Gustave’s paintings and those of the British and Dutch masters – all ripped from the pages of art books. When he left home to attend art college, his affair with the seminal punk band The Clash overrode his burgeoning art career. But with the group’s demise, he returned to the world of art, establishing himself as a painter and designer whose exhibitions have comprised everything from oil paintings to conceptual installations and sculpture.
As you would expect, much of Simonon’s work is imbued with a certain kitchen-sink realism. And yet, there is something vibrant and dreamlike about his 2008 series – a collection of oil paintings depicting, among other things, the ‘La Corrida’ bullfighting tournaments that he witnessed during a visit to Spain in May 2003. These moments of drama are contrasted by quiet meditations on even the smallest of scenes, from the shimmering scales of a plate of fried fish to the playful shadows of one of his Walter Sicker-inspired nudes. This painstaking attention to detail, he notes, has led him to lose his cool on several occasions: “As you get older you learn to control your temper,” Simonon reflected, “Although I have punched paintings across the room.”
For Miles Davis, art wasn’t a release but a continuation of his music. Like Bowie, the jazz pioneer’s passion for visual art began at an early age, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that things really started to take shape. After breaking both of his legs in a car crash, Davis found himself unable to play live for nearly a year. He painted almost constantly to keep himself occupied during his recovery.
He once said: “Painting is like therapy for me, and keeps my mind occupied with something positive when I’m not playing music.” Davis’ artwork is frequently surreal, with the artist making great use of vivid colours and geometric shapes, evoking the modernist work of Kandinsky and Picasso, as well as the masters of traditional African art.
Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon
Kim Gordon’s career as an artist began in the 1970s when she enrolled at the OtisArt Institute in Los Angeles. While she’s perhaps better known as the no-fucks-given bassist of Sonic Youth, Gordon – who is also an author by the way – has produced a number of stunning solo exhibitions. Her first, presented under the name ‘Design Office’, was held at New York’s White Columns in 1981. Since then, she has continued to work across multiple disciplines and cultural fields to craft a truly unique body of work.
Her artworks include the ‘Noise Painting’ series, in which the artist depicts the names of experimental and noise groups; the ‘Boyfriend series, in which she covers used denim skirts with Rorschach-inspired paintings; and the ‘Twitter Paintings’ series, sourced from the Twitter feeds of Girls producer Jenni Konner, critic Jerry Saltz and the artist Richard Prince.
Art was the original calling of folk visionary Yusuf/Cat Stevens. His ambition as a small child was to be just like his uncle Hugo, a famous artist well-regarded in Sweden. Like so many of his contemporaries, he entered art school as a teenager, enrolling at Hammersmith College to hone his skills. However, his fascination with the canvas was soon superseded by a passion for music.
Even as his music career blossomed, he continued to make art, designing and producing the album covers for Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, the latter of which was eventually turned into a children’s book, which Yusuf/Cat illustrated, and a cartoon series.
Stevie Nicks doesn’t really think of herself as a painter. And yet, she’s produced a stunning collection of work. Evoking the bucolic dapplings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Nicks’ paintings are at once folkish and deeply biblical.
They’re all angels,” she said of her art. “I only draw angels. I started to draw when my best friend got Leukemia. And that’s what she’s left me. And so I know she’s really excited now because it has finally, after the last 9 years, come to fruition, and people have finally started appreciating it. But I never drew a thing before she got sick.”
Paul McCartney has been a committed artist for nearly 20 years. In his work, he found both a haven and a space to explore. Until quite recently, McCartney’s life as an artist remained a largely private affair until 1999, when he revealed his work to the public in a series of stunning lithographs and a book titled Paul McCartney Paintings.
Rich with the texture and vibrancy of the abstract expressionists, McCartney’s work evokes his positivity and pioneer spirit. These complex, sculpted and immensely layered works ripple with humour and life, but also contain their own melancholy. Unlike John Lennon, McCartney didn’t attend art school, although he did begin drawing and sketching as a schoolboy. He was 41 when he started pursuing painting seriously, opting to show some of his work because, apparently, he “missed getting feedback on my art, and I wanted a little of that, not so much the exhibits, but the feedback.”
Modern anti-rockstar Marilyn Manson has been quietly churning away at the easel for the last two decades now. Over the past 20 years, he’s created a large and deeply unnerving body of work that’s just as provocative as his lyrics. Ahead of his debut exhibition in 2002, Manson told Rolling Stone: “They might expect me to have painted in my own shit or something.”
Thankfully, there were no human faces in The Golden Age of Grotesque; although the exhibition was still undeniably unsettling. Drawing on the apocalyptic melancholia of Bosch, the pop-cultural idolatry of Warhol, and the fairy tale surrealism of Mark Ryden, Manson’s body of work is comprised of a selection of sickly and cadaverous portraits. “I never intended to show them, much less sell them,” Manson said of his art, “Until several years of paintings built up. And when people would come to my house, they would urge me to show people my art.”
Music, acting, directing: is there anything Mellencamp can’t do? Apparently not. As well as being established in all of those fields, the heartland rocker is also an incredibly gifted painter. Mellencamp’s work reveals an obvious kinship with the German Expressionism of the early 20th century. Indeed, it is his focus on the existential and the subconscious that forms the foundation of what some might be willing to call his “oeuvre.”
Much like his music, Mellencamp’s paintings are composed according to a defined sense of harmony, rhythm and structure. Focusing on small-town life in the heartland of America, his works simmer with an anti-establishmentism while conveying the unsettling beauty of these forgotten backwaters. Mellencamp has exhibited in galleries across America, including The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; the Tennessee State Museum, Nashville; The Museum of Art – Deland, Florida; ACA Galleries, New York and the Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, Georgia.