How Hunter S. Thompson — and Psilocybin — Influenced the Art of Ralph Steadman, Creating the “Gonzo” Style

Though the two men only occa­sion­al­ly col­lab­o­rat­ed over their long friend­ship, the work of Ken­tucky-born “gonzo” jour­nal­ist Hunter S. Thomp­son and that of British illus­tra­tor Ralph Stead­man enjoy a cul­tur­al sym­bio­sis: Thomp­son’s style of writ­ing puts you in the mind of Stead­man’s style of draw­ing, and vice ver­sa even more so. At this point, I have a hard time imag­in­ing any suit­able visu­al accom­pa­ni­ment to the simul­ta­ne­ous­ly clear- and wild-eyed sen­si­bil­i­ty of Thomp­son­ian prose — “I hate to advo­cate drugs, alco­hol, vio­lence, or insan­i­ty to any­one,” he famous­ly said, “but they’ve always worked for me” — oth­er than the bold strokes and vio­lent blotch­es with which Stead­man ren­ders visions of high­ly con­trolled mad­ness. The clip above, from Alex Gib­ney’s doc­u­men­tary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thomp­son, explores the ori­gins of their aes­thet­ic and psy­cho­log­i­cal part­ner­ship.

“I think what he saw in this con­nec­tion was some­body that some­how saw the thing in pic­tures as he saw it in life,” says Stead­man. “Our chem­istry there made gonzo pos­si­ble.” We then see the rel­a­tive­ly tame, con­ven­tion­al style in which he drew before Thomp­son roared into his life, bear­ing a hand­ful of psilo­cy­bin. Their paths had con­verged at the Ken­tucky Der­by, which Scan­lan’s mag­a­zine had assigned them to cov­er, and the drugs made the already grotesque scene even more vivid­ly trou­bling. “I was a qui­et boy,” Stead­man remem­bers. “Decent. An inno­cent abroad. So I guess it was attrac­tive, that kind of raci­ness. I think the birth of gonzo hap­pened when the evil came out of me in the draw­ings.” You can read the ground­break­ing fruit of their hal­lu­cino­geni­cal­ly enhanced labors, “The Ken­tucky Der­by is Deca­dent and Depraved,” at our col­lec­tion of Hunter Thomp­son arti­cles online. For more on Stead­man’s tech­nique and career, which con­tin­ues today, watch the Econ­o­mist’s vis­it to the “sav­age satirist’s” stu­dio just above.

You can find a fair­ly com­pre­hen­sive com­pendi­um of Stead­man’s art in the 1998 book Gonzo: The Art, which fea­tures an intro­duc­tion by Thomp­son him­self.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read 10 Free Arti­cles by Hunter S. Thomp­son That Span His Gonzo Jour­nal­ist Career (1965–2005)

Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hol­ly­wood: The BBC’s 1978 Por­trait of Hunter S. Thomp­son

The Crazy Nev­er Die: Hunter S. Thomp­son in Rare 1988 Doc­u­men­tary (NSFW)

Hunter S. Thompson’s Har­row­ing, Chem­i­cal-Filled Dai­ly Rou­tine

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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