Stanley Donwood is better known to music lovers through his interesting and varied cover art on Radiohead albums. Donwood studied art at Exeter University with Thom Yorke (frontman of Radiohead), and the two have since developed a close working relationship. Donwood has created the cover art for all Radiohead albums since they first formed, and even prior to Radiohead days when they were called On A Friday. The working process between Thom Yorke and Donwood is very close, with a lot of crossover between visuals and music.
Donwood begins working on cover art for the albums at the same time the band start recording a new album, and will even live with them during the recording process (Radiohead are known for renting out unusual houses whilst recording, and Donwood has stayed there with them too). Thom Yorke cites Donwoods visuals as a strong influence for his own music creation, saying that it is only when he sees the accompanying visuals that he feels confident in his musical work. Stanley takes a lot of time delving into the deeper meaning of Radiohead’s music to create visuals that are true to the atmosphere of the album.
Through this immersive experience and close friendships with the band members, Donwood creates visuals that truly capture the meaning and essence of the music works. This is an important thing to note, since visual artists are often loners, myself included. I prefer to be in my own headspace, and hate being distracted by others. In Donwood though we see this organic opening up of the mind to other influences, where the musician actively works within and moulds the headspace of visual artist. He not only welcomes the influence of others but requires it to produce his art… without the musical inspiration of Radiohead he would not create these artworks. It is a symbiotic relationship.
It also reminds me that technique is not everything. Mostly it is about concept and having enough awareness of how to bend materials to your own will, in order to materialise the concepts we hold. In particular Donwoods ‘technique’ of filming a mannequin for The Bends Radiohead cover is not about advanced technique. Anyone can film a mannequin, but to decide that filming a mannequin would be a brilliant idea is a totally different thing. The unimportance of technique was also highlighted to be when Donwood said that he had never used oil paints, until the most recent Radiohead album, and then made a complete mess of it.
It is not that I feel that technique is unimportant, I think moreso that technique is just a tool. Being able to paint is just a tool. But having a tool without an idea of what to create is pointless, and that’s the point of ‘concept’. I’ve always been opposed to ‘concept’ and been more like ‘no, I want to learn to paint classical oil paintings and be a good classical draftsman, ho hum!’ but I’m loosening up on that stronghold more now. Afterall, what’s the point of learning how to use a hammer if you don’t have any ideas for what to build – perhaps someone will employ you to hammer in nails to their direction, but that’s not being an artist, that’s just being a dude who hammers stuff. The artist is the one who decides what should be hammered together and how. And that’s all about concept, the idea.
My most respected artist is Thom Yorke, to me he is an artist extraordinaire, he is really up there… so to have him choose to commit to Donwood as the Radiohead artist gives me a lot of confidence in Donwoods artistic ability. So having a visual artist like Donwood (and therefore indirectly Thom Yorke) show me that this is the correct direction for an artist helps me accept that concept is more important than technique, and loosen that stronghold on technique further. It’s a fine balance though, without a strong grasp of some sort of technique, you don’t have the tools or skillset to carve out your concepts properly.
The reason I am looking at Donwoods artwork now, is in particular for the album cover to ‘Hail to the Thief’ (shown at left). The artwork is a map. It is not any map I have seen before however, yet still I have always have Donwoods maps in my mind when I am thinking about society and community and localities. It captures and describes honestly the groups and attitudes that circulate around a township, the unspoken traits that have suddenly been brought to light.
There is also no hidden truth in this work. No hidden messages. It is all there, it is how it is. And that’s generally how Donwood’s work is. It is interesting and has depth, but he never tries to obscure messages. I really respect that. If you are an artist and have a message just fucking say it, don’t try and obscure that message under 50 layers of insider knowledge and symbols and mixed messages. Make it accessible and honest. I’m sick of art that isn’t accessible to the viewer. I am often the perpetrator of such stupidly complex and obscure things, and I have to stop that but it’s not easy, it’s just something I’m slowly fixing through practice.
The “Hail to the Thief’ cover was created in response to snippets of words that Donwood would see while travelling as a passenger in a car. He picked out certain words and phrases that stuck out to him, and created maps for these regions through these words. Also important is the colour. The colours he used were ones he saw constantly repeated, as he described, the same 5 colours over and over: Vermillion, Emerald Green, Orange, Yellow, Denim Blue. This drew attention for me to how standardised colours are in our towns. Our society is so built on ‘brand imagery’ which is constructed around a few key colours, that it somehow seems to make sense to work in harmony with those colours when using modern society as a theme, or at least to draw attention to them. Our places are such a part of this brand imagery too, and not just through ads and signage in the mall or down-town, but even strata controlling the colour scheme of our town house rooftops!
Interestingly, the colours on the ‘Hail to the Thief’ cover, Donwood says, are products of hydrocarbons. They are all completely artificial colours. Without hydrocarbons, we would not have these colours. Somehow gives extra meaning to the fact that these colours are most used in advertising doesn’t it? Where will us artists get our beautiful vibrant colours when the petro-chemical industry doesn’t exist anymore? Maybe only on-screen and in light. Hmm.. that’s a rather disconcerting thought for a naturalist like me, maybe I’ll go back to using neutrals!
NME article: http://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/stanley-donwood-on-the-stories-behind-his-radiohead-album-covers
Pitchfork article: http://pitchfork.com/news/40032-take-cover-radiohead-artist-stanley-donwood/