As an auditory art, music has the power to move us in a fashion unique unto itself. But the art form also has its limitations as a form of expression.
There is a longstanding tradition of musicians supplementing their creative urges with the visual arts. From Woody Guthrie’s doodles to John Lennon’s iconic portraits, art has become casually engrained in our understanding of some artists. With others, meanwhile, it might be surprising to learn of their further artistic inklings.
Here are six musicians who are or were also exceptional visual artists, some well known, some not.
Rapper and producer Swizz Beatz may be the most prominent visual arts proponent in hip-hop today. He’s often credited for mentoring Jay Z in art collecting and helping popularize Jean-Michel Basquiat amongst the rap sect. Beatz is a painter too, but hasn’t yet had a proper show, and he donates the money he earns from his works to charities such as the Children’s Cancer & Blood Foundation. “People tell me I should do a show,” he told Vulture last year in a preview of his Art Basel showcase, “and when the time comes I’ll do it, but there are so many new artists I would rather support.”
Arguably the most impressive musician to work in the visual arts, Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, abandoned music in the mid-1980s to pursue a career in art. He broke past the perception of being a rock star dabbling in art for the sake of his own creative ego and became well regarded in the art community for his edgy, abstract expressionist work. He once said, “I paint for the simple reason that I have to. I feel a sense of relief after I do.”
Though he’d been painting and drawing almost all his life, Miles Davis didn’t begin to do so in earnest until his mid 50s in the early ’80s, but he brought with him the same tenacity and passion as he’d applied to music all his life. He is said to have made painting as much a part of his life as music in the later years and professed in his autobiography that art is “like therapy for me, and it keeps my mind occupied with something when I’m not playing music.” His styles ranged but he created fine figures that embody the cool jazz he created and excelled at the abstract.
There is seemingly no end to the vast pool of creativity that fuels Bob Dylan. A musician, poet, writer, film director, actor, radio broadcaster, of course he can draw and paint too. Dylan’s first book of art Drawn Blank was published in 1994, pulling from drawings made on the road between 1989 and 1992. More recently, in 2007, he held his first gallery show at Germany’s Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz and has had a number of exhibits since. Since, Dylan has continued to experiment and define his art and how that best depicts his adventures around the world, and in 2010 released an impressively masterful collection of work called The Brazil Series.
Grimes is best known as a fringe pop act, genre-bending a mix of electronica, hip-hop, R&B and noise rock, with even some bit of medieval music in her tunes. But the 27-year-old Canadian musician and producer isn’t just responsible for what goes into her albums, but also what goes onto them. She covers her releases with her own visual art and doesn’t stop there. In 2012, she held a show of her artwork at Manhattan’s Audio Visual Gallery, displaying her demented pieces that have become recognizable thanks to her music, but stand alone well without it.
Joni Mitchell may be the most well-known musician painter around. She once claimed, “I’m a painter first, and a musician second.” Painting was her first love, but she was derailed by the circumstance of a successful musical career. From a young woman in Canada sketching cornfields to illustrating her fellow musicians in Laurel Canyon in the 1960s and ’70s, she has held on to her original passion. Fans will recognize her work from her album covers, such as Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon and Both Sides Now.