Great Guitartists

By Paul Rigg

Picasso may have made the guitar the most significant instrument in modern art, but it is guitarists who have often astounded with their enthusiasm and skill in painting. In fact a surprising number of top musicians have said that they feel their real vocation was in art.    

On 27 May 2021 Pink Floyd co-founder and guitar legend
Syd Barrett’s picture of ‘Orange Dahlias in a Vase’, which he painted at 15, went to auction with a minimum estimate of 3,000 pounds; it achieved £28,270. A few days earlier, to celebrate Bob Dylan's 80th birthday, London’s Halcyon Gallery opened a display of his paintings in an exhibition entitled Bob Dylan: 60 Years of Creating. To mark these events Guitars Exchange has teamed up with Captain Beefheart legend Gary Lucas and professional artist Rebecca Ivatts to review 10 legendary guitarists who are, or were, happy to swap their plectrums for paintbrushes… 

Syd Barrett

Barrett’s watercolour and pastel painting mentioned above was a gift to his friend and art teacher Gerald Harden before he went to study painting at Camberwell Art School in 1964, where he proved himself to be a talented artist. After leaving Pink Floyd, Barrett returned to Cambridge in 1975, where he lived a solitary life and returned to concentrating on his artwork. Few of the paintings from that period survive, however, because he regularly used to set fire to his canvases shortly after he finished work on them.

Floyd bassist and songwriter Roger Waters recalls in an interview that he first met Syd at a Saturday morning art class that they both attended at Hometon College in Cambridge when Roger was around nine and Syd eight. “Before Syd bought his Futurama III red electric guitar…” he says, “we used to make pottery crocodiles and paint.”

Incredibly Barrett considered his music to be a hobby in his life. His sister says that “whenever he was asked what he did he said ‘I’m an artist’; never ‘a musician’. When he left Pink Floyd he stopped painting for a while and that was a bad time; when he picked it up again in the 1980s and 90s he was much happier,” she says.

Artist Rebecca Ivatts observes that “his artistic output is extensive and very eclectic - no one style stands out. His work ranges from from a watercolour of a half-timbered house and a tortoise to a more psychedelic 'doodle' of what look to be black arachnids and an intriguing dark abstract canvas in which blue amorphous shapes are host to dark vacuums...”


Chrissie Hynde

Like Barrett, Hynde always considered her vocation was to paint. “I always thought I’d get into painting but I got waylaid by rock n roll,” she says. The American co-founder of
The Pretenders moved to London in 1973 and because of her art background was able to find employment in an architectural studio. Her interest in design led her to work in Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's punk clothestore SEX, which is how she met Sex Pistols’ Johhny Rotten and Syd Vicious.

In October 2018, Hynde released a limited edition book of her artworks, entitled Adding The Blue, the name being taken from the penultimate track on her 2014 solo album, Stockholm. Many of the works from the book can be seen at her art website , which contain scores of portraits, still life and abstract works.

“Her bold works seem to fall into two categories,”
explains Ivatts, “colourful abstract geometric shapes and human figure/faces, with one seated figure clearly influenced by Picasso's cubism.” Ivatts believes her work is full of potential.


Captain Beefheart

Combining elements of free jazz, blues and rock, Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, produced what is commonly regarded by critics and fans as one of rock’s few truly original bodies of work.

Beefheart retired from the music industry after 1982’s Ice Cream For Crow album to concentrate on his primary love – painting. His artistic talent led to a series of exhibitions in New York, London and Sicily and his staggering output is lovingly documented on a fan-run site

Unsurprisingly given his music, “Beefheart sits at the margins of art because he doesn’t do it like others,” says Ihor Holubizky, senior curator at the McMaster Museum of Art. “Don has really gotten to the point where as a painter he has his own language,” adds Gordon Veneklasen, director of the Michael Werner Gallery in New York City. “His work doesn’t really look like anybody else’s but his own… he’s become a really incredible painter.”

It was a shock to many when Van Vliet left Captain Beefheart to become a painter, but his friend and bandmate, Gary Lucas, was supportive of the move. “I was always happy to see him express himself creatively,” he says. “I felt awkward about being put in the role of being his ‘art pimp’ after he decided to leave music - his ‘go between’ to help flog his art - because that wasn’t a role I felt comfortable in. I arranged entrées to galleries for him, but eventually I left,” he says. What happened? “I had spent an exhausting week with Don out on the West Coast trying to catalogue all the paintings and drawings that he had up in the attic, but during this week Don was, let’s say, ‘hard to be around’, and I thought ‘I don’t want to do this, I’m a musician.’ So when I got back to new York I told him ‘that’s it from me’ and he replied ‘I’m crushed! My whole universe is crumbling!’ He was pretty pissed off,
he thought his art went way beyond his music, but it was beyond human endurance for me.”

“Having said that, I liked his art, I have several pieces on my wall, which he gave me in lieu of payment. But the reward I got out of it was psychic, not financial,”
Lucas says.


Patti Smith

Patti Smith's 1975 album Horses established her as a singer-songwriter at the vanguard of music. The ‘punk poet laureate’ has a packed agenda of gigs stretching well into 2022 but visual art has long been the love of her life. “I was completely smitten,” she once recalled of her first visit to an art gallery. “I totally fell in love with Picasso and I dreamed of being a painter.”

Smith is prolific, with her output covering drawing, photography and installation art and she had had exhibitions at the Andy Warhol Museum, the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, the Art Gallery of Ontario, MoMA, and the Centre Pompidou, among others. Smith exhibited 300 of her paintings in 2002, in a retrospective entitled ‘Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith’. “I do everything with the same conviction,” she said in one interview, “whether I’m taking photographs or performing or painting or writing, I’m the same person.”


Bob Dylan

Dylan largely works in watercolour and his colour palette is vibrant. Some have used the word ‘garish’ but I love the beautiful blue skies, and the lush yellows and oranges of his sunsets.

A large part of his output was drawn together for his 2007 exhibition at the Kunstsammlungen Museum, in Chemnitz, Germany, and more recently, his Brazil Series, which focused on the cultural and natural environment of the country was shown at Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. His latest paintings are currently on display in New Bond Street, London, and there is a further retrospective planned for later this year in Miami, which will focus on his observations on America. As with his music, however, Dylan’s art is constantly changing and evolving.

Ivatts prefers his music to his paintings: “Jaunty colourful American landscapes underpinned by decent draftsmanship - certainly convey a sense of American identity - but lack the depth and poetry of his lyrics...” 


David Bowie

In contrast to Dylan’s work Bowie often seemed to paint with much darker colours and some of his portraits might be described as ominous, even disturbing. Bowie was a painter all his life but the public only really became aware of that aspect of his personality in 1994. As he later explained in a New York Times interview: 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 said, “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.”

Ivatts describes his work as “Bold, highly original - bursting with personality - as you would expect from such a legend. Some paintings are reminiscent of the bold graffiti style of Jean-Paul Basquiat... and there are some very arresting self-portraits …especially the one with pale blue skin and those incredible mesmerising eyes, swoon!” 


John Lennon

Like many others, Beatles co-founder John Lennon was an artist before becoming a musician. A graduate of Liverpool College of Art he continued to paint and draw throughout his life.

Lennon’s first exhibition was at the London Art Gallery in 1970, which almost -unbelievably - led to Scotland Yard intervening to close the show down due to the erotic imagery of some of his work. That did not impact on his output or his shows however, as he went on to hold dozens more in locations as far afield as Australia, South East Asia and South Africa. The website ‘art of john lennon’ explains that “since 1986 Yoko Ono has selected drawings and handwritten song manuscripts from her extensive private collection of John Lennon’s original works for publication as fine art prints.”


Kim Gordon

The Sonic Youth bassist has always considered herself more a visual artist who just happened to be in a band.
Gordon originally moved to New York to be an artist and has been showing her work ever since. Gordon has a BFA from Otis College of Art and Design, and her work has been described as including “Irreverent text-based paintings, tie-dye-esque spray-painted canvases, video works, silkscreens, and repurposed denim skirts all come together in a practice that is both personal and culturally-aware.”

She also is highly rated by our art expert: “Gordon is an edgy, cool artist who has a feminist dialogue in work. Her rhythmic line drawings of the female form in visceral deep crimson paint have a raw, expressive quality reminiscent of Tracey Emin's work.”


Joni Mitchell

Although she is considered one of the greatest singer songwriters and guitarists ever,  like a number of other guitarists on this list Mitchell says
that: "I have always thought of myself as a painter derailed by circumstance."

Mitchell designed nearly all her own 19 studio album covers and hundreds of her paintings can be found on her website “That famous self-portrait with cigarette, smoke spiralling upwards...” says Ivatts,“- the girl had talent! Could probably have been any kind of painter or visual artist she wanted. Perhaps the most interesting and expressive semi-abstract fluid work is from the 60s and 70s - after that it seems to get more conventional and representational...”


John Squire

The Stone Roses’ guitarist and songwriter famously painted the splatter-style cover to the band’s eponymous legendary debut album.

“Quiet and serious, John appears to be an artist in his own right regardless of his music, though his pedigree no doubt bagged him support and exhibitions from Damien Hirst,”
says Ivatts. “Some of his art might be generated by a Snapchat collage tool on which he creates collages (often of celebrities) to transfer to a canvas on a large scale.... So definitely a nod to the zeitgeist, not the sketchbook scribblings of a muso...”

I close by saying that I find Bob Dylan’s paintings the most impacting of all. Ivatts, on the other hand, favours the work of David Bowie and Joni Mitchell. As for Gary Lucas he says: “I am a Don guy, a loyal guy, through and through. Some if his art carries the spirit behind his songs and the fact that he used titles from his paintings as titles for his songs I find intriguing. There is one for example called Evening Bell - looking at it I couldn’t quite see the correlation, but I am glad he did it, I am glad it exists!” 


Thanks to Gary Lucas’ whose new album The Essential Gary Lucas was released 29 January 2021; look out for Guitars Exchange’s album review and exclusive interview with him later this month! 

Thanks also to Rebecca Ivatts, whose artwork can be seen at her online gallery: