The Visual Art and Design of Famous Writers

I attended the High School of Music and Art in Harlem, graduating in 1970. As one might expect, it was a place rich with talent. The program was split in two (as the name implies), and as I walked the halls, music would pour out from every corner. What I found interesting then was that many of the talents spilled over from one side to the other. I can’t speak to the visual art of the music students, as it was not so evident, but many of the art students were among the best singer-songwriters and rock musicians in the school. Indeed, our most famous classmate, Paul Stanley (née Stan Eisen) of Kiss, was an art student. I played in bands for fifteen years or so myself.

Of course, the musician-as-artist is not an uncommon idea. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Tony Bennett, John Mellencamp, Ron Wood, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, and even Paul Stanley are all known to paint. Less well-known is that the world’s literati also are cross-talented—that in addition to writing works that have shaped our culture, many poets and authors have practiced visual art as a vital component of their creative output. From William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski to Henry Miller and Sylvia Plath, renowned writers of the twentieth century made paintings, drawings, and collages. These creative outpourings enhance our understanding of their authors’ written works, and stand on their own merits as well. Some of the art is whimsical; Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, were inveterate doodlers. Other examples—such as the work of e.e. cummings—is astonishing in its mastery. Here is a look at the visual output of 19 literary greats.

A Sylvia Plath self-portrait

Plath made these paper dolls and dress designs as a child.

Plath's Tabac Opposite Palais de Justice (pen and ink)

Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) studied art at Smith College. Her interest began as a child, and her attraction to design and fashion is in evidence early on. While at Smith she became quite accomplished in various media, including oil, collage, and pen-and-ink. She created myriad scrapbooks filled with collage and artwork. For a time, she hoped her illustrations would accompany the stories and articles she wrote for publication.

William S. Burroughs with two of his gunshot paintings

A Burroughs collage

Ever the provocateur, William S. Burroughs’s (1914–1997) most famous artworks were his gunshot paintings, made by targeting spray cans with a shotgun and splattering their contents onto blank canvases. Throughout his writing career, Burroughs created collages—and indeed, his most famous literary work, Naked Lunch, was a kind of collage itself (Burroughs cut up the manuscript and reassembled the pieces randomly.) His interest in the visual extended into multimedia with the Dreammachine, a flickering light device meant to be viewed with one’s eyes closed, which he created in collaboration with Ian Sommerville and the artist Brion Gysin after reading William Grey Walt’s book The Living Brain.

A Lewis Carroll drawing of Alice

Wonderland drawings by Carroll. (Click to view larger)

In addition to his classic tales, perhaps Lewis Carroll (1832–1898, née  Charles Dodgson) is best known for his photography. But he also drew throughout his life, illustrating Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass himself (although the published books featured the work of illustrator John Tenniel). In addition, Carroll was a mathematician, a logician, an Anglican deacon, and an inventor. [On a related note, Print once asked four designers to storyboard their favorite scenes from Alice in Wonderland. --ed.]

A Henry Miller watercolor

Miller decorated the wrapper for the typescript of Remember to Remember with this self-portrait. (Pen and ink, 1946)

Tropic of Cancer author Henry Miller (1891–1980) painted for most of his life, producing upwards of 2,000 watercolors. He was self-taught, and not just as an artist—Miller attended the City College of New York for only one semester.

An e.e. cummings illustration for The Dial

A cummings portrait of Marion Morehouse, who was a fashion model, a photographer, and his third wife

The poet e.e. cummings (1953–1962) created hundreds of paintings and drawings and wrote about art as well. He fashioned line-art and caricatures for The Dial, an avant-garde literary journal published in Greenwich Village. He would paint in the afternoons and write at night. In 1931, he published a collection of his drawings and paintings, titled CIOPW (for charcoal, ink, oil, pencil, watercolor), and he showed his worked regularly at galleries in New York.

Rudyard Kipling’s pen-and-ink design for his short story “The City of Dreadfull Night,” 1888

Kipling's drawing for “How the Wale Got His Throat,” from Just So Stories

Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) grew up around art. His father was a sculptor, a pottery designer, and a professor of architectural sculpture at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art in Bombay. And two of his aunts were married to painters (Edward Burne-Jones and Edward Poynter). Rudyard worked in pen and ink; his Just So Stories, which combined his writing and illustrations, was published in 1902.

An untitled Charles Bukowski oil painting

A self-taught artist, Charles Bukowski (1920–1994) created more than 1,000 paintings in his lifetime. As with his writing, these works display an art-brut vitality. He worked in any media at hand: acrylics, oil paint, watercolor, pastel, crayon, and pen. Many of these works were bound into first editions of his books from Black Sparrow Press.

Jack Kerouac, comic book artist. Kerouac created this sequential page, “Doctor Sax and the Deception of the Sea Shroud," to amuse Carolyn Cassady's children, in 1952 or 1953. (Click to view larger)

Kerouac’s pencil sketch for the cover of his breakthrough novel, On The Road

Like Bukowski, Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) was self-taught in the visual arts and produced painting, drawings, pen-and-ink pieces, and sketches. His artwork exhibits the same spontaneity as his writing and shows evidence of the influence of the abstract expressionists he befriended, including Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, and Franz Kline.

Mark Twain, "The House That Twain Built"

Twain, "Morning Song"

A rebus letter from Twain to his wife and daughters, 1881

Mark Twain (1835–1910, née Samuel Clemens) wrote essays on art and doodled in his journals, letters, and manuscripts, sometimes to entertain his children and sometimes for his own amusement. In addition, he used his artwork to secure patents for three inventions, including an “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments” (to replace suspenders); a history trivia game; and a self-pasting scrapbook coated with a dried adhesive that only needed to be moistened before use.

Kurt Vonnegut, "Business Man"

Vonnegut, “Tout in Cohoes”

Vonnegut's signature/portrait

Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007) also doodled in notebooks, and created a combination self-portrait/signature that he would reuse often. He also produced incidental illustrations for his novels Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Breakfast of Champions (1973). His grandfather and his father were both architects, and later in life, Vonnegut began to take art more seriously, which eventually led to a one-man show at the Margo Feiden Gallery in Greenwich Village in 1983. In 1995, he created an Absolut Vodka advertisement as part of the company’s American artists series. [See also: Seymour Chwast's great illustration of a Kurt Vonnegut quote.]

Edgar Allan Poe, portrait of Elmira Royster and self-portrait

Poe's cover design for The Stylus

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) tried his hand at drawing, making pencil sketches of his childhood sweetheart and eventual finacée, Elmira Rosyter, the inspiration for his poem “Lenore.” He also designed the cover to “The Stylus,” a literary journal he hoped to produce but that failed to gain financial backing.

Charles Baudelaire self-portrait, 1860

The French poet Charles Baudelaire’s (1821–1867) father was a drawing teacher and instilled in his son a lifelong appreciation of art. In addition to creating his own art, Baudelaire wrote several essays of aesthetic criticism titled “Salons,” and he was a close friend of Édouard Manet.

Arthur Rimbaud, “Three Citizens of Charleville,” drawn on the back of a map of India when he was 15 years old

Although he abandoned poetry by age nineteen, Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) continued to draw throughout his life. An inveterate world traveler, Rimbaud made many of his pencil sketches on the backs of maps.

Joseph Conrad, "Six Drawings of Women"

Another world traveler, Joseph Conrad (1857–1924, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski), recorded his travel experiences through art. In contrast to his exploration of  humanity’s dark side in books like Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, Conrad’s pen-and-ink work displays a light, refined line.

Federíco Garcia Lorca

Lorca

As a young child, the Spanish poet, playwright, and theater director Federíco Garcia Lorca (1898–1936) played piano, sang, acted in plays, and decorated his letters and writings with fanciful drawings. Friends with the surrealists Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, Lorca drew throughout his life. He also collaborated on a puppet theater with the painter Manuel Angeles Ortiz.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Flush”, 1843

The Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) was home-schooled (and the eldest of twelve children). She would decorate the inside of covers of her notebooks of poetry with pen and ink.

George Bernard Shaw

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) spent three years as an art critic for the London World. In addition to doing costume and stage design, he was an amateur photographer and drew numerous lighthearted cartoons and caricatures in pen and ink and also worked in watercolor.

Dylan Thomas

It is well known that Dylan Thomas (1914–1953) spent much time in pubs. What is less well-known is that he would entertain his companions by drawing caricatures of the other patrons on napkins.

H.G. Wells's sketch of himself giving a talk at the Royal Institute, 1902. “I regard this picshua as a masterpiece only to be compared to the Paleolithic drawings in the Caves of Altima.”

The author and science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells (1866–1946) never took his artwork too seriously, but he kept a diary in the form of humorous drawings, numbering in the hundreds. He called them “picshuas”: “silly little sketches about this or that incident which became at last a sort of burlesque diary of our lives.”

Wells, from a letter to his mother: “You observe a doubtless familiar figure above, keeping his 26th birthday.”

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For more drawings and sketches by creative minds, check out the book An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators, and Designers, now on sale at MyDesignShop.com.

17 thoughts on “The Visual Art and Design of Famous Writers

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  6. Delilah J

    This does not surprise me at all.  Most artists I know are also great musicians or vice versa. Also I’ve noticed a lot of celebrity artists who will cross over from acting to music, etc. This only goes to show us that the term artist, refers to someone who is artistically talented, almost always in multiple areas.http://www.sessions.edu/

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