"I often think of my art in terms of music. A major painting to me is like a symphony. The color accents are like grace notes."
William Stout: When The Colors Play Music
William Stout is a famously diverse artist of international renown in many fields: themed entertainment and motion picture design (specializing in science fiction/fantasy/horror films), comic book art, book illustration, poster design, CD covers, public murals, and dynamic yet accurate reconstructions of prehistoric life. His endeavors in the fields of movies and comics have gained him a loyal following, making him a popular guest at comic book, science fiction and horror movie conventions around the world.
He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah on the way to Los Angeles in 1949. At seventeen he won a full California State Scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute (California Institute of the Arts) where he obtained his Bachelor's Degree. He began his professional career in 1968 with the cover for the first issue of Coven 13. In 1971 he began to assist Russ Manning on the Tarzan of the Apes Sunday & daily newspaper comic strips and Eisner Award-winning graphic novels. Stout joined Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder on Little Annie Fanny for Playboy in 1972. In 1973 Stout began his relationship with the Firesign Theatre and gained international notoriety for his 45 rock 'n' roll "bootleg" record album covers. From 1976 to 1977 Stout was art director for the rock magazine Bomp! 1977 also saw Stout's first movie poster, WIZARDS. Stout ultimately worked on the advertising for over 120 films. He also was one of the first American contributors to Heavy Metal magazine. Beginning in 1987, Stout worked for Walt Disney Imagineering for a year and a half as a conceptualist, designer and producer for Disneylands and Walt Disney World. After leaving Disney Stout continued themed entertainment design work, contributing ideas and designs to many Disney and non-Disney projects. In 1989 he was hired by Lucasfilm/Industrial Light and Magic as conceptualist and chief designer for their first foray into themed entertainment centers. In 1991 Stout conceived and designed Z Z Top's Recycler tour.
Photos & Artworks © from William Stout's Archive / All rights reserved
When was your first desire to become involved in ART?
I drew cartoons as a child that made my parents laugh. I liked that response and kept drawing. As I grew older, I liked to imagine creatures that interested me (like dinosaurs and other animals) and draw them. In junior high school I fell in love with comic book superheroes and began to draw them. I was a science/math major in high school, as I intended to be a doctor. I switched to major to art my last semester of high school.
What does "ART" means to you?
Freedom to express whatever I’d like to express.
It also means “magic”. I can take a blank piece of paper and within minutes, with just a pen or pencil, turn it into something valuable, an object people desire --- something for which they will pay me. I think it’s the best job in the world.
"My work has benefitted me both spiritually and financially. My best works feed and nourish my soul and the souls of others."
What do you learn about yourself from your work in the ARTS (visual, music etc.)?
When I was young I used to worry that I had no opinions or point of view. It seemed I could easily see both sides of every argument. In the process of creating art and music I found that wasn’t true --- that I had very strong opinions about art, life and the world we live in. I also found that the creation of art and music also expanded my own personal horizons.
How has your work in the ARTS benefitted you?
My work has benefitted me both spiritually and financially. My best works feed and nourish my soul and the souls of others. It has helped me to purchase my home and a comfortable life style. It has allowed me to send my sons to the finest schools and universities in the world. My work has become internationally known to millions of people and has allowed me to live and travel all over the world. I feel truly blessed; I take none of this for granted.
What characterizes William Stout work & progress?
I work harder than almost anyone I know. I typically begin work at 8:00 AM and don’t stop until 1:00 AM with just a short break for dinner and a TV program with my wife.
I am constantly looking for ways to improve my work. I fear lapsing into mediocrity. I aspire to be so much better than I am. I travel to all of the world’s great art museums and art exhibitions to learn, be inspired and to get creatively recharged.
How would you describe your philosophy?
Here’s what that means to me: After the negotiations and contract work are over, no mater how much or how little I am being paid for a job, I promise myself to do the work 100% to the best of my abilities. That does a couple of things.
It means I never have to look back upon a work in shame, knowing I could have done better. It also means that I am probably going to please my client because I will endeavor to deliver more to my client than my client expects. I always try to exceed my client’s expectations and deliver the best work possible.
What is the relation between music and image?
I often think of my art in terms of music. A major painting to me is like a symphony. The color accents are like grace notes. I often play music while I work for inspiration, selecting music appropriate to the subject matter I’m representing in paint. I can look at many of my works and tell you exactly what was playing during each painted passage. This is nothing new; the great Spanish fantasy artist Jose Segrelles painted many pictures inspired by the works of Beethoven, Wagner and other great composers.
When I create LP or CD covers I try to visually capture or properly represent the music in my art.
How important was the music in your life? How does the music affect your mood and inspiration?
Music is one of the most important things to me in my life. Music enhances the great times and gets you through the hard times. It is magic in that it can change your mood instantly, or act as a time machine, making old memories instantly fresh again. Few things can inspire me as quickly as music.
What kind of music do you hear when you are in the process of creating Art?
I select whatever I think is appropriate to the images I am creating. Usually it’s classical music (especially Beethoven and Stravinsky) but often it’s the blues, rock or pop music --- or, perhaps, a Bernard Hermann film score. Working as an assistant to Tarzan of the Apes artist Russ Manning taught me to appreciate opera, which is what he listened to as he worked.
What are your hopes and fears on the future of Art and Music?
Everything is changing extremely rapidly. No one knows what the nature of the art, music and movie businesses will be like in ten years --- or even five years! I find it sad to see CDs disappearing --- I like the physical packaging, especially when it’s thoughtful, as in the releases by Rhino Records. I like holding that printed information and art in my hands. I lamented over the disappearance of the LP (although vinyl seems to be coming back as a niche market) and the emergence and rise of the CD --- I preferred the larger 12” x 12” format of the LP.
Globalization has had wonderful and horrible effects on art. It has exposed my art to people all over the world. At the same time it is dramatically driving the prices of art down, especially in the United States. Americans can’t financially compete with artists in Asia who can live on fifty dollars a month. We just lost most of our special effects work in the film business to India. Rhythm ‘n’ Hues, the effects company that won the Academy Award this year for special effects, just declared bankruptcy.
What has recently touched you on an emotional level?
Last week I was in Boston as a guest of the Boston Comic Con. This was right after the marathon bombings. I monitored the situation on my flight to Boston, watching CNN. At one point the bottom crawl read: ”Boston Logan Airport: No taxi service, no train service, no bus service.” I thought I would be spending the entire weekend trapped in the airport. The taxi ban lifted as my plane touched down. I took a cab to my hotel.
It was the heart of rush hour, yet there were no other cars on the road and no people in the streets of Boston.
My hotel turned out to be right across the street from the bombsite. CNN and other TV news organizations were set up across the street from my hotel lobby. There were police barricades and military vehicles everywhere. The Boston Public Library (with its incredible John Singer Sargent and Edwin Austin Abbey murals) was diagonally just across the street from my hotel but I couldn’t get there because of the barricades.
As I walked into the lobby of my hotel I was greeted by Donald Duck comic book artist Don Rosa, who said, “You know they just cancelled the comic book convention, don’t you?”
I decided to walk around the nearby area. I saw an impromptu memorial for the three people who were killed in the explosions. There were white crosses with their names and photos on them. There were piles and piles of flowers, Boston memorabilia, stuffed toys, treasured sports objects, candles and poems --- anything of deep personal meaning to people --- surrounding and covering the crosses. That entire scene made me weep and weep.
I proceeded to walk through the neighborhood. I turned a corner and looked down a small street. There was a succession of cards posted on the lampposts. Each had a large letter on them, posted in alphabetical order. Below each letter it read ”Family Meeting Place”. These cards were posted so that family members could find each other in the chaos of the tragic events. This little thing made me very, very sad.
"Music is one of the most important things to me in my life. Music enhances the great times and gets you through the hard times."
Would you mind telling me your most vivid memories of Harvey Kurtzman, Jim Henson and David Lynch?
Harvey Kurtzman and I became very close after I worked with him and Will Elder on Little Annie Fanny for Playboy. He never failed to call and get together with me whenever he was in Los Angeles. We’re both foodies. One time I took him to Cassell’s, the best hamburger place in Los Angeles. After we got home from our lunch, he drew me a great little drawing of Annie Fanny enjoying a Cassell’s burger. I’ll never forget the night in New York when Harvey invited me to have dinner with him and Terry Gilliam.
Jim Henson was one of the kindest guys I ever met. We worked together for nine months on a dinosaur film that I had written for him. Sadly, the project never made it to the screen. Years later, he saw me in a meeting when I was working at Walt Disney Imagineering. He pulled me out of the meeting, excitedly exclaiming, “Bill! Our dinosaur movie is back on! I’ll call you in a week!” He passed away a few days later.
David Lynch was easily one of the strangest people I’ve ever met. We have many mutual friends. They all insisted we had loads in common and were made for each other as pals, so I was eager to meet him. I got my chance in Mexico City. I was a designer on Conan the Destroyer while David was directing Dune. We were both working for the Dino DeLaurentiis family. I saw David everyday in the Estudios Churubusco commissary, so I went up to him and introduced myself. He suggested we have lunch together. We had several. I found that David was exactly like the Kyle MacLachlan character in Twin Peaks. Really. And we had almost nothing in common.
One day, David said, “The Boys! Bill! You haven’t met The Boys! Come with me --- you gotta meet The Boys!” He took me up to his office and opened his door. Sitting on his sofa were six identical Woody Woodpecker dolls. “Bill, these are The Boys: Louie, Junior, Biff, Dale, Smitty and Larry. Boys, meet Bill!”
How did the idea of Legends of the Blues come about?
The U.S. government declared 2003 the official “Year of the Blues.” As a result, Shout! Factory, an entertainment company formed by my friend Richard Foos, a fellow blues fan, a black music champion, and the co-founder of Rhino Records, decided to release a series of “Best of” CDs by prominent American blues artists. Shout! licensed the blues trading card images from Robert Crumb to use on its CD covers. But there were some musicians that Robert hadn’t drawn for his card set. Despite the record company’s request, he didn’t want to produce any new blues art for Shout!
I was called and asked if I could draw Ma Rainey, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and J. B. Lenoir in the same format as the Crumb cards. I agreed. Combining two of my great loves—drawing and the blues—turned out to be one of the most enjoyable jobs of my career.
After I completed the CD art, I didn’t want to stop, so I drew Robert Johnson, a favorite bluesman of mine missing from Robert’s card set.
Not too long after drawing Mr. Johnson, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Following my surgery, I was in recovery for two months and forced to sit around. Never one to be idle, I made a list of all my favorite old blues guys and gals who Robert hadn’t drawn. Fortunately for me, his preferences were for the really old players and singers. He hadn’t touched the later artists, the musicians I was nuts about, like Chess and Checker Records artists Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, and Little Walter. My own field of dreams was wide open.
My list grew to fifty names. I began drawing nonstop. In the middle of this self-imposed labor of love, I thought, “What about the British blues players I love so much?” So I made another list of fifty. Then it occurred to me, “Hey! I can’t leave out my contemporary American fave raves!” My Legends of the Blues project list now totaled out at 150.
I initially intended for them to be released as three sets of trading cards, until my friend Denis Kitchen, the publisher/instigator of the Crumb cards, threw some cold water on that idea.
“Did you ever wonder why Crumb drew all of those really ancient blues guys?” he asked.
I had assumed that those were the guys whose music he loved the best.
“That’s only partly true. Those guys and their images are all in the public domain. Do you really want to negotiate licensing and image approval with one hundred fifty musicians and/or their estates?”
I was bummed.
“Trading cards are a licensing and commercial exploitation issue,” Denis explained. “A book on these musicians, however, is a historical document. Historical documents are not considered commercial exploitation; They are considered an educational benefit to the public. The same rules do not apply.
It hurt to drop the idea of doing trading cards. They would have been done for love and coolness, not money. Thankfully, collecting them into a book meant I didn’t have to drop this labor of love as a project entirely.
Abrams Books agreed to publish the first of my three proposed blues books but asked that I expand the first book from fifty entries to one hundred. I enthusiastically agreed.
"It’s (Blues) honest music that comes directly from the heart and/or groin. It speaks to our shared humanity --- a timeless subject." (Muddy Waters, Artwork by William Stout)
What first attracted you to the Blues?
My first scrapes with the blues came in the same backwards fashion that they did for most white Baby Boomers: not from its rich African American origins but through the British Invasion of the 1960s. Groups like Manfred Mann, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Them, and the Animals took our own homegrown American music and dished it right back to us with British flair. Most of us were ignorant of the American sources of their music. It wasn’t long, however, before those same groups led grateful legions of us down that righteous path from the blues in its secondhand form to The Real Thing.
In high school I was a huge fan of the blues-influenced English band the Yardbirds. For me, they were it. I loved Eric Clapton’s intense, blues-based guitar work and the energy and exotic qualities of Jeff Beck’s exciting playing. (Jimmy Page had not joined the band at that point.) I had to own every single thing that band put out.
One day in the supermarket, while perusing the small bin where I usually bought my LPs, I came across a live album by Sonny Boy Williamson and the Yardbirds. That record stopped me in my musical tracks. As far as I knew, this LP wasn’t any part of the Yardbirds’ oeuvre…and who was Sonny Boy Williamson?
I bought it immediately, took it home as fast as I could, and popped it onto my turntable. The music that flowed out of my cheap speakers overwhelmed me with a fantastic sensation. It felt as if I’d come home in a spiritual sense, as if I had found the music that had been lying in wait for me all my short life. These sounds captured my very heart and soul. I didn’t know it then, but this music was called the blues.
How has the blues culture changed your life?
It has brought me enormous amounts of joy and pleasure. In my research for the book I encountered worlds and characters that will stay with me for a lifetime. Listening to and learning the harmonica solos of Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter and Paul Jones has increased my skills as a musician and given me deeper appreciation of what they created.
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
It’s honest music that comes directly from the heart and/or groin. It speaks to our shared humanity --- a timeless subject.
Which meetings and acquaintances of musicians and artists have been the biggest experiences for you?
Musicians: I have met a lot of pop stars and music legends. I’ll never forget making a complete babbling fanboy fool of myself in front of Ry Cooder. It meant a lot to me to meet and thank Brian Wilson and to become friends with the great Van Dyke Parks. To play and sing “Roadhouse Blues” and “Light My Fire” with Ray Manzarek on keyboards and to play and sing five songs with Mick Taylor on guitar was a huge thrill, as was playing drums with Bluesberry Jam (who evolved into Pacific Gas & Electric). Filling in on drums for Solid State at the Devonshire Meadows Raceway’s Fantasy Faire & Magical Music Fest and playing for a crowd of several thousand people was exhilarating. Meeting Arthur Brown and becoming friends with Screaming Jay Hawkins remains a highpoint of my life. Becoming friends with Delaney & Bonnie (Bramlett) and hanging out in their home and their recording sessions was amazing. I’m glad I got to meet Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey, Boz Scaggs and Pink Floyd fairly early in their careers. My art schoolmate Matthew Andes (from Jo Jo Gunne and the latter days of Spirit) always encouraged me in the kindest ways. Billy Gibbons is a special soul. I’ll never forget meeting Peter Frampton and Steve Marriott when they were with Humble Pie. My friendship with Stray Dog ended up breaking my heart but I wouldn’t have missed my days with them for anything. Attending a Sunday morning jam session at the Savoy Music Center in Eunice, Louisiana (hosted by Cajun music proponents Marc and Annie Savoy) was one of the best experiences I will ever have. My close, loving friendships with the old bandmates of mine (particularly James and David Demeter, Phil Cohen and Melissa & Maggie Connell) who became The Heaters will last forever.
Artists: My closest artist friends include (or have included) Ron Cobb, Dave Stevens, Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Robert Williams, Spain Rodriguez, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Mark Schultz, Al Williamson, Roy Krenkel, Russ Manning, Iain McCaig and Dan Goozée. I have benefitted enormously from my relationships and friendships with Drew Struzan, Rick Griffin, Robert Crumb, Terry Gilliam, Peter Adams, Scott Shaw!, Jack Kirby, Mike Royer, Doug Henderson, John Gurche, Mark Hallett, Gregory Paul, Craig Elliott, Robert Gould, Brom, Bernie Wrightson, Will Eisner, Denis Kitchen, Alex Toth and Frank Frazetta. I’m sure there are many more who just haven’t come to mind right now.
"I often play music while I work for inspiration, selecting music appropriate to the subject matter I’m representing in paint."
Tell me about your meet with Rick Griffin. Are there any memories from him?
My admiration for Rick Griffin's work began in the early 1960s with his drawings of Murphy the Surfer for Surfer Magazine. In Southern California, especially, Griffin's Murphy was huge. We all drew him on the covers of our notebooks.
I got older and lost interest in the surfing culture. In art school, the topic of Rick Griffin came up because of the beautiful rock concert posters he was producing. A friend asked, "Did you know that Griffin is back at Surfer Magazine doing new Murphy stories? It's not like any Murphy stuff you've previously seen."
I immediately began collecting Rick's new Murphy work. It was fantastic. About the same time, Rick began creating stories and art for Zap Comix. That work was incredible, too.
The first time I met Rick was a very brief encounter. My friend Jim Evans had introduced me to underground comix (primarily Zap Comix). We decided to visit the comic book room upstairs at the Cherokee Book Shop in Hollywood. As we were about to enter the Cherokee Book Shop, all of the Zap artists walked out of the shop. Jim introduced me to Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams, Victor Moscoso, S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez and Rick Griffin. Amazing timing!
A year or so later, I met an artist who knew Rick. He offered to take me to Griffin's house. We drove down to Rick's home in San Clemente. Rick and I hit it off and became friends. We had lots in common, including art influences (we both loved Frazetta's work). We saw each other regularly after that, usually at the San Diego Comic Con (now Comic Con International).
I attended Rick's memorial service and art retrospective at the Laguna Art Museum.
Here's one funny memory of Rick:
I ran into Griffin at Comic Con in San Diego one year. He looked embarrassed.
"I've got to apologize to you, Bill."
"That particular lettering style of yours, the one that looks sort of like beetle legs. I have been using it on several recent posters. I hope you don't feel I was ripping you off."
"Rick --- are you kidding me? I stole that lettering style from you --- it came from one of your posters for The Who. Please allow me to apologize to you!"
We both laughed over it all. I had used that particular style so much that it had become associated with me (and still is; I have it in my computer as a font).
I refined it over the years, but it all began with Rick.
Which memories of Life of Brian’s poster, The Yardbirds More Golden Eggs and ZZ Top’s Recycler tour make you smile?
The Yardbirds – More Golden Eggs: I’m especially proud of this LP set. It was the first semi-legitimate bootleg. I found out that Yardbirds lead singer Keith Relf was living nearby. In exchange for agreeing to a taped interview with Keith’s comments about the LP, we paid Keith’s rent for that month. We took photos of Keith at the interview session and used them on the back cover. I think I did one of my best color bootleg covers for that LP, depicting each of The Yardbirds as birds. We included the interview as a five page printed insert. Our ambitiousness in regards to the packaging of that album makes me smile.
ZZ Top’s Recycler: I still chuckle at the way Billy Gibbons used to tease his manager at the time, Bill Hamm. Billy knew just what buttons of Hamm’s too push to get the most humorous reaction from Bill.
I also grin when I think about the presentation we made to Billy Gibbons. I came up with the concept of the show’s opening, then acted it out with a friend’s wife for Billy, to get Billy’s approval. It combined two icons of ZZ Top imagery: Cars and beautiful women.
The staged was surrounded with sheer white curtains. Suddenly, the audience hears someone trying to start a hot rod. Rrrr-rrr-rrr. The car’s headlights glow with intensity as the engine gets closer to catching. This sound alternates with the sound of a woman being sexually stimulated. “Rrr-rr-rrr…” “Ohhh…ahhh…” “Rrr-rr-rrr…”“Oooh…AHHHH…” Her gasps of pleasure increase and intensify as the car gets closer to being turned on. The car’s starter finally kicks in and the automobile’s engine roars into life. At the same time, the woman sexually climaxes, the curtain lifts and ZZ Top kicks into their first number!
What do you miss most nowadays from the 60s psychedelic era and Acid culture of art?
I miss the color, the sense of optimism, the inexpensive life style that was possible back then (the rent for my Hollywood apartment was $85 per month), the minimal traffic in L. A. at that time, the musical opportunities, the hippie girls, the excitement over each LP release, the Laurel Canyon scene, the underground radio shows, the musical cross pollination that was going on before radio content got rigidly formatted…so many things. It was the most exciting time to be in Los Angeles.
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Robert Crumb and the Family Dog artists with your projects?
I missed that first wave of being involved in Robert’s Zap Comix and the psychedelic poster movement (I was just a little too young). I was a huge admirer of both. Crumb’s work blew my mind and showed me the vast potential for the comics medium as art. I was already a big Rick Griffin fan. Before he did psychedelic posters he dramatically affected American Pop Culture (especially Southern California’s) when he created the surfer cultural icon of Murphy the Surfer for Surfer Magazine. So, I had been following his work since the early 1960s. It was Rick Griffin’s work that got me excited about lettering. Up until then I had considered lettering to be drudgery. Griffin’s art completely changed my attitude. I saw that lettering could be great art, too. Rick and I eventually became friends, and I got to know Crumb a bit, as well.
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about art and music?
Art: Russ Manning, Harvey Kurtzman, Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Ron Cobb, Frank Frazetta, Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Will Eisner, Alphonse Mucha, and Charles R. Knight. I patterned my career after that of Frank Frazetta. I worked in all the fields he worked in: book covers, LP covers, movie posters, comic books, comic strips, "Little Annie Fanny", etc. Studying good reproductions of his paintings taught me a lot about how to paint. I consider his line work to be the best in the world. I worked with Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder on "Little Annie Fanny" for Playboy magazine. I learned an enormous amount about comics and storytelling from Kurtzman. Willy was very fatherly and patient toward me. I loved that, like me, here was an artist who could successfully work in many different styles.
Music: Richard Nelligan (my junior high school music teacher), my mom, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Yardbirds, Willie Dixon, Ry Cooder, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Igor Stravinsky, Melissa Connell, and Scott Walker.
Who from the musicians where you met was the most funniest?
I have two musicians: Keith Moon, whom I met in the men's room of the Shrine Exposition Hall (while he was peeing!), and my dear friend Van Dyke Parks, who is one of the most entertaining conversationalists I have ever met. Van Dyke has a wonderfully dry sense of humor.
What from your memorabilia and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?
The Crumb Heroes of the Blues trading cards, my Legends of the Blues book, a Lee Oskar harmonica, the Chess Willie Dixon box set, Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey book and CD set, the complete recordings of Robert Johnson, B.B. King’s Live at the Regal CD, and the complete recordings of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac --- plus something on which to play the CDs, assuming that technology might not exist in the future.
"It (Blues) has brought me enormous amounts of joy and pleasure." Robert Johnson, Artwork by William Stout
How you would spend a day with Robert Johnson?
First, I would set up a recording session. Then I would ask him to record as many songs as possible in his repertoire that he never got around to recording. Hearing new Robert Johnson music would be Heaven…with a touch of Hell, I’m sure.
What would you say to Dracula?
I’d ask him if he would pose for a portrait in oils. I think he would like that. I’d make sure that I worked right up until dawn --- no funny business with my neck!
What would you like to ask Mr. Natural (Fred Natural)?
I would playfully push his buttons and ask him questions to try to make him angry. I think it’s hilarious when Mr. Natural blows his fuse!
What made you laugh lately?
The political humor of Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report makes me laugh every day. So do the antics of my little dachshund Spunky. My mom and brothers make me laugh whenever I am with them --- and I always try to make them laugh, too. Laughter is a great healer and stress or tension reliever. It is crucial to my everyday existence.
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