Culture Clash: 5 of the best musicians turned artists


Don van Vilen

From the 1960s onwards, art schools have produced some of the most innovative and radical pop musicians: The Beatles, Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Public Enemy and REM are names at the top of a very long list. 

Many of these musicians put their interest in art behind them once pop superstardom was achieved, but the cross-fertilization of art and pop happens in mysterious ways. Below is an eclectic shortlist of those who have enjoyed success as both artists and musicians.


Untitled, Hamburg Series #4, Stuart Sutcliffe,Oil on canvas, 39x46 inches,
Circa 1961/2 copyright. Estate of Stuart Sutcliffe

Stuart Sutcliffe

As a student at Liverpool College of Art, Stuart Sutcliffe entered the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize. John Moores himself bought the painting and Sutcliffe was persuaded by friend and fellow student John Lennon to buy a bass guitar with the money. He joined Lennon’s band and changed their name from the Quarrymen to the Beatals (later amended by Lennon to the less French sounding Beatles). The Beatles played in Hamburg and Sutcliffe left the band and stayed on when the others returned to Liverpool, taking up a scholarship under Eduardo Paolozzi at the Hamburg School of Art. To acclaim from his professors, Sutcliffe developed a lyrical, abstract expressionist style of painting before dying from a brain tumour in Hamburg aged only 22.

 Don Van Vilet as Captain Beefheart, wiki commons

Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart)

Adopting the stage name Captain Beefheart, Don Van Vliet had critical success with such albums as 1969’s Trout Mask Replica. His compositional style was experimental and the music a highly original blend of rock, blues and psychedelia. Van Vliet played several instruments and used a rotating backing band of musicians called The Magic Band. Always interested in poetry and painting, Van Vliet’s first exhibition was in Liverpool in 1972. He didn’t consider art as a career until a fan, Julian Schnabel, asked to buy a drawing. Through association with the Michael Werner Gallery Van Vliet gave up music and went on to have the commercial success as an artist that he had failed to attain as a musician. Self-taught, his style is crude and expressive, much like his music.

 From 77 Million Paintigs, Brian Eno, 2006

Brian Eno

Eno was a student at Ipswich Civic College under Roy Ascott, an innovator in interactive computer arts. Despite not being trained in music Eno joined avant-garde glam rock group Roxy Music as he could operate a synthesiser and had a reel-to-reel tape machine. After leaving Roxy Music, Eno developed his interests in systems which could generate music. He is a pioneer of ambient music and music production techniques, working as producer for David Bowie,Talking Heads and U2. Creator of such diverse sounds as the start-up of Windows 95, Eno extends his experimental approach to images: 77 Million Paintings is a 2006 DVD/software project that generates randomized images and sounds.

Joni Mitchell ,untitled early figurative work, oil,1972,

Joni Mitchell

"I'm a painter first and a musician second..." says Canadian born Joni Mitchell. Music was a way to make pocket money whilst a student at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary. Abstract Expressionism was the vogue in art schools in the early 1960s, so despite excelling academically for the first time, Mitchell’s figurative art was not in fashion. Students who made representational works were encouraged into commercial art and advertising. As this didn’t appeal, Mitchell dropped out of art school and took a $15 a week job singing folk songs in a coffeehouse. A three day train ride took Mitchell from Western Canada to Toronto where she had her first commercial breakthrough and by the 1970s was a household name with songs such as 'Big Yellow Taxi' and 'California.' Mitchell continues to paint in an eclectic style and creates the illustrations for many of her albums.

Paul Simonon, single artwork for White Riot, 1977

Paul Simonon  

A radical sound went with a striking, graphic look in clothes, stage backdrops and record design for punk rock group The Clash. Agit-prop slogans, paint-spattered guitars and all visuals were overseen by bass guitarist Paul Simonon. Attending Byam Shaw School of Art and planning a career as a painter, he was persuaded to take up the bass guitar and form a group with lead guitarist Mick Jones. Since the Clash dissolved, Simonon has returned to painting regularly exhibiting in London. Themes include views of the Thames which are painted in a loose, expressive style. His success as an artist almost matches his success in music, and in 2008, Lily Allen bought one of his paintings for £28,000. Simonon currently divides his time between painting and music projects and is represented by Thomas Williams Fine Art in London.

*Lead image sourced from wiki commons

Interested in reading more about artists through the ages? Keep an eye on our Articles and Inspiration section online for the latest art features.