‘With a career spanning gas station janitor to house renovator, Kentucky-based graphic designer, artist, and musician Robert Beatty is endearingly surprised at the attention his design and illustration has been receiving over the past few years. He’s possibly the only one who is, though, as even the most cursory glance at his portfolio reveals the extent of his skill.
‘“It’s really novel for me that I’m even recognized for what I’m doing,” he tells me. “I’ve known this is what I wanted to do all my life, but I didn’t take a path I knew was going to lead here.”
‘Rather than going to art school, Beatty graduated high school and pursued music, and a few other jobs to tide him over. He’s self-taught, in a way, but he wouldn’t use that term himself. Instead, he thinks of his artistic career as simply an extension of a life-long obsession with learning about the things that captivate him most.
‘“I’ve been drawing for as long as I remember, and I had a lot of support from my parents and teachers,” he says. “When I was younger I always said I wanted to draw comics when I grew up. I came to graphics though music and collecting records; I’d always look to see who’d designed them, or when I bought magazines as a teenager, I’d look to see who the art director was.”
‘While many have surmised that Beatty’s style is the product of 60s and 70s album artwork fandom—Roger Dean’s work for Yes seems an obvious inspiration—in fact, his influences are drawn from more esoteric sources. The first sleeve design that really excited him was Masakazu Kitayama’s for the Cornelius album Fantasma, but his main reference points today include Polish animation by the likes of Piotr Kamler, 60s and 70s adverts, the work of artist Lillian Schwartz, and experimental films. He’s also been making the most of the University of Kentucky’s resources, poring over their arts library’s collection of old Graphis and IDEA annuals. “People assume the stuff I’m referencing is 70s record covers or Krautrock, but I’m basically trying to continue in the way things were done before computers,” says Beatty. “Pre-digital graphic arts is my favorite era stylistically, and while I love people like Milton Glaser and Herb Lubalin, I generally take more from illustration and animation.”
‘The proliferation of images in the pages of these old graphics annuals is something Beatty has drawn on in his new book, Floodgate Companion, to be published by Floating World Comics in October this year. With no internal text whatsoever, the foil embossed, clothbound, hardcover book instead presents a series of seemingly interconnected images that force the reader to construct their own meanings. “There’s not a narrative, but there’s definitely a relationship between the images. I structured it more like an experimental film than a book,” says Beatty.
‘“The initial idea kinda came from those old design annuals and seeing all of this work by tons of different artists presented on the page together. There’s almost a relationship between them, even though they don’t necessarily relate. A lot of the images in the book have nothing to do with each other, or are different stylistically, but you make connections.”
‘In his early days creating sleeve designs for friends, Beatty worked mainly by hand, before scanning images for digital finishing. While some of the images in Floodgate Companion were made as pen and ink drawings, and digitised for coloring, for the most part he now goes straight to Illustrator and Photoshop. “I don’t really do sketches,” he says, and even for commissions for the New York Times, it’s often the first image he submits that becomes the final design: “I just find it easier to send what could be the final image than to build up sketches.”
‘The beguiling nature of Beatty’s work is born of its opacity: he delights in hinting at an idea, but never truly giving it away. That’s what’s made his record sleeve designs so successful: the irresistible taste of what’s inside the packaging hinted for the viewer to discover their own story. The images he creates are disparate in style and theme, but united by a refusal to give too much away. “I really like not telling people what something is, or how to think about it,” he says. “I don’t like having an artist’s statement—I want the work to speak for itself and let people make their own interpretations.”’ — Eye On Design
‘If they’re lucky, Robert Beatty’s succulent, airbrush-like artworks can sometimes grace the covers of bands’ albums, thus making them cool, successful and lucky in love and good fortune forever. Robert’s magic touch is a unique style lifted from way back when life on earth was cooler, and from some cauldron of fluid in his brain from which he draws impressive draughtsmanship and weird ideas.’ — It’s Nice That
White Suns “Psychic Drift”
The Flaming Lips “Oczy Mlody”
Thee Oh Sees “An Odd Entrances”
Thee Oh Sees “A Weird Exits”
Idiot Glee “Idiot Glee”
Neon Indian “Slumlord”
Tame Impala “Currents”
Tame Impala “‘Disciples”
Damaged Bug (John Dwyer of the Oh Sees) “Cold Hot Plumbs”
Oneohtrix Point Never “Commissions II”
Oneohtrix Point Never “Commissions I”
Oneohtrix Point Never “R Plus Seven”
Ellie Herring “Kite Day”
Hair Police “Mercurial Rites”
Eric Lanham “The Sincere Interruption”
Peaking Lights “Lucifer”
AIDS Wolf Ma vie banale avant-garde”
Real Estate “Days”
Warmer Milks “Let Your Friends In”
Robert Beatty Website
Video: ‘Robert Beatty: Pitchfork Unsung’
Robert Beatty has become a one-man industry of psychedelic album art
Robert Beatty @ instagram
Robert Beatty Discography
Otherworldly album artwork from designer Robert Beatty
“Hopefully I’m leaving people with more questions than answers.”
Book: ‘Floodgate Companion’
Three Legged Race @ bandcamp
Robert Beatty’s psychedelic visions – in pictures
Interview de Robert Beatty
Meet the Noise Musician Responsible for All Your Favorite Mind-Expanding Album Art
Robert Beatty’s Portal @The Wire
The duty of the right eye is to plunge into the telescope, whereas the left eye interrogates the microscope
GETTING WEIRD WITH ARTIST AND MUSICIAN ROBERT BEATTY
Robert Beatty by Matthew Erickson @ BOMB
Robert Beatty, Simultaneous Multidimensionality
Meet Robert Beatty
Three Legged Race
‘Robert Beatty records his solo work under the name Three Legged Race, a project focused on claustrophobic geometries, intensely disfigured narratives, and genre-free experimentation. It’s electronic music most overtly, but defrocked of its sheen, with any conceivable hallmark of commercialism littered on the gravel. Beatty’s recent celebrated performances as Three Legged Race abandoned prior synthesizer-dependent set-ups in favor of an intentionally dematerialized approach, employing just a sequencer program in an iPhone, and a lone tape machine.’ — collaged
Three Legged Race at Mata, Los Angeles, CA. August 20, 2013
Robert Beatty at Lampo – 10/11/08
Three Legged Race at Beachland 11.1.10
Solid, Liquid Or Daughter
from Tiny Mix Tapes
What are your thoughts on the current state of album art? There aren’t many instantly recognizable artists floating around, but rather certain trends, like vintage collaging, that are being widely used. Do you feel a part of any specific movement like that?
I am pretty turned off by a lot of current record cover art. So much of it seems tossed off and lazy, but then again so does a lot of the music it is framing. It seems that with so much anonymous imagery being available on the internet, appropriation has stopped being a tool to transform the existing in something new and has become an easy way out. People seem so eager to adopt an aesthetic they view as desirable without trying to add anything of their own to it or creating something new. I’m sure this is a byproduct of the immediacy of the internet and the fact that most people only see record covers as a tiny thumbnail on a screen now.
People often see my work and assume it is appropriated because of the techniques I use, but I hope I am bringing something new to a tradition that I feel is greatly neglected now. I don’t think people are used to seeing so much work being put into something that for most people is secondary to the music. I try to make each cover fit the music as well as I possibly can and also put as much of myself into the work as possible. It’s very easy with Tumblr and other such blogs to just become another anonymous jpeg in a never ending stream of imagery. All in all, I’m just trying to make the best work I can for the music that I’m doing it for and always pushing myself to do new things and avoid falling into any sort of trends.
Do you see any merit in really simple collage art then, where two or three images have been thrown together? I guess it depends on the piece, but with your work you typically have at least some drawn element in there, right?
I am a huge fan of collage and a lot of the work I do is basically collage at the core, just made of elements that I created. I use collage all the time for show fliers and other things that a lot of people don’t see, but I try to always add something or combine things in an unexpected way. I’m not against appropriation at all, I just feel a lot of times it stems from laziness and imitation. The simplest solutions are most of the time the best and I often wish my work ended up being simpler than it is.
It can be hard to get really simple, it seems like the more work you do, the tendency is to pile more elements on. Not you specifically, but in general.
I just tend to end up with images that are way more complicated than they need to be. I’m pretty psyched about the new Peaking Lights record cover I did because of how simple it is.
What were some childhood and teenage influences?
I’ve always been a huge fan of animation and I feel like that has informed my work more than anything. Seeing things like Terry Gilliam’s animated sequences in Monty Python and weird Eastern European animation on the University of Kentucky Arts channel. I was pretty into to comic books when I was a teenager, so I’m sure that helped as well. There are so many things that influenced me that I loved when I was younger — Cal Schenkel’s art for the Mothers of Invention records, the art on a lot of the mid 1990s Matador records, Rene Laloux and Roland Topor’s Fantastic Planet, Alan Aldridge’s Beatles Illustrated Lyrics book, Grand Royal Magazine.
It seems like you mostly work on show fliers and album covers now, I’m guessing because they pay the bills. Do you prefer doing personal work or commissioned stuff?
I enjoy doing both and I try to keep a good balance between the two. I just enjoy doing art in any way, so it’s nice to be able to do it all the time
I’m also wondering how you approach covers for your own records versus a stranger’s; is there any important difference?
I actually have a relatively hard time coming up with art that I am happy with for my own music, specifically Three Legged Race stuff, which is just me. I often end up turning to doing something hand-drawn because it feels more appropriate.
I think a lot of artists are trying to sell an ambiguous idea that your airbrush style conveys, it’s almost like a comfort, maybe? Or why has that style caught on?
I think the appeal is that it evokes something that people can’t place. It definitely calls to mind the past, but I feel like there is a lot of potential in it to say something new. I like the idea that is so often associated with trash culture now, even though it used to be on the cover of every major magazine.
It’s interesting that old styles are being used to express more modern ideas, how all these things from the past are new conduits, there’s something almost demented about it.
Yeah. I feel like things move too fast now and tools that are still useful are being left behind without seeing their full potential. Also, the time commitment to learning traditional airbrush work is offset now by being able to imitate it with a computer.
Are there any specific goals or ambitions you have in your music?
Hopefully I’m leaving people with more questions than answers. I’ve got nothing to prove, but a lot to prod. I just want to keep making insane and adventurous music and art and doing things I haven’t done before. I’m trying to just take everything I like and mix it together to create something new and exciting. Confusion is sex, and I will continue to hide behind the curtain so people never quite know what’s happening.
I’ll wrap up by throwing out some random questions. What’s your favorite font?
I am pretty obsessed with Microgramma bold. It’s kind of a boring font that you see everywhere, but I love how industrial and stark it feels.
As you get older, do you find less inspiration in music and art?
No, the exact opposite. The older I get the more I want to do. I wish I had more time in the day or a couple clones.
In relation to music and art, is cynicism a totally negative force?
I think there is a certain power in being skeptical and questioning things, but I try to be encouraging to others around me and keep a positive outlook most of the time. Complaining about things you can’t control doesn’t get you anywhere. I am always excited to try new things and push myself to do things I’ve never done before. There’s a lot of bullshit in this world and I hope I’m not contributing to it.
How important is success to you at this stage in your life?
I’m just happy to be doing what I want to be doing and hope to be able to keep it up. I’m not trying to get rich, but it would be nice to make a comfortable living doing art and music. I ended up where I am playing noise music in shitty basements for nothing, so I’m pretty happy with how far I’ve come.
‘I’d say I’m happiest with my work when it combines all of the elements of what I do into one cohesive whole. Using sound, graphics, and video to achieve a work that conveys something that can’t get across with just a record cover or music video. Usually this ends up being things that aren’t as high profile as most of the work I do, since most of the work people see are commissioned pieces such as record covers and music videos, which seem to me to be a part of someone else’s work anyway. Video and installation best allow me to combine everything I do into one self contained piece. My video “Landline” from my 2011 “Cream Grid Reruns” installation at Institute 193 stands in my mind as one of my most successful executions of this and I plan to do more work like this in the near future.’ — Robert Beatty
Robert Beatty “Landline”
The Apples in Stereo “CPU”
On Fillmore “Jornada Inteira”
Ma Turner “Living”
Robert Beatty “Egg Timer”
Live Island “King”
Dub Thompson “Dograces”
Tropical Trash “Fat Kid’s Wig”
Robert Beatty & Eric Lanham “Intercepted Ruins”
Appearants “Weeding the Garden”
Circuit Des Yeux “3311”
p.s. Hey. ** Jamie, Hi, J, wow, top of the draw. Which means you get me with the least amount of coffee, but I’ll do my utmost. Thanks for sharing your limbo. You get mine too. Good timing. Me too: I have a thing for snow globes, and when I go places that have souvenir snow globes on offer, I always check them out, and they’re never quite exciting enough, so ultimately I think I’m too picky (and non-moneyed up enough) to be a decent snow globe collector. Having that fall-back apartment but be relieving, assuming it’s not a dump or something, and I assume your friend wouldn’t have lived in a dump. Fingers ongoingly crossed. Yesterday’s editing went very well. We ended up watching the current cut at the end of the day. We still have a lot of work/fiddling to do, but we were both excited to see that the film we want is so close to the surface now. We have to show our cut to our producer next Friday, so we’ll be hunkering and hammering until then. My Friday is pre-ordained. What about yours? Punch-key love, Dennis. ** H, Hi. Thanks. ‘Un femme douce’ is a severe one, even for him, its true, but getting to watch that one in the theater is a pretty rare opportunity so … hm. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Well, she was with some pretty serious looking men whom she was listening to very seriously, so it didn’t like the right time, but I would say hi if I bumped into her, I think. Yes, and that most famous snow globe was in my post. ** Marshall Reese, Hi, Marshall. Thanks a lot for coming here, and for linking me up with your snow globes. Those are yours? That’s your company or something? Respect to you in that case, or, well, really in any case. Thanks again! Take care! ** Steevee, Hi. ‘Sucker’ is a quite good album and in the same-ish vein. I don’t know Iggy Azalea’s music. Thanks for the luck! And I hope the Beatty post turned out okay for you. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben, Yes, under the circumstances, it does seem like you guys got a surprisingly good outcome, which is a whole lot better than nothing, right? What now, I wonder. ** S., Hi. Your diet and mine are so oppositional. That’s exciting. The words ‘haunted’ and ‘cute’ together always make me nervous. The head banging kid … who’s that? There’s a head banging kid in our movie. Well, one and a half head banging kids. Well, not really kids. ** Nicholas Jason Rhoades, Hey there, buddy. It has been a bit. Jesus, so sorry about the big mess with your ‘health taker’. Shouldn’t it be ‘heath giver’? Maybe in that guy’s case the first term is accurate. Thanks for propping my mom. Man, you’ve had your fair share of mishaps since I last talked with you, Jesus, but the mural’s progress is a sliver lining, so good news on that. Well, certainly take care, my friend. ** Misanthrope, Yes, please do. Gisele and I really wanted to make a ‘Kindertotenlieder’ snow globe to sell at the shows, but of course the expense was prohibitive, but we might be setting up a ‘Kindertotenlieder’ Japan tour, in which case we might spring for it anyway since we have this feeling it could do biz there. Oh, yeah, ‘Wonder Woman’. I’ll wait for a flight for that, but I am curious. ** Alistair, Hi, Alistair! I am well, thank you very much. The editing goes excitingly and will hopefully pay off as we have dreamed. The fact that the next book is percolating in some way is probably enough for now, and a next book’s insistent percolating is its most underrated phase. I do think about Bresson re: the film. Not in the moment of actually making it, but I do when we’re devising the kinds of performances we want, and I thought of Bresson just yesterday when we were watching the current cut of the film, how his work is in there, or, more lik,e behind there, and how the way the film works is not how his films work but yet isn’t so different at the same time, which probably makes no sense, but I often end up making no sense when I think/talk about Bresson. Short answer: yes. You have an absolutely splendid weekend, Mr. Mc! ** Kyler, Hi. Oh, interesting. I don’t think I ever experience that kind of forgetting. I sometimes think that doing the p.s. has been very good training for my memory. I have to remember so many things to do it properly. Happy Full Moon to you, assuming the sleeplessness part isn’t a huge drag. ** Okay. Today’s post happened because d.l. Steevee was talking about Robert Beatty and wrote something about him and all of that triggered the idea to do a post about his work, which isn’t a particularly interesting backstory, but that’s the story’s back. See you tomorrow.