Illustrator Profile: Lou Beach: "I'm fortunate to have been able to make a good living cutting out pictures and gluing them together"

By Robert Newman   Thursday March 19, 2015

Illustrator/artist Lou Beach says of himself, “I am a collage artist.” That's a simple description, and it’s true as far as it goes, but Lou’s art is much more than just “cutting out pictures and putting them together,” as he explains his work. As an illustrator, LP and CD cover artist and designer, poster creator, fine artist, and book author, Lou’s images and words have helped define the visual voice of the past 40 years of popular culture. His bold and vibrant collages are master examples of both art and craft, finely tuned and designed but also rich with deep soulful feeling (and more than a little touch of pyschedelia!)

I hesitate to use the word “legend” when talking about someone like Lou Beach, because it brings to mind what my pal art director Art Chantry once said: “They call you a legend when they think your career is over.” However in Lou's case, he is a true legend, having created a massive body of work over 40 years that has been seen in what we now call multiple platforms and that has delighted literally millions of people. And like the sounds of a maturing blues or jazz guitarist, Lou's work has only gotten better and better over time. One look at the “fine art” pieces that he’s been creating in recent years reveals a highly talented artist at the peak of his powers. Lou’s work has gotten more sophisticated and refined and he continues to be able to evoke layers of meaning with simple bits of paper and imagery, even as he has returned in recent years to more of a hand done approach.

Lou lives in Los Angeles, “between Scarlett Johansson’s house and the sea.” In addition to creating posters, illustrations, and fine art, Lou continues to promote the book collection of his writing, 420 Characters. Two of his collages were acquired this past summer by the Museum of The Art Institute of Chicago for their permanent collection and the Cavin-Morris Gallery in New York City is representing his work.

Lou is a masterful storyteller, both with words and pictures, and his elegant, detailed art and illustrations are often dreamlike in their look and feel, able to transport the viewer to another time and place. And whether he’s crafting the LP cover for Funkadelic’s guitar player (and yes, it’s as cool as you would expect!) or creating the visual brand for a new Broadway play, Lou’s artwork is exciting, passionate, and filled with soul.

Because of the war (my parents were Polish “guests” of the Third Reich), my folks had to improvise a lot afterwards. My mother was great with colors and materials—she could sew a house, and my father was an engineer, made lots of things from scratch or found materials.

I’ve worked phones selling vacuum cleaners, worked a forklift, drove a truck, ran punch presses, did assembly line work, had a bookstore job, grocery clerk, put up sheet rock, painted houses. I was the sexton (read “janitor”) of a church in Boston for several years. I took one art class—in high school. I got a C, I think. I drew blue hands—the instructor didn’t care for it.

I love my wife and kids.

I have a studio in the house, right off the bedroom. It looks out on the backyard, has plenty of light, lots of shelves, and all my crap. I have a wonderful sheet-metal topped table that was built for me by a lovely man from Mexico City, a carpenter and musician who tolerated my poor Spanish as we spent days together.

I am a collage artist. I was an early adaptor of the computer, saw the writing on the screen and transitioned to that for many years. It was a very effective tool, but I think it made me lazy, the work suffered after a time, and I lost touch with my hands. It was great to start making real collages again, which is all I do now. Family legend has it that I was left in my crib as a toddler with lots of magazines, which I proceeded to tear into pieces. No glue, however.

I think my career got a boost when I started dating an art director.

Ernie Kovacs, John Heartfield, Muhammad Ali, Muddy Waters, my Mom.

Yikes, so many. Let me put  Gary Panter here just as a placeholder. He’s such a charming and prolific monkey.

Discipline. I’ve never been that good at it. I need to have a deadline to kick my ass into gear. I get distracted…play with the dog, go out back and do some yardwork, shop for old books online...

Steve Heller was always a pleasure, as he trusted me, and I delivered. This is when I was doing a lot of work for The New York Times Book Review and he was the art director. There were so many over the years…Roland Young, Peter Morance, Andree Kahlmorgan…I’d need more room to name them all.

Trees and dreams.

Did I have an assignment last year? I suppose it would be having work repurposed for a project that Jeff Bridges pulled me into, Sleeping Tapes. He also recorded some of my stories for it. Oh, and the poster for A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder—the Tony Award winner.

At this point, most assignments are dreams; my illustration career is moribund. I am still available, though.

I rely on hypnagogia, that state between sleeping and being fully awake, a sort of lucid dreaming time. It has proven to be the wellspring for not only solutions to problematic illustration assignments, but as fertile ground for my personal art and writing as well. I am motivated by some internal itch that says make a story, in words or pictures. I like narrative. Early on, I was motivated by having to make money—I had a young family to help support, bills to pay and all that. There was also the cool factor…how great it was to have an illo in The New Yorker or on a record sleeve, seen by many more peeps than would see my work in a gallery. I loved the near-utilitarian aspect of mass reproduction of my work. And work is what I consider what I do—it’s my job, whether I’m paid for it or not—it’s my vocation and my avocation. I’m extremely fortunate to have been able to make a good living for so long by cutting out pictures and gluing them together. What a gas.

Heavy Weather by Weather Report—it was Grammy nominated. Fiyo On The Bayou by The Neville Bros.—so great to meet them. Yellow Magic Orchestra, HeadCandy by Eno. The challenge is the same as with any client-based assignment, namely, pleasing the client, except in the case of entertainment gigs, there are more levels—managers, the label, band members, lawyers, etc. 12-inch covers were probably the most fun illustration jobs. It was a great time in the record business; now it’s all DIY downloads. I’ve always enjoyed working on friends’ covers, too—Dave Alvin and Chris Spedding come to mind.

I don’t promote myself any longer. I still enter the American Illustration and Society of Illustrators to keep my hand in, but I don’t actively do anything other than some emails to art directors. At one time I was in the pay-to-play annuals, but it’s like having a booth at an art fair in some parking lot. Postcards were a very good way to reach peeps, but now the postage alone makes it an expensive proposition. I’ve done well selling original art and promoting my gallery shows on Facebook.

Well, I started writing fiction a couple of years ago and had a successful book published and I now show in galleries. My career has taken a turn from illustration into “fine art” and literature. I’m working on a pilot for an animated series, flexing my dialogue-writing muscles.

It was a lark, just something to counteract the boring posts on Facebook. I began to get an online following and then a friend and I designed a website with some of the tales read by Jeff Bridges, Ian McShane and Dave Alvin. The site, was made to look like a book so it was an easier product to sell to publishers (BTW don’t view in Chrome…sound distortion). Very soon after acquiring an agent, I got a nice offer from Houghton-Mifflin. I “see” the stories, so they are visual to me from the get-go. [Editor's note: You can also view information on 420 Characters on Lou's website.]

There seem to be more people in the field now. When I jumped in, there weren’t that many; it seemed like a special club. I was so proud to be associated with Pushpin. As before, there is a certain high-visibility group who get a lot of work and they are, of course, very good. There is so much great young talent out there, so many terrific artists. I just don’t know how they can all survive doing illustration, but I love seeing their work.

Well, of course some of it looks dated, but there are many pictures that I’m quite proud of. At one time, I was “cutting edge” (no pun intended)—there weren’t many collage artists doing commercial work. I took chances, had fun, pushed the envelope hard. Getting a Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators a few years ago was pretty swell and you can’t beat a Grammy nomination, and there are many personal favorites in my portfolio. But really, as far as illustration goes, particularly editorial (my favorite), the sense of satisfaction in being able to come up with a unique solution is worth more than any awards. 

By all means, have FUN. Push your own boundaries…you can always pull back, but if you start from a position of second-guessing the client or worrying about the “market,” it’ll just become a drag and you may as well go to law school. And don’t take yourself too seriously…it’s your job, not some higher calling, God whispering in your ear.

This is perhaps not for everyone, but I would advise NOT going into the field right out of school. Instead, travel and/or get a job that has nothing to do with art or design. Work with people and in situations that would normally be foreign to you. In other words, get some life experience to broaden your view of the world and engender empathy for people not fortunate enough to work making art. I value the time I spent in menial jobs.

See more Lou Beach illustrations and artwork, new work, and updates
Lou Beach Illustration Website
Lou Beach Art Website
420 Characters Book
Lou Beach Profile and Artwork on the Daily Muse
Lou Beach on Twitter
Jeff Bridges Sleeping Tapes