Credit: Courtesy Matthew Gordon
Rolling Stones' Ronnie Wood: Painting is my 'God-given talent'
"I think it's born in me that I'm an artist of the visual kind first," said a reflective Ronnie Wood over the phone in his north London studio. "There's nothing I enjoy doing more today than painting in oils, and that's how I used to paint as a teenager."
Although recognized primarily for his status as a rock 'n' roll deity, the 71-year-old Rolling Stone has been turning heads with his visual art for even longer than he has with his music.
Wood's paintings have been exhibited around the world, and today grace the walls of London's Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and have been collected by the likes of Bill and Hilary Clinton.
Though he's most known for paintings of his fellow Stones, as well as musicians like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, Wood is also passionate about subjects like horses and landscapes, and works with a multitude of mediums. This past December, he released "The Rolling Stones' Set Lists," a limited-edition book of drawings on canvas.
"I sold my first two pieces to my music teacher at school for four pounds, and they were abstract pieces," he proudly recalled. This was no small feat for the fledgling Wood -- then still in elementary school -- whose older brothers, Art and Ted, both studied art.
It wouldn't be long before he would enjoy his first group exhibition: "There was a man on TV called Adrian Hill, and he had a program called 'Sketch Club.' I won the artist of the week kind of thing a few weeks in a row, and he said, would I come along and have an exhibition of my work and join some of the other children? I was about 12 or 13 when this was going on."
Later he would receive formal art training at the Ealing College of Art in London. On being both a musician and an artist, Wood explained that, "Being a Gemini, I've always flown the two flags. They've gone hand in hand, music and art."
That seemed to be the case for many of his contemporaries: Many of them, including Pete Townshend of The Who, Ray Davies of the Kinks and bandmate Keith Richards were art school students, too.
"There was a direct connection (between art school and rock 'n' roll) in that everyone seemed to be in a band or combo of some kind ... Pete was making statements by smashing his instrument; that was a bit expressionist in the art world, you know?"
While Wood always earnestly pursued his art on the side after making it big in music, it wasn't until the early '80s that he began exhibiting and selling. "When I'd spent all my money on the good life," he recalled, "I realized that I had to exploit my other God-given talent, and I thought, 'Actually, I can paint! Why don't I earn my bread and butter by selling some of my prints and drawings?' So that's what I started to do when I lived in Los Angeles and I was in New York -- sort of having exhibitions there, as well."
Despite his lifelong artistic endeavors and pursuits, establishing himself as an artist in his own right wasn't easy.
"When I first made an entrance, as it were, into the proper art world ... I had to get my foot in the door by making a statement of drawing people and portraits," he said. And while Wood has been creating art all his life, some critics haven't been able to see past his rock reputation and take him seriously.
"Some sticklers in the art world have said, 'I don't know who Ronnie Wood thinks he is!' There's a big critic over here ... (who) said, 'Well, as much as I don't like to admit it, Ronnie Wood can actually paint.' You know, because he wanted to really put me down."
Wood isn't put off by such remarks, though: "That's what I do: I can paint, you know, I can draw. So, I don't care what they say."
The newly released "Rolling Stones' Set Lists" art book (his second, after 2017's "Ronnie Wood: Artist") pulls together over a hundred of Wood's illustrated versions of the set lists from band rehearsals between 2005 and 2018. With its behind-the-scenes revelations, concert photos and endearing doodles, it has the feel of a diary.
"It was a personal thing of mine to, as we rehearsed, make a note of the songs and the keys they were in and how many times we'd played them, just for my own head," Wood explained. "It came from my little lined pad into a sketchbook, and then gradually over the years it became a reality onto canvas."
Weird and wonderful, "Set Lists" is welcome addition to the artist's eclectic oeuvre. But it will far from the last of Wood's art books -- if he can help it.
"(Art) is a bit like the Stones: We keep making music and I keep painting. It's an ongoing thing and it's something you never get down. You never kind of say, 'OK, I've done that, I can retire now.' It's always an adventure, you know?"
"The Rolling Stones' Set Lists," published by Genesis, is out now.
"Ronnie Wood: Artist," published by Thames & Hudson, is out now.