Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood on Making Art and Music—And Sometimes Both at Once

The duo's new works go on view at "The Crow Flies: Part Two" at Tin Man Art gallery in London on December 6.

Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood, Wall of Eyes (2023). Courtesy of Tin Man Art.

Earlier this year, as the Thom Yorke-led trio The Smile was recording its sophomore album, the newly announced Wall of Eyes, a separate, yet related, act of creation was taking place close by.  

In a room at London’s Abbey Road Studios where the band was working on the record, Yorke’s long-time collaborator Stanley Donwood had set up an art studio stocked with easels and canvases. There, over two weeks, the pair would turn out a run of paintings—of fragmented topographies, alien forms—as a live audio feed from the neighboring control room was piped into the space. 

It was a project of “simultaneous composition,” Donwood said over email. “I find it very useful to listen to the music that will be associated with the artwork while the music is being made, while the artwork is being made.” 

“The music and the visual work both matter very much to me,” Yorke added. “One liberates the other a lot of the time.” 

Fittingly, a painting from the session will grace the cover of Wall of Eyes, while all 10 works will form the second part of Yorke and Donwood’s The Crow Flies series, going on view at Tin Man Art gallery from December 6. The new showcase, titled “The Crow Flies: Part Two,” follows the successful debut of the duo’s works at the London gallery in September, which saw Maastricht’s Bonnefanten Museum acquiring one of the abstract landscapes. 

Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood, Aggag (2022). Courtesy of Tin Man Art.

While the works in part one of the series were created in an Oxford studio in the wake of 2020, Donwood said, “things were much freer, in every way, for the second phase.” He admitted to starting the project with a clear mindset, while the Abbey Road building provided inspiration “in a very vague and non-specific way” (that is, “aside from the ghostly Beatles wandering about”), allowing the duo to work intuitively—or at least attempt to. 

“Intuition is hard to quantify and I think when it genuinely happens, that’s very rare. It’s an excellent feeling when something just goes right; but it’s really, really infrequent,” the artist explained.  

Still, looking at these latest paintings, it’s easy to imagine them emerging from a shared subconscious. Some, like The Lakes, Aggag, and Goom, depict eerie vistas with abstract shards juxtaposed against organic contours. Others, such as Frozen Raw and One of Many, bring the viewer up close to otherworldly silhouettes. Might they be snapshots of exterior as much as interior landscapes? 

Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood, Frozen Raw (2022). Courtesy of Tin Man Art.

Kind of, Donwood said. He brought up the pirate maps and topographic charts that inspired the first The Crow Flies paintings, which in turn represented arcane, complex navigational aids. These new works, he said, “are pictures of the places you might see if you follow the maps.” 

The paintings were created with egg tempera, with the layers blended to evoke the weathering of centuries-old art or frescoes. The choice of linen as canvas was intended to recall vellum or parchment. In Donwood’s telling, the idea was to recreate the effect of Medieval murals that had been “repaired by considerably less skilled people” (see: the infamous botched Jesus restoration).

Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood, River Spikes (2023). Courtesy of Tin Man Art.

While the textures of the works in The Crow Flies depart from Yorke and Donwood’s previous outings, the narratives and motifs that fuel them—haunting abstraction, reimagined artifacts, esoteric terrains—are the same that have informed their decades-long partnership.  

Since the early ’90s, Donwood has created the bulk of cover art for Yorke’s musical projects, from Radiohead to Atoms for Peace to his solo work, some of which featured contributions from the singer-songwriter himself. In 2006, the duo’s joint paintings for Radiohead’s 2003 record Hail to the Thief were first exhibited at Iguapop Gallery in Barcelona (with Yorke using the moniker Dr. Tchock). More recently, they curated a showcase of Donwood’s artwork for 2001’s Kid A to accompany a Christie’s auction in 2021.  

In working together, Donwood and Yorke have established a shared visual language, one that is perhaps now tough to tease out from their individual aesthetic. But maybe that’s the point. 

“There isn’t a lot of navigating to be done,” Yorke said about balancing their individual and collaborative creativity. “The effort to understand where someone else is coming from—that’s the point. So then when you look back at what you’ve done, it speaks to you in a way you didn’t expect.” 

Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood, The Lakes (2023). Courtesy of Tin Man Art.

In fact, according to the pair, their collaboration seems to thrive on necessary friction. “Essential interference” is how Donwood characterized it, while Yorke called it “Midi/USB,” referring to the opposite heads of a connecting cable commonly used with musical equipment. 

Yorke’s is an apt analogy. If music is the root and throughline of his and Donwood’s shared visual art practice, it has arguably also served as the glue. 

“It was partly because we both found ourselves making record covers… and then got carried away,” Yorke explained. “And because of what has developed between the two of us. I never expected that to happen honestly.” 

The Crow Flies: Part Two” is on view at Tin Man Art, 4 Cromwell Place, London, December 6–10. 


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