How do you illustrate Breaking Bad? Better call Ralph Steadman

Walter White

Walter White - Credit: Archant

The iconic artist and partner in crime of Hunter S. Thompson tells Alex Bellotti how he ended up drawing Walter White and co.

Jessie Pinkman

Jessie Pinkman - Credit: Archant

Such is the worldwide popularity of Breaking Bad that when Ralph Steadman was last year commissioned to produce some artwork for the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, he was probably the only man in Britain who hadn’t heard of it.

For five seasons, AMC’s dark, hilarious television drama kept audiences on tenterhooks as they followed the fates of accidental drug lords Walter White and Jessie Pinkman; now it is returning to our screens with Netflix’s spin-off prequel, Better Call Saul.

Gilligan truly is television’s man of the moment, so it says a lot of his respect for Steadman – most renowned for his illustration work with notorious gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson – that he personally wrote to the 78 year old asking if he could provide some character portraits for the show’s new limited edition box-sets. The results are being exhibited at Hackney’s 71a Gallery until Sunday.

“I was commissioned to do it and then I thought ‘What is it? What is it?’” laughs Steadman. “I had to sit down with my wife Anna and over three weeks, we watched the whole series.

Saul Goodman

Saul Goodman - Credit: Archant

“The thing about Breaking Bad is the sort of perniciousness and nastiness that emerges from somebody who is a nice man and wants to provide for his family. The blue meth becomes a drug itself, but in his head. He makes this stuff and no one can make it as well as him – it’s extraordinary”

The show’s beautifully depicted deserts of Albuquerque, New Mexico, are hardly a world away from the dustbowls of Las Vegas that Steadman re-imagined for Thompson’s drug-addled masterpiece, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In fact, the artist says he once even travelled to Albuquerque for work and was likely in an area not too far from the offices of the show’s bombastic lawyer, Saul Goodman.

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But why is it Steadman so often finds himself drawn to such dark worlds – so often, in his own way, breaking bad?

“Violence is such an integral part of life,” he replies. “I’m not a violent person, but I became a bother through drawing. I mean I was very upset about that Paris shooting – that was filthy. I’m not very religious, yet if people get comfort through religion then I’m quite happy for them to find some comfort in it, but you can’t impose it upon others.”

For the new exhibition, Steadman has also chosen some Breaking Bad portraits created by UK rising talents to display alongside his own.

The secret to any painting, he says, is to let the subconscious reign free.

“For part of the time when I was doing them, I resisted putting colour into Walt. What I should have done, I suppose, is blue – as in blue meth. An ambience of blue surrounding him, it could be a halo of some kind.

“The thing about a drawing and how to do it is to not be literal about it. It’s a feeling, it’s an ambience. A lot of parts of drawings are ambience and they are subconsciously introduced into the work.”

Breaking Bad Character Portraits by Ralph Steadman runs at 71a Gallery, 71a Leonard Street, Hackney, ECA2 4QS until Sunday. Seasons 1 and 2 of the Blu-ray steelbook editions are available now at Seasons 3 and 4 will be released on 2 March, while the fifth and final season will be available on 6 April.