Psychedelic style in graphic design

Psychedelic style was a characteristic and easily recognizable style of the second half of the 60s. It referred both to music and visual art. Its development was influenced mainly by the hippie movement (Flower Power ideology), pacifism and interest in the culture of Far East – mostly Buddhism. The term “psychedelic music” was first used in 1966 by a band called 13th Floor Elevators, on the occasion of an interview promoting their debut album “The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators”.

The 13th Floor Elevators

“The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators” – debut album of The 13th Floor Elevators, 1966. Strong contrast between colors and use of optical illusion makes the image seem as if vibrating.

Psychedelic rock was characterized by freedom of form – guest performances of other musicians at concerts, exotic instruments, influence of jazz and music of other cultures, mainly Indian. Song lyrics were poetic, mystical or visionary (that’s why Jim Morrison is called both a musician and a poet). All these features found their reflection in visual arts as well – posters and album covers from 60/70s can be easily recognized by the use of vivid, flashy colors, strong contrasts and lots of elements. On the 60s album covers the image melts, flows with the music and is followed by typography, which is an integral part of the whole picture. An obligatory element of these projects were wild, fluorescent tones, which reflected narcotic visions (popular LSD). The first and the most influential artists creating psychedelic posters and covers are said to be five graphic designers from the USA (the so-called Big Five): Victor Moscoso, Richard Griffin, Alton Kelly, Wes Wilson and Stanley Mouse. In 1967 they set up a design studio called “Berkeley-Bonaparte”.

Wes Wilson - plakaty

Wes Wilson – posters (source: www.wes-wilson.com)

Not many are aware though, that the real origins of this trend reach as far as the 19th century. The last 10 years of the 19th century was the time of flourish for Art Nouveau. Posters from this period are very similar to many projects from the 60s. A good example might be the poster below by Alphonse Mucha (the main representative of Art Nouveau), with the effigy of Sara Bernhard, an actress and favourite model of the artist. He depicted her as a goddess, around her head there is a halo with hand-painted letters. Her hair is like flowing lines (red, curly or wavy hair in Mucha’s works even have their own name – “macaroni”). The poster is full of floral ornaments – inspiration by nature is clearly visible here. The same goes for the graphics of the 60s. The one, stark difference, though, lies in colors: Art Nouveau artists used palettes allowing to achieve more realistic effects, while in the 60s there was absolute revel and madness. 

Alphonse Mucha, 1896; Bonnie Maclean, 1967

Alfons Mucha, 1896; Bonnie Maclean, 1967

One of the most recognizable album covers from the second half of the 60s is “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” by The Beatles. The cover, designed by Peter Blake and his wife Jann Haworth, was created on the basis of Paul McCartney’s sketch. The project is a synthesis of psychedelic style and pop art. There is a large group of people, out of which the four members of the band, wearing colorful uniforms, are clearly distinguishable. The Beatles are surrounded by natural-sized figures of famous characters, such as Marilyn Monroe, Edgar Allan Poe, Bob Dylan, Oscar Wilde, Muhammad Ali, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Marlena Dietrich and many other pop culture icons. In the crowd we can also see Hindi gurus: Mahavatar Babaji and Lahiri Mahasaya. The lower part of the composition is covered with flower beds formed in ornaments typical for the Eastern culture. This somewhat points out how influential Hindi culture was on music and lifestyle of that time.

The Beatles cover 1967

Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles

In turn, Hendrix’s album “Axis: bold as love” is a blow of heavy, psychedelic rock. The illustration on the cover was made by Roger Law, while the portrait photo of the famous guitarist was taken by Carl Ferris. In the middle of the composition there is Hendrix, transforming into all incarnations of Vishnu. On the sun placed above there is the lettering with the album title and band’s name. The project is a good instance of the style and atmosphere of that period: rich ornaments, vivid colors, people and animals shown coexisting in symbiosis, and finally duality of the image which was supposed to resemble narcotic visions.

Axis: bold as love - The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Axis: bold as love – The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Today, psychedelic style has many fans and many artists are still inspired by it. In my opinion, one of the most interesting artists creating in this style is Kiryk Drewinski. Here are some of his pieces:

Kiryk Drewinski - plakaty

Kiryk Drewinski – posters (source: www.kiryk.com)

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