After a BFA obtained at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in Wisconsin, Keith Negley worked as a graphic designer for a few time. Passionate about music, he decided to settle down in Seattle to play in rock bands and make illustration. Eight years later, he returned to the New York school benches to get a Master of Arts at the School of Visual Arts. Today Keith Negley is located in the city of Bellingham, between bay, lakes and mountains. He defines himself as a “conceptual” illustrator, focused on creating an emotion rather than on visual puns…
Hi Keith! How did you interested in the field of illustration?
I learned what “illustration” was when I got to art school. When I had to choose what major to pick I liked that illustration wasn’t limited to any one medium.
How were your beginnings in this environment?
My career was a slow start. I was working with a rep who worked at getting me my first jobs, but I think the first year I was out of school I probably only got 5 editorial jobs. Luckily I had a full time job as a graphic designer at the time. I was full time freelance after two years of graduating with my BFA.
What do you like about Bellingham?
It’s amazing. It’s a very small town, but still has a lot of progressive aspects about it. We’ve got a great indie theater here, many restaurants that serve local organic ingredients and yet there’s always parking available, and there’s never any traffic. We have beautiful views of the sound and mountains and tons of great hiking. Oh, and the air here smells amazing. We were rated #1 cleanest air of any US city.
You lived in Brooklyn for a while. Does the fact of living in New York was beneficial for your creativity and to make artistic encounters?
Absolutely. I think every artist needs to experience living in NYC at least once. The illustration community there is just astounding, there’s always something going on in the scene and everyone there is supportive and energized. It’s a great vibe to feed off of. You’re also in the epicenter for publishers so you meet so many great people connected to the industry and it’s much easier to establish relationships with clients. It’s not necessary to live in NYC to be successful by any means, but for illustration it’s the center of the universe.
You created the Tumblr “Part Man / Part negative space”. Why have launched this Tumblr? What does this mean to you?
I treat it like a blog essentially. I post new work and also sketches or ideas that might not make it to my portfolio, and any major news I have going on. I had a regular gig with Bicycling magazine for a while and I used to take rejected sketches from those assignments and add Batman in them somewhere riding a bike and I’d post those for fun. It’s crucial to have a space to post goofy stuff. We can’t be serious all the time.
Your illustrations are sometimes tinged with melancholy, meditation on loneliness and suffering. Why this choice?
From 2000 to 2010 I worked very hard at being a “conceptual” illustrator. I strived to use clever metaphors to solve problems in my illustrations. Illustrators like Brad Yeo, Alex Nabaum, Pete Ryan were all inspirations for my work. But I never felt like it fit for me. I didn’t enjoy the process. I went back to grad school in 2011 in NYC, and started making personal work with no expectations, just making work to find the joy in it again. And the work that came out had a lot to do with anxiety, and disillusionment. My son just turned 3 at the time and I was having a tough time with parenthood and expectations put on me as a father and husband were something I was really grappling with. So the work I made dealt with a lot of thosesubject matters. I put the work in my portfolio and quickly started getting those kinds of assignments. I find it’s much more rewarding and comes more natural for me to focus on creating an emotion rather than visual puns. I have nothing but respect for those who can churn out clever metaphors over and over again, that’s just not me.
Where do you get your inspiration to make your creations?
I look at a lot of medieval and Byzantine art, folk art, abstract expressionist painters. I also draw inspiration from music as well. I listen to a lot of big sweeping instrumental post rock.
You just finished the cover of a new children’s book “Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too)”, how did you live this experience?
That’s the cover to my first book that I wrote and illustrated, so I had to learn on the job at what makes a good cover for the children’s market, which is entirely different from other kinds of books. I went through many variations to get it right and worked very closely with the publisher Flying Eye Books to get to something we both thought was the best direction. Took longer than I thought it would, but for children’s books a good cover is key.
What is the craziest project on which you worked?
The craziest one I can think of wasn’t that crazy. I was hired by a design firm to create an image that was to be used for an ad. I can’t even remember who the ad was for, but they wanted me to draw a light switch. That was it. Just a full page light switch from a straight ahead angle. Keep in mind my work is very minimalist, I don’t do photorealistic shadows, so for me to draw a light switch is just a square inside of a square. I was confused because they were paying me $5,000 to do it, and that was a lot of money to me then (it still is!). What gets more strange is they had an intern who sent me a “sketch” of what they wanted it to look like, and it actually looked better than what I do. Their intern who probably wasn’t even getting paid did a better job than I could at drawing a light switch and I was getting $5k for it. The whole job took me about 2 hours. It messed with my head because I didn’t understand why a client would pay me that much money for a drawing like that, and I had a lot of guilt and shame around it. I know Advertising has much larger budgets, and how long you work on something doesn’t translate to value. But I still didn’t feel good about taking that check. I mean, I still cashed it, but I didn’t feel good about it.
Can you tell us about your plans for the future?
I have a gallery show of painted skateboard decks opening this week in Seattle which I’m really excited about. My book Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too) is being released this October so I should have some events planned around that, and I start teaching a course next month at Emily Carr University in Vancouver British Columbia which has been a dream of mine for some time. After that I start work finishing my next children’s book which is due out for Father’s Day in 2016.
Thank you to Keith.
– L.K –