Keith Negley’s illustrations are thought provoking and emotive. Surprisingly however, this style that seems to come together so naturally is relatively new to Keith’s commercial work. Although having worked since graduating from his BFA in 2000, it wasn’t until some introspection during his soon-to-finish MFA course that he felt he’d found his voice.
Keith’s work is concept-driven by strong ideas for sure, but it’s also the way in which it is done that we really like. It’s interesting that he talks about medieval and byzantium art when talking about where he finds inspiration for the characters in his work.
You can see it in the graphic simplicity of the elegant poses and the understanding that would come with studying the figure. That, combined with the layering of multiple materials, makes for powerful images you could spend days unraveling.
In our interview below, Keith talks about post-graduate studies, developing a more personal aesthetic, and how it has all affected his commissioned work.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to do the work that you are doing?
I grew up in a small farm town in Wisconsin. I got my BFA in Illustration at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) in 2000. After a short stint as a junior designer at a milwaukee design studio I moved to Seattle and went full time freelance with my illustration. Serendipity and hard work have enabled me to do this full time since about 2002.
It’s been pretty great. By 2010 though I was getting burned out on the work I was doing, mostly conceptual corporate finance assignments, and I was ready to make work that was more meaningful to me. I knew I needed to go back to grad school to find my voice again, so I moved to brooklyn, NY in the summer of 2011 to attend Marshall Arisman’s MFA program at SVA and my world of illustration has been exploding ever since.
Please tell us about the process you go through when making an image.
I really don’t do a lot of drawing in sketchbooks. The majority of my drawing happens on the computer. I usually start with super rough thumbnails on paper to work out the ideas, but quickly move right into Adobe Illustrator to draw it up. I’ll work out all the kinks and get the composition exactly how I want it in Illustrator, and then essentially rebuild the whole thing in Photoshop with shapes and lines I make by hand using the Illustrator file as a template.
Sometimes, I’ll print the vector shapes out one by one and xerox them until they get gritty and scan them back in. I’ll use anything I have laying around, charcoal, china marker, a roller with paint, watercolor, cut paper, graphite pencil.
I love the unlimited control of the computer, but I need to leave room for happy accidents with the traditional medium or the piece just looks lifeless to me.
Where do you find your inspiration?
A lot of my inspiration comes from my daily life. I consider much of the work I’ve done lately for clients as self portraits. My favorite assignments are the ones I can visualize myself in, the book reviews, and narrative pieces where I can put myself in the position of who the story is about and imagine what they’re going through.
I ask myself how I would feel in that person’s situation and try to tap into their struggle. How would I react, sit, stand, hold my head, what would I do with my hands, etc. At that point it stops being about coming up with a unique metaphor, but capturing the emotion, using mood as the concept. I want the audience to connect to the content in my work on an emotional level, not just understand the meanings of the symbols I’m using.
I also take a lot of cues from medieval and byzantine art, I find their stiff body language and wonky use of perspective really captivating. There’s also a quiet sacredness in it that I’m striving to replicate.
You’re about to complete your MFA. How do you think attending the School of Visual Arts has affected your commercial work?
I would say I’m starting to get hired to make the work I would be making on my own for free. Who I am as an artist is starting to coalesce into who I am as a commercial illustrator. Some illustrators are fortunate enough to create this for themselves right from the get-go, but I needed a push from Marshall and SVA.
The program has given me the confidence to pitch the concepts and create the work for clients I’ve always wanted but was afraid was too personal or emotional. I’ve lost a few clients a long the way.
Some of my more corporate driven work has dried up, but I’ve also gained some of my dream clients like Nicholas Blechman for The New York Times book review and SooJin Buzelli for Planadviser.
What would you say to someone thinking of doing a similar post-graduate course?
Whether or not an MFA is right for someone comes down to the individual. I don’t believe it’s right for everyone, or that it’s even necessary to be successful. I was just at the right point in my career and in the right space psychologically to really use a program like this. I had been working on my own for some time and was extremely hungry for feedback and inspiration.
I was also ready to experiment and take risks and I think that is crucial to evolving. I could see some artists coming straight out of undergrad may not have the appetite for it, I know I wouldn’t have when I first got my BFA. You have to be willing to make a lot of mistakes and let go of what made you successful in the past, and that is scary for anyone, but it’s the only way you’re gonna grow.
Did you make any work-related resolutions for 2013?
I’m in a tumultuous transition period with my work. I’ll likely lose more clients with my new vocabulary, but I’m hoping to replace them with new ones who will appreciate the emotionally driven narrative work I’m doing now. I guess my resolution for 2013 is to stay strong in my convictions, continue to push my work in directions that are rewarding to me, and trust there will be a market for it.
© Keith Negley, 2013