Expressive and emotive work by Keith Negley
Award-winning illustrator Keith Negley pulls inspiration from the ebb and flow of fatherhood, his all consuming musical background and the human condition.
Muted colors and painterly textures create emotive pieces which stand strong by articles discussing anguish and hardship. Material is king for him. All his inspirations find a way to influence his largely editorial work, leaving room for his textures to breath. The intermingling effects of his brushes, pencils, and pens create a gulp of fresh air within the confines of every illustration.
We caught up with him to find out more about his compelling work as well as life in the Negley household.
Your editorial work brings a lot of beauty to some very dark subject matter. Can you tell me about the conceptualizing process? Is it ever depressing?
It’s different every time. I don’t have a routine that I run the assignments through where there’s a finished illustration at the end, but usually at some point I have to turn my brain off and just ask myself “what do I feel like drawing right now?” The first thing that comes to my mind is usually the concept that ends up working. That sounds overly simplistic, but many times I have to fight the urge to give the Art Director what I think they want from me rather than doing what I want to do. I’m such a people pleaser at heart I have to consciously make an effort to be selfish and draw what I want to draw.
I’m not as interested in clever visual puns these days, I’d rather let the way I apply the paint or pencil be the concept in of itself. I’m more interested in form right now than concept. I enjoy focusing on creating something emotive. Getting the audience to feel something is my priority more than getting them to think. That’s where my motivation is when I’m concept-ing. My favorite assignments are stories that deal with anxiety, disillusion, heartache and the human condition.
I try to put myself in the work and experience what the writers are experiencing as best I can. I feel honored to be trusted with these projects.
Could you share one of your favorite editorial pieces, and tell us why you connected with the project so much?
One of my favorite assignments was a story about how, contrary to popular belief, suicide rates go up in the spring months. It was for The New York Times and the art director on it was Peter Morance. It was one of those rare times where I knew what I wanted to do before I even finished reading it. I couldn’t imagine solving it any other way. I sent Peter one sketch and he was all for it. As I was taking it to final the piece was looking very straight forward and clean.
Up until the last minute the flowers looked very conservative and a bit boring. I knew the topic deserved something powerful but what I had wasn’t cutting it. I had 10 minutes left before it was to go to print and I was stressing out. At the last minute I threw down some thick messy brush strokes over the flower petals and pulled all the green and blue out of the image using Photoshop. Totally just stabbing in the dark looking for a way to push it to the next level. My son was 4 at the time and he was tugging on my arm begging me to play with him as I was doing this. It was a bit comical how frenzied the situation was. I think it came out beautifully though. It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but at the time I think I stepped up my game with that particular piece.
My favorite assignments are stories that deal with anxiety, disillusion, heartache, the human condition etc. It can be depressing for sure, but it’s also very cathartic.
You recently moved from Brooklyn, NY back to the West Coast, has that affected your work practices at all?
Living in NYC was an amazing experience, and I hope I never forget it. The buzz and energy people refer to about that city is real and tangible, but it’s also exhausting. It felt like I was always on edge, and I had a hard time relaxing.
We loved it there; for the culture and energy, but at the end of the day we knew it wasn’t a good fit long term. We moved back to the Pacific Northwest when I graduated SVA, and now reside in Bellingham Washington, which is an hour and a half north of Seattle. It’s a much smaller town, lot’s of trees and mountains and lakes, and it’s way slower paced. I didn’t realize what an impact NYC was having on my psyche until we got out into the woods and started breathing fresh air again, but I’ve had much more energy for personal projects. I wrote 2 children’s books in the 6 months we lived here and started painting traditionally in my free time. These are projects I had been meaning to make time for but never had the energy until we moved out here. I think being among the trees and water has helped me relax and I’m not using as much energy just to get through the day like I was in NYC. The trade off is that it’s rather isolating, and I miss getting to hang out with other illustrators.
Describe your home studio space – where do you create your artwork?
I use a tiny spare bedroom in our house. It’s the smallest room but has the nicest view. Our house is on a bit of a cliff and I get to look over tree-tops and small mountains in the distance. I’m looking at a bald eagle as I type this so you know… I have no complaints.
We read that you used to be in a band – tell us more about that!
I started playing in bands in high school (20 years ago OMG!) and never really stopped. I love all instruments, but drums and synthesizers are my favorite. I love vintage gear. Playing music was a huge part of my identity and for a long time illustration was just my way to pay bills. Music was my priority, and everything else came second. I played in a handful of different kinds of bands, I toured with a few of them, across the country and down the west coast. It was a really good time. The most successful and longest running band was called Sleepy Eyes of Death. I played drums and wrote a lot of the synthesizer parts. The band only broke up because I got accepted into SVA in NYC and I was moving across the country.
Could you share a song you wrote, as well as some music you’re into right now?
Sure! Here’s a track called Mono from the band Beak and and the song New Coke by HEALTH. I get a lot of inspiration from music for my illustration work. Texture, energy, and knowing when to follow the rules and when not to in terms of composition. Pushing robotic elements and juxtaposing them with organic elements are things I strive for and get excited about in music and try to recreate in my work. These two bands and particular tracks do that for me.
And here is a little track I made recently in the new studio space with just myself a few of my trusty analog synths.
Playing music was a huge part of my identity and for a long time illustration was just my way to pay bills.
What made you decide to take the illustration route instead of persuing a music career?
As fun as it was, playing in a band takes an incredible amount of time and energy. It can take over a year and thousands of dollars to make an album, and after it’s finished you release it into the world and it feels like dropping a bucket of water into the ocean. You get a few reviews in alt-weeklies, and a few extra people show up to your shows. I realized making music is like heroin to me. When I’m working on a musical project it consumes me. I put everything else in my life on a back burner; work, family, health, money, etc. It’s not healthy, and at the end of the day I’m not happier for it.
When I turned 30 my wife and I had a baby and I realized that putting all my energy into music was not an efficient use of my time and the rewards were paltry in comparison to what I was putting into it. I decided to shift focus onto my illustration career and use illustration as a way to express myself. I applied to grad school and got into to SVA in New York. It’s been the best decision I could’ve made. Once I actually started to apply myself with illustration I got a flood of positive feedback; which led to more great projects and opportunities. In the last 2 years since I graduated SVA things have just skyrocket in directions I didn’t think were possible. Illustration still takes an incredible amount of work and dedication, but the rewards I get back are ten fold what I put into it. It’s a much better use of my energy. I guess I’m just a better illustrator than musician. 🙂 With that said, I still make music when I have the time, and there is a lot of overlap with visual art and music that play off and inform each other. I love vintage synthesizers and old drum sets, they’re works of art to me.
I believe I’ve seen some crayon peek through in some of your textures. Are father/son drawing sessions a frequent occurrence in the Negley household?
Nah, not as much as I’d like. My son Parker isn’t into drawing so much. He’d rather play soccer or Minecraft than draw with me. He makes these amazing drawings at school though. He brings home these beautiful expressive abstract paintings and I just love them. I wish I could draw like him, I get a lot of inspiration from seeing how he uses the paint with no preconceived notions. Being a father has had a profound effect on my work, and in ways I didn’t think it would. Being a parent your time becomes a valuable commodity, you learn how to get really efficient, and you learn to appreciate the moments you have to yourself. When I have a few hours to myself I don’t waste it. I make stuff.
Being a father has had a profound effect on my work, and in ways I didn’t think it would.
You were initially most inspired by comic books, could you share a bit about where that started. Was there a comic book store in your hometown in Wisconsin?
There was one tiny comic book shop where I grew up in Door County Wisconsin. I loved comics in high school, but I mainly just loved looking at the pictures. This was the mid 90’s and I didn’t know what “illustration” was. Comic books were the only chance for success I new of other than “fine art” for a kid who liked to draw like me. I thought I was going to be a comic artist. In 1995 I went to my first comic convention in Chicago. I was a junior in high school. And I stood in line with all the other artists to have my portfolio reviewed by some industry big wig who I don’t remember. I was looking over the shoulders of the guys in front of me and their work looked really polished and professional. Meanwhile my portfolio consisted of drawings of muscle men I essentially copied off my favorite artists with no backgrounds or shading. Just drawings of characters I made up standing in what I thought were cool poses. The guys in front of me were getting their work critiqued pretty hard.
I realized right then that if these guys with great work weren’t getting hired, then there was no way I had what it took to draw comics and I got out of the line.
Haven’t really been into comics since, but I never stopped drawing. I still love going into comic book stores. They’re magical places.
Album art, editorial, watches, what’s next for you?
I’m working on my first children’s book for Flying Eye books! I’m so excited I can’t put it into words. It’s a dream come true. I’m also working on a series of paintings that I’ll be showing at 35th North, a skate shop in Seattle this August. And I’m putting together a week-long illustration workshop I’ll be giving at the art school Escuela de Caricatura in Bogota Columbia this summer as well! I have a very busy summer ahead and I couldn’t be happier.