Illustrator profile - Keith Negley: "Experimentation is a big part of my process"

By Robert Newman   Thursday September 1, 2016

Keith Negley is an illustrator based outside of Bellingham, Washington. His work has appeared in numerous major magazines and newspapers, on book covers, posters, album covers, and children’s books. Negley’s newest children’s book, My Dad Used To Be So Cool, was published in June. His illustration style is a delightfully graphic mix of old school materials (“pencil, charcoal, cut paper, magazines”) mashed up and brilliantly colored in Photoshop and Illustrator. Negley likes to add in a healthy dose of experimentation in his creation process so he can “leave room for happy accidents.”

I grew up in a small Wisconsin town. My dad worked in a ship yard and my mom was the manager of the local video store. I got my first summer job when I was 14, cleaning rooms in a resort hotel. I’ve stocked shelves in a grocery store, waited tables in our town’s Pizza Hut and assembled costume jewelry for a small independent designer. Oh, and worked as a photo assistant and a print designer at a design firm for a short bit.

Now I live in a little community of houses built into the mountains just outside of Bellingham, Washington called Sudden Valley. I have an extremely supportive wife and a pretty rad seven-year-old son. We’re surrounded by lakes, ocean and rain forests. No complaints.

We just bought a house last month and there’s an entire floor dedicated to me so I’m very excited about that—about 350 square feet with lots of south-facing light. I have a “clean” desk and a “dirty” desk for working. I believe we should surround ourselves with the things that give us joy so you’ll see skateboard decks and vintage synthesizers and a drum set scattered around my studio.

I start out with Adobe Illustrator and block out my compositions using vector shapes like cut paper. Once I have a composition to a place where I like it, I rebuild it in Photoshop scanning in anything I feel like using at that moment—mainly pencil, charcoal, tempera paint, cut paper, newspaper, magazines, etc. I try not to limit myself to working one certain way. Experimentation is a big part of my process. I crave spontaneity but I’m also a control freak so those two mindsets are always battling it out. I try to leave room for happy accidents. If I know exactly how a piece is going to turn out from beginning to end it’s not very fun to work on and the results are rarely good. I usually tinker with it until something happens I wasn’t expecting.

I always keep in mind something David Sandlin said to me when I was at SVA “If there’s no surprises when you’re making it, there won’t be any surprises for the audience.”

It was when Brian Rea called me out of the blue to do something for The New York Times Op Ed. He found my work when he was judging the Small Publication Design Awards annual. A client I had at the time entered a piece of mine and the rest is history. Let it be known, annuals do lead to work!

These days I look at a lot of medieval art. I also love mid-century folk artists like Morris Hirshfield. I like work that doesn’t look perfect. I love incorrect perspective and anatomically incorrect proportions. I find mistakes really exciting and love elements of randomness. I think flawlessly rendered work is a bit boring. I look at a lot of Cy Twombly’s work. I love Basquiat& rsqu o;s work as well. I want my work to feel that uninhibited someday. There are others but those are the names I return to most often.

I really admire John Hendrix. The guy just seems to have it figured out. He’s a tenured professor, an award-winning illustrator who does editorial in addition to putting out amazing children’s books year after year. On top of all that he makes time for his family, not to mention chair the Society of Illustrators and ICON conference, all while being the nicest guy you could ever meet. He’ll drop whatever he’s doing to help out a fellow artist. He’s the real deal. I hope I can be like him when I grow up.

Tumblr is amazing for this. I use it to find fine artists or photographers and it’s a never-ending gallery of new fresh random images that I can scroll anytime I want. It’s great for getting my mind out of ruts and see other ways of framing an image. Here are a couple people currently in my feed: Outside the Lines, Mark Peter Drolet. I also get a lot of inspiration from tragedy. Stories of horrible things happening to good people that could’ve been avoided inspire me to pick up a pencil. And also music. I use music like a light house. I take the feelings I get from it and try to recreate them in illustration form. There’s this particular song by M83 called Echoes of Mine where almost everything I made from 2012-2014 was me trying to cover that song.

Balancing work and life. It can feel like I’m always working around the clock. It’s difficult to punch out at 5:00. And that’s not to say I love what I’m working on or doing… many times it’s because I have a creative block and I’m not happy with the concepts I have. If work is not going well for whatever reason it’s hard for me to leave it in the studio and not take that negative energy home with me.

Probably getting to do a New York Times Book Review cover. To me that is the pinnacle of illustration assignments. I had dreamed about it for a long time, hoping someday I’d get that call, and Matthew Dorfman came through shortly after he took the helm last year. 

Dream assignment… okay, Sub Pop asking me to do a David Bazan record cover. We’d have to meet in person multiple times over many brunches to discuss direction and paper samples. At some point the conversation would shift to 90s era comics and David Bazan would be all like “I loved Spawn too!” and then we’d make out.

If I had to pick just one it would be Matthew Dorfman. He just has a way of making it fun… even when it’s super stressful. He’s also someone I know I can throw any crazy idea at and I don’t have to worry about freaking him out. He goes to bat for me with the editors and knows when to pull on the reigns and when to let me go to town. And I can tell by working with him he loves his job, which is contagious.

I try not to look at much contemporary illustration these days, but everything JooHee Yoon does is pure gold, and Andrea D’Aquino is brilliant too. Their work looks so fresh to me. Jon Han is also one of the most exciting illustrators right now.

I’ve started making children’s books! I put out my first one called Tough Guys Have Feelings Too last fall and my second, My Dad Used To Be So Cool was published on June 14th! It’s a ton of work, but I’m really enjoying it. My son Parker has been a huge inspiration for me and I’m so proud to see people out there enjoying them. I’ve started on my 3rd one now and of the three I’m the most excited to see this one come to life.

I also taught a couple classes at Emily Carr University in Vancouver last fall and I really enjoyed it, but I had trouble balancing it with my book schedules and other work. I don’t know how other illustrators can balance teaching with freelance and self-authored projects. Hats off to them!

I work hard to pull from my own life and draw what I know, to look inside myself for inspiration instead of outside. I make my best work when I please myself first and the client second. Once I started doing that things really started to take off. It’s not so much about staying “current” as it is making work that is sincere and true to myself. I think sincerity will always be in style, but ask me again in 5 years.

I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t had to actively promote myself for a few years now. I did a lot of postcards and mass emails the first six or seven years I was working and that helped for sure. I post new work on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. And I do interviews every chance I get. I also enter the Society of Illustrators and American Illustration annuals, but I think the printed work will always be my best advertising.

1. When you’re first starting out it’s not about how much money you can make but how little you can live off of. Get your monthly expenses down to as little as possible so you can afford to live off of two or three editorial assignments a month. The less your overhead the easier it is to make ends meet and you won’t have to get a day job to support your illustration career.

2. Finding your voice doesn’t happen in college or the first four years out of school, it’s a life long endeavor that should span your career.

3. Be selfish. Please yourself first and everyone else second. Look only to your own conscience for approval.

See more Keith Negley illustrations, new work and updates:
Keith Negley website
Twitter: @keithnegley