The Q&A: Keith Henry Brown

By Peggy Roalf   Monday April 17, 2017

Q: Originally from Staten Island, what are some of your favorite things about growing up there? And about living and working now in Brooklyn?

A: My hometown is about a 20 minute ferry trip and a 10 minute subway ride from here in Brooklyn. It often gets bad rap, but it was actually a really nice place to grow up. My colleague, the great illustrator Joe Ciardiello, is also from there (I’m proud of that because I love his work so much). My old neighborhood was pretty diverse and there was a strong sense of community. Everyone knew everyone else and really cared about one another. I think that’s harder to find these days in New York.

This town definitely fuels your creativity, though. There’s always some action going on, So many fascinating folks. I’m always seeing things, always inspired. Art is everywhere – murals, galleries – stuff just scribbled on doorways or street posts. You just feel that the possibilities are endless.

Q: Do you keep a sketchbook?

A: I keep several sketchbooks, but don’t necessarily work in them every day. Each one is like some kind of little project. For example, I decided I don’t draw shoes well enough so to practice I started this tiny book full of drawings of shoes. I did the same with sea creatures. Sometimes the sketchbooks are just weird obsessions of mine. The latest I’ve got going are drawings I’m doing from photographs I found of female Japanese pearl divers from the 1950’s. These wonderful old black and whites are super-cool and sexy, like something out of an early James Bond movie. 

Q: What is the balance between art you create on paper [or other analog medium] versus in the computer?

A: Most things I start on paper, but they usually end up being scanned and manipulated in various degrees, often with color or some effect. Nowadays, I tend think about what I’m going to do with a drawing on computer as I conceptualize. Lately, I’ve been doing more and more things in Illustrator. But I don’t think I will ever be as comfortable on computer as I am just sketching and painting, even though my day job is art director for a big advertising agency, where I’m on the computer all day. But that commercial stuff is different – call it “backside of the brain”.  

Q: What is the most important item in your studio?

A:I’d say a pad of tracing paper. I use that to start and work most pieces. Then I transfer to whatever it is to the final material; I love that I can easily just keep erasing and refining. It’s that time I mostly feel like a real artist. 

Q: How do you know when the art is finished?
A: I think Da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned”. Not to compare myself in any discernible way, but that pretty much says it all. For me, it’s also how much time and energy I want to be put into a given piece. In a John Coltrane solo, he’d have a space of time to make a statement then get out. On thing that made him so brilliant was that he could create a story – a propitious beginning, and riveting middle, and come up with a logical satisfying conclusion– all in the moment. That’s what I strive for. If I think it’s a small idea, I might give it less time, and so on. If it’s a quick deadline assignment, then I don’t fuss as much. I’ll spend more time trying to come up with a halfway decent idea first and try to execute it. The interesting thing is, the final quality of the piece doesn’t necessarily correspond with how much time I’ve put into it. Some of the best things I’ve ever done took 2 minutes to do.

Q: What was your favorite book as a child? What is the best book you’ve recently read?

A: I read tons and tons of comics as a child, but I won’t count them because they never end; Spider-Man and Batman are continuing serials whose stories are still going on until this very day. But I think the one that had the most impact was A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. I think it may have been the first time I ever saw a black kid, who looked like me, in a book. Plus I love (and still love) Keats’ art. So well-designed. 
I just re-read Patti Smith’s Just Kids. I find it so vital and personal. Her prose is extraordinary – precise, but artful. 

Q: If you had to choose one medium to work in for an entire year, eliminating all others, what medium would you choose?

A: A toughie. I tend jump from medium to medium, sometimes simultaneously on the same day, so I don’t stick to any one thing for long. But if push comes to shove, I guess markers on paper.

Q: What elements of daily life exert the most influence on your work practice?

A:Probably time. As mentioned, I hold down a conventional job, which takes up a certain amount of hours each week. Evenings and weekends are when I’m in the studio, unless on vacation. If I don’t feel like working on something after coming home from work after a long day I often feel guilty because I have such a small window. Plus you need time for your significant others and just enjoy life. But I tend to work fast and get a lot done in the reduced time. 


Q: What was the [Thunderbolt] painting or drawing or film or otherwise that most affected your approach to art? 

A: To be honest, I can’t quite pinpoint just one specific painting or piece of art, but I many influences for me were comic artists: Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Jack Davis, Frank Frazetta, Hergé and countless others. John Singer Sargent, particularly his great painting El Jaleo and his field watercolors are a constant inspiration of what’s humanly possible. I love movies: Hollywood classic, foreign, Kubrick’s film particularly 2001 A Space Odyssey and his Paths of Glory blow me away every time.

Q: What would be your last supper?
A:Definitely something my mom would have made – she’s from the South, North Carolina. Now that I’m (supposedly) a grown up and had all kinds of cuisines, I miss the simple comfort food I grew up on. Fried chicken, macaroni & cheese, mashed potatoes, green beans, candied yams with a side of cornbread – mmmm, that’s good eatin’!  

Keith began his career like many young artists, dreaming of becoming a cartoonist at Marvel Comics. After attending the High School for Art and Design in New York and a brief stint as an illustrator for a couple of comic companies including his beloved Marvel, he went on to pursue a career in painting, and later, as an illustrator.

Later, he began publishing his watercolor paintings, first for greeting cards and then newspapers and magazines. A lifelong music lover, his work has placed a special concentration on jazz, which reflected his lifelong love of the music.

In the late nineties, he forged a career in design and in 1997, and became Design Manager for Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Then he became Creative Director at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2001. Handpicked for the position by Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, he designed marketing and promotional graphics for the 2004 opening of the celebrated "House of Swing"-- a new facility specifically designed for jazz music, Frederick P. Rose Hall at Columbus Circle in New York City.

He has designed and illustrated several jazz CD covers for Christian McBride, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Duke Ellington, The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and many others.

Keith lives in Brooklyn New York, where he continues to write, paint and draw stuff.



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