You graduated from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 2000- how long was it before illustration became serious for you?

I was always serious about illustration. The potential for taking out all those student loans and not doing anything with my degree scared me to death. Not making it in illustration was not an option. Unfortunately I wasn’t actually all that good yet. I started working with a rep right out of school but it still took a couple years before I had enough freelance to live off of. Thankfully I also got a job as a designer at a design studio right out of school that enabled me to pay the bills. I wasn’t full time freelance until March of 2002 I think. Both the rep and the design job came about from internships I had while in school.
Ai-Cio Deer

Ai-Cio Deer

How do you feel the art world has changed since 2002?

I can only speak about illustration, but back in 2002 we were still trying to figure out how to use the internet.

Illustration was a very solitary endeavour and the only time you saw other illustrator’s work was if you happen to be holding a magazine that had hired them, or in annuals.

Today, because of social media, we’re bombarded with each other’s work. Everyone is looking at what everyone else is doing constantly and I think that’s making for a rather homogenised community. But at the same time the term illustration has broadened exponentially to make room for all kinds of work that might not have been considered “illustration” then.

There seems to be more avenues and audiences for more progressive kinds of work than ever before. More and more art directors seem to be championing it. It’s a very exciting time. Illustration seems to have more overlap with fine art than it used to but we still have arbitrary rules we think we’re supposed to follow, and seeing illustrators push up against these rules is really fun to watch.

In that sense Illustration is way more exciting of an industry than fine art because we still have rather strict confines to push up against. We’re still in the infant stages of fucking with preconceived notions… where a piece consisting of a single squiggly line can blow people’s minds and gets us all flustered asking “what is the nature of illustration?!”. How cool is that?

Illustration budgets haven’t really changed since the 1990s. When you account for inflation we’re actually getting paid much less than we used to. This is not news, its been going on long before I started working, but even since the time I’ve been here I’ve seen it happening. Inflation goes up every year, the cost of living goes up, but we’re still getting paid the same $500 for a 1/4 page (if we’re lucky). Illustrators need to take more jobs in order to cover the same expenses. On top of that deadlines are tighter than they used to be so add all that together and illustrators don’t have the luxury of spending a week let alone two days on an editorial job. It’s forcing artists to develop more quick styles… which I love, more time doesn’t equate to better results, but not every kind of illustration can be done on short notice and I think the face of editorial as a whole is loosing some of it’s richness when we can’t afford the work that requires time.

Have you ever dramatically changed the idea behind a piece of work due to time restraints?

I don’t think the idea has ever changed, but how I render that idea sure. More times than not it’s the time constraints that push me to make more daring choices. The New York Times OpEd assignments are my favorite for this reason.

If I have too much time I second guess every move and tend to overwork it.

San Jose Mercury News / Drugging Foster Kids

San Jose Mercury News / Drugging Foster Kids

Are you still producing work for yourself?

I actually make more personal work today than I ever have. The first ten years of freelancing I made no self-initiated work. I played music in bands and I think that was my outlet for expressing myself. Illustration was just a way to pay bills, and the work suffered for it. I was pretty miserable actually because I had lost my voice as an illustrator and I wasn’t bringing anything to the table that wasn’t derivative. Since getting my MFA at SVA I now see how vital making work for only myself is to keeping my client work fresh and new. Having a space to create work with no expectations is extremely liberating and necessary. That’s where most of the breakthroughs happen.

What sort of environment do you work best in?

When coming up with concepts I need total silence. I have a clipboard I’ve had since the 90s that I use with typing paper and I do my thumbnails on that to get initial thoughts down.

I can carry it with me anywhere in the house if I need to. Other than that, no real routine. The concepting phase is the hardest and least enjoyable part of the process for me. Once a concept is approved I enjoy the process way more. Taking the idea to final is the most fun and expressive part for me. I get to experiment and get loose with it, explore different processes/media and pick which one gets the best results.

I love being in my studio alone with a new episode of This American Life or some other great podcast. My favorite way to work… if I have a solid idea for client who trusts me there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing, period.

After Life

After Life

Why do you think it’s important to have a creative outlet?

I guess for me working for a client is a psychological cage. I love the challenge of solving the problem and it’s very rewarding, but no matter how progressive the client is I never feel 100% “free” to experiment. It’s not a liberating experience. I’m very proud of the client work I do, and I like to think in my own little way I’m pushing the concept of illustration into new places, but at the end of the day if there is a paycheck riding on it, it’s constrictive. Having a creative outlet outside of illustration is key for me because it almost feels like it flexes a different part of my brain. Whether it’s making music or just another form of 2D art, making something out of nothing with no preconceived ideas is very satisfying. Experimentation for the sake of experimentation can be a refuge from deadlines and dry assignments. It gets exciting and that excitement fuels my client work. I can take the stuff that gets me excited in my personal work and immediately apply it to a client job. It’s also just nice to have another outlet to be creative so when you’re having a bad week with client jobs you have a place to get away to. Your whole identity should not be wrapped up into what you do to make money.

What was the last art exhibition you saw that struck a chord?

When I was living in NYC my favorite part about that city was getting to see all the exhibits that came through town. The last one I caught was the Matisse paper show at MOMA last fall. It was only his cut paper work and it really blew me away in it’s simplicity. It was inspiring to see the rawness and economy of the work being presented so importantly. It was good for me to see that yes, a single piece of blue paper cut in a relatively crude way can be important art too. It sounds simple now but I had seen his work in books before, but seeing it in the flesh made a real impact. I walked away eager to work with paper more and not get hung up on making it look flawless.

Wind Burial- We Used to Be Hunters Album Cover

Wind Burial- We Used to Be Hunters Album Cover

Do you spend money on other people’s art?

I try. For Christmas I bought myself a new Cy Twombly book that had just come out, and a drawing from one of my favorite illustrators Jordin Isip. Oh, and a skate deck that had a graphic from another friend and hero Scott Bakal. I have a wife and six-year-old so my purchases are now relegated to birthdays and christmases. I do the best I can… but books on artists are my favorite gift.

How do you respond to criticism of your work?

I haven’t gotten much criticism, not that it doesn’t warrant it, but just that illustration isn’t “reviewed” the way film or music is reviewed. Illustrators have their opinions of what work is good and what work is bad but everyone keeps that to themselves or their respective circles. With that said I’m a firm believer that once the work leaves my hands and is printed on the page or posted to the client’s site it no longer belongs to me. It belongs to the audience to decide what it is. There’s no point in arguing a critique because whatever the audience decides about your work they’re right. A hundred people can have a hundred opinions and they’re all correct. My only job at that point is to decide which opinions I’ll let effect my choices in the future, and which ones I’ll ignore.

Skate or Die- Devil Dog

Skate or Die- Devil Dog

I think that’s a very mature attitude to have. How far do you think subjectiveness can extend? Do you believe there is some art that is just bad, period?

No, I don’t think it’s possible for any art to be universally bad. I think it can be too derivative, or can have nothing to say. It can leave things to be desired and need improving on, but that doesn’t mean someone can’t have an emotional response to it. That’s how I see it anyway. There is no right or wrong, just what works and what doesn’t work for what the artist is trying to say. I think this is a point that is bigger than illustration now, but can still apply.

Finally, what do you think the future holds for artists generally?

I don’t think there has ever been more opportunity for illustrators than there is right now and I see that only growing. Publications everywhere are expanding their online content to dwarf what they publish in their physical editions and they’re hiring illustration for it. Illustration for apps are just going to get bigger and bigger, video games, backgrounds for animations, not to mention self made content is now easier to get out into the world than ever. So many artists are no longer sitting by the phone waiting for an art director to call them and are self publishing their own work. Patterns, textiles, toys, books, galleries it’s a very exciting time to be an illustrator.

Lastly I’ve seen a shift in commercial illustration to be more personal. There’s still lots of need for straight forward conceptual solutions, but there’s also a demand for illustrators to bring their own personal emotive vocabulary to assignments. I think the line that divides illustration and fine art is getting more and more blurry and we’re seeing more illustrators take risks and push the definition of illustration. For me this is the most exciting thing about our industry right now. I think we’re going to see more and more of this. I hope we do.

See more of Keith’s work at: www.keithnegley.com
Or follow him on Twitter: @keithnegley