Interview with artist Keith Rosson | By Bryan Spearry
You may not realize it, but you have already seen Oregon native Keith Rosson’s work. As a freelance artist in Portland, he has created illustrations for flyers, zines, books, and album covers, including artwork for a diverse roster of bands from Tuck And Roll, to Ten Foot Pole, to The Goo Goo Dolls. He also works with Portland indie institution Microcosm Publishing, and has been publishing his own zine, “Avow,” since 1995.
How long have you been creating art, and how did you get started?
I started drawing as a kid, and sort of got serious with doing comics and drawing shit when I should have been doing schoolwork and all that. Punk came along, and I just kept with it, and it just sort of expanded. I think I [used] to just randomly—as a fan—send bands illustrations. You know, just being a total nerd, buying a 7” and being enamored with the band, and just, out of the blue, sending them a piece of art that sort of correlated with the lyrics or whatever. It started from there.
Do you think you’d be doing this had you not discovered punk at a young age?
I don’t know. It’s been, like, 20, 25 years at this point that I’ve been involved with it. I don’t even know what kind of person I would be, or how different I would be beyond art. It’s just such an all-encompassing part of my life, you know?
How long does an average project take to complete? What’s your usual process?
It really depends on the complexity. A lot of times, say if a band hires me for an LP package, I’ll talk to them about ideas they have and, depending on how specific they are, I’ll send them a series of thumbnails. They normally pick one, or elements of a couple, and then I combine those. From there, I’ll submit thumbnails for the rest of the packaging, like back cover and insert and typography and all that. So once they OK that shit, we have a template to work from. It’s like, “OK, this is what everything is going to look like. Awesome.” Once they OK that, then I do the final. After that, sometimes I need to do a little adjusting, but it pays to do thumbnails first.
From the start of the project to the end, what’s the normal lead-time?
Like how long does it really take? A lot of times, bands need it yesterday, so it behooves me to work very quickly and power through it. I’m generally working on a number of projects at once. I charge by the job. I used to charge by the hour when I was just starting out, but it’s just a lot easier for everybody if I do it by the job now, so I don’t really keep track of that. Depending on the complexity, I’d say somewhere between five and 20 hours.
Doing contract work for creatives must bring interesting challenges. Without naming any names, have you had any nightmare experiences?
I’ve had a few where, yeah, people have been very difficult. Walking creeps, you know what I mean? Where they go, “Oh, thanks for doing that, could you also sort of lay it out for a t-shirt, too? Or could you also send it in five different colors?” There’ve been very few cases where I did the majority of the work, all the illustrations and everything, and then I got the lyrics and they were so offensive that I had to be, like, “I can’t do this, guys.” But that’s happened, I think once. Now I always preface everything with making sure I see the lyrics, and that everything is up to snuff with not being offensive and fucked up.
Do you have to make compromises regarding your clients, or are you pretty steadfast: if you don’t like it, you don’t do it?
I don’t like all the bands [musically], per se, that I work with, but I know how much work goes into making an album. So, the sheer force of will that it takes to be in a band and the effort involved? I really respect that. It’s really hard. I’ve been in a number of shitty bands, so I know how hard it is to be in a good one, you know? Or at least I can imagine. For compromises, I really don’t care if they’re not my thing, but if [their work includes] sexist stuff or any of the “isms,” I won’t work for a band.
You’ve recently started doing some work for some high profile groups…?
That really came about just by being involved. Statistically, you get a break once in a while. Whenever there’s a lull in work, I’ll send a couple blind hooks out there to various labels and bands, saying, “Hey, if you’re needing any work done, let me know!” I did that with Adeline Records and they responded, and I did some work for them. Adeline is run by some dudes from Green Day and Green Day’s manager, so he really liked my stuff. He threw me some work with The Goo Goo Dolls and Rusty Surfboards. So yeah, I got some bigger work to come my way.
Are you able to sustain yourself through your artwork?
Yeah, I mean, I’m lucky because I have savings. I’ve been able to save money, but it’s still a real month-to-month hustle. I just started working at an elementary school as a literacy instructor thing, but I took last year off for the first time ever, and just did freelancing. You know, it worked out money-wise, but it was too boring, and it wasn’t really fun at all. I missed working with kids, so I’m doing that part time again.
Are you self trained, or did you go to school for art?
I’m an art school dropout twice removed. I went to a fine arts school and dropped out of there. Then, I went back for graphic design later on in my life, and I dropped out again. So, uh, academia, I really value; I think it would have helped me out a lot to actually have a degree, but I don’t. I obviously don’t flourish well in the academic world. But I think I learned a lot of the basics of composition and even the applications involved, like Photoshop and Illustrator. I had a couple of really good teachers for those years, so I did learn a lot of those basics. Again, I’ve been doing the actual hand-drawn illustration since I was a little kid. I think that for any artist, whether you do solely design or anything, it really helps to have a background in illustration.
You paint as well. What’s the difference between doing digital work and physical artwork?
Painting is so hard, because it never… It’s just such a challenge to get it down even remotely the way I drew it in my head, and I’ve yet to find the combination of mediums that works for me. Right now, I paint in acrylics and use correction fluid and quill pens, like ink and brushes and quill pens to get some really fine detail work. I’m still not happy with it. There’s still some element that’s missing, and I don’t know what that is. So you just keep trying new things, and hopefully, there’s a moment of, “Oh, that’s remotely what I wanted it to look like!” Whereas digital, you can just mess around with it until you’re happy with it.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
Probably old comic books, like Bill Sienkiewicz and Jae Lee. And then, I love the sense of angularity and the work on the figure that Egon Schiele and Gustaf Klimt did. So visually, I guess comic books and old Viennese dudes from the 1920s.
What are some of the pieces you’ve done that you’re most proud of?
There’s this Todos Caeran LP that had a die-cut moon in the center of it. So, there was a cityscape with the moon in the middle of it, and you could make it a half moon or quarter moon depending on which side of the lyrics sheet you put in front. It looked really cool. And then there was the Shit Week LP I did, which was unusual because [it was] a photograph. I rarely do that, but I love working with photos, manipulating the hell out of them and adding illustration elements to them, that’s super fun.
Do you have anything exciting coming up?
Yeah, I just got hired to do a t-shirt for a soccer team called The Hotdog Bomb, and that’s going to be amazing… [With] a lot of stuff, I’ll get hired to do packaging stuff, like, “OK, so we have this LP, could you please assemble it in CD case format?” But there’s not a lot of creativity going on. So, I get a fair amount of that, too. As far as big creative things, it’s Hotdog Bomb all the way.
Do you have any advice you would give to an aspiring artist?
I guess any advice I have is stuff people have heard before, but: don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t be afraid to do something over again if it sucks. Use a pencil, and understand that it takes… I still am improving markedly. Each project, I’m still getting better and better. And that’s cool, versus just starting out, getting flustered and feeling like there’s no way you’re going to actually make it work the way you see it in your head.
Some of Keith Rosson’s work: