Interview by Elly Call
Keith Pfeiffer is a junior in the VCUarts Communication Arts Program. A talented illustrator, his work is featured in the Spring 2015 issue of Poictesme. We managed to snag him in between his classes and his wanderings around Richmond to talk a little bit more about his art. In a small park situated behind the VCUarts Honors studio Keith explained his work processes, his take on the VCU arts scene, and importance of vegetables.
Poictesme: You’ve really hit your stride creatively and turning out some unified work. What of your recent stuff are you most proud of?
Keith: I think the recent one I did on why wealthy people think they’re middle class. I was able to take this complicated concept and just boil it down to just a simple composition. Just basically two shapes explain that entire thing, and it didn’t take very long. Well, it took a long time to think of it but I mean to do it took me about one night. I also was able to like mess around with materials I don’t always get to use, like pastels and acrylic inks.
Materials-wise, what do you tend to use?
The cool thing is that I’m starting to find a style, in a way, where I can create this box for myself where I can go crazy. I’ll set it up–”Here’s the composition, here’s the values, these are the dimensions,” and all that–and then I can just let myself go crazy from there. I’ll be using pastels, and I’ll be doing mono-trace print-making, I’ll be using graphite and ink, and I’ll be doing stuff digitally as well, and I can still find a way to make it cohesive with all the other stuff.
How long did it take you to actually figure that out about yourself?
A long time. Uh it’s taken my whole life so far. (laughs)
And you primarily create from the news, right? Your tumblr is filled with illustrations with social undertones.
I prefer doing editorial illustrations for magazines. I prefer to have the text, where I can decipher and boil the message down to what the main ideas are. I can have my own opinions about it as well. I decipher the piece then translate it into the visual medium. So when you look at it you’ll say, “Oh that’s what the wealthy think about being middle class, and here’s why.”
You mentioned once that in the wealthy and the middle class piece you were inspired by pool envy.
Yeah, one of the main reasons the article was talking about why wealthy people think they’re middle class is that they’re comparing themselves to the people who are even wealthier than they are. And the gap between them– the top, super elite, the 1%, and then the 0.1%– is a huge amount. And the difference between those is about a billion dollars a year. And it just gets bigger and bigger. So when the wealthy are in the top ten percent, and they see someone whose in the point five percent, they’re like, “They’re Gods! We’re nothing compared to those guys!” So they’re just looking at everyone else’s bigger and better stuff. It’s a middle class thing too.
We talk sometimes about illustration work being narrative versus conceptual. So where do you place yourself on that spectrum in terms of your illustration? How do the two come together in your work?
My work is more editorial so I’d say it’s more conceptual. I like using the symbols as a way to explain the main point versus ‘here’s a scene from this article’–which is awesome, but it’s not really what I am most interested in.
What do you tend to bring together in your illustrations? Outside of what’s present in the article I’m sure you approach it from a place that’s interesting to you.
A lot of it has to do with me figuring out how I draw. Very self centered, I know. I think the biggest thing I learned was that earlier I was doing pieces, and I was trying to be super conceptual–super serious– and I was just thinking the work had to be super meticulous and perfect. Then, one of my professors said, “This is cool, but how can we make it look like that stuff in your sketch book?” and it hit me. I should draw just the way I draw, not just try to be something I’m not. So now I’m just exploring. Basically, every time there’s an article and I have an idea, I also go, “But I also feel like drawing buildings” or “I also feel like drawing a garden” and I think, “How can I get what I want to draw to work in this illustration?” Then, from there I do the pencils and then my pen. If I mess up I’m just like, well, how am I gonna deal with that now? And I just let it be.
And your work is pretty traditional, right?
Yeah, I try to work as traditional as much as I can. I try to do the values without digital. But then it always ends up, “If I’d just done this one piece…” Then I copy and paste it and it’s way easier.
With people who work more traditionally is seems like the process becomes an art unto itself. Do you find yourself using something more than just guideline method?
There’s definitely coming up with the concept– and then once I know exactly what I want to do, I do a mini version of the piece I’m doing. So then when I get to the real piece and I get to a part I’m afraid to mess up I just go over to my mini piece (my throw away piece) and I can say, “Oh that looks like crap, I’m really glad I didn’t do that.”
Can you think of a moment when you did really hit your stride? A turning point when you felt more like you knew what you were doing?
I had this piece for the CT about a Muslim perspective of ISIS. It was saying, “ISIS does think they’re Muslim, but they’re doing it all wrong.” And that was the time that I had about two days at most to do it, I had a lot to do, and I wasn’t getting paid. I was freaking out. I really wanted to do this, and then I was just like laying in bed and it hit me, of course, when I was about to fall asleep: Using the idea that Muslims pray towards mecca, and so using ISIS for praying, but praying in the wrong direction. I am always most proud of my work when someone can look at my work and boom–get it. There’s more to it, you could read into it, but just that you get the idea completely. There’s only been a couple of those where I’ve really felt like I got it, but I aim for that.
Of course we have to ask about inspiration. What movements or artists, past and current, inspire you?
I’m always finding new artists that I like, but sometimes I get bored of them. Not that they’re bad, I just change so much. My brother is a freelance illustrator and he got me into a bunch of stuff, like Tomer Hanuka and N.C Wyeth. Then for color–this is so cliché–but French impressionism. That one is an influence. I’d say my favorite artist is Robert Henri. His stuff’s amazing, especially his portraiture.
What about inspiration in daily life? Do you notice patterns in the things you want to draw?
Richmond Architecture. I’ll be walking down the street then I think, “Wow I gotta draw that. And that. And that.” Its all so mind-blowing. I like drawing tiny little people. Like, miniature people. I think that’s really fun. But before I even lived here my brother lived here and I’d visit and think, “I have to live here one day. This is so inspiring.”
What are your thoughts on the VCUarts scene?
Oh, I think it’s amazing. Especially Comm Arts. I see so much good work, all the time–and alumni, like Richie Pope, Chris Visions, and Leslie Herman–they’re all doing incredible work, and they were in the same classroom with the same professors. Then there’s Graphic Design and you hear how hard they have to work-and you see the results! It’s really good.
How do you feel about going into the world as a freelancer?
It’s terrifying. Especially now with social media and everything. Anybody can put up anything on the internet, and then suddenly they have a million new followers and you see so much good work all the time. You think, “Oh, I gotta go against that and 8,000 other people like that.” So, that’s terrifying. In a good way. It’s inspiring. Then also the whole thing with Newsweek–it’s terrifying to think about how you can so easily offend people when you have such a big audience. Then, stock images.
How do you feel about stock images?
I think its crazy people want to do that.
What if you could only do stock images?
I’d probably not make a profession out of it and just keep working in coffee shops while living in a crappy apartment and work on stuff I want to work on. Stock imaging just seems boring. I want to make a living as an artist because I want my life to be interesting and meaningful. I wouldn’t want to look back on my life and think, “Yeah I made a lot of clip art. It was used in a lot of fourth grade presentations.” No offense to clip artists, it’s just not for me.
Any advice for other illustrators coming behind you?
Don’t do drugs! Eat your vegetables! Look both ways! (laughs) I will say the most helpful thing I’ve ever done is go through my old sketchbooks. When I didn’t have any plans on being an illustrator, I was just doing things for fun. I’ll look at sketches from high school and think, “Man I wish I could draw like that…now.” All my other sketchbooks were crap because I was trying to be something I wasn’t. Just stand out. Shoot for the stars. •