The Screwball Confidential Interview – Artist Keith Weesner

This blog post will be the first of what I hope will be many informal interviews with artists that I admire. Some I have had the pleasure to meet and know for a while others are new friends. I also hope to include some people that I have not met yet.

One of my pet peeves when you read an article or a book on a favorite artist is the lack of information on how the artist does what they do. This is in part because being an artist is a very solitary profession. While you may at times work as part of a team or collaborate with others periodically, when it comes down to it it’s a person sitting by themselves with the work in front of them. So with that in mind I am approaching these interviews from an artist’s angle. For the layman some of the questions I ask may seem to be boring minutia but I think anyone interested in the creation of art will find them informative and I hope entertaining.

I’m often asked about how I got started in the business. I make no secret that there are two guys that really inspired me when I was thinking about leaving the commercial art field and focusing on more personal paintings. One is Tom Fritz the other is Keith Weesner. Both tops at what they do. I was fortunate enough to meet Keith a few years ago and he agreed to be one of my first interviews.

If you have been around the Kustom car scene for any length of time you know Keith Weesner’s work. He creates images of whimsy, horsepower, style and a little sex thrown in for good measure.

I want to thank Keith for taking time to be a part of this blog thing I’m doing.

Let’s get to it!

Jim Owens – Let’s start with a little background info, where are you from and where do you live now?

Keith Weesner – I’m from Long Beach, CA-  moved to the valley in ’91 and have been here since (except for last year I had a place in Downtown LA for a year.

J.O. – Did you go to art school, if so what did you study there?

K.W. – I went to Art Center in Pasadena where I studied transportation design.

J.O. – What was your first art  job?

K.W. – Michael’s art supplies in Bellflower!  But my big break was getting hired at WB to work on Bruce Timm’s Batman animated series. My friend Merysa insisted I apply there, I thought she was crazy, but they hired me and I worked in animation for 13 years.

J.O. – That Batman series had some incredible visuals! Loved it. No wonder I like your work.

Which artists would you say have had the biggest influence on your work?

K.W. – At Art Center, I’d say Harry Bradley and Nick Pugh. In comics, Wally Wood, Dave Stevens, Jaime Hernandez, Bill Seinkevitcz.  At WB, Bruce Timm, Lynn Naylor. In the rod/custom arena, Gus Manuum, Rex Burnett, Tom Medley, Thom Taylor, Steve Stanford, Darrel Mayabb,

J.O. – Dave Stevens is also a hero of mine. I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet him. To my knowledge you knew him a bit. Tell us a little about meeting and or getting to know him.

K.W. – Well, I met Dave Stevens in 1985 or so at a signing in Santa Monica, as a kid in line for an autograph. After that I saw him at Comic Con and stuff like the Rat Fink Reunion, he’d come in to the art supply store and we’d bullshit about cars and stuff about the Rocketeer movie that was shooting then.  He’d go to some car shows with his ’40 DeLuxe coupe, then He rolled it on the 405 on the Sepulveda pass, he told me, “All I was thinking was I bet this looks really COOL!” Then it got rebuilt and I only saw it out once after that.  I guess he didn’t get out much because of his Lymphoma, but I didn’t know about that till after he passed. One time a few years after the movie, he met with my friend Glen Murakami and I to see about having us do the next installment of the Rocketeer comic, because the studio or whatever wanted a quick couple of new issues and he didn’t want to do a quicky. I was sitting in a mangy booth in a diner looking through original pages of  “Death Stalks the Midway”  trying not get tuna melt on them… thinking “Yeah, right!  It’s gonna suck if we do it.” He must have agreed!  His death really hit me, because I really looked up to him and identified with him, and was disappointed there wouldn’t be any more work from him. Geez, I’m getting all choked up writing this…

J.O. – Strange, his death hit me also and I didn’t even know the man. He was way too young and had too many years of great work ahead of him.

Besides me, who are some of your favorite artists working today?

K.W. – Well, besides you… Jeff Norwell and Tuck are really good and have such a wide range of skill, it amazes me-

J.O. – I’m always interested in how other artists work. Let me ask you about your studio. I know at your old place you had a studio that was separate from the house. Is your new studio in the house or a separate building? Do you have a preference, if so why?

K.W. – I liked my separate studio, but my Downtown loft had just one big room, so I had to deal with that, now I have a fairly small room in my house, but it has a corner window with a bitchin’ view, so I’m digging it.

J.O. – Do you prefer an easel or drawing board to paint on?

K.W. – I paint in a chair at my desk, if it’s a bigger piece I sort of prop it on the edge. I use my easel mainly to set down the piece. I just don’t seem to have any control standing up.

J.O. – When it comes to your studio are you a very organized artist?

K.W. – Haha! NO. My desk and studio get pretty shaggy after a few days of painting, I have to force myself to stop and organize stuff.

J.O. – Ha! I think most of us are the same. I don’t think I ever met an artist that was very organized.

What time of day do you get the most done?

K.W. – Afternoon till late night. I’m trying to move it back to a more reasonable work day, so I can be working when my girlfriend is working.

J.O. – I do the same. My wife works regular hours so I try to stay on the same schedule so we have a life together.

I always feel like your paintings glow like little jewels. Please give us some insight on your approach to color.

K.W. – I put angel’s tears in the paint. I just build up layers and try to make each color build up to the intensity I want only in key areas. I also try to make each color relate to what’s around it, and go through its full range from cool to hot, (like a red car is pinkish lavender on top and orange on the bottom, green grass goes from yellow green to teal, etc.)

J.O – When you start a new piece does it start with an idea for a sketch or maybe a color scheme you might like to use? Share your approach to developing a new piece.

K.W. – It can be anything, I’ll see a composition in a movie and make note of it, or a lighting situation that I want use, (the Pirates of the Caribean ride always makes me want to go home and paint!)  Or I’ll see a car in an old mag or in person, and do a take on it. I sketched a face I saw on a billboard last week, I always have a little notebook with me to jot down ideas when they strike.

J.O. – I love the stylized way you draw. I know you have a vast knowledge of automobiles but do you ever use photo reference to make sure the details are correct?

K.W. – What I do is, I draw a car the way I see it in my head, then I find some reference for it and tweak it and correct things. That way it’s not just the same as the source image. Usually one car has pieces from many different images.

J.O. – What is your favorite medium to work in?

K.W. – I work in acrylic on illustration board or plywood for the bigger pieces. I also like pencil, pen, brush and ink, I use what ever doesn’t melt in my paintings, like tuscan red Prisma, or waterproof ink. I’ve figured out which prismacolors pigments you can paint over and avoided the rest.

J.O. – I’ve seen some of your pieces on plywood. What is your favorite ground to work on?

K.W. – I’m still getting used to plywood, but it’s so durable, I like that. Sometimes the grain is disruptive to work on, but it looks great when it’s done. Illustration board is what I’m most comfortable with, I love that you can just keep drawing and erasing to get your drawing right. I don’t really like canvas, it’s like painting on a tent, and the waffle texture makes the brushstrokes feel like corduroy pants rubbing together.

J.O. – What is the one piece of equipment you couldn’t do without? (I mean art equipment not something made by Offenhauser)

K.W. – Hmm, a nice snappy pointed brush is probably most key. I can fake the rest if I need to. Also, ellipse guides are crucial for doing convincing wheels, although you still have to know where to put ’em, and understand the shape of the wheel. I still struggle with it.  I use the guides it to tune up my sketch, I don’t just draw with them.

J.O. – You do a lot of traveling, do you like to draw and paint while traveling? If so what kind of supplies do you like to use on the road?

K.W. – I started doing that in Japan, and realized I could paint with an audience, but it’s not always a good idea to be absorbed in a painting when you’re trying to engage with people.  I have it down to a small bag of about ten colors and a case with brushes, pencils, etc. Add a cup of water and go!

J.O. – What advice do you have for young people interest in a career in the arts?

K.W. – I used to go to Comic Con and the Rat Fink Reunions in the 80’s and bug all my heroes about how they got started and how they make a living. They were always really vague about it!  Now I understand why, it’s a wildly different path for everyone, a lot depends on perseverance and luck getting started and recognized, and people have to see your work for like ten years before they really take it seriously. I’ve been drawing cars and doing art for car stuff since 1983, so it’s been a while, I didn’t really take off till the late 90’s, so that covers some ground there! You have to keep it up, I think people want to know you’re serious about it and not just trying something out. Making a living at art is something I also am vague about, because sometimes I don’t understand it myself, it’s a very piecemeal, feast or famine lifestyle, but I’ve found I prefer it to any job I’ve had, even though there’s no regular paycheck.

J.O. – Thanks Keith I appreciate you taking time to be a part of this little project. Where can people find your work?

K.W. – Okay, website is www.keithweesner.com and my next show is in Feb. at Copro gallery in Santa monica, (no date yet)

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8 Responses to “The Screwball Confidential Interview – Artist Keith Weesner”

  1. Keith Runawaychair Towler Says:

    Mr. Owens! Thanks for interviewing Keith Weesner. I enjoy the details and overall vibe in his paintings, especially the bikinis, etc. I enjoys the thugs and blood in yours, too. I’m a car nut and I try to draw the damn things with style, but you know how tough it is. I’m looking forward to your next interview.

  2. penciltothemetal.wordpress.com Says:

    Thanks James, Keith. A interesting conversation !

  3. Great interview James! I met Keith Wessner in New Zealand earlier this year; he seemed like a really cool guy. BTW – Personally, I think the ‘artists’ view-point’ angle works well and it fascinates me to hear how other people approach the creative process. Looking forward to the next interview…

  4. It’s easy to forget that the artists we like have actually been committed to their art for many years before we came to know them. Weesner strikes me as a guy who pretty much just keeps to himself and does his thing better than anyone else and lets everyone else make a big deal out of his work. I like his approach to drawing the cars first and then go find reference later.

  5. Marc (Beebing) Says:

    I shook Keith’s hand @ Hunnert Car Pile-up and replied “I thought you were older”. Seriously, Keith’s art is very retro and coming from someone who is younger than I am, he seems to capture the essence of 50’s & early 60’s nostalgia like he was there – like I remembered.
    Keith is doing the kind of art I was only dreaming of doing. He’s inspired me to take up a painting class, so this unique artist has a big influence in my life. Thanks for sharing this interview, I enjoyed reading it!

  6. thanks to James for doing the killer interview and to kieth for the insights. love the thoughts about color!!

  7. Awesome interview! Keith is very inspiring. I never knew he worked on the Batman series I LOVE that series and no wonder such amazing artists were involved. xoxo

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