How Keith Rankin balances illustration with owning an indie record label

Dayton-raised artist Keith Rankin has an eye for the surreal and an ear for the avant garde. He puts these to good use not only in his professional illustration practice, but also as the co-founder of Orange Milk Records, where he scouts new talent, art directs album packages, and also releases his own music.

Rankin knew he would never have a regular job. He was obsessed with drawing and fantasy stories as a child, and in his teens, music too. He was also a terrible student, dropping out a year into high school and later struggling to finish some college courses. It wasn’t until he started the record label that he would begin to really hone his skill an an illustrator and settle into his style, which I can only describe as nostalgic surrealism.

I spoke with Keith about what it’s like running a record label, how he balances his love for music and illustration, and his experience working with Rico Nasty.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I absolutely love the work you did for Rico Nasty. In fact, that’s how I first found your work. What was it like working on that project? How did it come about?

Rico’s art director, Dom Glover, emailed me. He already had the basic concept based on these old Primal Scream book covers, so I just had to execute it. A lot of commissions go like that, where you’re just trying your best to make an idea come to life. It was during that one, though, when I truly realized how agonizing it is making realistic hair with my process, like outlining and shading every single strand. I was also happy to do something for an artist I actually listen to.

You’re both a visual and musical artist. Tell me a bit about how these two interests first started in your life.

I’ve loved visual art since I was small. I can’t even remember. When I was an early teen, I heard some songs that had major to minor chord changes on the radio that caught my ear, like, “How is this making me feel a certain way?” And I felt addicted to music after that.

Many of the artists I know who are interested in both music and visual art feel like they have to choose between the two. Obviously, now you’ve found a beautiful way to do both. Did you ever have this feeling that it was “either or”?

Recently, I’ve spent most of my time on visual art because I’m making a living off of it, doing commissions. I’ve made music something I do more in my spare time and without any monetary concerns hanging over head. In some ways, it is choosing to give more time to one over the other. I think it’s hard to make art I feel really personally satisfied with if I’m not giving it all of my attention.


Do you find that both practices blend and complement each other in interesting ways?

My visual art is usually in service of someone else so I don’t feel quite as connected to it personally, or I have an easier time letting it go. There is a lot of good in that because I can be too precious about music.

Some of my colleagues were saying that your work reminds them a lot of art they saw growing up in the ‘90s. Is that specific era where you got your initial inspiration for your style? Does it have a special meaning to you?

With visual art, I’m sure it seeped into me growing up in that time. I loved anime and horror movie box art. For some reason, the VHS cover for the movie Dead Alive is jumping to mind, even though my art doesn’t really look like that. There’s a subconscious aspect to artists’ output, basically regurgitating what we’ve absorbed. We can be seen as representatives of a certain culture we were born into. The other aspect is when we consciously try to form some new or hybrid identity either from parts of our influence or in spite of them. I don’t usually feel attracted to retro art, but I realize a lot of people consider my art referencing the past. I’m still in that middle stage of sorting through everything I’ve absorbed in my life to search for some more distinct identity.


What does your creative process look like today? From start to finish.

To just go into the technical part, typically, I start with a very rough pencil sketch or collage to get a composition, then I go in with the pen tool in Photoshop and outline every element. You could think of that step as the digital equivalent of making an image out of construction paper with an X-Acto knife, every shape big or small has its own piece. Then I use the default Photoshop brush tool set to a low opacity and start shading inside each selection or cutout shape, building up colors similar to a painting or physical airbrushing. That’s the bulk of the work. Then at the end, I play with putting texture or solid colors overtop the entire piece and adjusting their opacity and other settings, which can do unexpected and interesting things to the color interactions.

How long does a piece usually take to create? Have you streamlined this process in any way?

If a piece has a lot of separate elements, it can take a week or two to finish, sometimes longer. I think other artists who work in a similar style might have streamlined more than I have by using a tablet and treating the work more like a drawing, but I still feel most comfortable using a mouse. My process feels pretty removed from the act of drawing.

What are some of your favorite creative tools and resources?

Maybe an easy answer, but, the internet, any image search. I collect every image I see that excites me in some way, and having access to that library is the best resource for motivation. Before I start a piece, I also sometimes just think about it for a really long time. Like I go through my own thoughts and try to clarify them: what do I want this piece to be? Am I just going on autopilot relying on my skillset, or am I trying to subvert some part of my usual process, consciously trying something different? It’s almost like a choice between letting meaning come through your art intuitively or consciously.


How do you rest and recharge yourself when you’re out of ideas?

The best way is probably to not work on anything for a while, but that can be difficult when you depend on making visual art to pay rent and everything. Burnout is probably pretty common. We definitely live in a culture that’s obsessed with working people to death, and I know plenty of creative people, including myself, who feel uneasy or restless when they aren’t working on something. I don’t know if I have a solution. I like to go to the movie theater to try and relax.

Tell me more about Orange Milk Records. Why did you start it? What’s the journey been like?

I started it with my partner Seth Graham around 2010, probably just as a way to insert ourselves into a music community. I was doing most of the visual art for the releases out of necessity. If you look through the discography, you can chart my development pretty thoroughly, which is, at times, embarrassing. The label has kept going because we still like hearing new music, and also it’s become part of our routine. The managing of the label can almost be comforting at times because of its familiarity. It can also be stressful. Like turning down demos, people sometimes get really upset. But I love getting an overview of what unknown artists are making. It’s kind of amazing how many people are just making crazy obtuse music and throwing it online.

What’s next for you?

I have a lot of finished work that hasn’t been revealed yet. I hope to make a new record at some point, too. I don’t know, planning far ahead stresses me out!