Dig Deeper—An Interview with Keegan Wenkman

Our June sketchXchange features local artist, Keegan Wenkman. Keegan is an illustrator, printer, and designer. He is also the co-founder of the letterpress studio, KeeganMeegan & Co. Join us on Friday, June 6th at Tillamook Station to chat with Keegan and learn more about his creative process, printmaking, and the art of letterpress.

When: Friday, June 6, 2014

Time: 7:00 – 9:00pm

Check-in begins at 6:00pm. Doors close at 6:45pm.

Place: Tillamook Station, 665 N Tillamook Street, PDX 97227

Cost: $5 suggested donation at signup

Registration Begins: Friday, May 30th at 9am.

RSVP on Eventbrite

Space is limited. Be sure to register early!

We had a chance to sit down with Keegan and talk shop a few weeks ago. He told us about his process, what inspires him, and gave us some insight into how he creates some of his fantastic linocut posters for bands including The Flaming Lips, Florence + the Machine, and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros.

Did you go to school for design?

I went to school for web design. I hated it. I went in the heyday of Flash and everybody was pushing the all-in-one web designer. I was a painter at the same time, doing oil paintings and showing in galleries. I was doing a bunch of sketching for all the oil paintings and then I started to push more into doing actual drawings and illustration.

I started getting small gigs doing illustration for bands. That led me into trying to reproduce my own drawings. So I learned how to do silkscreening and that basically launched me into printing. I got a job at a large-production screen printing house doing gig posters in Minneapolis. I met Katy at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, which is a letterpress mecca in Minneapolis, and she showed me the equipment and the techniques.

I got really hooked on the history. The two of us moved out to Portland about eight or nine years ago and shortly after we actually started our business.

What has it been like for you guys in the Portland creative community? Do you feed off of the creative vibe here?

It is really supportive. People like to support their neighbor, and kind of spread the work out. If you’re not the best fit for a job you know someone who is. The community is really encouraging about doing your own thing and doing your own style.

It seems like there are a lot of things like WeMake or Hand-Eye Supply that encourage your own niche and learning from others. Especially for what we do.

We’re apart of the creative community but we’re very much a service. The perk of it is, because we are so supported, at the end of the day we get to do whatever we want with the equipment and materials. We’re able to take those leaps and bounds to do big prints, and really experiment to find our own voice.

Can you tell us more about your shop, KeeganMeegan & Co.?

We are a full-service letterpress shop, but we also do design and illustration which sets us apart from a lot of other shops around the country. We can be a one-stop shop from logos and illustration, typesetting, and custom type for clients and then follow the process all the way through to printing.

Since we know how to do that really well, we also have clients come straight to us with their own designs and their own take on the letterpress process. We can use thicker papers that other printing processes can’t use, and we can really push the medium to see what can happen. We can push their designs so that it is exceptional in the end.

What kind of machines do you use?

We have piles of machines. Every machine has a different job that it excels at. We have everything from a large paper cutter that can handle whole parent sheets of 40” and we have poster presses that we can do large posters on.

Our largest press can take a whole 40” sheet, which is pretty rare. We also have automatic presses where we can pump out 10,000 prints in a day. That same machine we employ for dye-cutting, shapes, scoring, and perforating—like for raffle tickets and so on. We also have smaller presses that we can do short-run stuff on. Easy to set up and take down.

What’s the oldest machine you have?

It’s all subjective due to the documentation of the industry, which is dubious at best. But we believe our oldest machine is from 1910. We’ve had older presses in the past, but we’ve since dispersed those.

Can you describe your design process?

It’s always different for every job. A lot of it is assessing what the person wants on a visceral level and what they’re trying to say to their clients or acquaintances.

A lot of it starts out with thumbnails and doing sketches, and I do a lot of work on vellum. I’ll draw stuff out and then I’ll redraw it, and redraw it, and narrow it down to a final version. Most things start out on paper, end up on vellum, and go through several rounds.

Then it ends up on the computer at some point. Just to do a couple of corrections or layout colors. I try to do the majority of the work off the computer. If I work on the computer too much I start to spin my wheels. It looks too standardized.

Where do you get your best ideas? Where do you feel most creative?

It depends on the situation. For my personal work? It just happens. It’s the idea of just meditating on it. Rarely ever is the first idea what ends up being the end product. Half the time I’m not even thinking of [the idea], it’s just in the back of my mind and after awhile I’ll have an epiphany. I’ll be like, “Oh, I should use a tiger.” Or, “I should use that skull I’ve always wanted to use.”

Random acts of inspiration happen. It’s rarely a formula.

Tell us about your linocuts and how you got started with that?

The process of doing a linocut is a ridiculous way of doing printmaking these days—especially for bands. For art, it definitely makes sense, but for bands it’s too elaborate and painstaking. I’m going to start doing a lot more art prints over the next couple of years.

I do reduction linoleum cuts. So what happens is, I buy a 6’x3’ piece of linoleum. I take that and cut out the size of the poster that I want on it. I’ll do drawings and sketches and figure out the final rough format of the poster. Then I’ll scan that into the computer and fool around with it. I’ll take that entire image and flip it over backwards. Because everything in a printmaking method is backwards, it’s mirrored so when the press hits it, the image prints out readable.

I’ll print it back out tiled on 8.5”x11” paper that I have to tape back together. So now I have a big chunk of paper taped together with my design. Then I take that and tape it onto the linoleum with carbon paper behind it and I have to redraw the entire thing using the carbon paper to transfer it to the linoleum. That gives me a really rough guideline to where the type is, thickness, and stuff like that. Then, I just start carving.

The reduction part is that I’ll take the same linoleum block out of the press, carve more out of it, and that opens up spaces for the color to come through. Through the process I’m destroying the block. There’s no going back, there’s no correcting mistakes. If something’s backwards it’s now permanently backwards (unless you can figure out something very, very creative).

The reason why I started doing linocuts in the first place is because at our old studio we had a silkscreening setup which I donated to the IPRC. I had run my course with silkscreening and I was more enthusiastic about this.

I needed a way to keep doing posters for bands that I knew who were coming to town and wanted help. The first one I did was a huge poster for our studio mate. He’s the manager of The Flaming Lips and they needed a poster, so that was the first one where I just tried it and figured it out. I had no idea what I was doing and it went fairly well. That was almost three years ago now.

Is there an art of embracing imperfection with linocuts?

With our day-to-day in the shop, everything is perfect. We use really minute amounts of measurements. All of our colors are spot-on. There are no inconsistencies and that’s how we built our shop, and why I think we’ve stayed around. It’s a very Type-A job. Nothing slides through that isn’t up to our standards. It is a non-negotiable process.

But when I’m doing the art prints, I would never call it fine printing, I would never call it perfect. And that’s what I like about it. The ink I use is whatever ink is around, the colors—I’ll mix ink on the press—which you never do for a job. Basically everything that I’d never do on the day-to-day, I’ll do on the art prints. The beauty comes through in the process.

So do you see it more as experimenting?

That’s how it all came to be in the first place. I think art is experimental no matter what. Design is not experimental in my opinion. Design is for function and art is for romanticism and beauty, and I think that is experimental.

What is your favorite part about letterpress printing?

The actual process. It’s not about a philosophy. You can’t run out and buy books that have diatribes about the printmaking method or printmaking in general. It’s always open to interpretation.

It’s been perfected to a degree in terms of the machines, but it’s always up to the operator no matter what. To me, it’s really the problem solving and getting into the minute details. Losing yourself in it. You become part of the machine, in a way. It’s being one with what you’re doing.

With drawing, everyone has a favorite pencil, everyone has a favorite pen or piece of paper. I have favorite presses that I’m really in tune with when I’m doing certain things. So it’s about finding that symbiotic nature with what you’re working with.

Did you have mentors when you started learning about printmaking who taught you the ropes?

Katy is how I know how to do this. If she wasn’t around, I wouldn’t know how to do this at all. She gave me the initial setup, gave me the loose bolts, and kind of let me go—which in hindsight was kind of brave on her behalf.

When we first started the business, we had Stumptown Printers who are good friends that we knew from before. We actually approached them and asked what would be a good niche for us. Ironically enough, they completely nailed it and told us exactly where we needed to be, which is what we do now—working with other designers and doing our own designs for small businesses up to larger operations. So they were really integral, and they still are, in our day-to-day.

There is a pretty thriving community of older printers who are now retiring that we’re kind of tapped into in Portland and the West Coast area. There are people that we know in Minneapolis that we still call on occasion.

The network is pretty strong, you just have to know where it is. It’s not based off the internet, or based off of meetings. It’s meeting one person, and then meeting their friends. You slowly find out that there is this huge population that is vastly knowledgable and are willing to help if you ask the right questions.

Do you have any advice for students or creatives who are thinking about getting into printmaking and letterpress?

Don’t do it. If you want to make money, don’t do it. If you want to be happy, maybe. Take classes. There are places like IPRC, PNCA, OCAC. Don’t just run out and buy something off the internet. Take your time, be patient. Seek out education. Learn the printing process.

Even as someone who has been doing this for quite awhile, it’s going to take me the rest of my life to keep growing, learning, and finessing the process.

What are your thoughts on creativity and finding inspiration?

I think I’m the odd one out in the design community. Instead of buying design books, I buy books that have design in them. Get outside of that box. When you walk into Powell’s, don’t just go to the design section where it’s been curated and picked through and everyone is buying the same books for inspiration. There is a plethora of stuff out there that is really interesting.

Dig through history and find the interesting parts. It’s not just a straight path. Take the winding path.

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Thanks for your time, Keegan. We look forward to hearing more from you at the June edition of sketchXchange. See you all there!

When: Friday, June 6, 2014

Time: 7:00 – 9:00pm

Check-in begins at 6:00pm. Doors close at 6:45pm.

Place: Tillamook Station, 665 N Tillamook Street, PDX 97227

Cost: $5 suggested donation at signup

Registration Begins: Friday, May 30th at 9am.

RSPV on Eventbrite

Space is limited. Be sure to register early!