Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 11, 2019

Illustrator Saturday – Keith Henry Brown

Keith began his career like many young artists, dreaming of becoming a cartoonist at Marvel Comics. After attending the High School for Art and Design in New York and a brief stint as an illustrator for a couple of comic companies including his beloved Marvel, he went on to pursue a career in painting, and later, as an illustrator. His favorite artists at this time were innovators like Howard Pyle, Frank Frazetta, Burton Silverman, Le Roy Neiman, David Stone Martin, as well as painters Diego Rivera, Picasso, and Jean Michel-Basquiat, among others.

He started publishing his watercolor paintings; first for greeting cards and then newspapers and magazines. Being a lifelong music freak, his work has placed a special concentration on jazz, which reflected his lifelong love of the music.

In the late nineties, Keith forged a career in design and in 1997, became Design Manager for Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Then he became Creative Director at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2001. Handpicked for the position by Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, he designed marketing and promotional graphics for the 2004 opening of the celebrated “House of Swing”– a new facility specifically designed for jazz music, Frederick P. Rose Hall at Columbus Circle in New York City.

Keith has designed and illustrated several jazz CD covers for Christian McBride, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Duke Ellington, The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and many others.

He lives in Brooklyn New York, where he continues to write, paint and draw stuff.

Represented by Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Kelly Sonnack, Agent

Currently illustrated THE BIRTH OF COOL published by PageStreet Kids in March of 2019.



Sequence #1
This sequence happens near the climax of the Birth Of The Cool: How Jazz Great Miles Davis Found His Sound, when Miles Davis performs at the Newport Jazz Festival – a career peak. Kathleen Cornell Berman’s text describes the energy and excitement of the moment: “He wails the melody with gripping emotion– his mystical voice hangs like a cloud, leaving space for each listener’s imagination to wander.”

My first approach in the thumbnail was a double page sequence where Miles imagines himself performing on a large mountain.

 Sequence #2

I received a note from the editors that they saw this sequence as single spread. Though they liked the idea of a fantasy sequence going on in Davis’ mind, they finally decided they preferred placing him firmly in the real world, at the festival. I decided I still wanted to focus on his face, with the crowd behind him in this penciled sketch.

Sequence #3

I transferred my pencil sketch to pen and ink and finally watercolor. When I turned in the spread, the comments I got back were that the picture wasn’t strong enough, it was too loose and Miles hand looked awkward. I didn’t entirely disagree but, wasn’t sure yet how I would reconfigure it.

Sequence #4

I did some research and started to get inspired. I decided to spend more effort clearly indicating the crowd behind Miles and drawing a tighter depiction of Miles himself. I also lightened the color in order to suggest the bright sunlight of a warm Summer day.
This ended up being my favorite spread in the book!


How long have you been illustrating?

Professionally, close to 30 years on & off, but not consistently.

What and when was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

The exact time is a little hazy, but most memorable was selling a watercolor painting I did in a group show. It was of a seated jazz musician for $500. I couldn’t believe it. I remember I ran off and bought my first decent stereo.

What art school did you attend and what did you study?

I went to the High School Of Art and Design, then a charter school in Manhattan. Later, briefly The Corcoran School Of Art and then Parsons School Of Design.

Did art school help you get the job with Marvel comics?

Out of high school, Marvel and DC comics sent people out to our school to check out the best and brightest. I was neither, but I got to work for Marvel a little while. I thought it would be my dream job, but in the end, I saw it just wasn’t for me.

You started your career as lead designer/Creative Director at Churchill Downs inLouisville, KY., home of the Kentucky Derby. How did you decide to move to Kentucky for this job?

Grown up stuff! My soon-to-be wife at the time got a job as a professor at The University of Louisville, and we had a baby coming so I had to figure out something to do there in order to make a living. I basically taught myself to be a graphic designer. I freelanced a while, worked at a small agency and eventually got offered the job.

Even before you were working with Churchill Downs, you were a Principal at KHB Designs. Is that a company you started. What type of things do you do there?

Yes, it’s just me. Usually design of all kinds, from logos to ads to storyboarding. Bread and butter work.



 In 2001, you became Creative Director for first internationally renowned jazz institution at Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC. Was that the inspiration for all your gorgeous illustrations of Jazz legends? 

Thank you. I had been doing illustration work of jazz images well before that. For myself, and occasionally editorial work for magazines and websites, and sometimes commissioned work.

Did the opportunity to design the CD covers come from your connection with Jazz at Lincoln Center?

Yes. Todd Barkan, who was director of booking at the time, and I became acquainted  – he’s a very well known and respected jazz producer – got me some of my earliest jobs as a designer and illustrator of CD covers. I did at least a dozen with Todd. I’m really grateful to him for that.

In 2007, you took a job as Lead Designer/Art Director at Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare in NYC. How did they discover your talents?

My first work in advertising in New York actually started with Cline, Davis & Mann. I got involved then because a friend recommended me. Saatchi & Saatchi was just a freelance gig I did later after leaving CDM.

Skipping to present day, you are the Art Director at the Grey Group in NYC working on pharmaceutical advertising and branding materials. Can you tell us a little about what you do there?

Design and creative lead for new global marketing of Lilly products Cialis, Dulcoloax and as yet unannounced innovative new psoriasis drug.  Developing ideas into solid visuals; overseeing tactical workload; creation of Ipad and mobile for brand; art direction, story-boards and development of interactive media; design of advertising, packaging and branding materials; participating in new business pitches and campaign concept development for various brands.

Last month, I featured you and BIRTH OF COOL with a book giveaway. Was that your first foray into children’s books?

In September of 2017, I was contacted by Kristen Nobles, the smart, resourceful editor of the newly formed children’s’ picture book imprint, Page Street Kids. I had just barely decided to give it a go in the field of illustration in children’s literature just obtained an agent, when I received a lively email:

“Dear Keith, I hope this email finds you well? We came across your work online and were immediately intrigued by your connections to the jazz world, and how your work is imbued with your love of jazz. We recently acquired the text MILES DAVIS FINDS HIS SOUND, a lyrical, jazz-infused picture book biography about Miles Davis that recounts Davis’ musical development, with a focus on his childhood and early professional years”. 

For a cat like me, it sounded like a dream assignment and couldn’t have happened at a better time. But, even though I had been creating illustrations for magazines and album covers for years, having never done a children’s book, I still had my fears. Could I really pull this off?

Early in the process, I had to let everyone involved in the project know I was a novice and they would have to bear with me.

Luckily, I received a beautiful script by first time writer Kathleen Cornell Berman which I felt thoughtfully captured the tone and feel of Miles’ early life and his development in a nuanced, poetic way.

Do you think you will illustrate more children’s books?

Yes, I have two books coming up. We’ve signed the contracts.

Do you think you would to write and illustrate a book?

Sure, one of those two books is based on a plot I came up with, and I co-wrote the script with another writer. But I’d like to do one completely on my own.

I see you’re represented by Kelly Sonnack at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. How long have they represented you and how did you connect with them?

Kismet, I guess. I just sent out work randomly to literary agents via Google one day and Kelly responded. One of the happiest days I can remember! I’ve been with ABLA for roughly two years now.

How hard was it to fit in illustrating and picture book while working full time?

I’m not going to lie. It was tough at first. I really didn’t know what I was doing. But Page Street was very patient with me. They knew I was a novice.  At first, it was a challenge to balance work time, but I started to find a groove. I work home quite a bit. That made it easier.

Have you done any book covers for novels?

No, not yet. Would love to.

Would you illustrate a book for an author who wants to self-publish?

I don’t think so at this point in my career. I have so many ideas of my own I’d like to get to.  It would have to be a story that would really move me personally. Something I had to do.

What do you feel influenced your illustrating style?

Lots of folks, especially a myriad of comic book artists, too numerous to name, but for the Miles book, I’d say David Stone Martin, Ben Shahn, Jerry Pinckney, Joe Ciardiello, Ezra Jack Keats. But especially DSM. I don’t think my work looks anything like his, but I tried to capture his feeling. I consider him the best at jazz illustration.

Have you done any illustrating for magazines? Which ones?

Mostly jazz publications, but most recently a magazine called Rethinking Schools, a non-profit magazine written by teachers who share teaching techniques. I’ve done a bunch of stuff for them. I really enjoy working for them.

Do you ever exhibit your art?

A little in the past, but not lately. Except right now here in New York at this prestigious jazz venue called Jazz Gallery I have some of my original art up on view from Birth of the Cool.

What do you think is your biggest success?

That’s an interesting question. In personal life, it’s being father to two awesome boys. I’m so incredibly proud of both of them. In professional life, I’d say it’s a toss-up between completing Birth Of The Cool and my long relationship with the great multi-Grammy Award winning jazz composer/ bassist / personality Christian McBride. I’ve created 7 CD and LP album covers for him since 2009, including one coming out later this year. I consider it a HUGE honor to visualize his brilliant music vision. Look him up: he‘s a b-a-a-a-a-a-a-d cat. No one can hold a candle to him. He’s the best there is at what he does.

What is your favorite medium to use?

Probably pen and ink. It’s where I feel the most comfortable. But I do love watercolor.

Has that changed over time?

Strangely, no – I started doing ink and watercolor at first because it was just the cheapest materials, I think. And unlike oils, which I also sometimes enjoy, it doesn’t require a lot of workspace or ventilation.

Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft after work?

I try to keep a specific schedule, but it’s mostly about deadlines, they dictate my actual working time.

Do you take pictures or research a project before you start?

Sure, you have to, especially if you’re doing a historic work. I looked at hundreds of Miles Davis related research images for Birth of the Cool.

Ethnographic Holiday Greeting Card Sonny Robins: Cut paper & Photoshop

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Yep, I spend way too much time in social media.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

Yes, I use Photoshop quite a bit, depending on what medium I’m using.

Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet when illustrating?

I own an older version of a Wacom tablet. But haven’t used it much.

Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

For the most part I seem to be fulfilling them! Fingers crossed. As discussed earlier, would like to do book covers. And of course every illustrator’s dream to get their stuff in the New Yorker. I think I will forever hold on to that fantasy.

What are you working on now?

I just did a poster/flyer for my son’s band, Satchy. I’m real proud of that ‘cause he usually rejects my unsolicited past attempts – that and my next book.

Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.

I use a lot of computer color these days – I’ll scan an ink drawing into the computer, and color it using layers in Photoshop. I like making each layer transparent, and using interesting brushes to mask things out. I get different textures and color combinations that way. Sometimes, I find it just as fulfilling as using watercolor but less messy and permanent!

Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?

Probably just stick with it and keep your eyes on the prize. Early on in the process of doing my first book, a well – meaning friend said to me “Sometimes illustrators get projects and for different reasons, just can’t finish.” That scared the bejesus out of me. I thought to myself, “I have to finish, and do my best, no matter what.” Now, when I look at the book, I’m incredibly self–critical and some things make me wince, but I rectify it by thinking, “That was the best I could do at the time – you’re okay, Keith – you powered through.”

Thank you Keith for sharing your talent and expertise with us. Your journey to your first picture book is amazing. It proves that with talent you can be successful at many things. Make sure you share you future successes with us. To see more of Keith’s work, you can visit him at: Website:

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Keith. I am sure he’d love to hear from you and I enjoy reading them, too.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Keith! You’re so talented, I loved reading this, and seeing your work.


    • Thank you, Wendy!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Just checked out your work. You’re amazing!


      • Thank you, Keith. I feel the same about you!


  2. Really enjoyed reading this post! I really know you in the context of creating the amazing illustrations for Miles andso it was so interesting and amazing to learn about all your other projects. All the best with your new projects :))


    • Thank you, Annina!


  3. I love Keith’s work – filled with life and passion. Marvelous!


  4. I love these illustrations! So much emotion and movement. Watercolor is one of my favorites, but pen and ink is fascinating! Congratulations on such a lovely portfolio!


    • Thank you, Angie!

      Liked by 1 person

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