While you’re scrolling on your phone, it’s easy to become desensitised to art. But even in the depths of an absent-minded Instagram binge, Keith Rankin’s images will stop you in your tracks.
Rankin’s surreal work might reprise the sensation of spotting eye-grabbing images when you were a kid, or while hunting through the shelves of a charity shop. His artworks bring to mind the deliciously garish covers of sci-fi novels, old arcade game machines, vintage horror films, and the diagrams in those dogeared science books you had at school. This aesthetic mirrors the world of music he’s in.
Rankin’s Giant Claw alias and the various artists on his Orange Milk label specialise in unusual genre experiments, and have dabbled in vaporwave – the niche phenomenon of producers clashing cultural ephemera from across the decades, often with “trashy” references, to unnerving, but strangely pleasurable effect.
These are pretty complex emotional collages, the Columbus, Ohio-based artist says, and so it’s hard to sum up his inspiration in a sentence or two. “I think art in general is a momentary expression of a life’s worth of accumulated experiences, a person’s culture, demeanour, skillset, and so on,” he argues. “So it’s not always a one to one correlation, like, ‘I feel sad, so my art looks goth.’”
Rankin’s imagination was first sparked by his childhood love for fantasy and, in particular, the Lord of The Rings universe. “I started drawing the characters from The Hobbit animated movie,” he says, “and [I] had it in my mind that I would draw every character mentioned in the books.
“Then, as a pre-teen, I was struck by the anime and horror movie posters you would see at video stores and [I] started printing off images I found online. I’d carry a folder with me of my favourite characters and scenes, going up to people at school like ‘Hey check out these Dragon Ball Z printouts.’”
Rankin’s technique can be described as digital airbrushing. He starts with a collage or a sketch, then makes outlines and builds the colour with the basic soft brush and pen tools on Photoshop. It’s a pretty slow process, and he hasn’t figured out many easy shortcuts. “Some people on Instagram have asked me for shading advice, but it’s kind of like painting, you just learn how to work with colour and light from doing it a lot,” he says. “There’s a lot I’m still learning and I lack certain fundamentals of drawing like intuitive perspective, but your deficiencies become part of your style sometimes.”
Initially, Rankin’s visual art was a side hustle, as he and Orange Milk co-founder Seth Graham found themselves frequently creating the album covers for Orange Milk largely out of necessity. But Rankin didn’t love the touring lifestyle or playing a lot of shows as Giant Claw, and then he got laid off from his day job. By this point he’d found himself in relatively healthy demand as a visual artist, and so he decided to pursue it as a full time gig.
And it seems to be paying off. His recent commissions have ranged from Rico Nasty and Kenny Beats’ Anger Management album cover, to a portrait of Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie for Highsnobiety. Recently, Rankin’s teamed up with the eccentric DJ, designer and comedian Kerwin Frost, to design artwork for his Apple Music show and his adidas collab. “He’s easy to work with,” Rankin says of Frost. “Because even though the art ends up on these large platforms, the communication is just with him and his wife Erin, whereas with a lot of other jobs, there’s a whole team of people giving input, committee style.”
Although Rankin’s happy to have so many commissions coming in, staying afloat financially as an artist is no easy feat, and there’s always that risk of your passion being diminished by the necessity to pay the bills. “I struggle getting things done when I feel depressed or anxious,” he says, “it’s an issue common with artists I know, and I think a product of the grind of American life – when it’s drilled into your head that your worth is only equal to your productivity. So a lot of the time I’m trying to fight through those feelings, because I know it’s better for me than returning to the 9‑to‑5 workforce.”
Fortunately for Keith Rankin, a new burst of excitement is always just a scroll or a few clicks away. “Other art and artists give me a lot of joy and inspiration, so I rely on that heavily. And honestly, even strangers’ compliments online can get me through a day.”