Keith Rankin explores the archetypal man vs machine story using Adobe Stock images


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For Found in Adobe Stock, It’s Nice That has commissioned creatives to explore the world of Adobe Stock and create a new series of works. The project asks a creative to dive into the depths of Adobe Stock as a starting point, then devise new short stories or create new worlds from chosen images. We follow each creative’s journey on their stock narrative endeavours and unpack how they use their individual findings to make new innovative final pieces.

All creative people have different ways of gathering research. Whether it’s a poke around the local library, a thoughtful visit to an art gallery, or a beautifully annotated sketchbook; individual creatives record meaningful information in a way that makes sense to them. For the illustrator Keith Rankin however, he finds the best way to gather research is through a mammoth digital folder where he can save as many images as he likes from the internet.

Every now and again, he looks through this gigantic resource of inspiration to get him in the mood for work. “Every time I see an image online that hits me in some way, I save it,” he says of his gathering process. And it is from this database of research images, that Keith consistently pulls inspiring references from. So when we approached the Ohio-based illustrator for this latest Adobe commission, it came as no surprise that he took to the enormous library of Stock images like a duck to water.

“It’s basically like a Google search engine with an entirely different set of results,” he tells It’s Nice That. New to using Adobe’s library of stock images specifically, in the past, stock images have played a major role in his practice. Particularly fond of vintage stock imagery where the human subjects try to achieve “a weird sense of neutrality or false emotion”, Keith is drawn to the otherworldly realities presented amidst the stark white glares.

In a similar vein, Keith’s signature work collages together seemingly disparate visual elements into haphazard compositions. With experimentation at its core, Keith’s practice combines aspects of his in-depth research archive with more specific subject matter, driving the concept of each image forward. But for this Adobe commission, the illustrator took the theme of Stock images one step further, contemplating the conceptual nature of the internet and, in turn, centring the resultant work around it. “I was thinking about a modern version of isolation,” explains Keith, “the kind of isolation where we are constantly interacting online but are fairly secluded IRL.”

Keith continues, “I don’t think it’s a totally negative way of being, but more and more people are having to adjust to this way of life, figuring out different ways to make some impactful connection online.” Drawing out both the utopian and dystopian connotations of the theme, Keith attempts to strike a balance between the two dichotomies within the work. “I hope that neither feeling is overwhelming, but more a tension between the two,” he adds on the amalgamation of imagery.

And with this intention in mind, Keith proceeded to browse the Adobe Stock library to help explore his chosen theme. On his first impressions of the exhaustive archive, Keith noticed “a lot of shared visual language going through the images”. Looking for imagery to denote the utopian side of the imagery, first off, the illustrator searched for representations of the future. He came across an outpouring of future-facing images, from VR headsets, Giger-esque cords, circuit boards, Matrix-like codes and so on; basically anything and everything that is seen as shorthand for data, or more broadly, the internet.

“I’m sure I barely scratched the surface when I looked through the library,” Keith goes on to say. “But I tried to spot images that simply caught my eye.” And one image in particular did so when Keith entered “dripping face” into the search tool. “Instantly, the expression of one model covered with blue paint attracted me. I had made that search because I thought it would be cool to render drips, but in fact, it was the expression that really interested me.”

Though some may find such an expansive amount of images daunting, for Keith, the project proved otherwise, helping him to clarify his visual tastes through the sea of images. Instinctually selecting the Stock images to use in the commission, Keith intuitively chose images that immediately jumped out to him. He knew he wanted to include a human face (or at least eyes) in each collage as “there are a lot of interesting curves and sharp edges in a face that [I love] making on a technical level.” Not to mention the fact that human expressions, or eyes more specifically, signify connection; whether it’s an emotional, physical or even an “offline” one.

Channeling this expression throughout the commission, Keith wanted to create a look that could subtly read as either sad, thoughtful, bored or neutral. “I love the expression,” he adds on the ambiguous look. Keeping the humanism of the collages to a minimum, Keith purposely compartmentalises the human expression within each image. He juxtaposes the eyes and faces with a flat, graphic backdrop, hinting to the archetypal “man vs machine” story throughout the contrasting mesh of Stock images.

“I used this project as a chance to solidify some themes that have been lurking in my personal work but maybe weren’t so explicit” adds Keith. Mixing realism with three-dimensional renders on a two-dimensional plane, the layered compositions points to how the work can be experienced through multiple realities, and consequently, multiple perspectives. Using a collage of Stock images to create a “fractured identity” between our offline and online personas, Keith expresses feelings that he is “extremely familiar” with personally.

“The way a lot of us interact online and offline is really different to the point where I think multiple identities form around whichever interface you’re inside,” explains Keith. He likens it to how we “turn on different identities” dependent on who we’re talking to. So similarly to how we may act differently depending on whether we’re in the company of our grandparents or our best friend, Keith’s work depicts these shifting personalities through various medias.

For his second image in the commission, Keith proceeded to create a grid in Photoshop before collaging elements from the Stock library underneath it. “I knew putting a face behind the grip would introduce a sense of tension,” says Keith of this design decision, “and if you take it out of the final image, it’s a bit more open compositionally but misses the thematic element in my opinion.”

Akin to the first image, Keith wanted the face to be recognisably human, but “far removed from a place and time.” With this image in particular, he wanted to create an atmosphere of uncertainty, asking the viewer to question how far each element is from one another. On this matter, Keith adds, “you could say it was an attempt to visualise a digital space without using a lot of the typical imagery associated with everything digital.”

As Keith’s mind continued to be stretched conceptually, from a technical stance this second image provided a lot of enjoyable content for Keith to render. Seeking out the right visual balance between realism and plasticity, the human elements in particular provided a challenge for Keith. “It took some time to get the veins in the hand to look how I wanted: exaggerated but not overly cartoonish,” he says on the matter.

When it came to making his third and final image for the commission, Keith says, “I thought I should do a piece with a more recognisable foreground and background and then offset that with floating elements like the eye and mouth that don’t share the same sense of depth.” Unable to escape his “love for the checkered floor,” the black and white squares are something of a parody of the Alice and Wonderland alternate reality. “Either way,” says Keith, “I’ve always had this association with an infinite plane, as well as Photoshop’s default blank canvas.”

The chequered floor holds an especially poignant significance in Keith’s mind. He recalls an old, vague memory of a cartoon with an endless grid stretching out before his eyes. And bringing this distant memory to the forefront in this final image, the surreal chequered floor pattern is in fact, the only Stock image used in this last digital collage. Originally planning to use more Stock image elements when he first planned this last image, Keith decided against it while in the midst of his creative process. By keeping an even split between Photoshop rendering and Stock image in the collage, Keith emphasises the theme of fractured identity.

When asked whether Keith would ever work in this way again, he boldly exclaims, “I definitely plan on it.” Refining his “cut and paste feel”, then unifying these elements with the illustrator’s signature rendering style, the commission marks a new way of working for Keith. Additionally, it offers new creative avenues that he can later build upon and expand in the future.

In spite of all this, the commission has ultimately allowed Keith to explore his work in a new light. Looking through the Stock image library awakened a torrent of ideas and questions within his creative practice, allowing the artist to more closely examine the intentions behind each artwork. “I think every piece of art has loads of meaning behind it,” he goes on to say, “even if the artist can’t articulate its motivation or isn’t fully conscious of it. We’re typically echoes of the culture we were born into and the things we’ve experienced in our life. I think art implicitly relates some sort of world view.” And with this in mind, Keith’s three final images not only embody a deeply thoughtful and technical process, they also speak volumes of his personal experiences.

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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