"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Walking the wild side with pen and camera, a life-long naturalist turns his world into art

By on April 27, 2020 in Arts with 1 Comment
Keith Warrick’s art extends way beyond acrylic paintings and graphics. He makes hand-carved, hobby-themed walking sticks like these and sells by the dozens those with popular sport teams’ mascots at the top.

Story by Susan Lagsdin

Photos by Mike Irwin

Keith Warrick, 82, has explored and hiked for most of his life, recording with camera and sketch pad the scenes in nature that serve his prolific artistry. 

Though his eyesight is tricky at times, he keeps doing what he does best — painting and carving wildlife, as well as an assortment of hunting dogs that includes his own beagle.

The confirmed conservationist has turned his latest base camp six miles south of Plain into a three-story log home, art studio and woodshop. He especially treasures his Wenatchee River frontage and close-by hiking trails that get him and his dog Bo into steep timber in minutes.

Commercial graphics, as seen on this Alaska poster, were a mainstay of Keith’s career for years; he even traveled to Norway 15 times to help promote that country’s ski areas with his art.

Inside, the kitchen becomes a perfect place to paint when he turns on the LED lights and lifts his boxes of gear onto the island counter. “I can do a painting in a day right here, or I can take a month. And yes,” he grinned, “You’d know the difference.”

The basement is fitted with 250 linear feet of shelving and holds labeled stacks of found and purchased wood and heavy saws, planes and grinders. But in good weather, Keith said, “The front porch is where I do a lot of my carving with hand tools.” 

He didn’t know Plain would become the home of his heart. Shortly after his wife’s death, he moved from Lake Stevens to this part of central Washington where he’d hunted and fished since his teens. He says he no longer hunts; he’s given it up for more life-affirming pursuits.

An original enhancement on many of Keith’s most-sought-after works is a carved wooden image of the painting’s subject, affixed to the wooden frame. These each measure about three by four inches and are almost as detailed as the painting itself.

“I just wanted to settle in an area I loved, spend a few years fixing the place up,” Keith said. “And I’m still at it after 16 years — with no regrets.” 

Rows of reference books and boxes of notebooks, sketches and photographs are already filled with good ideas, and collections displayed on the shelves and walls offer their own inspiration.

He even finds time for invention. His latest twist on woodcarving is mascot-themed walking sticks, particularly ones featuring Seahawks, Ducks, Cougars and Huskies. “I can’t make ’em fast enough. It seems like anyone who sees one wants one,” he said.

What’s next? He’s thinking of carving replicas of vintage rifles. “I’ve got some Danish dueling pistols, an early Kentucky rifle, a 1939 Luger — I figure I can use them as models, “ he said. “There’s probably a market for them with collectors…” 

Years of exploring nature with his journal always at the ready allowed Keith to make scientifically accurate illustrations and paintings on his return. This typical double-page spread in one book shows his sketches and hand printed notes are works of art in themselves.

Keith can’t remember precisely the first time he sold his art. 

“As a kid, I designed and built stuff all the time. When I was 15, I restored this car — and I think the guy who bought it liked the painting and striping as much as anything.” His high school yearbook predicted a career at General Motors.

But Keith went a different direction. 

After course work at Everett Community College and Edison Tech and a B.A. in art from the University of Washington, he turned his attention to commercial art.

Supported first by a sign painting job and then 10 years illustrating at Boeing, with the help of mentors he also honed his skills painting wildlife. Always an outdoorsman, he became especially adept at waterfowl.

 “I’ve painted so many species of birds over the years, I don’t need to do any research anymore, or even look at photographs,” Keith said. “It seems like now my hand and brush know just how to make the right color, the right texture of feathers…” 

In 1970, Keith left Boeing to open his own well-staffed and equipped commercial shop, KW Design. “That was scary but rewarding,” he said, “devoting myself full time to my own art business.”

At its height, the venture meant a secure setting for him and wife Glenna and two children and also some world travel (i.e. Norway, New Caledonia, Japan) and national accounts.

Travel to wilderness locales yielded Keith photographic images he turned into award-winning nature paintings like this one. Many readers in the region can relate to this flock of geese seeking calm waters.

Many of his personal projects were wildlife and landscape illustrations in dozens of journals, magazines and manuals, from Cabela’s catalogue covers to survival guides to Fishing and Hunting News and Audubon.

During this time, Keith’s love of the outdoors combined with fine-point artistry brought him another variety of success. From 1980 to 1988 he won or placed near the top in prestigious stamp competitions with his paintings of coho and humpie salmon, quail and mallards.

Ducks Unlimited commissioned three different wine labels from him, as well as three metal belt buckle designs, and he was named the group’s Artist of the Year four times in a row.

Keith also contributed his art to other favorite causes. The American Cancer Foundation was one, but as a passionate naturalist and well-acquainted with wilderness, he was glad to support groups championing the conservation of turkey, mule deer, trout, pheasant, sage grouse and Rocky Mountain elk habitat.

In his most prolific years, with his paintings eventually exhibited in 18 galleries and with sales worldwide, Keith calculates he also made 77,000 prints for Ducks Unlimited alone and sent $1.5 million their way.

The sponsors of major fundraisers knew what people wanted. “They’d offer me a few hundred bucks to cover costs,” he said, “And then one of those paintings might bring them from $2,000 to $3,000 at auction.”

For 15 years, Keith traveled to Norway to make promotional paintings for ski areas. “This is how I saw myself at one locale,” he said of the man building a fire while camped in the wilderness.

Then, at what he calls the height of interest in Western art, Keith deliberately bypassed the fast lane in art production — new marketing, new technology — when he first received tempting invitations from publishers.

He said, “I made a conscious decision to stay small and conservative.” And he stayed successful, only quasi-quitting the business when he moved to Plain in 2005.

 “I‘m 75 percent retired,” Keith said, “but it seems I’m busier than ever before in my life.” 

Whether painting or carving, he loves especially the first design sketches and the first cutting away of excess wood. “It’s fun and fast,” he said. “But the last tiny detailing and the final sanding needs to be really slow and careful; it takes the most time.”

And that is something Keith respects. He’s been painting and carving for 45 years. “All I really need now,” he said, “is time to create new art.” 

For more information on his art, you may email Keith at kwdesignseattle@gmail.com.

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  1. Don Whitson says:

    Keith Warrick has been a life-long friend of mine. He was also the Best Man at my wedding. We shared a studio at one time in Everett, WA, the same time I started my Graphic Design career. You did a great job on this article and depicted Keith extremely well. I wish you had shown his log cabin, as he spent endless hours repairing and upgrading it from its original condition. The inside is truly a wildlife artists dream.

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