Inspiration and Creative Exploration: An Interview with Artist Niki Waters of Knees + Keys

Posted inDesigner Interviews
Thumbnail for Inspiration and Creative Exploration: An Interview with Artist Niki Waters of Knees + Keys

This article, by Dana Meir, is brought to you by our friends at Editor X

Having grown up internationally, with much of her childhood spent in the Philippines, artist Niki Waters, aka Knees + Keys, is never short on inspiration. Her work depicts lush scenes from the country, based on her early experiences.

Currently based in California, Waters describes her style as “difficult, yet simple.” Balancing complex subject matter, such as race, gender and immigrant rights, with a playful, innocent aesthetic, her illustrations are emotive and poignant.

We chatted with Waters about her early days as an artist, as well as the goals and influences that lead her successful practice today.

Developing a Unique Voice and Style

“I really had no idea what I was getting myself into when I graduated from art school,” recalls Waters. “I was naive and pretentious all at once.” After assuming she’d jump straight into an art career fresh out of college, things didn’t go quite as expected.

“It was a long, painful lesson to learn. I actually stopped doing art for a while after I graduated,” she says. But things started falling into place with time, as Waters began defining her style and harnessing social media to build her personal brand.

As the latest step in the perpetual process, she recently hired graphic designer Mark Buenafe to help create her portfolio website on Editor X, with the goal of displaying her work in the most meaningful way. Picking out specific pieces to highlight, Waters sees her portfolio site as a great practice in editing herself, while her social accounts allow her to be less premeditated with the content she shares.

“While social media is great for followers and purchasers to see what I’m up to, serious clients (or clients looking for big projects) can view my portfolio site to see the type of work that I’d like to create,” says Waters. “It really helps weed out the clients that don’t align with what I want to make.”

Browsing her portfolio, it’s clear that she has a distinct aesthetic running throughout her illustrations. But it wasn’t always that way. “Up until a few years ago I was trying so hard to figure out what direction I wanted to go, and my style changed a lot,” she explains. “I went from being inspired by James Jean, to Tomer Hanuka, to Claire Wendling (to name a few) … and by ‘inspired,’ what I really mean is I was trying to emulate their work.”

When she finally arrived at the style we see in her work today, she made a conscious effort to stick to it. Even now, she’s still learning about her visual language, exploring how far she can push it, as well as what works and what doesn’t. “It’s exciting to watch my current style evolve while still keeping it under the vein of what my work has been recognized as.”

Finding the Right Clients

Having a defined style and staying upfront about it is what encourages the right clients to approach Waters, and what allows her to be choosy and reject work if the brief clearly deviates from her approach. “It’s not that I can’t do it,” she explains. “I just don’t enjoy it, and it shows in the work. I love when I find the right-fit client—someone who has looked at my work and decided it’s a fit for what they need.”

She especially enjoys working on portrait commissions, in which the process with the client is interactive. To make the work as personal as possible, she asks the client a range of questions, from their favorite color and outfit, to specific objects that hold importance, quotes they resonate with, and more. “I think the clients really enjoy answering these questions, and it makes the work feel tailor-made.”

Working Together illustration for Inclusive Data

Her emphasis on communication was also an important part of her recent piece “Working Together,” created for Inclusive Data. Waters credits the success of the project to strong teamwork. “The client was very amenable to my ideas, and I to theirs.”

The final piece portrays a group of people from different races and genders, and of varying physical abilities, working together to nurture a garden that provides for all. As Waters points out, it’s the subtlety of the illustration that makes it so powerful.

Another recent piece of Waters’ was a collaboration with artist Franceska Gámez for The Okra Project, a collective that supports Black Trans people worldwide. Despite seeing Filipino culture as having a wonderful sense of community and being very giving, Waters says that when the Black Lives Matter movement started ramping up earlier this year, she was disheartened to see so much silence from the Philippine community. “We as Filipinos owe a lot to our Black brothers and sisters,” she says. She and Gámez wanted to do something to help, and it being Pride month, they decided to create an illustration and donate the proceeds to The Okra Project.

Illustration by Niki Waters and Franceska Gámez in support of The Okra Project

Exposing Philippine Culture to the World

Speaking of the Philippines, Waters’ homeland is a prevalent theme in her illustrations. “My work is 100% pulled from my identity,” she says. “Every single piece that I create in the scope of Philippine culture has a direct relation to me.”

There are two memories, in particular, that inspired Waters to engage her interpretation of the Philippines through her work. Recalling her favorite childhood books, Waters points out that none of them had anything to do with Filipino people. She also remembers when a new classmate, who had just moved to the Philippines, shared her surprise at how “modern” the country was.

Now, Waters wants to “show people around the world who we are as Filipinos,” striving to highlight the differences, but also the similarities, between cultures. In addition, she aims to show young Filipino children that people know who they are, and to celebrate their existence.

One of her projects that embodies these values is a children’s bo
ok dedicated to her grandpa. The story follows Natalio, a provincial Filipino boy who has been given a very important task—to go to the family’s backyard and bring home a pineapple for dinner.

Originally created as part of a competition, Waters is currently exploring ways to publish the story. The competition may have been what initiated the project, but it’s the process of making the book that has been more precious than anything else. Having collaborated with her family on shaping the narrative, Waters emphasizes what a valuable experience it was to work with them.

Exploring Creative Mediums

Using a mix of techniques, from digital tools to silkscreen printing, acrylic painting, collage and more, Waters has always loved jumping between mediums. As she sees it, her openness to various mediums has helped improve her professional work.

One example of this is her plein-air painting. She and her partner Jason often travel together, painting their adventures as they go. While she wasn’t a fan of the technique at first, she eventually decided to stop trying to draw exactly what she saw, instead focusing on conveying it in her own style. This creative freedom opened up her ability to draw backgrounds, and helped her accept that messy brush strokes can end up benefiting the piece.

Waters also experiments with silkscreen printing when she has the time, noting that it allows her to reset her brain and analyze things differently, giving her the clean slate she needs to come up with fresh ideas. For her, silkscreening combines the art of making a piece with the science behind the technique and the mental gymnastics of figuring out how to mix and make colors using the layers.

“You also have to be a problem-solver on the fly if things aren’t coming out exactly right,” she says. “I get to use so many parts of my brain, and I love putting together that puzzle.”

Dana Meir is an editor at Shaping Design. With a background in industrial design, she is interested in user experience within both the physical and digital environments. She is also passionate about exploring the theme of ethics in the tech industry and how we can build a more positive future through design.