Monday, October 15, 2007

Guest Bible Artist interview #2

Keith Neely

Being a full time Bible illustrator is probably one of the rarest, if not THE rarest occupation on the surface of the planet! Keith Neely has been doing just that for the last 4 years and has kindly agreed to do an online interview with the 'Bible illustration blog'.
Keith lives in Indiana, U.S. with his wife Roberta. They have 5 grown children and 7 grandchildren, (with 2 more on the way!)
Keith and his team have almost completed 'The Illustrated ICB Bible' for U.S. publisher Thomas Nelson.

Keith, when did you start illustrating as a career?
After receiving my BFA from Art Center College of Design in CA in1972 I worked at Disney, Christian Brothers Visual Communication, an Advertising agency in Chicago, I even taught Advertising Illustration and Advertising Design at BIOLA College, La Mirada, CA. In 1981, I pretty much settled into Free Lance Illustration.

Is 'The Illustrated ICB Bible' completed, and how long have you been working on it?
We started in December 2003 and we should be finished in the summer of 2008.There will be 7,692 full color illustrations so it’s taking a little time. The 4 Gospels, Acts, Genesis and Exodus are out in individual paperbacks and the entire New Testament is out in hard cover.

7,692 pictures, Wow! That must be some kind of world record! Do you work alone or do you share the task?
I have some great talented people working with me. Dave Miles (, and James Balkovek (, who is doing all of the drawings for the Old Testament.

There are a lot of Illustrated Bibles out there, what makes your Bible different from the rest?
All the other Illustrated Bibles are actually selected stories, re-told, from the Bible. During the 35 years I’ve been illustrating Sunday school materiel, I often wondered why the actual and complete Bible wasn’t illustrated. I suppose publishers felt that actual scripture would be over a child’s head so they simplified it for them and left out the less exciting stories, which would make a Bible storybook too heavy for a child to carry around any way. I believe The Word of God speaks to children as well as adults and that God had a purpose for including the “less exciting” stories and that I shouldn’t take the responsibility of deciding what scriptures children should not see. Don’t hear me say the other Children’s Bibles don’t have their place; in fact I know God has been talking to kids though them for years (including me) and many of them are beautiful like Jeff Anderson’s “Graphic Bible”. So, in answer to your question, “The Illustrated ICB Bible” is the ONLY illustrated Bible. Your readers can see for themselves for FREE at:

I came across 'the Gospel of John' on the web (, and I noticed that there was no way to buy the book at that site. What is the purpose of the site then?
I wanted the Gospel to be available to kids, and adults, all over the world for FREE.Thomas Nelson, the publisher of 'The Illustrated ICB Bible' series, agreed to allow us to set up the site knowing that it would cost them sales for the same reason.

How long will it have taken you to complete 'The ICB Illustrated Bible'?
About 5 years.

You've already mentioned Jeff Anderson. What other Bible illustrators have inspired you over the years?
Michael Dudash ( ) and  Ron DiCianni ( )

Does illustrating the Bible take up all your time, or are you working on other projects also?
I still do a few Sunday school jobs from time to time for old friends and I have some ideas for future projects but 95% of my time is dedicated to finishing this Bible.

Keith reads the Christmas story proof pages to the Grandkids, (below).

What do you find challenging when illustrating Bible stories?
Trying to find the balance between historic accuracy and perceived accuracy (what kids think is accurate because they have seen it in art for years). For example, Biblical people probably sat on pillows on the floor and ate at low tables (Roman style) or on the floor (eastern style) but we grew up seeing them sitting in a chair and eating at a table (Rembrandt style). So what is an Illustrator to do? You don’t want to confuse the Kids or draw attention away from what’s happening in the story and yet it should be accurate. The editor, the boss, will be happy to tell you what to do. When I’m the boss (a new experience for me) I go for perceived accuracy. After all, I’m doing the Bible not a history book. If something is going to suffer, I would rather it be Historical truth, not God’s Spiritual truth. It’s too bad there is a conflict at all.

What advice would you give to other Bible illustrators?
Hang in there! If anything should be illustrated (made more clear and understandable), it’s God’s word. A photograph of a model just doesn’t work because it doesn’t allow for your imagination to make an illustration of a person, actually that person instead of the model. So there will always be a need for Biblical Illustrators.

Keith, many thanks for your time!
Above images are © Keith Neely/ Thomas Nelson 2007

Related posts:
Interview with Jeff Anderson
Interview with Diana Shimon
Interview with Dr Leen Ritmeyer


Paul Green said...

I think Mr. Neely has touched on an important distinction regarding Bible illustration. The spiritual truth of the stories should always be of paramount importance over any historical accuracy regarding costumes etc.
The type of person who nitpicks over the weave or colour of a certain cloth or a particular architectural design is missing the objective of the illustration. That is to convey a spiritual message or truth.
If a person looks at an illustration of the crucifixion and tells you the wood is incorrect or Jesus would have been naked they are missing the point. Cold and detached is not the reaction you want. It isn't a scientific treatise but an exercise in conveying emotion. Don't be caught up in historical accuracy if it sacrifices the power and emotion of a spiritual truth.

Bible artist said...

I agree Paul, historical accuracy must never shift the focus off spiritual truths, but there need not be a conflict here either.
If it's possible to add some historically accurate detail without taking away from the story, I think we should. I think that the reason that we don't add more detail is time, which is a big factor. Adding detail to me is part of the fun, but if I thought for a minute that it would take away from the story then I'd quit tomorrow!

I do understand what Keith means though, when a Bible illustrator chooses to depict a familiar scene in an unfamiliar way. Although it's part of the illustrators quest for historical accuracy, it can distract a child from the story. You mentioned the crucifixion Paul, which is a very good example. Some Bible artists have chosen to depict the crucifixion in different ways to what we usually see. Some of these pictures can be alarming to children.

There's also another side to the 'Accuracy debate'. There are details mentioned in scripture that have a deep spiritual significance.
e.g. I was once informed by a Canadian chap many years ago, that I had illustrated the chains that attach the high priests breastplate to the shoulder plates incorrectly! Now, you could say that he was nitpicking, but he went on to explain what the spiritual significance of these chains were, (he was a brethren chap!), and why they were woven chains and not links! So what might have looked like an irrelevant detail did hold some relevance.
Personally, I find critics, (in most cases), can be helpful. This is good because Bible illustrators have more critics than most!

The 'Bible illustration blog' was set up originally to be a place where people can air their views on Biblical illustration, and ask questions about why Bible illustrators show certain scenes the way they do, or perhaps make other suggestions. This does happen, and we have had some good comments over the last 12 months, but it would be nice to hear more.

It must be said though that a lot of what we illustrate is guesswork, and yes, it would be possible to study in detail the architecture, clothing, plant life, customs etc,etc, to try and get everything right, but we'd never get any pictures finished!
We do try to get things right, but It's impossible to get every detail correct, and as you say it would be missing the point anyway! My 'Chabad' friend told me that if my drawings satisfied one section of the Jewish community, they would upset another!

Paul Green said...

You will never satisfy everyone Graham. My experience as a writer tells me this. If I interview four people and they all agree with each other there will be a person (reader) who will argue they are all wrong, are being paid to tell lies, or they all have a hidden agenda. Why do they argue this point? Because what the four people say upsets their set-in-stone preconceptions and fantasies about the subject they have never even met in real life.
Constructive critics are necessary and are an aid to improvement. Destructive critics who come from a prejudiced and often illogical base are a waste of your time.
Regarding illustration I find your comment concerning children being alarmed by an artist approaching a familiar subject in an unfamiliar way of interest. I personally think there is too much conformity in the way we approach certain events. It creates a mental apathy. Sanitized images are unreal images. Jesus did not die without pain and agony. That pain and agony should be apparent. There has to be consideration of a the effect on a young child. But a teenager should be able to handle the truth. If they can watch the violence of a horror movie they can watch the violence of reality.
The English professor, writer and atheist Christopher Hitchens slams the sacrifice of Jesus in various objectionable terms. He shows absolutely no understanding of the crucifixion. If we sanitize the event then we are pandering to the atheists who seek to trivialize it.
"What's the big deal about a Jew hanging on a cross?"
As an artist the reaction should be evident in the emotional response to any illustrative depiction of the event.

Bible artist said...

This is true. But I wasn't referring so much to the sanitized images of the cross, but rather the actual method of crucifixion as depicted by some artists.

Some artists, in their genuine quest for historical accuracy, have moved away from using the traditional cross to using different types of crosses, which can sometimes be confusing.

As you say, constructive critics are necessary. We have had some great comments on the site. Atheists showing no understanding of the crucifixion is not a new thing.
The fact that God loves them so much, even though they don't believe in Him, must really get up their noses!

Bible artist said...

Going back to Keith's interview, I wanted to clarify what I think Keith is saying in his final comment.
I think Keith prefers to draw his Bible figures from his imagination rather than use a photograph of a model dressed in Bible clothes for reference.
(Please correct me if I'm wrong Keith).

Bible artists all seem to differ on this. Frank Hampson used lots of photographic reference, and the results were superb, but many others didn't, and their work was equally excellent. The old masters painted from live models, and some Bible artists still do! I'd like to hear more comments on this.

Unknown said...

These comments are from Keith. He asked me to post his response for him.

To "Bible artist" Yes, you're "wrong". I draw (or trace) all my figures from models in costumes. That’s why they look the way they do. Those who draw from their mind (or not tracing) are better than me and dare I say, real artists. Also I work this way because it’s faster, cheaper and consistent. And you know the kind of budgets Christian Publishers have. I make many alterations of the photos but it’s a tracing just the same. I’m out to illustrate a point and I try to get there within a budget. I’ll leave those life changing, magnificent, beautiful and timeless Biblical paintings to you talented Artists. Thanks for your comments. Loved them, Keith.

Bible artist said...

Thanks Keith/David.
Sorry I got my facts wrong! To be honest, I would really like to draw from photos. The only thing that stops me is the thought of trying to get hold of Bible clothing, Models, props etc, and the time it would take to set it all up! I'm full of admiration of those who have taken the time to do this. This is the way that Frank Hampson worked, and his pictures are still amazing after all this time.

If you have some photos of some of your models in Bible dress, I would love to put them up on I would include all © info, an article about your work and of course a link to your 'illustrated ICB Bible' website.

I don't know any Bible artists that would consider their own work to be life changing, magnificent, beautiful or timeless, I certainly wouldn't, but even Michelangelo said " If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem wonderful at all."

I have an idea what kind of budget Christian publishers might have. :o)
(Although I've never been asked to work for any!)

caseyeagle said...

Keith, I want you to know that as my husband stands at major intersections of the country, with an 8 foot JESUS cross- (a bit different than Arthur Blessit- he stays at a specific intersection for a long time- we just left 34th and Broadway in New York City by Macy's after spending the summer during tourist season), Jesus is shared with children who receive Him and I always send your illustrated Bible- either as a portion or the whole thing. They eat it up. When is the Old Testament coming out? I love your work, because it's like being in a movie as an actual viewer.

Bless you!
Connie Johnson
Champions for Jesus Ministries.
PS- if you send us an email address, I'll send a picasa album of our work in the city.
our email is: