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KEITH R. CRANMER: Berkeley, California, Artist & Engraver

The process is what drives me while engraving. That infinite moment as I move the gravure through the cut absorbs all of my attention…

California wood engraver, Richard Wagener, introduced me to Keith Cranmer’s engravings on steel & copper. I planned an excursion during July of 2012 to San Francisco to visit with Keith at his home in Berkeley, California. He is active with a group of Bay Area bookplate artists including Richard Wagener, David Lance Goines, and Richard Siebert. All are known for their work in design, fine printing, and the book arts. 

Keith is a new ASBC&D member and I invited him to attend the FISAE meeting at Naantali, Finland during August 2012. He joined me at this international event and we both represented the ASBC&D at the delegates meeting. In this meeting we proposed that the 2022 FISAE Congress be held in the San Francisco Bay Area. Every year up to 2022 is spoken for so it was necessary to secure our date right away. This international meeting in 2022 will be the second congress to be presented in the Americas and, as some of you know, our first was held in Boston 2000. The 2022 date is a major landmark event for us as it will be our society’s 100th anniversary! 

The San Francsico Bay Area may be the nicest USA city for our meeting and provides a great opportunity for our ex libris friends from around the world to visit this exciting region. I might add, the weather in August is always delightful in the   Bay Area. AND the area libraries boast terrific collections of bookplates! Several hold membership with our society. So, we will find much interest and support for this history-making event. 

While we were in Finland, Keith and I discussed the design and engraving of a special bookplate keepsake for the ASBC&D. Keith came up with a design solution for us that will be presented as a limited edition for our members only.

Keith was raised in a family of artists and educators. His grandfather was a professor of textile and industrial design. His mother earned her MFA and taught art in the same high school where his father taught industrial arts. Keith found his way into the crafts field although he rejected a formal art school education in favor of being self-taught.

In the early 1970s he worked at Berkeley Art Foundry. This experience provided exposure to many prominent California sculptors of that time. Struggling to learn the art of engraving, arguably the most difficult practice in metals, he was encouraged by Harold Paris. Keith was pleased to learn that engraving was how Paris started with his work as a sculptor.

In Keith’s words, “from there I stumbled into engraving like a cowboy into a saloon, lookin’ for some things to find.” What he found was captivating: hand-engraving surface ornament into gold and silver Rodeo Trophy Belt Buckles (RTBB). 

One of the first examples of this work Keith encountered was that of the premier Western decorative engraver, Fran Harry. He was shown some of Harry’s work while begging a job from an Oakland based RTBB outfit whose inventory included some of Fran Harry’s engraving. With great enthusiasm, he accepted the job knowing he would be exposed to a high caliber of talent.

Cranmer’s first experience with hand engraving was with ornamental surface decoration in metals. The small industry of Rodeo Trophy Belt Buckles was one of the last bastions of Trade Engraving in the United States. Worry of competition among engravers in a dwindling profession made every engraver that Keith came into contact with guarded about their methods for fear that eventually he would take work away from them. And, in time, their fears were realized because Keith did become their competition.

The endeavor to learn hand engraving is a formidable undertaking requiring absolute dedication to the craft. Cranmer spent hours after work every day, for years, perfecting just the rudimentary techniques. Blood, sweat, and quite a few tears were involved in this process. The penalty for misuse of the tool often resulted in the impaling of the opposite hand!

Keith started Skyline Silversmiths in 1976 and spent the next dozen years designing and engraving western wear belt buckles and saddle trim. He perfected his engraving skills and enjoyed success in the industry. He sold the Skyline business and set out to start something new.

The 1980s were boom years for micro breweries and brewpubs in California. Beer making and engraving may have little in common, however, brewers achieve interesting and excellent results from dedicated effort and like engravers are not about to share their trade secrets with you. Keith started Seabright Brewery in June 1987. This is one of the first brewpubs in California.

Over the years he has drifted in and out of intensive engraving practice. His affection for design and hand engraving has led him through nearly forty years of study. Keith enjoys engraving for printing and printmaking. This includes end grain wood engraving or white line engraving used in relief printing for letterpress and also black line engraving onto copper or steel plates for intaglio printing.

“The process is what drives me while engraving. That infinite moment as I move the gravure through the cut absorbs all my attention. An engraving is so much an accumulation of concerted concentration and offers the viewer a depth of experience that satisfies. Studying the work of engravers such as Timothy Cole, Czeslaw Slania, Paul Landacre, Rockwell Kent, and the contemporary works of Richard Wagener (to name but a few) is a steadfast pleasure.”

Bookplate design and engraving is new and he has produced only a few to date. This medium is an intriguing vehicle for fine work. That the bookplate is used in fine editions, libraries, and enthusiastically collected is a tribute to the beautifully executed graphic image. The current state of the art leans more toward fine printmaking than the utilitarian bookplate of the past.

At the international bookplate congress in Finland, Keith realized that there was a friendly, convivial nature at work among the collectors and artists. Everyone was talkative, interested in each other’s art, and there was discussion on process and subject matter. With so many international Ex Libris societies present at the meeting, Keith found that it was encouraging to see so much superb work being done throughout the world in all forms of printmaking.

Here is Keith Cranmer’s CHECKLIST:

  Owner Size Year
1 Skyler J. Cranmer 52mm X 76mm 2008
2 A. Cano 88mm X 40mm 2008
3 James Goode 86mm X 97mm 2010
4 Raven 56mm X 87mm 2012
5 Yoshio Wada 110mm X 78mm 2012
6 Keith Cranmer 122mm X 82mm 2012
7 ASBC&D 90th (1922-2012) 103mm x 111mm 2013


Article originally published in the Ex Libris Chronicle Volume 12 No. 4