Keil Williams on Style, Influence, and Simplicity
Keil Williams on the cartoons that influenced him and his process.
If you asked me to list artists that have natural talent my brother would be at the top. Most of my memories of him involve watching him draw. In the living room, at the dinner table, or anywhere he could find paper. Our childhood home is decorated with cut outs of things he just doodled one day while eating lunch. You’d have never guessed he did it in less than a minute just to pass the time. Keil creates unique illustrations in a style all his own. You’d think for someone who seems to constantly be making something you’d feel bored of his work but that is never the case. Everything he makes feels new and refreshing. I no longer am assuming he’ll be bad at something because in all the years I’ve known him, every medium he’s undertaken he’s excelled at. He was the first artist I ever knew and he shaped the way I would later create more than any singular person. He showed me The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, two films that are still incredibly influential in my own career. If I could go back in time all I would do was save every scrape of paper he pressed his pen to. He will never claim his talent to be a gift either, he very rarely says his work is good. But when I tell people about him the next words that follow are always “he’s an amazing artist and I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother.” Everyone who knows him, everyone who has seen his art agrees. Keil is just plain good. I have been quite lucky to have him as my brother. To have his art shape my own in unimaginable ways. He made me a better artist. He’ll never credit himself for it but I always will. Interviewing Keil to talk about his art, his influences, and his hopes for the future was a dream and I am so glad I get to share it with all of you.
Ava Williams: Okay, what's your name and a little bit about you? 'cause not everyone knows you like me.
Keil Williams: My name is Keil Williams I was born in New London Hospital. I now reside in New Haven, CT. I work as a bridge painter; I’m going to school for graphic design. I like to skateboard and do graffiti. I’m 31 now...hurts to say but I’m trying to become a sign painter
AW: When did you first start getting into art?
KW: I don't remember, one of my earliest memories is mom taking me to the hairdresser, she was getting a haircut, and I just had a sketchpad with me. I have always drawn and stuff, so I don’t have any memories of not drawing.
AW: I don’t have memories of you not drawing either
KW: Every birthday and Christmas I would get those like briefcases with all the markers and watercolors packs without fail.
KW: I don’t really remember when I got into it. I just started drawing probably in elementary school, maybe first grade because I wasn’t so good at reading and writing. But I think I liked to draw.
AW: I remember Grammy saying this one story how we all went to the dollar store and then the park and you got a giant sketch book and just sat in the park and filled it in the few hours we were there.
KW: With just like the worst stuff
AW: No, I was always amazed with your work, since I was a kid, but okay. How dd you come to develop your style? Your style of drawing or painting.
KW: Well, when I was a kid I used to try and draw real stuff, like fruit in a bowl. But I think my style now it’s really simple. I think that comes from graffiti honestly, and going back to those cartoons I liked as a kid. Everything I personally like to draw is very simple. Ren and Stimpy and the early Nickelodeon cartoons is kinda how I draw now. I don’t really like to draw realistic; I like everything to be done in a few lines. I started to get tattooed young and I liked that aspect of just very simple, bold designs. So I think that kind of influenced me. I just always liked cartoons as a kid and even now I still like cartoons Pixar and all that. I think that’s what inspires me, the creepy and weird stuff.
KW: I remember Ren and Stimpy being a big inspiration to me because, the creator had a rule for his art team that he could never see the same face on them. They always had to have a different expression.
AW: Oh, I didn’t know that, that’s funny.
AW: I was just thinking about how every single time I see one of your drawings it does not look like...like it’s so imaginative I can’t imagine you drawing the same face.
KW: I see complex stuff I like, but when I draw it just comes out kind of basic.
AW: Well, I think it’s cool.
KW: I want people to be able to recognize it very quickly.
AW: Yeah, I think it looks really cool. You had this one...I think you posted it on your Instagram, it was rows of faces that I thought was really amazing
KW: Yeah, well actually my favorite artist is Antwan Horfee who was a graffiti artist, and I found out he would tattoo and draw. I really fell in love with his style, and that kind of inspired my style a lot seeing what he was doing. He would do these flash sheets of just like skulls and coffins dancing with feet and I was like oh that’s so me you know, that’s kind of what I like.
AW: Coffins dancing sounds exactly like something you would draw.
KW: It’s done almost like those early Mickey Mouse style you know? With the big rounded feet. Very cartoonish. I don’t really care for fruit in a bowl and still life anymore.
AW: That’s like whenever someone edits the colors of a photo to look exactly like real life, I’m like who cares? I see that with my eyes every day. Make it a bit more interesting please.
AW: Okay, so. I know you just told me [Antwan Horfee], but is there anyone else that influenced your style growing up? I feel like you watched a ton of creepy movies and you have a “creepier” style.
KW: Growing up a lot of Disney stuff. Not necessarily The Lion King or anything but all those...you know The Jungle Book those old ones. I liked that stuff. John K Polk, stuff like that. I remember I did a project on Salvador Dali in high school and I found him to be interesting. A lot of it just comes from things I see visually that I like. I don’t really research artists. Going to punk shows it would just be a punk artist who would do a flyer and I thought it was cool or album covers. Just more stuff like that, almost advertising. I always liked records and band logos or mascots. But again, just going back to old cartoons. I watched stuff like Popeye and Felix the Cat. I liked how clever Tom and Jerry were with how they hurt each other. That stuff always caught my eye. Cartoons were more prominent when I was a kid, that whole Saturday morning cartoon thing.
AW: Yeah, there was no realistic...obviously cartoons now are not realistic but they are more realistic than the cartoons we watched when we were kids.
KW: Yeah! I really like single cel animation. Which the first season of SpongeBob is single cel animation which means they hand drew and painted everything and I think it looks so much better. I always hated when cartoons made the switch to computer. Everything that is done by hand I always thought looked better.
AW: It reminds me of when everyone stopped shooting film because of a 2-megapixel digital camera. A professor I had told a kid he shouldn’t have done his final on film because he had missed a single dust spot in post. The professor was just kidding but film looks so much better, which makes me think that hand crafted cartoons would look so much nicer.
KW: It’s just not cost effective. I think it’s just like those imperfections that people either enjoy or don’t. Some people enjoy film that has a graininess, it makes life look...better because it just isn’t perfect. In my experience for photos, it’s hard to capture how your eyes sees it but grain just has this quality that makes photos look better even if it’s imperfect.
AW: yeah, it just adds something, the imperfections. I am absolutely a perfectionist artist, but when I document I like imperfect photos more. Like I know people hate it but I love when someone is blinking in a photo. I’m always like “ugh that’s so good.”
KW: If it’s a little bit blurry or if the exposure is off.
AW: Yeah, but I know you just said, but over time you’ve moved through different mediums, so how did that progress? I feel like there was a clear path for you.
KW: for me as a kid you’re just learning to draw so you’re experience of what drawing is, is different. mom and dad would take me to art galleries and you would see art--
AW: Really, they took you to art galleries?
KW: Well not all the time, but they took me to New York one time and we went to a museum and...sorry mom
KW: But we saw a ton of stuff and I just thought you were supposed to draw what you saw. Then, in elementary school me and my friend Zach Drake would try and draw these robotic monsters, we came up with our own thing. In middle school I really got into skateboarding, so there was skateboard graphics...you can add that to influence too 'cause I forgot about that influence in my life. It was all hand drawn stuff that was made into prints. So, seeing skateboarding stuff and logos really inspired me. Then also seeing skaters make their own graphics I thought was so cool you know?
KW: I started trying to draw in my own way. But then I got into punk so that portion of my life was drawing skulls and stuff and that’s why people think I’m so dark. It’s because I got into punk and Grammy is always like “oh he’s probably drawing a skull.” you know? But I really like the album covers. I was an 18-year-old boy.
AW: Yeah, like what do you expect?
KW: yeah, I thought skulls and all that stuff was cool. I’ve always felt like I could mess around with anything. I never mastered anything but I felt like I could emulate a style well enough. I like comic books too and I would try and draw stuff like that, I could always mess around with anything. But my style now...it’s hard to say because it wasn’t a direct path of me getting it. It was just sort of trying all these things. I like comic books I like certain panels but I wasn’t nerding out on comic books. I liked to skateboard and I liked those graphics but I was never going to be pro. I liked punk for so long but then I fell out of it.
AW: Right right
KW: It wasn’t until I found graffiti where I just liked that it was expressive, you use your whole body. That taught me that drawing is a flow. So, my style now, it’s just a flow. What can you do with a few simple lines to make a full complete picture that looks good? I really like that portion of it. I don’t have to sit there and force something that’s not there. It’s what comes out naturally. I like the movement of drawing simply. Graffiti has probably shaped my life in more ways than anything because it was the first thing, I was really good at. My friends picked up skateboarding really quickly and got really good. But that was never me I had to work really hard, that’s not to say that’s not a good thing. But that natural talent only took me so far and was a ceiling. But with graffiti I was better than all my friends who got into it and I’m still better than my friends now. So, it gave me a lot more confidence.
AW: That’s so nice.
KW: It was something where I could put my art out and at the same time...I want people to see my art but I’m also scared to tell people I did it. So, it was a way I could just leave it and it got received well. I took that into my drawing and you know it’s just a very natural flow. For me what comes out of my natural flow is cartoons. Maybe for someone it’s a little more stepped up with backgrounds and stuff like that. But for me it was always smooth curved lines. I’m not a very angular person and that’s kind of what my natural progression is. I don’t want to draw comic book superheroes with all these crazy muscles and weird poses. It just takes me too long. I don’t really like working on stuff longer than a day.
AW: It’s funny that you said you are not a master of anything because to me it feels like you’re a master at everything.
KW: Well, that’s all relative because the people I look at above me I’m like “wow that’s a master” you know? I could talk about comic books and I could talk about Frank Miller being a master of comic books. The way he uses light and negative space boggles my mind and I could never do it. I could only emulate it, but without those people in front of me I couldn’t come up with it on my own.
AW: I feel like you come up with such cool things on your own. All your cartoons, you said they are all simple but that’s why I love them. I feel like I am in between where I don’t want an overly simplified process. Basically, like when someone takes this very standard photo and then all of sudden there’s all this deeper meaning they are bullshitting to you that you can tell they are coming up with on the spot.
KW: Yeah yeah
AW: But I also don’t like overly processed art, so I feel like whatever comes naturally is so much better because you aren’t racking your brain for it.
KW: There’s a lot that can go into it to step a cartoon up. Anyone can draw a cartoon, but then it’s also about the background, what colors did you use, all of these choices.
AW: I feel like it’s intention. I told my friend that I thought my photos were very simple and my friend had said “well it’s because you do everything with intention” and I understood what she was saying because I thought of you and your process. Then Mom always says my photos are very clean looking. That’s another statement where I didn’t necessarily not see it in my photos, but I understood it better because those are two ways, I would describe you and your work. Your work is very clean, and each line has a purpose. It makes me very calm to look at it for that reason, it’s like you could draw someone dying and I’d be like “wow I feel so relaxed looking at this.”
KW: Thanks, what happens is I'll kind of doodle something really quick and I'll just keep drawing it over until I don't need to have a reference. That's another thing that graffiti taught me, repetition. You come up with something and then you just do it over and over again until it's muscle memory. I’ll trace, and start from scratch again, and I’ll build on a skeleton. I’ll add some clothes and eventually it’s exactly what I want it to be.
AW: Until it’s perfect.
KW: If it's simple, then it has to look perfect because I only use a few lines. In this stage of my life, I don't know if it'll change, but I use as few lines as possible. If any of those lines are off, you're going to notice it. Whereas like if you're doing an oil painting you can kinda run with those imperfections.
AW: Do you think overall, out of every medium you’ve tried, has graffiti influenced you the most? Or is the most important in your life? I feel like you talk about it with such passion.
KW: Graffiti is the last thing I latched onto, I don't think...well it is very important, but I think all those things are. Without skateboard, without comic books, those are all the building blocks to becoming a good graffiti artist. It teaches you the colors, what looks good. You know skateboarding has a lot of fonts. I think everything was important. Graffiti was just another tool to add to the repertoire.
KW: It’s what I like to do a lot but all three of those things help each other. They balance each other out. If you’re making a skate graphic you want to take outside influences. You don’t want to look at another skateboard and say “I’m gonna do something like that” because that already exists. You kinda need to take your influences and make your own style. So, all those things like comic books, cartoons, skateboarding, and graffiti...they all kind of help each other. I believe anytime you’re doing one of those things you should come to it with an outside perspective. If you’re doing graffiti you shouldn’t want to emulate some sort of graffiti that already exists. If you want to do some good graffiti you look at skateboarding graphics, if you want to make some cool cartoon you look at graffiti you know?
AW: No exactly I never really look at photos for inspiration I read books for inspiration
KW: Exactly. You don’t want to look at someone else doing what you’re trying to do because that person already exists. You want all your influences to culminate your own style. It’s hard for me! Antwan Horfee is my favorite artist and I want to draw like him but he already exists. So, I need to find a way to be comfortable saying “hey maybe I can’t be him but someone younger will like my stuff and wanna be me." To me everything he does is so on point.
AW: That’s sort of like, people say they want to be the next so and so but I don’t want to be the next anything. I want people to want to be the next me.
KW: Yeah! It’s hard to say that for some people, like me...with low self-esteem, all these people I think are so much better. I don’t have adoring fans or anything telling me...
AW: You have me
AW: I feel like you are such a natural born artist. For as long as I can remember you have always been creating. I feel like you’re just so interested in it which is really nice for me to look up to. There’s a lot of people who really force themselves to be into art, they aren’t really passionate, it feels very forced. You learn all about what inspires you and are drawn to things which is refreshing because it feels very authentic. I totally understand what you’re saying about influences. I don’t make mood boards with other photos on it for photoshoots because I feel like I get so caught up in what everyone else did I lose my natural style.
KW: Yeah it’s hard because you can’t look at anything before because your mind is just going to remember those ideas you saw.
AW: Then it ends up being that your art looks exactly like another artist’s. Which I think this is super interesting, I mean obviously we’re siblings, but still, we have similar processes and ideas about art.
KW: I always thought we were a lot alike. We’re both more reserved. Chloe loves being the center of attention which always gives me anxiety. I don’t want to be noticed in a room and I don’t want my opinions necessarily to be heard. I always felt that connection to you in that way. You’re reserved, and I wouldn’t say we hide behind our talents but kind of use them to talk in a way. I just use different mediums to communicate.
AW: I can totally see it because I feel like our art is more casually our thoughts because it’s visual. Chloe writes down her thoughts where as you and me it’s less obvious, it’s a casual look into our minds I guess.
KW: I liked writing as a kid but I liked visual stuff more because I could look at it and very quickly decide if I liked it or not. I just draw stuff that I like, you know influenced by urban environments. Just drawing stuff that I see. If I were in a desert, I might like drawing cactuses or something like roadrunner but I’m in New Haven and New York so I draw dice and skulls.
AW: I feel like I can see your influence. I don’t know why well I do but...every time I think of your art the next thought I have is The Nightmare Before Christmas.
KW: That was a huge movie in my childhood.
AW: I think because it’s not a creepy movie, but there is a creepy aspect to it.
KW: yeah, because the characters are dead.
AW: It’s literally laughing skulls. But it is a huge movie of your childhood and like you said nickelodeon influences your work. I feel like some artists can make things overly complex with their influences.
KW: At the end of the day, that stuff did well for a reason. Some people think they need to read some obscure super intellectual book but dude just read a good book. There’s a whole shelf of classics and they are classic for a reason.
AW: Yeah, like Grammy influenced my photo career immensely
KW: Because she always had a camera on her
AW: Exactly and I love The Beatles which lead me to Linda McCartney’s photography. I feel like sometimes people try so hard to like obscure things.
KW: That’s like I went to your senior show and there’s a video of a girl wrapping painters tape around her face. That’s not high art, it’s so overplayed. It takes no skill. Taking a picture of your vagina for a school project and not to bash these artists, but these things have been done. It’s not shocking but what is most shocking is saying what you think and not trying so hard.
KW: I hate the contemporary or modern art sections of a museum. I go on Pinterest and see a million things I like and walk into an art gallery and see very few things that I am visually drawn to. I can’t look at endless landscapes.
AW: I feel like I am very rarely wowed as of lately.
KW: I think it’s just not caring anymore. Like you can do minimalistic stuff as long as you care. I think you genuinely need to care. Sometimes I get caught up in wanting to draw like someone else, but when I draw something, and it comes out like me I like it better. It’s weird because you talk about me being immersed but I don’t do it all that often. I can't just produce something that's not there. In the morning when I have coffee I’ll start doodling and that’s usually when I draw something I like...
AW: But I feel like that’s such an important part of the process. I walk around with a camera everywhere I go and sometimes the picture is there and sometimes it isn’t. Not everything is a masterpiece. I say you’re so immersed in art because I feel like even if you’re not making something per se you’re still doing some sort of art which I think is the hardest part. To keep going. I feel like I get burnt out
KW: I definitely get burnt out there’s certain things that make me want to draw. Like a fresh stack of computer paper. I don’t like drawing on lined paper, I don’t like certain sketch pads, ones that flip over or ones with a spiral binding. Even if I get a moleskin that’s really nice if I start doing dumb shit in it that I don’t like I’ll stop drawing in it. That’s why I like computer paper. Honestly, it’s gotta be a ball point pen and computer paper. I don’t really use color.
AW: Yeah, you don’t...Do you like color?
KW: Yeah, I do. I use my Prisma colors and I do like them. I like certain shades obviously. I don't use a whole spectrum. I have this ice blue that I like. I like very light colors and stuff like that. I like the materials so much and because it’s so expensive I save them for something that’s worthy of them but I never find that one thing to use them for.
AW: Right yeah, I get that
KW: I do try to use color but I never know when to stop and I end up botching it. It’s hard for me, that’s an area I really lack in, I don’t feel confident. I should practice and practice but I don’t. I see something that could look good with color but I always think I am going to botch it. I spent all this time perfecting something and if I add the wrong shade, I won’t like the way it looks anymore. It turns me off to drawing.
KW: I kind of like using basic colors like red and yellow together and green and pink. But that goes back to the cartoons I like and the simplicity of using as few lines as possible.
AW: I get that and I know in photoshop it’s 1000 times easier to experiment with color but I won’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to photos, I use what I like. Some people are really good with color and I am just so jealous of them.
KW: some people got it. I see art with like 30 different colors that’s just amazing.
AW: I also feel like some people in photography use black and white as a crutch to make things look more artistic. Whereas in drawing I think people use these insane colors to gloss over maybe a piece that’s not so good.
KW: I think people kind of reject what they’re good at like...you look at the way someone else did it and that’s cool but that’s their skill set. But there’s things that you can do that they can’t.
AW: I think people tend to draw away from what they’re naturally good at because it’s so easy that it feels like it should be more challenging.
KW: yeah, I’m kind of realizing now I like flat colors. I don’t really fuck with neon or dark colors.
AW: Is there a certain subject matter that you are inspired by?
KW: Faces, for some reason faces have always gotten me. Like something in Ren and Stimpy or SpongeBob those close ups where everything is haggard. I always loved that. I can just start drawing a face. I like the expression of the eyes and stuff like that. Like in Scooby-doo when it’s dark and you can only see the angry eyes, I like that. Sometimes I would like to expand on drawing more completely.
AW: But I don’t think you need to, even if you want to, I like the simplicity. But this is my last question. Is there any sort of art you would like to make in the future?
KW: Yeah, I mean the sign painting thing I'm really liking because it's kind of a nice medium between graffiti and drawing. It makes me draft and it makes me work hard. I don't necessarily like the drafting process obviously I like putting the paint on what I'm doing. I like that final stage, but I'd like to like move forward with that. Just through this interview I realized that I do want to keep my style but move away from just drawing a bunch of heads. I want to be able to draw a body, hands, and characters interacting with each other stuff like that. I don’t really have a goal per se, I kinda just want to keep doing art. I’m not set in stone on one job. If I could ever do skateboard graphics or sign painting or do anything creative for a living that would be nice. If I got to a point where people were asking for band logos or just stuff like that would be great.
KW: My goal is to be able to do what I want to do and not work for someone who is going to change my art to something that’s not me. I want to get better. I see things all the time and I probably need to work harder.
AW: No, I think you’re working really hard. You’re not giving yourself enough credit. I see it.
KW: Well yeah but, you know just keep going and make a living off of art would be nice.
To see Keil’s work follow his Instagram here.
I will be taking the week off to enjoy thanksgiving so the next newsletter will be in three weeks instead of two. As the holidays come up this newsletter’s schedule will be slightly different. I am announcing that in advance so I don’t look like I am slacking, I just like spending time with my family.
Although Thanksgiving is a holiday with a violent history, I hope all who eat a wonderful dinner on this day find joy in seeing their family or friends.
I also wish to those who celebrate a happy Hanukkah.