Artist Spotlight: Todd Keisling, Dullington Design Co.
Todd Keisling: Brian and I were in an anthology together many moons ago. The editor (who shall remain nameless) lost his mind and got us mixed up, accused me of saying things Brian said, and… You know, it’s not important. What’s important is I met Brian in person at Necon 2016. It was brotherly love at first sight.
Brian Kirk: Ha! That was no mix-up, my friend. That’s called mental warfare. I spent weeks learning how to impersonate your voice, calling your close friends and relatives until I was able to convince them I was you. You share many secrets with several people that you know nothing about. You have a special friend in Tasmania, whom you exchange Limericks with every Harvest Moon.
Sorry…like Todd said, we met at Necon a few years ago and really hit it off. I knew Todd as a writer, but didn’t realize he was such a skilled artist until I saw the work he was doing through his own publishing company, Precipice Books. The books he produces for Precipice exude quality and craftsmanship, both inside and out. They can comfortably sit alongside books from any of the top publishing companies and shine.
I had issues with the original cover that my publisher proposed for Will Haunt You. The company is based in London, and their top art director and designer were both away on vacation during my design window, so we were struggling to fix the issues, and were running out of time. The publisher agreed with the design issues, but his hands were tied due to vacation schedules, so he decided to let me take a crack at fixing them. With one caveat: I had a single business day to turn it around (and that happened to be a Saturday).
I called Todd in a panic to see if there’s anything he could do to help me out. Todd’s a pretty mellow guy, and was able to instantly calm me down. “Let me take a look, and see what I can do,” he said, in a very controlled and measured voice, whereas I was frothing at the mouth. He could probably smell my nervous sweat over the phone.
This was on a Friday evening, around 8 PM. I woke the next morning with the basic cover art that we used waiting for me in my inbox. By noon we had the final version finished and sent off to the publisher, who was extremely pleased. Todd Keisling designed the cover for Will Haunt You, and so doing saved my behind. He did a brilliant job.
What were some of the influences that inspired you in the creation of the artwork for Will Haunt You?
TK: Well, I followed Brian’s direction. He gave me the book’s premise (I hadn’t read it yet), told me what he’d planned with the OBSIDEO campaign, and that he wanted to do something along the lines of creepypasta. He also sent me a list of images he wanted me to interpret (like the clones, medical procedures, etc.). I used those to create a series of instagram-sized photos he could use for promotion.
For the cover, he told me about the meta-nature of the book at the heart of Will Haunt You, and I ran with it. I really fixated on his concept of a “living book.” He’d already done the hard work of compiling a list of runes, so I found textures that resembled skin. I wanted the book to look like old, leathered skin tattooed with his symbols.
When we discussed the OBSIDEO prop book, a book from my youth immediately came to mind: MYST: The Book of Atrus by David Wingrove, Rand Miller, and Robyn Miller. The book was designed and bound to look ancient, and I tried to convey that with the cracked/worn texture on the cover.
One of the cool parts of Will Haunt You is the creation of a unique alphabet that plays a part in the novel. How did you decide on how to create the alphabet? Is it based off of anything in history or is it totally unique to Will Haunt You? What inspired you to create this original alphabet?
TK: That was all Brian. I’ll let him take the spotlight.
BK: I’ve always been interested in ancient languages and occult texts. Language is at the foundation of everything, much like math, so the thought of there being a lexicon encoded with mystical powers fascinates, and frightens, me. As humans, we are susceptible to the power of suggestion. Our subconscious hears and sees things our ears and eyes don’t. The figurehead behind Will Haunt You uses language, numerology, and even aspects of sacred geometry to enact his twisted agenda.
Obsideo and Will Haunt You both have a pretty terrifying mythologies surrounding them. Just looking at them conjures feelings of dread. I believe my wife’s exact words were “That’s fucking creepy”. How did you manage to capture those feelings in the artwork? Did you have any creepy stories from the creation of these books?
TK: It was a lot of noodling around in Photoshop, a lot of coffee, a few human sacrifices, and a little luck in finding good stock. Based on Brian’s description, I pictured something “found” that wasn’t meant to be seen. Something unsettling and old. I spent a lot of time looking through old medical journals with human dissection, phrenology charts, and as many old photographs as I could find. Photos of random objects that could be manipulated in some way so that they appear to have captured something by mistake.
I do have one creepy story. When I received the paperback ARC in the mail, I finally had a chance to read it properly. I do most of my reading before I go to sleep, so I keep a stack of books on my nightstand. A couple of nights later, when I went to settle in and read, the book was missing. My wife didn’t have it. It wasn’t under the bed. After ten minutes of frantic searching, fearing I’d lost my mind, I found the book under the blankets at the foot of the bed. I still have no idea how it got there.
BK: Todd absolutely nailed the art for OBSIDEO. It’s stunning in its perfect simplicity.
Regarding strange events, yes. I needed the OBSIDEO book to create the Creepypasta posts. I planned to do this over a holiday break where I would have the free time and availability of friends, so timing was important. Todd shipped the book Priority Mail, and received an alert that it had been delivered, but to the wrong address. I checked my mailbox, and confirmed that it had not been delivered. I checked it several times, actually. It would take weeks to get another copy made and delivered, so we had to track the book down. I spent about two hours on the phone with various USPS reps, trying to track it down and retrieve it. I made these calls from my home office, which overlooks my driveway and mailbox, which is at the dead end of a street. At no time did I see or hear a delivery truck arrive, stop, and conduct the three point turn required to turn around.
I was still on the phone when my wife arrived home from work. She came in holding the package containing the book. “Where did you find that?!” I asked, delighted but incredulous. “It was in the mailbox,” she said.
Look, I’m certain the book was delivered by a postman at some point when I wasn’t looking. I just don’t know how, as I was overlooking the mailbox the whole time, and hyper alert.
Todd, you are moving into freelance design work. Tell us a little about what inspired you to move into this section of the book world. What’s the name of your company?
TK: Brian pushed me to do it. I’ve always dabbled in design, but in recent years I’ve had an opportunity to work on several projects from a design perspective, and that’s rekindled my interest. To be honest, I’d been considering offering design services for a while, and not just as a means for extra income. There are so many great books out there in the indie publishing world, and it seems like many authors/publishers cut costs where the interior formatting is concerned. Interior is so important–I mean, if your book is difficult to read, then what’s the point?
The company is Dullington Design Co., and functions as a division of my press, Precipice Books.
Todd, talk a little about your passion for art. Was art something you were always interested in or did you discover your talent later in life?
TK: Not many folks know this about me, but once upon a time, I was planning to major in graphic design. I was the “art nerd” in school. I took every art class my high school offered (seriously, I was the only person who signed up for Art IV), and was president of my school’s chapter of the National Art Honor Society.
Art was my thing, and still is, but writing became my passion. Senior year, I wrote my first novel, and that drastically altered my direction. Art was still a long lost love, though, and I’ve turned to visual work whenever I need a break from putting words on the page. I’ve continued to dabble in graphic design over the years, and I’m excited to have an opportunity to expand that horizon.
What sort of things influence your art and design work?
TK: Oh man, that’s a short question with a long answer. The work of book jacket designer, Chip Kidd, first and foremost. Clive Barker’s artwork. Alex Grey. Ben Tolman. Zdzisław Beksiński. Michael Lalonde. H.R. Giger. Cat Scully. Lynne Hansen. Adam Jones. David Lynch. Seriously, I could do this all day.
What are some of your favorite mediums to work in? What do you like about those mediums?
TK: For physical mediums, I prefer pencil and ink. The former because it’s fairly forgiving when it comes to changes and adjustments. The latter because of the contrast when paired with pencil. As for digital work, I have to say Photoshop because it’s so damn versatile.
For those who may not know, what are some of the books you have worked on in regards to artwork?
TK: I did the cover for my novella The Final Reconciliation (Crystal Lake Publishing, 2017) and the interior for its paperback edition, as well as interior designs for Greetings from Moon Hill by Anthony J. Rapino (Precipice Books, 2016), The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers (Precipice Books, 2018), and for my story The Smile Factory (Precipice Books, 2018).
Despite the old adage “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”, I think a book’s artwork is an important part of the whole package. What is some advice you have for authors when thinking about their books design?
TK: The cover and interior are so important, and in the indie space, I don’t think they get enough credit. If you’re an author who’s looking to publish independently, don’t cut corners with your cover and interior. There are plenty of professional artists out there who can do the work for reasonable prices, and if that’s out of your price range, delay publication until you can save up to afford it. Yes, they’re that important.
Todd, If people want to engage your illustration services, how do they go about doing that?
TK: Sure thing. All they have to do is contact me through the form on my design page: Dullington Design Co.
Do you, or will you, have an online gallery of any sort to demonstrate your work and your talents to potential clients?
TK: Absolutely. There’s an interactive gallery on the same page, just below the contact form.
Guessing by the design, of the cover for The Smile Factory, collage is something you enjoy doing with your artwork sometimes. Do you use digital or physical mediums for such work? Or a combination thereof?
TK: I prefer a combination of both, as it leads to some interesting results. I used a collage for The Smile Factory’s art, printing and cutting out the stock imagery I wanted to use. Then I scanned it all back into Photoshop, assembled it, printed it again, colored it by hand, and then scanned it in once more for final touch-ups. This gave the final image a worn, distressed look.
I tried a similar approach with the collage design I created for my collection, Ugly Little Things. I bought $20 worth of old toys and knick-knacks from my local Goodwill shop, took them back to my garage, and proceeded to destroy them. Once I had all the pieces arranged, my wife took photos, and I imported them into Photoshop for further touch-ups.
For both, I probably could’ve created them from scratch in Photoshop, but I think the hands-on aspect gives everything so much more character.
BK: I’d just like to add one thing before we conclude. Whether you are an indie author or publisher, I cannot recommend Todd Keisling’s design services enough. He has an uncanny ability to clearly articulate your personal vision as though he’s plucking it straight from your brain. He is smart and thoughtful. Patient and understanding, yet confident in his abilities and able to steer you in the right direction when you go astray. He’s lightning fast, and affordably priced. Plus, he’s dead sexy, baby! What more could you want?
Selfishly, I wish I could keep his talents a secret and utilize them exclusively, but that’s just not fair. Hire him quick before his schedule fills up!