The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi

Tony DiTerlizzi, cover painting for The Battle for WondLa, 2014.

©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.
Tony DiTerlizzi, cover painting for The Battle for WondLa, 2014.
Illustrator and author Tony DiTerlizzi shares how the superpower of imagination fuels the creative process behind his popular works.

Illustrator and author Tony DiTerlizzi shares how the superpower of imagination fuels the creative process behind his popular works.

©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Twilight Traveler, cover illustration for Dungeon Adventures, 1999.

“With magic as your captain, you can choose just about any destination, any time, or any place if you never abandon imagination.”

Tony DiTerlizzi

Tony DiTerlizzi has been creating children’s books since publishing Jimmy Zangwow's Out-of-this-World Moon Pie Adventure in 2000. His work has been at the top of the New York Timesbestseller list, and in 2003 he earned the Caldecott Honor Award for illustrating Mary Howitt’s 1828 poem The Spider and the Flyin luscious values of black and white reminiscent of a classic horror movie. The first book in DiTerlizzi’s collaborative series with Holly Black, The Spiderwick Chronicles, was published in 2003, and later adapted into a feature film.

The retrospective exhibit Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzibroke attendance records at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA after its November 2017 premiere. The exhibit then traveled to the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, NC, in 2019. Following his talk Imagine That! at the Mint, Art & Object had the opportunity to speak with DiTerlizzi.

“…[Imagination is why I] became the person I’ve become,” shares the artist. He quotes author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak: “No story is worth the writing, no picture worth the making, if it’s not the work of the imagination.”

DiTerlizzi first learned to draw and paint by copying characters from pop culture including Star Wars and Jim Henson’s film The Dark Crystal. When he was 12 years old, he created Gondwanaland, a handmade precursor to Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. After being inspired by Dungeons and Dragons as a child, DiTerlizzi went on to work as an illustrator for the role-playing game, as well as for the card game Magic: the Gathering.

When a young DiTerlizzi saw the seminal book Faeries by fantasy illustrators Brian Froud and Alan Lee, he was struck by how the imagination of a visual artist could generate an entire world, prompting him to proclaim: “This is what I want to be when I grow up!” He has carried on Froud’s world-building tradition through such books as The Spiderwick Chronicles. His influences also include the rock album covers of the ’70s and ’80s, as well as illustrators Norman Rockwell, John Bauer, Arthur Rackham, and Maurice Sendak–whose stories were “always a little scary,” admits DiTerlizzi.

According to DiTerlizzi, the first relationship a child has with art is usually through illustration. However, the art form has long been considered “less than” fine art, because it is typically work for hire to depict an existing idea. The word “illustrative” has generally been used as a derogatory term, despite the strong art of respected illustrators. Renowned artists such as Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali also did illustration work.

DiTerlizzi thinks that this aesthetic divide is narrowing, citing the success of Pop Surrealist Mark Ryden. He points out that though Americana illustrator Norman Rockwell dealt with the bias in his day, now there is a museum devoted to his artwork. The inaugural exhibition of DiTerlizzi’s Never Abandon Imagination was the first museum show to feature Dungeons and Dragons artwork–another testament to shifting perceptions.

When Jimmy was close enough to the great Moon Pie Maker in the sky
©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.

Tony DiTerlizzi, When Jimmy was close enough to the great Moon Pie Maker in the sky… from Jimmy Zangwow's Out-of-this-world Moon Pie Adventure, 2000.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Portrait of a Young Tiefling, 2015.
©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Portrait of a Young Tiefling, 2015.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Self-Portrait, 2001.
©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Self-Portrait, illustration from Ted, 2001.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Spiderwick, 2003.
Tony DiTerlizzi, Spiderwick, 2003.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Spiderwick, cover illustration for The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Seeing Stone, 2003.

Tony DiTerlizzi, The Spider and the Fly, 2001.
©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.

Tony DiTerlizzi, illustration from The Spider and the Fly, 2001.

Tony DiTerlizzi, The Littlest Artist, 2002.
©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.

Tony DiTerlizzi, The Littlest Artist, cover illustration for Spider magazine, 2002.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Kenny & The Dragon, 2007.
©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Kenny & The Dragon cover illustration, 2007.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Goblin Warbuggy, 1998.
©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Goblin Warbuggy, 1998. Illustration for Magic The Gathering, 1998.

Tony DiTerlizzi, A Golden Afternoon, 1997.
©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.

Tony DiTerlizzi, A Golden Afternoon, 1997. Cover illustration for Dragon magazine #242, 1997.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Never Abandon Imagination, 2017.
©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Never Abandon Imagination, 2017.

Tony DiTerlizzi. Toadshade Sprite from Arthur Spiderwicks Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, 2005.
©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.

Tony DiTerlizzi, Toadshade Sprite from Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, 2005.

Tony DiTerlizzi
Courtesy of the artist. ©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.

Tony DiTerlizzi

Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi installed at the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, NC.
courtesy Mint Museum

Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi installed at the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, NC.

Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi installed at the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, NC.
courtesy mint museum

Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi installed at the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, NC.

Installation shots from the Mint.
courtesy mint museum

Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi installed at the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, NC.

Installation shots from the Mint.
courtesy mint museum

Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi installed at the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, NC.

Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi installed at the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, NC.
courtesy mint museum

Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi installed at the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, NC.

The storytelling capacity of illustration is why DiTerlizzi gravitated to this creative form; he likes that illustrations are accompanied by words, like songs with lyrics. When describing the work of Norman Rockwell, DiTerlizzi sums up the narrative power of masterful illustration: “One image is telling an entire story…. It’s not just how well you painted it and how it looks…it’s all staged like a little play.” Maurice Sendak shared this philosophy, says DiTerlizzi; his characters are on a stage, putting on a show for the reader.

©Tony DiTerlizzi. All rights reserved.

Tony DiTerlizzi, The Dragon Summoner, cover illustration for Dragon Magazine, 1998.

“It’s never too late to create the thing…that you think needs to exist in the world.”

Tony DiTerlizzi

When DiTerlizzi begins work on a new book, the images always come first, “informing the bones of the verbal text.” He draws many incarnations of the characters, asking himself questions about appearance and actions until a scene plays out in his head. After drawing a simple version of the story, he begins to write. He arrives at the finished text following many drafts, and then goes back to finalize the illustrations. The entire process can take a couple of years or even longer to fully gestate.

He uses different media to convey the mood of each story. For The Spiderwick Chronicles, which DiTerlizzi describes as being “more like Arthur Rackham’s art,…like an old Grimm’s Fairy Tale,” he even used old crow-quill dip pens like the ones that Rackham would have used, and then tinted the illustrations with watercolors. He worked on a toned surface rather than white to make the paintings appear antique.

He creates most of his paintings using the versatile medium acryla gouache, a mixture of acrylic paint and gouache, an opaque watercolor. He now uses the computer in combination with traditional media by scanning hand-painted components, then adding light and shadows digitally to “create more sense of magic in the scene.”

A self-professed perfectionist, DiTerlizzi utilizes an economy of information, knowing just how much detail to provide. Using masterful crosshatched pencil mark-making, in Kenny and the Dragon, DiTerlizzi creates the illusion of dragon scales; by varying the line weight of his pencil, he conjures depth between figures.

Given the abundant imagery of goblins, trolls, and fairies by other artists, for Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, DiTerlizzi looked for a novel approach to creating unique magical creatures. He combined similar forms from unrelated species, using a John James Audubon style of presentation to enhance a sense of realism. After creating an initial concept drawing, he constructed a skeletal form inspired by recognizable animals, then applied a skin pattern from another.

To demystify and humanize the creative process, along with his finished works, DiTerlizzi displayed such items as his childhood toys, early drawings, and reference books in his retrospective. The Mint exhibit also provided drawing and reading stations. “The goal is: how can we get families excited about coming to an art museum?” explains DiTerlizzi.

DiTerlizzi believes that we need imagination because it is what has moved society forward. Since he now has the ability to make the stories he wanted as a boy, he observes, “It’s never too late to create the thing…that you think needs to exist in the world.”

To DiTerlizzi, imagination is an amazing superpower. When asked what creature he would be, DiTerlizzi replied, “Anything that can fly.”

About the Author

Amy Funderburk

Amy Funderburk is a professional artist and freelance arts writer based in Winston-Salem, NC, specializing in visionary works in which she explores the intersection of the physical world with a more fluid spiritual realm. She maintains a blog, Drinking from the Well of Inspiration, to provide deeper insight into her creative process. Follow her on twitter: @AFunderburkArt
 

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