Take the “Never Abandon Imagination” Tour with Tony DiTerlizzi
As you walk through the galleries of Never Abandon Imagination at Mint Museum Randolph, look for the audio guide icon. Each of these works of art have a corresponding audio track narrated by the artist, Tony DiTerlizzi.
Look for this audio icon in the exhibition and match them with the corresponding numbers below.
In my early years of publishing children’s books I often had to supplement my income by taking on freelance jobs. One of those jobs that I loved doing was covers for other books. I was assigned a series of books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor called the Bernie Magruder series. Bernie’s basically like a modern day Encyclopedia Brown but there’s a quaintness to the story when you read them that I loved. Again, it immediately took me to Norman Rockwell’s depictions of America.
The very first Bernie Magruder cover I did was The Case of the Big Stink where he has to evacuate a hotel because there’s the possibility of a poisonous gas. The idea of him rushing past this sign for the hotel immediately made me think of Rockwell’s No Swimming painting that he did way back when. This first cover for Bernie Magruder was a very, I don’t even say it’s an homage, I think it’s more a pastiche of Rockwell’s famous painting.
Like so many fans of Rockwell and artists, his Triple Self-Portrait is my favorite. It’s iconic. I grew up looking at it, and staring at it. As a kid I loved the humor of it. As an adult artist, I marvel at the mastery of not only the technical skills in the drawing, but the ingenuity in what he had pulled off.
When it came time to do an author portrait for my second picture book, Ted, I wanted to do something similar, but there was no way I could capture the brilliance of Rockwell. And so, instead, I pivoted the viewer a bit and did a side profile shot of myself with Ted, the imaginary character, looking over my shoulder.
That’s the kind of impact that a single painting can have on another person, especially another artist, over their life. It seeps into your conscious. It becomes part of the fabric of your imagination, and who you are. And to see my little portrait next to Norman’s famous portrait, gives me both a feeling of excitement and humility. It’s that much of an important piece in my life.
CHAPTER ONE - JONES GALLERY
I was a kid who drew all the time. A lot of kids draw, especially in grade school and middle school and high school. But many times they stop drawing after a certain period of time, as the years go by. But for me, it was something that I really loved to do, so much so that even during summer breaks, I would set up little projects that I would do over the course of the summer while I was home.
It started when I was probably in fifth or sixth grade. I was collecting insects in my backyard in Florida, and so I would do drawings of the insects that I found and I would copy drawings out of field guides and encyclopedias. Each day I would do a few drawings and before I knew it, I had filled up this little tiny spiral-bound notebook with drawings of insects. And I really liked that. I liked that sense of accomplishment that I felt after I’d completed it.
A couple years later, I tried it again. I used an old school folder and I filled it with drawings of dragons and creatures and monsters. I was playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons at the time and I was a big fan of fantasy movies as well, like Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal. So each day, I would come up with a creature or a monster or a dragon and I would write about it in this kind of natural history jargon. And before I knew it, by the end of the summer, I had filled an entire notebook with these drawings and these creatures.
That one, in particular, the Gondwanaland notebook, at the time I had no idea how impactful it would be on my life, I was only twelve. But, many years later I returned to the concept of that for The Spiderwick Chronicles and Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You.
When I was twelve-years-old and playing Dungeons & Dragons in the eighties one of my favorite monsters was the kobold. I used to copy drawings out of the rule books and the monster manual all the time. That’s how I learned to draw actually was emulating and copying artists that I love. This is evident from a very young age and was certainly happening during my years playing Dungeons & Dragons. When Dark Horse Comics collected all of my early gaming work in a book called Realms I wanted to return to some of my favorite things about gaming and do new polished paintings of them. The kobold was one of them because I loved it so much as a kid.
The funny thing is, is that kobolds in Dungeons & Dragons are really nothing like the kobolds of folklore. They’re kind of … they’re a creature unto their own and they’re very lowly, they’re very small creatures. They’re very easy to defeat and so I wanted to kind of paint this very austere, proud kobold. If you look, actually the point of view in this painting is a little lower and you’re looking up a little bit at this ugly monster. The funny thing is kobolds are I think two or three feet tall. I referenced all kinds of things. Every aspect of the painting was referenced.
I looked at all these photos of ugly dog shows and the winners of ugly dog shows to reference the kobold’s face. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this but I wore my wife’s nightgown with a belt tied around me and the reference for the tunic and how the tunic would look so there’s some very embarrassing photos of me from that photo session.
The Monster Manual was actually one of my first really big jobs for TSR back in 1993. I’d finished my very first project with them, Dragon Mountain, and it was okay. I wasn’t real happy with how the work came out, so when I worked with the designer for the Monster Manual, I actually opted for a little less art, but hopefully to improve the quality of each individual illustration. Funny thing is, is I still was a poor art graduate, and I didn’t have a lot of supplies. What I think about is using the art supplies that I had left over from school. I had these alcohol based markers that we used, these graphic markers that we used mostly for advertising, comping up ads. I had these over-the-counter ballpoint pens that I would buy in boxes at the drug store and just reams and reams of laser paper. At the time, it felt comfortable for me to do the art in that medium, but of course when I look back now many years later, I wished I used better supplies.
Planescape was a very exciting time in my career as a young artist. I got a chance to be a part of the creation of a whole new world for Dungeons & Dragons. And Planescape was basically a crossroads of all the world mythologies that we know of that you could explore. I felt technically stronger when I was doing the illustrations for Planescape. I felt like I knew what I was doing a little more.
And I think it comes through in the artwork. I had also started to hone in on the mediums that I still use to this day, so I was using Speedball, dip pens, crow quill pens. I was using various types of Bristol board. I actually tried out lots of different Bristol board, because I was still trying to figure out which one, which surface worked best for me
And I used a lot of watercolors and inks. The thing, when I think back on Planescape was the kind of organic and rusted and ancient look of the characters, really came naturally to my sensibilities. So the browns and umbers that I tend to gravitate to in my pallets, I was able to use as a strength here. The thing that I didn’t realize that Planescape was actually teaching me in all the years that I illustrated for it, was how to build a world. Not just the characters and the monsters, but the armor they wore, the places they visit, the magical weapons and the artifacts they use.
And that stuff I carry with me to this day. It certainly informed the world building that went into The Spiderwick Chronicles and The WondLa Trilogy.
One of the interesting things that happened during, as a consequence of my re-interpreting of monsters in the Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous Manual, was that some of the designers came to me to see how I would do different takes on some of these kind of classic or long-forgotten Dungeons & Dragons monsters. One of them was the Cat Lord. Cat Lord was in the second Monster Manual, which came out in the ’80s, and it was a guy in a turtleneck who had cat-like abilities. When I came to illustrate it for Planescape, I struggled with it a little bit being a man, and I thought, “Oh a woman’s face is more triangular when traditionally depicted, which is more like the shape of a cat,” and so I tried kind of sketching it as a woman.
We had a friend who was very close with my wife, Kim, and Kim took photographs of my wife Angela and a lot of her friends at the time, and Kim would often give me these photos from these photoshoots, and I would use them for reference. And so one of Angela’s high school friends, Marta, had this great pose with her hair on her eyes and it was the perfect shot to use as a reference for the Cat Lord.
I did it in a flurry during an afternoon because the deadlines on Planescape were so tight that I remember doing several finished illustrations per day. And if you look at the Nightmare, you’ll see that I airbrushed some real bright blue ink on the Nightmare. That’s because I then did the Cat Lord right after the Nightmare and used the same blue ink in my airbrush.
It’s a funny story about Magic: The Gathering. There’s a gaming convention called Gen Con held every year, where all the gamers in the country get together to play all sorts of games. I remember back in 1994, an art director coming up to me and asking if I’d be interested in painting cards for this card game. But at the time I was busy working on Planescape and a little bit of work for White Wolf Games and so I passed.
You often get the question, if you have any regrets, what would those regrets be, and certainly being one of the original artists on Magic: The Gathering is one of them, especially when I had the opportunity. But I did get to work with Wizards of the Coast and Magic: The Gathering some years later, and I have absolutely enjoyed working with them.
I was growing a little restless coming out of Planescape with all the pen and ink and watercolor work that I was doing. I liked drawing in those mediums, but I wanted to become a stronger painter, and Magic had longer deadlines. TSR deadlines were notoriously short — I had to turn around a lot of art usually in a very short period of time. But for Magic I could create a handful of paintings and I had many months to work on them, and so I began to start shooting models and photographic reference for every prop, and really buckled down on painting.
One of the highlights during my years of illustrating for Dungeons & Dragons was getting to contribute to their editorial publications, Dragon magazine, and Dungeon Adventures. I even got to paint a few covers for Dragon magazine, which was a real honor for me because there had been some amazing illustrators in the past like Boris Vallejo and the Hildebrandt Brothers, who had contributed to covers to their magazine.
The rule for Dragon magazine was very simple. There was only one rule, it had to have a dragon on the magazine, somewhere. Now most people illustrated these amazing, scary, terrifying, fire-breathing dragons wreaking havoc on a village, or facing off with a knight, or a party, or protecting their treasure, and I thought of the dragon in The Reluctant Dragon, and this was many years before I would return to this concept in Kenny and the Dragon. But I love the idea of the boy becoming friends with the dragon because if I had known a dragon that’s what I would have wanted to do. I would want to become friends with it, and ask it all these questions.
So this scene actually depicts a scene conjured from Kenneth Grahame’s Reluctant Dragon, where the boy is hanging out with the dragon and they’re playing board games, and if you look closely there’s a dice bag so that potentially there could be a D&D game that will happen. The cover went over tremendously huge, much to my delight and surprise. It remains a favorite to this day.
One of my geek badges that I wear very proudly is the fact that I got to illustrate a D&Drace that is still used in the game to this day and it’s the tiefling. Tieflings are humans that have fiend blood somewhere in their ancestry and it can manifest in the form of horns or a forked tail or cloven feet. I got to be the first illustrator to do them in Planescape back in the ‘90s and I wanted to return and do an illustration of one that was given a very classical treatment.
I looked back at some of my favorite classical painters, Botticelli. Botticelli did a lot of paintings of portraits of young women and Raphael did that amazing portrait of a woman with a unicorn in her lap and I wanted to be able to try to do a painting like that. I used a friend of mine, Madison, who’s posed for me before and she posed as the Tiefling. I took a lot of photos. We referenced every aspect of the painting, right down to the jewelry and as a little nod to the fact that she is a character from Dungeons & Dragons, if you look closely in her headdress, you’ll see 20-sided dice woven into with the beads in her hair.
CHAPTER TWO - DWELLE GALLERY
When The Spiderwick Chronicles were doing phenomenally well, I was given this amazing opportunity to illustrate classics. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, etc. I thought back on some of the classics that I loved reading as a kid and one that came to mind was The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame and I loved that story. It’s such a great little story and I loved the themes in it. I loved the idea of a misunderstood monster. That’s something I can absolutely relate to as a kid and sometimes still to this day.
I was off and running trying to figure out ways to retell the story. I thought about perhaps retelling it in the 1940s or the 1950s, and it wasn’t until my manager, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein suggested that I think about Kenneth Grahame’s other classic book, The Wind in the Willows and figure out a way to combine the two. That was such an amazing lightbulb moment. I’m very thankful for her for coming up for that idea, but basically the idea of woodland creatures who now have a fantastic creature living among them was an amazing concept and idea. Once I had that, off I went.
I actually struggled with how to do the interior illustrations for Kenny and the Dragon. The Spiderwick Chronicles were being done around the same time, and for those I was using an old Speedball crow quill pen that I would dip into the ink pot, and draw with, but I didn’t want Kenny and the Dragon to feel the same way as a Spiderwick book.
The story itself is actually a little softer, a little warmer, a little gentler and so I chose a different medium. I ended up using pencil to do all the illustrations, and you know to use a pencil there’s a lot of different ways to use it, and so I tried all these various experimentations with the pencil. Do I smudge it? Do I smear it? Do I shade it? And what’s interesting if you look closely is the illustrations for Kenny and the Dragon are drawn in a pencil, with a pencil but I’m drawing as if I was actually inking. So I’m using very clean lines, and I’m using crosshatching, like I would use if I was using a pen, but in this case I’m using a softer medium.
One of my big philosophies in making books for children is “Backwards to go forwards.” I always look backwards to the things that I loved as a kid, to the stories that were told before I was even alive, and think about what I can learn from those books and stories, to create new stories for children, today.
I loved old fairy tales. Not just the stories within them, but the way the book felt in my hand, the way the pictures looked when they were laying next to the text. Spiderwick is in some ways a celebration of turn-of-the-century fairy tales and books drawn by the likes of Arthur Rackham or Edmund Dulac or even Henry Justice Ford, who illustrated all of Andrew Lang’s books.
Looking at all those books, I was so inspired to try to recapture some of that magic that I felt had endured over a century. That said, The Spiderwick Chronicles were primarily illustrated in crow quill, dip pens, and watercolor. Very traditional mediums meant to evoke a bygone era of children’s publishing. The twist being, of course, these were modern day kids dealing with fairies and trolls and goblins.
Not only did I emulate Arthur Rackham and other turn of the century Golden Age children’s book illustrators, I paid homage to them. If you were to look up a picture of Arthur Rackham, you would see that Arthur Spiderwick is a dead ringer for Arthur Rackham and this was no coincidence, this was my valentine to the influence that Rackham had upon me. I had first rediscovered his art as I was finishing my last years in art school.
I had found an amazing book that collected a lot of various illustrators from the Golden Age of illustration and Rackham’s work just struck me. It struck a chord deep within me and I think it was … He was illustrating fairytales that I knew very well. Rip Van Winkle, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, but there was an observation that only comes from spending a lot of time outdoors in nature and you could see it in the veins and the wings of his fairies. You could see it in the gnarled roots of his trees that he drew.
That really resonated with me and it was something that was very impactful on me as a young artist, and still is to this day. Because some of the themes of The Spiderwick Chronicles are these spirits of nature, these goblins and fairies that epitomize elements of nature brushing up against mankind, I thought it very fitting that Arthur Rackham was front and center.
If I was thinking of Arthur Rackham while I was illustrating the chapter books of The Spiderwick Chronicles, I was thinking of John James Audubon when I was illustrating the Field Guide. The Field Guide, in some ways, is very inspired by the Gondwanaland Field Guide I made back when I was 12. But I wanted to draw and paint very common and beloved fantasy and fairytale characters with the eye of a naturalist. And how would a naturalist paint them? How do they really look?
And so I studied a lot of Audubon’s paintings for birds of North America and quadrupeds of North America and really pushed myself to see how realistic I could paint trolls and goblins and mermaids. So there was an incredible amount of reference and observation that went into each and every paining. Every single element of the painting was referenced from the fur on the Phooka to the bark on the tree that he was perched on.
It was all painted in an incredibly short amount of time. Despite the fact that I had been sketching on the book for years, when it came time to actually create all the paintings for the finished book, The Spiderwick Chronicles had become so popular and so successful that there was a newfound pressure to release the books at a very quick clip. And so all the paintings that were done for Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide were done in six months, and that meant I was creating a finished painting about every four or five days.
One of the challenges of the Spiderwick Field Guide was to take these kind of tropey, trite creatures from fairytales that we’ve seen depicted hundreds of times, fairies, goblins, dragons, and trolls, and come up with a unique and fresh new way to depict them that might engage or excite young readers. And I thought if I could crack the goblin then everything else would be easy for me because it was such a common creature that we see so much through stories and video games and movies, et cetera. So growing up in Florida, south Florida, we have these toads down there.
They call them bufo toads. I doubt that’s their actual name, but that’s what everyone, all the locals call them. And these toads are huge. They’re actually really poisonous too. Dogs can’t eat them. It’ll actually kill a dog if you eat them. And all this stuff was in the back of my mind when I was designing the goblins for Spiderwick. All this kind of fascinating information about a real, live animal, which really that philosophy starts to affect every single creature that I designed for The Spiderwick Chronicles. But it started with this Goblin, and the idea of this large, toady creature with kind of bird claws I thought was spooky and creepy. But the fact that it knew not only what a scarf was, but how to put a scarf on and tie it around your neck I felt also showed intelligence and a sense of fashion.
As a kid growing up, I loved Spider Magazine. My mom had a subscription, we used to read it all the time. It was a great magazine and so early in my career as a children’s book illustrator, I contributed from time to time to Cricket and Spider Magazine for children. One of my favorite pieces from that time is the cover that I titled The Littlest Artist. It’s a fairy, but it’s a pretty standard fairy. Really the thing that I was most excited about was painting these insects, these kind of anthropomorphic renditions of insects. Insects always get a bad rap. Most people when you ask them about bugs, they go, “Oh bugs. I hate bugs. Bugs are disgusting.”
And so I really wanted to create some insects that I thought would be friendly, and funny, and interesting, and in the world of faerie, have them cavorting with frogs in tail coats and little baby fairies. Which brings to mind like the images of Richard Doyle’s Fairyland. But the thing that I love the most about this painting are the insects. And my editor at Simon & Schuster at the time saw that cover and realized that I could paint insects, and consequently he made me an offer to illustrate a book that he was working on about insects, and that book happened to be The Spider and the Fly.
If The Spiderwick Chronicles was a story from the past brought forward to the present, WondLa was a story from the future brought backwards to the past. The Spiderwick Chronicles were done, Holly and I had completed all the stories and during that entire time, I had been thinking about this futuristic story that somehow had an impact on the present day. When I went to finally figure out what the story was, I knew that the art had to be reflective of the tone of the story.
The best way I can explain it is if you wrote a song and you’re like, “Do I use an acoustic guitar or do I use an electric guitar? Maybe I don’t use any guitar. Maybe I use a violin.” It’s the same type of nuance things that I think about when I do my illustration. Because WondLa was a science fiction story, there was kind of an antiseptic, kind of sterile feeling to aspects of it, and I wondered if I could create that visually with my mediums that I use.
I put away my crow quill pens and my watercolors in favor of technical pens and vellum. I did all the drawings with these kind of fixed-width pens and then we digitally colored the artwork emulating a variety of artists. The first and foremost would be Jean Giraud Moebius, who was one of the founding comic book artists for Heavy Metal magazine. He was such an incredible inspiration and influence to me and he was so good at creating other worlds convincingly that I wanted to kind of tap into that same kind of creativity.
Usually, I am a logjam of stories that I have conceived in my brain and drawings that go along with those stories. Some of these stories have been released. Some of them, I’m still working on. So, it’s very rare that I will veer off and work on a story with someone else; but some years ago, I got a call from my friend, Mo Willems, and Mo had been living in Paris for a year and coming up with all kinds of great and new stories.
He gave me a ring and said, “I’ve been working on this story about a cat and a dog, and to be honest with you, I’ve been trying to draw the illustrations for this story in your style.” In typical Mo fashion, he showed them to his wife, Cher, and Cher said, “Well, do you know who draws like Tony DiTerlizzi? Tony Diterlizzi.”
So, Mo gave me a call. I was very flattered, of course, and he sent over the text. I, maybe, was one or two chapters in and I had already started drawing. I hadn’t even thought about it. I immediately grabbed a pencil and started sketching out the characters, and that’s a really good sign. That meant I was not only sucked in as a reader, but already thinking about how I would illustrate the book. That’s not a manufactured emotion. That’s a real emotion and I try to follow those emotions.
CHAPTER THREE - BELK GALLERY
My very first picture book that I created was written in 1997, and it was about a boy who flew to the moon to get Moon Pies. I had this concept that being born in 1969 everything that I thought about regarding the post-war period in America, the 1950s was filtered through, you know episodes of I Love Lucy, or Leave It To Beaver, and so in my brain I thought, well once upon a time it was 1950. It must have been this amazing time to be a kid.
So I did a couple of books that really tap into that concept, and that idea, and Norman Rockwell’s vision of what America was like was a tremendous influence on the look of both Jimmy Zangwow and Ted. There’s also a little bit of Little Rascals, in the jalopy that he makes, and actually a lot of Winsor McCay in the surreal aspects of Mars, when he gets to Mars and he’s surrounded by all these martians. I was absolutely thinking of Little Nemo in Slumberland.
The painting style was definitely emulating Rockwell, with definitely a nod to Maxfield Parrish. So if you look at these deep, deep blue space skies, and against this very orange landscape, that’s definitely me thinking of Maxfield Parrish. Then of course Jim Henson kind of came through in the Grimble Grinder. I always thought of him as this big giant, ungainly Muppet that kind of shows up, and has kind of a dopey voice when he talks.
The complexity of the illustrations in both Jimmy Zangwow and Ted were a bit of a challenge for me. I felt like I wasn’t a strong enough painter to fully master color and how to manipulate color to move the eye around the page. So one of the tricks that I used was that I dressed the hero, the boy in Jimmy Zangwow and the boy in Ted, in primary colors.
So if you look at Jimmy Zangwow, his hair is red, his shirt is yellow, and his shorts are blue. The three primary colors, pop right there. And that is set amongst a sea of usually secondary colors, so orange in the case of being on Mars, green when he’s on Earth.
The same holds true for the boy in Ted. He’s wearing a red, yellow, and blue striped shirt and blue overalls. But it’s the same concept, the idea that he had these very bright primary colors set against this kind of neapolitan backdrop of chocolate and vanilla and strawberry.
I was not the original illustrator intended to render The Spider and The Fly. My editor, Kevin Lewis, actually was hoping to get Fred Marcellino, who passed away while they were thinking about publishing this book. I had been chosen to be the artist for it. I did not know the entire poem, I think I knew the opening lines of the poem like so many people. “Will you walk into my parlor, said the spider to the fly?,” but I didn’t know the entire poem.
I remember he faxed it, that’s how long ago this was, he faxed the entire poem. I remember reading it upside down as it came out of the fax machine. It got to the end of the book, and the spider eats the fly, and she’s dead. I thought, “Well wait, there’s gonna be another page of story coming out of here,” and nope, that was the whole story.
Immediately I thought, “How do I tell this for children and not scare them or terrify them?” I don’t mind spooking a kid, but I don’t ever want to terrify them. I immediately thought of Chaz Addams. I immediately thought of Edward Gorey, and I approached the illustrations for The Spider and the Fly with those guys in the back of my mind.
The paintings were all done in two colors, a tube of black gouache, and a tube of white gouache, which I primarily use for fixing, repairing parts of the illustration. When we did the final printing, we actually printed the book in two colors. We used a black ink, and we replaced all the grays with a silver ink to give it that shine from an old silent movie.
To be totally honest, I really thought that The Spider and the Fly was one of those stories that only a niche group would enjoy and adore, and to my great surprise and delight, not only did it become a New York Times bestseller, but it won a Caldecott Honor in 2003.
I get this question a lot, “What is your favorite book that you’ve created?” You know you spend a couple years making these stories, writing the story, figuring it out what it is, painting all the pictures, and so there’s a lot of love that goes into every book. But I have to say that Ted is always near the top of my list. It was such a great book to create. It was my second book with Simon & Schuster, and it was a very honest conversation that was going on between an older version of me in the form of the father, and a younger version of me in the form of the kid. And trying to balance that balance between, “Will I be a workaholic who forgets the love and the playfulness of childhood, or will I forever be a child who has no responsibility?”
Those kinds of concepts and themes influence art. There’s a nostalgia to Ted, and that is again conjured by looking at Norman Rockwell and those paintings by him from the Saturday Evening Postcovers. We had a huge book of the Saturday Evening Postcovers that I used to look at all the time, and I conjured a lot of those imagery, especially the Triple Self-Portrait. In that portrait, when Rockwell’s looking at himself, his glasses are catching a reflection so you don’t see his eyes in it. And in TedI used that as a device with the father, so to keep the father cold and disconnected from the reader, you never see his eyes until the climax of the book. They’re always hidden by this reflection.