Legend: Tony DiTerlizzi
The Spiderwick Chronicles artist on his working life so far.
When Tony DiTerlizzi was 12 years old, like so many fantasy art fanatics, he was deeply into Dungeons & Dragons. And, growing up in South Florida, he loved nature too and loved exploring in the nearby woods looking for wildlife detailed in illustrated guidebooks. One day, his imagination took over and he started drawing a field guide of his own, but instead of snakes, birds and possums, his book depicted the monsters routinely observed during games of D&D.
“I started putting them into a field guide. And it filled up like a notebook,” Tony says. “Over the course of the summer I’d do a drawing of a dragon and give it a Latin name which I’d make up completely – like Biggus Baddus Firebreathus. Then I would write this whole entry from a naturalist’s point of view, observations of this animal.”
The project lay dormant in Tony’s mind, but resurfaced after he’d become a children’s book illustrator living in New York. He’d just won the Caldecott Honor award for his illustrated version of Mary Howitt’s poem The Spider and the Fly, and his publisher at Simon & Schuster had an offer for him. “They asked me a question you don’t get asked often: ‘If you could do any kind of book, what would you do?’” he says.
building a story
His mind immediately went back to the field guide he worked on that summer back in Florida. What if he could recreate it properly, build a story around it and have it published for a fantasy-loving audience.
“I brought everything in and I told my editor about it and he thought it was a great idea. He was like, ‘ Tell me about the guy who created this.’ And so I started telling him the stories about Arthur Spiderwick and how, in his mind, he was going to become famous. He was going to be the next Charles Darwin and blow open the scientific community with his discovery of the fairy world.”
The Spiderwick Chronicles was born, and it became a global sensation. Tony co-wrote the series with Holly Black and solely created over 350 amazing illustrations for it, which comprises eight storybooks, plus Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World All Around You, The Care and Feeding of Sprites,
and Spiderwick’s Notebook for Fantastical Observations. His earthy, teastained, Rackham-inspired imagery has been ingrained on a generation of new, young fantasy naturalists.
“I learned a lot from working with Holly, most importantly to subvert the anticipated,” he explains. “For instance, the first sketches I did of the Grace kids were very American, Norman Rockwell. Kids with freckles and big ears. Holly was like, ‘ We’ve seen you do that in your other books. Why not make them look different? I’ve got a rule for you: no freckles!’
A different kind of hero
So our heroes had dark hair and pale skin instead, and the series got a hint of shadow and mysticism. When it came to a scene in one of the books, Tony initially thought along the lines of a wonderful revelation. But Holly’s thinking was… well… blacker.
“Holly had the unicorn come and share its nightmare-ish visions of the unicorn hunt with one of the kids. It was so powerful. It was going to be, ‘Oh, pretty, beautiful unicorn,’ but then what it’s holding within its soul is just not what I would have expected. I don’t think it’s what the reader would expect, and that was the genius of how Holly wrote.”
The creative partnership continued when The Spiderwick Chronicles was turned into a film in 2008. Tony and Holly were both executive producers on the project. Working on it exposed Tony to all the creativity that goes into motion pictures. The visualisation of the story’s creatures was split between ILM and animation guru Phil Tippett.
“Phil and I got along terrifically, to my delight, because I’d grown up seeing his work in The Empire Strikes Back, Dragonslayer and Robocop,” says Tony. “ILM kind of redesigned a lot of the stuff that they were tasked with doing. They did Thimbletack, the fairies and Mulgarath.
Thimbletack and Mulgarath kind of went through the Hollywood filter – they were changed for the screen. When I got to see Phil and what he was doing – the goblin and the troll creatures – he really didn’t change them. I said, ‘Is this the final?’ and he said, ‘ Yeah, the designs were great, why would we mess with them?’ I just thought that was such an amazing compliment because I expected the designs to change. That’s what always happens when a book gets adapted to film.”
While creating The Spiderwick Chronicles, Tony used a skill he’d developed years beforehand: that of world building. With a degree in graphic design and a job in a studio in the early 90s, his friends nevertheless convinced him to send a portfolio to TSR, the then-publisher of Dungeons & Dragons. Eventually, he won a series of commissions from the company, including work on the Monstrous Manual – the first full colour edition of the Monster Manual. In 1994, his illustration skills went up a level when he became sole artist for Planescape, a new D&D campaign setting that enabled players to visit realms and dimensions inhabited by the game’s gods, demigods, deities and elementals.
“I was asked to fly up to TSR and I met with Zeb Cook, who was one of the original game designers for Dungeons & Dragons,” Tony explains. “By working with Zeb, I really started to understand how to build a world from soup to nuts, and that was really important for projects. I ended up doing the same down the line, in particular with The Spiderwick Chronicles.”
A weird merge of Japanese and British illustration sensibilities comes together with my pen and ink style
Zeb Cook also introduced Tony to Yoshitaka Amano’s vibrant artwork, while his own inspiration came from Golden Age illustrators such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, and more recent work by Brian Froud and Alan Lee. The challenge for Tony was to come up with a cohesive creative style that could be used across covers and internal pieces, depicting everything from gods to player characters, religious artefacts to architecture – not to mention the campaign’s cross-dimensional ethereal settings.
“So you’ve got this kind of weird merge of Japanese and British illustration sensibilities and it all kind of comes
together with my pen and ink style,” explains Tony. “Because the deadlines were so tight and I was the only one doing them, the artwork was looser, faster, a little more spontaneous and I would say livelier. Less accurate, and more gestural.”
a story far, far away
The artist’s celebrated, fantastical career developed further via dozens of Magic: The Gathering cards, and he’s done numerous other children’s books besides, including his creative opus, the WondLa series (see page 45). However, last year he took on another project of which his 12-year-old self would surely have been proud. Lucasfilm approached him and asked him to put together a 64-page picture book using the concept art of the late Ralph McQuarrie, and to write the story.
As Tony worked on it, he could see how McQuarrie’s art worked and compare it to his own. “Ralph worked much smaller than I do, he worked incredibly tiny. Many of his thumbnails were not much bigger than a postage stamp,” he says. “He’s incredibly good at spatial, the illusion of space, and I don’t mean like stars but I mean big spatial landscapes and architecture and buildings that I struggle with. And also his ever- changing colour palette. He could do very cool colours for a scene that involved the Death Star and he could do very warm colours for Jabba’s palace or an Ewok village. I will play with my colour palette, but I have a favourite palette that has lot of brown and dirt, and green. It’s nature-driven, and everything is antiquated and a bit dingy.”
After years as an illustrator who found the writing a little more challenging, being offered the project recognised Tony’s allround talent. “It’s amazing, it’s very validating, because I wasn’t doing the art. I was just being asked to design and assemble this book for them and write the story.”
I have a favourite palette that I will kind of sit in – brown and dirt, and green. It’s very nature-driven
Here’s the villain of the piece in The Spiderwick Chronicles – an ogre, not to be trusted!
For World of WondLa, Tony wanted a female lead and a futuristic setting.
THE FUTUR E
Following his success with Dungeons & Dragons, Tony was recruited by the art directors on Magic: The Gathering. A spot image from Tony’s new book,
Realms. Beware the deadly Fungi!
SONG OF SERENITY
Tony gave the gods, demons and player characters in the Planescape D&D campaign a unique
look and feel.
The award-winning illustrations for The Spider and the Fly put Tony on the children’s book publishing map. Co-author Holly Black helped Tony make his unicorn more engaging than he could possibly have imagined.
THE UNI CORN
The Beholder is a classic Dungeons & Dragons monster.
The full wraparound jacket artwork for A Hero for WondLa, the second book in the series.