Wise Words From an Illustration Role Model

Tony DiTerlizzi collaborates with School of Game Development faculty and students for exhibit.

Illustrator and author Tony DiTerlizzi going over the collaborative project with the School of Game Development during his recent visit. Photo by Rich Bradway of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

If being a children’s book illustrator and author didn’t work out for Tony DiTerlizzi, stand-up comedy might’ve been an adequate alternative career route for him. 

In between stories of his fruitful career as a fantasy artist, he cracked jokes toward the Academy of Art University audience on April 18, using cartoon voices to poke fun at himself, those who showed up to hear him speak and the chicken-dragon students suggested he draw in his demo.  

Luckily for fans of his artwork (which includes book-turned-feature-film The Spiderwick Chronicles and role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons), DiTerlizzi never caved to the pressures of rejected art pitches. In his presentation, DiTerlizzi talked about the tried and true tools of his trade: “Pencil, paper, paint, pixels and patience.” 

“When I think back on those submissions that failed, I don’t think it was that I would’ve never gotten work doing editorial work for Rolling Stone or children’s books,” he explained. “I may not have just been ready. That’s a big thing you have to look at.”

DiTerlizzi was born in Los Angeles and attended college at the Florida School of the Arts and The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale where he earned a graphic design degree in 1992. He told the audience that he was a “big copier” early on in his career, emulating the styles of a wide variety of influences that ranged from fantasy artists to pin-up, including William Stout, David Levine, Olivia De Berardinis, Arthur Rackham, Brian Froud and Michael Parks. 

“When I started to see the DNA of Brian Froud that I copied and loved, a couple things occurred to me,” he told the audience. “If I go back and see what he’s looking at—the things that inspired him—what are the things that I can extract from that to inspire me? What are the things I love?” 

Those tidbits eventually “simmered together like a soup” and became DiTerlizzi’s own original style. In his presentation, he showed samples of his early art and pointed out specific qualities that alluded to his influences: Ben Froud’s whimsy, Norman Rockwell’s posing, John James Audubon’s natural world. 

“I started to realize that as much as I admire these artists and maybe if it was in my technical grasp to copy [them], it wasn’t going to get me very far,” he said. “I wanted to create something new and original.”

Landing a job with Dungeons was the first of several open doors heading DiTerlizzi’s way in the 1990s. He said his time there taught him how to world build, and which eventually led to his work on the Planescape campaign setting and collectible card game Magic: The Gathering

His first illustrated book was Peter Beagle’s 1997 Giant Bones, soon to be followed by Greg Bear’s Dinosaur Summer (1998) and Mary Howitt’s The Spider and the Fly which became a New York Times best-seller and was awarded the 2003 Caldecott Honor Medal. 

Wise words from an illustration role model

Illustrator and author Tony DiTerlizzi speaks to Academy students during a recent event. Photo by Bob Toy.

“It wasn’t just about characters and monsters,” DiTerlizzi explained. “It was about the clothes they wear, the architecture, the artifacts they use, the way they speak, the way they interact with each other. With all of that knowledge I put towards my children’s books later on.” 

His vast collection of work serves as inspiration for an upcoming exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Scheduled to debut in November 2017, the museum, DiTerlizzi and a team of faculty and students from the School of Game Development are working together in conjunction with the Academy’s on-going industry outreach for collaborative projects.  

“We’re going to be taking ideas, style, look and feel from his work and translating that into something interactive,” explained Game Development Technical Lead Phil Kauffold, who is the head of the Norman Rockwell Project. “The look and feel we’re designing especially for the forest will be amazing because it’s going to take his still drawings and bring them to life.”

The project is still in its early stages, when ideas are just starting to hit paper. According to Kauffold, the following months will have students building and interacting with characters in hopes of having a prototype ready for the San Diego Comic Con in July. 

“It’s a huge opportunity to get to work with a professional illustrator [like Tony],” said Abigail Lashbrook, a third-year illustration major assigned to design concept art. “I love the art he does and the trajectory of his career makes definitely a role model to admire. I would like to do some of the things he’s done.” 

His speech ran over schedule, but very few in attendance were itching to leave. To close out the night, DiTerlizzi traded in his jokes for some sage pieces of advice for the students. 

“The definition of success for an artist, if we went around the room, would be different for everybody,” he said. “You have to really dig down and start asking yourself what is the thing that is going to make me so happy that I can’t wait to go do that every single day for the rest of my life. It’s literally a marathon, not a sprint.”