How Tony DiTerlizzi Made It

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

Tony DiTerlizzi (The Spiderwick Chronicles) explains how he made it as a fantasy artist:

After graduating from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in the spring of 1992, I found myself with a diploma, a whole lot of art supplies, and back home living with my parents. I had big dreams of becoming a childrens book illustrator, but none of the big time publishers I was submitting my portfolio to were rushing out to make me an offer. So I had to keep my day job working for an organization that owned a lot of real estate down in south Florida. There, I made maps and pamphlets on land parcels that would soon be developed into shopping malls and beachfront condominiums. Not exactly the dream job for an aspiring illustrator, but at least it paid okay.

One night at a favorite Irish pub with my friends, we came upon the novel idea of playing Dungeons & Dragons on the weekends just like we did when we were kids. We planned on gaming at a friend’s house the following evening.

I dug out my dusty dog-eared copies of the AD&D rulebooks and found my faded Crown Royal bag full of dice and lead miniatures. Somehow I was missing my favorite, my beloved, my essential rulebook: The AD&D Monster Manual. I hopped in my sun-bleached ‘83 Honda and drove off to the bookstore to purchase a new, pristine copy.

As the store clerk located the book and handed it to me, I realized something had changed in the years since I had played my totally radical version of D&D in the 1980’s. The slim easy-to-sneak-to-school AD&D Monster Manual had been replaced by a bulky 3-ring Monstrous Compendium that looked more like inter-office memo on monsters…and bored flabby ink blob monsters at that.

Gone were the thick-lined tattoo-art graphics of David Trampier and the drawn-on-my-notebook scrawlings of David Sutherland. Sure, the one-sheet pages in the AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium may have been easy to use, but the images of the monsters all lacked their spark, their vis vitae, that got my imagination spinning like a 20-sider when I saw them as a kid.

His friend Mike the Dungeon Master said, “I bet you could do drawings for these guys,” and he went to work:

By September, I had put together a small portfolio of my best samples. I Xeroxed pages from a module and pasted my artwork inside so the art director at TSR (fine publishers of all things D&D) could see what my work would look like in their gaming books. It was weird.

The samples looked real, but “alternate reality” real where I was an illustrator for this game that I adored since middle school. I was proud of myself that I had stuck to this project over the summer and created The Best Submission Ever. In the back of my mind, however, was the fear of rejection. Of having to face my friends and tell them their hopes in me were for naught. Whatever, I thought. I sealed up the package and sent it off to TSR’s offices in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

A month rolled by. No word from the great and powerful TSR. During game night I tried to forget that I sent off the samples altogether and hid my worry behind a cheerful shrug when my friends asked if I’d heard anything yet.

Finally, late in October I received a letter response from Peggy Cooper, Art Director for TSR. She wrote that I had “a unique and interesting drawing style but it wasn’t enough to hire me as a freelance illustrator.” The letter closed with encouragement to submit more samples in the future for their files. It was a rejection.

He friends told him to keep trying:

The following Monday, with trembling hands, I dialed the main number for TSR — then hung up before anyone could answer.

I had several false start phone calls throughout the day. Finally I psyched myself up, called and stayed on the line. A jovial voice, with a heavy Midwest accent, answered, “Art Department, Peggy speaking.”

I started, “Um, Hi, Peggy. This is Tony. Tony DiTerlizzi, and —“

“Oh, Hi Tony! Nice to hear from you, your art samples were really nice. A few of us here in the office took a real liking to them,” she said.

“You…you did? But your letter said it wasn’t enough.” I stammered out.

“Well all you sent us were a bunch of drawings of monsters,” she said with a chuckle. “We need characters. People. And we need to see them adventuring. Derring do, finding treasures, and that sort of stuff. Think you can do that?”

“Um…sure. Yes.” I replied.

“Great. Try to get me samples by the end of the month if you can. I gotta go now, I’m off to a scheduling meeting. Bye,” she said and the conversation was over.

Make the characters as cool as the monsters themselves, his friend advised him:

I sketched out the best player characters I could dream up. I conjured them from the spirit of Arthur Rackham, Rankin & Bass’ animated version of The Hobbit and the old Dragon’s Lair video game.

I sent in my next batch at the end of the month, just as Peggy had asked. And do you know what? Rejected. Again.

Peggy said the characters were designed well, but they were not active enough. Within a week I had new sketches sent up to her. This time, I created scenarios that were both narrative and entertaining. Instead of neat monsters and cool characters, I tried to illustrate elements and rules of the game. Something I thought new gamers (like my brother) would like and at the same time remind the older players of why they enjoyed playing D&D as kids.

That November, Peggy offered me my first freelance job illustrating an entire boxed set adventure for TSR titled Dragon Mountain. The following spring, I illustrated over 100 illustrations of the first ever color edition of the AD&D Monstrous Manual. After that was completed I went up and visited the folks at TSR and was invited to be the sole illustrator on a new game line they were creating called Planescape…but that’s another story.

Leave a Reply