by Terri Windling
In the last two decades, Thomas Canty has become one of the most accomplished artists in the publishing field. His luminous work protrays a life long commitment to Romanticism, and to the expression of Romantic ideals through the medium of modern book arts. Like Alphonse Mucha, Rene MacIntosh, and William Morris,Tom’s distinctive imagery explores design–work as an art in itself, adapting the ideas of the fin de siecle Arts & Crafts movement to a modern age. By holding steadfast to a unique, iconographic style of book illustration, Tom’s art has had a strong effect on the look of the fantasy fiction genre,coloring the dreams of a generation of readers of magical tales.
Tom was raised in a working–class neighborhood in New England (where one of his earliest childhood friends was the artist Dean Morrissey). During his student years he developed a painting style that was clean and modern in its lines, yet paid tribute to the works of such 19th–century artists as Beardsley,Whistler, Waterhouse, the English Pre–Raphaelite painters and fellow–Bostonian William Bradley. His palette was drawn from the rich tones of New England and its silvery northern light; his imagery was firmly grounded in a love of myth, folklore, and literature.
In the late Seventies, Tom’s drawings and watercolors — adorned with delicate Celtic patterns, roses and trailing ivy vines — began to appear in books and prints from various small press publishers (most notably, the Donald M. Grant Company). These unabashedly Romantic works made a strong impact in the fantasy field — particularlywhen viewed among the imagery that was prevalent at the time (a plethora of muscular barbarians and women in chain mail bikinis). In the early Eighties, Tom began his first commissions for New York publishers. He soon switched mediums from watercolor to oil paint on paper and board; yet his training as a watercolorist was evident in the oiltechnique that has since become his trademark: layering the paints in extremely thin washes and glazes, delicately applied.
When Tom began designing book covers, there were (and are still) two distinct branches of fantasy illustration. The first, which dominated the field, was a robust Heroic school of painting. Exemplified by Michael Whelan or Don Maitz, it could be traced back through Frank Frazetta to the early American illustration masters: N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle and the Brandywine school.The second branch, exemplified by English artists like Barry Windsor–Smith or Alan Lee, was more European in its roots, tracing back to the "Golden Age" illustrators (Rackham, Nielson, Dulac, et al), the Pre–Raphaelites, Beardsley and Klimt. "New Romantic" art, as this second branch was called, could be found in art galleries, small press editions and beautifulchildren’s books, but was only rarely found on paperback novels (most notably in the art of Jeffrey Jones, a peerless painter who managed to work in both the Heroic and Romantic modes at once). Tom’s work, along with Robert Gould’s, was instrumental in changing the bias against Romantic art for fantasy books — which in turn assisted the commercial viability of a more Romantic brand of fantasy fiction.Years later, Tom’s art has become so familiar to readers of magical fiction that it is difficult to remember how radical it seemed to publishers back then. Unlike many cover artists, he eschewed the literal depiction of scenes in favor of creating a mood, an icon, a figurative symbol that would capture the flavor of the text. "Books should be like magical jewelled boxes," he said. "It’s the writer’s job to tell the story.My job is to make you want to pick up the box, and to peer inside."