Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 24, 2013

Illustrator Saturday – David Thorn Wenzel

David_T__Wenzel_-_David_WenzelOver his career David has worked for most of the major publishers and been able to work with a cast of talented authors. Always intrigued by mythology, fantasy and folk tales some of his favorite projects have been the ones that gave him the freedom to visualize creatures and characters from his imagination. Kingdom of the Dwarves, written by Robb Walsh, published by Centaur Books, allowed David to recreate an entire underground civilization based on the archeological dig at Aegol Barrow. The Wizard’s Tale, by Kurt Busiek, tells the tale of Evernight, a land ruled by a consortium of evil Wizards, who find one of their kind harbors a dangerous glimmer of good in him. For this book David created hundreds of tiny supernatural creatures called Alchemites. You may even see a few playing about on the web site. The Wizard’s Tale, was conceived to be a crossover book that blended the elements of a children’s book with the format and readability of a graphic novel.

davidparis3Other notable works include Grosset and Dunlap’s Christmas bestseller Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, by Robert L. May, A Hat For Ivan, by Max Lucado and several books in the Little Bear series which were art directed by Maurice Sendak. David has left his artistic mark on a variety of non-book related projects including puzzles, greeting cards, and two entire miniature kingdoms of collectible figurines. Many may remember him from the days when he worked on The Avengers for Marvels Comics.

A variety of artists and influences have helped form the core of David’s artistic vision. Illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, NC. Wyeth, and Howard Pyle top his list of influential artists. Pieter Bruegel and Jan Steen are among his favorite Dutch painters. Delving into history is one of David’s most profound passions. It not only inspires his artistic vision with its tales of adventure and indelible lessons, but it acts as a guide when creating fantasy. Fantasy becomes more credible when it connects to us through a familiar path.

David lives in Connecticut with his wife Janice, his studio overlooks a picturesque landscape of green farm fields and a winding brook. He has a very artistic family. His sons Brendan and Christopher are both artists and his brother Greg is a book writer and illustrator (Giant Dinosaurs of the Jurassic, and Feathered Dinosaurs ). Janice is a talented artist and a high school art teacher.

Here’s David:

Watercolor demonstration:

I’ve picked a sketch from the sketches below and I have blown it up onto Fabriano soft press watercolor paper, 300lb. I then rendered the line work with a prismacolor black pencil. I like the beeswax content that allows my line to hold when water is washed over it.


With watercolor its a good idea to paint in the background and move forward in the painting from there. I don’t always follow this rule, but it works in this demonstration.


The face of this little guy is important so I want to be sure I get it right before moving onto his body.


I’ve painted in all of the major details including the background and facial features.


This is the finished painting.


This is the Boggart I decided to finish out of all the sketches. I went with the bigger head and hunched over body. The little fairy wings have been switched with more bat-like appendages.The great thing about being an illustrator is the next time I approach envisioning a Hobgoblin I’ll probably take an entirely different approach. These are pretty simple creature designs that are about defining just the creature, but you can see how adding just a bit of background information begins to make the picture into a scene. Most of the background elements were placed behind the figure, but they were designed to bring all of the focus onto the Boggart. Next up I’ll begin painting.


With watercolor I usually try to start with the background first and then move to the forward elements. It can establish the color scheme for the piece and begins to reduce the large areas of white paper. In other pieces I might add a tonal wash over the entire pencil sketch to reduce the whites. In this background stage I am using a fairly large brush with a good point. I need it to hold a large load of paint and a point to deliver the pigment where I want it, as I am painting around complex objects. I am trying to keep it loose with wet on wet painting.


Since this piece was done as a demonstration I wanted to spend some time on working out the facial details. Again I started with loose washes and let them flow into each other a bit to create some on the spot blending. As these areas dried completely I then added some glazing over the initial washes to create depth and alter some of the colors slightly. The finished work was done with smaller brushes which I use to define the details. I will work on the face and get it in the area I want it on the final piece, but there is always room to go back in and tweak elements as the rest of the painting develops.


Here is the finished painting of the Hobgoblin. All of the clothes are laid in so then I can go back into the rest of painting and adjust the balance of colors and lights and darks. Its always a struggle with watercolor as to how much to go back into the paint with glazes and adjustments as I want the paint to have a certain quality of freshness to it. I would say that my most unsuccessful paintings are the ones I overwork.

wenzelThe Hobbit, Harper UK


How long have you been illustrating?

I have been illustrating professionally since 1975, after I graduated from college. I was very fortunate as the art market for illustration was much broader at that time and I had several streams to test my lines in including advertising, comics, and several forms of print media.




Davidsoldiers fungus

What was the first thing you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

The first paid assignment I ever received was in high school, when a cool senior asked me to do a drawing of him on his motorcycle. I think I made $10. The first real illustration assignment in my career, that involved having the artwork printed, was in college. A local woman had written a book about her cat called, Tell Me About Susan, and the art school I was attending suggested I would be a good match. She was self-publishing, but had acquired distribution through several large department stores in the State so I did a couple of book signing, which was very exciting. Best of all I made a few hundred dollars.


Did you study art at Harford Art School?  Can you tell us a little bit about that school?

I attended Hartford Art School in the days when they had no illustration major. They have since really focused on that area and have become one of the only Universities to offer a Masters Degree in illustration. Back then I majored in graphics, which really did not have a lot to do with illustration. I had some good teachers and some inspirational ones. Rudolph Zallinger was a member of the faculty there and one of the reasons I decided to attend the school. It ended up that just about everything I learned about the field of illustration I had to research and self educate myself. All of the types of art that inspired me, like children’s books and sequential graphic story telling were totally outside the curriculum. Not just in Hartford, but in all art schools at that time.




What types of classes did you take? 

I took all of the drawing and design classes I could and they had independent study, which I also used to develop my more illustrative images. The school did not offer a watercolor course, so again I had to learn from trial and error on my own. I enjoyed spending time in the library learning about various artists. I also had some very talented classmates and friends and the knowledge we shared with each other helped formulate some of the artistic development I experienced in college.


Did you have a focus in on any specific area of art?

In art school I was pretty untrained when I arrived. I had never received a lot of direction in high school although I did take art everyday for the four years I was going there. What I learned in high school was how to be self-motivated. I made up all of my assignments. That is an underrated essential when an artist is tying to get started in a particular discipline. When nobody is handing you an assignment an aspiring illustrator should always have a lot of potential pieces in the back of their mind that they can begin to develop. When I finally got my feet on the ground in college I was focused on improving my drawing and understanding composition. When I first began my freshman year I intended to look for work in the entertainment industry, such as animation, when I graduated, but as I gained more knowledge I began to transition to illustration and narrative story telling. Children’s books were a logical next step.

wenzelDwarfen miners

Did you take any classes to study cartoon drawing?

Art colleges, at the time when I attended, did not offer any courses that had a commercial slant to them and so any college level course would not have had any cartooning component.


I see that you started out with an advertising agency. What type of work did you do with them?

I applied for a job in a small Connecticut advertising agency called Selwyn and Associates when I was a senior in college. I worked there and received college credit. It was a nice gig. I had the experiences an intern would have today, but I was getting paid. I learned a lot about professional approaches from my time there and when I finally went out on my own I had a good solid knowledge of printing, typography and design. All of the disciplines that are cornerstones for working in print media.

wenzelWater scene

Did the school help you get that job?

Yes, the advertising agency was looking for a college student with skills in that area, which I had from classes that I had taken. Plus a good recommendation from one of my design teachers.

How did that turn into working with Marvel Comics?

When I was working in advertising I would come home at night and work on my portfolio for comics. I did a lot of layouts and inking with a brush. Finally I began to go down to New York and show my work. The first nibbles I received were from Marvel and then DC. Marvel had a good entry job they offered artists who were just learning the ropes. They had a department that divided up the monthly stories into weeklies for the British magazines. Some really great and helpful and experienced artists oversaw it. I worked with Marie Severin, John Romita senior, Dan Adkins and sometimes Larry Lieber


Do you consider that doing the illustrations for the Avengers as your first big break?

I was very honored to take on the Avengers work. I had met George Perez, who did all the lead in stories for the series before I began working on, it and to continue his storyline was exciting. Jim Shooter, who was the editor of Marvel at the time, was the writer and he dictated all of the scripts over the phone. That was very much not the norm, but it worked. It was a big break, and later I went on to work with Roy Thomas on Savage sword of Conan.

wenzelShire Tavern 1

How did you connect with Centaur Books in 1977 to do the illustrations for Middle Earth?

Centaur Books found me. Charles Collins was a co owner and also a sales rep for the company. He was looking to publish some new material and actually saw my work displayed in one of the first shops that sold comics exclusively. Up until that time most comics were bought at the corner drug store. I had a number of artworks from the Hobbit in the shop and he liked what he saw enough to contract me to create a book based on my artwork.


When did you decide you wanted to illustrate a children’s book?

I pretty much decided in college that illustrating books dovetailed with the skill set I was developing. I love narrative storytelling and children’s books offered me that avenue to express myself.


Was the Hobbit your first graphic novel?

The Hobbit was not the first graphic novel that I illustrated. The first graphic novel I illustrated was called, Warlords. for DC; Joe Orlando was my main editor and Paul Levitz was my liaison. It was a fully painted story about a very Hobbit like troll that ran afoul of four kings. Joe was a legend and working with him was a real honor.


I see you did another Graphic novel in 1995. Do graphic novels require more time and effort to complete?

Graphic novels, when they first began to be defined as such, were longer storylines then traditional comics, which had an actual beginning and ending. They were many times painted and reproduced in full color. Today I would not classify them in that manner. The parameters have really expanded and there is a greater diversity in what would be considered a graphic novel. I was recently in Europe and their entire market relies heavily on graphic novels. I think the format offers artists and writers a chance to explore a theme with elements of a novel, elements of animation and elements of illustrative story telling. A true graphic novel can be very satisfying and it really is a form of story telling that is not a book and not a movie. The panels create a different focus and I would highly recommend any of Scott McCloud’s books on analyzing comics to explain the nuances.

wenzelmoutinasand waterfall

What was your first picture book?

Good question. I’m sort of racking my brain trying to remember which book it was. One of the earliest projects I worked on was a pop up book called Little David and the Giant, for Random House. I guess the first true picture book that I illustrated was On Halloween Night. Although I did a number of books prior they probably would not be considered picture books.


How many illustrated books have your published?

I’ve got a pretty good list although a number of them will not be recognizable to many. The ones I really enjoyed working on were: Kingdom of the Dwarfs, Hauntings, Backyard Dragon, The Liberty Tree, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, The Little Bear series, A Hat for Ivan and my latest endeavor The King of Little Things. I have a few favorite comic projects as well, which include The Hobbit and The Wizard’s Tale among others.

wenzelMisty Mountains

Have you done any work for children’s magazines?

I’ve worked on many many children’s magazines. For years I did work for the Weekly Reader Company and worked on all their products for every age group. I also have worked for Spider, Cricket and Babybug, before that company was bought out and the new owner started reprinting just older, preexisting artwork.

wenzelLonely Mountain

How long have you been represented by Cornel and McCarthy? How did you connect with them?

Cornell and McCarthy have been my reps since the 1990s. I sought them out, as I knew several other artists that spoke very highly of them. We’ve had a very enjoyable relationship ever since.


Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?

I think that most illustrators, that are storytellers and enjoy narrative tales, are inclined to want to write. I am always jotting down story ideas for children’s books and graphic novels. My graphic novel ideas tend to be complex and I really enjoy brainstorming concepts with my two sons, Brendan and Christopher, who are both artists and storytellers. I actually have written a book. I created a pirate book several years ago that was bought by a publisher and it looked like it was going become a reality, but my art director/editor moved to another firm and her replacement didn’t like pirates, arrrrr. I actually have four projects that I would like to develop into reality, two graphic novels and a Christmas book, plus an animation proposal that I have spent a lot of time on. Unfortunately, between teaching and my new book projects everything ends up being on the back burner.

wenzelGoblins 1

Do you do any illustrating using Photoshop?

PhotoShop is a wonderful tool. I use it quite a bit to develop my artwork and sometimes to add finishing adjustment, but the greater part of my illustrations are done with traditional tools and paints like watercolor. I am always trying to improve my PhotoShop skill set and would not rule an entirely PhotoShoped image in my future. I like the feel of a pencil and a fully loaded brush too much to really ever give them up. Digital is just not tactile enough for me.


Do you use a Graphic tablet?

When I use PhotoShop I transition between my Wacom Tablet and the mouse. I’m also a firm believer in key commands.


Have you ever studied animation?

I have never studied animation. I have read about it and tried very simple excursions into it, but I have never had an opportunity to really delve into it. I would love to animate some of my drawings or have a professional work on them. One of my son’s college roommates created the castle from The Wizard’s tale in a 3D program and it was really cool. As I mentioned I have spent a lot of time developing an animation proposal for an animated series called Whizkers and Roadkill.


Do you think your art was influenced by any other illustrators?

I can’t speak for other artists, but I have drawn inspiration from other artists since I was in high school. It’s hard to imagine anybody that has decided to be an illustrator that was not nudged into the profession by admiration for another illustrator. My list has fluctuated over the years and some artists come and go and there are some artists that are locked in place. I still love the artists from the Brandywine School and Howard Pyle. The English artists like Rackham and Dulac are still high on my list. There are a great many current illustrators that I think very highly of and to list all of them I’d take up a couple of pages. Needless to say other artists influence me.


Do you try and spend a certain amount of hours every day working on your art?

Unless I’m on vacation or teaching a class I am in the studio every day. If I do not have a specific assignment then I’m sketching or fleshing out ideas. I also try to keep up an active Facebook page and I still doodle.


Do you have a favorite material/medium you use to create your artwork?

I’ve pointed out earlier in my interview that I have several mediums that I like to express my illustrations in. Primarily I paint with watercolor mostly over pencil and sometimes pen and brown ink. I also have done a lot of work using acrylic inks. I use them in some of the same ways I use watercolor, but I can get more painterly passages because of the inks ability to support multiple glazes without scrubbing off.


Do you have a favorite illustration that you have done?

Do I have one favorite illustration? I have several that I am proud of. There are various elements in several that I enjoy and picking just one would be difficult. I enjoy creating the fantasy pieces quite a bit so if I had to pick one or two they would probably be from that group.


Do you take pictures or research before you start a project? 

I pretty much do some sort of research for every illustration I create. Sometimes it’s just a photo or two, but there have been many projects that I have worked on where I have a couple of tables covered with reference material. I use photo, historic drawings and paintings, books the Internet. You name it I’ve used it. I sometimes will sculpt heads of characters I have to draw from multiple angles and build tiny props. I have a couple of mirrors a camera and various costume parts.


Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

The pros and cons of the Internet can generate a pretty interesting discussion. On one hand an artist can generate work from a worldwide market base and on the other hand you have websites where artists from other countries are offering to create children’s book artwork for pennies. Its an incredible reference source, but it should not be the only reference source, books still have much better in depth coverage of specialized subjects. It’s a great way to promote and connect to people you might never connect with, but you are also connected to some people that you wish did not have a way to contact you. I could go on with the ying and yang of the Internet for a while.


I read that you had a connection with Maurice Sendak. Could you tell us a little about that?

It was one of the high points of my career to be able to work with Maurice Sendak. When Harper Collins decided to really expand the Little Bear book series because of the success of the animated series they started looking for artists to participate. They called me, but I had no interest in creating drawings based on the simple TV show animations so I turned it down. The one afternoon I get a call telling me Maurice was going to call in a couple of minutes and could I be available. We had a nice long conversation and he told me that he was going to be the art director on the project and I did not have to recreate the animation characters but I could use his original concepts as my inspiration. I said I was on board and fourteen books later I was finished. Maurice liked was I was ding and was very complimentary of what I was doing. Of course the editor passed some of this to me as Maurice kept a very low profile.

wenzelTrolls 1
Do you think your style has changed over the years? Have your material changed?

My style has definitely changed over the years. I used to be primarily a pen and ink and watercolor illustrator and I’ve pretty much dropped the pen and ink. The acrylic ink wasn’t even a product when I started out and of course the computer has enabled an artists to do so much preliminary image manipulation it has changed their work as well.


Could you tell us a little bit about the non-book related art projects?

I do a fair amount of non-book related artwork. I enjoy receiving commissions from collectors and I seem to have a few lined up a lot of the time. I actually run a print business from the Internet, where I sell giclee prints of my more popular artworks. Just look under prints on


How do you market yourself?

I market myself through my agents and several websites. I have my own website, blog and Facebook business.


Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

I have always felt the best project is lying in front of me not behind me so I’m always optimistic about what the future will present. I would love to finish one of these projects that I am working on and have it published, and make a little money in the process.


Above is the cover of BABY LOVES YOU SO MUCH written by Eileen Spinelli. Below is an interior piece of art. I have this one on my bookshelf.


What are you working on now?

I just finished this spring a new book called the King of Little Things which I am hoping to promote this fall and I’m about to invest in a new book that I cannot say anything about yet, but it will keep me busy this fall.


Do you have any digital creative tips you can share with us?

I have a couple of digital tips that I tell my students, although they usually tell me the tips. I like holding down the control and option keys together when you have a brush. If you slide the brush left or right it gets bigger and smaller and if you slide up and down it get harder and softer.


 Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful illustrator?

I usually pass this tip onto a future illustrator. Give yourself time to make contacts and keep trying to connect with people and publishers. That sounds easy, but it is really difficult. I think its important for any discipline to realize you have to put in the development hours to hone the skills you’ll need to rely on. The most important non-art strength an illustrator needs to continually work on is acquiring knowledge. An illustrator needs a broad knowledge base to pull ideas from so they should read and feed their curiosity.



Thank you David for sharing your journey, your wonderful illustrations, and your process with us. Please let us know when you have new books or success stories. We would love to hear all about them.

You can visit David at:

Please take a minute to leave David a comment. It is appreciated.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. To say I am completely blown away by your work, David, and your amazing talent…we’re talking hurricane force! I am truly in awe here, and of course, my being a big Tolkien fan helped with that, too! lol

    I’m totally with you on the digital vs. tactile aspect of doing artwork. I’m a tactile gal myself.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this entire interview and viewing this magnificent artwork. I’m all over your site in a minute! Thanks, David and Kathy! 😀


  2. Great interview! And such wonderful illustrations! 🙂


  3. David, I am amazed and humbled by your glorious artwork. You are a master, and I can tell you have put in the years of work to earn my assessment. As one who started out around the same time you did but has recently hit a few bumps in the road of my own career, I applaud your perseverance and work ethic. Your beautiful work has inspired me to keep at it myself. One question….can you tell me how large some of the pieces are? Thanks, and good luck with all your projects.


  4. This is the kind of work that had me dream of becoming an illustrator when I was young. And still today, i can lose myself in these works for hours on… Thank you David for sharing with us. Quite a treat!


  5. I just reviewed your The King of Little Things and loved the entire book. Your illustrations are fantastic! I love the set on this blog where you show how your paint your scenes, one color at a time. I find it all fascinating. Wish I could do it. Here is the link to the review if interested. Thanks for a great book. Those are the most fun to review.


  6. I got a book call kingdom of the dwares, i can,t find any thing on dr.egil dvaergen,or about the aegol barrow dig. do you have a wedsite about


  7. Enjoyed seeing your art very much. I feel thankful that you are out there somewhere. And I appreciate that you use a pencil. I, myself, am trying to master the pencil. All the best —


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