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 — particularly when 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 oil technique 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 beautiful children'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."
At that time Tom was working from the Newbury Studio, above a bookstore on Boston's Newbury Street — a red brick, 19th–century neighborhood bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Chelsea, London neighborhood of Whistler and Rossetti. Originally the Newbury Studio consisted of Tom and poet/cartoonist Eric Kimball, yet over the next several years a number of other artists came and went (including illustrators Dean Morrissey, Richard Salvucci, Phil Hale, and Rick and Sheila Berry). The studio was a wonderful place, a warren of rooms filled with paints and drafting tools, alley ball rackets and thick art texts; littered with sketches and coffee cups; buzzing with creative activity. I remember Tom's room as a quiet space in the center of that storm — white and spare, with a simple elegance William Morris would have approved of. Narrow stairs led to a roof where one could sit on hot summer nights along with cold, black bottles of the cheap champagne we all seemed to drink back then, the lights of Boston skyscrapers glittering overhead. I lived in New York City at the time, but made the journey to Boston as often as I could, glad to exchange the corporate world of New York publishing for a paint–splattered shirt, all–night work sessions, and endless talk about art and books: books as vibrant, living vessels of ideas and creativity, not just corporate Products mass–produced like widgets on an assembly line.