Welcome to our weekly interview series, “There’s No Magic Without Art”!

For today’s interview we had the pleasure of talking with Steve Argyle, an artist that has created some of the Magic’s most beloved cards like Liliana of the VeilDeathrite Shaman or Bloodbraid Elf.

Here’s what Steve told us.

Sketch and final art for Deathrite Shaman © Wizards of the Coast
Drag the slider left and right to see both images

You started out professionally as a 3D modeler in the video game industry. How did you end up in illustration, and do you still use 3D in your work today?

The route I took to become an illustrator progressed in precisely the opposite direction from how it is supposed to be done. If I write memoirs, they’ll probably be called something like “Rapid Backfire, the Story of Getting it Right the Wrongest Way.” My first “real job” was doing CGI for films – how I landed that at 19 years old is a whole other sticky and sordid story in itself.

When the studio shut down five years later, I sent out my resume out to the corners of the Earth like a swarm of padded-qualification bees searching for a fabled hive made of gold. I got some amazing offers, including one from Weta Digital to work on Lord of the Rings – yet another story – and decided to take a job with an awesome video game studio that was okay with me taking naps in the bathroom.

I got a few games under my belt, and I realized that my favorite parts were also the shortest-lived: the design and concepting in the beginning, and the marketing art at the end. After another five-years there, I foolhardily decided to try just doing the artwork part as a freelancer.

Steve Argyle © Wizards of the Coast

I had no real idea how to do that, what could go wrong? After a few months I thought “I really should go to school for this if I want to do this for real.” That lasted approximately one semester of my teachers asking me to hook them up with my old jobs.

So yeah, I went completely backward from the more typical dream-path of school, freelance, video-games, movies.

I do still abuse quite a bit of 3D in my work. Ten years of experience made me fast.

I build a lot of my reference in 3D, which helps me get realistic perspective and lighting on subjects that are impossible to photograph, like dragons, spaceships, and people smiling at me. I keep that work loose, I don’t want it to inherit too much of that 3D rendered look. The whole point is to fool people into thinking I can paint, after all.

Damia, Sage of Stone © Wizards of the Coast

Can you give us a brief description of your painting process, and how has it changed over the years?

Even after all this time, I don’t really have a step-by-step process. Each piece is a new, different, tumbling mess of chaos that somehow lands upright. I don’t know where the magic comes from, and I’m terrified it will leave me for a younger, better looking, more charming artist.

But until that happens: Sometimes I’ll start with a few dozen composition thumbnails, sometimes I’ll start with a 3D model; then fiddle around with that until I find some combination of camera angle, lighting, and pose that isn’t terrible; sometimes I’ll start with an impromptu photoshoot in the bathroom mirror – always followed by a vow to go to the gym and give up Red Vines; and sometimes I’ll simply make an offering to dark gods to grant me a vision or possess my body and do the work for me.

Far too often though they return my body in a dramatically different shape than when they borrowed it, so that’s become a last-option scenario.

Sketch and final art for Monastery Swiftspear © Wizards of the Coast
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From the skin wrinkles in Sunseed Nurturer to the texturized enveloping background in Slave of Bolas, the level of detail on your work can be hard to fully appreciate on a small card. Do you take this into consideration when creating a new piece?

Absolutlely. I craft each piece assuming that it’s going to be seen in full, glorious detail somehow. Whether that’s just online, or on a print or playmat. The tricky bit is making a piece that works both at barely-over-an-inch, and at poster-size or even bigger. Chandra Ablaze was made into a banner for Gen Con several years ago, hanging in front of the gaming hall at dozens of feet tall. That was the peak of my career, and it’s all downhill from there.

Chandra Ablaze © Wizards of the Coast

You’ve mentioned that “When I’m stuck creatively, I go to the least likely corners of nature for inspiration”. Can you name some Magic cards where this happened?

Often the analogues are easy to see once I point them out. Like Chaos Maw draws heavily from Medusa worms and deep-sea anglers. Kresh, the Bloodbraided has a sea-turtle for a shield. Most of the work I did in New Phyrexia was based on insects. The original background for Liliana of the Veil (before it became a cathedral) referenced carnivorous plants. There’s even one where I cut a cabbage in half and started there – true story.

What I’m looking for are interesting shapes, textures, color patterns, stuff like that. It usually gets abstracted out enough that you wouldn’t at first glance say “Hey, Glissa has the same sheen and color as a specific species of fly!” But hopefully some of the feeling comes through. Praetor’s Grasp has the same creepy, trapped feeling as the spiders and webs I drew my inspiration from. Inescapable Blaze has the same sense of urgent, unavoidable doom as the “have to pee but can’t wake up” dream that inspired it.

Final art for Liliana of the Veil (on the left) and ‘expanded’ art (on the right) © Wizards of the Coast
Drag the slider left and right to see both images

What were the most challenging cards to paint?

Horses.

Or spells with weird effects. Stuff like Hive Mind, Conjured Currency, Forsake the Worldly, Killing Wave. Something that needs to convey the specific action of a strange spell.

Or something that already has great art, and needs a new take for a promo or reprint, like Glissa, the Traitor, Renewed Faith, Sure Strike, Jace’s Ingenuity. It’s always intimidating to tackle something that’s already iconic.

But mostly it’s Horses. Diabolical beasts conceived solely to beguile artists.

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben © Wizards of the Coast

For you, what makes a great art description?

I like the part where it says how much they’re paying me. That, and when they use my formal title: Steve Argyle, the Broken Hand, Consort of the Caffiene Kingdom, Slayer of Darkest Chocolate, Planeswalker of Pixels, Fearless Voyager of Economy Class, the Infamous Cardboard Vandal, Sleepless Sage, and Ravisher of Ramen. It usually requires them to add about ten sticky-notes.

I prefer fairly open-ended art descriptions. Stuff like “We exalt in your omnipotent genius, and bow before your flawless judgement. Bless us with your magic.” Though it’s often paraphrased as “we need a wizard-guy doing a thing with fire or something. Go nuts.”

Somberwald Sage © Wizards of the Coast

Your DeviantArt gallery is full of hilarious comments well worth reading: Being composed entirely of metal has it’s ups and downs. Cellulite is a thing of the past. A fortune is saved on body-shimmer. And, copper looks a little like a weird tan. But, turtle wax is more expensive and time-consuming than moisturizer. The bathroom scale is unabashedly cruel. Airport security is a nightmare of biblically epic proportions.”

Where does this aptitude for words (and blossoming creativity) come from?

It’s all thanks to the horrific alien parasite tightly coiled around my brain, slowly consuming me in an agonizing nightmare of impending dementia. But it poops funny ideas. There’s always a silver lining!

Bloodbraid Elf © Wizards of the Coast

Is there any project you’d like to plug? Where can our readers find you?

Like some sort of reprehensible octo-mom, I have given life to many projects, only to neglect and/or abandon them. But they are, in the strictest technical sense, alive. I’ve got prints and playmats on my website.

I have a Patreon for new tokens, and you can get any of the lineup at Cardamajigs. I have a line of designs for Cubamajigs as well. I did a weekly livestream called Sketch N’ Skotch Skwednesdays for two years. It’s currently on hiatus, but there are about a million hours of old episodes to watch. I’m putting together a Kickstarter soon, so look for that in a month or so.

You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (sometimes – I kind of hate Instagram.) I have a Deviantart and an Artstation gallery. But the best place to find my work is of course, my website.

Thank you for reading!

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