Julie Baroh Interview

Welcome to our MTG artists interview series (#28), There’s No Magic Without Art.

We had the pleasure of talking with Julie – who is one of the original 25 Magic artists – over Skype, and she shared some incredible stories with us.

We’re truly excited and incredibly grateful to be able to share this interview with you today. Enjoy!

“Each piece I did back then has a story behind it”

– Julie Baroh

Hi Julie! Would you introduce yourself?

My name is Julie Baroh. In terms of Magic, I’m probably better known as one of the earlier Magic artists. I worked on the game up until 1997.

How did you start?

Like a lot of artists, I was drawing since I was really little. I actually wanted to be a writer, but ended up applying and getting into a local private art school in Seattle called Cornish College of the Arts. My classmates at the time were people you guys all know, like Jesper Myrfors [Jesper was the original Art Director, and one of the 25 original artists], Sandra Everingham, Amy Weber, Cornelius Brudi, I think Drew Tucker and Anson [All part of the 25 original Magic artists] were also going to school there.

Things changed dramatically in my third year: Jesper Myrfors was running around all super excited about a game he was working on. The problem was that the company, which was Wizards of the Coast, was kinda cash poor, and couldn’t afford some of the top notch illustrators around that time, so he was actually calling the student body of our school looking for people who might be interested in working on this game.

This private school was really expensive, and I was putting myself through it, so I was really, really broke. At the time they payed 50 bucks a card, that might not be much for a regular freelance illustrator but to a student who is living off mac and cheese that was grocery money, so I was like “Ok sure!”.

“Everybody was talking about how cool the game was, and then it just EXPLODED!”

– Julie Baroh

Clone © Wizards of the Coast
Clone was Julie’s very first card.

I was neck deep on both school, work and curating an art show, so I was really tied on time, that’s why I only took four cards. I was offered quite a bit more, as they had quite a few cards at that time available, but I honestly had no clue how big the game would ever get.

So I let Jesper pick the cards out for me, as there was so little information about the game and how it played. On one hand, it was really awesome because it gave us sort of carte blanche to do whatever we wanted, but on the other hand I really didn’t understand how the game worked, as all we had were the test cards with these images on them like star trek figures. But Jesper was SO excited about it that it was kind of infectious.

At the time I wasn’t really a painter, I was a print maker. So, you’ll notice that the first set of cards I did were actually drawings done in color pen and ink. It wasn’t until, I think, Arabian Nights or something, that Sandra Everingham told me “You’ve got to start painting!”. [Laughs]

So, you took those four cards, and then what happened?

Then of course the game had to be published. We had a little party at Jespers house and he showed me how the game played, and cheated! He’d go like “Oh, and by the way, this card does this!” and he killed me! [Laughs] I know he’ll contest that, he hates it when I talk about how competitive he is, but he is really competitive.

So after the little party I thought that was it, you know, I thought it was just going to be locally distributed, I didn’t know it would be distributed the way it was. So, a few months into it, I start hearing about the game. I did these signings at comic book stores where people were lining up outside, and it was weird!

Everybody was talking about how cool the game was, and it was my first real taste of “oh my god, this might be bigger than what I thought it was going to be”, and then it just EXPLODED!

“Suddenly, the same people who were picking on me for working on the game were handing me their business cards”

– Julie Baroh

Then the sets started rolling out. There was Arabian Nights, Antiquities, The Dark, and they just started banging out really fast, and I’m still in college, you gotta remember, I haven’t even graduated yet. It was especially weird, on one hand being a student, but technically my career had already launched.

I was in the Fine Art department, and back then there was a real strong divide between sci-fi/fantasy art and fine art, there was this notion that I was working below my potential. I was actually made fun of, when I was initially working on the game, by my other classmates on the Fine Art Department.

Until the game took off, and then we started getting our royalty checks, and then suddenly, the same people who were picking on me for working on the game were handing me their business cards and asking me to give them to Jesper, and I was like… [Raises middle finger] [Laughs].

So I continued to working on the sets, and then I got fired [Laughs]. Matt Wison fired me, and to be honest, I deserved to be fired. Despite how successful Magic was, you still have to pay the bills, and I was working a couple jobs at the time, and I didn’t have enough to really paint by 97. And he was like “Julie, I can’t really keep giving you work if you don’t get your work done”. I was only 23, and I wish I had the experience back then that I had later on in life, looking back. I didn’t really learn to paint until later.

After 98, it was just too much for a very young person to try to shoulder, and there was a lot of pressure, the game was big, it attracted the A-list artist at the time, and there was no way I could compete, at least I certainly didn’t feel like I could. At that point I just left illustration all together and started working in the tech industry for quite a while, working as an IT specialist, then doing coding.

“I still don’t know how Jesper got that one through the Marketing Department”

– Julie Baroh

From painting to coding, quite the switch!

Yeah, it was this total 180, but it was kinda fun, I was using another part of my brain, but I didn’t do any art at that time. I think in 2007 I started working again in art.

I never really left the Magic world, in many ways I’m still in touch with a lot of people, working on side projects and shows, I’m working on some projects with Drew Tucker, my artwork is out there, and it’s very different from what I did 20 years ago, for one I know how to paint.

People have asked me if I would return to do Magic work again, and I don’t know if I would, it’s a very different game now, and the sensibility is different, the stylization is really different, and I don’t think it would be a great fit for me.

You recently shared the story behind Gwendlyn Di Corci a card that remains controversial to this day.

A thing we would do back in the day, when we could get away with it, was we would put little things in our artwork, almost like Easter eggs, until one of our artists got into trouble for writing something in that was sort of nasty.

On Gwendlyn Di Corci I was just told “she needs to be sort of a bad-ass warrior queen type character”. I asked my friend Wendy – whose full name is Gwendlyn – if she would model for me. She was in a punk rock band from Sub Pop, called Sick and Wrong, and she would perform pretty much nude with like a strap-on dildo. [Laughs]

Of course, I couldn’t show her like that, but I figured she is kinda bad-ass in real life, so I figured she’s a great model for the piece. Her cat is also in there, and there’s even a little letter with the initials of her husband.

I still don’t know how Jesper got that one through the Marketing Department. I immediately got wind that it was kind of a trouble card…. And the intention wasn’t like “oh my god she’s gonna rape this guy”, that was not the intention at all, it was sort of this ninja mood.

I gave her the artwork as a thank you, and she still has it. Each piece that I did back then has a story behind it.

Julie at GP Las Vegas © Wizards of the Coast

“‘It’s blue’, and I’m like ‘what does that mean?’, and he said ‘well, throw some water in there'”

– Julie Baroh

The art descriptions were really vague at the time, right?

We were often left to our own devices. For example, Clone was the first card I did and Jesper’s like “ah, it’s blue”, and I’m like “what does that mean?”, and he said “well, throw some water in there, an ocean”. [Laughs] So I did two guys standing on the beach, I didn’t know what else to do.

Jesper never really said we had terrible ideas, he usually helped us flesh it out. It wasn’t until 95 or 96 that they really started to hammer down the style guide and the the story, and got more specific on how it needed to look, and that part I totally understand.

The part that frustrated me was how panicky the Marketing Department got when the game came out, with worries of being offensive. They started to really get on us to be as homogeneous as possible, which is a little frustrating, because it really cuts back on how creative you can get.

It’s not even that they didn’t want to offend, they just didn’t want to cause trouble, you know, especially after Shuler’s Demonic Tutor really caused problems.

Really?

Oh god, yes! The Christian rights, and the game was demonic, and during that time a kid in Florida killed a bunch of people, and turned out he was really into Magic, so suddenly the game was in the news, with how it was making kids go crazy and kill people, which is stupid.

I guess you can see the devil in everything. I was like “don’t let it win”, you know? Don’t let the fear and negative stuff win out. So that was kind of sad for me, cards were being pulled from the game, and that there’s this fear that we were going to do something terrible [Laughs].

I think they just wanted to make a game and not have the art be a problem, and I totally get it, but I got a little burnt out that the art had to jump through non-creative groups to get approved, you know? Marketing people are not always the most creative and open-minded people on earth.

“Underworld Dreams, just sold on auction for $31,000, which is sort of bizarre to me, because it’s a little 5×7 tiny piece I did in college!”

– Julie Baroh

Did you keep any of the originals you made?

Yeah. Actually, they gave us back all the originals and sketches, and we were allowed to display and sell the art. As you know, a lot of the early art is now worth a lot of money.

A piece of mine, Underworld Dreams, just sold on auction for $31,000, which is sort of bizarre to me, because it’s a little 5×7 tiny piece that I did in college! and it’s kind of funny that any work I did in college will out sell any work I do since.

I don’t own any of the original art anymore, I think I have like one sketch left. Back then, when the game got popular, one way to make money was to sell the original art, so we sold all the original art and sketches for nothing… I mean, I sold the original Clone for $100. So obviously, it is weird to see things go up for auction…

In the early days, the contracts were quite a bit different from what they are now. I don’t wanna go into it because some of it is not pleasant, but there was a lot of politicking on how much artists should get, and it’s one of the reasons why a lot of the original artwork was re-imagined by other artists.

I get asked a lot about the whole thing, because I was actually really prominent, especially in 96, with some of the changing that happened with the re-issues with the contracts, and how the original art was being handled, and honestly, it wasn’t as dramatic as people play it out. It came off that way because some of the stuff that was going on seemed pretty ludicrous.

When money and licensing is put into play, people get very… [Pause] impassioned [Laughs], and back then, for us, it was more about making sure that things were honored in our original contracts, and that we were being fairly treated.

I personally wanna keep the focus on the positive stuff that went down because that was way more important, that’s really the legacy, not the stupid business stuff.

“All the cards for the Kobolds I used my Dad, uh, he doesn’t look like a Kobold! [Laughs] “

– Julie Baroh

Yeah, and you’ve got your name on one of the most important games of all time.

It changed. Our. Lives. You cannot deny, if you were involved in those days, how much that game changed your life and your trajectory. I would be a very different person if that game hadn’t came around. It forever ties me into a phenomenon that I’m actually pretty proud of. I’ve seen so many amazing things come out of this game and I’ve heard so many great stories from the players of how this game positively affected their lives.

I’m really happy I was part of it, even if it was a small part, I didn’t do 100 cards or whatever, it still meant a lot to me, and I still stay in touch with a lot of the people from back then, I made a lot of really really good friends through that game. I am absolutely thankful for what it gave me and I have nothing but good to say about the game.

I picked my top three favorite cards of yours, so if there’s something you’d like to share about them, please do!

Okay!

Number three: Mind Twist.

Mind Twist was one of the first four cards I worked on, it was done in color pen and ink, and it’s a little tiny painting of 5×7 inches, that was the size of the scanner we were scanning all the art in.

Again, I was given very little direction on, except that it was dark, twisted, painful, black. As I have chronical migraines, this was the worst wizard hangover you can imagine. I just wanted to paint a little guy with this massive headache, ’cause that’s how I felt when I get mine.

Underworld Dreams © Wizards of the Coast
This image was originally present in Hipsters of the Coast site.

My number two is Aladdin.

That’s a good tie-in. The colors that I used on that piece were sort of ‘acidic’, a lot of yellows and greens. Obviously I wanted to use the real story of Aladdin, who in the story lived on the Chinese Silk-road, that’s why he’s dressed in Chinese clothing. At the time, I was having really bad headaches, and when you have a really tight deadline, you have to work no matter what. When I was working on that piece, I had the most unbelievable migraine on earth, and my palette changes when I have a headache, so colors that I end up using – because my vision changes a bit – really reflected how I was feeling. The colors are very different than what I normal work in.

And my favorite is Kobold Drill Sergeant!

Oh Yeah, Kobold Drill Sergeant! [Laughs] At the time I was thinking of General Patton, my muse for that card, I think I had watched George C. Scott in Patton at the time. All the cards for the Kobolds I used my Dad, uh, he doesn’t look like a Kobold! [Laughs] but I kinda used his likeness for all my Kobolds, including the little Kobolds of Kher Keep, the little girl Kobold, she kinda looks like my dad. I actually gave the Kobold Overlord to my dad as a present, so the Kobolds all have a little of my dad in them. He was really into the game, he thought the game was awesome, and was really excited about it, so it just seemed like a natural fit to make him into a Goblin. [Laughs]

And what’s your favorite?

Not necessarily for the style, but just for the content, my favorite would probably be the last card I did which was Foul’s Tome. It isn’t a very well-known popular card but there’s the book element to it, I collect old books and things, and the little character inside is doing the esoteric “so above, so below” thing.

In terms of game-play, my favorite would probably be the first card I did, Clone. In 2013, we did a book, the first 49 Magic artists, on the 20 years of the game, and I redid Clone, which was a lot of fun. Clone was also the first card I did and so it has that sentimental value.

So I would probably pick those two, first and last card. [Laughs]


Thank you for reading!

We wholeheartedly thank Julie for her time, passion and kindness!

You can learn more about Julie on her website, she also shows her artwork on Instagram – make sure to follow her there – and she’s also around Facebook!

We also highly recommend you check out Julie’s blog, Hugo Howls, where she shares and writes about her work on a more personal level.

Meet us next week for another interview!


Adam Paquette Interview

Welcome to our MTG artists interview series (#27), There’s No Magic Without Art.

For this week’s interview we talked with Adam Paquette, who has been working on the game since 2012, and painted over 144 Magic cards so far.

Hi Adam. Tell us a bit of how you got started with illustration and with Magic.

Compared to many artists in similar fields, I started quite late in terms of visual exploration. Until the end of high school I primarily focused my creativity into imaginative writing. I grew up with parents who were actively engaged with leaders and storytellers from different cultures, and I spent a big part of my young life living in India, so my mind was a playground for overlapping narratives and the textures of these different interactions.

Of course, many of these flights of fancy were visual in nature, and I remember struggling with extraordinarily long sentences and paragraphs in my writing, trying to explain through words the complicated, rich images I was imagining. Late in high school, I stumbled upon some online communities centered around concept art, which I had not previously been aware of – and this captured my enthusiasm entirely.

I decided to refocus my energy on visual art, as I saw a potential career path there, and I also loved the immediacy of the feedback loop with drawing; people could tell you instantly what they thought of your work, without having to take hours to read through it. I still consider myself primarily ‘narrative’ in tendency, but I have worked primarily in visual media since then.

As far as Magic, specifically, I was already working for WOTC on D&D around 2009, when I visited the Illustration Masterclass in Amherst, MA and met Magic’s then head AD – Jeremy Jarvis.

Rust Scarab © Wizards of the Coast

We spoke a little about my primary focus on landscape painting and relative weakness with figures, and he agreed to take me on board first as a concept artist (working on Innistrad) and then as a card artist shortly afterward – focusing on land cards.

Eventually he opened me up to creature and character commissions as I had time to improve my skills. I was very impressed by both the support of the magic art team in giving me room to improve, but also being clear about my strengths and weaknesses, and what they needed from me.

What artists inspired you the most?

My influences have changed significantly over time. As a child, I was inspired by the various lived cultures I saw around me – and didn’t really consider a difference between ‘art’ and the rest of life, lived creatively. As a teenager, I became more interested in museums and galleries, as well as developing a small obsession with visiting artists’ studios and seeing into their lives and minds. I was impressed with these romantic lifestyles.

Brett Whitely and his Sydney studio was a big influence, Toulouse-Lautrec and the life of the Paris artists and cafés, and so on. When I first began to see the potential of working as an illustrator, I became aware of many of the artists leading the way with digital painting and fell in love with the work of Craig Mullins, Justin Sweet, Vance Kovacs, James Jean, and many, many others who I came into contact with through forums and online spaces.

Through investigating their work and influences, I was made aware of the 19th century Academic painters like Bougereau, and the painters who were taking their knowledge and extending it into painting from life and on location; Sargent, Zorn, and the impressionists. From then on, I always shared an interest in both Illustrators working efficiently in current, often digital, media – and a strong attachment to the history of ‘real’ painting (as I thought of it).

Island © Wizards of the Coast

I became aware of, and travelled to meet with, many painters who I saw as a precious link to this history: Golucho, Antonio Lopez Garcia, Patrick Devonas, Christopher Pugliese, Vincent Desiderio. Aside from my actual fine art practise of painting which I continue to carry forward, I also try to bring this spirit of painting and its history into the world of illustration. Today my influences have expanded even further into contemporary and conceptual art, installation, dance and music.

Can you briefly describe your illustration process?

My process for creating art varies wildly depending on the client and project. For Magic, though, it is fairly consistent. I begin by receiving the brief from WOTC, and before I look at any reference, I spend a few hours thumbnailing out ideas and letting my imagination freely associate with the brief. I usually find ideas that excite me pretty quickly – and this is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process.

Then I usually take my favourite sketches and alongside those, I look at whatever work is currently inspiring me – maybe something I saw on Instagram or Facebook. I think about how I could learn from these works and use my Magic work as a place to try out some new ideas – maybe a new way of mark making, a colour palette, a compositional idea, etc. I rework my sketches with that goal in mind – how does this piece let me learn something? (At the moment, it is often an excuse to learn 3D).

Then I use my sketch as reference and begin immediately in photoshop, building out the composition in big simple shapes. I send off the sketch, and once I receive feedback I use a mixture of direct painting, photobashing, 3d – basically whatever works – to establish and strengthen the lighting, colour, composition, and general power of the image. The last part of the process is always the most ‘painterly’ as I want to make sure the final image always has the feel of human touch.

Jace’s Sanctum © Wizards of the Coast

What makes for an interesting art description?

For the most part, Magic consists of larger than life spells, action and environment design. For good reason, there is a focus on world building through compelling and dramatic imagery – this is especially important due to Magic being a paper card game, playing in the field of films and video games.

‘Moments of repose’, as they are called internally, are few and far between, but I enjoy these the most – my recent ‘Sai, Master Thopterist‘, the Forest basic from Return to Ravnica, or even Soul of Innistrad come to mind. Another thing that is always enjoyable is when the art directors point to different artworks in the history of painting as a reference for a mood or visual idea – riffing off that history, and working with art directors who also have a passion for it, adds a welcome level of depth.

What were the most challenging cards to work on?

It is usually difficult to know how challenging a card will be before I start. Ideas come easy for me, and I can quickly enter into a particular atmosphere and explore a world in my imagination. The difficulty comes generally from issues of perspective and framing, where there is complex problem solving required in order to meet the brief, communicate well, be unique, and conform to the rules of realism.

I would actually say that, overall, the challenge level remains fairly consistent – because as I improve my skills, I tackle more ambitious ideas for images. Some of my work on upcoming sets was a particularly difficult mix of architecture that I had to learn some new 3D skills in order to approach the way I wanted to… Theros was also a tricky set for me to get my head around a few years back, even though I was on the concept team – I just didn’t find the world as easy to immerse my imagination in.

Paliano, the High City © Wizards of the Coast

Recently, Mending of Dominaria was a surprisingly tricky one to nail – making the characters read as figures, whilst also making the object feel like a wooden sculpture, and conveying enough of the ‘setting’ through a blurry background was a delicate balance.

Half the cards you painted for Magic were lands, and I feel that there’s a mist that envelops these landscapes, devoid of figures or characters, in a mysterious, almost haunted mood. Do you agree with my assessment?

Its really hard, for any artist I think, to explain what works and doesn’t in their own images. Having such an enthusiastic and far reaching community around Magic is hugely helpful to me, because it gives me a regular chance to engage with my audience and get an idea of what they notice about my images. Most of the time their comments are about this light and atmosphere in some form or another.

Over time I have come to understand this aspect of my paintings and I think I know what people are responding to, but it isn’t exactly something I can say is intentional. I would take a guess that it comes as an organic result of my painting method. Every artist works differently, uses different tools, and does things in a different order. This unique approach to solving a problem is what people usually refer to as ‘style’.

You can’t premeditate it, it is emergent. The way I paint digitally comes from the way that I draw and paint in traditional media – I usually like to work without reference or a clear plan, and I kind of ‘Rorschach’ my way into an idea through soft, random scribbling until an image emerges. A lot of my cards are done the same way – beginning with a vague sketch of an idea, then dissolving it into ‘soup’ and slowly carving back into that intuitively to find the form, and then bring it to a resolution.

Soul of Innistrad © Wizards of the Coast

As my personal work and oil painting develop though, I am seeing a definite focus on the light itself (beyond just using it to create realism) – as a metaphor and a kind of conceptual anchor to hang the technique off. Its an ongoing research project, into myself, I guess!

Do you feel that working on Magic also influences your personal work? If so, in which ways?

Honestly I wouldn’t say it does. My personal work is at the core of who I am and reflects my ongoing investigations into myself and the life around me – it is always changing, often experimental, and rarely applicable to the work I do. Commercial work, Magic included, relies on my professional ability to understand what the audience of each game or film are interested in, and bring my skills to bear on doing the best job I can of fulfilling that need.

I used to try to bring a lot more of ‘myself’ into this commercial work, but I found over time that not only was I putting that personal overtime into someone else’s ‘world’ rather than my own, it also got in the way of me being a good problem solver for my clients. I pushed too hard to include my own tastes and preferences in the work, and it just cost me extra time I could have been working on my own thing – and set me back into revisions with my clients.

I now have a healthy separation between these two halves of my creative practise, and I try to be efficient and effective in my work for Magic, so I can spend the rest of my time looking after myself, my art, and the people I care about.

Do you consider doing some traditional media work for Magic in the future?

Due to the high demand for Magic originals, I have, over the years, done some one-off ‘repaints’ for collectors, turning my digital pieces into oils. I have 3 of these currently on the easel. As for doing new cards in oils, I never felt comfortable enough applying the oil painting process to the timeline of illustration, especially since I usually work on a lot of cards concurrently.

Bloodfell Caves © Wizards of the Coast

I would certainly never rule it out, but as above, it is probably extra time that I would rather devote to my own development. I also enjoy the digital work and learning more about 3D software, so Magic keeps my foot in that world in a way I wouldn’t like to compromise.

What’s the potential of 3D comparing to other mediums?

3D is still a supplementary medium for me, I use it mostly to establish solid foundations on top of which the painting can sit. 3D extends my abilities and allows me to tackle more ambitious ideas – especially complicated architectural compositions or lighting situations.

I’m not a huge fan of spending long hours at the computer, so I am wary of indulging too much in learning new software – but I’m getting to the point where time invested in learning is paying off and speeding up my painting process to get to a better result faster.

Not to mention that it won’t be long before 3d/vr are the mainstream norm for this kind of work and 2d-only will fall behind just like traditional-only did. I really believe in the power of traditional painting and sculptural media, but rather than choosing one or the other, I’d like to find time to pursue both extremes and see what magic happens in the middle. I’d love to know high end 3D and combine that with traditional oil painting, for instance, to see what happens in that space.

You painted six cards for the newly released Guilds of Ravnica, how did it feel to work to return to such an iconic setting for the game, considering you also worked on both Gatecrash and Dragon’s Maze?

Ravnica is a really interesting place for me to visit. My parents separated when I was 6, and my father moved into the city while my mother stayed out in a semi-rural area with lots of nature. Spending time in both of these places gave me a balanced love for both environments – and in Ravnica it is a joy to explore combining them, as if I were finding the harmony between two halves of my childhood. Now that I moved from Australia to Berlin, I have an even deeper appreciation of European city life, aesthetic, and cultural subtleties.

Even though cities aren’t the healthiest place to live, I find the atmosphere, stimulation, and constant unexpected surprises contribute so much to my mental wellbeing that I find myself always drawn back to these cultural hubs. I do have to say that painting urban environments does get tricky, and I did a significant amount of work on the new Ravnica, so it will be refreshing to shift gears hopefully into something more ‘organic’ in nature!

Aradara Express © Wizards of the Coast

That’s an interesting aspect of how your personal life and work permeate your Commercial work. Have other planes evoked similar responses and memories?

In fact, yes. A few years ago I was asked to help out on the concept push for Kaladesh, a world loosely based around many of the aesthetic elements of traditional Indian art and culture. I actually spent several years in India when I was very young, and that part of my life deeply affected me and my tastes as an artist. I had many dreams of that time over the years, and my real memories blended in with my imagined ones and I created an idea of an archetypal ‘India’ from my childhood without ever seeing it again.

When it came time to help concept Kaladesh, it reawakened all of these latent imaginations and it was very exciting – although brief – to work on that. Not long afterwards I returned to India for the first time in about 25 years. The reality, of course, was starkly juxtaposed against the backdrop of my own fantasy – and that in itself brought up a fascinating and complex series of questions for me; about the nature of art, illustration, and its connection to the world we live in.

Of the work you made for Magic, can you name some favorites?

I have two favourite pieces for Magic: The one I just finished, and the one I’m just about to start. My least favourite is the one I’m working on at the time! In all seriousness, it is difficult to choose a favourite, because I don’t really see them as a finished painting, I see them as a complex combination of process, frustration, input, the things going on in my life at the time – and then maybe the result itself.

The ones I think are ‘successful’ often go unnoticed by fans, and the ones I am most frustrated with become the most popular (often simply due to good card mechanics). Should I like a piece because I’m happy with it, or because my audience is happy with it? A few of the cards I remember being pleased with at the time I finished them were:

My first card (Island, Innistrad), Command Tower, Basic Forest/Ravnica, Full art basics from Battle for Zendikar, and Jace’s Sanctum.

Forest © Wizards of the Coast


Thank you for reading!

We thank Adam for his time and kindness.

You can learn more about Adam’s paintings on his website. He also hangs out on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

You can also order some cool prints from Adam on inprnt.

Meet us next week for another interview!

Mountain © Wizards of the Coast


Clint Cearley Interview

Welcome to our MTG artists interview series (#26), There’s No Magic Without Art.

For this week’s interview we talked with Clint Cearley, the artist behind very popular cards like Breya and Vraska’s Contempt.

[Drag the slider sideways to see each image]

Tell us a little about how you got started working on Magic.

After years working as a graphic designer I decided to move into illustration so over the course of 2-3 years I put together a portfolio. I did get some “starter” commissions for small indie projects while building the portfolio but it wasn’t much. Once I felt my work was equivalent to the work Magic was producing I tracked down the art submission email and sent in my portfolio.

It was a single JPG image with a collage of different images I had done and showed a variety of subjects, color schemes and lighting. About two weeks later I received an acceptance email and filled out the paperwork to begin. It was straightforward in my case and I’ve been doing work with Magic consistently since then.

Time Spiral © Wizards of the Coast
This card was done for MTGO, and has a beautiful easter-egg (most on this below).

Can you give us a brief description of your painting process for Magic cards?

The usually start with thumbnail compositions on paper after reading the card brief. In the sketches I determine the layout, basic poses and composition. From there I’ll either scan the sketch or just redraw it in Photoshop with a stylus pad then go collect or create any needed reference images.

Sometimes I’ll block it in with just values and add color later while other times I’ll go right in with colors. After all the elements are established I send the art director the concept for approval. Taking their feedback I’ll continue to develop the scene and details and submit the final. Sometimes last adjustments are requested but usually not.

Swamp sketches for the Amonkhet full art lands © Wizards of the Coast

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Breya, Etherium Shaper is a very popular card amongst the players. Do you recall the art description, and how this card came to be?

The (abbreviated) direction I received said, “A female human wizard native to Esper. Sections of her body have been replaced with etherium filigree. Breya is standing outside, perhaps high above the ground, blonde hair whipping in the wind. She holds out one filigree hand that is arcing with purple-red lightning. In the distance behind her, perhaps we see thopters flying through the air.”

With the complexity of her etherium body parts I wanted a simple pose so things would remain understandable. The trick in her design was finding ways to convey the volume of her body and retain her feminine form with the etherium. The final is very close to the submitted sketch with the exception of the thopters (which apparently weren’t optional) and adding a thicker weave of etherium throughout the body (it was more airy to begin with).

Incremental Growth © Wizards of the Coast

How did it feel to paint the box art for the Aether Revolt set?

It was a big honor to be given the opportunity! I remember admiring MTG cards and store displays as a boy and now I was getting to create the “face” of Magic. A little surreal. It’s probably good I didn’t get the commission early in my career, I may not have had the maturity to deal with the responsibility and time commitment (it spanned 4 months).

That seems quite a long time comparing to regular card commissions. Can you shed some light on why it took longer?

For normal card commissions you work with one art director who has the say so on the project but box art commissions are different. There is your normal AD but also the marketing team, brand team and others who all have a say so and need to give approval on the piece. This can result in many more concepts and alterations needing to be produced and it spanned the Christmas holiday if I remember right (which always slows things down).

Breya, Etherium Shaper © Wizards of the Coast

What were some of the most challenging cards you painted?

Rite of Ruin comes to mind. The difficulty came from what the direction was asking for: a recognizable view of the (massive) city wall, a large explosion destroying part of the wall (to be the focal point), a mage casting the explosion and an army trying to stop him.

I have 2 inches in which to depict it and it can’t look cluttered. I went through a lot of sketches and several color concepts before going with the final. It’s a mediocre image in the end but you do your best within the parameters given and move on to the next piece.

Aether Revolt box art © Wizards of the Coast

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On the other hand, were there some of the art descriptions that “immediately clicked”?

Ruthless Ripper for Ugin’s Fate. I did Ruthless Ripper for Khans of Tarkir then Ugin rewrites the future in Ugin’s Fate which gives us an alternate version of the original Ripper. It was like a “take 2” which you don’t get in this job much. I immediately knew what I wanted to change and improve on and still feel that it is one of my stronger MTG images.

Chandra’s Revolution and Pia’s Revolution are part of the same image. Do you recall other cards you did that had similar connections/Easter Eggs?

The split image was actually requested by the art director and is a element many players may have missed. In Epiphany Storm, part of the vision she sees is the Merfolk from Triton Fortune Hunter. Christopher Rush, who was the artist of the original Black Lotus, passed away while I was painting Time Spiral for MTG online so I added black lotuses in the corners with their petal floating off. I am the model for several of my images: Righteous Blow, Annihilating Fire, Notion Thief, Grapeshot and Messenger’s Speed.

Ruthless Ripper © Wizards of the Coast

Of the art you made for Magic, can you name some favorites?

Nissa Vital Force, Jace Ingenious Mind-MageLiliana Death Wielder (put a lot of time in those planeswalkers), Mnemonic Betrayal, QuicklingGisela the Broken Blade

On the five colors of the game, is there one that feels closer to home, artistically speaking?

Not really, although I’d like to get more green cards! I’ve done loads of the others but few green which is shame as greens are some of my favorite colors.

Where can our readers find you?

My gallery is at clintcearley.com

Educational art channel is youtube.com/swatches

Facebook at facebook.com/cearleyart

Instagram @cearleyclint

MTG posters (and others) at inprnt.com/profile/clintcearley

Playmats at etsy.com/shop/clintcearley

Gisela, the Broken Blade © Wizards of the Coast


Thank you for reading!

We want to thank Clint for giving us this interview.

Meet us next week for another interview!

Vraska’s Contempt © Wizards of the Coast


Introducing Team MTG Manager

Greetings! Today we’re very pleased to introduce the team that will represent MTG Manager this season on the Pro Tour Team Series!

Here’s our squad:

MTG Manager team presentation during the GP Lille live coverage.

Gonçalo Pinto (Team Captain)

Pro Tour Dominaria finalist

Occupation?
Digital Marketing Analyst; Writer for Hareurya.

When did you discover Magic?
I was addicted to Heroes of Might and Magic III and some friends showed me the game at school, the flavor was very similar, so I was immediately hooked. Stronghold was the latest set at the time.

What Standard deck are you playing with right now?
Wish I knew… I think I will play GP Lille with some red deck and then reevaluate for the Pro Tour.

What’s the best card in that deck?
Experimental FrenzyRunaway Steam-Kin and Goblin Chainwhirler are strong contenders as well.

What Guilds of Ravnica card impressed you the most?
Definitely Experimental Frenzy. I thought it was unplayable and now I think it’s the nuts!

Dmitriy Butakov

Two-time Magic Online Champion

Occupation?
MTGO Grinder.

When and how did you discover Magic?
About 15 years ago from my uncle.

What Standard deck are you playing with right now?
All of them.

What’s the best card in that deck?
Rekindling Phoenix!

What Guilds of Ravnica card impressed you the most?
Aurelia, but it took quite a while for me to realize she gives +2\+0 to any creature, not just red ones.

Antonio Del Moral Leon

Pro Tour Fate Reforged Champion

Occupation?
Grinder.

When and how did you discover Magic?
12 years ago for a friends.

What Standard deck are you playing with right now?
I liked UR Drakes.

What’s the best card in that deck?
Arclight Phoenix.

What Guilds of Ravnica card impressed you the most?
Aurelia.

Francisco Sifuentes

Peruvian Captain for World Magic Cup

Occupation?
Administrator.

When and how did you discover Magic?
When I was in school back in 2005, the game was very popular and I loved it right away. My first Magic adventure outside of school was the original Ravnica release.

What Standard deck are you playing with right now?
BG mid right now, I’m trying to figure out the mirror and how to balance against other strategy’s.

What’s the best card in that deck?
I think Carnage Tyrant, it’s good against mirror and vs. control.

What Guilds of Ravnica card impressed you the most?
I really like Aurelia, mostly for limited, the card is very powerful and has 5 toughness.

Louis-Samuel Deltour

Five GP Top 8 appearances, three runner-up finishes

Occupation?
MTG Player.

When and how did you discover Magic?
Around Odyssey, my cousin introduced me to it.

What Standard deck are you playing with right now?
I like Golgari!

What’s the best card in that deck?
Vraska, Relic Seeker.

What Guilds of Ravnica card impressed you the most?
Shocklands (boring but true).

Bernardo Santos

Three GP Top 8 appearances last season

Occupation?
Magic.

When and how did you discover Magic?
In 2005 a friend showed me the game and taught me how to play. Only in 2012, with Returna to Ravnica, did I return to the game and actually started playing in tournaments.

What Standard deck are you playing with right now?
I’m going to play BG mid because i couldn’t find anything better.

What’s the best card in that deck?
Probably Jadelight Ranger.

What Guilds of Ravnica card impressed you the most?
Arclight Phoenix, didn’t understand the potential when I first saw the card.

Thank you for reading!

We will provide more information and coverage throughout this season.


Ed Beard Jr. Interview

Welcome to our MTG artists interview series (#25), There’s No Magic Without Art.

For today’s interview we talked with Ed Beard Jr., who worked on the game from 1994 to 2004, and illustrated over 100 Magic cards. Enjoy!

“You know what an ATOG looks like Ed? Now take that and think of a basketball with teeth”

– Ed Beard Jr.

Hi Ed. You started working on the game in 94. How did it all start?

I was an invited guest at Gen Con TSR 1992 as a comic book/fantasy artist as I was debuting my collectible card set and game called flights of fantasy, a very simplistic basic role playing dice type game but with fantasy art cards that were popular during the 80s and early 90s.

While I was there a couple of representatives from this small company called Wizards of the Coast, which had at the time only had a role playing book out, came to me inquiring about my illustration work and if I was interested in participating in a new card game that was to be coming out.

They offered $50 and some shares in the company, of course at the time the company little to no value. I had just recently been taken to the cleaners by another company that went bankrupt and stiffed me for $30,000 or more, so I decided I wasn’t in a gambling mood so I declined the offer.

Obviously in retrospect, I suck at gambling…LOL because I made one of the biggest financial mistakes in NOT investing I had ever made. The next year at Gen Con 1993 the game came out and it was a huge success and they exploded into a five Fortune company.

They came back to me and asked me if I would be reconsidering and of course I said well certainly, “I’ll except the offer you made for me last year at which time they said oh that offer is off the table now we are only offering $100 per card and a 2 1/2% royalty”. Needless to say I had already lost in my prior move not wanting to gamble, so this time I said yes!

So that’s how I began the commission work for the elder dragons and the legend expansion which they started commissioning literally in August 1993- 1994.

At what point in time did you first notice the game was a huge hit?

I was at the debut release at Gen Con in 1993 and it was very evident to anyone there that just about everyone was talking about this game.

This year marks Magic’s 25th anniversary. What do you consider to be the secret behind such longevity?

As an illustrator for products long before WOTC / MTG came out and long after through my 39 years as a self employed illustrator, I have observed many companies come and go and many companies that have been able to stand the test of time.

The key ingredient is a fundamentally strong mechanic and a company that listens to its audience follows the trends and gives the consumer what they want.

“In the early 2000’s I witnessed the progressive fail of WOTC at listening to their consumer base.”

– Ed Beard Jr.

For a while in the early 2000’s I witnessed the progressive fail of WOTC at listening to their consumer base. I had a discussion with the then art director, who believed my work was “expected” or “too traditional fantasy” (he pointed out my Birds of Paradise as something that should never be in Magic art).

I pointed out the importance of the diversity of styles and that my so-called “traditional fantasy” had a very large following, after all, I was fan favorite artist of the year 2001 inquest magazine at the time this discussion was taking place.

He explained to me in a variety of examples that regardless of what they did with their product – whether it was the design of the card borders or the change of the overall look and feel of the artwork – the public would buy it, because they are simply too invested in it to do otherwise.

In general, that phone conversation was all about how he was going to change the face of Magic art direction and that my style is yesterdays news regardless of my Fan favorite status or what the public might have desired.

This proved to be a very large mistake on their behalf that they quickly realized a few years later. In the end, I decided that that there was no longer enough creative freedom nor any tolerance to work with that art director.

When he was no longer working at WOTC, I witnessed a slow return to the very thing that made the product successful across a wide demographic, that was keeping the artwork diversified rather than a streamlined, homogenized look where the color scheme of the entire set looked like it was the same color hue pallet. I have no idea what any of the sets have looked like after Return to Ravnica so I can’t speak to their success or not.

“I had not been commissioned to do lands throughout the sets so this was a good opportunity to enjoy a little Bob Ross relaxation”

– Ed Beard Jr.

Ed’s re-imagined Nicol Bolas for The Gathering book, that focuses on the early art done for Magic, and was organized by Jeff A. Menges, who we also interviewed.

When they allowed for more diversity of styles and color ranges, they found the public to be far more responsive, and they captured a wider audience.

The variety of styles and techniques are also due to different tangible mediums that were used in the early years. Those tangible mediums allow for an innately and dramatically dynamic different look that we rarely see in the more streamlined digital imagery.

Can you give us a brief description of your painting process?

Ironically, the entire legend set artwork that I did were actually color comps done with colored pencil and ink, they were never intended to be the final illustration. However, the art director was impressed enough with them that he felt I didn’t need to submit anything fully painted and of course myself, not really thinking how huge this game would be. or that it would continue to be around for 25 yrs, I didn’t insist on repainting them as I would’ve done.

All sets after that, you can clearly see a difference in medium used, acrylic and airbrush, which was the medium of choice and I still use it today for most of my clients.

I really like your five basic land paintings, I feel there’s a special quietness about them. Do you recall how did they come to be?

The land cards were a unique opportunity. The idea was that they had to be pretty accurate to those countries landscapes. The Mount Fuji for instance is literally the actual Mount Fuji.

I had not been commissioned to do lands throughout the sets so this was a good opportunity to enjoy a little Bob Ross relaxation which may be what you’re pulling from that as your impression call it the happy little mountain forest swamp and island.

“For some reason the most awesome card art always winds up on a common unplayable card”

– Ed Beard Jr.

I remember that Psychotog caused an impression on me as a kid. What can you tell us about this painting?

I can remember very distinctly getting the call from the art director saying he had a rush job, had to be done overnight and FedEx to them overnight. The description I was given was “you know what an ATOG looks like Ed? Now take that and think of a basketball with teeth”.

So I did pretty much just that, but I added the idea of Jack Nicholson peering around the corner grinning at you in that kind of sinister way as he burrows through the Stonewall.

As artists, we were never given the information on the cards playability, the mechanic and since this card had not existed in the past there was no reference to know what it would eventually do.

It always amazed me that the pieces that I spent the least amount of time on became the most remembered because of its playability. This card was, as the players would tell me, extremely broken. The card dominated tournaments like we’ve never seen. I can remember going to tournaments or a grande pre-event and having 7 out of 10 cards that I would sign be this card.

Do you recall what were the most challenging cards to paint?

The one that stands out in my mind the most was Avalanche Riders. The reason was that this card was a portrait of one of the champion players, and all they provided me was a poor quality black and white xerox copy about 2 inches tall of his face it wasn’t even in the right position and somehow I had to turn that into his likeness. In the end he was very happy with it. He eventually purchased the original painting.

“I am now old enough, and this game has been around long enough to actually see 3 generations of players who’ve known my art as they grew up”

– Ed Beard Jr.

Of the art you made for Magic, can you name some favorites?

They are usually the ones that are least playable, for some reason the most awesome card art always winds up on a common unplayable card.

I would say some of my favorites would be Peer Pressure, Crusading Night, Battle of WitsFylgja and Goblin Pyromancer for a little comedy relief.

Is there any Magic related story/episode you’d like to share with us?

Since I stopped working for the company back in 2004 and after working for the product for 11 years, I always find it amazing that even to this day whether I’m at a comic convention or one of my Renaissance fairs where my gallery shops are, that collectors and players who were just kids back in the early 90s will come into my booth locations, look around and identify a couple of images they remembered from the game when they were kids.

Now they have their teenage children with them who also had played with my cards and still occasionally come across them or know about them due to their iconic nature such as Nicol Bolas or Birds of Paradise.

I am now old enough, and this game has been around long enough to actually see 3 generations of players who’ve known my art as they grew up. That has been a very rewarding experience.

Where can our readers find more about your work?

I attend a variety of conventions and trade shows each year but the most frequent place that you will find my works and myself attending is my different locations at my Renaissance fairs. I participate at the Tampa Bay area renaissance festival in Florida as well as the Gainesville Hoggetown renaissance fair in northern Florida, the Michigan Renaissance Festival, The Ohio Renaissance Festival, The Tennessee renaissance festival as well as steel city con in April and December.

If you are not in those locations my website has the most up-to-date variety of new art and license products ranging from throw blankets, T-shirts, jigsaw puzzle’s, figurines and statues, mugs, pint glasses the works

The website is www.edbeardjr.com


Thank you for reading!

We want to thank Ed for sharing his story with us.

Meet us next week for another interview!


Douglas Shuler Interview

Welcome to the #24 interview in the series There’s No Magic Without Art, where we interview artists that have created incredible work for Magic: The Gathering.

For today’s interview we talked with one of the original 25 Magic artists, Mr. Douglas Shuler, who created some of the game’s most iconic pieces.

Doug shared with some some incredible stories with us. Read on!

“The windows were rocking, alarms were screaming, and I could see debris blowing down the street… but I kept painting because I had a deadline!”

– Douglas Shuler

Hi Doug. You’re one of the original 25 Magic artists. How did it all start?

I was in the right place at the right time.

Throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s, I would regularly attend gaming conventions and pass out portfolios, trying to get my work in front of art directors. It was a gamble, but I was hoping that perseverance would pay off. Eventually, I started getting my work into some of the very games I loved playing, such as Dungeons and Dragons, the Star Wars RPG, Ars Magica, GURPS, Champions, and others.

It wasn’t high-paying, but I’ve been an active RPGer since high school and I was doing art for games mostly for the love of the industry. I was able to make just enough to justify the trip. Fortunately, one of the companies that accepted my portfolio was a little-known game company called Wizards of the Coast. I submitted my works and, a few weeks later, received my first art assignment.

Doug painting some of his most iconic images.

Icy Manipulator and Glasses of Urza © Wizards of the Coast

At what point in time did you first notice the game was a huge hit?

I first noticed that the game was a hit during the first Gen Con after Magic was released — possibly 1993? Wizards invited a number of artists to set up at their booth and sign cards for an hour or two.

The turnout was tremendous! We had lines of 50 or more people and would autograph for hours on end, taking shifts and relieving each other when someone was getting tired. It was exhausting, but exhilarating at the same time. I couldn’t explain the enthusiasm for the game or the art, figuring it would fade.

Then, I got my first fan letter. Then more came. I found out that some of our addressed were published in a magazine and I was receiving 50 letters a week. I tried to sign all the cards, but it soon became overwhelming. Some of the letters were incredibly touching and arrived from all over the world, each with a story of how Magic touched them, affected them, or awakened them to art.

As an illustrator, what were the major changes in the industry since 93?

The biggest change in the industry has definitely been the switch to digital arts. When I started, we all did our work on traditional mediums with oil paints, airbrush, or watercolors. Now, everything is digital. The advantage of digital work is that it’s faster to create, can be erased and created again, and can be emailed directly to the Art Director. The disadvantage is that there’s no original painting, which I struggle with from time to time. Digital effects are great, but so is the opportunity to have an original from time to time. It’s a tradeoff, for sure.

“I’ve been asked to airbrush Serra Angel on a motorcycle, airbrush Frozen Shade on t-shirts, design tattoos of Demonic tutor (…)”

What has been your favorite plane/expansion to work on?

I can’t say for certain that I have a definite favorite expansion that I’ve worked on, although I’ve enjoyed the silly expansions such as Unglued quite a bit.

Doug at a convention

Demonic Tutor and Contract from Below © Wizards of the Coast

You painted some of the game’s most iconic cards, do you get a lot of requests from the players about these cards?

Constantly. I get cards through the mail, from friends, at conventions, and even from relatives. I’ve been asked to airbrush Serra Angel on a motorcycle, airbrush Frozen Shade on t-shirts, design tattoos of Demonic Tutor, and do oil paintings of many of my more recognizable images.

What I think I find the most striking is how much some of the simpler images resonate to this day, with players commenting at almost every show “this art was my childhood”. Funny thing is, I feel the same way about the things I grew up with, so I can identify with the feeling.

Oddly, I think the simpler images are the ones that gather the strongest responses. When we were first assigned images, we were working very small and were instructed that the final art would be an inch or two at most.

We were encouraged to keep the backgrounds plain, the colors bold, and the characters simple. I made a conscious choice to use high contrast in my art so that the characters would ‘pop’, which is where Serra Angel, Icy Manipulator, and many others came from — the need to craft art that would show at a very tiny size.

What were some of the most challenging cards to paint, and why?

As the sets went on, artists were increasingly instructed to work in details. More and more details. It took longer to make each piece and the restrictions were tighter. I know Wizards was trying to achieve a more consistent look with a more high-art look, but at the cost of certain freedoms from the artists.

In my particular case, I think my most difficult card might have been Crawlspace from Urza’s Legacy, but not for anything Wizards was doing.

I was painting the card in a hotel on the way to a convention, watching the news and doing my thing. Suddenly, an alert came across the television that there was a tornado passing overhead! The windows were rocking, alarms were screaming, and I could see debris blowing down the street… but I kept painting because I had a deadline! What was I thinking? Because of the memories, that’s one painting I refuse to sell.

“After almost 30 years, it’s still one of the most defining parts of my career.”

Tawnos’s Coffin and Candelabra of Tawnos © Wizards of the Coast

Greater Good is one of my favorite arts in the game. How do you recall painting it?

Greater Good was the last piece I did for Wizards, so my feelings on the work are bittersweet. The description was to paint a statue in the desert that had plants of some sort growing out of it.

I had a sense that things were ending for me, and so I designed an image that sort of captured my feelings at the time — serene and quiet, and yet there was a new growth coming.

I moved on and have done some of my best work ever since.

Of the art you made for Magic, can you name some favorites?

That would be like choosing favorites between my children! I think I secretly like aspects of some pieces more than others, but I’ve noticed that my preferences change through the years and I appreciate different pieces at different times, for different reasons.

There’s the technical achievements of Old Fogey, the serenity of the Islands from Mirage, the power from Demonic Tutor, and of course the fame of Serra Angel. I also know I get sick of certain cards when I see them all the time… ha!

Serra Angel and Righteousness © Wizards of the Coast

What do you consider to be the defining factors behind the game’s longevity?

I don’t think I can explain the game’s longevity, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’ll be part of my life until the end. After almost 30 years, it’s still one of the most defining parts of my career.

Magic has opened incredible doors for me and has allowed me to live a good life. Even though I haven’t done any new work for Wizards since 2004, I still sign fan mail, I still attend conventions, and I still get regular requests for work. As an artist, that’s a good place to be.

I try to enjoy the ride the best I can and continue to appreciate the fans for everything they’ve done for me.

Tranquility and Mountain © Wizards of the Coast

Is it true you made three versions of Serra Angel? There was an article that said one of the artworks had gone missing, can you comment on this?

I did make several versions of the Serra, but to preserve the privacy of collectors, I won’t comment what’s happened to them after they leave my possession.

I will point out that the article you linked is not correct — it even got my name wrong by calling me ‘Richard’ (“…the story goes that Richard Shuler made three versions of this artwork…”).

What can you tell us about you post-Magic work?

Since Magic, I’ve worked extensively in video games and have recently been exploring comics and book covers. Who knows… maybe one day I’ll work for Magic again. I think that would be cool. 🙂

Where can our readers find more about your work?

So much of my work is private commissions that I don’t put much online. My website is http://www.douglasshuler.com, and I also have a gallery at https://www.deviantart.com/douglasshuler Both currently suffer from being out of date, but I’m working on that.

Benalish Hero and Northern Paladin © Wizards of the Coast


Thank you for reading!

We want to thank Doug for his time and kindness.

Meet us next week for another interview!

B.F.M. © Wizards of the Coast


Drew Tucker Interview

Welcome to our MTG artists interview series (#23), There’s No Magic Without Art.

Drew is one of the original 25 Magic artists, and we recently had the chance of talking to him on Skype. Here’s what he told us!

Hi Drew! Let’s start at the beginning, can you talk a little about your early days in illustration?

I went to the school of Visual Arts in New York. I did a Masters called Illustration Visual Essay, that was run by Marshall Arisman [American illustrator and painter]. I’d always see his pictures on magazines and stuff, and so I was now a little bit older and had this opportunity of learning from him.

It was a great experience. In his classes, Marshall would encourage the idea of story-lines and personal narratives. I always had this weaving of personal narrative in illustration.

You’re one of the original 25 magic artists, how did it all start?

I had this watercolor class, and in it was Sandra Everingham [Sandra was also one of Magic’s 25 original artists, and she’s now working as a Creative Team Leader at Valve], she told me that she was working with a group of people on a card game, and she wanted to know if I’d put a portfolio together.

She brought my portfolio over to Jasper Myrfors, and from there they brought me in and I started working. I was so in the right place at the right time!

Holy Light © Wizards of the Coast

Hungry Spriggan © Wizards of the Coast

Did you have any idea about the game?

Not at all! I played D&D, but the game was so new at that point, they were still in the basement developing it. It was the first real assignment I ever got, and it was really exciting.

When did you realize it was a hit?

When the game first started out, and for advertising, they’d have us go around and do signings at comic book stores, because card stores didn’t exist yet, and sign cards.

You knew it was something, but the importance of the game to people didn’t set in until later, and it continually does so now. Maybe five of six years ago, that’s when it totally hit me!

I was signing cards at the event, and this guy came up, and I had signed his cards when he was 10, in 93. That blew my mind.

When we interviewed Pete Venters, he said that there were no art descriptions at this time.

Pete was right, there was no art descriptions. Jesper would call us up on the phone and he would just read card titles. Maybe he’d say it was a red card, but that was entirely the art direction. There was a lot of experimentation at the time.

Later they started sending Style Guides, and that changed everything.

Your Magic art seems to blend fine art and fantasy in a very unique way.

Two years ago, Jesper told me that one of the reasons they brought me on was specifically because I took a different view of Fantasy, or Imaginative Realism like how it’s called now.

I grew up with Frazetta and Boris Vallejo like everybody else, but there was a part of me that was hooked on Dave McKean, Marshall Arisman, and the idea of painting from an emotional state. If I could feel it I thought other people might feel it too.

Icatian Moneychanger © Wizards of the Coast

My style has changed over the years, because I actually learned how to paint [Laughs]. I wasn’t that great of a painter when I was younger, I think I’m better now, because that’s like twenty-five years of practicing and painting and telling stories, and all that kind of builds up.

My earlier stuff was all watercolor, and I would look at oil paintings and I would love the smoothness and slickness and the colors of oil paintings, so I started developing my watercolors, so they would kind-a look like oils. And I used gum arabic to do these glazes and things like to deepen the contrast. Now I’m painting with oil, and I find myself trying to make it look like watercolor [Laughs].

You mentioned Vertigo and Dandân were your favorite Magic paintings, what do you like about them?

Vertigo I like it for its use of perspective, I think it was handled technically really well. I just thought Dandân was clever.

Vertigo © Wizards of the Coast

You also painted Phoenix Heart, the card Richard Garfield used to propose. How did this come to be, did you know Richard Garfield personally?

Not really, no. He sent me an email and asked if I’d do it, and it was an honor to do it. We talked a little bit, and he sent me pictures, and he gave some hints of things that he wanted, talked about the region his wife was from. I sent him some sketches and we did some back and forth.

What were the hardest cards to paint?

My very first card, Power Leak, doesn’t work as a painting, especially looking back at it 20 years later. It’s real abstract, and the anatomy is off, and it’s really painful to visit.

I think the hard part was always how to conceptualize them. It got easier when things got more defined. I think Dandân was a hard card to paint with all its weird layers.

Dandân © Wizards of the Coast


Thank you for reading!

We want to thank Drew for his time and kindness.

Find more about Drew Tucker’s work on his website.

Meet us next week for another interview!

Drew revisits Dandân


Pete Venters Interview

Welcome to our interview series #22, There’s No Magic Without Art.

For this week’s interview, we had the pleasure of talking with Pete Venters, an artist that is ingrained in the game’s history.

Pete started back in 1993, painted over 250 cards, developed the Creative Department, worked as a Continuity Manager, and is a goblin specialist.

– “I started as a comic book artist and for me, narrative is king. “

– Pete Venters

Mistvein Borderpost © Wizards of the Coast

Your first card debuted in 94, the game was one year old. How did you get started?

It was completely by accident. I was visiting the USA for the first time, attending Philadelphia Comicfest in October 93 where I could show my portfolio to both games and comics companies.

I heard some buzz about Magic at the show and saw their booth where they were opening packs and inviting people to take a card. One of the companies I wanted to talk to was White Wolf as Vampire the Masquerade was big news and their art was predominantly black and white which was my preferred way of working.

It took until day 3 of the show before I was finally able to catch White Wolf’s art director at his booth. He was talking with someone else so I stood there holding my portfolio until I caught his eye. When he noticed, I introduced myself and asked if there was a convenient time to show him my work. He said that he and the other guy were both art directors so I could show it to them both right now.

The “other guy” was Jesper Myrfors, the original art director of MTG. Two weeks later I received my first assignment for Magic. White Wolf never got back to me.

Did you imagine how big the game would become at the time?

I don’t think anybody could have reasonably expected it to be huge and enduring. Early reviews of the game were very excited for it but often wondered how long it would last.

I remember attending San Diego Comicon 94 where the buzz of the game had started to make all the other companies take notice and I ended up in one conversation with some comics execs that figured the game would last about three years. I countered that I felt it could last ten but they thought I was crazy.

Do you recall your first commissions for Magic? Did you get an art description for the cards?

My first art commissions were unique because they weren’t just for one set. Wizards was scrambling to catch up as they’d been taken completely by surprise by the magnitude of demand.

I think the necessity of fixing some errors between Alpha and Beta also delayed them and then they had to get Unlimited ready. This meant that come late October 93, they had three sets ready to commission art for – Antiquities, Legends and The Dark – and they were doing them at the same time.

Magic: The Gathering first anniversary piece © Wizards of the Coast

This was the reason that in those three sets some artists appeared a lot in one set and perhaps not at all in another. There were no art descriptions – those didn’t really become a thing until Alliances. We were just given card titles and an explanation of how the card worked.

My first Magic painting was Mightstone which I completed in six hours. It looks like a sketch compared to Magic cards today.

Tanglewalker  © Wizards of the Coast

I’m curious about that transition that happened in Alliances; over the years, how did these (and subsequent) changes impact the way WotC and artists worked?

Well, the introduction of art descriptions was in response to three factors:

1) The game had become a huge success and the number of artists being hired had grown significantly. It was no longer feasible to expect each artist to take the time to learn the game and understand what a card did from rules text.

2) More significantly, Wizards realized after a year of releases that they had to do something about card leaks. Artists were originally given the card title and an explanation of the card’s mechanic. During that first year, artists were allowed to show artwork before it was released and this of course led to players asking what the associated card did, and artists saw no issue telling them.

It may seem crazy now that artists didn’t take secrecy seriously, but remember this was 1994, the game was a hit in the niche hobby games industry but pro-tours and cash prizes were a long way off and no one thought that these card powers should be treated like a movie spoiler! In a pretty short period artists were asked to not discuss unreleased cards, to not showing unreleased art, to a full NDA.

3) Wizards were eyeing other outlets for their Magic IP. Comics, video games, movies. All of these needed the IP to become more codified.

During 95 the art descriptions started to become a more structured process. With Alliances, my first set as a Continuity member, it seemed logical to let an artist be the one to write the art descriptions. How much of the art description format I inherited and how much I added is completely lost to time and my addled memory. But very quickly the art descriptions completely replaced any card mechanic information given to the artists.

There were hiccups though. There were a couple of sets where the art descriptions ballooned in size due to an AD’s insistence that each creature race be rigorously described. This issue was eventually resolved with the introduction of the Magic Creative Team which had Anson Maddocks, Mark Tedin and Anthony Waters as concept artists.

Under the guidance of Chaz Elliot and a returning Jesper Myrfors they created the first Magic style guide for Tempest. Style guides have been the essential method of communicating a setting to Magic artists ever since.

Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker © Wizards of the Coast

Was this a novel way of working at the time? How were other companies doing it?

From my limited experience at that time, it seemed so. Movie franchises and comic books had guides but I hadn’t seen anything entirely new created whole cloth and formatted like that before.

Now it’s common practice, I guess. Hell, when the style guide was being made, it was the first time I ever heard the phrase “concept artist”.

What was your personal favorite set to work on, and why?

It was Mirrodin block. Going into that block I never would have believed it because the pseudo-tech of the setting gave me some serious misgivings. However, the style guide included a very detailed world building section that was meant for the novelization’s authors but I found it indispensable in understanding how the world worked.

I think that deep understanding of the setting gave me a rock solid confidence about my pieces and I consider the Mirrodin block to be my best body of work in Magic.

You worked full-time on the Magic Continuity department, which makes you one of the artists with most knowledge about the game’s lore and story. How did this influence your illustration work, and vice-versa?

I started as a comic book artist and for me, narrative is king. The pieces with strong narrative or strong characters were usually my favorites and produced my best work. I think of Baron Sengir, Raksha Golden Cub, Crovax the Cursed, Pandemonium, to name a few.

As I mentioned, the more confidence I had with my understanding of the setting, the better my pieces were.

Hoarder’s Greed © Wizards of the Coast

Magic: The Gathering first anniversary piece © Wizards of the Coast

In 1994 you created a set of six promo pieces celebrating Magic’s first anniversary, one for each color and one for artifacts. It’s interesting to note the way you captured the spirit of each color, and how you successfully managed to make all these iconic creatures interact with each other, in such a complex composition. How did it feel to undertake such challenging commission?

At that time, all the art was still copyright the artists so I was trying to be very mindful of everyone’s designs. But mostly I remember just being swept up in how crazy cool the idea was. I love those potential interactions, that’s the storyteller in me showing again.

I got to do something similar for Unhinged’s Drawn Together where you can see Shauku has the poor little Cabal Trainee on a collar and chain, and the Lhurgoyf (that eats dead things) is trying to snack on a protesting Carnophage.

From an illustrator standpoint, what changed for the better and what changed for the worst since ’93?

Well, it’ll never stop sucking that Wizards chose to withdraw the royalties option for artists back in 1995. Yes, they starting paying a larger upfront fee, but the royalties gave the artists a better income and I felt it was a good way to let the artists share in the success of the game.

I’m sad to see how much Wizards doubled down on a house style for the Magic brand. There are a few talents that escape this fate (the awesome Terese Nielsen comes to mind) but on the whole I find it very hard to tell 80% of the illustrators apart.

To be clear, I think that modern day Magic art is exceptional work produced by incredible talent, but the older work with its breadth of styles (and, yes, broad range of talent) made for a more visually interesting product when those cards were spread out on a table. As individual pieces, Magic art has never looked better, as a set of cards it leaves me cold.

Megatog © Wizards of the Coast

Do you think it would be possible to keep the streamlined worldbuilding and set coherence, while also encouraging a broad set of artistic styles?

Absolutely. It’s weak world-design that can’t survive stylistic variations. Magic worldbuilding is rock-solid and I don’t believe the decision to go with a more unified style has anything to do with concerns about communicating a setting. This timidity towards stylistic differences is down to marketing; they want a defined approach for branding purposes.

This unified look is how they tie it up in a bow for licensees but given how the game started and the breadth of fantasy art, I think it’s selling the players’ artistic tastes short.

What do you consider the defining factors behind the game’s longevity?

The fact that you can almost always find someone to play with. Magic was the first CCG, grabbed the lion’s share of players, and worked very hard to never let go. There have been many great CCGs over the years but most of them died because people gave up on the game when they couldn’t find other players.

I remember when Wizards started drawing up plans for the Pro Tour and it seemed like an incredibly risky undertaking but I think that without the organized play scene the game might have dwindled away to nothing by now.

Loamdragger Giant © Wizards of the Coast

Do you recall which were the hardest cards to paint?

Sometimes an art description could be a little hard to fathom, usually because it was trying to achieve too much in a single image. That would probably result in a number of iterative sketches and discussions with the AD, but usually those issues were resolved before any paint ever touched the canvas.

For me the trickiest paintings were always ones where I was experimenting with light sources. Oftentimes it was new colors such as in Tahngarth’s Glare where I tried to capture the sky just before sunset. The shift in the blue and the pink of the clouds was a delicate balancing act.

I started as a comic artist and 90% of all the work I produced before age 21 was black and white. Color is something I had to learn and has never come naturally to me.

Of the five colors in the game, is there one you gravitate towards more, artistically speaking? I don’t want to lead your answer, but you did paint many more red and black cards than the rest of the colors…

Well, you pretty much hit the nail on the head. I would ask for more red and black cards because those were my favorites. My preferred colors (from most to least) are Black, Red, Green, White, Artifact, Blue.

Raksha Golden Cub © Wizards of the Coast

What are your favorite pieces you made for the game, and what are you favorites done by other artists?

I have a lot of pieces so narrowing it down by categories – Baron Sengir wins the nostalgia vote as he’s always been my most iconic piece, Tanglewalker was a rare opportunity to paint something attractive, Raksha Golden Cub was probably one of my best heroic pieces and Drawn Together was a very rare opportunity to do a retrospective of my work within Magic.

It was essentially a vanity piece that was also a commission and I spent three weeks painting it which is far in excess of what makes sense if you’re doing painting just to pay the bills!

As for other artists, I think there’s almost too much great art to narrow down individual pieces. I’m a big fan of Aleksi Briclot, Kev Walker, Terese Neilsen, and Mark Tedin (though don’t tell him that, he’ll never stop reminding me!). I know there’s other stuff too, way too much.

I stumbled upon http://www.peteventersproject.com/ while researching, that’s quite the dedication. I saw you were recently on GP Seattle and SCGCON. What feedback do you get from the players?

The most common feedback is that they miss the older style of art in the game. That’s a loaded response though because the people that prefer the newer stuff are probably not coming to my table to get cards signed so how that preference actually splits across the player base is anyone’s guess.

I get a lot of goblin enthusiasts – my Unglued goblin token is probably my most signed card this year – and a whole slew of people that wish WotC would reprint my version of Kiki Jiki.

Occasionally there’s also people who want to talk about the world building I did for Magic, and those tend to be long and fun conversations.

Recollect © Wizards of the Coast

Is there any Magic-related story/episode you’d like to share with us?

Too many to just pick one. Catch me at a show. Anyone who’s chatted with me at the GPs can tell you I’m good for anecdotes.

Do you have a current project you’d like to plug?

Funnily enough, no. So much of my stuff is tied up in NDAs. I know of a small something related to a popular videogame that’ll be out soon but I can’t speak about it yet. Apart from that, I have some projects of my own but they’re not ready to be revealed yet.


Thank you for reading!

We thank Pete for his time and kindness.


Geoffrey Palmer Interview

Welcome to our interview series #21, There’s No Magic Without Art.

Spoiler season for Guilds of Ravnica is over, and that means we’re back to our weekly interview series!

This week we’re going to have a special interview with Geoffrey Palmer, who has been creating amazing animations on Magic cards.

We recently teamed up, and you can now see some of Geoff’s animations directly on the cards, with our newly released Augmented Reality feature.

Here’s what Geoff told us.

Watching Prossh, Skyraider of Kher animation using MTG Manager’s AR feature.
Prossh, Skyraider of Kher by Todd Lockwood © Wizards of the Coast

Hi Geoffrey! How did you start animating Magic cards?

The short answer is that in early 2015, it all started with famous Magic artist Noah Bradley. I found myself on Reddit, as I unfortunately seem to most days, and I saw he had posted a pixel art animation of his own artwork, ‘Anger of the Gods‘.

He had hand animated each frame with a simple loop of the flames falling. It was a neat effect, but it got me thinking. What if I animated the actual artwork? Just like the animations I had seen in the amazing trailers that Wizards of the Coast puts out for each new set.

At that point in my life, I had been directing TV commercials and doing motion graphic design for about ten years. Enjoyable work, but I was getting burned out so the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

I spent hours animating Anger of the Gods in my spare time. Finally, I posted my animation back on Reddit with the simple title, “I Animated Anger of the Gods by Noah Bradley“.

It instantly shot to the top of the Magic subreddit and even the front page for the day. Tons of commenters posted words of encouragement and demands to see more. Noah Bradley himself said simply, “This is awesome. Sweet work, man. :)”. I was hooked and I’ve been animating Magic artwork ever since.

We recently made a video together, where we used our card detection system together with Augmented Reality to show your animations. How did it feel to see your work on the actual cards?

I’ve been animating for several years and I’m coming up on my first year actually working in Magic full-time for ChannelFireball. I’ve seen and done a lot during that time, but I have to say when I saw the cards spring to life with my animations – it took my breath away.

I’d seen AR before, it’s such a cool effect when done well, but to see cards actually become “living” with my animations was beyond cool. It honestly inspired me to get back to animating more!

Animated by Living Cards
Anger of the Gods by Noah Bradley © Wizards of the Coast

Our newly released AR feature with some of Geoff’s animation work.

How do you decide which card to animate?

It all starts with the artwork. I have to see a story to unlock in the piece. Rarely do I pick hero poses or wide landscapes. The animation works best when I can take an action in process and show you just a moment before or after the main frame that the artist originally created.

I love effects like fire, energy, and well, magic so I’m drawn to those types of pieces. Lately I’ve been obsessed with making perfect loops like I created for Icy Manipulator.

I also love picking artwork from newer artists or artists that I personally love in hopes they will see and enjoy what I have done with their work. I’ve never had a negative comment from an artist and many have sought me out to work on their own special projects!

Can you give us a brief description of your animation process?

Once I have selected a piece, it all starts in Adobe Photoshop. To create, I have to destroy. All the artwork that I receive is a flat piece. To animate, I have to separate the artwork into many, sometimes tons, of individual layers.

Finally I have to put it all back together so you can’t see the seams. The less you notice what I’ve done, the more amazing the effect is in the end. I can’t say I’m much of an artist myself, but I do a ton of photo editing so I’m able to stitch pieces back together to convincing effect.

Now, I’m ready to animate so I head over to Adobe After Effects. If the piece calls for 3D, as in the case of the impossible shape in Icy Manipulator, I use Cinema 4D.

Much like a traditional animator, I create keyframes of motion for the characters and set pieces – often using a digital camera to create movement and depth.

Finally as the piece calls for it, I composite stock footage and particle systems to fully flesh out the world.

On average, how much time does it take to do a single card animation?

The amount of time that I spend animating varies wildly from piece to piece. These days, I don’t have as much time to animate so I tend to favor smaller pieces.

I would say 4-5 hours on the low end and I think I spent about 20 hours over two weeks to animate one of my earlier pieces, Liliana, Heretical Healer AND Liliana, Defiant Necromancer.

Animated by Living Cards
Icy Manipulator by Doulgas Shuler © Wizards of the Coast

Animated by Living Cards
Liliana, Heretical Healer & Liliana, Defiant Necromancer by Karla Ortiz © Wizards of the Coast

What are your favorite animations?

It’s so hard to pick a favorite, but I think I’ll go with the animation that I’m probably most known for – Sol Ring. Some of my animations are used for The Command Zone podcast and in every single episode, they thank me and promote my work.

After about a year, I was looking for a way to give back to them so I animated the most ubiquitous Commander card, Sol Ring, and turned it into a title design for them.

They were overjoyed and that boosted my status within the community, leading to work with Tolarian Community College, Loading Ready Run, and many more.

Animated by Living Cards
Sol Ring by Mark Tedin © Wizards of the Coast

As a Senior Motion Graphics Designer for ChannelFireball, you’re also working on Magic professionally. What can you share with us about your day-to-day?

After about two years of working with ChannelFireball as a freelancer, they hired me on to work full-time doing graphic design and animation. We’ve got a ton of things going on so my day-to-day varies quite a bit.

I create all of our advertising and promotions for the website. We launched a new show called, MtG Top 5, which highlights the best clips of Magic content from around the whole community and I edit that weekly.

I work with our awesome Events team that runs all of the Grand Prix tournaments. Go check out Turbo Town, I created the logo! I create graphics for our content that you can read on ChannelFireball.com and and a ton of social posts for Twitter and Facebook.

It’s an absolute pleasure to work for a company that cares so much about delivering the game of Magic at the highest quality, in the form of cards and content, to a great community. I hope I get to do this for many more years, but don’t worry – I’ll never stop animating!

Animated by Living Cards
Chalice of the Void by Seb McKinnon © Wizards of the Coast


Thank you for reading!

We want to thank Geoff for sharing his vision with us!

You can find more about Geoff’s work on Twitter.

Meet us next week for another interview!


Steven Belledin Interview

Welcome to our interview series (#20), There’s No Magic Without Art.

For this week’s interview we had the pleasure of talking with Steven Belledin, who shared with us the stories behind his craft.

We used several images present on Steven’s blog, which we highly recommend you check out.

Here’s what Steven told us.

“I am a problem solver by nature”

– Steven Belledin

Hi Steven. Tell us a little about how you got started working on Magic.

I got into Magic through working on Dungeons and Dragons. I’d been doing DnD art for years and in the process worked with several different art directors. I happened to be in Seattle for a friend’s wedding and so I decided to go and meet all the people I’d worked with in person.

I also used that opportunity to get in and see the Magic art director (who was Jeremy Cranford at the time). He interviewed me, looked through my portfolio and was brutally honest in not liking a lot of what I’d done. Fortunately, there were pieces that he did like and he brought be on board as a Magic artist as a result. The first set I worked on was Coldsnap.

Can you give us some insight into how you conceptualize a Magic card, from the art description to the first stroke?

When I get an art description, the first thing I do is read it over and over again. If it references images in the styleguide, I take a look at those too. Then, I stop looking at the description and the styleguide and I let my mind wander. Before too long, images start to appear in my head.

These images are largely the result of what I take in. Comic books, movies, cartoons, photography, other people’s art, television shows, landscapes and cityscapes I’ve seen, places I’ve been to and books all contribute to the images swirling in my head. As I’m trying to pin down what I want to do with a Magic painting, my brain takes little bits from all these various sources and melds them together.

Narstad Scrapper© Wizards of the Coast

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Fevered Visions  © Wizards of the Coast

These mental images often come in very quick flashes—sometimes as still images, sometimes as one or two seconds of motion—and I sometimes have trouble capturing what I just saw in my head. Usually, though, while my brain is doing all this, I am sitting there with my sketchbook making very rough drawings. I say “drawings,” but they’re actually just scribbles and random marks.

As time goes on, the images start to coalesce into more legible thumbnail sketches. After I’ve started to latch onto a general idea, I go back and reread the art description yet again and reexamine the artwork in the styleguide (again, if there is any). This is a way for me to recheck my thought process and make sure I’m still on the right track.

From there, I start to refine my scribbles into an actual image. Only after I get the idea to a point that I like do I go forward to a finished sketch. Sometimes I have more than one idea, or more than one point of view of the same idea and I’ll do multiple explorations.

But in the end, it’s rare that I submit more than two sketches. Most of the time, though, I submit just one. Then I send these sketches off to the art director and await their reply. If I get approval, I start painting as soon as I possibly can because painting is my favorite part.

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What makes for an exciting art description?

I am a problem solver by nature and solving problems is what makes illustration a fun career to me. With art descriptions involving pre-determined visuals, a lot of the “problems” of the illustration are already solved.

So, I prefer any assignment that involves getting to actually design elements within the finished image. In short, I like using my brain and the more I have to figure out and create within a given job, the more exciting it is to me.

Why did planes like Kaladesh and Theros felt to you more distant aesthetically, and what were your favorite planes to work on?

Kaladesh is a world whose visuals rely heavily on a lot of ornate and decorative design. I don’t really like that kind of thing because decoration has no real purpose. I prefer more practical design because it makes more sense to me and tends to feel more usable and real.

The more decorative things become, the more distant the feel to me personally. I don’t know why, but that’s just always been the case for me. A banged up, rusty or greasy gear is always going to be more interesting to me than the filigree-covered gears of Kaladesh.

Wasteland © Wizards of the Coast

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Herald of the Fair © Wizards of the Coast

Theros was a different issue in that the world felt too close to its inspiration to me. Ancient Greece is interesting, but I wished they’d pulled the aesthetic further into the world of Magic.

I know that Wizards wants to continually broaden the boundaries of what Magic’s aesthetic is, but for me, Theros felt too much like actual depictions of Greece and its mythology and not enough like it belonged to Magic. In a way, it felt more to me like doing historical painting than fantasy painting.

Of the many planes I’ve had the privilege of working on, Mirrodin is near the top of the list of my favorites. Well, Phyrexianized Mirrodin, anyway. I really enjoyed working in that world and I can’t think of a plane that Magic has ever gone to that is more unique and more “ownable” as a Magic plane.

I also feel like I painted some of my best work for those sets. Ravnica is another place I like a good deal. Unfortunately, every time we’ve gotten to visit that world, I have things going on in my life that prevent me from taking on as much work as I’d like, and so I have only a few paintings set there.

If I had to choose just one plane, though, it would probably be Innistrad. I’ve had a lot of fun working on the paintings for that world, and I hope it’s a place I get to go back to again someday.

How was it to work on the Concepting team for Innistrad, a fan favorite set?

Concepting in general has been a blast. It’s a very intense experience that is inspirational and also exhausting. I’ve had the privilege of working on Kaladesh, Ixalon, Dominaria, and Tarkir as well, but all of those experiences can’t top working on Innistrad.

Part of that is because it was my first time doing concept work. Part of that is that it was the first time I got to work alongside other artists. The rest of it is that Innistrad really fits well with my work and my sensibilities and is a place that I could really sink my teeth into.

Drawing things for that world was almost second nature to me. While there were certainly challenges, they weren’t frustrating ones, and collaborating with Steve Prescott and Mike “Daarken” Lim made solving any problems interesting and exciting.

We were constantly bouncing ideas off of one another and helping to make one another’s ideas even better. There’s a part of me that wishes I had that all the time, but then my studio would be too crowded!

On the left: the images Steven used as reference.
© Steven Belledin
On the right: Floodtide Serpent, Lantern Scout and Veteran Explorer © Wizards of the Coast

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You also mentioned that Demolish was an unexpectedly hard card to paint. The First Eruption resulted in ‘severe hand cramps and occasional hand spasms’. What makes a card challenging, and what – on the other hand – makes it ‘a breeze’ to work on?

I had a teacher once tell me that when one has finished an illustration, what one has learned is how to paint that specific illustration. While there are lessons one may take from that illustration into the next illustration, the combination of problems one had to solve will never be the same again. I’ve found that my teacher was generally right about this.

I know how to paint metal, but the combination of the metal, the lighting, the shear amount of detail in Demolish, made it very hard to paint. The First Eruption, meanwhile, was a test of endurance. Sometimes I know what the challenge in a piece is going to be. Often it’s the lighting or the amount of detail. Other times, I find myself in the middle of the piece suddenly realizing that I’m stuck.

Fortunately, we live in an age where I can take a photo of the painting in progress, import that photo into Photoshop and digitally paint on top of it to figure out what my next step will be.Then I can take the solution to the easel and paint confidently. The reality is that the biggest factor that has made Magic paintings challenging has been the passage of time.

Greater Sandwurm © Wizards of the Coast

When I first started working on Magic, the illustrations were simpler and required less detail. Over time, the amount of detail and the level of realism have continued to increase and it’s frankly very hard to keep up. The simpler an image is, the easier it tends to be. To this day, the fastest I’ve ever painted a Magic piece was two and a half days and that piece was Deathmark.

Why did it take so little time? It’s essentially just a close-up of an eyeball. While there’s still a lot of detail in that piece, the image is primarily made up of large, simple shapes. If you look at most recent Magic illustrations, the shapes tend not to be large or simple.

The illustrations are increasingly detailed and chock-full of stuff. The more stuff a painting contains, the more problems there are to solve and the more time these images take. So it’s the combination of those things with the ever-looming deadline that tends to make things so challenging.

Of the art you made for Magic, can you name some favorites?

Surgical Extraction, Rampant Growth, Overgrown Tomb, and my original basic Forest are among the favorites that have been released.

The First Eruption © Wizards of the Coast
Detail on the right

You said about Mox Amber that “it’s not exactly shouting its value or power, either. It is, in many respects, the perfect example of my aesthetic philosophy”. What other aspects define you as an artist?

In general, I like to keep things pretty simple and real. The things I am asked to depict are generally very unreal and so I don’t like to make those things feel inauthentic with extreme points of view or exaggerated perspective.

I try and depict things in a very straightforward way as though the viewer were standing there, actually seeing the things I’m trying to show them. I try and let the subjects of the images call attention to themselves naturally.

Also, I tend to dislike lots of bright color (which may be another reason I don’t feel completely comfortable in Kaladesh). I like seeing the bright colors in the work of other artists, but it feels very unnatural to me. So I tend to stick to more muted tones whenever possible and limit the amount of bright hues.

Rampant Growth © Wizards of the Coast

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We recently saw two new pieces from you on the Core Set 2019. How did it feel to work on them?

Both were a lot of fun, honestly. I don’t think of myself as a creature designer, but more and more I’m finding that I’m asked to do just that. Obviously Wizards likes what I do in terms of creature design, and hopefully the audience does too. Additionally, I got to create these creatures from scratch, so both were a lot of fun.

The new version of Vaevictis Asmadi was especially interesting and fun since it was an existing character that needed to be reinvented. Wizards provided some very basic guidelines, but I was essentially free to do whatever I wanted with him. I felt pretty honored to be given that degree of trust.

For our last question, is there any Magic related story/episode you’d like to share with us?

Sure! I need to start by saying that my sketches nowadays are largely digital and almost fully rendered out. They’re pretty elaborate (though not as detailed as finished work) and pretty clear for the most part. That wasn’t always the case.

My sketches used to be quite bad and to some extent open to interpretation. This could sometimes be problematic but also led to a funny incident. Well, I found it amusing, anyway.

Island © Wizards of the Coast

The paintings I did for Tome Scour and Idle Thoughts are strangely related to one another because of my poor sketches. Tome Scour was one of the first Magic paintings I ever did, but it was for a card that didn’t get published and so it was kept in Magic’s art files waiting for the day it could be used for a new card. I submitted two sketches for Tome Scour.

The first was a sorcerer magically pulling the printed words off of the pages of a book and is what the painting was based on. The second sketch depicted the words falling out of the same book as the book was being shaken by the sorcerer. For some reason that second sketch really stuck in the art director’s head.

A couple years went by and I was assigned the art for Idle Thoughts. The art director asked me to paint the second sketch I submitted all those years ago of the flying book. I was confused and had no idea what he was talking about. I had never drawn a flying book. So he called me on the phone and tried to jog my memory. It took a while, but I finally understood that he meant the unused sketch for Tome Scour.

I looked at the sketch and I realized that he wasn’t wrong and that it really did look like a flying book. I pointed out to him that the book wasn’t flying but rather the words were being “poured” out of it. Obviously that’s not what he saw in the image I’d created. It was at this point that I realized I needed to start making my sketches a bit clearer so art directors could properly interpret my intentions.

© Wizards of the Coast

Surgical Extraction © Wizards of the Coast


Thank you for reading!

We’re incredibly grateful to Steven for taking the time to share his passion with us.

Find more about Steven’s work on his website.

Meet us next week for another interview!