Klug Alters Interview

Welcome to our artists interview series – There’s no Magic without art – where we talk to artists about their work on Magic: The Gathering.

This week we’re gonna do something different: we talked to an artist who paints on Magic cards for a living.

We interviewed Eric Klug, of Klug Alters, who has done some of Magic’s most famous card alters. Here’s what he told us.

Interview with Eric Klug of Klug Alters

You started playing almost 20 years ago, and you’ve played at all levels of competitive play from FNM to the World Championships. How do you feel about the state of the game today?

I think the game looks to be doing better than ever. For that, I’m very happy as I plan to keep playing for a long, long time. I do think the game is heading in directions looking to be more successful, and sometimes that can be a little alienating to entrenched players like me because the focus is on obtaining new players.

Ultimately though, I know the people who are responsible for the game cherish it as much as I do. New players is essential to the games survival. So I try not to worry much.

Not for the faint of heart…

You made your first alter back in 2008. You traded it, and six years later the card was sent back to you. Can you give us some insight into how you started, and how did that card (Wall of Blossoms) get back to you?

I tried out altering after discovering others work on online forums. It was very much a hobby for several years. After living abroad 2009 to mid-2010 I came back to the US and altered cards to supplement while I job searched. Things took off from there.

I traded the Wall of Blossoms that same year to a friend who went on to trade it to someone else. It eventually made it to a client years later who was aware it was my first and thought I might appreciate it more than he would. He was right! I’m not very sentimental about my work but was really moved to own the card again and by the client’s kind gesture.

On the left: Eric’s first ever alter
On the right: His take on the same card, six years later

Do you have some other work-related stories you’d like to share?

The only thing I can think of, off the top of my head, is that in 2008 my now-wife asked if I could make a living altering. I laughed and shook my head, “No way.”

From a business owner perspective, what has changed since you first started doing alters?

When I was growing up with the game an alter would usually be done by one of Magic’s official artists. It would be done with the same materials that they signed the cards with and would usually be limited to a small doodle/sketch.

Altering already started as taking customization well beyond a quick drawing. There were a lot of border extensions (extending the original artwork over the borders, blending printing with paint) when I first started.

Overall I’d say the work has become considerably more ambitious. In terms of detail, I’m working on projects I didn’t think would be possible ten years ago.

Also I think quality alter work has earned a lot more respect and a long term place in the community. It could easily have been just a fad within the game, but I think players see the art in it and therefore the added value that can come with a well concepted, well executed piece. Value both in terms of dollars and that of improving one’s gameplay experience.

Can you give us some insight into the process of restoring heavily damaged cards?

Working on damaged cards is much the same as working on pristine ones. What’s different is making sure the cardboard is a strong enough canvas. Water-damaged cards, for example, can be a lost cause. Altering can do a lot to mask minor dents, scuffs, and the beginning of shuffle creasing.

I usually just examine the card, clean up any dirt that it has accumulated over the years, and the paint does much of the rest. Another added benefit is that the thin layer of acrylic adds a bit of structural integrity to the card and slows any further deterioration.

Three pieces of power in manuscript-style

Other than time constraints, what would make you reject a commission?

If I thought the alter was inappropriate in some way. If it’s not my style and I think it would be hard to connect with the work. Or if I just don’t feel confident I could produce something totally awesome based on what the client is asking for. High quality, show stopping pieces is really my goal for each card and I take that into account when considering commissions.

Five years ago, you mentioned that Stephen Hawking JtMS was the weirdest card you’ve done. Is this still true today?

It’s up there but it’s hard to say. I’ve done a lot of alters since that one. This one from 2015 is pretty weird. I like it. Weird is good.

How many Black Lotuses have you painted?

I’ve altered 12 Unlimited Black Lotuses over my past ten years of painting cards. So a little more than one a year. I’ll point out that’s .068% of all the Unlimited Lotuses printed (~17,500). A lot of players draw a line when it comes to altering power but I think many don’t realize there is still a fairly large number of unaltered copies out there. Even if I paint 50 more I won’t crack half a percent.

Let’s say I email you inquiring about a commission. How would we go from here?

First and foremost I need to like the concept. It needs to make sense to me because the more fun I can have with a project, or the more excited I can get about it, the better the result. I’m fairly discriminating in the alters I take on because I put a lot of hours into each piece and have limited time to spread around.

Beyond that I’ll quote the client a price and let them know when we can get the project going. I only fully commit to a months work at a time to keep my queue from ballooning too much. It would be really easy to book a few years worth of work in just a few weeks, but that’d be pretty overwhelming for me and no client wants to wait that long.

Your work based on Hieronymus Bosch and Escher challenged my assumptions on what’s possible to do in an alter.

What are the inherent limits of working directly on such small cards?

There is a point where you can only fit so much detail into a certain amount of space. There’s also a limit to the amount of detail the human eye can perceive. I’ve definitely tried to push the boundaries over the years of what’s possible.

I’m pretty happy with the tools I’ve selected in allowing me to do so (brush and paint quality). Like anyone else, it’s mostly just practice then. Even after a decade I can still improve.

Have you done any Magic related commission other than card altering?

A few months ago I worked on playmat that several official Magic artists has also worked on. The piece in question was a homage to Quinton Hoover and Christopher Rush who are sadly not with us any more. I don’t typically take on playmat projects but this one felt right. A Lotus of course:

An homage to Quinton Hoover

Did you take some time to develop a non-alter portfolio?

I do non-alter commission work occasionally for a variety of clients and open air landscape painting for fun. Some of that work can be found here.


Carl Critchlow Interview

Welcome to our artists interview series – There’s no Magic without art -, where we talk to artists about their work on Magic: the Gathering.

Today we share with you our talk with Carl Critchlow, here’s what he told us.

Carl Critchlow, the artist behind Arcbound Ravager and Sakura-Tribe Elder

Silvos, Rogue Elemental © Wizards of the Coast

You’ve been working with Wizards of the Coast since 1999 and your paintings appear on more than 200 cards. Tell us a little about how you got started.

Back in the 1990’s there were quite a few artists in the UK producing fully painted strips for the UK comic 2000AD following the sucess of Simon Bisley’s work on ‘Slaine’.  Wizards of the Coast were looking for new artists to work on MtG and sent an art editor (Maria Cabardo) on a scouting mission to the UK Comic Art Convention where she made contact with several of us who went on to produce a lot of card art over the following few years.  Apart from myself, Kev Walker, Greg Staples, Rob Bliss and Dermot Power were all signed up.

Murkfiend Liege © Wizards of the Coast

You’ve mentioned that “as the Magic universe has evolved over the years, there’s a little less room for personal input than in some of the earlier sets”. As an artist, you’ve got a unique perspective on the growth of the game. How have these changes impacted your work?

I wouldn’t say the evolution of the Magic universe has had a great impact on my working approach, but there is a more coherent design influence to many aspects of cards in the later sets as they’re depicting people, environments and creatures that have already been seen in earlier editions.

Loaming Shaman © Wizards of the Coast

Many of your Magic art features Rats, Goats, Squirrels, Cats, Hounds, Tigers, Beasts, Bears, Elephants, Insects, Birds, and Wurms. Is this a “theme” that plays to your strengths as an artist?

I hope so.  It’s the job of a good art editor to match up the individual jobs with the most suitable artists, so I suppose you’d have to ask them 😉

On 2013 you said that “the artwork is always drawn traditionally (usually with a dip pen) in ink and then scanned in and colored on the computer”. Can you elaborate further on your work process and the impact of technology?

The interview you mention in the question was mainly about my comic strip work, which is usually black and white line art coloured in Photoshop, but for my Magic card art I prefer traditional painting. The older cards are done in acrylics and then I switched to a combination of watercolour and gouache around the time of the Ravnica block.

Overrun © Wizards of the Coast

After a hiatus, you recently made an amazing comeback with Unstable. That Goat token is genius. How did it feel to make these paintings?

Glad you like the Goat! Many thanks for the kind words – I’ve always enjoyed doing Magic cards and it was great to work on them again – I hope to have the chance to do some more (if anyone from WotC reads this 😉 but I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

Of all the cards you painted, which ones were the most challenging, and why?

Each card presents its own different challenges. As I mentioned earlier a successful Magic card always depends on a strong image that reads well on a small scale – the other thing you always need to think about is the card colour – I find White cards in particular need a lot of thought.


Joseph Meehan Interview

Welcome to our artists interview series – There’s no Magic without art -, where we talk to artists about their work on Magic: the Gathering.

Today we share with you our talk with Joseph Meehan, and here’s what he told us.

Joseph Meehan, the artist behind the Phyrexian Scriptures Saga

Tragic Lesson © Wizards of the Coast

Hi Joe! tell us a bit about how you got started.

I’ve drawn my whole life, I come from a family of people who draw, my Dad was an illustrator, my Mom is an Art Director in advertising. I ended up going through the Toy Design program at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and got a job at Mattel, in the Boys Action Department, where I worked mainly on Batman.

I always wanted to be a concept artist and an illustrator, so in the evenings I worked hard to create a portfolio. Mattel would send employees to Comic-Con every year, and in 2013, I went knowing that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) interviews artists there. My interview went great and within 8 months I got my first commission.

What paintings were the hardest to do?

The ones that have a lot of figures in it, all trying to tell a specific story. Characters take a long time to draw. Natural environments are always easy and fun to do, but if you have four characters all interacting with each other, now that’s a real pain the ass! [Laughs]

For every character you must design the costume, and you want them all to be unique and cool, so the decision about what you’re going to draw takes a long time, not the drawing itself.

A specific card I didn’t like doing and wasn’t happy how it ended up was Confiscation Coup. It was a complicated story to tell, and a complicated scene to draw.

What cards were the easiest?

The simpler cards are the ones you can visualize more easily, if it’s just one character. Sometimes the Art Description (AD) is just “draw the character and make them look cool”.

I did the invocation for Hazoret the Fervent, and that was basically the AD. So yeah, for cards like that you can do a certain low angle, hero shot with the white light behind them.

Hazoret the Fervent © Wizards of the Coast

How was it to paint the ‘Spell Pierce’ Invocation?

I found that illustration kind of difficult, it was hard to get across what exactly was happening. He’s supposed to be splitting this wall of flames and the original illustration was not telling that story clearly enough, even though I do like it better.

I had a lot of that scene mapped out on 3D, and it was very easy for me to just rotate the camera, and then paint in the flames again. So, even though it sounds like it’s like a huge job to completely redo an illustration, for that one it actually wasn’t quite as hard.

On the right, the final image for Spell Pierce © Wizards of the Coast

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

I always take a photo of myself or, if it’s a woman, take a photo of my wife. Then I go into Poser, and try to duplicate it. But, because I’m not muscular, and usually I’m called upon to draw heroic muscular men, I use a software called Anatomy 360: they have body scans of body builders, so you can get the references for muscles and that. Then, I’ll put it into KeyShot, the rendering software. If there’s buildings in the background I’ll always build the buildings in 3D.

Watchers of the Dead © Wizards of the Coast

You painted the new Saga card ‘Phyrexian Scriptures’ in acrylics, which is something you don’t normally do. What can you tell us about this painting?

Around that time they sent me that commission I had started considering doing some traditional paintings for Wizards, because the originals are worth a lot of money. Even though I don’t play the game, I knew this was going to be an important card. They were VERY specific on this one, more specific than they are on most cards.

It was an easy card to design. They sent me Dark Ritual – the card they were referencing – but wanted a human hand instead; they also showed me some examples of Phyrexian stuff, to make it ‘Gigoresque’ (to reference HR Gigor), and I noticed that this stuff they were showing me, these massive hoses and bones, was not symmetrical.

Phyrexian Scriptures © Wizards of the Coast

I decided that a symmetrical image would be more impactful for this sort of outer worldly look, and to make it look like an altar. The text was laid out exactly how you see in the card, and the words in the middle needed to be emphasized, so I decided to put them on that raised section.

I ended up with a render that looks very much like the final thing. I painted it on a canvas, which – I found out later – is not what most Magic artists do. Most Magic artists do a digital sketch, print it out on this heavy paper, and then basically glue it to a board and paint over it. This is a really good way to go about it, and it’s what I’m going to do in the future.

But I redrew the whole thing on a canvas using a pencil. I used this grid technique where I lay out a 10×20 grid over the KeyShot render, drew a bigger grid with the same aspect ratio on the canvas, and then drew it in by hand just by looking at it.

Ramos, Dragon Engine © Wizards of the Coast

What’s the main difference between digital and traditional painting?

You know, the thing with digital is you can lay down color and stuff faster, and you can end up with something that looks pretty passable faster.

You also have more flexibility…

Yes, but that’s the Achilles heel of digital. You have more flexibility, there for you have more opportunity to second guess yourself. I find myself going back and forth a lot on things, you have so much freedom it can really eat up your time. It’s like the more advanced the technique, the more time is wasted.
Now that I’ve been incorporating much more 3D into my work, I’ll sit there for hours moving the camera around the model by tiny increments until it’s just the right. And no one notices this, but I do.

Saproling Token © Wizards of the Coast

We want to thank Joe for taking the time to talk to us. You can find Joseph’s work on his Artstation, and follow him on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter. We’ll be back next week with another interview, until then, happy scanning!


Jason Rainville Interview

Welcome to our artists interview series – There’s no Magic without art -, where we talk to artists about their work on Magic: the Gathering.

Today we share with you our talk with Jason Rainville, and here’s what he told us.

Jason Rainville, the artist behind Rekindling Phoenix and Reality Smasher

Deadlock Trap © Wizards of the Coast

Jason, tell us about how you got started working with Wizards of the Coast.

I was working for various table-top publishers at the time when a call for artists came from then-WotC art director Jon Schindehette. The call was specifically for concept artists. I applied to the position of character/costume concept artist as those I feel are my strong suits. While word came back that I didn’t get the job, they offered me Magic The Gathering cards!

In which way does the small card format condition the creative process, and how do you work around it?

While the size of the art when printed is very small, I think that sense of immersion and awe can actually be very easily achieved if fans are viewing the art during pre-release, when larger hi-res images are being shown. otherwise, simple and cohesive compositions are well-suited to create impact at a small size.

The horizontal orientation of the image lends itself to large sweeping vistas and in certain cases scenes with many characters. The problem (for me) comes when a non-planeswalker brief calls for a single character.
It’s very hard to create an imposing figure in a landscape-orientation. Still, with a little bit of planning, perspective, maybe even a dutch angle, it’s possible to work around the limitations of the card.

Reality Smasher © Wizards of the Coast

You painted new art for the iconic Cryptic Command. It’s interesting how you took the element from Wayne England’s art and incorporated it as a central piece of your work. When creating new art for an existing card, does this increase the pressure on your side? How does this process differ from creating art for a new card?

I think there’s a bit of misunderstanding about the creative process and relationship between artist and art director with this card specifically; the iconic spell was part of the brief. I knew relatively little about the previous card and the art director called for the mage to be casting that spell at the viewer. Most everything else was left up to me, but I can’t take credit for the implementation.

I CAN however take credit for doing a small amount of research into blue mana and the card, trying to create something as mysterious as possible. I settled on a mage so shrouded in layers of swirling fabric that her figure (just like her intentions) were lost to sight.

Cryptic Command © Wizards of the Coast

From your descriptions of the work behind Oracle of Dust and Thunderbreak Regent, you seem to spend a lot of time preparing for each painting, doing multiple studies and sketches. Can you give us a brief description of your work process, and how you got there?

I really like front-loading my decision-making as it means I can focus on each stage of the process without having to think too much the whole way through. Thinking is a tough and slow process, and I’d rather get it out of the way early so less of the image has to change further down the road.

Ideally I start with studies of the subject before work even begins. As my schedule grows more and more hectic, this is a luxury I’m not often able to indulge in.

Studies for Oracle of Dust

I always start with a page of usually 21 thumbnails (small, simple sketches) done in graphite. I like to start in pencil as it forces me to keep things simple.

Going right to digital might allow me to get lost in the details to early on. I select the best ideas from those thumbnails, bring them into Photoshop and create 1-3 colour sketches that I then send off to the art director. Once one is selected/approved, I look for and shoot reference photos (usually of myself).

I then resketch the entire image in a tight digital line sketch. I paint the colours underneath this sketch, and then begin painting overtop. this rendering, though only one “step” can take up fully half of the overall time I spend on an image.

Muldrotha, the Gravetide © Wizards of the Coast

Art descriptions give artists a rundown of the card, they must imagine it and bring to life. Would you share with us some of your most challenging commissions?

While I’d like to recount a brief that was particularly outlandish or challenging, it’s almost never the brief that gives me trouble, it’s the subject matter being presented.

I feel like I still have a difficult time simplifying certain subjects in a piece, and anytime I’ve been asked to include a lot of foliage or cities I’ve usually had a harder time.

As for the hardest brief, I think it was Violent Impact for the Amonkhet set. It was just very difficult to show a smashed chariot that still read as a chariot. Drawing fantasy chariots are hard enough when they’re intact!

Did you ever receive an art description that made you say “I know exactly how I’ll paint this!”?

Yes! But it’s not released yet so I can’t really talk about it. Like I said Violent Impact proved difficult after a while, but I suppose something that made me do a double take was the description for Eldritch Evolution. it just seemed so gross and wild that I had no idea where to start sketching it!

Eldritch Evolution © Wizards of the Coast

Rekindling Phoenix is an amazing painting and one of the most played cards in Standard. Can you tell us more about how this painting came to be?

Rekindling phoenix is actually one of the pieces I’m most sad about. I don’t think it really came together and my disappointment is compounded by the fact that it’s a very playable and popular card. It has to do with the fact that I’m not too great at drawing birds, or painting foliage and distant architecture. This one had all 3!

I wish I could have used one of my other sketch options for this one but I misunderstood the brief and painted the phoenix way too large at first. Just so this isn’t a completely negative answer though; I had done some more dynamic views of the bird from the side, and in a much darker setting so that the fire would show better. unfortunately it was a little too far off of the brief and a different option was selected.

The concept-art for the phoenix was already established as well so I didn’t do much to design it. Overall the piece came together relatively easily, but I just wish it was more realistic and defined.

Rekindling Phoenix © Wizards of the Coast

What’s the most satisfying part of making art for Magic?

A few things; the art director-artist relationship is the best I’ve had, the ready-made worlds to illustrate are inspiring, and the built-in fanbase has made making secondary income a lot easier.

But really, it’s the very enthusiastic fanbase that just loves to see good art and storytelling in the game they love. If I can fit some easter eggs (like the bat in Heir of Falkenrath) or extra effort (Oracle of Dust) in some cards, it’ll get noticed and appreciated.

Seeing those bits of recognition, those positive comments from people who know this game/these worlds inside out really means something to me as someone who doesn’t.

It makes it feel like I’ve really tapped into something and made an impact even while being more on the outside. Makes me feel like I’m a good artist to know how to elicit that response every now and again.

 Heir of Falkenrath © Wizards of the Coast

We want to thank Jason for his time and kindness, and for giving us this incredibly funny and inspiring interview. You can find more about Jason’s work on his website, where you can buy amazing prints and sketches, or get one of your favorite cards signed. We’ll be back next week with another interview, until then, happy scanning!


Anthony Palumbo Interview

Welcome to our artists interview series – There’s no Magic without art -, where we talk to artists about their work on Magic: the Gathering.

Today we share with you our talk with Anthony Palumbo, and here’s what he told us.

Anthony Palumbo, the artist behind Hollow One and Cultivate

Disappearing Act © Wizards of the Coast

You’ve been working with Wizards of the Coast for almost 10 years now. Tell us a little about how you got started.

I admired Magic as a fantasy art institution since I first started seeing the cards in the 90s. They lingered in my mind as I grew up, and around 2007 my brother David began doing illustration work for them. A year or so later, I began to look for work as a freelance illustrator myself, and traveled to San Diego Comicon to show my portfolio around and hopefully pick up some clients.

After hours, Dave was having drinks at the hotel bar with some of his artist pals, including his Magic art director Jeremy Jarvis. Dave made a point of giving me a warm introduction, and mentioned that I was interested in working for Magic and had a portfolio tucked under my arm. Jeremy checked it out, and good dude that he is he told me he’d give me a shot at an assignment.

Elgaud Shieldmate © Wizards of the Coast

In which way does the small card format condition the creative process, and how do you work around it?

I’ve taken to really enjoy the small format of Magic cards. It forces me to simplify, and have clarity in my work. It’s definitely influenced everything I’ve done actually – I always want my images to communicate, even at only one inch high. And at the same time, I’m always surprised by how much detail can be seen on the small cards if you focus on them for a few seconds.

I read in a previous interview that you “tend to get assigned cards with a stillness and quiet to them, as opposed to violent action”. Did you notice this tendency in your work right from the start?

Yes, this has always been a tendency of mine. I think it stems from my background as a traditional painter. My early work was often painted from life, or emulated the live model poses seen in art from the pre-photography era of painting.

The opposite of this would be the breed of artists who come from more of an animation or comic book background. Their work breathes dynamic action and movement, and I very much admire it. But I’ve always felt most comfortable concentrating on stillness and capturing a quiet pause.

Geist Trappers © Wizards of the Coast

You grew up in a house where both your mother and stepfather were artists, and today you live and share your life with Winona Nelson, a well-known artist that also made some amazing Magic art. How has this contributed to your development as an artist?

 

It’s surely contributed in ways that I can’t even grasp, in the way that a goldfish swimming in a bowl doesn’t know what water is. This is all I know. My parents and brother and girlfriend are all fantasy painters! There was a period from when I was in art school and several years after (maybe from when I was 17-26 years old) that I fancied myself a gallery artist and I avoided working on any art that was explicitly a genre illustration. But eventually I gave in to my true nature and desires, and returned to the culture and community of fantasy artists that I grew up in.

Can you give us a brief rundown of your work process during a regular commission?

For Magic, when the assignment comes into my inbox I read the brief from the art director, and if there is a new styleguide I’ll check that out too. Then I just let it sit in the back of my head for a week or two and don’t do any work on it until the deadline for the sketch approaches.

Geist Trappers © Wizards of the Coast

By this time, the assignment has rolled around in my subconscious for a while and I reread the brief to re-familiarize myself with it. And at that point I pretty much know what my vision of it is, after living with the idea of the card and thinking over possible approaches for a while. I’ll do one or two digital color sketches to send to the art director for approval, and usually they just have a few details they’d like to see adjusted before I tighten things up for the final piece.

The art creation process itself has me spending about half of my working time on the sketches, in which I’ll digitally sculpt the needed elements such as characters, armor, weapons, and architecture in ZBrush, and play around with them as a photographer would. I’ll use these 3D models as reference for my sketches and for the final work, and possibly use photo references too to try to bring the subtleties of reality to the piece.

Lose Calm © Wizards of the Coast

What were some of your most challenging commissions, and why?

When I’m outside of my comfort zone, it’s always a scary time. For me, this would be cards that feature a monster rather than a human. I think there are two distinct types of fantasy artists: Those who got into drawing because they love drawing beautiful people (Winona Nelson is a Magic artist who I believe falls into this category), and those who above all else love inventing monsters and creatures (my amigo Jason Felix comes to mind).

And there are some who I think are in love with both, like Allen Williams. I’m one who has only ever wanted to paint people. So when an assignment like Field Creeper or Enraged Giant comes along, I’m crapping my pants in fear that I’ll have no idea how to do it. Those were tough for me, but I’m happy with how both of them came out.

Hollow One is an incredible painting of yours. It’s hard to tell if he’s a villain or a hero (maybe neither), part of his body looks shattered and yet, he walks triumphantly under the mysterious desert light. Can you tell us more about how this painting came to be?

Thank you, I love that one! I like your description of it too. This is the first time I’ve ever thought about whether he is a hero or villain. When I was painting him, I just thought of him as tough and enduring in a very harsh realm. There was a bit of a storytelling challenge here to show in one image that this is the lid to a sarcophagus come to life.

I put a little bit of twist in his sarcophagus body to help show what he’s made of, getting to see him from more angles that way. I created a very detailed digital sculpt of the character to get his design down and as an aid in giving realism to the final image. The whole process was a really smooth one, this was one of my favorite assignments ever (despite no pretty people in it!)

And then later the card took on a whole extra significance for me. I went to a GP in Shanghai in 2017, and learned that the Chinese players saw this card in a hilariously different way than I ever could have ever anticipated. By chance, the face in my Hollow One illustration looks similar to an actor seen in a Chinese internet meme based on a screenshot from the 1988 Hong Kong action film As Tears Go By.

Usually this meme is coupled with some choice foul language. I had never heard of this movie or the meme before, but a lot of the players in Shanghai brought it up when they learned I painted Hollow One. At least two people at the GP had the meme printed on their t-shirt, that’s how much this thing was going around. So learning that there was a subculture of Magic players in China who had all of these inside-jokes about a painting I did made me unbelievably happy. That my painting was causing laughter on the other side of the planet for reasons I could barely even understand – it was one of my favorite experiences ever as a Magic artist.

Back from the Brink © Wizards of the Coast

What’s the most satisfying part of making art for Magic?

It’s the unexpected but delightful interactions with players at GPs, such as the one I just mentioned. Usually at every Magic event I’ve gone to there is one surprise moment where a stranger and I unexpectedly connect because of the art. Usually there is laughter, and occasionally even tears. That Magic allows this kind of connection between people is the coolest thing about it.

We want to thank Anthony for taking the time to give us this interview, and for his friendliness. You can find more about his work on his website. And here are the four cards he made for Dominaria!


Jason Engle Interview

Welcome to our artists interview series – There’s no Magic without art -, where we talk to artists about their work on Magic: the Gathering.

Today we talk with Jason Engle, who has created some amazing art for Magic, and here’s what he told us.

Jason Engle, the artist behind Scrapheap Scrounger and Earthshaker Khenra

Avatar of Slaughter © Wizards of the Coast

You’ve started making Magic cards about ten years ago, but long before that you were doing covers for Dungeon Magazine (a magazine about D&D). Can you tell us a little about this period and how you got started?

I began my career as a graphic designer for a marketing company when I was just out of high school. I was fortunate to meet some like minded people at this company, and together we co-founded a tabletop game publishing company back in 1999, and after a year of development, we debuted our first game at Gencon in the year 2000.

It was called Shards of the Stone, and it sold incredibly well at the show due to the revival of D&D with its 3rd edition, there was a craze for all things fantasy role-playing, and we kind of rode that wave for a short time. I was the only illustrator or artist really, on staff, so I produced the entire look for the game, and all the art it contained.

The book was a hit at the show, and many other games companies picked up copies as well, and soon after I started getting freelance offers coming in from all over the industry. It was a great way to get started in the freelancing business, and dropped me right into the deep end almost overnight.

Spirit Token © Wizards of the Coast

After almost a year of freelancing, the art director at Dungeon contacted me about doing a cover. It was a big opportunity, and I assume they had simply seen my work around the industry by that point on other products, and it was a hell of a lot of fun to work on the magazine that I read as a kid playing D&D.

It really felt like the pinnacle of success very early in my career, and I was incredibly happy to have such a big opportunity. They also let me illustrate an interior article in that same issue, which was written for the world of Dragonlance, which was my favorite setting in the D&D multiverse as a kid, and it was written by Tracy Hickman himself!

I then went on to illustrate many more articles for both Dungeon and Dragon magazines, as well as create art for many of the main line of D&D books and products for many years afterward.

Earthshaker Khenra © Wizards of the Coast

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

I start with composition. The art orders they provide are usually very comprehensive and include characters, visual reference, the scene and at least a suggestion for the background of the image. It is then up to me to find the best way to include all of these elements and present them in a way that clearly tells the story through the art, and does so in the most compelling and aesthetically pleasing way possible.

The art on a card is fairly small, so it needs to read clearly and easily. This means I spend a lot of time early on dealing with just shapes and forms, creating overlapping elements that don’t obscure too much to make anything identifiable, and just trying to construct as much of the bones of an image as possible to give myself a solid foundation, before I start doing any detail or color.

Sketches for Earthshaker Khenra

Once I have a good composition, I move on to reference gathering. I compile images that give me useful information for anatomy, light, costume design, and texture. I then composite the elements together onto my compositional sketch, to get an idea of how these elements can work within the shapes I’ve defined.

I then turn to my drawing pad, and begin the actual sketch. Once I have a drawing, or two, that I am happy with, I scan it in, and do a little light grey tone shading with a digital airbrush, to define the real basic darks and lights, so the art directors can get a sense of my overall lighting scheme. I then submit this to the art directors for approval.

Assuming everything gets a green light from the directors, I then break out my greytone paper, and do a much larger, much more carefully rendered drawing. I use both black and white pencils for this stage, to start defining how the details and textures are affected by the very basic lighting I’ve been building up to that point. It’s more of a refining stage, so that I have as much information as possible before I start laying in color.

Lord of Extinction © Wizards of the Coast

When the tonal drawing is done, I scan in this drawing, and then crop out the separate elements in Photoshop. I use the layering capabilities to add depth and patterns, and work on rendering all the elements separately, and bring all of the lights and darks to as much finish as possible. Then I start laying in color, re-touching elements that don’t quite have the right tone or texture once they are in color, and begin overlaying textures and patterns and effects. Once all that is in place, I then start polishing everything until it all comes together.

All of this usually takes about two days. 1 for the sketch and compositional phase, and one for the rendering and color.

And even after all of that, I will usually hold onto the image for another day or two, to make sure nothing jumps out at me after I’ve had a chance to get away from the piece for a short time and can re-approach the image with fresh eyes. You’d be amazed how many times this has saved me from some weird anatomy, or wonky backgrounds.

Sketches for Lord of Extinction

In which way does the small card format condition the creative process?

It does necessitate a clear composition, and it does limit detail. That said, we still render all of the detail into an image just as we would on a piece of cover art, but we have to be aware of what does or doesn’t show up at the small size, so we can make certain there is still enough information to convey drama and action.

So, I will commonly zoom in and out of an image during the production process, to give me an idea of how it will look on the final card. It’s really like we are producing art for two images at once, a full size poster, and a tiny little card, in the same piece of art.

What were some of the most challenging cards you painted, and why?

The first card I produced for Magic was Aether Flues, for Planechase. I’m not really an environment artist, and more of a character specialist, so while it was a great honor to finally get a chance to produce art for Magic, the game I had loved for so long, it was definitely a surprise when I read the art order.

I had done a lot of work in fantasy game publishing and felt like this description (I’m paraphrasing here but this is the idea: a moon-like cratered planet surface full of blue energy geysers and glowing jellyfish flying overhead) was way outside my strike zone, but I did the best I could at the time. And in fairness, I still kind of like the art actually.

Bonebats though, was one I’m not as fond of. It works alright, I just can’t help feeling I could have done a lot more with it.

On the other hand, which ones “immediately clicked”?

Herald of the Pantheon.

I got the description for it, and sat down to sketch it the same night after working on other projects all day, and just played around while watching TV. By the time I went to bed I had 4 different ideas that were all great. I drew them all up the next day, did the full sketch treatment, sent them into the art director (which was still Jarvis at that time), and he said “These are all great. Pick whichever one you want”.

And so, I did, and the rendering was just easy. It took a couple extra days, because, all the plants and trees can do that, but it came together so well, and everything just worked on the first try, when it was done I knew it immediately. It just clicked, like you said.

 Herald of the Pantheon © Wizards of the Coast

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

Avatar of Slaughter, Student of Ojutai, Herald of the Pantheon, Lord of Extinction, Yahenni’s Expertise. Oh, and the Spirit token from Return to Innistrad, something about that spirit girl and her smokey glowing dress, just really works well for that world.

 Student of Ojutai © Wizards of the Coast

We want to thank Jason for the interview, and for being an awesome guy.

In the upcoming Dominaria expansion, you’ll be able to get your hands on the following cards done by Jason.

You can find more about Jason’s work on his website, and buy a print of his amazing paintings. Join us next week for another interview, in the meantime, enjoy the Dominaria pre-release, and happy scanning!


Lucas Graciano Interview

Welcome to our artists interview series – There’s no Magic without art -, where we talk to artists about their work on Magic: the Gathering.

Today we share with you our interview with Lucas Graciano, who talked about his work process and most challenging works to date.

Lucas Graciano, the artist behind Thoughtseize and Grenzo

Grave Titan © Wizards of the Coast

You’ve been working with Wizards of the Coast for eight years now. Tell us a little about how you got started.

The first time I approached Wizards of the Coast, I pitched my portfolio to one of the art directors and was given some valuable feedback that I took home and worked on. About a year or so later (2010), I ran into the same director at IlluXCon, where I had a booth. He saw the work I was doing then, and I got my first commission from him. I’ve been on just about every set since.

Vexing Devil © Wizards of the Coast

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

Once I receive the art brief, I gather some reference to help spring board my digital, rough sketch. I then submit a sketch or two. Once one is picked by the AD, I start work on a tighter drawing. I then transfer that onto a painting surface and get to painting. I usually cover the painting with a thin layer of the values and colors I’m intending to paint, more opaque, later. From here, I pick a spot, and start to render.

In which way does the small card format condition the creative process?

It’s definitely smart to plan for the image to be downsized. The image needs to be instantly recognizable at that scale. You need to have a clear separation between your foreground, middle ground, and background elements. This gives a good sense of depth and an easier read on the illustration at card size.

Duress © Wizards of the Coast

Art descriptions give artists a rundown of the card, they must work from there to create an image. What were some of the most challenging cards you painted, and why?

Primal Clay! Man, that was a tough one. Mainly because the description of the object was so abstract and there wasn’t a clear, definitive design for the object. I had a tough time realizing how it would look.

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

Which ones? I got the chance to illustrate Duress in the Ixalan set. For some reason, after I read the assignment, I knew exactly how I wanted to illustrate it. I can’t explain why, but that was what immediately came into my head. I had to struggle to find a second idea, because I felt the first one was perfect. I’m just happy that the AD let me go with that one.

Flamespeaker Adept © Wizards of the Coast

You painted new art for the iconic Thoughtseize and Grave Titan. When creating new art for an existing card, do you feel more pressured? How does this process differ from creating art for a new card?

To be honest, when I did Thoughtseize and GT, I was a newer MTG artist. I had no idea what either of those cards really were. In fact, as I was painting Thoughtseize, I felt that it was too “weird” to appeal to any collectors. Little did I know. I must have gotten a dozen emails, when the image was released, asking about the original painting.

Thoughtseize © Wizards of the Coast

For our last question, of all the cards you’ve made, which one is your favorite and why?

Haha, I get asked this question a lot. I like each one for different reasons. Some I like for a particular way I rendered something, others for the way the image was composed, or maybe overcoming a particular difficult thing to illustrate. So, I can’t really pick just one.

Pounce © Wizards of the Coast


Matt Stewart Interview

Welcome to our artists interview series – There’s no Magic without art -, where we talk to artists about their work on Magic: the Gathering.

Today we dive into the incredible world of Matt Stewart, who talked about his work process, favorite paintings and most challenging commissions to date.

Matt Stewart, the artist behind Waste Not and Narcomoeba

Cobbled Wings © Wizards of the Coast

You’ve been working with Wizards of the Coast for over 10 years now. Tell us a little about how you got started.

My first commissions for Wizards of the Coast were book covers for the “Forgotten Realms” line of novels, “The Knights of Myth Drannor” series, by Ed Greenwood. I guess I did a good enough job on those to catch the eye of Jeremy Jarvis, who was the art director for Magic at the time, because he then offered me my first card commissions. I’ve been doing work for Magic ever since.

Woodborn Behemoth © Wizards of the Coast

You’ve mentioned, about Woodborn Behemoth, that you “needed to give this creature something to do so that it looked alive. So [you] made it going after a flock of birds with its gigantic maw. The birds are lost when the image is reduced to card size”. How does the small card format condition the creative process, considering details are often lost? 

Thinking about how an image will appear at card size is one of the most important factors to consider. Subjects must pop off the background and be clearly seen. A strong silhouette, along with proper handling of values (light and dark) enables a figure to stand out against the background.

In the case of “Woodborn Behemoth”, it’s the silhouette of the creature, the jagged design of the maw and the legs, and the contrast against the light sky that makes the illustration work at card size. The birds are a nice storytelling detail, but they’re not essential for the reading of the card.

Honored Hierarch © Wizards of the Coast

You work mainly with Oil Paintings, and taught yourself digital painting too. When painting Cyclops of Eternal Fury, you started in oil and continued in Photoshop. Can you give a brief description about your work process, and the impact that digital painting had on your work?

“Cyclops of Eternal Fury” was done initially as an image for the Theros style-guide. It was an example of the Nyx star-field effect, which was new to that setting. The effect was that stars in outer space would appear in the dark shadows on certain creatures.

My first attempt in oils wasn’t correct. I thought the star-field would be seen in all the shadows in the image, not just the creature, which was wrong. I was probably up against the deadline at the time too.

Making a nice oil painting had to take a backseat to getting the star-field effect right, and getting it done on time. The best tool for the job was Photoshop. Not having worry building up layers of oil paint and

Cyclops of Eternal Fury © Wizards of the Coast

The use of Photoshop isn’t used just for changes, and has always been part of process. I start with small thumbnail sketches done in my sketchbook, usually on toned paper. Then I scan the sketches into Photoshop and play around with them, trying different versions, adding more values, and building up the image until I feel I have what I need. For a long time I’d do a comprehensive line drawing, but lately, the digital versions of the sketch have been sufficient enough for me to hand into Wizards. Digital sketches also allow me to think more in value than in line. More problems are tackled in the sketch stage than in the final. When the sketch is approved, I trace the sketch onto a primed board, and begin painting.

Relentless Raptor, sketch and final image © Wizards of the Coast

For the card Act of Treason, you “looked at a lot of pictures of hindu festivals, where some skewer their flesh, even hanging weights on them in displays of faith and mind over matter”. Do you often research for reference?

I research for reference all the time. Even when the overall design has been established, I try to supplement my reference with information from the real world to add a greater feeling of reality. With “Act of Treason”, I went a little too real, adding a lot of blood, which was a bit too much for the card and had to remove it.

Act of Treason, ‘Bloody’ version and Final version © Wizards of the Coast

Art descriptions give artists a breakdown of the card, they must imagine it and bring to life. Would you share with us some of your most challenging commissions?

Images with a lot of visual glowing magic effects sometimes give me trouble because they involve balancing a lot of competing or unnatural light sources. But I think one of the most challenging images to translate visually in a realistic way that comes to mind was “Mystic Barrier”.

It called for an old mage walking past a line of charging soldiers. The mage was holding a torch that emitted a wall of glowing magic that created a barrier that the soldiers could not pass. The barrier would only be seen in the smooshed faces of the soldiers as they slam into the barrier. Some would be shown knocked down, and some stopping in their tracks seeing their comrades being repulsed by what appeared to be mere smoke.

Nephalia Smuggler © Wizards of the Coast

You also painted the art for Waste Not, a card created by the Magic Community. How did it felt to work closely with the players on this one?

It was an honor for me to be chosen for such a commission. I meant that the art directors had enough faith in me in a spotlight where the entire process would be public. I had to come up with three versions of an image, any of which was good enough to be on a card. I was a little hesitant to look at the online feedback, but most of it was positive, and the fans picked the one I wanted to paint, and I think I got one of my favorite images from it.

Two of the three version submitted by Matt for Waste Not © Wizards of the Coast

For our last question: of all the cards you’ve made, which ones do you like the most, and why?

“Waste Not” is one of my favorites as I mentioned. I was very happy with the way “Cobbled Wings” turned out because of the moonlight, and the design of the wings, which was my own. I think my favorite cards are portraits though. Especially when I can think about whom this person is that I am painting, and imagine a backstory.

Then I can go beyond the art description, and go after a specific likeness I might want, a particular facial expression, and details that give clues to that person’s life. The devilish grin and the prison tattoos on the “Nephalia Smuggler” are examples of this. A recent favorite of mine is “Noble Hierarch”, which depicts the guardian of an olive grove in Bant.

I imagined the woman is the daughter of the old man I painted for “Honored Hierarch”. The trees have grown a bit bigger, and she wears robes emblazoned with the same symbols and has inherited his staff.

Noble Hierarch © Wizards of the Coast

Thank you for reading! We want to thank Matt for his time and friendliness. You can read more about Matt’s work on his website, where you can get a signed print or an original drawing.


Daarken Interview

Welcome to our artists interview series – There’s no Magic without art – where we talk to artists about their work on Magic: the Gathering.


For our first interview, we had the pleasure of talking to Mike “Daarken” Lim, who has been creating amazing art for Wizards of the Coast for over a decade, and here is what he told us.

Daarken, the artist behind Birthing Pod and Ravenous Chupacabra

Consul’s Lieutenant © Wizards of the Coast

You’ve been working with Wizards of the Coast for eleven years now. Tell us a little about how you got started and your first work on Future Sight.

Has it already been that long? Now I feel old. I went to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and graduated cum laude with a BFA in traditional illustration. Right after school I sent out some mailers, again, I’m showing my age. Back then we snail mailed physical copies of our portfolio. I didn’t hear back from anyone, so I wasn’t really sure what else to do.

I sat around and played video games for about three months and then one day I received a call from Wizards, asking if I wanted to work on D&D. After about two years I asked my Art Director (AD) if I could start doing Magic cards and they said yes. Korlash was one of my first paintings for Magic.

It was definitely intimidating working on Magic for the first time, especially since my AD hooked me up with a sweet card like Korlash.

Mindwrack Demon,  © Wizards of the Coast

Jeremy Jarvis, Franchise Creative Director for WotC, said that “the size and format of the medium are not openly conducive to communicating an awe-inspiring sense of immersion”. In which way does the small card format condition the creative process, and how do you work around it?

At first I focused mainly on the figures or the action of the card and left everything else pretty empty. Most of the time my figures were against an abstract background or some simple landscape, which worked well for the cards, but not so much for prints and posters.

Once WotC started printing my paintings larger, I decided I needed to tighten them up and focus more on the illustration as a whole. These days I just try to create a good painting and I don’t worry too much about details that won’t be seen at print size.

Art descriptions give artists a brief rundown of a card, they must use their imagination and bring it to life. Would you share with us some of the most challenging commissions?

Pretty much all of my early work, haha. I think throwing up my arms and lamenting “I don’t know how to so this” was a common occurrence. There are a few that come to mind though. For some reason I had a really hard time with Praetor’s Counsel. I used to have a really hard time with color, and I remember having a hard time with the color on that one. I probably went through several different attempts. Even the characters were giving me trouble.

Praetor’s Counsel © Wizards of the Coast

Demonic Tutor was another early piece that I had trouble with. I think figuring out the staging was hard and I’m not very good at painting interiors, so that also caused a problem.

Sarkhan Vol was difficult, but in a different sense. The pressure of being the first artist besides Aleksi to paint a Planeswalker definitely got to me. Now I cringe at my original Sarkhan Vol.

You’ve mentioned that “gross and scary” themes really play to your strengths as an artist. Do you feel more comfortable working within this genre, or can it be equally challenging?

Yeah I think so. It’s easy to make something gross or scary, but it’s hard making something beautiful. I enjoy doing other genres as well, but I think gross and scary is what people think about when discussing my art.

I also read on your blog that painting buildings and crowds is not your cup of tea. How do you venture outside your comfort zone, considering the tight delivery schedules?

I don’t have a choice, haha. Seriously though, a good AD knows how and when to push an artist outside of their comfort zone.

Receiving commissions outside of my comfort zone allows me to broaden my toolbox. If I constantly stayed away from things that were hard or that I wasn’t good at, I would never improve.

Ravenous Chupacabra © Wizards of the Coast

Birthing Pod, Bloodghast, Bloodstained Mire and Ravenous Chupacabra are amongst some of your well-known cards. You mentioned that “the more you hate a painting, the more players like the card, and vice versa”. Do you believe artists and players value different aspects when it comes to art?

Hah. I don’t think it’s so much that the players value something differently when it comes to art, I think it’s just the luck of the draw regarding how playable the card is. I think most of the time players recognize good art on bad cards, and vice versa. I think it’s just interesting that the playability of a card usually has a direct correlation to print and proof sales.

You’ve been doing concept pushes since Innistrad, can you give us a peek behind the curtain about what goes on during the development of the visual identity and overall atmosphere of a set?

Pushes are usually three weeks long. On the first day we have a meeting where we are presented with the world we need to bring to life. For the first week we are free to explore anything that tickles our fancy. If the part about space vampire gnomes (© Daarken) sounded awesome, then feel free to work on them. WotC is really good about giving the artists freedom.

Birthing Pod © Wizards of the Coast

During the second week we begin to hone in on the look and style of the world. We are still free to tackle any task in the brief, but we have a little more direction.

The last week has more structure. Each artist is assigned specific tasks that still need to be ironed out. Sometimes everyone will work on the same task if it’s a tricky one. At one point every artist was working on merfolk during the Ixalan push, and we still didn’t have them nailed down after three weeks.

For our last question, of all the cards you’ve made, which one is your favorite and why?

I think right now Balduvian Horde and Gonti, Lord of Luxury are my favorite. I think the lighting had a lot to do with both of them. I’ve been trying to play around more with lighting and how to use it to tell a story, so I enjoyed working on the lighting in those pieces.

Gonti, Lord of Luxury © Wizards of the Coast

We want to thank Mike “Daarken” Lim for his time and kindness.

You can read more about Daarken’s work on his website, and he usually hangs out on Twitter. He’s also creating amazing Video Tutorials, Paintovers, and Explosions, and you can support him on Patreon!

We also want to know your opinion, what’s your favorite Daarken card?

Thank you for reading!


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