Wizards of the Coast interview
August 23, 1998

Q: Tell us some of your biographical background.

I was born and raised in Colchester, Vermont, "suburbia" of Burlington, which is the largest city in Vermont with a population of about 40,000. Burlington is a college town (with the University of Vermont or UVM adding 10,000 students to the local population), but it doesn't have any significant art museums or a strong arts scene.

Although there are milestones in my professional arts career, I can't really say exactly when I "began" drawing and painting in a serious manner. My childhood is peppered with memories of making models, toys, drawing in the afternoons, reading comics, painting lead figurines, creating maps for role-playing, producing art projects for school the list continues and constantly elevates in the level of difficulty in image making that I embrace. My formal training began late. I began my college career at UVM majoring in electrical engineering, but it wasn't until my second year at the University of Vermont that I withdrew from this career path and enrolled in an art course. That same year I picked up my first set of oil paints and have spent the years since then attempting to properly work with them.

I realized to take painting seriously I needed to pursue education at a more challenging college with more competitive peers. I enrolled at Syracuse University in the fall of 1989 and majored in fine art painting. All told, my "college career" lasted six years, but it paid off: I'm doing what I love to do.

After graduating from college in 1992, I moved to New York City to be closer to the arts scene. I sought work as a book cover illustrator, concentrating in the science fiction and fantasy field. It was a big leap. It was several months before I got any commissions, and NYC is not a cheap place to live. I resisted the temptation to get a "regular" job and barely supported myself by working part time at the Society of Illustrators and by borrowing money from my parents (who suspected I was crazy). I spent all my time creating samples under the guidance of my agent, visiting museums, examining other illustrators work, and attending art openings. I shared a small apartment with two other aspiring artists, and every day I painted about 8-10 hours. The hard work finally paid off with commissions to produce covers for the classic science fiction books The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. Since then, I have found very steady work as a free-lance book cover illustrator.

It was here in New York (shortly after I arrived) that I met my wife. We now live in a brownstone in Brooklyn where I have my studio, literally minutes from the arts center of the universe, Manhattan.

Q: What artists do you admire?

My love of fine oil painting reaches back to my education as fine arts painter at Syracuse University. For me, the most important issue about painting is not the printed image, but what a person takes away when experiencing the original work. I moved to New York to be near its wonderful museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Museum, and Museum of Modern Art. I still spend many afternoons visiting my favorite artists -- Hans Memling, Jan Van Eyck, Velazquez, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Mondrian, Rembrandt. I strive to comprehend their complexity and bring that into my work. There is nothing so impressive to me as standing in front of a huge Velazquez that is 16' wide and 10' tall with fully life-sized figures! (I actually made a pilgrimage to the Prado Museum in Spain to see that one.) Or I will spend long stretches of time gazing into the minute details of a tiny Van Eyck, 8" by 12", bumping my nose on the glass straining to see details almost invisible to the eye. It is the combination of classical aesthetics with my love of Modern abstraction that I attempt to meld into one art form in my paintings. You can see these influences in some of my illustrations. For example, the robot in "Construct of Time" is modeled after Michaelangelo's incomparable sculpture, David.

Q: When did you begin working for Wizards of the Coast?

I first heard of Wizards of the Coast in 1995 at a comic book convention. WOTC artist Bryon Wackowitz showed me some cards he had done, and I was impressed with the creative potential of illustrating for the game. Because I was still building up my book cover career, a year passed before I sent my portfolio to WOTC. Afterwards, at the risk of seeming pushy, I took the initiative and gave a call to art director Sue Ann Harkey. Sue Ann was gracious and complimentary and immediately commissioned four pieces for their upcoming Mirage expansion deck. I was delighted to have such an opportunity.

I decided to set a high standard for myself in the quality of art for these cards. I purchased a few extra books on various African cultures and proceeded to research the styles and designs of eastern Africa dress and jewelry to bring a broad sampling of culture to the images WOTC desired. I am proud of these first products of my labor and thrilled with the success they've achieved: Grinning Totem, Amber Prison, Village Elder and Moss Diamond.

Q: Tell us about the work do you do for WOTC.

I produce a relatively low number of cards, about 3-5 Magic cards for each deck, but I do such a small number deliberately so as to create a product I can be proud of. I try to make each card a distinctive portrait. As many of you have picked up on, I love to paint hands and elderly, wrinkled faces. I slide as many of these images into the work as I can. I believe a hand can reveal as much about a person as a face. For example, in Amber Prison, Sisay's Ring, or Fyndhorn Elder I tried to create a depth of the individual beyond the painted illustration.

The paintings for Magic have allowed me the pursue a level of artistic freedom not attainable in book cover illustration. I revel in the opportunity to create a composition without fearing type will be splattered over my favorite part of the painting, and I embrace the challenge to create images that must be strong enough to a"pop" at 1.5" x 2". These "little paintings" also represent a perfect melding of my love of realism and abstract graphics. In addition, there are few outlets for a commercial artist to introduce non-conventional cultures and peoples into the illustrations.

Q: Are there other benefits to working for WOTC?

I am very grateful to WOTC and the players for helping promote and respect the artist as an integral part of the game. I think it is especially wonderful that the players can meet the artists who have created their favorite cards, inspect the original artwork, and get their cards signed. When I was younger, I never had the chance to meet a living artist who created the comics and book covers I enjoyed and admired. I feel an obligation and duty to give something to the players and readers that they may treasure, something I missed out on.

In addition, working for WOTC has allowed me some fantastic travel opportunities. WOTC has flown me to Portugal, Italy, Switzerland and various cities in the U.S. to meet players, sign cards and present my work. I always add time on the end of these trips to see the local museums.

Q: What is your favorite expansion set of Magic art?

My most favorite set of cards was for the Weatherlight expansion -- Steel Golem, Peacekeeper, and Thran Tome. I liked them because I believe they break away from the norm.

Steel Golem was inspired by an African dance mask which I then gave a high-tech look of silver/steel. I wanted to convey a kind of otherworldliness to the Golem yet still allow it to be captivating, delicate and earthly. I think the research I did successfully led to this effect.

Peacekeeper was originally commissioned as Southern Paladin. Her (yes, her) uniform is based on an African design. I wanted to evoke this individual's power and grace (thus the use of a white shirt to represent both authority and innocence). WOTC liked the card so much (and I had absent-mindedly "placed" the Thundermare in the background), it upgraded the art to a more powerful card, Peacekeeper.

The last card in this set was the Thran Tome, used on the box packaging. Once again I did a little preliminary work by setting up a still life in my studio with a dictionary as a stand in for the Tome. I often bring this original to tournaments. I added quite a bit of extra painting to the top and bottom beyond the requirements of the card, and many people have commented positively on its visual impact. A little extra work in this case has successfully paid off.

After she received this set of three, Sue Ann Harkey commissioned me to produce the advertising poster for the deck. I didn't realize it would be reproduced as such a large poster, and I was pleased to see it greet me and all the players at the Pre-release tournament.

Q: Can you describe your artistic process?

I begin an illustration, such as Amber Prison, with background research into the cultures, architecture, environments or literature as required or suggested by the demands of the commission. This preparatory step primes my mind with images I might not have thought of if I just began sketching from the start. For Amber Prison, I actually purchased a real piece of amber from the American Museum of Natural History. The amber, with its permanently imprisoned prehistoric flies, still rests in a brass display in my living room.

Only after I research do I begin rough, abstract sketches in pencil, attempting to find a composition and lighting structure that solves the illustration requirements of the job. The original commission of Amber Prison simply requested a piece of amber, but I felt that using an object to show scale might make the illustration more interesting, so I introduced the hand. From the rough sketches, I then generate one to three larger and more descriptive drawings to send to the art director for approval. Drawing is the foundation for much of my creative processes and it is at these stages that I experiment most fully.

After a sketch has been approved, I then acquire props (e.g. the real amber), secondary photographic reference from magazines and books (e.g. images of bracelets for the hand and dresses for the trapped woman), and primary photographic reference I take myself (e.g. a model's hand holding a stone in place of the amber). All of these elements are combined in a final drawing at a one-to-one ratio of the eventual painting. I then make a photocopy of the drawing onto 100% cotton paper and mount this onto " masonite board. I prefer using masonite to painting on canvas because it is more rigid and doesn't have all the bumps from the weave.

I finally begin oil painting with glazing medium on top of the copied drawing, color adjusting in paint to unify all the reference material I have acquired. To complete the painting, I borrow observations from life -- like watching the way light bounces off the amber and illuminates the skin underneath -- to create small details that help to convey a high level of illusion.

Q: Where else can we see your art?

The paintings for the cards of Magic, Middle-Earth, and Dune only represent one side of my illustration career. I still do a great deal of work for the science fiction book publishing industry, including publishers such as Penguin/ROC, Ballantine, Bantam, Tor, HarperCollins, and Avon. You can see my art on books by Larry Niven, Orson Scott Card, Barbara Hambly, Emily Devenport and many others in your local book stores. I have also been fortunate to have my work appear in several issues of Spectrum: The Best of Contemporary Fantastic Art (I'm on the cover of Spectrum V) and in Infinite Worlds by Vincent DiFate, a compendium of science fiction illustrators of the 20th Century. I have produced custom art for Amazing Stories, DC Comics, and television advertising among others. In a fun departure, I also created all the art for the most recent release of the Stratego board game (it's redone every decade), one of my favorite childhood games. I used my family as models for the game pieces, and if you buy the game, you can see my two brothers, father, father-in-law, some friends and cousins as well as myself (I'm the Colonel) decked out in authentic Napoleonic era uniforms.

Q: What do you do when you're not painting?

I'm almost always painting! It's my first and most consuming love (apologies to my wife). In my free time, I mostly work on non-commissioned pieces related to science and scientists of the past and present. When I'm not painting, I like to play soccer and Magic and other role-playing games with my friends. My new house also keeps me busy, and I like to build things that make it unique. In NYC there are always wonderful cultural event to attend, and we often go to museums, musical events, and the theater.