If you are a Magic player you have probably looked at thousands maybe even tens of thousands of cards. On those cards dozens of worlds and thousands of characters and creatures lay depicted on the little rectangles we throw down on the table. The art of Magic: The Gathering is arguably some of the best in the gaming industry, but have you ever considered the journey the art on the cards take to get from an original idea to finally being printed on the card itself?
Years before a piece of art gets used for a Magic card it has gone through several stages. This Starts with an art director from, Wizards of the Coast, reaching out to an artist to commission them for a particular piece. After signing a contract, the artist is given reference materials for the set they will be working on called a style guide. This guide includes concept art made by a team of artists contracted by Wizards of the Coast to show how things need to look for the upcoming set. This guide is confidential and the public rarely gets to see much of if not any of this. This is my favorite part of the set design, the building blocks of what becomes the plane or world the game is set in. I plan to go into this process deeper in a later article.
The artist gets some time to go over the style guide before they get the art description. The art description details the color, mood, setting, and what should be in the final piece. With that information in hand the artist will begin to work on sketches or preliminary work to send to the art director. These can be traditional, meaning hand drawn, or digital sketches and sometimes can include paintings with a small range of colors or low detail. The artist wants to get the point across, but doesn’t want to put too much work into a piece that might not get approved at this stage. The art director provides feedback and a sketch then is selected to move forward. Depending on the artist, there can still be a lot of steps to the final completed artwork. Many artists do value studies or preliminary paintings to get a sense of the lighting or color before starting a final piece. This can be especially important in traditional media like oil and acrylic paints where there is no undo button. Digital media and applications, like Photoshop, allow for the ability to separate elements into layers to work on or erase content without modifying the whole work; one can imagine the amount of time that saves.
The potential final piece is done and sent back to the Art Director. At this point there might be more feedback and some edits to be done or, if everything goes well, it gets approved with no changes to what the artist submitted. Rarely is a piece scrapped and replaced for a new commissioned piece in its place. The scrapped piece will either be used for another card or it will sit in a sort of limbo, owned by Wizards of the Coast, but not printed on a card, these are called slush pieces.
After the art or the card gets previewed the artist is allowed to distribute information and merchandise around the art they created. If the artwork is digital, oftentimes artists are given permission to make prints and sell those through their own channels. If the painting was traditional, the original may eventually be on the market either through direct purchase or an auction. How to buy Magic Art is another article in itself so look forward to that soon.
Gameplay, design, story, and art come together to make the game that we all love so much, but it would not happen without you. Without players, collectors and enthusiasts, this game and the art would not exist. No matter where you come from or what language you speak, art is a part of the game that connects us all when language is not enough. So the next time you play some Magic, take a moment and actually look at the art itself. Find some pieces you like, follow the artist on Twitter or Instagram, get some cards signed, buy a print. Doing so has made me enjoy and respect Magic so much more in the time I’ve been playing it and I hope it does for you too.