For several years, Philadelphia-based Native American artist Winona Nelson has created art for everything from Naughty Dog studio-made video games such as Last of Us II to the Warhammer Black Library. Oh, and Magic cards. LOTS of Magic cards.
Winona recently sat down with Magic Untapped to talk about her career, her work, her influences, and of course, unicorns.
Magic Untapped: What inspirations and influences in your life drove you to becoming a professional artist?
Winona Nelson: My parents are both artists. They didn’t make a living at it, but I grew up surrounded by art and was never discouraged from spending time drawing or from considering art as a career, though I didn’t know how to approach that. When I was a teenager my older brother got his first job and brought home Magic cards and we played a bit. He also got a PlayStation and Final Fantasy XII and Xenogears, and from the game booklets I realized that game characters start out as drawings, meaning that was a job someone had. Those two sparks lit up a path for me.
MU: How did you get into creating Magic art and how have your skills evolved since then?
WN: I worked toward a video game concept artist career first, after finding an online forum called ConceptArt.org that showed what the work looked like and how to build a portfolio, and then they started a school which I attended. After getting into that industry I kept pushing my painting skills and attended a workshop called The Illustration Master Class, where I met Jeremy Jarvis, the art director for MTG at the time. I asked for his blunt feedback about what I needed to do to work for Magic, and he gave it to me. I tracked him down at a few more events within a period of about six months, showing him new portfolio work and older ones with the changes he’d suggested applied, so he saw how I was improving and how I responded to feedback. Eventually he decided I was ready and that he had a card that particularly fit the subject matter I enjoyed painting. That first assignment was Rakish Heir.
Since then I’ve continued to study painting and illustration, and improve in every aspect. I still go to The Illustration Master Class every year, and now I’ve started teaching illustration online, which has been pushing me even further.
MU: You’ve done the artwork on many Magic cards so far. Which of your cards have been your favorites and what is it about them that makes them stand out?
WN: I have so many favorites! All my vampires for sure. And I loved painting Enthralling Victor and really enjoyed seeing the response to that one online. I also loved the unicorns I got to paint, Lonesome Unicorn and Mesa Unicorn, both of which I did traditionally. Azusa, Lost But Seeking is another favorite which I painted traditionally, though I was terribly sick with a cough that lasted for a full month while I painted her. I’ll always remember being wrapped up in a blanket on my couch, waiting to make each stroke between coughs. I’m not sure why that’s a happy memory but it is.
And there’s Elvish Mystic, which is special to me both because it’s traditionally painted and because I got to put a bit of my Native American heritage into the costume design.
MU: What projects (Magic or otherwise) are you working on now that fans will be able to see at some point in the future?
WN: I’ve still got more Magic cards coming out, though I took on fewer in the past year. I also worked on a mobile game called Storyscape, which was gorgeous and well written, but our company has been closed and the game is already gone after having only been available worldwide for about three months. I’m very sad about that, it was really something special and I loved the team I worked with. I also did some work for Naughty Dog on Last Of Us II.
MU: Has there ever been any unusual art requests you have been given for a card, or a card where there was little description on what was wanted?
WN: The shortest description I’ve gotten for a card was for Voice of Resurgence. It asked for “A green/white spirit warrior or the forest, whatever that means to you.” There were some suggestions but it was left unusually wide open, and I tried to do something that captured the quiet and safe feeling I would always get when I was alone in the forest as a kid. I didn’t list this one in the favorites list because I knew it was the best fit for this question, but it is one of my most favorite pieces. The response at Wizards to this piece was great too, and it turned out they needed to put a game mechanic from a different card somewhere and chose this card because they liked the art so much. That made it a very strong card, and that led to me getting my first invitations to international tournaments and led to quite a bit of world travel, so it literally changed my life.
MU: What is the most challenging color to make art for?
WN: They all have their own quirks, and I’ve done a bunch of all of them. I think black might be the most challenging artistically, only because I don’t want my paintings to have a lot of black in them despite liking to get the card color in there. I tend to edge more into purples for those, but I adore purple so that makes them more of a joy than a challenge. More than a color I’d say monsters are a challenge for me. I lean more toward pretty imagery, so things like Eldrazi were really pushing me in a different way. I think I still managed to have my own idea of monstrous beauty in some of my monsters though.
MU: Was there ever any artwork that couldn't have been used because of a card being tested out or otherwise?
WN: I had a couple pieces that got scrapped because they were early oil attempts and I hadn’t matched my digital painting quality. That was a wake up call to make sure I always left enough time in case of total failure. Sometimes it just doesn’t work and you need to start over, or re-do the whole thing digitally. Whirler Rogue is an example of one that was going very, very badly as a traditional painting and I had to finish it digitally to hit the quality bar. But once I turned it in, I was able to go back and keep working the painting a bit after having turned in the card art, and learned a lot from that process.
MU: What kinds of things are more tricky for you to create (landscapes, people, creatures, etc.)?
WN: As I mentioned above, I’m not as comfortable with monsters. Ones that are based on animals are fun, but the more gruesome or mutated ones or zombies aren’t as natural for me. I’m also always a bit intimidated with spell effects, unless they’re fire which I adore painting. I can manage both monsters and spells and end up with something I like, but it’s more difficult. I like to try to find something I can love about the assignment no matter what, such as seeing it as a technical exercise or figuring out a way to still make it graceful, which is how I learned I actually quite like painting blood and gore. It’s possible to make blood splashes elegant, and I love the rich reds. I haven’t been asked for very many landscapes yet, but that’s probably because I’m so vocal about loving characters and animals more than it is about not being well matched for it. Architecture and machinery are difficult too, it’s not nearly as fun for me as anything organic. Also, I adore centaurs but it’s a real challenge fitting one in the tiny card art frame!
You can find more of Winona Nelson's artwork in Magic sets yet to come.