Tuesday, 25 August 2020 07:18

An Interview with 'Magic' artist Mark Tedin

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Mark Tedin is one of Magic: The Gathering's original artists. Mark Tedin is one of Magic: The Gathering's original artists. WOTC/MARK TEDIN/MAGIC UNTAPPED

Back in 1993, Wizards of the Coast commissioned 25 artists to give Magic: The Gathering cards their now-iconic pieces of artwork. One of this original group is Mark Tedin, then only a recent master's graduate from Washington University in St. Louis. Over the years he illustrated some of the most notable cards in the series, including Chaos Orb and the first player-designed card, Forgotten Ancient.

These days, he's one of the few remaining original artists left, yet is also still going very strong illustrating new cards each year.

Mark took some time out of his busy schedule to answer some of our questions and told us about early Magic art, recent Magic art, and all points in between.

Magic Untapped: What inspirations and influences in your life drove you to becoming a professional artist?

Mark Tedin: Certainly my brother, Christopher, was an early one, he liked to draw and make art which made me want to learn too. I absorbed a good amount from comics and cinema in the late 70s and early 80s, and having a friend who shared similar interests growing up doesn’t hurt either; Anson Maddocks was always there as a valuable sounding board and we pushed each other to make more interesting stories and images. Luckily we had a great art teacher, Dan Newman, in grade school who also encouraged us to push our boundaries. I later received formal training at Gonzaga University with teachers like Robert Gilmore who had a more formal approach to teaching drawing and painting. It wasn’t until I went to graduate school that I had time to practice more and delve a little bit more into the “why” of subject matter. I didn’t take any courses in illustration but certainly becoming one and learning on the way has been the best teaching tool one could hope for.

Art by Mark Tedin

MU: How did you get into doing artwork for Magic: The Gathering?  Did you reach out to Wizards of the Coast or did they reach out to you?

MT: I had finished my fine art graduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis and I wasn’t sure what my next move would be. Anson was doing some work for this relatively unknown game company near Seattle and he’d asked if I’d like to submit a sample of black and white artwork for their fantasy RPG game, Talislanta. Jesper Myfors liked the pencil drawing of a “sand demon” I made and that was that. I think I decided on the spot to pack a truck up with my stuff and head up to Seattle. Moreover was that I already had many friends and family in the Northwest and was much closer to my parents in Sitka, Alaska. It just seemed like a win-win to me. The first year I was there I ended up doing a lot of work for Talislanta and Magic: The Gathering while working a day job at an art supply company. 

MU: As one of Magic: The Gathering's original artists who has worked under numerous art directors over the years, what has the evolution of Magic's artwork been like for you?

MT: Early on the game’s underlying storyline was less developed, though there were hints of how Dominaria’s world might grow. Because of that, we weren’t given too many art descriptions and I instead responded to the titles of the cards [then art director] Jesper Myfors gave over the phone. If the name triggered an immediate image in a split second, I would pounce on it. Because of that I probably ended up taking many notable red and black cards, and a few interesting rare ones by chance. The current art descriptions are much more story-specific, which is challenging because it’s much more precise but sometimes that works well because finding your own visual interpretation can be rather rewarding. 

MU: Your friend, Anson Maddocks, says your camaraderie and willingness to share honest feedback was a key part of him becoming the artist he is today. How important is that for young and up-and-coming artists -- to have a fellow artist to be not just genuine, but helpful as well?

MT: I’d like to think we’ve been able to egg each other on constructively. I encourage artists who haven’t necessarily had formal schooling or don’t know any other artists personally to search for constructive criticism whenever possible. School can be valuable in that it exposes one to many differing points of view. But even without that, nowadays it’s much easier to connect online with other artists or attend different kinds of shows where art directors can review portfolios in person. Back and forth communication about one’s work can really allow one to take the necessary steps forward needed to grow.

MU: Your artwork (more than most) has a very distinct look and appeal to it. How did you come up with such a unique art style and how do you feel it sets you apart from other Magic artists?

MT: I’m not sure! I’ve told students before that one shouldn’t go looking for a style, it’s based on one’s background, experiences, interests, or even obsessions. Through practice and trying different things out, it comes to the surface whether you want it to or not. My tendency is to fiddle with detail a bit early, enhancing something I see after applying paint. As a kid I would see something detailed and specific in something as mundane as wood paneling or wall paint speckles in an almost sculptural way. That tendency hasn’t changed I guess, it’s a way of finding a story and exploring the possibilities when applying texture. Sometimes I have to force myself to switch gears and edit out unimportant features if I want to steer the audience’s attention around the picture. Otherwise I would tend to get lost in detail.

MU: How long do you typically spend on a piece?

MT: It varies. The shortest I think I’ve completed a final painting phase was six hours, the longest thirty to forty. It depends on the size and/or complexity of the subject matter or the number of steps I set before me. I take a lot longer with the research, prep sketches, and final drawing. With the early cards it was easier to just do quick sets of thumbnails in a sketchbook to nail down a concept, do a quick drawing on the illustration board, and improvise the final features after painting right on top of it. Nowadays I tend to separate the steps a lot more deliberately because the subject matter requires a lot more planning and forethought. And I like the control over the final product, whereas before it could be more hit and miss, which can be a nail-biter.

MU: You’ve done the artwork on many Magic cards. Which of your cards have been your favorites and what is it about them that makes them stand out? 

Mindstab Thrull - WOTC/Mark TedinMT: Besides Mindstab Thrull, where I was transitioning from transparent watercolor to opaque gouache, there’s a few. I liked some from Ice Age, like Nacre Talisman, Necropotence, and Naked Singularity. The deadline was pretty tight with them (I finished the cards in a hotel room in my first trip to New York City) and I remember having an unusually clear vision about what I wanted them to look like. The execution of them was pretty fast, but I didn’t feel like they looked rushed. They felt like they were completed by themselves rather easily. I’ve always valued that kind of serendipity and love it when I can get a glimpse of it again. Tideshaper Mystic and Ponder from Lorwyn were favorites because I felt like the whole of the foreground and background of the painting were more fully developed and explored than I would usually attempt before then. All of the cards for the Lorwyn sets felt like that to me.

MU: Have you ever tried a more "out of the box" approach to a card where you try a new perspective or style?

MT: Though I’ve been using Photoshop since almost the beginning, I’m usually painting Magic cards by hand from start to finish. Although there were a few exceptions in using a tablet such as a few of the Mirrodin lands, Cage of Hands, or Vinelasher Kudzu, I found a good reason to use a 3D program to help with the planning of Eldrazi Monument. I used it to put a multitude of floating cubes and statue in an atmospheric fog, and I found it was a great asset for planning the composition. It kind of passed in and out of the computer. I printed out the render, laid a layer of vellum on it, drawing some additional cube and statue detail, & scanned it back into the computer. I then used Photoshop to combine the different layers, and repainted everything with a tablet to its final state. The only other time I’ve done something similar are with Temple Bell, and the Commandfest version of Sol Ring - both of those I decided to paint physically in the end.

Vinelasher Kudzu - WOTC/Mark TedinMU: What kinds of things are more tricky for you to create (landscapes, people creatures, etc.)? 

MT: People are usually the easiest for me to draw, probably because I can draw upon my lengthy experience with life drawing. Creatures are a little more challenging but I really enjoy using knowledge of differential anatomy to assemble something at least a little convincing. Life drawing experience makes it easier to give a creature at least a passing semblance of realism. Landscape is more challenging for me, I usually don’t do much sketching or painting while outdoors. I do, however, take a lot of reference photos because there’s always something valuable there to fish from.   

MU: In Time Spiral, you got to do the illustration for Urza's Factory. Now, in Double Masters, you got to do the illustrations of not only the three Urza's lands (Urza's Power Plant, Urza's Mine, and Urza's Tower), but also of one of Urza's greatest creations in Karn. What was that experience like and how do you feel the pieces have been received since they were revealed not too long ago?

MT: I was really jazzed to revisit Urza’s creations in a similar way that I got to do with The Antiquities War card the year before last. When I first got the assignment, I assumed that I would be doing the three versions of the Urza’s Power Plant but then saw the art description had all of the “Urzatron Lands” along with Karn. He had just been freed from New Phyrexia and was again in familiar Urza-related surroundings. A big compositional challenge I had was that a lot of the action was restrained in the middle where the card windows were but I had to try to make it work overall as a large piece and also try to make them work separately. I got a lot of compliments on the lands, but the reaction to Karn has been pretty polarized. Which is fine to me, I’d intended to give him a slight nod to how I designed him back in the Weatherlight days. The proportions have a little of the older top-heavy silver golem feel than some of the more recent in-Karn-ations.

I’m not too bothered about his mouth being open (it always was able to), but I guess I wanted him to have a genuine emotional response for possibly the first time in his life. That may have been too much for people who’d always seen him as permanently grim. As far as his silver color, I wanted him to look brand new again and stand out from the background but I think the final printing came across a little too exaggerated. Because of all these, there have been some memes that came out that are absolutely hilarious so I don’t really have any regrets. I think that in the long run eliciting an honest reaction is better than having it end up forgettable.

Thank you to Mark for participating in this interview.

Magic Untapped's previous Magic: The Gathering artist interviews: