An Interview with 'Magic' artist Rich Thomas


Magic: The Gathering artist Richard Thomas joins Magic Untapped for a Q&A.

For over three decades, Richard Thomas has been all over the fantasy art map, up to and including being creative director at White Wolf Publishing. He was also one of the original 25 artists for Magic: The Gathering, creating some of the game's first iconic pieces of artwork as well as what is considered to more-or-less the game's first running gag: Stuffy.

Richard was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to discuss every avenue of his career from his influences while in high school to what he's up to today.

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

Rich Thomas: Going into high school, I was looking at either being an artist, herpetologist, or paleontologist. Combined with my early love of comic books and paperback covers, art won out because of the amazing program there, and I graduated and spent six years in art school (Tyler School of Art in PA) studying illustration, and also filmmaking, art direction, and graphic design. I decided pretty early on, like while still in high school, that commercial art was where I needed to be, although I still appreciated the work of many fine artists. Some favorite artists were John Buscema and his brother Sal, Gene Colan, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Mike Kaluta in comics. Frank Frazetta, James Bama, and the Brothers Hildebrandt for paperback covers, and Carravagio, Mucha, and Escher in the fine art zone.

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?

RT: Having been involved as art director and illustrator for White Wolf Magazine, way back when, I had already worked on projects for the folks at Wizards before they decided to create [Magic: The Gathering]. I had done some illustrations for The Primal Order, so it was natural that Lisa Stevens reached out to me about this innovative new project they needed art for. A lot of art! I was fascinated by the idea of every card needing a piece of art and they were paying at least a little bit, which at that time was not always the case across the industry for new projects, so I was in. Next I heard from them, it was Jesper calling with the details as I think he had just stepped in as art director. Jesper was cool with the colored line-art style I wanted to use, and he assigned me something like ten cards, and then contacted me later to do more.

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?

RT: Well, Black Vise, of course, mostly because it took on a life of its own with how people seem to really like the Stuffy Doll. WotC even had a human-sized suit made - and I pretty much cracked up the first time I saw my own creation lumbering towards me at a convention! I like how the composition and color came out with Blaze of Glory and Carrion Ants. Same with Wall of Water - the strips of lighter froth from the bolder colored waves of water really work well to suggest that the wall is constantly surging. Or at least, I think so.

For characterization, I'm very fond of Gosta Dirk. The character cards were almost always snatched up by other artists before I got to them, but I did get him, and love the way he turned out.

Wall of Wonder and Gleemax were just fun to do, as they're funny cards and it's nice to just get silly once in a while.

Finally, I really like Lightning Blast, although it's not one that folks usually ask to have autographed, as it was a return to acrylic paints and the first time all the pieces came back together for me after years of using other paints. I didn't do a lot of them for MTG, but I did a bunch of acrylic paintings for other companies after that.

MU: How did the character of Stuffy come about from early Magic card artwork? What was the inspiration for it? Did Wizards want you to use him, or was it more your idea to keep putting them in?

RT: I was given the card title Black Vise, but by the time I talked with Jesper I didn't want to just illustrate the vise itself. I wanted to try and represent that it was holding and affecting the opponent somehow. Jesper suggested putting something in the jaws of the vise, I doodled up a sort of voodoo doll to suggest that what happened to it then happened to your opponent, and we were good. When I actually drew the doll, I was reminded of a line from the Raggedy Ann story my mother used to read my sister that said that she smiled and smiled no matter what bad things were occurring. So I drew the doll with a big grin even though it was getting zapped by the vise. It was kind of macabre, really. After that, I would add the doll in if there was a card description where something awful could happen to it! I think it took two or three appearances before I heard that they liked the Stuffy Doll - the name they called it in their offices - and wanted to see more of him.

MU: Of the 44 Magic: The Gathering cards for which you've done artwork, twelve of them (27 percent) are walls.  Furthermore, seven of those twelve (e.g. Wall of Putrid Flesh and Wall of Dust) are all found in the same set: Legends.  Did you find you had a knack for doing artwork for walls, or was it just happenstance?

RT: I tend to like to do series of images, as you can establish a format and then visually riff off of that. The walls were all very deliberately set up that way. Same basic composition, but with what shapes and colors to represent the different walls? What sort of mage would cast it and can I depict them silhouetted behind the wall? So I took a bunch in the original set, and then had to go for it again with Legends as they had quite a few on the art list.

MU: Do you have a favorite art medium? If so, does it make fantasy artwork harder or easier to create?

RT: I work across a wide variety of mediums, so my favorite is probably whatever style and medium I'm doing right now - I try and use the one most appropriate to the project I'm doing. I really just fell into the lines and watercolor look with MTG because I was really into stained glass imagery at the time. It wasn't my default style, but it's a fun one. And now that I'm doing recreations of those original Magic pieces for collectors, it's really refreshing to work in that style again and create physical art after doing a large percentage of my illustrating on the computer these days.

MU: In addition to being one of Magic: The Gathering's original artists, you also did artwork for another Richard Garfield designed/Wizards of the Coast published game called Jyhad (which was quickly renamed Vampire: The Eternal Struggle).  How was creating artwork for that game different for you than it was creating illustrations for Magic cards, if at all?

RT: It was very different and I had to evolve my Magic style towards the darker and more realistic world of Vampire: The Masquerade. I'd also been one of the original artists for VTM when it first came out, but those were all in greyscale ink-washes, so my Jyhad work was trying to find some sort of visual point between those two previous assignments. I'm not sure I ever really achieved what I wanted with the VTES art, but by the time I did my last set of illustrations for it, years later, I'd gotten close, at least. I probably should have stayed closer to the greyscale, used a lot less linework, and just mixed in a hint of color where it would really focus the viewer's eye. But that's looking back on them after 20-25 years!

MU: What kinds of things are more tricky for you to create (landscapes, people, creatures, etc.)?

RT: I rarely do landscapes, but I think that's more because when it's time to pick the cards I look for monsters, characters, and items first. So by the time I pick those my allotment's full. So, they're not tricky - in fact, I quite enjoy drawing landscapes - but I just never got to do many. I'd say the trickiest subjects for me are normal but cool looking people. I'd have a really hard time illustrating a romance novel, for an example I've never been in a position to do, and would really have to restrain myself from some of the more fantastic flourishes I prefer to include. I'd rather illustrate a dwarf than a human, generally speaking, because there's more room to exaggerate their features to really hammer home, no pun intended, their character.

So, monsters and creatures are definitely at the top of my favorites to illustrate.

MU: You've made quite a name for yourself outside of Magic: The Gathering, spending time at White Wolf Publishing as the company's creative director and now as the founder and creative director at Onyx Path Publishing. What has your journey outside of Magic: The Gathering been like and have there been times where one has influenced the other?

RT: I was pretty much working both sides of the street as a freelance illustrator like with MTG, and as an art director for White Wolf. Which gave me an expanded perspective, I think, on how the whole process worked. Plus, during the early years of the Nineties, there were a bunch of us art directing in the tabletop gaming sphere who were all friends. So we'd help the others out with recommendations and with letting artists know a new big project was coming. It was a very friendly and energized time period, and then as the companies involved became more and more successful, most of us had to ride herd on more projects and work with more artists, and there just wasn't time to compare notes as often. That was always my blocker when it came to being more involved with the activities that a lot of the other Magic artists were doing, like attending conventions and sitting in the artists' area signing cards and talking on panels - I was at the same conventions but working for White Wolf. I was scouting for new artists, attending project meetings, making sure our printers were delivering our books correctly. Fortunately, it's a lot easier to keep in touch with my fellow artists these days with social media!

I was responsible for pretty much everything visual during my time at White Wolf, and even what was being written once I was creative director. Then we merged with CCP, an Icelandic MMO company, and I lent a hand on trying to start up a [World of Darkness] MMO. It was really hard to find time to work on artwork outside of WW's projects, but I really needed to. Having a break from design and management by creating an illustration or five for other people's projects was great in that I was using creative muscles and ways of thinking that hadn't been used regularly for some time. And that allowed me to come back to my "day job" creative decisions with fresh perspectives instead of being locked into old patterns. So, kind of a roundabout way to say that, yes, working on different kinds of projects is always a great way to keep everything you're creating fresh.

I run into the same challenges now that I'm running my own TTRPG company with Onyx Path Publishing. There's business stuff, and management stuff, and creative stuff - all focused on the needs of one company. So when I do Magic card art redos, or participate in something like Inktober and do a drawing a day for a month, those shake up and refresh what I do day to day for the company. Different kinds of input means more variety of creative output, and with the wide variety of different kinds of game worlds that we create I really need to be able to jump creatively from one thing to another.

MU: What're your opinions of how MTG artwork as evolved and changed over the years?

RT: When you have a brand-new project (and in MTG's case, we're talking a brand-new category of games), having a wide variety of art styles means you have the best chance of interesting the most people - as some folks will be attracted to one art style, and others to another. That was a deliberate art direction choice that epitomized how Jesper art directed. Obviously, that was a pretty sweet place for me to be back in the early days of MTG. I was even able to choose a style of artwork that was more idiosyncratic, like I mentioned earlier. There was room for that.

As MTG solidified its gameplay and earned an established audience, it needed to fine-tune and focus the art styles that folks would recognize as the MTG "look". Tighter and then looser, back and forth through the decades. But within the parameters of whatever phase it's in, MTG artwork is really rich and varied, and every release has some phenomenal pieces in it. That is an impressive amount of beautiful artwork over all these years! I'm just really thrilled that there are folks out there who still love the pieces that I did in those early, wilder, days!

Thank you to Rich for participating in this interview.

Evan Symon

Evan Symon is a graduate of The University of Akron and has been a working journalist ever since with works published by Cracked, GeekNifty, the Pasadena Independent, California Globe, and, of course, Magic Untapped.