An interview with 'Magic' artist Ryan Pancoast


Magic: The Gathering artist Ryan Pancoast joins Magic Untapped for a Q&A.

For a decade now, Ryan Pancoast has been one of Magic's premier artists. Being the artist behind cards ranging from Convincing Mirage to Kindly Stranger. His artwork was even was nominated for a prominent Chesley Award in 2017. Magic Untapped took a little time with Pancoast and asked him a few questions about his art, his inspiration, and yes, Magic: The Gathering.

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

Ryan Pancoast: I think I have always been interested in art. My favorite thing to do, even as a young child, was drawing. When I would take car rides with my family, I would bring along a clipboard of printer paper and pass the time by drawing dinosaurs, robots, monsters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My parents were very supportive of my interests and as I got older, they enrolled me in art classes and always encouraged me to follow my passions. It was pretty clear by middle school that I would try to have a career in some art field and by high school I was set on illustration.

MU: You made your Magic debut with Zendikar.  How did you get into creating Magic art and how have your skills evolved since then?

RP: After getting a BFA in illustration from Rochester Institute of Technology in 2005, I tried for a career as an editorial illustrator. I did some small work for magazines, but nothing remotely fantasy; mostly things with a Normal Rockwell feel to them. Then, by some strange luck, a company called 5th Epoch contacted me to produce a lot of work for their RPG Metal, Magic and Lore. I was recommended to them by a high school classmate, and even though I had no fantasy experience, they hired me for a lot of work. I think they were interested to see what a traditional illustrator working in a realistic style could do in the fantasy genre. I worked on that job for nearly a year, drawing armor, weapons, monsters, and storytelling scenes.

When Metal, Magic and Lore was completed, they invited me to GenCon to help sell the game. There, I had my first portfolio review with Wizards of the Coast. At the time, I had mostly black-and-white drawings and they weren’t interested. So I took an additional year to rework my portfolio, doing all full-color oil paintings and when 5th Epoch took me back to GenCon the following year, I had another portfolio review. This time, Jon Schindehette from [Dungeons & Dragons] reviewed my work, liked it, and passed it along to Jeremy Jarvis who was working on Magic. Jeremy contacted me a few weeks later to do Plains and Convincing Mirage for M10

MU: You’ve done the artwork more than 97 Magic cards so far.  Which of your cards have been your favorites and what is it about them that makes them stand out?

RP: From the time I started working for Magic about 10 years ago, my skills have evolved in a few ways. I’m much more confident in my abilities, which has allowed me to trust my instincts. I’m also not afraid to work on a larger scale if the work requires it. And finally, I’m more able to work with texture and abstraction - maybe not in ways that people can notice at card-size, but in ways that make the original art better and my process faster. All those things came together in some of my favorite pieces, including Nikya of the Old WaysMox Tantalite, and Arena Rector.

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? 

RP: All the art descriptions I get from Wizards appear to be relatively detailed to the outside observer, but the goal is always to read between the lines and little and pull out as many good solutions to the prompt as possible; staying within the framework but expanding out in ways that make the piece even better. For Kindly Stranger // Demon-Possessed Witch, quite a few of the storytelling devices (the lantern that becomes an inferno on the flip side, the demonic shadow) were not in the prompt but I thought would enhance the image.

The trick is that the art directors at Wizards are very good at what they do, so I always defer to their judgment and don’t try to sneak anything past them. At its best, the process of creating an image for Magic is a constructive conversation between the art directors and the illustrator, so I try my best to listen to what they are saying. Lately, I have had quite a few opportunities to create the look of some major characters from scratch, including Linden, the Steadfast Queen. I feel very honored to be trusted to that extent.

MU: What is the most challenging color to make art for?

RP: The most challenging color for me to illustrate is Red, followed my blue. Both blue and red glowing spells are difficult to paint, and making illustrations look good in a red or blue card frame (while not required) is difficult as well. Red cards also require a lot of action poses and I think while I can pull off action scenes, I do my best work when the image is more tranquil.

MU: Was there ever any artwork that couldn't have been used because of a card being tested out or otherwise?

RP: Fortunately, I have had very few card illustrations put in the “slush” pile or killed outright. It’s a pretty common occurrence among illustrators, but my first one was just this past year. And of course I can’t talk about it. Hopefully it will see the light of day sometime down the road, because I kind of like the way it came out.

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

RP: The hardest things to paint are sorceries, enchantments, or instants. The prompts are always very specific and often conceptual. This makes sense, because the card does a very specific thing within the game, and the illustration needs to reflect that. When I did Negate for Oath of the Gatewatch, I had a very hard time figuring out how to show a lightning bolt transforming to splashing water. Give me a character to paint and I’m right in my wheelhouse; give me a tree growing so big it crashes through the greenhouse dome (Unbridled Growth) and I’ll have a much harder time.

MU: What projects (Magic or otherwise) are you working on now that fans will be able to see at some point in the future?

RP: Most of my work right now is for Magic. I’m in all of the upcoming main sets that have been announced, and more in the future. I have had the privilege of such steady Magic work that I haven’t had time for many outside projects. But I continue to chip away at my personal project Frontier Fantasy, which is my fantasy take on the American West. Even though I haven’t worked on it recently, I hope to return to it soon.

Our thanks to Ryan 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.