An Interview with 'Magic' artist Ryan Yee


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

For more than a decade, Ryan Yee has been illustrating Magic: The Gathering cards of all kind. When he isn't doing artwork for such mega-franchises as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, he takes time to do a few cards a year. Magic Untapped corresponded with the Pittsburgh-native Yee about Magic, his art career, and more.

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

Ryan Yee: I was always encouraged to draw from a young age. My father was an illustrator who specialized in cartooning and typography. I grew up on comics and video games and drew any moment I could get. I knew I wanted to go into the entertainment industry. Going to school for animation led me to concept art for games!

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?

RY: I met the Art Director, Jeremy Jarvis, in a portfolio review at San Diego Comic-Con. After a harsh but much-needed review gave me a shot and the rest is kind of history!

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?

RY: My favorite card arts are ParaseleneDie Young, and Fruit of the First Tree. Paraselene was the first art I did for MTG where I felt like the image could stand on its own for art, so even a person who doesn't play MTG could enjoy it. Die young was the first MTG card that felt closest to doing personal artwork. Painting raw emotion was my favorite part of that!  Fruit of the First Tree was felt like all the elements of the art description lined up with my aesthetic/strengths. It was a sand spirit in the "Spirit dimension" that reached for the fruit of life. One image came immediately to my mind, and translating from my head to 2D was just the next step!

MU: In addition to myraid traditional Magic cards, you have also done artwork for the epic Elspeth Conquers Death, as well as a number of the Zendikar Rising expeditions such as Arid MesaMisty Rainforest, and Scalding Tarn.  When creating artwork for a card that is non-standard (such as is the case with epics) or that you know to be premium like with the expeditions, do you have a different mindset or take a different approach than you would with a "normal" MTG card?

RY: Good question! For the expeditions, I did look at the previous cards to keep a similar vibe/color scheme, but I also wanted to give my own spin on it. For Elspeth Conquers Death, I tried to design it to take advantage of the tall narrow image format to use as much of that space for telling a story.

MU: You've attended a number of Magic Grand Prix/Magicfest events before COVID-19 turned everything topsy-turvy.  Do you miss it?

RY: Omg, yes! Magic players are some of the most dedicated people I've met! I love being able to meet MTG people, especially aspiring artists, in person. Also, most events have other MTG artists at them, and being able to connect with artists I've admired or talked to online in person is a great experience in itself.

MU: Once large-scale Magic events finally resume, do you think you'll resume making appearances and doing in-person card signings?

RY: I want to get back into signing, but I think I would like to wait till most people are vaccinated.

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

RY: I grew up drawing and doing digital art. Digital painting is still my most comfortable medium. I love to do studies in oil paint but haven't made the switch to oils for my commission work. There is just a lot more prep involved in the drawing phase for traditional work. For example, moving an arm or shrinking a head size is not as easy with traditional art compared to digital.

MU: Whether in-person or through the mail, card signings and alters are rather popular with the Magic community.  What advice and tips can you provide Magic players who would like to get some of their cards autographed or altered by you and your fellow MTG artists?

RY: My advice for people who want alters or card signings: Please keep it simple. With as many as we get in the mail, having special requests for each card can be hard to manage on top of stacks of hundreds, haha. A simple black or double signature is the way to go, and the signature will come out better with tools, we use often! For alters, I don't do these by mail anymore, but in person, I always love when a player has an alter design that works with the card art to make it feel special. For example, I do many Baby Groot alters of Multani and Doctor Who alters of Command Tower. They work well with the preexisting art and are fun to do!

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

RY: As a concept artist, I sort of have to adapt to doing everything. That said, I think I'm strongest at organic objects and characters!

MU: Beyond creating artwork for Magic: The Gathering, I know you also have made a name for yourself as a concept artist.  What non-Magic projects are you working on, and where can your fans find some of your non-Magic creations?

RY: I work for Schell Games as a concept artist. I had the opportunity to work on a few VR titles for them. One is an escape room with a 60s spy theme called I Expect You to Die and Until you Fall, a VR sword fighting game for which I got to do a lot of the character designs and promotional art!

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

RY: I think it's exciting! MTG art is some of my all-time favorite art out there! The quality and styles keep on getting better and better! Every artist offers something new and fresh. It keeps me coming back to see the spoiler season. It's like X-mas seeing all the new art, and it's very inspiring!

Thank you 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.