An Interview with 'Magic' artist Seb McKinnon


Magic: The Gathering artist Seb McKinnon joins Magic Untapped for a Q&A.

Since Magic 2013, Canadian artist Seb McKinnon has ben illustrating artwork for a wide assortment of Magic: The Gathering cards. To date, he has created art for more than 100 cards and shows no sign of slowing down. Between his work in creating not just artwork and illustrations, but also music and film, Seb graciously found time to answer some questions about himself, his artwork, his collaborations with fellow artist Rebecca Guay, and his other projects.

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

Seb McKinnon: I think my very first influence was my mother. She studied design, and as a child I loved simply watching her draw things for me. Cowboys, forests, animals... I always had colouring pencils in my hands, and growing up, I'd carry a sketchbook with me wherever I went. In my teens I discovered the work of illustrator Alan Lee (who also won an Academy Award for his groundbreaking conceptual art for the Lord of the Rings films). The more I pored over his paintings, the more I felt something stir in me... I knew then I wanted to be become an illustrator. Alan Lee was my "art hero" in that regard. Today, I find most of my inspiration in nature, and listening to music.

MU: Your artwork really seems to stand out stylistically amongst the standard contemporary assortment of card arts with your works on cards such as Blood for BonesCuombajj WitchesDeliver Unto Evil, and Soulherder.  How are you able to accomplish this to such a high degree?

SM: It's a hard question to answer! Honestly I try not to think to much, when I paint. I try to blindly follow my instincts and feelings when faced with an art brief. In terms of style, it's not something you can force or willingly drum up. It kind of happens on its own, when you just focus on what resonates with you as an artist, ignoring all the rest. I pretend each commission from WotC is my first, and personally, I feel my "style" changes from piece to piece. Vengeful Rebirth is so different from Archfiend of Ifnir for example. The idea behind the concept drives the style on its own. Honestly, I try to shut off my rational brain and see what happens.

MU: You were recently in the spotlight thanks to Wizards of the Coast releasing a Seb McKinnon Secret Lair drop.  Was the experience of creating card art for the Secret Lair any different than when creating art for a typical Magic set?

SM: The WotC art directors are always a joy to work with. They give you a lot of freedom, while guiding you to make sure the piece fits the plane/world/theme. The Secret Lair was different, because art director Tom Jenkot said: "do what you want." It doesn't get better than that for an artist. Having "carte blanche", where the artist is responsible for coming up with the actual idea, is rare for client work. It was amazing. It was definitely my favorite commission for Magic I've ever done, and I feel so honored to kick-off the "Artist Series". Can't wait to see what the other artists are up to for theirs!

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

SM: It really depends. If I'm "in flow", I could have the bulk of the work done in one to three days. Sometimes it could take a week, even stretched out to two to three weeks to account for pauses. It's always useful to step back from an artwork and not look at it for several days. You come back to it with fresher eyes. 

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?

SM: Also a tough question! My favorites change a lot, because I feel special connection to each of them. However, I think my top favorite has got to be Stasis, because I think it's the piece in which I put the most of myself. This piece also won the Spectrum Gold Award in the Institutional category a few years back, which was quite an honor to receive. A close second favorite is Answered Prayers, where I did my best to channel my inner pre-raphaelite, like J.W. Waterhouse, another of my favorite painters. 

MU: Rebecca Guay and you teamed up last year on a couple of projects.  How was it working with such a longtime Magic artist and do you think you'd explore such a venture again in the future?

SM: Needless to say, Rebecca Guay is a legend. When I wrote to her, I did not expect an answer back... and I when I did hear from her, accepting to collaborate with me, I just could not believe it. She's one of the artist's that drew me to Magic in the first place. Her art is a big part of my childhood, playing MTG with my brothers. I tried collecting as many cards with her art I as I could. I remember the jealousy I felt when one of my brothers pulled an Elvish Piper, which I tried so desperately to convince him trade it to me, to no avail! The process was very straightforward; she sent me a sketch as a starting point, and my job was to complete the piece, adding my own elements to it. I'd love to collaborate with her sometime in the future for sure, if the opportunity were to arise again. 

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

SM: Quite recently actually, yes! I was working with art director Zach Stella on a new piece for an upcoming set. I tried something new, but it ultimately did not work so well once Zack explained the mechanics of the card... so we had to change the approach. But I might keep this idea for another time, and pitch it for the right card down the line! I'll be able to talk more about it in the future, once the card is revealed.

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

SM: My first love was watercolor. But when I discovered digital painting, my mind exploded. The possibilities are endless with this tool, and it's favorable to my creative process. With digital, you can generate ideas in a whirlwind of chaos extremely quickly. I'm reacting, instead of consciously planning. I try to see things in the mess... kind of like seeing shapes in clouds. In that sense, it's easier for me, because it's just so much fun. Watercolor artists say you have to let the medium to what it wants - you can help guide the paint, but the best results come from letting go of the reigns, in a way. I see digital tools like that too. 

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

SM: Definitely buildings or interiors! 

MU: In addition to your work as an artist and illustrator, you've also made a name for yourself in other artistic ventures.  Can you share some insights into your projects in film and music?

SM: Today, I make music under the name CLANN. In my early 20s, I was going through a rough patch, emotionally and artistically. Listening to music helped, and after a while, I felt like trying my hand at it. Immediately, it was like a new doorway opening up in me. I felt a spark, and got hooked. I took a few piano lessons in primary school, so with the right music programs and keyboard, I had any instrument I wanted at my finger tips. It was thrilling. The more I dove into music, the more I felt alive and the more ideas came rushing in.

The ideas then became the seeds of the KIN Fables project, which is a cinematic world almost 10 years in the making. I wanted to make what I felt real and observable. I wanted the characters in my head to come out into the world... Filmmaking is an all-encompassing artform; I draw, paint, score and shoot, and feel at home – I really do feel like it's something I meant to do. Now I'm on the cusp of directing my first feature film, set in the KIN Fables world, all thanks to the incredibly supportive MTG community.

With their support, my production company, Five Knights Productions, will be able to produce the film independently. 

MU: Finally, aside from continuing to play and collect Magic: The Gathering cards, how else can fans of your artwork support what you do?

SM: They've been supporting me so generously for the past 3 years, by participating in the yearly Kickstarter campaigns I've been running, to raise funds for the KIN Fables feature film. The movie is getting made thanks to them. They've changed my life. So, these Kickstarters are the best way to support what I do. Alternatively, they can also purchase prints on my print store, which helps me immensely!

Thank you to Seb 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.