An Interview with 'Magic' Artist Tran Nguyen

Magic: The Gathering artist Tran Nguyen joins Magic Untapped for a Q&A.

One of the newest Magic: The Gathering artists, Tran Nguyen, is a Vietnamese-born, Georgia raised illustrator who has worked for a wide variety of clients from the World Wildlife Federation to VH1 to McDonald's to Netflix. Along the way, Hasbro came calling, and, as you've probably guessed, she started making Magic art.

Nguyen was kind enough to take some time out of her busy schedule to participate in a Q&A with Magic Untapped.

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

Tran Nguyen: Once my family settled in the U.S. from Vietnam, I had access to different cartoon shows and video games.  I grew up watching the popular 90s anime shows such as Bubblegum CrisisEvangelion, and Record of Lodoss War. I also played a lot of the JRPGs such as Final Fantasy and Breath of Fire. Though the storytelling and gameplay were fun, I was most enamored by the art, especially the box art and game manual with its beautiful interior illustrations. 

MU: How did you get your start with Magic: The Gathering?  

TN: I was fortunate enough to meet one of the art directors at an art show I was participating in Pennsylvania.  I used to play Magic in the 90s so it's been on my radar since I started working professionally in the illustration industry.

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

TN: About three weeks. One week for preliminaries and one to two weeks for the final painting.

MU: As a fairly recent Magic: The Gathering artist, what sort of advice could you give other artists and illustrators who are hoping to make their own MTG debut?  

TN: Put yourself out there -- attend/showcase at conventions/art shows, continue to better your illustration skills by continuously making new art, and don't forget to share it online. Sometimes, it takes months or years for art directors to find the right project for an artist after the initial contact, so don't lose hope!

MU: In the recently released set, Streets of Capenna, your artwork is featured on the showcase version of the card Lord Xander, The Collector, which boasts a rather art deco look to it.  How, if at all, was creating that piece of MTG art different than your other pieces?  

TN: This painting was done in my drawing style rather than my usual painterly one. It's a different approach to illustrating that I've been exploring in the past five to six years of my career. It focuses more on design and line quality while my painterly pieces emphasize realism. Less is more in this approach. 

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

TN: My most recent card, Lord Xander, the Collector, was challenging not because it was different than my painterly style, but because I incorporated more colors into it than I usually do. This style of working consists of a very limited color palette of white, black and gold, so the extra added colors made for a challenge. My biggest concern was the composition and keeping it balanced in terms of color and value.

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

TN: My favorite is the mix of acrylic and colored pencil, which are my go-to media.  Acrylic is versatile and works well with wax-based pencils laid on top. This combination of media is conducive to creating soft, atmospheric backgrounds and whimsical motifs.

MU: Can you tell us a bit about your process? That is, how to you go from idea to a finished art piece and does that process change depending on the work being done?  

TN: I start with rough thumbnail sketches which lead to rough sketches which end with a refined line drawing. The line drawing is then transferred onto watercolor paper where I apply strokes of acrylic paint. After several layers of paint is applied, I switch to colored pencil to push darker and lighter values. I continue to alternate between the two media until the forms are rendered completely and cohesively. 

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

TN: Creatures such as ogres and zombies are a little tricky for me since I don't often paint these types of characters. They're also not my top subjects to paint so there is a slightly lesser degree of passion involved.

MU: What projects are you working on now (both Magic and otherwise) that your fans should keep an eye out for? 

TN: I'm hoping to release a new art book in the coming year. I'm also working on a personal apparel project to merge my love for art and fashion design.

MU: Finally, can players expect to see your art on more Magic cards in the future? 

TN: Yes! I just finished up a new card and am excited to share it with everyone once it releases!

Thank you, Tran, 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.