Michael Lin, better known as Daarken, has been illustrating for Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the Gathering since the mid 2000s. Along with the odd side projects like album covers, Daarken has brought to life some of Magic: The Gathering’s most mysterious creatures. A player since the early days and an artist going on 15 years for MTG, Daarken sat down with Magic Untapped and talked with him about life, work, and (of course) Magic.
Magic Untapped: What inspirations and influences in your life drove you to becoming a professional artist?
Daarken: I always enjoyed drawing when I was little. I started out by doing master copies of comic books and video game covers. One of the first master copies I remember doing was of the cover of Fist of the North Star on the original Game Boy back in 1989. When Image Comics came out, they blew my mind. Spawn was one of my favorite comics. I then started looking at fantasy artists like Brom and Boris Vallejo. At the time I didn’t really consider art as a career, it was just something I enjoyed doing.
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?
D: It was a little bit of both. After I graduated in 2004, WotC called me on the phone and asked if I would like to do some art for Dungeons & Dragons. After about a year of working on D&D, I asked my art director if I could possibly work on some Magic cards. Luckily, they said yes.
MU: When did you realize that there was something special about the game (that it had staying power, cultural relevance, etc.)?
D: I actually played a lot of Magic back in high school. This was around the time of Ice Age, Revised, Homelands, and Fallen Empires. My local comic store held regular tournaments, which I always attended. I even won first place a few times. I stopped playing after I graduated because I moved and didn’t really have anyone to play with anymore. After I decided to take the art path, I thought it would be cool if I could work on Magic since I loved the game so much. Back then it was more of a “Hah, that would be funny if I ended up working on Magic.” It wasn’t something that I really thought would happen.
MU: How long do you typically spend on a piece?
D: It depends on how complicated the scene is and how much time is left before the deadline! Typically I spend two to three days on a Magic painting. Those aren’t full work days. I usually only get to spend a couple of hours on a painting each day. Sometimes I can get a painting done in a day. I’ve recorded several of my paintings and I’ve found that I typically spend six to ten hours on a painting.
MU: You’ve done the artwork on many Magic cards so far. Which of your cards have been your favorites and what is it about them that makes them stand out?
D: I have a bad habit of not liking my art, but there are a few I don’t hate. I was really happy with how Gonti, Lord of Luxury came out.
I was trying to push the lighting in my work and I feel that Gonti was successful with the mood and lighting. Bloodghast has been a classic favorite. I went for something a little more graphic with Bloodghast and I think the simplicity of the image gave it some real impact.
MU: Have you ever tried a more "out of the box" approach to a card where you try a new perspective or style?
D: I would love to, but it’s a pretty risky move. When you have an established look, it can be tricky to give a client something that isn’t what you typically do. I also don’t have time to practice a different style, so I don’t think I would take the chance of pulling out a new style out of the blue. When I was working on my commissions for Throne of Eldraine, I briefly considered doing more of an Arthur Rackham style, but I didn’t think I could pull it off. When the set came out and I saw all of the other amazing art, I regretted my decision. Maybe there will be a chance for something different in the future.
MU: What kinds of things are more tricky for you to create (landscapes, people creatures, etc.)?
D: Architecture and perspective have always been my downfall. Actually, probably just draftsmanship in general. I’ve been trying to improve over the years, but it takes a lot longer when you don’t have time to practice. The only time I draw/paint is when it’s for work.
MU: What's the story behind the name "Daarken?"
D: Hah, it isn’t very exciting. Back in the golden days of conceptart.org, I decided that I needed something other than “Mike.” There are a lot of Mikes out there, so I wanted something that would stand out. To give you an idea of how common the name Mike is, out of the nine concept artists working on Warhammer Online, three of them were named Mike. Everyone always said my art was dark, both in tone and palette, so I figured “Daarken” would be a good fit. I added an extra “a” since "darken" is a real word. It would just seem weird without it.
MU: Do other projects like D&D differ very much from Magic projects? If so, how so?
D: I think D&D is a lot more relaxed, but the product itself probably has a lot to do with it. D&D has a tongue-in-cheek aspect to it, which gives artists a little more freedom. Whenever I work on something for D&D, I feel like I’m back in elementary school, drawing monsters and armor for my homebrew games. It feels less like “work” and more like childhood playtime.
MU: What're your opinions of how MTG artwork as evolved and changed over the years?
D: I know there are a lot of fans out there who feel like the game has become too homogeneous, but I always get really excited when each new set comes out. I always think “wow, that painting is awesome” regardless of the style. I also think it was great that Throne of Eldraine had such a large variety of styles. I think the amount of variety determines whether or not the set looks cohesive. If you have one or two pieces that are in a different style, they can feel out of place when you look at the set as a whole. If half of the set has a wide variety of styles, I think the set would look more cohesive.
Creating a cohesive look is just part of the reason why contemporary Magic art looks similar. There aren’t very many traditional artists these days. The fact that there are so many digital artists all learning from the same resources (online tutorials, mentorships, etc.) means that you are probably going to have a lot of overlap. When you have an industry that demands realistic art, you are going to have fewer artists creating stylistic paintings. A big reason why photobashing is so common these days is because you have directors asking for photorealistic paintings but you aren’t given any time to create them. That means you have to find the fastest way possible to create a painting. Sometimes you have to create several paintings in one day.
Thank you to Daarken for participating in this interview.
Magic Untapped's previous Magic: The Gathering artist interviews: