Every Magic artist I have ever run into has been friendly, but some just brighten your day when you meet them. For me, the first artist that brought out that feeling was Anthony Scott Waters. I first met Anthony at one of the myriad Star City Games prerelease events in Richmond and, once I got past my nervousness, I was met with a genuinely friendly guy that was just pleased I dug his work. If you ever get the chance to meet him at an event, you’ll know what I mean after talking with him. He’s good people.
Anthony Waters also happens to be one of the more prolific artists for Magic with 110 images to his credit. He has been doing art for the game since Legends and for a time was actually building pieces of the world of Dominaria that we all came to love. To learn more about his process, his time at Wizards and his switch to digital, I was able to secure some time with Anthony and sat him down for some questions.
Anthony, some might not know that you had a strong influence over the story of Magic during the Rathe Cycle. Can you go into what you worked on while employed by WotC from 1997-1999?
I definitely had a hand in things, though I’m not sure just how strong an influence I was. Pete Venters and Scott Hungerford had come up with a cast of characters and had done a lot of world-crafting before I arrived on the scene. I worked with them and later with John Longenbaugh and Scott McGough on integrating our concepts with the story lines for the card sets and related novels.
It was an exciting time to be working at WotC. No process was yet in place for world-building. There was a lot of chaos between Art and Continuity on one side and R&D on the other. It often felt like a scramble to see who could get their ideas packaged and pitched to the Higher Ups first. That lack of process meant Mark Tedin, Anson Maddocks and I had a lot of creative freedom for the first year or more as the core concept team. We pushed as hard and as far as we could. I spent 1997 learning how to blend my work into the world Mark and Anson had made. I set myself to designing the machines and devices we needed to give the bad guys. One day Jesper came to me and said, “We need a race of desert people. Can you do that?”
“Sure,” I answered. “What’s the deadline?”
Jesper smiled and replied “Today!”
I got a little more than that to create the Vec, Rath’s indigenous people, but not much. That was the way development went in those early days. Someone would get an idea or, just as often, would come to us and say “we’ve got a hole here we need you guys to fill” and within minutes the studio would ring to the sound of electric sharpeners grinding pencil leads down to points.
I went from arcane and evil magical machines to designing the interior of the Weatherlight, right down to her keel. We moved on to the world of Dominaria for Urza’s Saga in 1998. That was when I think I began leaving a mark on the worlds of Magic. I was let loose on the Isle of Argoth and I made it my own, designing the ecosystem from the ground up, populating it with critters, designing the look of the Elven and Druid populations. Of course, the Isle of Argoth was annihilated in a cataclysmic event during the story. That was something of a bummer. But there were more forests in my future and I paid for my joyful dedication to all things arboreal by earning the nickname “Tree Boy”. It led to another island ecosystem for me, Yavimaya, the organic engine of destruction whose progeny would later face down the Phyrexians during Dominaria’s invasion. I had even more fun with Yavimaya than Argoth and I hope the concept art reflects that.
It wasn’t all about plants. I developed the package art and symbol for Portal II, my one major foray into logo design (and a domain I happily leave for infinitely more capable people like Daniel Gelon). I crafted the mountains and Goblin architecture for Portal III, wrote The Art of Magic, a book that combines the art of the whole Rath Cycle with all sorts of character and world lore, wrote card text for several decks and designed a number of the Style Guides we made for each card set. I was involved in everything from character design to monsters, magical items and vehicles, and kibitzing on plot and worldbuilding. It was as grand a job as I’ve ever had.
The Rathe cycle introduced many of the game’s most famous characters and storylines. Were there any characters or concepts that you came up with? Did you have any favorite characters to write storylines for?
The guts of the Weatherlight? That’s all me. I was given free reign to invent how she got about, under sail and between worlds, all the way to her final refitting for war. When you love inventing architecture you soon discover that most people don’t. I grabbed all the opportunities I could while I was on the concept team. Like designing forests, the challenge of making contrasting styles out of the same subject matter gets me fired up. I made homes for the Kor, yurts for the Vec, designed a capital city from a hollowed-out volcanic caldera for the Seafolk of Mercadia, drew monolithic Thran ruins, sketched the city of Kroog and generated homes for the doomed Elves and Druids of Argoth. I’m responsible for the terrible scars on the Rath Cycle’s favorite Minotaur. I created Squee’s Toy (though I will not own the terrible pun, that was someone else’s fault). And Yavimaya, beautiful, horrible Yavimaya, the island closest to my heart, I filled up with muscular trees whose roots controlled huge underground vascular systems, bug hives the size of apartment blocks, super-sized crocodiles and hippos, all kinds of nightmare stuff.
Magic typically works years in advance, so by 1999 were you already done with the Invasion block story? What about the Odyssey block and the search for the Mirrari?
I took a hiatus from work after I got laid off in 1999. I went painting in New Mexico and took instruction in portraiture from Tony Ryder and was your stereotypical art bum for a few months. When I did return to freelancing my hunt for clients took me away from Magic for several decks. I didn’t do any concept work for WOTC until the Mirrodin set.
Outside of writing for the game, you also worked as a concept artist during the same time frame. Having worked on both sides of the desk, both concept and final illustration, which do you prefer?
I love being a concept designer. World-building has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. I get paid to daydream–what’s to complain about?
Making a finished illustration requires a different mindset and more polished chops than concept art. You’re not suggesting an idea any more. You need to tell a story and be clear about it. There’s also more room for experimentation in illustration since the content is often much more abstract. How do you illustrate a person experiencing a psychotic break? An assignment like that will push you to go beyond literal interpretations. You gain a different set of creative strengths from such work.
How often do concept artists interact with the final illustrators? In your experience, is there any communication between the two?
It varies a great deal. It was our job, at WotC, to help the illustrators by giving them visual reference for the many worlds under Magic’s umbrella. Some folks loved it, others hated it. There’s rarely any direct contact between illustrators and concept artists in the video-game industry. That’s been my experience, at any rate. An Art Director might have a different view.
Like many artists, you started working in gouache and other physical media, but unlike most you transitioned to digital early, some time around Prophecy. What was your first digital card? How different was creating it then compared to now?
Yes, the Great Digital Shift! Dermot Power turned in a Goblin card for Stronghold, I think, that was done in Painter. That painting really put its hooks in me. I was already using Photoshop extensively in my concept work but this was something else. Dermot’s card was a painting, there was no disputing that, and it made me wonder if I could do the same thing. Dana Knutson was the Art Director at the time. I begged him to let me try painting my Apocalypse cards digitally first and if he didn’t care for them I’d redo them before the deadline. I want to say “Life”, my half of the Life/Death split card, was the first one I turned in, but honestly I no longer remember.
It was a sweat-fest. I had no idea how they were going to be received. I worried over them and then, once they were sent, I worried about them until I got the ok from Dana. I did two real-media pieces after that, for Prophecy, then switched back to digital and stayed there.
My process has changed a lot over time. I used to work in Painter using the watercolor and oil tools, but for a variety of reasons I settled on Photoshop as my weapon of choice, and maybe as a consequence my methodology began to involve a lot of texture and photo-collage. I’m not uniformly happy about my evolution. I worked more loosely in Painter. Somehow, over time, my Photoshop art became tighter and tighter, increasingly realistic. I’m taking some steps back from that style these days. Feeling, the emotional content of a piece of art, is more important than technique.
Technology has improved to the point where many artists are working primarily digital now. As an early adopter, what was your experience? How have the advancements in digital hardware impacted your work?
The best thing about working digitally is there’s no setup and no cleanup! That chops an hour out of the act of creating art, right off the bat. I get a lot of pleasure out of setting up and tearing down–it’s meditative, helps me get into the groove–but by the same token I’ve never regretted the time digital art’s saved me. Clients love digital art, too. It saves them the step of digitizing a reproduction of a painting, or scanning one (which they inevitably have to do these days) and it’s much easier to deliver than a big oil painting (thank you, Internet).
At the root of all these technological advancements is a practical pain in the ass, and that’s needing to update your hardware every time a major shift in software occurs. Meanwhile, in the analog world, my watercolor brushes still work fine!
While some digital artists eschew even pencil sketches, you continued to use them for most of your Magic art. Was that force of habit, or did making a physical sketch help you when finishing it digitally?
This is another way in which the world has changed and it makes me feel old! I grew up with a pencil in my hand. I love the feel of a pencil tip or a pen nib on paper. It’s a sensation digital media’s never been able to replicate for me. That’s not why I stuck with it, though; I still use pencils because that’s how I think, it’s part of my thought process to start with rough designs, refine them in graphite or ink, and then shift over to digital media. The digital artists of today don’t differentiate between the design and the painting stages. They do it all at once. I admire that very much. It’s something I can do but I don’t enjoy it at all.
Since you started illustrating Magic cards in Legends, you were included in the recent Kickstarter campaign, The Gathering (books still available to purchase). What was your experience with the project?
I was a passenger for the project. I’ve had a ball, but then, passengers usually do; we’re not doing any of the work! Julie Baroh and Jeff Menges did all the heavy lifting. Pete Venters made the Kickstarter campaign happen, with Mike Kimble as our spokesman. Without them, none of this would have been possible.
The best thing of all, with regards to The Gathering, was getting to meet old friends and make new ones. I’d never met Ken Meyer, Jr. nor Mike Kimble before, for example, and I hadn’t seen Melissa Benson or Liz Danforth in years and years. That made the 2013 Emerald City Comic Con a singular pleasure.
Having done over 100 images for the game, do you have any favorites? Are there any pieces from Magic that you are keeping in a personal collection?
I have a few favorites. I will keep Primitive Justice and White Mana Battery to remind me what it felt like when I reached my first handhold with watercolors. They mark a point of my growth I want to remember, a stage when the media started to make sense to me and I was creating paintings more often than killing them. Then I tackled to acrylics and the killing started all over again. Ron Spears helped guide me through gouache and acrylics while we both worked at WotC and the concept art I painted with real media is important to me in a similar way to the Magic art I hold close. They mark milestones along the road of my art career.
I know some artists burn their early work and I sure understand that sentiment. I have a few of those early pieces around to keep me humble. I started at the bottom just like everyone else.
Recently you released some details about your new book, The Little Chapbook of Pain, along with some hints at a possible Kickstarter. Can you give us the lowdown on the book and any upcoming special projects?
The Little Book of Pain is my first nonfiction work. It’s about a man who commits suicide and the effect it has on his family, as told to me, the adult me, by the little kid inside for whom it remains a fresh, raw memory more than thirty years later. The story’s mostly told through art. I’ve collected the best of 150+ images here, along with the journal entries and other material that ties it all together. It’s an iBook right now, but I do intend to run a Kickstarter campaign for a paperback version to be printed this year. There is an abbreviated version, the Little Chapbook of Pain you’ve alluded to. Consider it the Book of Pain as written by the Little Chap who witnessed it all.
Anthony for your time and for sharing your history. I look forward to hearing more about your future projects and can’t wait to see more about this potential Kickstarter.