Pete Venters has been involved in the art of Magic since 1994 and contributed to the storyline to a degree that many may not realize. OMA reporters tracked Pete down to ask him a few questions about his myriad contributions to the game.
Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. You have quite the history with the game of Magic. We all know what you have brought to the game, can you tell us some of the things that the game has done for you?
Well, the obvious; exposure to a massive worldwide audience and the opportunity to travel around the world to places I may never have gotten to on my own. My visits to Vienna and Osaka stand out in my mind as particularly great trips.
Also, it gave me time to learn to paint! No, seriously. When I started I had been painting on and off for a few years trying to break into British comics – specifically 2000AD which was going through a phase of fully painted comic strips – but it wasn’t until I dove into the assignments coming from Wizards (Magic, then Vampire) that I really got a handle on painting with acrylics. I think if you look at my work from 94 to 98 you can see some significant improvements in my skills.
While many know of your contributions to the art of the game, fewer may know that you were involved in shaping the storyline of the game as well. Working as a Continuity Writer, Editor and IP Developer from 1995 to 1998, you helped create the Dominaria that many know today. Are there any stand out memories for you from when you were building these worlds?
I was never really an editor, we had a whole department of those! But yes, I helped form the foundations of Magic’s IP. Before myself, John Tynes, and Scott Hungerford came along, the stories behind the card sets were really just a set of quotes without a lot of internal cohesion.
Now, I’ve heard people say they preferred the mystery of the oldest sets but the term ‘mystery’ hangs on the notion of there being a truth to be uncovered but that wasn’t really the case. There was the thinnest of frameworks holding together chaos.
We took pains to take everything the original creators gave us and try to form something cohesive. Some were easier than others. The Dark was fairly well structured and contained. Legends was, by its nature, a sprawling series of people and events from throughout history so the most difficult part there was slotting them into the best time and place. Antiquities and Fallen Empires were much more jumbled and needed more work to get something cohesive.
Anyway, back to your actual question (ahem), my highlights are probably the creation of the globe of Dominaria, and the creation of the setting for Mirage that was all kicked off when I saw a painting of a Nubian guard in an Arabian court. It seemed the natural thing to do after a cycle set in an Ice Age and it was a welcome break from the unfortunately almost entirely Caucasian cast from the previous Magic sets. I’m sad to see that Magic’s racial mix is still wildly skewed toward white people.
Having worked on the creative team while still actively working as an illustrator for the game, did you ever find yourself working at cross purposes?
No, it was actually a bonus. There is nobody better to write art descriptions than an artist, and especially one who’s working on the same project. Some players at the time accused me of taking advantage of my position to grab good cards, but it just wasn’t true. Yes, I had the opportunity to look over the art list and pick pieces – as did every other artist working at Wizards at the time – but my priorities were always what I thought I could make cool. Some examples –
Phyrexian Dreadnought – I picked it because I loved Phyrexians and with the first set I wrote – Alliances – I brought them back into the Magic storyline and was the person who pushed for them to become Magic’s major villain. So when a big-ass artifact creature turned up in Mirage, you can be damn sure I suggested it be Phyrexian and asked if I could paint it. I had no idea it’d be any good or have any lasting place in the game as a playable card.
Time Warp – Probably my biggest card from Tempest was actually a card that landed in my lap when the original artist dropped the ball and the image was an emergency re-commission with a 3-day turnaround. In the days before commonplace ftp delivery of art, these kinds of last minute jobs always fell to the artists working in house.
Survival of the Fittest – yup, had no clue that this was going to be a big card. I just liked the name and picked it because of that!
Some of the game’s most famous characters were created during your tenure on the creative team at Wizards; were there any characters that you were personally involved in creating?
Wow, that’s hard to remember. I created the visuals for Gix, the planewalkers Lord Windgrace, Freyalise, Kristina, Sandruu, Serra and Feroz. There was also a part female, part artifact planeswalker called Reizen who never appeared as the original plan for the Weatherlight saga was changed.
In most cases, the characters above already existed in some form before I joined the team, but I gave them a concrete visual and helped coalesce their identity from multiple sources. In many other cases my input into the design of characters was helping the other artists with background information for the characters.
What was your involvement in the creation of the Weatherlight crew, one of the most iconic set of characters in the history of the game?
I’d created the original look of Gerrard, Sisay, and Tahngarth for the Weatherlight set, but they received an overhaul for Tempest. When Continuity morphed into a larger operation called “The Creative Team”, the team’s leader, Chaz Elliot, brought back Magic’s original art director Jesper Myrfors, and hired Mark Tedin, Anson Maddocks and Anthony Waters to create imagery for the first real style guides for the game. Before that, any art reference had to be generated by me, and my other duties meant I couldn’t invest a lot of time on them.
Trivia: Mark Tedin was responsible for all of the brilliant versions of Urza that appeared throughout the Urza block.
Did your time working on the story side of the business influence your approach to your artwork?
Yes, first and foremost I’m a storyteller. When I have a strong sense of what’s happening in the story, who the characters are, and what the stakes are, it makes the art a thousand times more exciting for me. I started in comic books and narrative is what I’m all about.
It’s no coincidence that one of the blocks that I enjoyed most that followed my time in Continuity was Mirrodin because I’d been lucky enough to read a very detailed story document explaining the setting.
Mirrodin was a great expansion of the Weatherlight’s search for the Mirari. Did you ever get to see any of the story documents for the revisit to Mirrodin for the Phyrexian Invasion?
Nope. However I did know that Mirrodin was destined to become New Phyrexia all the way back when the original Mirrodin set was being developed.
You have been involved in making Magic art nearly from the very beginning. If you had to pick one of your pieces as a favorite, which would it be?
Drawn Together from Unhinged was a rare opportunity to do a vanity piece that was a retrospective of my career in Magic. Tanglewalker I love because it was one of the few times I got to paint something pretty. Baron Sengir gets a nod for pure nostalgia. It’s hard to narrow it to one after something like 280+ paintings.
On your blog ( www.peteventers.com/blog/ ) you have explained in detail the perils of having the popularity of your art being dependent on the rarity and power of the card. Are there any pieces of yours that you feel may been overlooked by the fans due to this phenomenon?
Zombie Assassin was easily one of the most gruesome and twisted paintings I’ve ever done and no one noticed because it was on a junk common. I’m sure there are others but man, it’s depressing to dig through paintings you loved that no one even noticed.
Having worked in commercial illustration for over 20 years now, do you have any words of advice for aspiring artists trying to break into the industry?
1) NEVER work for free. There are many times that an opportunity for exposure seems like it’s worth giving someone a freebie but you are perpetuating a very broken system. You are telling the person who’s receiving your freebie that you are desperate for work, and can probably be gotten cheap. You’re also showing this person that he can probably find other artists that’ll do freebies. Finally, you’ve not only stopped someone from earning money, you’ve probably skewed the average wage of artists everywhere in a downward direction. Remember, one day it could be you who doesn’t get the job because someone else is willing to do it for free.
2) There are two times of payment. Payment on receipt of your art, and payment on publication. Wizards and Blizzard do payment on receipt but far too few of the other companies in the hobby game industry do. Put bluntly, payment on publication is bullshit. You are taking all the financial risk while a company tries to get something published and if they screw up you don’t see a penny. And I can’t tell you of the amount of times that artists have had to make weekly phone calls to companies that owe them money for a product that’s been on the store shelves for months. Simply, if a company doesn’t have the capital to pay you for your art when you deliver it, they have no business being in business.
If there was one skill that a prospective illustrator must master to become commercially successful, what would it be?
These days, it’s probably Photoshop. Sure, there are plenty of artists that still work traditionally but even they get scans made and it helps to know how to color correct your work. The other fundamental skill is anatomy. No matter how much of a stylist you are, if you don’t have the underlying foundation of knowledge in human anatomy, it will show.
Working at Wizards of the Coast headquarters you must have played the game quite a bit. What is your favorite type of deck to play? Any favorite color combination or creature type that you tend to build your decks around?
I actually stopped playing before I joined Wizards full time. I’m a lousy deck builder and I just found getting my decks routinely hammered to be eventually frustrating. When I did play, I tried every combo of colors but I think Black and White were my faves. Red hadn’t really shaped up to be a fave then.
Do you still find time to play every once in a while? Any opinions on how the game has changed over time?
No, I tried to catch up with the game around 4th edition and was horrified by how badly written that rulebook was; it actually made me confused about a game I thought I knew how to play! After that, the only CCG I played with any regularity was Doomtown and I eventually quit that for the same reason – that my decks were just no good.
These days my gaming is limited to RPGs or video games. Occasionally a board game, but that opportunity doesn’t arise all that often.
You have a penchant for producing some of the best goblin art in the game. Are you, in fact, a goblin in disguise?
Not according to my passport, but no one will let me see my DNA tests.
From time to time artists have been known to trade pieces of their work amongst each other. Do you have any pieces of original Magic art done by another artist?
I’ve never traded but I have purchased one Magic piece – the version of Melesse Spirit (the Mirage version of an angel) that was done by Terese Neilsen for a Magic calendar. It’s gorgeous.
The few times I’ve met Terese, we’ve always had great conversations about creating art because we approach things so differently.
Have you ever felt a sense of competition when doing Magic art? A painter’s arms race, if you will, to see who can be the most productive or outrageous?
Oh totally. It’s all part of the fun and it helps you produce your best work.
Have you ever hidden any “Easter eggs” in your paintings for Magic?
Plenty. Mostly story related ones that only people really into the stories would get.
You have recently begun selling your originals after purchasing an archival scanner. How has the reception been so far?
Good. The approaching 20th anniversary of Magic has certainly helped.
If anyone were interested in purchasing one of your originals, an artist proof or a print, where would be the best place to find you?
My blog has an email link on the top right column. That’s the easiest way.
There have been rumors that Wizards is planning something special for the 20th anniversary of the game. Can you lend credence to any of these rumors?
I’m afraid not. If they have any plans they haven’t discussed them with me or with a whole bunch of the original artists. Indeed the original artists decided to do something about it themselves. There’ll be an announcement for a Kickstarter project soon, with Wizards’ blessing.
I’m really sad Wizards didn’t do something involving the original artists though. It just seems like a massive lost opportunity.
Does the Kickstarter project have anything to do with The Gathering: Reuniting Pioneering Artists of Magic: The Gathering event that was recently announced on Krab Jab Studio
Yup. More details soon.
Do you have any plans to attend Gen Con or any other conventions this year?
That’d be cool; I haven’t been there since 98 or 99. However, it’s not looking likely. We’ll see how things go with the Kickstarter…
That would certainly be amazing if a bunch of the original artists were able to attend.
Pete, thank you for your time and we all look forward to seeing more of your work in the future, especially the details for the upcoming Kickstarter.
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