Though he has only been doing art for the game since 2008, Steve Argyle has become a very prominent member of the Magic illustration community. Starting with his Player Rewards Ponder, Steve has continued to produce some of the most provocative and energetic card art seen to date. Few can forget his sultry Liliana of the Veil or his bold and brash Chandra Ablaze.
To get a deeper look into the work and influences of this amazing artist, I reached out to Steve at his studio.
Steve, first off I want to thank you for agreeing to the interview, it is a privilege. Can you give me a brief history of how you got into commercial illustration and started doing work for Magic?
Hmm… How far to go back… Let’s just start at the jump to illustration. I’d been working at a video game studio as a modeler for about five years, and I noticed a friend of mine had a stack of Legend of the Five Rings cards. I was excited to find a fellow CCG player, but he said “Oh, I’ve never played. I just do some freelance stuff for these guys on the side, and they send me free stuff.” So, like any good player, I kidnapped him and held him hostage in the conference room, until he relented to learn the game. Mentioning how much I’d like to do illustration, he referred me to the art director, who said something along the lines of “Matt says he won’t do any more paintings for me until I give you a shot. But your stuff doesn’t look anything like what we use. So in humoring Matt, here’s a commission. When it comes in sucking, don’t bug me for any more. Deal?” So I busted my doughy tuckus to get in something that was the best work I’d done so far. And keep in mind, I was a 3D sculptor, not a concept or production artist, so this was actually new territory for me. When I turned it in, he was like “Huh. This is a lot – A LOT – better than I’d expected. Want more?”
From there to Magic was pretty easy. I had a booth at Gen Con back in like 2007. After the show each night, we’d end up at the artist hangout bar. I chatted with Jeremy Jarvis several times, he’s a great fella to banter with. We really didn’t talk about art, or Magic. Mostly traded embarrassing stories about dumb crap we shouldn’t have gotten away with when we were young and slightly more stupid. A few weeks later, I was like “DOH! I was talking with Jarvis, and I never even gave him a business card!” So I emailed him, and he said “Oh yeah, I’d been meaning to talk to you about working on Magic. If you’re interested, here’s a try-out piece.” It was the textless “Ponder” player rewards card. Things have been going pretty darn good since then.
What or who would you consider to be your greatest influence as an artist?
The thing that got me between the years when we all draw just for the fun of it, and being an adult who’s forgotten all about that sort of thing, was comic books. Most of us spend our first ten years drawing on everything. It’s really our first language. But at some point, many of us stop speaking it. For those who manage to keep up with, or rekindle that language, art isn’t a huge technical challenge. The challenge is in making decisions and evaluating things each step of the way. (I’m of the belief that anyone can do what I do. It’s just putting a little time in. Let go of the idea that you have to have some mythical “talent,” muse, or inspiration, and just start putting things down on paper.)
Anyway, that’s another tangent, but the point is that comic books kept me drawing through my teenage years. It was funny, because I was more interested in writing great stories than painting great pictures. But comics use art to tell part of the story, and that made me realize paintings and books aren’t all that different. A good book paints many pictures in your mind.
A great painting has a story, has a character. And part of the charm is that it’s not spelled out for you.
Because I wanted to tell my own stories, and show people the worlds I’d invented in my head, I would doodle my own comic pages. And at some point, I began to love the idea of telling stories without words. Just showing a moment frozen in time.
While you have only been doing art for the game for a few years, you have already done over 50 images. What would you say was your favorite to create and your best work so far?
That’s a hard question. For the artist, it’s hard to really see a painting the same way someone else does. They’re like children. We see them grow up, we know what we want for them, and some things work out, some things don’t. Many paintings have lots of changes they evolve through, with accidental successes as well as frustrating shortcomings. And then there’s everything that was happening in my life while I was painting it. To the artist, a painting is a very different, and much, much longer story than what the audience sees.
I’ve definitely got some pieces that stand out for one reason or another. Mostly because they have a little more success in conveying a moment, as opposed to simply being rendered well. Some good examples are Slave of Bolas, Return of the Shogun, Deathrite Shaman, Somberwald Sage, my work each year at the Illustration Master Class.
There are also some that are favorites because of a challenge overcome. Jace’s Ingenuity FNM promo, for example. I wanted to show Jace in an environment that included his element, while still conveying the more common theme of mental discipline and manipulation. When the sketch was approved, I had a bit of a “uh-oh” moment, because I’d proposed painting these weightless ribbons of water around him. That’s quite a rendering challenge, and you can’t exactly take photo-reference of that sort of thing. I learned a lot from that painting.
Do any of your pieces of art have a funny or more involved story behind them?
Ah… all of them? A little bit is covered by the last question. But there’s more. When you’re coming up with concepts, then drawing and painting a scene or a character for many hours at a time, inventing stories about them come pretty naturally. Because so much of art is about asking and answering questions, much of that leads to a lot more ideas than manage to find its way onto paper.
I could write a novel series about Slave of Bolas.
Do you typically stay within the confines of the art direction, or do you tend to be a bit more adventurous with your work?
Depends on the art director. Magic’s AD is absolutely great to work with. He gives a clear initial idea, mood, and what it needs to convey. But if you come up with something different you’d rather do, he’s very open to new ideas.
I do try to be adventurous, but I’ve always got to keep the client’s brand in mind. They have a look and feel they’ve worked very hard to cultivate. Even before it’s on a card, most people know Magic artwork when they see it, regardless of the artist. That’s something professional artists have to strive for. Not just being the best artist you can, but providing the best service. You want to be an integral part of your clients succeeding.
What piece would say varied the most from the initial direction and why?
Probably Everflowing Chalice. From the initial description, I’d interpreted the Chalice as being able to produce any color of mana. Once the final was turned in, complete with a ring of fire, water, and some skulls carved into it, they let me know that after some playtesting, any color was insane. So it actually needed to be colorless.
Another that changed, that I’d have liked to do the initial concept instead, was Jace’s Ingenuity. The original commission was for a textless card, so vertical format. In my initial sketch, you can see Jace hovering above a chasmic waterfall, and above him stars and planets are in the sky.
What was the art direction given for Liliana of the Veil and can you shed some light on the two versions you produced for the art?
Ah. Yes. For the Innistrad block, Magic wanted to convey more of who Liliana was. She’d been mostly portrayed visually as sort of an undead witch, and she can certainly look that way when she’s casting. But when she isn’t, her scar tattoos don’t show, and she traded her soul for eternal youth and beauty. So if you did that, you’d probably want to flaunt it, right? They asked me to do a sexy, but not over the top rendition of her, keeping in mind to still convey that she is dangerous and capable. The “alternate” version is the first thing I turned in, and they said “Hey this hits the sexy – a little too much. And it hits the dangerous – a little too much. Let’s reel it in a bit. She looks less Innistrad, more Rakdos Ravnica. We want this set to be very gothic and classic feeling.”
Several of your pieces have been recreations of existing art, e.g. Nevinyrral’s Disk and Bloodbraid Elf. When doing a piece for which art already exists, how much do you use the previous art for inspiration? Do you find such recreations too confining or do you work well with the additional reference?
I don’t find doing new versions of existing cards confining at all, actually. I see it as an opportunity to show something new about a character or scene we all know.
What is your approach to art and what media do you tend to prefer to work in? Do you ever do any work in traditional media?
My approach is haphazard. I start scribbling ideas and thumbnails, gather up some reference, and do a series of sketches. I’ll usually take two or three of the best sketches, and iterate a couple of different versions of them. Then I either pick one, or send options to the art director. From there, it’s just the long process of rendering it out, filling in the details.
I work almost exclusively in Photoshop. I’ll fall back on some of my 3D experience for particularly tricky scenes, usually to get perspective and lighting just right, and use that as additional reference.
Are we ever going to be able to buy a Steve Argyle original painting for Magic?
I’m working on getting better with oil paint, so hopefully that’s in the near future. I’ve done some portrait studies of Planeswalkers, which have been well received.
On Twitter you have been treating your followers to various Liliana of the Veil alters done at the events you attend. What has been the oddest alteration request you have received to date?
Oh, that’s a tough one. Mostly the oddest alterations are out of my own twisted mind. A player will ask for something like “I want something that no one has asked for, and that you haven’t done yet.” And I’ll reply with “That rules out a lot. You’ll probably get something pretty bizarre, you sure you want that?” If they do, I’ll go nuts and they’ll get a tentacle panda robot or something.
Most artists always have a “go to” sketch or doodle for fans at events and conventions. Some do dragons, others suits of armor. What is your go to sketch of choice?
I usually get asked for the characters I’m known for, so I’ll draw portraits of Liliana or Chandra. If they’re not Magic players, I’ll usually ask them what sort of thing they’re into, and work up something from there. I don’t like to repeat my work, so I try to do different things. Lately, I’ve been having fun doing cute “minion” drawings of fat angels and demons on mats. At Comic Con a few weeks ago, someone started a playmat war between me, Todd Lockwood, Jason Engle, and John Stanko. Turned out pretty epic.
At Gen Con 2012 you were working with an injured wrist. How has your recovery been going, fully armed and operational yet?
Back and functioning at say 90%. I had to have surgery and get three screws in my hand, so there’s a pretty decent scar, and the nerves are… confused. Like I’ll touch something hot, and one of my fingers will register it as cold, and another will not feel it at all, but instead I’ll feel it on the back of my hand. It’s weird.
Do you have any new projects or upcoming new work that you want to show off to your fans?
Oh, there’s lots that I’m excited for people to see. But publishers like to keep that stuff under wraps until they can show it off first. So you’ll just have to wait and see!
If one were interested in purchasing proofs, prints or getting cards signed, where should they be looking?
The best place would be my website: www.steveargyle.com.
Will you be attending Gen Con or any other conventions this year?
Yes, I’m usually at several conventions each year. Gen Con, San Diego Comic Con, a lot of Magic GPs, Spiel, Luca Games Fair, to name a few.
Steve, thank you for your time and for sharing your work with us. I eagerly await more amazing art of yours appearing in future Magic sets.