Interview with Melissa Benson - Original Magic: The Gathering Artist

 Shivan Dragon; one of the most iconic illustrations from the original run of Magic: The Gathering.

Shivan Dragon; one of the most iconic illustrations from the original run of Magic: The Gathering.

In 1993, Wizards of the Coast released Magic: The Gathering; a game that would forever shape the tabletop gaming landscape. The game's popularity spread like wildfire; attaining a massive and dedicated international fanbase, ranging from casual collectors to professional competitors in worldwide tournaments.

The success of the game is in large part due to the incredible game design by math-professor-gone-game-designer Richard Garfield; balancing simple approachability with deep, complex strategy. But design alone isn't enough to catch the eyes and inspire the hearts of generations of gamers. I strongly believe that without the incredibly talented and stylistically diverse set of original 25 artists, Magic would have never succeeded. These artists showcased mysterious and strange worlds, simultaneously paying homage and subverting classic fantasy tropes. The art gave context to the cards; attracting players and encouraging them to learn the how to play (and purchase more!) "Magic Cards". 

Melissa Benson illustrated more than 60 cards between 1993 and 1998, including many iconic creatures from the original release. I can still remember the first time I held in my hands my brother's Shivan Dragon. I didn't need the text on the card to tell me that Shivan was one bad mother. I am so proud and honored to be able to present the following interview with one of my absolute favorite Magic: The Gathering artists, Melissa Benson.

Melissa, you've illustrated some of the most iconic cards in Magic: The Gathering, including Shivan Dragon and Nightmare for the original set. How much art direction were you given by Wizards of the Coast when you first started producing art for them? 

We had free reign to do what we wanted to do. Jesper, who was the art director in the beginning, had a list of titles that he would read off to you over the phone. You picked the ones that appealed to you, made a sketch and faxed it over to him for approval. Yes, I said faxed. This was 1993 remember. The sketch was approved, the art was done and the original mailed in. No email attachments then. Easy-peasy.

Did your relationship with Wizards of the Coast evolve over time as you became more of an established artist in the medium? 

Yes, it evolved. I became more discontented with the way the company did many things but I don’t believe that’s what you are asking. Artistically, after a while, there were specific pieces they wanted me to do, which I usually did. And once I faxed in the sketch, I didn’t usually wait for approval before I started. There was only one Magic card that was rejected outright that I had to do over. That was “About Face”. I never did get an actual answer as to what the problem was.

 Lord of Atlantis; from the original run of Magic: The Gathering

Lord of Atlantis; from the original run of Magic: The Gathering

It's my understanding that you originally wanted to make book cover illustrations, but you decided to contact game publishers after seeing some game artwork in a comic store. What was that process like? Did you find it easy or difficult to break into the industry? 

I thought my art was best suited to illustrate fantasy novel covers, but I contacted every sort of company that I thought my art was a good fit for. It was the gaming industry, Jesper in particular, who gave me work so that’s where I went.

It was extremely difficult to get traction of any sort in the beginning. I spent a lot of time lugging my portfolio (my samples were oil paintings on masonite) into the city (New York) on the train; sending out query letters that included three 4 x 6 inch photos of my work with a pre stamped response postcard; and signing up with an art placement agency for companies that had temporary jobs. Sometimes there was work for a day, sometimes a week, occasionally more. I worked for the WWE assembling boxes for a couple of days; and I painted resin "master casts" of castles, lighthouses and Peanuts characters that were sent overseas for other artists to copy using my piece for reference. My first paying job was for futuristic lawn care equipment.

Like Dungeons & Dragons before it, the artwork for Magic: The Gathering served as inspiration for countless kids to pursue fantasy artwork hobbies and careers. What are some of the iconic images of your childhood that inspired you to pursue art?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t remember any particular image, but I read a lot and would see images in my head. Especially the creatures. When I couldn’t find an existing image of it, I would draw it myself. I also found it was easier to explain things with pictures, like maps, or how something works. There are many artists whose work I enjoy in general, but I can’t single out any one piece. I do enjoy the artwork of Frazetta, Mucha, Alma TaDema, Roy Kernel and the like.

 Wine Glass Half Full; a surrealist piece by Melissa Benson

Wine Glass Half Full; a surrealist piece by Melissa Benson

Is there any one person that helped guide and mentor you artistically, either during childhood or in your adult life? If so, who and how? 

Ken Davies and Joe Funaro of Paier College of Art were by far the most influential. Both were fantastic artists themselves. Ken Davies gave you a taste of how the business actually worked and what you could expect as a professional. He also taught the merit of discipline. You can see his art is on Wild Turkey bourbon labels although he is best known for his trompe-l'œil work.  

Joe Funaro was an extraordinary portrait artist. He hammered home the importance of simplifying gestures, of ratio and proportion and of paying attention to the temperature and edges of shadows. A man of few words and no nonsense. He was great.

Describe your process. If someone commissioned you for artwork today, how do you begin? Does that change when you are creating non-commissioned art? 

The process is pretty simple. Let’s say you want a role playing character. I’ll ask you to tell me about the character, and give you estimates for various sizes based on what you want in the picture. If you have some reference material, let me know that too. The idea is modified until we agree on cost and content. After that, I create a loose thumbnail sketch and if something needs to be further clarified, there will be a loose sketch for that as well. Finally, a tighter sketch is done and a color study if one is needed, and your part of the work is done.  I’ll let you know when it is ready.

The biggest difference between commission and non-commission pieces is the time I spend amassing reference and creating small sketches. The thumbnails may change radically from the initial idea. The actual painting is more fluid as well because I can regroup and make changes at every stage which I often do. And I can experiment without guilt. I have to watch that because I can spend way too long exploring options that don’t warrant that kind of time. 

 Nightmare; one of the most recognizable pieces of fantasy art from the last 30 years. Come on! Look at that thing! Who  wouldn't  want to play a game with that artwork!?

Nightmare; one of the most recognizable pieces of fantasy art from the last 30 years. Come on! Look at that thing! Who wouldn't want to play a game with that artwork!?

What is your preferred medium? 

Graphite pencils, colored pencils, oils, and colored pencils mixed with oils. That being said, the Magic card art was done with Dr. Martin’s dyes and Berol prismacolor pencils. Magic art in the beginning had to be roughly 6 x 7 inches to fit in a scanner. I needed the dyes for color saturation and the pencils for details. I can’t paint well in oils that small.

Is there a type of visual art that you wish you were more adept at? 

I would like to be adept at sculpting. I know some comic book artists and envy their mastery of rendering in ink. Setting up an actual object to paint from is so much better than using a photograph. And because it would get me more work, digital art would be helpful.

Many professional artists find other creative outlets to pursue as hobbies during their off-time. What are your interests outside of visual art? 

I read. I have an awful lot of books. An AWFUL lot; in every room in several bookcases. I have a collection of Ivan Rebroff albums and mineral spheres. I listen to all kinds of music, mostly classical (really dislike rap and country). I’m getting into gardening. I watch British crime shows. My interests are pretty eclectic in scope.

What projects are you working on now? 

I have a Nightmare/Mesa Pegasus yin/yang design on the easel now. Plus the first illustration in a deck of Tarot cards. This deck has graphic design elements within the illustrations. It feels like a good way to get a lot of the symbolism across. There are a couple of field guides for fantasy creatures I want to do, several stories I want to illustrate, and jewelry to design. There is never a lack of things to put down on paper. I’ll doubt there will ever be a lack of things to do, just time to do them.

The Nightmare/Mesa Pegasus idea came from a commission that was done in black and white several years ago. While I was doing it I knew that I wanted to do it in color at some point. It is a large piece (for me it is anyway) at 20 inches in diameter. The pose is different than the first time around and it is the subject of the “works in progress” section of my website. You can see the first commission here.

 Work in Progress; The beginnings of a Mesa Pegasus and Nightmare combination piece.

Work in Progress; The beginnings of a Mesa Pegasus and Nightmare combination piece.

Where can people find you if they want to contact you, commission art, or buy prints? 

I’m glad you asked! My website is www.melissabenson.com. Email: melissa@melissabenson.com. There is a section on the site for commissions where you can get more detail about how to have a commission done, and how to get a ball park price for it. There is a testimonials page and gallery of previous commissions.

I also have a section on my site where you can purchase original art and prints directly, as well as links to several of my Print on Demand shops. Magic has a section to itself.

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. As a final thought, do you have any advice for any aspiring visual artists? 

Never discount the value of luck and timing. Do not neglect the business side of art. Have a good grasp of bookkeeping, and understand your contracts. Cultivate a relationship with an attorney. That is every bit as important as knowing how to draw a wagon in perspective. This is what they do not teach you in school, but what allows people to take advantage of you. And NEVER give up you copyright without a huge amount of money in return. 

 The Holly King and Oak King by Melissa Benson

The Holly King and Oak King by Melissa Benson

Interview by Jack Eddy & The Cardboard Herald - Dec 16, 2016