With influences that range from Tolkien to Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy lover Matt Stewart has crafted an art career that builds on his passions.
Matt Stewart is perhaps one of the hardest-working traditional artists producing art for Magic: The Gathering today. Like fellow painter Chris Rahn, Matt has created about 120 illustrations for MTG that cover just about every corner of the Multiverse. From the gothic horror of Creepy Dolls to the dawn-like promise of Gift of Immortality, Matt’s brushstrokes have left an indelible mark on the game’s look and feel for nearly the past decade.
Inspired “by a love for all things fantasy,” Matt has made a career out of depicting the stories and tropes that he loved as a child. A perennial presence at every IX (formerly Illuxcon) event — he has attended each year since the show’s inception — Matt’s current schedule includes a mix of commercial work and private commissions.
Matt Stewart stands with a wall of original Magic: The Gathering paintings at IX8 in Allentown, Pa. (Photo by Patrick Scalisi)
With the recent release of Eternal Masters, one of the paintings that Matt created for Magic: The Gathering Online has finally been printed for paper Magic — the exceptional (and exceptionally powerful) Mana Crypt. Vintage Magic spoke to Matt about his current work for Wizards of the Coast and the stories that have influenced his art.
Beginning with Future Sight, you’ve produced art for nearly 125 Magic cards. Do you have a tried-and-true method for approaching a Magic painting when you get a new assignment?
Every piece is different, but generally my process starts with thumbnail sketches, which are tiny drawings in which I map out the composition. Then rough sketches to flesh out the concept. From there I gather reference, photograph models, etc. All the info from the reference is combined into a full sketch, which is submitted to the art directors at Wizards of the Coast. Upon approval, I transfer the drawing to a primed panel and begin painting.
One of the original drawings for the new version of Mana Crypt. Matt generally goes through several thumbnails and sketches before settling on a final design with the art director. (Courtesy of Matt Stewart)
You’ve illustrated bird warriors, elves, humans, elephants, angels, goblins. Are there any creatures from the Magic universe you haven’t illustrated that you’re dying to try?
Even though I painted a dragon already, I’ve only gotten to paint one (Sunscorch Regent). I’d love to get some more dragons. Besides that, I like painting people of different ages, body types, and ethnicities. Magic always provides opportunities for that.
You produced the new art for Mana Crypt for Magic: The Gathering Online, but now we actually got to see the card in print in Eternal Masters. Can you talk a little about how this painting came about and the process behind it?
For the new art for Mana Crypt, [then-Art Director] Jeremy Jarvis was pretty open minded to any ideas I might have. It just had to be different from the original art. Also, the free reign I was given with this piece allowed me to pursue some interests I had at the time. I had seen some photos of the ruins of Persepolis in Iran and was waiting for an opportunity to paint something inspired by them. I chose to show the crypt from the outside. The pyramid-like structure upon which the crypt sits is meant to give it a feeling of strength and importance. The triangular composition emphasizes this and creates a contrast of the swirling clouds of mana above.
Another sketch of Mana Crypt with the final version for reference. (Courtesy of Matt Stewart)
What are some of the challenges and opportunities of taking on an assignment that requires you to reimagine older cards, like Mana Crypt, Force of Will, or Time Twister?
With the art description, [Wizards] usually comes up with an idea so I don’t have to worry about subliminally repainting the old painting. But you want to make it good because it’s a big deal, it’s a prestigious thing to do. These Power Nine cards are real important to fans, so you don’t want to flub that job. I think that’s the main thing. They’re fun to do. It’s kind of an honor that they pick you to do this stuff.
Turning to your personal work for a moment, last year you had a piece called “Ozymandias” on display at the very well-regarded InfraReal exhibit in New York City. How did this piece come about?
That piece was just sort of a stream-of-consciousness piece. I came up with an idea of just trying to think about things ravaged by time and things that were once great that aren’t great anymore, and I just drew this thing out of my head. I worked it up in my sketchbook. I applied the title after I had actually painted it because I remembered the poem by [Percy Bysshe] Shelley that has the same theme. And I thought, ‘That would make an appropriate title.’ It was a nice change from the set bounds that, say, Magic or other illustration projects give you where it’s a set world and a set theme.
Pages from Matt’s sketchbook (left) depict the “sphinx drawing” that eventually became the painting “Ozymandias” (right). (Courtesy of Matt Stewart)
You like to produce works set in the world of The Lord of the Rings and even worked on the LOTR card game from Fantasy Flight. On your website, you say that you were hooked after reading The Hobbit in sixth grade.
I was drawing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons stuff, and [my father] gave me The Hobbit and said, ‘You might like this.’ He was always a big fan. He and my uncle were big Tolkien fans, so I kind of inherited it and I’ve always loved it.
What do you think it is about Tolkien that continues to inspire creative people, whether it’s writers or artists?
I think the world was so believable with him. It’s subtle fantasy. I think the languages make it that much more real. … Tolkien has — just like the “Ozymandias” piece — this sense of loss, this melancholy-ness of things once great fading away. You know, the elves are going over the sea and passing into legend. I think that’s almost what draws people to fantasy in general. That’s my guess at it, or at least that’s how it is for me.
One of Matt’s many paintings based on The Lord of the Rings, “A Light in the Dark” depicts the wizard Gandalf lighting his pipe. (Courtesy of Matt Stewart)
As I mentioned earlier, your work for Magic has been prolific. Are you going to continue to work with Wizards of the Coast?
As long as they’ll keep hiring me, I’ll keep working for them. I like doing Magic a lot. I like the steadiness of it, I like that it’s very predictable. I like that I don’t have to worry about them popping up at a bad time and me having a great job already and not being able to do it because I always know when they’re going to be commissioning. With a lot of other games, it’s so tightly controlled, you feel like a pair of hands. But with Magic, I mean they give you style guides and they have concept worlds already, but there’s still enough room for you to be yourself and to pursue things that you like in painting. I think it helps the art a lot.
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