Omar Rayyan: The Guru of Fairy Town

Having a conversation with Omar Rayyan is like talking to a Buddhist Zen master who dispenses koan riddles like a vending machine. He’ll challenge you, even if you’re the one asking the questions, and seek to broaden your horizons both through what he says and through the art hanging on his walls.

It is this quality that has propelled him to a singular corner of the imaginative realism community. Based in the bucolic setting of Martha’s Vineyard, Omar’s career has seen him zigzag from publishing to film concept art to gaming, notably his work for Magic: The Gathering’s Lorwyn block. Through it all, he has maintained his unique style: whimsical, rococo, and decidedly unexpected. Whether it’s a portrait of a young woman posing with her favorite demon pup or a pair of miniature knights dueling on the back of beetles, Omar has a way of turning convention on its head.


“Troubadour Tuning his Tuna,” an original watercolor that Omar currently has for sale on his Etsy shop.

(Image courtesy of Omar Rayyan)


This past September, Omar celebrated the culmination of a more than 10-year project by successfully funding his latest book on Kickstarter. The tome, which raised nearly three times its goal of $15,000, is filled with 88 pages of illustrations and reimagines the 19th century narrative poem Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti.

I spoke to Omar about his influences, his career, and his thoughts on painting as a medium for storytelling.


On your site you describe your aesthetic as “old world.” Can you explain this a bit more?

All of my influences are old. I tend to go ahead and look at things from the 16th century northern Renaissance to turn-of-the century Victorian artists as my primary influences and my go-to well for images and aesthetics. So in that sense, I suppose, “old world.” And I’m a traditionalist. I’ve always been a traditionalist as far as medium.


Tell me about some of the children’s books you’ve done.

Early on, I did some 32-page trade books for Holiday House. A lot of that stuff was brush-for-hire work, so it was author with artist so-and-so, and it wasn’t really a personally expression. It’s commercial work. It was wonderful to do it, and there’s always the challenge with those to find ways of expressing yourself while at the same time trying to satisfy the expectations of a publisher.

As far as getting into commercial work, it was through that, through children’s magazines — Cricket magazine primarily — that served as my gateway platform and how I got into [the work] coming out of college. But my general imagery tended to always be children’s books — you know, “old world,” golden age and European in its flavor. In school I was really into [Arthur] Rackham and [Edmund] Dulac and all those sort of golden age illustrators, so there always was that flavor, even though I hadn’t done that much yet.

At the time in the 90s, I got a lot of: the style isn’t right. [Pantomiming in a deep executive voice] ‘Probably do really good in Europe. The American market is not ready for this.’ I ended up doing mostly stuff for myself or for collectors or for conventions, and hence there was this sense, ‘Oh he’s a children’s book illustrator!’ It’s more actually a kind of art evocative of that.


“The Golden Horde.” (Image courtesy of Omar Rayyan)


I understand you worked on the first Narnia film, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. What was that like?

I did some early concept work just for a short bit. Technically, I was part of it, but it was very early on when they were looking for as many concepts and concept artists as possible, so I did literally a week’s worth of sketches. How much my ideas contributed or not, I don’t know.

I did some concept work for Wizards of the Coast as well, and those sort of collaborations — concept stuff — are not really my style. It is very much putting all of your stuff on the wall into a big pot and stirring it up, and your individual influence gets mushed into it.

My way of working is, I generally don’t do sketches; I go straight through into the final. So my process of building the final is how I find it. It’s a little bit ass backwards the way I work. I would go ahead and be working toward the final thing to go into it without really realizing it, while they’re looking for the final work in the front so they can mess with it and go ahead and create their final.


Speaking of your Magic: The Gathering work, how did you get started with Wizards of the Coast?

It was because of all the stuff I had done for conventions primary. [Wizards] was doing the Lorwyn series, which they wanted to be fairy tale-y so it goes back to that children’s-y sort of thing. That’s what they were looking for. I don’t know if they got any other artists of my ilk that were a little outside of genre, you could say, to try to create the daytime-nighttime of Lorwyn where it’s good fairytale, bad fairytale gone wrong. So that’s why they called me.


“Windbrisk Heights” from Magic’s Lorwyn set and one of Omar’s most recognizable cards from the game. In addition to the cards he did for Lorwyn, he also did two oversized Planechase cards. (© Wizards of the Coast)


So it was kind of a right place, right time sort of thing?

Anything within the industry tends to be that. That’s why one of the best pieces of advice is pretty much to do a lot of stuff. Always do new stuff, and get it out anywhere you can because it’s a matter of creating your own luck and your own opportunities of being seen by the right person at the right time that’s going to link you up to the next step on the rung.


In 2012, you won a Chesley Award for your piece “The Dragon and the Nightingale.” How did that work come about?

It was a piece for a collector. The subject matter becomes a vehicle for me to go ahead and play with your perspective. You have the bulk of the dragon, but then I want to have the baroque richness. And it’s juxtaposed because I like to go in and create a contrast point. That’s where the bird comes in. It hints that there must be a story behind it somewhere, but it pretty much was just an excuse to go ahead and paint it!


“The Dragon and the Nightingale,” for which Omar won a 2012 Chesley award for best color work, unpublished. (Image courtesy of Omar Rayyan)


But then the audience gets to create their own story behind it too.

Yeah! And that has to be a large part of image making, to go ahead and allow a gateway, an opening for a person to look in and to put themselves either within it or to complete where they need to have the story completed. That’s something lacking in our contemporary aesthetic and our CGI — they give us too much information without allowing us to complete the picture ourselves. I think the job of the painter is to go ahead and spur and push the imagination.


Speaking of which, you recently completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund an illustrated adaptation of Goblin Market. Since storytelling is such an important part of your artwork, what do you hope your audience will glean from this lesser-known gem?


Sample pages from Omar’s illustrated adaptation of the 19th century narrative poem Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti. The book is expected to be done in early 2017. (Image courtesy of Omar Rayyan)


I do tend to “tell stories” with my artwork, and I suppose the interest in Goblin Market , for me, is the many colorful sub-stories and worlds it contains in its poetic and metaphorical language, giving a rich landscape to mine for imagery within its central story.

As for my hopes for the audience? That they enjoy my eclectic and occasionally erratic interpretation, an attempt to add to the richness of its imagery in my individual way and thereby hopefully seeing the gateway to wild and crazy worlds as presented to us by our classical narrative poets.


To learn more about Omar, visit or the blog that he maintains with his wife, fellow artist Sheila Rayyan, at


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Mar 27,2017

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