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Painting, Parenthood, and Planeswalkers

Ryan Pancoast talks Magic, his personal work, and what becoming a parent means when you’re an artist.


A gunman sits in the rear of a covered wagon, the brim of a hat shading his eyes, his rifle poised for a deadly shot. The wagon is part of a caravan carrying metal and other supplies. All around, the flat plains and endless sky stretch away as far as the eye can see.

If you’re thinking this scene was ripped straight from a traditional frontier adventure, you’d be right with one exception — there’s a sizeable dragon crouched on the other side of the wagon, its face right in the rifleman’s sights.

And that isn’t the only oddity to be found in this series of sepia-toned illustrations, arranged like so many old time Daguerreotypes. In another, there’s a mage dressed in a petticoat with an owl perched on her shoulder. In another, a spectral mountain lion the size of a house stalks a settlement before dawn. And in yet another, a race of sentient beavers known as the Ground Ones accept an offering from a tribe of Native Americans.

Brotherhood smaller file

“Brotherhood” (18”x36” oil on board) is one of the many images that Ryan has produced for his series Frontier Fantasy. (Image courtesy of Ryan Pancoast)

All are part of a series called Frontier Fantasy by Magic: The Gathering artist Ryan Pancoast. Since 2012, he’s been doing oil paintings and ink sketches to flesh out a world that mixes the romance of the American West with the equally grandiose themes of high fantasy.

“I felt like much of fantasy art was stalled on the Tolkien model, and I never really felt a connection to it,” says Ryan. “I didn’t want to paint scenes that looked like they took place in the rolling Scottish hills or in New Zealand. I wanted something I could connect to emotionally, and the American frontier did that for me.”

With four years of world building under his belt, Ryan is now preparing to tell stories in the Frontier Fantasy world. Coupled with his steady output of traditionally painted art for Magic, his varied online activities, and helping to raise a young family, it’s safe to say that his creative output is greater than ever.


Charting the Journey

Ryan didn’t mean to begin working in the gaming industry; he just kind of fell into it. After earning a BFA from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York in 2005, he started his career in the editorial field. But the universe, it seems, had other plans.

“I was hired out of the blue by a RPG project called Metal, Magic, and Lore. The creators invited me to GenCon where I met the art directors at Wizards of the Coast, and I decided that I wanted to work for them,” Ryan recalls. “The following year, I redid my portfolio and came back the next year to GenCon, and the art directors liked my work.”

From there, Ryan’s ongoing partnership with WOTC began with a quartet of cards for the original Zendikar set: Kor Cartographer, Sejiri Refuge, Spire Barrage, and Windborne Charge. Since then, he’s done about 75 illustrations for the game. He even had the opportunity to re-imagine Ancestral Recall, one of the original Power Nine, for Magic: The Gathering Online.

Kor Cartographer

“KOR CARTOGRAPHER”: Kor Cartographer was one of the first cards that Ryan painted for Magic: The Gathering. (Image courtesy of Ryan Pancoast, © Wizards of the Coast)

“Oftentimes, they’ll hit on a specific topic that I’m good at, and they’ll use me for that for a specific set, and they’ll change it up the next set,” says Ryan, who has done landscapes, creatures, and spells. The only assignment that’s eluded him so far is a coveted planeswalker piece — something both he and his fans hope will come in the near future.

“The job requirements are totally in my wheelhouse,” Ryan says. “A humanoid figure, a face with personality, a realistic treatment. But as you know, artists can’t choose their assignments, and the art directors at Wizards are very good at picking the right artists for the job.”

Over the past few years, Ryan’s output has slowed slightly, but for a happy reason: the birth of his son, Noah, who is now 3 years old, and the impending arrival of Pancoast baby number two. In fact, starting a family has had a profound impact on Ryan’s art.

“When I sit down to paint since becoming a parent, the question is, ‘Does this matter? Does this painting make money?’ If not, it had better be really, really important to me on a personal level because the opportunity to paint is becoming increasingly rare. I can’t remember the last time I painted from nine to five, so when I do paint, I try to make it count,” says Ryan.

That kind of focus has resulted in some of the best work of Ryan’s career. In addition to doing commercial work for trading cards, beer breweries, and book publishers, his recent work for Magic has been a revelation. Take, for instance, the striking painting for the card Lambholt Pacifist from the Shadows Over Innistrad set, which was not only beautiful, but also sold for $2,175 on eBay in April. Its companion piece, Lambholt Butcher, commanded a sale price of nearly $1,500.

Lambolht Pacifist

One of Ryan’s more notable paintings of late: Lambholt Pacifist from Shadows Over Innistrad. (Image courtesy of Ryan Pancoast, © Wizards of the Coast)

On the personal side, the “Frontier Fantasy ink drawings really turned things around for me this year,” Ryan adds. “I get the satisfaction of doing a ton of personal work (even if they aren’t fully rendered oil paintings), and I can still do illustrations for Magic and be a parent.”


The New and the Next

Another thing that sets Ryan apart is his embrace of new media — even while practicing an art form that goes back hundreds of years. Though he learned to paint in oil partially by studying the work of old masters, Ryan is passionate about sharing his painting process online in the hope of teaching others. A constant presence on Twitter and Instagram, he posts time-lapse videos to his YouTube channel and longer instructional videos to his Gumroad account. For as little as $2, students can learn techniques from an accomplished practitioner.

The videos, Ryan says, let people see the process behind creating the illustrations. But they serve another purpose as well. While the sped-up videos are great for showing a project from start to finish, the ones shot at regular speed demonstrate the true time investment that it takes to create a painting.

“It’s good for people to see that there’s a lot of time and a lot of effort involved in creating the images,” Ryan says.

One place where fans can see those stunning images up close and personal is at the annual IX show in Pennsylvania, which Ryan has attended for several years now. Known as the world’s largest juried show for traditional imaginative realism artists, IX provides both a direct link to collectors and to fellow art professionals.

“The fact that at 6 o’clock when the show ends you can all go out to dinner and talk shop a little bit — I think that has a value that is greater than the immediate sales you might make,” says Ryan, who will once again attend this year’s event Oct. 19-23.

And, of course, there’s Frontier Fantasy. Ryan has plans to start off telling three stories, each consisting of 25-30 ink illustrations. He’ll post one illustration a day. The first cycle will coincide with October’s #Inktober, in which artists post ink drawings to their various social media accounts every day for the whole month. Frontier Fantasy will be on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and on its own dedicated site, frontierfantasy.com.

Live Painting

Like the Western genre to which Frontier Fantasy owes a thematic debt, the overarching subtext of the series will be one of exploration — something that Ryan has tried to pursue in his artwork and in his personal life as he navigates all the firsts of parenthood.

“Exploration is such an essential human activity,” Ryan says. “It drove our species across the earth and continues to move us toward other planets. My goal with Frontier Fantasy is to try to allow people to see something familiar with new eyes; to reclaim a frontier that has been largely lost for 150 years.”

Update Sept. 20, 2016: The quote about Ryan’s first RPG project was updated with input from the subject to more accurately reflect his involvement in the project.


Ryan Pancoast Color Studies: Lambolt Pacifist & Lambolt Butcher : Hipsters of the Coast says:

May 31,2018

[…] For more interviews with Ryan Pancoast, check out: A Quick Chat with Ryan Pancoast by Mike Linnemann, and Painitng, Parenthood and Planeswalkers by Pat Scalisi. […]

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