An Interview With Anson

Posted in Arcana on June 12, 2008

By Wizards of the Coast

Duelist #1Let's take a trip back in time today, all the way back to the first issue of The Duelist in Winter of 1994. Pete Venters conducted an interview with Anson Maddocks in that issue, and we're bringing to you. This saves you spending untold thousands of dollars* on eBay getting your own copy of Duelist #1!

* This is merely an estimate based on made-up numbers. Don't hold us to it.

An Interview With Anson
As a child in Sitka, Alaska, Anson Maddocks' haunts were woods, ocean shores, and Russian graveyards. In 1988, Anson moved to Seattle, where he attended the design program at Cornish College of the Arts. He later left Cornish to pursue illustration full-time.
Anson's many art credits include numerous gallery shows and installations in the Seattle area, as well as illustrations for several Seattle based magazines. His fantasy work has appeared in products from Garfield Games, Mayfair Games, Pagan Publishing, and Wizards of the Coast.

How did you get involved with Magic in the first place?

I got hooked up with Wizards of the Coast about two years ago. I knew their art director, Jesper Myrfors, from school, Cornish college of the Arts. He asked to see some my work at one point. He had seen a book that I had done a while ago, called Darkdreamer, which I was really not that happy with, but which he thought was interesting. So I showed him that, and some of the recent work I'd been doing, which is more surreal than fantasy or science fiction. He gave me some tasks form Talislanta bestiary, Thystram's Collectanea. To begin with, he just had me do a couple pieces to see how I would do. He liked them, so he dumped a whole load of them on me, and as the deadline for the book drew closer, he kept piling more and more on me. Actually, Magic was the same way. I ended up taking a lot of work that other people couldn't get done in time. I did four in one day, at one point, just to meet the deadline.

How many cards did you end up doing?

I did thirty-one; thirty were used.

How is Magic art assigned: has Jesper always just given artists the card name and let them do anything they want with the design?

Yes, that's how it was originally, and it was really exciting to him, I think. He likes to let the artists interpret the titles of the card the way they see them. That way he's completely surprised when he sees their work, and it probably produces more variety throughout the deck. With Magic: The Gathering, the designers had a general idea of what the text was going to be, but when they saw the artwork, they tried to tailor the text to the art. But I can't decide whether it's good or bad to know more about the card or not. Now that I know about Magic, I might try to suit the work to the game, and I don't know if that's such a good idea. I try to get as diverse as possible in the cards that I do.

How is collectable cad game art different from book illustrations paintings? What makes it different, other than its smaller size?

Anson MaddocksThat's actually a major factor right here. Since books and paintings are larger, you have to put a bit more care into them. (Don't tell Jesper that.) What I mean is that the Magic card is going to be reduced so much from the original. You kind of have a sense of what's going to be lost in the reduction, so you know where you can take liberties, where you can leave spaces a little rougher than you would on something that you know is going to be sent at actual size. That's why I am a little hesitant to sell the originals for Magic; some of them I just don't like the looks of at actual size.

Is fantasy your genre, generally? What other types of things do you work on?

I prefer surrealism. I don't have a strong interest in fantasy; I like to do it, but I don't like traditional fantasy. Elves and dwarves and things like that. It's not really my cup of tea in general. But if I do them, I like to do them in a new way. I like my own sort of homemade fantasy. That's a good challenge: to take something traditional like that and reformat it so that it still has its core, but it has my feel to it.

I know a lot of roleplaying is based on myth, archetypes that have been in the fantasy world forever. You like to take the traditional and do something else with it; where does that something else come from?

The work that I like to pull my images from is really my own creation. When I'm taking a traditional idea, I'm just marrying with my own...formula. It's a little bit darker, a little more sensual, maybe; a little theatrical.

I've heard people say about the Hurloon Minotaur, "What did Anson do? Did he give the minotaur a mirror and have it paint itself?" There is a sort of...hyper-realism to the things that you do, as if they were modeled on something that actually existed anatomically, but is completely foreign to this world. Where does that come from?

I studied anatomy a lot, and I took courses in college specifically for my art. I was in courses with medical students. Actually, for a long time I wanted to be a surgeon. I've always been fascinated by anatomical functions, the skeletal and muscular systems. To me it's really important to animate my figures and make them believable. Actually, I gave a lecture on Alien Anatomy at a local convention, where I led discussions on believable anatomy.

Do you do research for your work?

I do a lot of visual research. I keep encyclopedias on hand at all times, just in case; I try to pull resources from all different areas; that way it has a fresh feeling for me, and it's always exciting for me to do it. For the Magic card Sengir Vampire, I went out of my way not to do a traditional vampire. That's what makes it fun. My vampire isn't going to be Bela Lugosi with a medallion around his neck.

Do you use models at all? Human models, that is.

Sometimes. Human, inhuman...Sometimes I use a model to do a piece for which I've specifically had an atmospheric or photographic idea in mind. Or, if I have a person that I think would be particularly appealing in a piece, and I'd like to capture their essence, so to speak. (Do you ever use yourself as a model?) I think it's something that just happens in my work. My features pop up in characters. my anatomy, my proportions...I'll be drawing something and I'll realize it looks an awful lot like me. Sometimes that's good, sometimes that's bad; sometimes I'll let it go, and sometimes it's completely inappropriate for what I'm working on.

What media do you use when you are doing Magic cards, or your other work?

I use just about everyithing--from watercolor to marker to colored pencil, acrylic, gouache, oils...

Are there other artists who you take inspiration from?

Currently I think one of my favorite fantasy artist is Brom. I like the way he blends graphic style in with his images, so they hold up graphically but they look convincing at the same time, which is rather difficult. I like Norman Rockwell a lot; he's one of my heroes.(An interesting mix of styles, there.) Then there's Salvadore Dali, who I also like quite a bit. H.R. Giger. Let's see: Klimt, Moebius, Bilal...oh, also Milo Manara, and Aubrey Beardsley.

You said your pieces are theatrical and sensual. What do you mean by that exactly?

I just mean that because they are still, and because I'm trying to convey so much, they can be extremely gestural, or sensual--it's like they are struggling to gesticulate something that they're thinking. My art is almost mimelike in its poses--stressed. Not very subtle. Also, you are working on something you think of as sensual, and you put sensual elements into it; it's really enjoyable to work on. Certain things, like organic matter of any kind, are very sensual. When I am rendering something that is very soft, or just visually dynamic, that has a lot of curving shapes or weight to it, gravity, or motion, or streamlined things--all of those things I think of as sensual. I may unnaturally streamline the body just to give it a more dynamic feel. I sometimes go to extremes on facial features: fuller lips, flared nostrils, larger eyes, accentuated cheekbones, just because I find all of those features intriguing, and when I emphasize them, I'm sort of making a statement on what I find attractive about them. Long, spiderlike fingers sometimes. That's where the theatrical thing comes in, too, you know: all the features are extremely high-contrast. It's almost as if everybodys is always wearing make-up or always wearing rich clothing. Everything is emphasized. It's hard for me to knock things back into subtlety. I always have a tendency to want to bring it to the front, what it is that I like about an object. It's really hard to put a hierarchy on an image, and say 'I want to focus on this and drop everything else back.' I want to glorify everything about it.

Does that always work?

No, it never works. It ends up flattening out the entire piece if you have everything on a pedestal. It brings everything to the front, so your eye is completely confused; it doesn't know where to pay most of its attention.

Do you know when you've struck that balance?

A page of the interview, featuring early sketches for the Hurloon MinotaurI usually notice it in a sketch. Because I look at a sketch as just that; I never try to refine it, or make it more than it was to begin with. So usually I'll make a sketch and then look at it and say 'Wow, I got the idea across that I wanted to, I focused on what I wanted to.' That's the beauty of a sketch; it's very raw, and it defines what it needs to define. If I work on a piece for too long, then I tend to flatten it out to excess.

How do you work? How fast?

I think I work very fast, but that might be because I lose track of time while I'm doing it. As I said, with Magic I was doing a couple cards a day when I did them. With Thystram's I did five in one day, at the most. It depends on my mood. If I'm having a good, what my friends and I call 'art day,' I can crank out a good number of them in a short period of time. But if I'm uninspired or having a down day, then I can't work fast at all; in fact, I end up throwing out everything that I do.

I'm addicted to momentum. If I start accomplishing things, I just keep with it. If I start getting things done early in the day, I'll just go with it, accomplish everything all at once that should usually take a week. (Do you get up early?) No, I don't. Do I go to bed early? No. I get to sleep around 4:30 and get up around noon. (The most creative hours of the day being at night?) Yeah. . .I think that's because there is no interference, nothing to distract you. In the early morning nobody is calling me, there's nothing good on television...all there is is a light and a table and a piece of work that needs to be done.

You said you work here or you work in coffee shops. What exactly do you do? Do you say 'OK, I'm going to do this now,' or...

Yes, I do. That's the great thing about coffee shops. Mark Tedin, Andi Rusu, and I always go to these places together and work. They are good because you sit down at a table, and you really have nothing else to do there except focus on what you've brought with you. You can't wander around and chat with people, but you can't turn on the television or anything. Once you've paid rent on your drink, you're rooted to the spot for a while. You have to produce something.(That's a very different picture of coffee shops than most people have. They don't think of getting work done there; they go to participate in the mystique of the artist.) Well, I do that too.

What kind of work do you do other than illustrating?

I have a lot of different areas that I try to keep going at the same time. I work as an illustrator for the Seattle Weekly and various publishers: Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, Pagan. And I like doing large paintings. But I have to hang them in places because I can't keep them around. This is very small place. I have to take the paintings apart to get them down the stairs.

Mark Tedin and I both worked at a nightclub called the Down Under; we completely overhauled the place and reworked it into a large installation. It involved murals, sculpture, lighting, mechanical things...We got grossly underpaid for it, but it was fun to do. I also do a lot of sculpture. Not so much anymore because I can't stand having the materials around me--it creates incredible clutter, and I just don't have the room to do it.

What is life like as a freelance artist? What did you do before?

I was selling vintage clothing at a retail store; I had done some house painting before that. Then, when I quit a regular job to do this exclusively, freelancing was a roller-coaster, economically. I went through periods of starvation. And then when I got even a meager sum of money, it was like a gold mine to me.

Has your art shaped your lifestyle at all?

Art is my main form of expression, so I rely on it heavily to vent--and to absorb, actually. When you create a lot, you have to have a good internal library to draw from, and not everything can come from resources or from photographs. So I'm constantly absorbing things. I can justify spending ridiculous amounts of money on films and books, because that's sort of a creative write-off. I will throw myself into things I normally wouldn't be interested in just because they are different, and I know they can provide a new perspective on things.

As far as how it affects my lifestyle, well, I do a lot or work for subcultural events. Parties, clubs, industrial shows, et cetera. People ask me on the spur of the moment to borrow work for some event, and I just loan them a few paintings or sculptures for the evening.

What's the strangest thing you've ever done--well, no, let me rephrase that--the strangest assignment you've ever had?

Maybe the Unspeakable Oath cover for Pagan Publishing.

Why is it strange, other than it's...strange?

Well, I guess, that's the most blatantly strange piece I've ever done, just because it looks like flesh sewn together and bound to a book cover, I don't know. . .that ranks at the top.

It reminds me of some Magic cards you've done.

They requested I do this based on what they saw in one of the Magic cards.

Really? Living Wall, or Lure?

Living Wall. Which was censored. You knew that, didn't you?

No. What happened to it?

There was an esophagus which they thought looked too much like it could be a sphincter in another part of the body. That was the only one that got censored.

Jesper was responsible for censorship?

I take the Fifth on that.

Is artistic integrity a big issue for you?

Yes. Making artistic or moralistic sacrifices--I think about that a lot. A lot of artists will not do something because they feel like they're compromising the way they view their art for somebody else's ideas. But I find it extremely challenging. Whether I'm making something under my specifications or somebody else's specifications, it's a challenge that I put myself to. And I love challenges; I love to challenge myself, and I love to be challenged by others. And when I'm working with another person, who has verbal or written descriptions of something, and it's up to me to come up with the visual translation of that--I love that. It's sort of like communicating with somebody: they say something, you say something back to them, and you try to agree on something. That to me is great--to interact with writers and art directors.

What's the worst thing that's ever happened to your art? (Groan.) Have people taken your work and done dastardly deeds?

JesterI had a piece in Lolapalusa (Jester, originally pictured on the center spread of the magazine, now positioned to the right of this paragraph) which someone climbed up to get on top of a fence. So there are black shoe marks on it which I had to paint over because they wouldn't come out. I had a piece stolen from The Center On Contemporary Arts; that was sort of a back-handed compliment, I guess. Actually I'd like it back. There are some pieces...the people who brought them were so strange I don't know that I'd want to know what happened to them.

Do you keep a lot of your art for yourself?

No, I try to get rid of it as soon as possible. (Because you want to sell it, or because...) No, because I want it out of my sight, actually. I don't want to be too influenced by the last thing I did. I want to be influenced by new ideas constantly. And also I don't want to feel that I've accomplished a lot in a given time, because that might cause me to get lazy. That may or may not be true, but I project that on myself. I like to have fresh, clean walls, so I can keep a clear head; I don't like to be cluttered, mentally. And that happens when I have too much to look at.

Let me ask you about the effects of Magic. Do you think that its popularity in circles other than fantasy ones is going to have some sort of impact on the way fantasy art is perceived by the world at large? I know a lot of people tend to look down on the genre as being 'light illustrations,' rather than good art, whatever that means. Have you had that experience?

My stuff being taken for less-than-fine art? Yes. Actually I think I view it that way. To answer the first part of your question, though: I think if people get interested in Magic, and they haven't had a lot of fantasy exposure before, it might draw people into the market. They will see other things that are available, and it may spark their interest.

Has that happened with you, personally? I know that some artists have had a lot more interest taken in them now that they've done Magic cards. Have you gotten more work as a result of Magic? Do you want more work than Magic?

With fantasy work, yes, it's helping me. It's definitely good exposure. And you can make a great miniature portfolio out of the cards; you don't have to carry huge things around. Nice and compact, like slides.

Are there places that you want to go with your art that you haven't been yet?

I love motion pictures; I would love to do special effects make-up, or computer work. I've done some video in the past; I think that's probably the grandest art form, because you can incorporate anything into it. That's the only way you can get an idea completely across, by coming at it from all directions. Also, lot of people have urged me do graphic novels, but I don't know if they would be as rewarding. They seem like a lot more work than reward to me. Time is a huge factor. Thanks to Jesper.

So we can look forward to a lot of other Deckmaster work from you?

Yes, I'm working on all the expansions. I look forward to Jesper's Dark expansion set in particular.

Sketches of the Hurloon Minotaur and the final art

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