Every current Magic player, whether they realized it at the time or not, has probably taken a moment to admire the art of Magali Villeneuve during a game. Starting with Theros and Commander (2013 Edition), Magali's art made an immediate and noticeable impact within the community. Her strong sense of portraiture combined with a deliberate, dramatic use of lighting and striking poses makes for iconic art.
And Magic is no stranger to iconic art; Magali's contributions feel well at home alongside the many classic pieces that the game has introduced to the world over the past few decades. In fact, it was some of these very pieces that attracted her to the game in the first place. But why hear it from me when we can get the story directly from the wonderful artist herself? Magali was kind enough to brave the time difference between northeastern France and the northwestern United States to grant me an interview, so let's get to it!
Nicholas Wolfram (NW): Thanks for agreeing to this interview! To start things off, why do you like creating art for Magic? What drew you to become an artist for the game?
Magali Villeneuve (MV): I wanted to be an artist for the game long before I even sent my portfolio to Wizards. I was such a huge fan of their illustrations—but also some of their illustrators, like Aleksi Briclot, Daarken, Michael Komarck, or Terese Nielsen to name but a few . . . The idea of applying was very intimidating, and I postponed the moment for the longest time. I think I was afraid of receiving a huge "NO" in my inbox!
But I was really drawn to Magic as, in my opinion, they always tend toward a very modern and unique version of fantasy illustration. That's why the game's look never grew old through the years and has its own very powerful personality. I wanted to be part of that. I assumed it was especially stimulating for an artist . . . and I was right! In five years of working for Magic now, I never ever felt bored or like I was doing redundant things.
NW: Do you remember any particular pieces by those artists that captivated you?
MV: Basandra, Battle Seraph by Terese Nielsen, featured in Commander (2011 Edition) and Michael Komarck's Kazandu Blademaster in Zendikar were in my top favorites and had me thinking Magic artists were really not kidding at all! Pieces I admire the most are always the ones that make me wonder "How is it humanly possible to create such a thing?!"
Both of them exactly do that!
NW: You certainly were not the only member of the community who was enraptured by those pieces. But let's talk about your art some more. You've become well known for creating strikingly powerful figures in your art, especially female figures. Many of these have resonated very well with our community members; are there any in particular that resonate with you on a deeper level as the artist?
MV: The one that comes immediately to my mind is Narset Transcendent. My first ever Planeswalker in Magic, and I could create her costume design. I was so proud. But also—and mainly because—later I learned that, beyond being a Planeswalker and a strong female leader, she was also meant to be on the autism spectrum. I attended a Grand Prix a while ago, and a man came to my table to have his Narset card signed. In fact, he wanted to have it signed for his daughter, who was also on the spectrum, and he explained how much it meant to him that Narset would be such a powerful character whose mind's possibilities were limitless. Narset's "differences" are shown as an asset, and that's what made the card so important to this father.
At that time, I was still pretty new to Magic, and I think that's when I realized I was not just painting cool images for the game. I had the [opportunity] to be part of something that could have a real, deep meaning for some people.
I often receive messages or comments from players who tell me they enjoy [that] I put just as much care [into my work] whether I'm painting a mythic rare creature or a Soldier token. I always answer it's because for me there's no difference: it's a matter of respect toward the game and the players.
NW:. After you get the art description for a new card, what does your creative process look like? How long does the process typically take you per card?
MV: At first, I think about it more than I doodle. In the years of my career before starting with Magic, I worked for companies that needed the artists to be as straightforward in their process as possible and able to produce a good number of pieces in a rather limited amount of time. I have strong remains of that time, the main one being that I don't send more than one sketch to Wizards' art directors.
From all the ideas I have in mind, I choose one and see how it works in real life. If it doesn't, I would try another one and so on until it looks satisfying to me. All other tries go to trash—which makes me the worst for work-in-progress-based articles!
This sketching process can take me up to 10 hours—my sketches are pretty detailed at the end, mainly because very often there's some costume/character design involved in my assignments. As soon as the sketch is approved, I start the coloring phase. This phase takes around five days, with around 10 hours of work a day. Day one is always for finding the piece's color range and placing the lights. All four other days are used for painting itself. My pieces are very detailed, even up close, and I pay attention to everything.
And at the very end, before I send anything to Wizards, I show the illustration to my husband, who's an illustrator as well, and he helps me fix some things when need be. I think any illustrator would tell you that after spending hours looking at the image, you tend to lose some clarity! I count myself lucky to have a "professional eye" at home!
NW: Does your process or approach to art differ depending on the color identity or card type of the piece?
MV: Absolutely not, as far as approach or process are concerned. But I admit some colors or types are "easier" for me to handle.
I'm very used to painting blue and green cards for example, while blacks, especially, are a little less easy for me. At least, they always feel a tad more challenging. And while I don't often have red cards to paint, they're part of the ones I've always enjoyed most as I love painting with warm colors.
As for type, I'm mostly commissioned [for] (humanoid) creatures or spells, and between those two types, spells are the ones that tend to ask me for a little more thinking beforehand, as the effect matters more in this case than whomever is appearing on the card.
NW: You are a professed fan of dark fantasy and are even an author of your own book series, La Dernière Terre. Can you recall any cards where you tapped into your storytelling side as you drew them? What kind of story did you try to tell with the art?
MV: Without any hesitation, I would mention Start and Finish in Amonkhet. Both were all about storytelling, and I had such a blast working on them!
The assignment contained all the things I love most in illustrating: two different images with the same characters, which meant creating their design and being careful about likenesses. Also, there was this dramatic story about two friends, and you have it—the perfect alchemy! In fact, it's not that often you get to work on "positive interaction."
As a fantasy illustrator, [I'm] more likely to be commissioned a piece showing some warlike face-to-face than a friendly gesture!
In Start, I had to show in one image how good friends they were and how happy they were together. I put a lot of care on facial expressions and the two guys' attitudes.
I wanted those two pieces to be very meaningful, with a true narrative quality to them, including in the colors I used and the way I placed the light sources.
NW: What piece you created for a recent set are you most proud of?
MV: I'm still very proud of Chandra, Torch of Defiance in Kaladesh, and probably will be for quite a while. The main reason for that is that I remember admiring this character years before I could even imagine working for Magic. I thought she was so wonderfully designed, so unique.
I'm always very enthusiastic each time I'm receiving a commission . . . I had a whole day of doing the dance of joy when I got this one! And even more recently, I'm still pretty happy with the Mirri, Weatherlight Duelist piece. Fun assignment, charismatic character, and a bit of a challenge as it's a non-human.
NW: What is your favorite Magic card that happens to feature your art?
MV: I'd say Leovold, Emissary of Trest. The card's mechanics are very simple, yet the effect is powerful, to say the least! A group of players once told me the type of reaction they'd get whenever they'd put Leovold into play. It seems it was a safe way to become everyone's enemy instantly! The infuriated reaction they had as soon as the name "Leovold" came in the conversation, I thought it was hilarious!
NW: If you could do your own version of art for any card, which would it be?
MV: Without hesitation, any of the Jace Beleren planeswalker cards.
NW: You are among the few Magic artists who work primarily from outside of the United States. Do you feel that the different environment and culture of France influence your art in any notable ways?
MV: Maybe some of my cultural influences tend to make some of my compositions look more "classical" than my American co-workers. Many of them have such a powerful and striking approach! It's one of this game's merits, in my opinion. It holds a place for so many styles, which keeps the game's look away from the trap of self-caricature.
NW: Do you have anything else you'd like to say to the Magic community?
MV: I would like to tell them how grateful I am, without any toadying, for all the positive support. I never take the tiniest nice comment for granted. And I will keep on doing my very best to paint things that will hopefully make them happy!
I'd like to give one final "Thank you!" to Magali for both this interview and her fantastic contributions to the ever-expanding gallery of Magic art!