This is the last email I sent to the artdrop for Wizards of the Coast before I got a job. It was sent in July 2013. My first email was sent in the summer of 2010 (I discontinued that email so I don't have the originals anymore unfortunately!) I got a very kind email back which, in a nutshell, said I might hear back but also might not. It was the same one I had received for the last 3 years, no worries I thought. Keep working and send another email in a few months. Little did I know...
And can I just say, that was pretty much the best day ever. I literally started shaking and crying. Really good news will do that! Now, my story with Wizards and the long road to get there is nothing special. A lot of great artists I know have had similar experiences and I encourage you to read up on those or catch a talk about it from people like Jesper Ejsing (his story is amazing!) but, since I'm writing here you'll get my version. The point of it is though, nothing comes easy, not even for the best of us.
That first assignment
I get a lot of questions about the pipeline when working for Wizards on Magic, one of the most common ones is about what the assignments look like, how much info we get and so forth. Well, here you go:
Color: Red-aligned land
Location: See below
Action: Show a wide shot of an arctic mountain range with active volcanoes, like p. 143-144. In the distance we see some indication of a Temur camp, constructed from hides and dragon bones.
Focus: The mountainous landscape
Mood: Unforgiving wilderness. This is nature at its harshest.
That was the first brief I received for the mountain of Khans of Tarkir. Besides shaking uncontrollably with excitement and fear there also were some sketches to be done. Now this is a client I'd been after for years and I felt I couldn't disappoint them but at the same time I was working for Playground games on Forza Horizon 2. It was going to be a very busy time! Because of copyright issues I can't show all the sketches I did for each card, but there were roughly 5-8 each (nowadays I do less) Here is the mountain with what would be the final composition.
The mountain wasn't even the only card I got assigned to do! Here is the full lineup:
Looking back I cringe so much. The quality, the compositions. It hurts! It can be done so much better! Honestly, what they saw in my work beats me but I couldn't be more grateful. Sometimes you shouldn't question good things coming your way and just roll with it. In the future I will do a write-up for a specific magic piece as well so you get to see the whole process.
After this initial burst a lot happened. Every single day I was convinced I wouldn't hear anything back. The panic is real. Funny thing, after talking to a lot of other MTG artists they experience the same thing, even after a few years. That crushing feeling; "Is this the day I don't hear back, when the assignments stop?". But, lo and behold, I was getting more assignments.
A lot of stuff happened. My first Grand Prix, Seville. Fate reforged, Dragons of Tarkir and after that Battle for Zendikar (Giant shoutout to Sam for getting me some insane stuff, I said it a 100 times but I cant thank you enough!). It was around this time where another ridiculously cool thing happened.
So Wizards does a whole lot of things before they send out assignments, one of them is creating a style guide. This is a intense sprint where a whole bunch of people come together and brainstorm for a few weeks, laying the foundations. Later this is polished and molded into a coherent style guide that serves as reference for the artists. I was fortunate enough to get a invite and be in the room when they did "Barrel" (Codenames are awesome!) These were the most intense and amazing 3 weeks ever. Now, I know, so far it's a summary of how awesome my art life is but I'll get to the bad part in the end. But first some more cool stuff! Muwhahahahah.
Here is a summary of stuff that happened which I can disclose which have nothing to do with Magic:
- At night the aircon was off, so we basically melted.
- A cleaning lady sort of knew Victor, and told him to stay in school (something close anyway)
- We visited Mount Rainier, I got a awesome sweater there and, it was the most amazing and quiet place ever.
- Victor was too afraid to jaywalk in a town of 3,000 people at 10:30 PM that we waited for a traffic light for about 15 minutes.
- I hit a new low in insecurity being around insanely good artists I didn't know very well yet.
- I discovered I'm not a huge fan of Applebees.
- Downtown Seattle is super cool.
- When you walk down the street to go somewhere instead of driving people look at you funny.
- Vodka + Emergen-C is actually not a bad drink. Dangerous, but good.
- Everybody at Wizards is a Rockband / Guitar hero legend.
- Peanutbutter M&M's and Yellow Nr 5 are super delicious.
- Jetlag got me addicted to coffee.
- Sunchips rule, Sweden - please start importing. Thanks.
Some tips for you!
Now, I wouldn't want to waste all this know-how so here are some useful tips if you want to apply for Wizards. Since this is a bullet point kind of post I'll just beef that up with some more:
- Learn to play the game. Seriously. Don't say you want to work for them oh so badly without even knowing about the game! Also, it's crazy fun, addictive and super difficult.
- Make fake cards. Come up with a brief in the same structure as I listed above and stick to it. That way you can show your process. Big categories are: Land, spell, creature, artifact.
- Look for similarities in the way cards are setup. MTG has a very specific way of doing things, if you can figure it out you've proven you've got the brains and skills to make it.
- Talk to other MTG artists to figure out what they feel is most important in a card. Listen! Don't just assume.
- Work on your own signature style, don't do the popular thing and photobash everything. I used to do it, now I kinda not like it anymore and paint almost every card. You'll see those in 2017!
- Keep submitting work but not too fast, wait a few months. People working there are crazy busy! So just keep at it! Remember, it took me 3 years.
- Get feedback from the MTG community, they are your friends. Also, they know the lore best.
Some other important things to note; art directors are busy people. Emphasis on people! Be nice and be patient. How would you feel if you get a thousand emails a day, and a thousand more the next day from people asking why you haven't replied yet. On your road to becoming a artist for Wizards, or a better artist in general, listen to feedback and lose that stubbornness. When people with lots of experience tell you something they don't do it to hurt you or keep you down, I hope...
And most of all pursue this for the right reasons. I'll admit, this is somewhat of a more puritan way of thinking but I feel strongly that this isn't a job you should chase for the money or fame. The Magic community is a very nice one, it has ups and downs of course, but it's united by the love for the game. There are tons of other really cool clients that pay well so if your heart truly isn't in it, maybe consider a alternative.
These days I spend most of my time working for Wizards and loving every single minute of it. But, in the spirit of this blog here are some of the low points which I hit during my career:
- In 2010 I hit a low point, I quit painting for 6 months.
- I applied for 5 art schools 2 years in a row and got denied all 10 times.
- Before I got a job I sent out 178 applications spread over 4 months, I got 1 reply that was positive.
- I had my first burnout at 19 which wrecked about 4 months of my life.
- In 2014 I was on the border of a depression and I had to quit my job and move.
- I was very stubborn and lost a bunch of friends because of my stubbornness.
- I was very stubborn and arrogant and lost a bunch of job offers because of this.
- In the past I misjudged jobs, failed, and never got called back.
- I've been scammed and worked for "free" because of it.
The list goes on and on. So remember, it's not all fun and games. It's about falling, getting up and going at it again. I read a quote; Art is easy, life is hard. And being in this industry and doing this for the last 6 years I couldn't agree more. I still have that same relentless drive to get better and keep pushing myself and I hope you have that too. I'll leave you with one of the first paintings I've ever done as a sign that you can do it as long as you work hard and stay true to yourself. You're welcome.
A final thanks goes out to all the Wizards art directors, you know who you are, for supporting me and giving me a shot. To all the people I worked with during the Barrel push and the fun shenanigans that were had. To my best friends Robin and Benny who supported me for the last 8 years with good feedback and terrible puns. My girlfriend Suzanne who is relentless in her support and gave me the guts to fail, get up, and try again. My parents and family who believed, and still do. And last but not least the art community who was at points cruel, relentless, motivational, supportive and ever on my heels. I couldn't have done it without you.