How does a tile laying worker end up strangled in a Magic card?
Can you trade a trilobite fossil for Magic cards?
These are peculiar questions, because Lars Grant-West is a peculiar artist, one that has created art for over 100 Magic cards.
Curious about the answers? read on!
How did you become an artist?
My interest in fantasy came as a child, I was very interested in natural sciences and I drew from a very early age as many artists do. I was fortunate to have parents who were supportive of that.
I grew up in an area where there wasn't a whole lot of nature, but my father used to bring me to the Museum of Natural History in New York. That sort of infected my life ever since, I've always had an interest in dinosaurs and skeletons and plants and rocks and things like that.
Did you go to art school?
I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York City. When I left school, we would send out flyers and postcards to art directors, and you had to find their names somehow as there was no internet to look them up on. Larry Smith, who was the art director for Dungeons and Dragons, was the one art director who actually got back to me and I still have the postcard he wrote me.
He said he wasn't ready to use my work, but he took the time to critique every picture I sent him of my work, and that impacted me profoundly.
Did you keep approaching other art directors?
Well, oddly at that point a situation came up where I had a day job working in a zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, where I lived at the time. I was there designing and building exhibits, they would hand me site plans of an area and we'd work out the flow of the pathway and figure out the parameters that each animal needed for its enclosure. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to balance the needs of visitors, animals and keepers. After that we'd build the hardscape elements like rock work and pools.
And did you keep on painting through this period?
I started getting jobs from magazines and books that were geared specifically towards kids in the United States, and I really enjoyed doing that. I have a very longtime friend named John Foster who is an illustrator, and at the time he was working with another art director at Wizards of the Coast. He roped me into a few different jobs that were very interesting, and then I ended up working on Dungeons and Dragons. I was still working full time and then doing the illustration work when I went home at night.
I think the art director for Dungeons Dragons knew the art director for Magic, Dana Knutson, and that's how I got my first Magic job, for a card called Toxin Sliver.
What Mediums were you using at that time?
I was painting the basically the way I am now. Generally, either with oils or oils with acrylic under painting.
For Magic, would you mail them the original painting?
I did for a while. I tend to paint on the large side, and some of the paintings I sent were probably pretty big for them to handle, like Tormod's Crypt. There was a point where I didn't get some paintings back, so I decided I needed to come up with something new, so I started photographing on my own and sending the files, and that just made everything quicker.
I imagine you must take some high-quality pictures...
I have a stand set up where I just slide the painting across the floor and I use a macro lens so I'm taking say maybe 20 shots, and Photoshop assembles them all and so I end up with a with a super high-resolution photo.
For how long did you keep at your day job in the zoo?
Oh, that lasted around 12 years. I would get home from work covered in concrete and just exhausted. A lot of the work I was doing was very physical and demanding. As the illustration work took off, I preferred that, so I ended up talking them into starting an art department and I stayed there for another six years. I did a lot of graphic design, photography, but not as much of the more physical work, which left me some steam to do freelance work when I got home.
I got to be art director of the zoo for six years, and around 2006 I left. I started doing freelance work full-time and never went back.
That must have had a long-lasting influence on your work.
Oh, yes, very strongly. I mean, a lot of the work I do is creature work, it all ties back to that museum experience, looking at bones, anatomy, and animal behavior. It's funny how life works.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in art today?
The thing that I like to instill in my students is the importance of figuring out what it is important to you, because it's so easy to become a cog in the machine, like in a video game company or something like that.
The reason a lot of us get into art is because we have stories to tell and things that fascinate us, so if we're going to be in an industry that typically doesn't pay as well as a lot of other jobs do, you have to find something that you love in it. And I think part of that is finding a way to tell your own stories.
I have such fond memories of playing with Ghostly Prison when I was a kid...
Yeah, that's actually me posing! The original assignment for that was a peculiar one. I think the art director at the time was Jeremy Cranford, who now works at Blizzard on Hearthstone, but the assignment for that one was to show two figures trapped behind a spectral wall.
I tend to follow descriptions pretty closely, but that one confused me a little bit, because my feeling was that if they're trapped behind a wall, they could just go the other way. And why have two people? Is the extra person serving any purpose? So my thought was to put one figure trapped inside of this little tower instead of the wall.
Every once in a while, you run into an assignment where the art description seems to have been written by somebody who's thinking verbally instead of visually. But nowadays more and more art directors are artists.
I'm also curious about Grixis Charm, this mysterious shape looks almost like a creature.
You know it's funny, I didn't realize this until I was done and saw the art at card size, but it looks to me like a fish. And now I can't not see it.
If I remember right, the assignment for that was to draw a glowing ball of dark energy, about the size of a fist. So, in my initial sketches, of course I'm always trying to put animals and things. I put a little zombie rat standing behind, but they didn't want that. And I thought there's no other good way to show scale.
After that, I did a skull, and you know this was kind of a no-go thing for Magic at that point. So it just ended up with this little this little ball that you see in the final art. There's not a lot of paint on that one, the background is just is just a single glaze over.
I love your Ape Token.
That was entirely digital, and it was a fun one so I'm glad you like that. I really liked working on the little necklace thing, as there was supposed to be a connection to some degree of civilization.
What about Offalsnout?
That was probably one of the most fun assignments recently. I tend to get assignments that are about realistic animals, wolves, elephants, apes, things like that. And there's a part of me that really enjoys the silly things, I loved doing Toy Boat for example. Offalsnout was one that I got to handle fairly classically, but it was a creature that was much more made up and I really got a kick out of doing that.
Did you look at the original card?
I did. When I get to redo something I do look at the originals, I look at them in their own context, but I try not to look too hard at them. You want to be respectful of the artist who came before you, but also realize that at some point you're going to get your work redone.
What about Lathnu Hellion?
Are you familiar with the story of Lorena Bobbitt?
Ok. In the United States there was a woman who cut her husband's penis off and it ended up getting reattached believe it or not. This is a little bit roundabout, but so this there is this creature called a Bobbit Worm, and it's a very scary worm.
It's from a family of worms called Polychaete, which are prehistoric, they're from before the dinosaurs, but they're these terrifying worms that live in the ocean. If you look at a few pictures of those you will see the inspiration for that creature. This is another time where your knowledge of science was useful.
What's your favorite?
I think Tormod's Crypt is still my favorite. The art director was Jeremy Jarvis, and the assignment was a mausoleum with a door open and perhaps a mist coming out. In my head, I pictured a very silent, very grey landscape, and this thing sort of lifting itself out of the earth and floating perfectly silently across this valley.
I sent a few sketches and Jeremy Jarvis said, 'I love that idea but it doesn't work with the card'. I asked if I could just paint it bigger and make it the way I wanted outside of what they were going to use on the card, and he said yes. So I came up with something that they liked and I really enjoyed as well. It also represents a lot of the painting that I like to do.
I mentioned Toy Boat before, there is a side of me that really likes that kind of sarcastic humor. A lot of the cards that I like are not particularly popular. I loved Monstrify, which is supposed to be a guy with a hat made of frogs, and a spell made one of them huge, and that was fun.
I really loved the potential for Ixalan, as soon as I read the style guide I thought, 'Man, I really hope I get to do a Theropod, like a T-Rex or something like that' and I think all I got was sauropods or herbivores, so I never I never got to do something that was kind of the quintessential meat eating dinosaur.
Trapjaw Kelpie was another one that I really loved doing. Vein Drinker. Gorgon Flail. There are a lot of them
The most challenging card?
The most challenging one for me was Glimmervoid. I thought I had pissed off the art director, because I remember thinking, 'What did I do?'
The assignment was to draw a featureless metal plane lit by the light of four sons, and then it had to have an hexagonal grid going across these rolling hills. I just remember thinking, 'how am I going to do that?' If it was a flat plane, that would have been fine, but as soon as you start trying to make that go across hills, it got very difficult.
I'm going to say this, but I'm not sure it's true: I think that that may have been the first Magic land that was fully generated and lit digitally through 3D software. I would love to paint that traditionally now. Well, I don't know that I would to be completely honest [Laughing]
I think at that point I was still doing my best just to answer the assignment, and I don't know that I had found much stylistic individuality at that point. So I was fine I was fine just just doing what the client asked for.
I guess an upside of challenging assignments is that you get to push for solutions outside your comfort zone.
I think you're right. I have never been what I would call a clever illustrator. There're so many Magic artists whose work I admire immensely. One of them is as Steve Belledin, and he tends to get a lot of assignments that are conceptually difficult, and he handles them beautifully, and I think he's often underappreciated for that ability.
For example, I look at Surgical Extraction, and he's got those same metal plates, he didn't have the rendering issues because it's on a fairly flat surface, but I wish I'd handled them that way in Glimmervoid.
You know, they wanted the reflectivity and all that, and for it to appear almost searingly perfect, and I think I satisfied that assignment, but at the cost of my artistic individuality, whereas Steve has a way of doing these things and making pieces that are brilliantly conceived and executed at the same time.
Do you build some of the models to use as reference for painting?
Yes, I do, I enjoy doing clay models, and also doing digital models in the computer and then actually 3D printing them.
Do you have some Magic related story you'd like to share?
I ran into an Air Force guy that in his spare time would go and dig trilobite fossils. We made a trade where I gave him a full set of artist's proofs and he sent me a box of trilobites he dug up.
I did have a guy tiling my kitchen floor, and I asked him if he would be willing to model for me. He kind of looked at me for a second and said, 'You don't mean naked do you?' [laughing] So, the guy being strangled in Bane of Progress is actually a tile guy.
I don't really love that piece, I think I could have done a lot more, I got obsessed with the detail of the creature, but I don't like the way it looks at card size.
Goblin Balloon Brigade was another one that was a lot of fun. The assignment said to do a group of goblins in a balloon made from animal hides. So I asked the art director if I could make it all out of one animal hide instead of multiples, so that's how I came up with the idea for the frog. I thought that would be kind of fun and quirky at the same time.