An Interview with 'Magic' Artist Adam Paquette


Magic: The Gathering artist Adam Paquette joins Magic Untapped for a Q&A.

Since 2011, Australian artist Adam Paquette done more than 200 pieces of art for Magic the Gathering alone. That's not even counting his other work, such as concept art, private commissions, and so on.

Magic Untapped reached out to the artist about his works, the Magic CCG, life, and more. He obliged. 

Magic Untapped: What inspirations and influences in your life drove you to becoming a professional artist? 

Adam Paquette: I spent a lot of time around art when I was younger. Every now and then, my mother would tell me to take a day off school, on the condition that we drove into the city to visit art galleries, and afterwards we would go to our favourite ‘bohemian cafe’ to have a hot apple cider and talk about what we had seen. This elicited a deep love of art, cafes, and of course, my mother!

Although she was not a professional artist per se, she has always pursued sculpture, drawing and photography quite seriously, which mean that was accessible to me at home growing up. Unlike a lot of fellow illustrators who tend to speak about pop culture influences on their early work, I recall my earliest influences coming from various mythologies and cultural lineages that I came into contact with through my parents and their work; living in India and spending time listening to traditional stories under the village fig trees, meeting Australian Aboriginal elders, and hosting North and South American first nations speakers when they visited Australia. This left me with a deep appreciation for the tradition of art outside of its commercial context, an appreciation that still keeps me balanced between ‘personal and professional work’ today.  

MU: How did you get your start with Magic?

AP: I had worked freelance for D&D for a few years before travelling to Amherst, Mass., to attend the Illustration Masterclass, where Jeremy Jarvis was a guest lecturer. I told him how much I wanted to work with Magic, but that my anatomy sucked and I could only paint landscapes, which I figured he ‘wouldn’t be very interested in’. And that's how I became pigeonholed as a land card artist for the first half of my Magic career!

I thought that was a kind of ‘intern position’ when I started - little did I know how much of a precious place those land cards hold in the world of Magic! Shortly after the workshop, I went to visit WOTC HQ in Seattle, met the team, and was given the rundown on the concept push at the time (for Innistrad).

My first job was doing concept art for the push, out of the back of an RV while finishing my road trip down the California coastline.

MU: How long do you typically spend on a piece?

AP: It varies considerably, and unpredictably. Every now and then I will get lucky and knock something out in 8-10 hours. More often, a piece will take 4-5 days of work. Some complex, usually promotional, pieces will take even longer. Added complexity can come from using a lot of 3D to develop a complicated scene, or tackling something in traditional media that would be more easily accomplished digitally, for example.

MU: Of the 265 or so cards you've illustrated thus far, which have been your favorites?  Which gave you the greatest challenge?

AP: It isn’t fair to the children to pick a favorite! Definitely my most rewarding pieces have been all the lands I have worked on since I switched to doing mostly traditional finals. Of those, Flooded Strand felt like the best sweet spot between working on something that felt really personal (something I would have painted for myself, not just for Magic) and something that worked successfully for the game and its audience. And it was probably the piece with which I really convinced myself that I could switch over fully to oils for the commercial work, which I hadn’t done previously.

As for challenge - the The Three Seasons saga from Kaldheim was entirely hand carved. I had never done (any) carving before, and it started as a kind of joke/wager with Victor Adame… 100+ hours later, and after a few angry knocks on the door from the neighbors, I had hammered and sweated my way to a three-foot totem of knotwork and demons that I was pretty stoked with.

MU: A few years ago in the set Zendikar Rising you illustrated the full art basic lands and will have sci-fi full art lands in Unfinity when it comes out later this year.  Were those much different to illustrate compared to a traditional Magic card?

AP: With all the new formats of cards that have been released since I started, I don’t really expect for anything to be a traditional format any more. But I definitely enjoy the vertical aspect, since it is more natural to my way of working outside Magic.

As for being full-art, despite the card framing I always consider my paintings to be ‘full’, in that they will be appreciated at their full size and without card borders anyhow - online and in my portfolio. So they all get the same love and treatment.

MU: You also re-imagined a number of existing cards with the Expedition masterpieces found in that set, such as Creeping Tar PitMystic Gate, and Wasteland.  What was that experience like for you?

AP: It is always tough to ‘cover’ a great original - especially since I tend to put full love into every piece, when I get an important commission like those, I always wonder, how am I meant to top myself? Usually, when it goes right, it means rather than more rendering, detail, or a slicker finish, that I have spent more time digesting the concept and trying to connect with the feeling of a piece, so that it carries a unique emotional tone. Flooded Strand and Wasteland really nailed that for me - they are abstract enough to be taken out of Magic context and stand on their own feet, which means a lot for me. 

MU: Have you ever tried a more "out of the box" approach to a card where you try a new perspective or style?

AP: I have tried to always push myself conceptually and compositionally, to not repeat myself or just phone a composition in. But I was also advised early on by some industry veterans not to pour all of my soul into my client work - both because it was really important to keep that energy for my personal art, and also because that conflation of personal voice and client work is liable to actually produce an inferior product for its intended audience, anyway.

Overdoing the ‘personal touch’ in client work does both a disservice, I think. I try to make Magic work the best way it can be for the evocation of mood and story in the game, and I keep the out of the box approach for my personal work, which has meant a really wide gamut of approaches to medium, style, and even the location and context that I work in. Oh, but I did mention I hand-carved a wooden totem for Kaldheim, right? ;)

MU: Do you have a favorite art medium? If so, does it make fantasy artwork harder or easier to create?

AP: A great painter once explained to me that each medium has a different ‘innate speed’, and that it was important to find the medium that fits the speed of your thinking. I don’t know if he was implying something by that, but I do love how slow oil painting is… It is a great part of the enjoyment to build the work in layers, glazing and scumbling and working back into the piece to draw an image out from the void. I find my ability to ‘see into’ the canvas and draw something from nothing works much better in paint than in software.

Of course, this comes with its challenges, and I still find myself struggling with different parts of the process from drying times and medium mixups to the horrible gorgon of glare on photographing day… but those obstacles are part of the fun, too, and the feeling of learning, overcoming, and developing new solutions is a great one. For concept work, I still much prefer the digital ecosystem - iterative design in Blender and speedpainting are fantastic ways to navigate the conceptual space inside the mind.

MU: Do you try and incorporate Australian art style/culture into your pieces when applicable?

AP: Depending on which ‘Australian’ we mean - as for the Aboriginal culture, I haven’t and wouldn’t seek to appropriate their work into my own. It is a living tradition with its own masters, and without an initiation into that tradition, it is not my place to draw heavily on that. If we talk about the European Australians, yes I definitely grew up with a love of Australian Impressionism and their approach to landscape painting.

There is a lot of Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts that was in my heart when working on some of the early land art. But contemporary Australian artistic culture mostly petered out in the 20th century, and hence my adventures around the world and choice to relocate myself to Europe. 

MU: What kinds of things are more tricky for you to create (landscapes, people creatures, etc.)?

AP: I still struggle with heavily anatomical figure work, even though a lot of my personal art features the human body prominently. There is something about the staged posing of fantasy character work that, while necessary, I find difficult to get the hang of.

The vast majority of figurative traditional art I love from earlier centuries was developed before cameras and the ‘cinematic lens’, showing a full figure at some distance, from eye-level (ish). So trying to cram a character, expression, costume, magical effects etc into an 45 degree wide angle close up shot with motion blur… well, maybe best left to someone else!

I also find the subtlety of the emotional tone of a landscape is something that I can get more deeply lost in and intrigued by. But anything ‘mood heavy’ tends to keep me engaged. 

MU: What projects are you working on now (both Magic and otherwise) that your fans should keep an eye out for?

AP: I am continuing to work on new Magic sets, with a lot of traditional pieces yet to be released. Outside of Magic, I am working on a bunch of ongoing artistic research projects, mostly based in Berlin.

Collective Shaping is an ongoing exploration of subtle energy in physical movement, and how that can be shared in the space between a visual artist and a movement artist. I will be launching a focused mentorship program soon, for a limited number of committed artists who want focused, rigorous coaching to develop their personal and professional work in tandem, and I have some really interesting collaborations with thinkers in other spaces about how art practice can be integrated into a wider ‘ecology of practices’ for people to become better thinkers and do-ers.

I’ve been pretty silent on social media over the years, but I expect to share more as these projects become public.  

Thank you, Adam, for participating in this interview.

Evan Symon

Evan Symon is a graduate of The University of Akron and has been a working journalist ever since with works published by Cracked, GeekNifty, the Pasadena Independent, California Globe, and, of course, Magic Untapped.