For 14 years, the Pratt Institute-trained Rebecca Guay created some of the most iconic Magic: The Gathering artwork to date. While most Magic artwork in the 1990s tended to be in darker or comedic/comic-like tones, Guay's lighter, softer approach stuck out. Between 1996 and 2010, players always knew right from a glance that Guay was the artist of their card.
She has enjoyed a storied career and it seemed like any set that didn't include her artwork was immediately criticized, even to a controversy over her art style in 2002.
Guay sat down with Magic Untapped and talked about Magic: The Gathering, her life, and what she's been up to recently.
Magic Untapped: What inspirations and influences in your life drove you to becoming a professional artist?
Rebecca Guay: I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be one.
I was really into cartoons and comics and Wonder Woman from 1st grade on and I copied comics and cartoons obsessively.
I was also a kid who really didn’t fit in at all. There were also some really, really rough times between 6th and 9th grade. Lots of pretty scary bullying and not many friends in junior high (I just had no personal confidence and that made me such an easy target) and that definitely pushed me further and further into my art and my imagination.
By the time high school rolled around I had found my people in the theatre crowd and my drive to do art professionally was fully cemented. My mom went to art school and also told me all the time that I could do it. That I was good enough and I just had to keep working as hard as I was doing beforehand.
MU: Since your Magic: The Gathering card art debut in Alliances and work on some of the early MTG comics such as Serra Angel on the World of Magic: The Gathering, you have become one of the game's most well known and respected artists thanks, in part, to your use of watercolors. Were you expecting players to take such an instant liking to your art and why do you think your art has had such strong staying power throughout the game's history?
RG: LOL! On the contrary I was quite sure not many people would actually like the work. It was not like other work at all in sci-fi/fantasy at the time, certainly not mainstream. Things were far more along the lines of the Hildebrants (who actually had been commissioned to to the Homelands cover and I was hired as the interior artist, but the company let me have the back cover be my version!)
All my vulnerability, romance, and love of raw sweet things was the core of my early work. It's been an utter surprise and compete honor that people have responded at ALL to my work. I am always deeply grateful for it, even as I’ve shifted a lot away from commercial work. The gratitude I feel for this community and to have people be fans of the things that I have done is simply miraculous.
Every piece of art I did early on and do now are pieces of the things that matter to me; pieces of my heart. Even back when I had to work from style guides I’d try so hard to imbue things with the prices of me that mattered and I think it’s the heart in them that folks respond to.
MU: How long do you typically spend on a piece?
RG: It depends! Some pieces take a few hours, some take a few days, and some take weeks!
At this point I feel I have full facility how to paint and draw. I completely own my tools of the craft for the work. The question now is trying to deliver the most true and unexpected moment, about how to address myth and culture and how to to bring a form or flavor of image to life. It's about how to get under people’s skin and change or inspire something.
MU: Over the years, you and WotC seem to have an off-again, on-again relationship with your artwork appearing in some sets while being absent from others. This relationship has even been parodied in the "Un-" cards Fascist Art Director and Persecute Artist. To clear up any confusion that players may have about what went down and why, what was it all about?
RG: Ha! It’s so funny all the stories out there.
Wizards is a great company. They make artists global names and they have been far better than other similar companies in the reuse of images for artists to make prints and such.
I had been working a long time for Magic but when Hasbro bought it the game shifted its look. I was talking to the art director (who I count as a friend now for sure!!) and they said that the game was going in a more masculine, less feminine direction; more pumped up. And it was likely that my style wasn’t going to be right for future sets.
You have to put this in context.
This was a VERY common thing to hear within sci-fi fantasy OR comics. Art directors and editors used this language to describe who and what and how a product would look all the time. So I was sad to not be right for the line anymore but I wasn’t angry. I was a freelance artist after all.
But when I was asked to do a signing later that year for a new set by an independent store and organizer, I told them just what I had been told, that my work wasn’t right for the new sets because of the direction of the game and used the same description I had been given and then I didn’t think about it. At this point everyone knows that fans on message boards found out through the event organizer I'd spoken to.
It was a very early manifestation of the public making their voices heard.
I did not know what was happening until I got a call from Wizards. They thought I had posted something somewhere deliberately trying to rile things up. I truly had not and I explained exactly what happened. That is pretty much the whole deal!
I was deeply flattered though that fans had spoken up for what they liked in my work! I still sort of can’t believe it. You just don’t know if you have an effect in people often when you work.
I remain in a very good relationship with Wizards and I see very clearly they that have also tried very hard to be a leader on positive identity and inclusion. I think It’s great.
MU: You’ve done the artwork on many Magic cards. Which of your cards have been your favorites and what is it about them that makes them stand out?
RG: Oh I have SO many favorites. I can’t possibly pick one!!
MU: Have you ever tried a more "out of the box" approach to a card where you try a new perspective or style?
RG: One always tries to push what one does, but i can tell you that I just competed a new card, the first one I’ve done in years, and that will be out this summer. I pushed things further than I ever have, largely because they said I could do anything I wanted— so I did! I brought the conversation I deal with in my gallery work to the card art itself.
I want to live a life three dimensionally with my work. I'm always reaching.
RG: I actually didn’t know it was such a big part of Lorwyn on balance!
MU: WotC commissioned you to illustrate one of each basic land for the set Commander 2017. To date, they're the only basic lands and five of the seven in total you have illustrated for the game with Saprazzan Cove and Pine Barrens being the other two. Is creating artwork for land cards different for you than the pieces you do for creatures and the like? Would you like the opportunity to create art for more Magic lands in the future?
RG: The land paintings offered a different moment for me as an artist!
We will see if I do more!
MU: Do you have a favorite art medium? If so, does it make fantasy artwork harder or easier to create?
RG: I love oil paint and watercolor and graphite and ink.
When I stand before the work in the studio and engage with the medium itself it's graphite or watercolor or oil or ink. It’s a dialogue with a physical medium the has a life of its own to be respected and it will do unexpected things. It will also not behave sometimes and you need to allow for working with that. It’s part of the magic these beautiful volatile tools. It's a moment in time that can’t be reproduced the same way twice is created in a work.
I love this.
MU: What kinds of things are more tricky for you to create (landscapes, people creatures, etc.)?
RG: I’ve been painting and drawing for so long I can pretty much paint or draw anything I want. Any artist who has been working as long as I have has this ability, but I really don’t enjoy painting cars!! LOL!
But who knows now that I’ve said that I may find a way to love that!
MU: You currently have a Kickstarter campaign promoting and raising funds for your upcoming art book, The Present. Can you tell us about the book -- what people can expect to find within its pages -- and how folks can support you and your craft?
RG: I’m so excited and grateful for the campaign.
The people who have cared about my work have made so many aspects possible.
They supported the last book production and I was able to make a super gorgeous book with all the elaborate printing and production that I feel a book deserves but rarely gets because of the cost to make it.
This campaign will make it possible for me to reprint the last book, Evolution, and make the new book, The Present, that will pick up where that one left off and include all my gallery work plus the new piece I mentioned for MTG and a whole bunch of really rare sketches I found last year in sketchbooks I thought I’d lost of cards commissions from the 90s.
If it continues to go well it will also helps fund the creation of the next immersive narrative installation. I’ve been building fantasy narrative environments that embody my belief in the power of these things. Unfortunately they are rarely “sellable” things because they are installations for rooms. This work needs patrons because collectors don’t just buy the work and frame it. It’s an experience in the moment and they take me months to do. I hope to find a venue and perhaps have a special party and event for everyone (maybe even a special signing if I can!) in 2022 when the books are all done.
Anyone who backs the Kickstarter now with a print or playmat or at any donation at any level gets first access to copies of the book, a discounted book or a free book with a sketch depending on the amount they want to back. I’ll be offering some really sweet extra gifts at we get closer to the last week including some pretty special original art giveaways that will be randomly selected from among the backers.
Also, I have a team up with Seb McKinnon coming for one of the backers gifts to be unlocked soon and we’ll as one with another artist I can’t name yet!
If people want to follow what’s going on they can join the list on my campaign. It will end December 20.
I won’t be offering any of the special playmats in the campaign ever again.
Thank you to Rebecca for participating in this interview.
Magic Untapped's previous Magic: The Gathering artist interviews: