I asked Adam Rex for an interview because Cloudgoat Ranger is one of my favorite Magic illustrations ever. When I approached him he asked if I realized he hadn’t done a Magic illustration in seven or eight years. I said I figured, but would love to talk with him about his work before working for Wizards, while working for Wizards, and after working for Wizards. He agreed and it lead to one of my favorite artist interviews yet.

Matt Jones: What were you up to in your life and work prior to your work with Wizards of the Coast and how did you come to work with WOTC? If you have any examples of your early work, sketches, paintings, etc. that you’d like to share our readers eat up that kinda visual awesomeness. You know, stuff they can’t see. Maybe three sketches or something.

Adam Rex:  I was taking classes, mostly. I was still an illustration student at the University of Arizona. I started taking a portfolio to Comic Con in San Diego in 1993, when I was twenty—I slept in my car in a parking lot downtown, which you could still do at the time. I didn’t get any work that first year at SDCC, but in 1994 I started getting assignments, including work for Dungeons & Dragons (which was still owned by TSR at the time) and a game called Ars Magica that was produced by WotC. I think I was getting Magic card work by ’95. The first card I painted was Igneous Golem.

I don’t have a lot of work left from my student days. I can’t get to my studio today, but tomorrow I’ll go and take some pictures of sketchbooks from this era, if I can find them. But I’ve attached a class assignment I probably did in 1992. Prismacolor pencil on mat board.


MJ: Holy shit that drawing is awesome! I’m beyond words. Just a big smile. What a drawing!! Did your Ars Magica work lead to work for Magic: The Gathering? Is Ars Magica the what we thank for the genius illustrations for Cloudgoat Ranger, Breezekeeper, Cognivore, goddamn it AND Woodall Primus? I could’ve just listed all your art. Didn’t even realize I’m as big a fanboy of your art as I am. I’ll try to reel it in a little bit. What was your time working with Wizards of the Coast like? Got any good stories you’re willing to share?

AR: I’m pretty sure the Ars Magica stuff did lead to MtG, though I don’t exactly remember how. Maybe they had the same art director in 1995?

Anyway, my sense was that 1995 me was just barely good enough to get assignments from them. As the years passed, the overall quality both of Magic art and my own work improved, and I remained perpetually just barely good enough to get assignments from them. So I’m glad you like my stuff.

I don’t want this to sound ungrateful, because I’m really thankful for the Magic work I did and all the bills it paid, but during my WotC years what I really wanted to do was wrote and/or illustrate books for kids. So making a kids-appropriate portfolio of illustration was what occupied a good deal of whatever waking hours I had left after getting a day’s worth of WotC work done. And I did need a separate portfolio, because asking children’s publishers to concentrate on the quality of my painting and not so much on the fact that it depicted, say, a man vomiting up his own musculature which is vomiting up its skeleton which, in turn, eating the man, was never going to get me anywhere.


After a while I think I managed to become one of the art department’s favorites, even if I was never a big name in the eyes of the Magic fans like Donato or Lockwood. So the art directors started asking me what sort of subject matter I’d like to paint, and I’d answer,

“I don’t know, something pretty or funny, maybe? Funny goblins? Whatever angel stuff Rebecca Guay doesn’t have time for?”

And the art director would say, “Okay, cool,” and a week later my new illustration assignments would arrive and it would be five zombies. I did a lot of zombies. I even eventually did a zombie throwing up a smaller zombie.


Eventually I started making headway in kid’s books, and said “no thanks” more and more frequently to Magic assignments. It got to the point that the art director at that time (2002 or 2003, maybe?), who was relatively new to the position, asked why I kept saying no to him.

“Oh, I’m really busy doing kid’s books now,” I told him. And he was real quiet on the other end of the phone for a few seconds.

“They…they can’t let you do books for kids,” he told me. “You’re the gross scary zombie guy.”

Being new to the post, he just assumed I painted flesh-eaters and gore because that’s what was inside my dark heart.

MJ: Man, I was thinking no art for Terror could ever be as good as the original Terror, and I wasn’t playing during whatever Magic X is, but I did buy several copies of your version of the card because I fucking love that art so much. It’s accurately depicts its title without being trite. Shit is SERIOUS, but also, you know, kinda funny? Maybe I’m sick but a human body ouroboros’ing its own skeleton, muscular system, and skin is playful and darkly comedic.

And you’re so good at the gross, dark, and evil stuff. The art for Gravespawn Sovereign is insanely funny and beautiful. It’s bizarre that they kept type casting you despite your wishes to do lighter fare. 

When I read you were interested in children’s books cards like Cloudgoat Ranger, Woodfall Primus, and Seedborn Muse immediately came to mind. Like you were painting in a friendlier way, against the type casting. It’s amazing that you know what you want to do, children’s book illustration, and that you saw a path to it, worked hard to get it, and are now involved with it. Your exit from Magic illustration seems perfectly timed and very natural. Can you share with us some of your work on children’s books? Your thoughts on that world vs. the fantasy illustration world, and any projects you have coming up? Wouldn’t mind preliminary sketches of Cloudgoat Ranger and Seedborn Muse if you’ve got any to share … 

AR: Okay, here are a few things. My thumbnail and sketch for the goat rider, my sketch for Gravespawn Sovereign because I think it’s funny that it also has a picture of a teddy bear on the same page, and both some rough sketches and the finished sketches for Seedborn and Windborn Muse.




rough seedwind

I liked painting Terror despite my earlier protestations. I love painting the figure, and it was a good excuse to sort of rip off an Odd Nerdrum mood.

I’ve written and/or illustrated a good many books for kids (there’s some kid’s art of mine here: http://adamrexart.tumblr.com/). My best known books probably include Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, which is all about monsters and their problems, The Chu books I illustrated for Neil Gaiman, and my novel The True Meaning of Smekday. That last one was adapted by DreamWorks and released earlier this year as an animated film called HOME. 

Mainstream fantasy like Magic can be angry and horrific and sexual and explore a lot of areas that kid’s illustration doesn’t and maybe shouldn’t. One thing mainstream fantasy is often lacking, in my opinion, is humor. For all those years that I was asking my art directors for pretty cards and funny cards, I was mostly being told by WotC that they were intentionally steering Magic away from humor. As a comics fan, I saw a lot of this philosophy in the nineties as well. I think the makers and consumers of fantasy and science fiction can often develop a sort of humorlessness as an immune system against criticism. Someone who loves comics or plays D&D might have a sense that the wider world views what he loves as childish and laughable, so in reaction to that he wants his fantasy to be as darkly serious as possible.

This was actually why I agreed to do cards in the Lorwyn setting. I’d thought, at that point, that I was through with Magic. I didn’t need the work anymore, and they weren’t giving me the sort of subject matter that I wanted to paint. And then they called and said, “Look, here’s all that pretty/funny stuff you’ve been asking for.” It was like they called my bluff.

And there you have it. Adam really crushed it with his answers. The idea of using humorlessness as armor in the scifi/fantasy art communities rings pretty true. Tomasz Jedruszek, in an earlier Arting Around interview, also mentioned, in a round about way, that humor wasn’t really a priority for WOTC which was hard because he’s interested in humor. I think it’s true of a lot of artworld art, too. There’s a lot of sub par art out there that hides behind its forced seriousness. I’m sure there’s bad art that hides behind humor, too, but at least I get to smile at it. ANYWAY, that Cloudgoat Ranger sketch is maybe my all time favorite Magic sketch. It’s so awesome. It looks like a Michelangelo sketchbook drawing, if Michelangelo was a commissioned fantasy illustrator. Here’s an example:


That one’s at the Met. You can make a special appointment with the drawing room there and sit like two inches away from it. It’s insane. I love sketches. Here’s a Leonardo sketch (from some work on the Hercules myth), you know, for good measure:

Both images are from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website. You should go to the Met as often as possible. If you don’t live near it, visit it online. It helps a lot if you do blind contour drawings of the paintings, drawings, and sculptures in the collection. Gives you a better chance at “seeing” what you’re looking at.

Tune in next week when I interview someone else OR make more alternate art Magic cards!

Matt Jones (born on at the beginning of the 8th decade of the 2oth century) is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. Matt’s played Magic since Revised. Lately Matt’s game has become more about hanging out with friends and shooting the shit and less about competitive tournament play. He writes the weekly Arting Around column on Hipsters of the Coast, interviewing Magic illustrators and occasionally adding his thoughts on the art of various cards and sets. You can see Matt’s artwork on his website.


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