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Geekingout Interview

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SEPTEMBER 20, 2013 by LACEY

g33king out for: Melissa A Benson

2013 marks the 20th anniversary of Magic: The Gathering – the worldwide phenomenon that was not only the first Trading Card Game, but remains the most widely played card game to date. One of the highlights of Magic is the use of artists for each of its cards. Since they were given the freedom to come up with the imagery concepts and characters themselves, each card has its own unique design and feel. G33king Out was lucky enough to chat with one of the original artists Melissa A Benson about her experience with Magic, what inspires her illustrations, and her upcoming projects.

G33KING OUT: How long have you been an artist?

Melissa A Benson: There was never a time when I was not drawing. I decided to make art my profession after 6 and half tedious years as a steel engraver. That had to be… about ’86 or so. I went back to college again at Paier College of Art in Hamden CT. Most of the instructors there still “work in the field” and have a realistic grasp on what you will actually be facing professionally. I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Illustration. Once I graduated I immediately tried to get work in the city, where I met a roadblock called the receptionist.

GO: What do you enjoy drawing most?

MB: Anthropomorphic creatures. Anything that is half human, half whatever. I also like celtic knot work, animals and more and more now, Pagan subjects. So many of the Pagan stories are all about explaining the natural world in such a richly spiritual and diverse way.

GO: Who/What inspires you?

MB: Different artists are an inspiration for different things. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema for marble, certainly. Alphonse Mucha for grace. Al Williamson for action. It depends upon what feeling I’m trying to get across in the painting.

Nature truly deserves the term awesome. How can the morning sunlight on the trees not be an inspiration? You just have to observe things and pay attention to be inspired by them.

GO: How and when did you get involved with Magic cards?

MB: I wanted to do fantasy paperback book covers. When I was in a comic book store, the gaming products looked like my art would work well for them. I managed to get a list of gaming companies and contact info. Wizards of the Coast was on that list. I sent Wizards of the Coast samples and a cover letter. Jesper Myfors called me back, and so it began…

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GO: How many cards have you illustrated?

MB: Wow. I’d have to look that up… about 245 for various companies. This doesn’t include the artwork that was not used, or used for online games.

GO: How do you come up with the ideas for your illustrations?

MB: I have an extensive clip file, although with the internet, I don’t use it that much anymore. I have a huge library of books- in fact I need yet another bookcase or two. That comes from visits to The Strand Bookstore in New York City. After all, it really does have 18 miles of books both new and used. I can’t get out of that place without spending big bucks. Michael Kaluta told me he doesn’t go into The Strand anymore for just that reason. I could grab a train and go right now.

GO: Which ones are your favorites? Why?

MB: The ones that taught me something new in the process. For example, I now know that I really dislike airbrush work and will not do it again.

GO: Are you a Magic card player/collector yourself?

MB: No, I never learned Magic. The kids played too fast in the beginning, and I’m more of a Scrabble/Chess/Backgammon type of person. But as far as I can tell, Magic looks like an elegant combination of War and Go Fish. The only cards I collect are my own and the only cards I sell are my Magic artist proofs.

GO: Can you give us a description of the illustration you sent us? Who is it?

MB: Sure, it is a detail from a larger piece featuring the Wiccan story of the bi-annual battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. Each King rules six months of the year, changing dominance at the Summer and Winter Solstices. The Holly King’s victory heralds rest for renewal, days getting shorter and the earth’s passage into dormancy. And the Oak King’s victory heralds the return of the Sun, days getting longer and the earth getting warmer. I designed it like a playing card so that each King could be face up for their reign on the Wheel of the Year. I had the frame double strung so that it could be hung either way as well. It’s the kind of work that I will be doing more of.

GO: Are you a fan of any other fantasy games or franchises?

MB: No, I’m afraid not. I’m not a gamer. I’m more of a reader of fantasy stories. Authors like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, C. M. Kornbluth and Fritz Leiber, Ellis Peters, David and Leigh Eddings, and oddly, Clive Cussler. And I listen to classical music, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Russian folk song singer Ivan Rebroff. A spectacular bass voice. I’ve traded original art to some German fans for Rebroff CD’s.

GO: What are you currently g33king out for? Anything nerdy that you are excited for/obsessing about?

MB: The Gathering 20th anniversary book of Magic: the Gathering and the next Pixar movie, whatever that will be. And the next Pacific Rim.

GO: Do you have a favorite TV show or movie? Favorite quote?

MB: Love the Big Bang Theory and Castle. Both are cleverly written and humorous. I only have the bare bones cable tv. Basically, only the channels that used to be available with an antenna. The cable shows that are so popular now are exercises in unnecessary graphic violence with shallow ugly characters and no story. If I want grim and gritty all I need to do is open the newspaper. There isn’t enough beauty, informative or uplifting shows. The only shows I miss from cable are the Foodnetwork and the History channel.

GO: Do you have any advice for artists looking to do similar work to your own?

MB: For any artist coming up, TAKE BUSINESS COURSES! The more you know about the industry the better for us all. Really read your contracts. Never work without one. Use your own contract if you can. Develop a good relationship with an attorney. Do your own bookwork but get an accountant for your taxes. Deliver more than you need to… I see I’m starting to rant so I’ll stop here.

MB: On the art side of your question, be observant, pay attention to ratio and proportions. Make sure you show where shadow edges are hard and where they are soft, and if you don’t know, find out. Don’t leave your character floating in air unless they are flying. Even a single line where they touch the ground will make a difference. Know where your whitest whites and blackest blacks are and scale the remaining values to promote that. And don’t copy Frazetta. Enough already!

GO: Do you have any news or upcoming projects?

MB: I have several that change in priority minute to minute. My commissions are steady, thankfully and always enlightening in some way. On my own time, I want to make Pagan art more mainstream so currently, I’m creating a piece for each holiday on the Wheel of the Year. I have a deck of Tarot cards I’ve been modifying for many years and I’ve started to dabble in making jewelry. There are a couple of field guides in various stages of completion, and I now have five Zazzle.com shops that I add to all the time. I will be at Madicon in March 2014. I don’t do many shows because they are not profitable and take time away from the board. There is no other “Day job” for me.

GO: If you could have any super power what would it be and why?

MB: You mean aside from adding an extra day in the week between Wednesday and Thursday that only I could access? I’d want to be able to understand, read, write and speak any/every language including computer, chemistry, Dow Jones and so on. Oh and I’d like to be able to play any instrument fluently first time out. That would be sweet.

Find out more about Melissa by visiting her website, following her on Twitter @nightmareartist, and liking her on Facebook!

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