As usual, the official Swedish version is found on www.svenskamagic.com.
INTERVIEW WITH MAGALI VILLENEUVE
August: Hello, Magali. Thank you for accepting this interview!
You are from France, a creative country that has given birth to countless artists, poets and authors. What's it like being an artist in modern day France?
Magali Villeneuve: It doesn’t feel easy, as far as my own experience is concerned, at least (another artist may give an absolutely different answer, I assume).
First, the status of “professional” illustrator in itself can be very precarious: we’re a bit “forgotten” by our institutions. That’s for the purely practical side of the question.
To be less specific, I’d say that it’s wonderful, on one hand, to have such a legacy so close at hand. Art is about anywhere, and not only in museums. Our monuments, architecture - they’re endless sources of inspiration!
On the other hand, I often regret our culture is so classical. Realms of fantasy, science fiction and all that kind of really cool stuff, are having a very hard time finding a respected place. Mass media still tend to use a sliiiiightly ironic tone when talking about SFFF, and anything related to it. Over here, SFFF = geek = teenager/kids’ stuff.
For example, when I talk to people, I never entitle myself “artist”. I’m just an illustrator. Because, hey, I’m "only painting dragons and mages", after all!
Also, it’s not even easy for SFFF publishing houses to make it, in France. To put it in a nutshell : it’s such a niche here.
But, to be completely fair, I’d also say that, happily, the French SFFF enthusiasts are real enthusiasts, and they’re GREAT. Us French illustrators are lucky to have them to feel a little “useful”.
I take it all as a challenge: it’s kind of our “mission” to show that SFFF imagery is no less than art, following on from the classical legacy.
Au: Wow, I had no idea, and I find myself having a hard time wrapping my head around the concept. Your countryman François Rabelais wrote absurd tales about giants and his work is considered as great literature. 500 years later, painting the same subject matter doesn't even grant you the title of "artist"? It's a weird world...
We haven't seen many French artists in Magic. Why is that do you think?
MV: I’m not sure I really have a satisfying answer here, in fact. My first guess would be that we’re “famous” for not being really good at foreign languages, unfortunately. And if you want to get commissioned outside your country, well, obviously, you need more than shaky English bases. You cannot ask your clients to explain all the time, you just can’t. Ideally, I’d even say you should make them forget the language you’re using is not your mother tongue. And the bigger the company, the less they have time for lagged behind people who’d get their assignments wrong more often than not!
Also, I’d say this may be a sign of how hard it is to begin a career here. To make it to Magic, you need a good “level”. But to get this level, you first need to work, practice, learn you job. But it’s so hard to make a living that many of us just give up. Or they choose a part-time artistic career. And obviously, part-time doesn’t necessarily allow you to be always as available and efficient as you’d need in order to evolve.
But again, maybe I’m completely wrong! At least, that’s my hypothesis.
Au: Your artistic style has a great sense for beauty and a certain epic mood. Sometimes it's very sensual as well. What are your main sources of inspiration?
MV: First, you’d deserve a big tackle-hug for describing my style so. It made me happy!
I have many sources of inspirations. First of all, I’d mention Caravaggism and Pre-Raphaelism as my favorite movements. Caravaggism for the use of shadows and lights. It is strong, it’s expressive, it’s almost brutal, in fact.
Pre-Raphaelism for the approach of human figures. This movement asked for a lot of observation, references, a strong care for details, color use. It’s beautiful and sensual without being soppy, or showing off.
But of course, I also find inspiration in what other illustrators do. I’m such a fan of Michael Komarck, Donato Giancola, or Chase Stone, for example. They all have this strong sense of composition, this incredible mastery of color and light, inimitable styles. I really humbly look up to them.
Au: Yeah, I can really see it - the drama of Caravaggism and the sensual touch of the Pre-Raphaelites!
Are you educated or self-taught? Your art reminds me quite a bit of traditional painting.
MV: I am completely self-taught. I took me years to learn things (probably twice as much as an educated artist). I started with traditional techniques: pencil (which is still my favorite tool) and oil.
At some point, I started believing I would never make it as a pro if I didn’t learn digital painting. So I started using Photoshop. My first months (years?) were such a catastrophy. The mere sight of my first pieces would make you throw up your breakfast, believe me! I made ALL possible mistakes (maybe to get rid of them once and for all), and then I slowly felt more at ease. And most of all, I understood I could use what I had learned traditionally to improve. It lead to the technique I’m using today.
The process is pretty close to oil painting, though (maybe that explains the “traditional feel” you have. Besides, it often happens that people have a doubt at first sight, indeed) : a sketch, first (traditional, whenever I feel the need, depending on the piece), then I go digital with transparent layers of colors, and then I start building up colors, contrasts and texture, layer after layer. It’s slow and laborious. But I organize myself so my clients don’t realize it! Haha!
Au: Dulcet Sirens is among my favorite illustrations in recent years. It's beautiful and sensual, yet it's got a great sense of impending danger. Do you enjoy depicting Greek mythology?
MV: Yes I do! I love any “ancient” influence, anyways. Besides, my first Magic assignments were set in Theros. It kind of came as a surprise, as I didn’t know much about Magic back then. I didn’t expect such a variety of atmospheres. That’s one of the things that make Magic so exciting to artists, I think. Boredom and routine just don’t exist.
Au: You have interpreted the character Narset three times, two as the khan in Narset, Enlightened Master and Quiet Contemplation and once as a planeswalker in Narset Transcendent. Where Narset designed by you or the style guide team?
MV: The “khan Narset” costume was already designed in the style guide. What I really brought to this was the face. For the planeswalker costume, Wizards gave me landmarks from the style guide and then I was asked to design something just for her, with unique details.
Au: Did you enjoy painting the transition from khan to planeswalker? Did it present any challenges?
MV: I was thrilled about the khan Narset. For the PW I was just OVER THE MOON. I won’t pretend I went like “well, you know, painting a PW is just another day in my illustrator’s routine”. No way! I may not be a big Magic pro, but I think any SFFF illustrator has seen at least one MtG planeswalker in their life. I’ve always been obsessed with Jace Beleren, or Chandra Nalaar’s designs, even long before I ever thought I could work for Wizards of the Coast someday. Knowing that, can you imagine how I felt when I found a whole new planeswalker in my inbox?
Au: I can imagine. Something similar happened to me recently. Did you feel excited and slightly nervous, but at the same time realizing you stood before a fantastic opportunity?
MV: THAT was the challenge, indeed: planeswalkers are something important. When an art director decides to commission one, if you’re not completely full of yourself, I strongly believe you’re bound to have a “uh-oh” moment. I had a major “uh-oh” moment! Firstly, because I was still pretty new to Magic, I never saw it coming. Added that I’m naturally suffering from the “why me ?” syndrome…
I knew making a mess was not an option, or this mess would follow and haunt me forever, with players throwing stones at me and all! [laughs] I felt it was some kind of a responsibility, so the challenge was not to disappoint my art director, first, and then the players.
Au: I have a hard time imagining you disappointed anybody. Narset looks like she just planeswalked right out of some magical kung fu movie. She's also the current wallpaper on my iphone!
Titania is a character who dates back to 1994 and Magic's childhood. Throughout the years, there's been a number of cards referring to her. I think you did a great job giving life to this classic character, but where you aware of her ancestry when you got the assignment?
MV: I’m really glad you liked her! I knew she had been created long ago, cause the assignment text mentioned it. I understood it was about giving a fresh look to an existing character.
Au: Titania has actually been interpreted once before, by Rebecca Guay for the supplementary product Vanguard. Her illustration is very simplistic, but actually her Titania design isn't that different from yours. Have you seen it?
MV: To be true, in the assignment text, there was a line (probably intended for my art director) saying the Vanguard reference should probably not be sent to me. I deduced they wanted to get something new. So I played the game and refrained from Googling the card! So any likeness to Rebecca Guay’s work is purely incidental, I’d say. But if there is any, it proves the description text for Titania is so efficient illustrators will come up with similar things!
Au: Sylvan Safekeeper was designed by the professional Swedish MtG player Olle Råde, and Pete Venter's original artwork was made to look like him. I could be mistaken, but I think your new art for the card still looks like Olle. Did Wizards want the artwork to resemble Olle this time around too or is it just some random guy in a forest?
MV: Actually, it WAS some random guy in the forest! I didn’t even know about the Olle Råde likeness. It must be so cool for a player to get his face on a card, though!
Au: Pretty cool indeed. He even got his own spider and all! ;)
April 10th you've got an art book coming out. John Avon described this as "every artist's dream". Are you excited?
MV: I wouldn’t call it an artbook. In fact, I created this booklet because I couldn’t deal with selling prints anymore. At least for the time being. I had dozens of orders, everyone asking for different images. Sending images to printing, having them sent to me, signing them, then sending them again… I haven’t found the right way to disentangle myself from such situations without causing horrible delays, yet. So I decided I’d make this booklet, gathering some of my “bestsellers”. You can even decide to detach some of them : they have a white border to make it look nice in a frame. There is even a central poster of one of my “Hobbit” pieces.
I will have an artbook when a publishing house will decide to create one (which may be a tad complicated given most of my work is made under license, and they’re all different). Someday, I hope… John Avon is right: it IS an artist’s dream. I would love it.
Au: Sorry about the misunderstanding!
You've got a Game of Thrones calendar coming out next year. I'm a huge GoT fan and I think your art should make a great match! How did you get this assignment?
MV: Another most incredible moment. I painted many pieces for the wonderful “World of Ice and Fire” book by GRR Martin, Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson. Only a few weeks after it was finished, I “simply” received an email from Random House, asking if I was interested in the 2016 ASOIAF calendar. Later on I was told I had been chosen both by Random House and GRR Martin for this, as they had really liked my work on the WOIAF book. I felt so honoured, I can’t even describing it (you know, “why me syndrome” and all… ^^). I had a blast working on it. The release is getting close (July the 28th) and I’m both excited and nervous! As you are a fan, I hope you will like it, by the way!
Au: I'll pre-order a copy. :)
You've done some other work relating to GoT. For instance, I've seen a great-looking picture of Daenerys. Please tell us more about this!
MV: It was a promotional card I made for Fantasy Flight Games’ Living Card Game, and the second time I was painting Daenerys. The first time was not long after I started working for FFG, in 2010. I was a “baby illustrator” then. Besides, if you compare both versions, you can see… some progress, I think.
I went through this assignment as I did for “my” planeswalker. Daenerys Targaryen is just not any random character, is she?
Besides, I think she’s my most successful illustration so far (based on the fact that prints just FLY in cons!). Also I will always remember GRR Martin’s message my art director at FFG forwarded to me. He wrote “WOW”. Yes, in capital letters. Did you know an illustrator could DRINK to a “wow” written in capital letters ? Well, I did!
Au: Well, I can assure you that if I ever got a "WOW" from GRR Martin I would print it and frame it!
I read at your website that you're the author of the fantasy book series "La Dernière Terre". Unfortunately it seems that it hasn't found it's way to Sweden. Can you tell us a bit about your books?
MV: It’s only been published in France, that’s why. Besides, I decided to quit my publisher lately to get back to a more satisfying experience with my book series. On the bright side, the first two books got so many wonderful reviews, and gathered such a wonderful community. I feel very lucky and grateful for it.
Now I want to give self-publishing a try. I know how books are made, technically, as I’ve worked as I worked in the computer-assisted publication at some point. I can write (well, obviously ^^), me and my husband are professional illustrators so we can make our own covers (my husband made the first two published covers, actually). And through the years I met wonderful and skilled people who’d be willing to help me out with text revisions and all. So I’m going to self-publish a new edition of book one and two, with loads of exciting new stuff inside, and we’ll keep on writing the series peacefully, at my own pace. I have more than enough pressure with my real life illustration job, I won’t add a tad more with writing.
Oh, and it’s a dark-fantasy series! ^^
What a strange way to present a book, really!
Au: I think it sounds interesting anyway. Let's hope there'll be an English translation sometime in the future!
This fall we're off to the plane of Zendikar again. Will you be joining us?
MV: I will!
Au: That was precisely the answer I was hoping for! Thank you, Magali. See you among the hedrons!
Check out Magali's website at: http://www.magali-villeneuve.com/