Editor: Paulo de Tarso
Las Vegas – Rob Alexander had just graduated from art school, was in his late twenties and refused Jesper Myrfors’ insistent invitations to work on the design of a new type of game Wizards was developing. “I had other projects, in a magazine that I can’t remember the name anymore, and since I already had a bad experience with Wizards of the Coast, I thought it would be more annoying than something that would be worth it”, recalls the Canadian from Ontario. It was a friend of yours who spoke of the character of Jesper Myrfors, art director of the company. A straightforward, honest, trustworthy guy. “And you’ll like the project, you’ll like the product”. And on the next call, he joined the small team that squeezed into the basement at the home of Peter Adkinson (founder of Wizards) to develop Magic: The Gathering.
Even after four days of intense activity, Rob proved to be extremely friendly and helpful. As we walked in search of a reserved place for this interview, he commented that he lost count of how many cards he signed in Las Vegas. “There were thousands and thousands. I took boxes to the hotel and spent the night signing cards”. In a conversation that Rob himself defined as “really pleasing”, the artist spoke of his style, the use of technology in art and, of course, about Magic. This is an exclusive interview for Eternal Magic readers:
Fausto de Souza: Those who see your works, whether in Magic cards, on your website or anywhere else, immediately notice the care with the application of light in the arts. When did you realize that this feature should be the highlight in your style?
Rob Alexander: I think it was when I started studying art. It was not something conscious, planned. I just painted, saw what was necessary, important to me. I remember I was in a class, painting a still life, or some of the models posing in the room, when an instructor stopped behind me, looked over my shoulder and said, “It’s all about light for you, huh?” I told him he was right. I’ve always enjoyed working every aspect of it when I’m creating an image, but there’s also the rhythm, the light plays through the image, the shadows, the obscure objects, the drama involved in the piece of art. It’s all really very beautiful. I would compare my style to filmmaking directors who make black and white films.
There may be no colors, there were no sounds in the old days, but there was always light. And their ability to create the mood, the drama, to tell a story, even if it all boils down to a static frame, is the same thing that attracts me.
Looking back, I recall that my main influences are Northern European artists, mostly. Dutch, English, northern France, Nordic countries painters. I always cared about capturing the essence, the quality of light, and this type of painting was what always attracted me. So in history of art classes at university, I’ve always admired the drama, the intensity, the ability to create characters which you feel you can almost touch them. It has much to do with understanding the studies of light painting.
Fausto: Your work and understanding of the use of light made you one of the great artists of Magic. You have the same perception of Leonardo da Vinci, the same care with the light he had. When he painted Monalisa, he created three main focuses of light. Face, chest (to the left shoulder) and right hand. Everything in that picture is about light. If you recall the Renaissance, it seems that Da Vinci was trying to show the new human being born at that time, leaving behind all the obscurantism lived up to that period.
Rob: This is an insightful analysis. Leonardo is another one for whom I have a great admiration, and not just for his paintings. Someone has done a translation of his work, his scientific explanations, analysis, image creation, how light is affected by things in the real world and how things in the real world are affected by light, and it’s all very fascinating. So early in the career I was already aware of the direction my art should take.
Fausto: And do you think art has an objective for itself?
Rob: This has a lot to do with personal preferences, with each artist’s way of thinking. It is certainly a very powerful visual communication tool. It can be something simple and straightforward, it can tell a story, capture a moment. If we go back to the period when there were no cameras, it were works of art that showed an event, an occurrence. Today, major events have huge photographic coverage. The coronation of someone, deaths or births, or family portraits. Whoever did this was an artist. This work is no longer necessary, because photography has replaced art. This, on the other hand, made it possible for artists to start doing personal or social works. They could do anything they wanted. So it all boils down to what the artist wants to achieve.
In contemporary art we see everything, from painting what one likes, or what makes the artist feel good, even social and political art, trying to get the public’s attention to a certain subject… or I can simply make a Illustration for your t-shirt! It’s on the artist to decide for himself (the purpose of his art).
Personally, I really enjoy telling stories by pictures. I draw illustrations for my contemporaries. For example, concept art for movies, in which you definitely try to tell a narrative, to determine a placement of the characters in a scenario in space and time, and explore all these factors during the process.
Fausto: How do you see the changes that technology has brought to art? How do they apply to your routine?
Rob: I think in one hand, technology has changed so much that it made our work process much easier, much more accessible… but at the end of the day, whether doing art by hand or on the computer, or sculpture, or any other kind of art, you really have to understand the fundamental rules of art, of observation. That does’t change.
The technology also took away some of the artist’s individuality. Many people use the same programs to create digital art. This leads to a similarity, a repetition in the art aspect. In the end, many jobs are indistinguishable from one another. This minimizes the artist’s voice.
You have the technology, that drives your art a little bit, but you do not decide what is or is’t a nice illustration, or something technically correct. So the artist’s mind still determines what is done. We are still the final arbiter of what is being done. The computer made things quicker and easier, but it still doesn’t do the job for you. And this was always the case when there was new stuff in the process of creation and execution of art. It still takes understanding, the talent and the knowledge from the artist to make a beautiful work of art.
Fausto: Let’s talk a bit about Magic. How did it hapen? Did Jesper call you and said: “I got a card named [mtg_card]Taiga[/mtg_card], and you’ll have to illustrate it?”
Rob: I stepped into Wizards’ office, looked at the list of cards that still needed illustrations, and since I always liked landscapes and there were several available, I chose those that had an interesting name and the small descriptions attracted me. At the time, I didn’t know the distinction between basic and nonbasic land. I don’t even know if this concept was already solidified. But the descriptions of nonbasic lands were more interesting, more complex. Unlike [mtg_card]Swamp[/mtg_card], which was something very simple, [mtg_card]Underground Sea[/mtg_card], or Taiga, were much more attractive. And since I grew up in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, I knew exactly how a Taiga looked like. So I decided the cards I was going to paint: “Sounds fun. I’ll try”.
Fausto: About those first illustrations for Magic. These lands that all Legacy players love to play. Did you have any idea that they would become game icons, being so famous and powerful?
Rob: I had no idea at all. None of us had. At the beginning of the development phase of the game, the mechanics, the rules being written, it all happened at the same time and I didn’t know how the cards would be played, how they would be used. I did some paintings that were appealing to me, that I liked to paint. I would never imagine that 25 years later people would still be playing with them, liking them. They were images that I really enjoyed painting, which made me happy.
Fausto: There is a noticeable change in your style. When we compare an original dual land with, for example, a Ravnica [mtg_card]Temple Garden[/mtg_card], the difference is observable. In the first ones there is a cleaner landscape, and in the shock land there are many more elements in the art. What happened?
Rob: There is a bit of a change of style, yes, but it has more to do with being older, more mature, having developed other artistic skills. I am now able to handle much larger, more complicated compositions, and still make it work okay. The original dual lands were made in watercolor, while the shock lands were made in oil painting, so there is a different technical process, a different look. But most of the changes lie in the progress of my artistic skills over the years.
Fausto: There’s always a curiosity of everyone about the beginning of Magic, and you are one of the guys who started all this work. How was this beginning?
Rob: At first, Jesper contacted me a few times and I said no. I then packaged these projects and accepted them. After all, it’s better to work on some project that gives some money than not working at all. The structure was very small, there were some people in Peter Adkinson’s house basement, trying to create this game and hoping that somehow things would work out.
In the end, everything went well, the costs were paid, it was great, because everyone liked it. It is a case of a successful game, but at that time no one had the slightest clue that the game would become an instant success with all the passion and dedication of the players. Everything that happened was well above the most optimistic expectations of any of us.
Fausto: And to what do you attribute this instant success?
Rob: I think this is due to a combination of factors. The game itself was very interesting. You could understand the basic rules very quickly, but because of the nature of the game, no match would be the same as the other. All this because of the vast possibilities of strategy, the cards you draw… I don’t believe Magic was really the first competitive card game to be invented, but there was nothing like the game on the market at that time. And he fell in the grace of all.