Artist Spotlight: Interview With Terese Nielsen

Few names are as recognizable in the Magic art world as Terese Nielsen. To learn more about what the game has meant for her, Josh Krause asked her a few questions.

Few names are as recognizable in the Magic art world as Terese Nielsen. Starting her career in Alliances, Terese has been a constant influence in the world of Magic, even providing the modeling for cards such as Force of Will and Fact or Fiction. To say that she has proven her art instructor wrong, showing that a woman can succeed in the world of illustration, is an understatement. With over twenty years of industry success and seventeen Spectrum recognitions, Terese has been able to apply her talents to the benefit of many, especially Magic fans and collectors.

In an effort to learn more about her history and what the game has meant for her, I reached out to Terese and asked her a few questions.

Terese Nielsen

Terese, you have built an amazing body of work for the game of Magic: The Gathering. Can you tell us how it all started? If Force of Will was your first assignment, how did you get that assignment?

Pure luck. 🙂 Actually, right out of art school I started my career in comics and super hero trading cards, which were the hot thing at the time. The person who was the art director for Magic at that time was familiar with the comic book field and saw my work there. She called me up (we used phones back then) and asked if I’d be interested in doing art for the game. Obviously, I said yes.

Even though Force of Will was published in Alliances, you revealed on your blog that the art was actually done in 1993 (with quite an interesting story—make sure to check it out). Since your brother, Ron Spencer, had art that appeared in Alpha, did you both actually start doing art for the game at the same time?

I need to double-check the date in my story. If I put 1993, then it was an error. I painted Force of Will and the other images in Alliances in 1995. I had the opportunity to illustrate for Magic earlier. However, I (sadly) declined doing work for the first sets because the pay was very minimal with only a promise of a hope to make more with the phrase “If it does well, you’ll get royalties”. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time that promise always equals zero. This was the one percent that actually had fantastic returns… One of those in retrospect coulda, woulda, shoulda decisions.

Since you provided the model for the character in Force of Will, did you have to model again for Ron when he created Hammer of Bogardan?

Haha! Of course. My likeness is unmistakable in Ron’s piece.

Wolverine FoW

Both you and your brother have been involved in making art for the game since the beginning. Since your blog hints that you have a competitive streak, did you ever compete with him while illustrating for the game? If so, what pieces would you say were the result of the competition and who won?

Ha! Ron’s my older brother. He always wins. Rather than compete, I prefer to lure him into collaborations. He’s a creative genius, and it’s far more rewarding.

Have you two collaborated on any Magic pieces? If so, which ones?

Yes, quite a few! Many times I brainstorm with him; sometimes he does the rough sketch and I paint the final, and sometimes we both sketch and he paints them.

Pieces we brainstormed over the phone on: Force of Will; Sealed Fate.

Pieces he did the rough design and idea sketches for: Bogardan Firefiend; Immerwolf; Thromok the Insatiable.

Pieces we both sketched portions of and he completed the final paintings: Mana Reflection; Thought Reflection; Boon Reflection; Wound Reflection; Rage Reflection.

Did Wizards ever offer you both a single piece to work on together?

No. I was assigned the work and roped him into helping me. 🙂

On your blog, you talk about your appreciation of psychology and your penchant for getting inside people’s heads. Having illustrated for Magic since the beginning, can you give us some insight into how you did this with the Art Directors?

Of course. You simply toss back shots of tequila with them and end it with a Vulcan mind meld.

With earlier works done in gouache, eventually switching to watercolors on a Xeroxed sketch, you obviously have worked in many physical media. Which has been your favorite and which piece of yours would you say is your best work using that medium?

Most of the work I created during my last year in art school (which were the images I used in my portfolio to get work) were in gouache. I then slid into using acrylic with colored pencil and later added oil on top of that, which is generally how I work now. Sometimes I still paint a piece that is almost entirely acrylic, but generally it’s a combination. Having illustrated over 150+ Magic cards, it’s tough for me to narrow that many down to one. I have quite a few favorites: Moonsprite, Stream of Life, Silverskin Armor, Swords to Plowshares, Basandra Battle Seraph, Descendants’ Path, and the new Hanna, Ship’s Navigator piece.

Hanna Ships Navigator by Terese Nielsen

Many artists in commercial illustration are switching to digital media to meet the tight deadlines and heavy workload required to be successful in the industry. Have you ever done any digital work for your Magic pieces?

Occasionally, I’ll scan in my sketch and add textural elements to some areas and then print that out and paint over the top of that. Currently, that’s about as digital as I go. I enjoy the physicality of an actual painting for the final product.

What are your thoughts on this change in the industry? With more and more artists going to 100% digital production, how do you think that will impact those that stick to traditional methods?

There’s no debating the fact that it’s faster, and that is a consideration an illustrator must always examine when creating work with the intention to make a living at it. Undoubtedly, with digital art being the pervasive medium within Magic art now, the overall “look” of the Magic brand is extremely cohesive. A decade ago, I “personally” enjoyed seeing much more stylistic diversity, which naturally emanates (or maybe we’ll say is more exaggerated) when utilizing various traditional mediums. Ultimately, though, the parameters of the visual look and stylistic progression are in the hands of the brand managers and creative directors. Time will tell. We may all be assimilated.

Illustrating over 150 cards, you have obviously made great additions to the art of the game. Can you go into some of the ways the game has been a benefit to yourself and your work?

Magic has been a boon to my career for almost two decades now, offering me a constant stream of diverse and exciting assignments. With the hugely successful game comes an instant worldwide fan base of amazing people. It’s allowed me to travel the world, seeing awesome things and meeting fantastic people. Kudos to Wizards of the Coast for creating and maintaining a phenomenal product. It continues to be an honor to be part of the whole Magic world.

Is Force of Will the most requested signature at the Magic events you attend?

Yes, by far.

Djinn FoW

You have recently partnered up with StarCityGames.com to release a limited set of prints of some of your most recognizable images. How has the reception been by the fans?

Yes, it seems great so far. Every week I receive some in the mail from collectors that would like me to sign them. The large format size is really stunning.

Can you give us any hints on future additions to the SCG partnership? Maybe the Guru lands?

The Guru lands would be my personal next choice. I’ve had many message me wondering if those might be next. We’ll see. Message me or StarCityGames.com if you have an opinion. We’d like to hear them.

A few years ago you started doing custom alterations of Force of Wills and have since expanded that by teaming up with your brother to offer even more amazing alters. What would you say has been the oddest alteration request to date?

Porn stars maybe…which oddly, I’m not really up on. That particular idea didn’t really light my fire, so I politely declined. 🙂 Speaking of porn stars, I guess being asked to put Homer Simpson in a compromising position on a Serra’s Embrace also fell into the silly/odd category.

Homer SE

Has anyone asked for a sketch or signature on a body part yet?

At Magic events thus far, only arms. Xena conventions were a little racier.

Even though your collection of art from the game spans almost the entire history, your style has been consistently excellent and improved in detail and complexity. What would you say has been the driving force in your growth as an artist?

I’d say the driving force in growing is putting the hours in. You can’t help but learn, evolve, and experiment with new things in painting after painting year after year. The driving force is the daily desire to create coupled with the daily requirement to pay bills.

For anyone looking to get into commercial illustration, what would say has been the key to establishing, maintaining, and growing your style? What would you suggest any budding illustrator to focus on to ensure them the best chance for success in the industry?

Draw, draw, draw, paint, paint, paint. Always continue learning. Take classes, read books, draw from life. Take an immense amount of figure drawing and head drawing classes. One can never be too proficient in that. Develop your skills to a professional level and then make sure you get out there and network and be seen. Go to key conventions and gatherings and meet with art directors and industry professionals. That’s by far the best way to get a foot in the door.

While you have a few of your original pieces listed for sale on your website, are there any pieces from the game that you have kept in a personal collection? Do you have any Magic art from other artists?

Hmmmm… Because creating art and selling it is my income, there are very few Magic pieces I’ve kept. I think the only two are Stream of Life and Samite Elder. In the early days, many of us artists would trade pieces with each other. I have works from Mark Zug, Scott Fischer, Ben Thompson, rk post, Tom Baxa, John Matson, and others.

Are any of those pieces Magic art? If so, which ones? Inquiring minds want to know.

Ben Thompson’s “Dega Sanctuary” and a MTG calendar piece by John Matson.

EntertheInfinite Sketch by Terese Nielsen

Do you have any upcoming projects that you want to tell your fans about?

There are of course more Magic pieces coming out that I’m excited about. Aside from that, I am partitioning time (finally) for some personal paintings that I’ve wanted to create for many years. This is the year that some of those will come to fruition. Stay tuned for more on that. I’m also in discussions about creating an art book of my work. I anticipate that coming together. If anyone wants to keep up-to-date on what I’m working on please like my page The Art of Terese Nielsen on Facebook. I enjoy staying in touch with everyone there.

It may be a bit early in the year to ask, but do you know if you will be attending Gen Con this year to celebrate the 20th anniversary or any other conventions or Magic events?

As for this year’s Gen Con, I have a big family reunion that I’m attending which is the same time as Gen Con. Regarding other events, it’s a bit early to have my whole year planned out yet. I’m easing back into signings and traveling again. There’s a Magic event in Kansas City in early July that I’m officially a guest at, and I’m in talks with people about a couple others but haven’t nailed those down yet. I’m considering Gen Con, possibly Spectrum Live, and/or IlluXCon in 2014. We’ll see.