Compulsive Research – The One-Hit Wonders Of Magic Illustration

There are a huge number of one-hit illustrations in Magic. Where did these one-time artists go? John Dale Beety gives you a fun look at these unique art pieces.

[Reporting to you from an undisclosed location…

A scribe for Planeswalker TV’s Vorthos Division wrote these notes for a planned episode of One-Hit Wonders, the show that gives middle-aged B-list planeswalkers like Ajani “The Lion” Goldmane and Chandra “The Chartooth Cougar” Nalaar an extension on their fifteen minutes of fame. The episode was to be about “one-hit wonders of Magic illustration,” artists whose work appeared on exactly one Magic card, but it was cancelled when the program notes disappeared. So how did I acquire them? I have my ways. Begin transmission… – JDB]

Planeswalker TV Studios, PTV Pocket Plane, 4613 AR


Project Notes for One Hit-Wonders: Artists

How do one-hit wonders happen among Magic illustrators?

There are several possible reasons for an artist to have only one Magic illustration credit. Among them:

1) The art director sees a single amazing illustration from outside the stable of Magic artists and acquires it, later putting it to use on an appropriate card.

2) An artist given a trial run by the art director (usually one to three pieces) has only one illustration accepted and isn’t called upon for further work.

3) Special circumstances such as You Make the Card, Un-sets, and Future Sight.

4) An artist’s first assignment coincides with a major life change and the artist does not continue illustrating for Magic.

Rankings for One-Hit Wonders: Artists

Who qualifies as a one-hit wonder?

To qualify for this list, an artist has to have had exactly one Magic illustration appear on exactly one Magic card. Pseudonyms don’t count (sorry, Robert “Chengo McFlingers” Bliss). Multiple illustrations on a card of the same name don’t count, either, so J.W. Frost (Starter 1999 Island), Diana Vick (Reinforcements), Ji Yong (Portal Three Kingdoms Forest), and Qin Jun (Portal Three Kingdoms Mountain) are out. Promo cards are also disqualifiers, which eliminates Ariel Olivetti (regular Knotvine Mystic and promo Burning Wish), Bud Cook (regular Spellweaver Volute and promo Thirst for Knowledge), and Ted Galaday (regular Fiery Hellhound and FNM foil Sakura-Tribe Elder). Even token cards are enough to boot an artist from the list (alas, Andrew Murray, your Thopter token kept you from bowing with Courier’s Capsule). [I totally would’ve counted Andrew. — JDB]

That leaves 27 “one-hit wonders” of Magic art, though three of them may not stay on the list for long…

“25.” Ironbrush – Syphon Flesh; Slawomir Maniak – Flametongue Kavu; Yeong-Hao Han – Minds Aglow

I’ve grouped these three together because it wouldn’t surprise me if they dropped out of the list soon. All three of these artists made their debuts in Commander, with Polish illustrator Maniak reinterpreting Flametongue Kavu, Korean genius Ironbrush (aka Keun-Chul Jang) getting original with Syphon Flesh, and Californian Yeong-Hao Han also illustrating a new card, Minds Aglow.

Calling these three “one-hit wonders” is premature. Sure, you could be right… or you could be left eating crow. Any or all of the illustrators in this trio could wind up permanent members of the list, but I wouldn’t bet on it. [I’d like to see more of Ironbrush in particular. — JDB]

24. Mark RosewaterLook at Me, I’m the DCI

With this joke illustration from Unglued, Mark showed why he should stick to making Magic (and writing his column, Making Magic). The stick-figure art might’ve been more appropriate for Unhinged; that set’s lack of a card with flavor text “Worst. Art. Ever.” is rather sad.

23. Cris Dornaus – Bee Sting (Portal Second Age)

“Skeleton Girl” Cris Dornaus is better known for her illustration art printed on Legend of the Five Rings, Warlord, 7th Sea, and related games. She’s also done some Dungeons & Dragons illustration. That said, her one Magic illustration was a humorous “goblin-getting-stung-by-bees” image, trying to follow up Phil Foglio’s “human-getting-stung-by-bees” take on Bee Sting. Sorry, Cris, but nobody’s going to win that battle.

22. Sean McConnell – Hickory Woodlot

I haven’t been able to track down Sean McConnell with any certainty. (My best guess is a muralist working out of Austin who’s now doing stuff like this—best bedroom ever.)

Without knowing the background of this illustration, it’s hard to say whether the art or the card it’s printed on is “off,” but a stump with an ax stuck in it doesn’t exactly scream “landscape,” and the whole composition is dark for a card that produces green mana. Not to mention, without leaves in the composition, it’s hard to tell if that’s even a hickory stump…

21. Darbury Stenderu – Coils of the Medusa

Like another one-hit wonder later in the rankings, Darbury Stenderu has a Pacific Northwest connection. Around the turn of the century, according to this Seattle Weekly article, her fashion business was thriving, though I’ve heard reports she’s since retired from full-time textile work and shuttered her stores. (She married client Krist Novoselic of Nirvana fame in 2004.) [It’s been more than twenty years since “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was recorded. Better provide clarification for the young’uns. — JDB]

As for Coils of the Medusa, it shows an undeniable influence from fashion illustration, but fashion art isn’t fantasy art, and the piece comes across as a misfit. It’s by no means the worst one-hit wonder on the list, but it’s hard to rank her illustration any higher.

20. Jacques Bredy – Ruby Leech

I’ll give it to him: he has talent for sculpture and illustration, if not a knack for avoiding annoying sound effects on his Symbiosis Studio Web site. Unfortunately for his one-off Magic: The Gathering appearance, his Ruby Leech is lackluster—though the edited form that appeared on the card is perhaps less interesting than the original, which has a silhouetted fighter in the foreground.

19. Fred Rahmqvist – Keep Watch

Pity the illustrators assigned Cephalid artwork in the Odyssey-Onslaught days; even John Avon couldn’t make Cephalids interesting. Fred (short for Fredrik) Rahmqvist fell victim to the Cephalids with sole appearance Keep Watch, which seems a poor match for the talents he shows in his gallery. Off day or off assignment? Either way, it lands him in this mediocre spot.

18. Daniel R. Horne – Flailing Ogre

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Daniel R. Horne made a name for himself with role-playing game art, creating covers for several Dungeons & Dragons modules among other work. Sadly, his lone Magic appearance has little of the excitement of his 1980s art and is best described as forgettable: a forgettable illustration on a forgettable card in a forgettable set. [I’ve seen his module artwork and it’s amazing. I have no idea what happened with this one. — JDB]

17. Lou Harrison – Flint Golem

Lou Harrison’s gallery biography notes that the Colombian-born artist with Marvel comic cover credits “has a passion for the human physique” and admires bodybuilders. This is reflected in his Sub-Mariner cover, not to mention the art of Flint Golem, which redefines “chiseled body.” This piece feels like a one-off artist director purchase rather than a commission; I suspect that the “golem” was painted as a human, because golems usually don’t wear pants.

16. Paul Chadwick – Fathom Trawl

This Eisner and Harvey Award-winning comic book artist is awesome, and here’s the Concrete proof. [Very punny. — JDB] Said awesomeness makes it all the more puzzling why I don’t enjoy the art for Fathom Trawl as much as I feel I should. The technical execution is what I expect from a master like him, but I just don’t feel any resonance. I’d have a better connection if the Merfolk had its face turned to me.

15. Kunio Hagio – Impatience (7th Edition)

Broadly speaking, Kunio Hagio is a “media artist” who has contributed illustrations to music and film projects (think Raging Bull) as well as magazines such as Playboy. While the Japanese-American artist has more mainstream recognition than the typical one-hit Magic wonder, odd details like the utter blankness of the sky background leave this illustration in the middle of the pack.

14. Ian Edward Ameling – Torrent of Souls

My best description of the art in this gent’s online portfolio is “mildly cartoonish, boldly unsettling.” Little pink winged souls riding a doomed spiral down into a hellish void? Sounds about right for an artist whose most prominent credits include Diablo III and short-lived Wizards of the Coast game Hecatomb.

I suspect (but have not been able to confirm) that this single Magic illustration originally was created for Hecatomb; while he does not list work on Magic in his résumé, he does note illustrations for the unreleased fourth set of Hecatomb. The art for that Hecatomb expansion would’ve been bought and paid for despite the product’s cancellation, so it only makes sense that the Magic art director could’ve treated the unreleased Hecatomb art as a “slush pile” and chosen this single Ameling illustration for Shadowmoor.

13. Rebekah Lynn – Vanish into Memory

Rebekah Lynn (Osorio) won the “You Make the Card 3” art vote in a landslide, thanks to an illustration that made an emotional connection where the rest failed. (In distant second place was an abstract piece that, while more polished, was less resonant.) [Hey, I voted for that one! — JDB] Around the time her art was chosen for Coldsnap, Rebekah Lynn also illustrated a series of nine Xena trading cards. More recently, she has shifted to 3D modeling. She’s still young, and maybe in a few years’ time, her career will circle back around to Magic.

12. Craig Hooper – Dragon Mask

Mark Rosewater tells the story better than I could (having been there), but here’s the short version: Craig Hooper was art director and an illustrator for the Netrunner Collectible Card Game, a Richard Garfield creation printed by Wizards of the Coast. From that position, he convinced Magic’s art director to give him a one-painting Magic commission. The Magic art director, Sue Ann Harkey, dealt him a plum assignment for Mirage: a dragon. The painting came back, though, as just a dragon’s head, and Mark Rosewater and the rest of Research and Development nixed it. Sue Ann Harkey, not wanting to go back on her word, insisted that the illustration see print, and so the Visions card Dragon Mask was created as a vehicle for the art.

11. Alton Lawson – Verduran Emissary

The only kidney dialysis technician on the list, he has described himself as a “sometimes paid artist.” Around the time of his lone Magic credit, Verduran Emissary, he also contributed interior art to the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Epic Level Handbook. As for Verduran Emissary itself, the art looks better at card size than with larger dimensions. It’s clear from his comments that he’s humble about his abilities and was thrilled to place an illustration on a Magic card, and his elvish strongwoman takes him to the cusp of the top ten.

10. Ron Lemen – Farewell to Arms

On most cards in Un-sets, the art is as in on the joke as the rest of the card, but Ron Lemen’s art on Farewell to Arms plays it straight enough that it could’ve been used in a regular set. He has a strong background in anatomy, and in his case, those who can, do and teach—the former with illustrations for Dungeons & Dragons and the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game among others, and the latter at the Studio 2nd Street gallery that he runs with his spouse Vanessa. That sharpness on anatomy pays off, even (especially?) when parts thereof are falling off and making a splash.

9. Michael Whelan – Nalathni Dragon

Michael Whelan’s entry in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame speaks to his incredible talent more eloquently than I can. He made his name with book covers (think Stephen King’s The Dark Tower and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern) and has established himself as a fine artist, but he crossed paths with Magic with the Nalathni Dragon promotional card, given away at Dragon*Con 1994 (see this Magic Arcana for more details). The art may be a minor work from the master of dragons, but even a minor work of his puts him in the top ten.

8. Omaha Perez – Solfatara

This abstract landscape of sulfur and brimstone comes as a surprise to viewers more familiar with the comics work of Omaha Perez. As a browse through his Drude Studios page reveals, though, he’s a multitalented artist. Though Solfatara came earlier in his career, it’s a distinctively rendered piece that drew me to it the first time I saw it.

7. James Ernest – Reality Twist

James Ernest, jack-of-all-trades and master of several, is best known as the game-designer genius behind Kill Doctor Lucky and other Cheapass Games products loved by the college-and-older geek set. Before he was an independent game guru, he worked for Wizards of the Coast. I sent him an e-mail, and he was generous with his response. Here’s some of what he had to say:

“In those days I was a freelance artist as well as a fledgling game designer. Jesper [Myrfors, the first Magic art director] asked me to do several pieces in Ice Age, which was originally scheduled to be the first expansion. I stupidly said yes to just one piece, which was Reality Twist. I wish I’d done more. That expansion actually took a while to get into the schedule, and by the time the opportunity for more art came up, I just wasn’t as good as their growing stable of artists.”

His comments on the art itself: “Reality Twist depicts a twisted game board floating in space, with people falling off one side, and chess pieces falling off the other. It’s a reference to my own game Tishai, which was part of a fantasy novel I worked on in high school, in which a chess-like game becomes interwoven with events in the real world. I never finished the novel, but I did finish the game, and it was one of the first few games I released through Cheapass Games. [Tishai is now available in a free version. If you like it, donate! — JDB] … The chess board in Reality Twist also illustrates the effect of the card: white squares are opposite red squares and black squares are opposite green squares, reflecting the flop-flopping of those colors of mana. Too bad it wasn’t a very powerful card, but I suppose it has some value in being the only piece of Magic art I ever drew.”

Hmm. How did he know I was writing for One-Hit Wonders? Maybe my office is bugged. [It’s worse than that. — JDB] I was going to rank him tenth, but I can’t put him any lower than seventh on the list now!

6. Kristen Bishop – War Elephant

I haven’t been able to track down the correct Kristen Bishop, but her War Elephant made a (not-foot-shaped) impression on me. The elephant, slightly stylized, is set against an abstract background reminiscent of a Mark Rothko painting. Tiny tufts of grass at the elephant’s feet are the most realistic element. The whole composition evokes the right mood, and paired with the memorable proverb from the Kikuyu, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers,” the card takes the viewer to a distant place—not the world of Arabian Nights, but Kenya.

5. Thomas Manning – Elvish House Party

As an Unhinged uncommon, this is one of the more obscure cards on the list, but the illustration combines knowing humor with excellent technique. The background is just as funny as the foreground without being too cramped or busy. As an illustrator, Thomas Manning’s work is better-represented in games such as Legend of the Five Rings and Warlord. It is Magic’s loss that he will remain a one-hit wonder for the game; he passed away early in 2008. Examples of his art can be found at this MySpace memorial page.

4. Esad Ribic – Boldwyr Intimidator (Future Sight version)

The warning was clear: not every future in Future Sight would come to pass, and some of the artists in Future Sight wouldn’t be part of its long-term future.

Still, putting a single piece of Esad Ribic art in the set was a cruel, cruel tease. The Marvel Comics maven really delivered with his initial take on the Intimidator, and the Morningtide version just reinforces how awesome Ribic’s art is. (Sorry, Christopher Moeller!) Read Matt Cavotta gushing over the art, and you’ll know it’s true: real men paint in pink. And aqua.

3. Fay Jones – Stasis

The original one-hit wonder of Magic, Fay Jones falls under the “special occasions” category of single-illustration creators. The Pacific Northwest fine artist, represented by the Laura Russo Gallery, contributed Stasis as a favor to a younger relation: Richard Garfield. The sweet-and-awesome story of the Stasis artwork is best told by Ben Marks of Collectors Weekly in “A Life of Cards, From Bridge to Magic.”

Stasis has some of the most polarizing art in Magic, but those who love it tend to elevate it above all. I may be in the “love it” camp, but there are two one-hit wonders I love even more…

2. Jeff Reitz – Fireslinger

Jeff Reitz has had a varied career. His online portfolio contains examples of his oil paintings for the Middle-Earth Collectible Card Game and more obscure games such as Battlelords and 7th Sea, but not his lone bow for Magic, Tempest’s Fireslinger. He spent several years teaching aspiring comic artists while studying under Frank Frazetta, but his résumé suggests a move toward digital art and design. His current style is nowhere close to the current Magic aesthetic. This is neither good nor bad, merely a fact.

Yet for one painting, Jeff Reitz and Magic made a beautiful connection. His stern and ruddy fire-sorcerer is strikingly composed and richly evocative. By all rights, this illustration shouldn’t work: the spider is four-legged (note the spider-web in the background), the Fireslinger is not slinging fire but an unidentified red energy, and the figure is far too imposing for a 1/1 creature. Context works against the art for Fireslinger.

Context isn’t enough to keep it out of the second spot, though, and it isn’t context that blocked it from taking the crown…

…but this is.

1. Jen Page – Crown of Convergence

Jen Page is awesome. Her Magic Dossier points to her role as Senior Visual Designer for Wizards of the Coast, as does her résumé. If you’ve ever been to the wizards.com site, you’ve benefited from her expertise, and if you visit another piece of her handiwork, the Ravnica Orb of Insight (yes, it’s still up), you’ll see her animation in action. Type in the word “Page,” the result you’ll get is “1.”

That’s “1” for the one Magic illustration she created and the number one one-hit wonder of Magic illustration.

The art as it appears on Crown of Convergence is amazing, and it looks even better in the large-format wallpaper on the Wizards site. The intricate details of the crown held in slender fingers, the haunting Elvish eyes in a face crowned with leaves and framed by barely visible pointed ears, and the light-dark contrast of beam and foliage come together in a stunning composition. It’s utterly unlike her freelance book cover illustrations, but like the best of those, it is utterly compelling.

A Crown of Convergence was in my first booster pack of Ravnica; I started at the back of the pack and stopped there, the commons and uncommons utterly forgotten. Few pieces of card art have held that much power over me, and no other one-hit wonders.

I’m sure events at Wizards have conspired to leave Jen Page a one-hit wonder of Magic illustration so far. She is a manager with plenty of projects on her plate and more to delegate. I get that. I also see incredible gifts that shouldn’t exist only in pixels and should reach Magic players who never play beyond their kitchen tables. Jeremy Jarvis needs to find an art slot and she needs to find the time, because it would be a Vorthosian crime if she stayed at the pinnacle of Magic’s one-hit wonders.

[The notes end there. I went through a lot of trouble to get them, but they turned out to be worthwhile. Some Planeswalker TV goons have tracked me down, but I’m not worried. I snagged an Arcane Lock scroll from a Dungeons & Dragons investigative reporter friend and used it on the door to my hideout. They aren’t getting in… wait, someone just started a Knock ritual. I’m out of here. As always, thanks for reading. — JDB]