An Interview with Magic: The Gathering Artist Howard Lyon

Thank you so much for joining us Howard, I know it’s early on your end.

That’s fine! Thanks for having me.

A fairly simple place to start: Do you play Magic yourself?

I play a little bit—casually, with my sons. They’re 18 and 16, and they’re much, much better at it than I am.

Does it sting extra hard to lose to a card you drew?

When I see my name come up in the corner of a card in my hand, I admit that I do get pretty excited. Losing to something I drew though actually softens the blow a little bit.

How did you start doing art for Magic?

That’s a good story, actually. I was at GenCon in 2006 to promote the art I did for a game I worked on called Wizmo’s Workshop and Mark Tedin was there for the same thing. I’d get maybe 5 or 10 people an hour coming up to get autographs from that, but Mark had this line of 50 people getting him to sign Magic cards.

I turned to him and asked, “So what’s this Magic thing?” He explained the game to me a little bit and said the art director, Jeremy Jarvis at the time, was actually at the convention too so he introduced me.

I showed Jeremy some of my stuff and he said, “You know what, I think you’d actually be a great fit for this set we have coming up called Lorwyn.” If you go back and look at Wizmo’s Workshop, there’s actually this forest level where you can see some similarities between the style I did for that and what I ended up doing for Vivid Grove in the set.

We took some questions from Twitter and Facebook, only 90% of which came from Mike Linneman.

Oh I know Mike—he’s a great guy.

He wanted to know what you’d do differently if you could talk to your 17-year old self as an artist?

I would be more diligent about sketching every day and drawing from life. I used to draw so much from my imagination. That was valuable, and it still is, but I wish I’d started earlier going out and drawing nature or doing portraits. I was never a great direct painter—that’s when you sit down and paint an entire piece in one sitting, like a portrait. I actually started a portrait night two years ago to force myself to practice more, and even in that time the difference has been tremendous in terms of my improvement. If I started that when I was 17, I’d be much further along in my technical skills than I am now.

Geoffrey Palmer, @livingcardsmtg and our new on-board graphic designer, was very excited when he heard that we’d be interviewing you. One of his first animations was Time Reversal. He wanted to know what makes you decide between doing art digitally or as an oil painting?

That’s an interesting one, actually. A lot of it is scheduling—I’m much faster at digital painting than I am with oils. I’d say that about 6 of the Magic art pieces I’ve done have been oils, and that’s out of 120 or so.


The thing is, I love painting with oils. I enjoy oils more and over time. I’ve found that I’ve lost the love a little bit for doing digital art. I’m getting better with oils and I’m getting faster, and nowadays I’ll do some pieces on oil that I would’ve shied away from in the past.

The other thing, and this is kind of funny, is that oil paintings are big collector’s items.

I remember, you sold Nissa, Steward of Elements right before it was on display at the GP Vegas art show.

That’s right. That piece sold for around $17,000. So when there’s an incentive of that scale on the table, it’s definitely another bonus for oil painting. I do genuinely enjoy it more as well, though.

In terms of the Magic art scene, are there any artists currently on the roster that inspire you?

Chris Rahn is one that stands out to me for sure. I love everything he does. I’ll look at one of his pieces, I’ll stare at it, and I’ll think to myself, “there’s absolutely nothing I’d change about that.”

Lucas Graciano is doing really wonderful work at the moment too, but honestly there are too many good artists to name. I think the artists that work on Magic are some of the best fantasy artists there have ever been. Every time I see something one of these people puts out I think, “Well, that’s it. There’s no way I’m getting a call next time if there’s people like this on the roster,” but they’ve kept me since 2007 so I’m doing okay so far. I’m actually working on a Magic card today.

Can you tell us what it is?


Will you tell us what it was when the card comes out?


A common question we got, from Sasha Rowley among others, was which of the pieces you’ve done is your favorite? I know that’s a hard one.

It is a hard one, but I actually do have an answer for it. Angel of Flight Alabaster. I love the Innistrad setting, I love everything about it, and getting to paint some Angels in that world was a real plus. The card actually happens to be a painting of my daughter, which was very fun to do, and I think it’s easily one of my best works.

Are there other cards that contain aspects of your personal life?

Oh for sure. I’ve painted my kids and my wife in quite a few pieces, both from Dungeons and Dragons and from Magic. My wife has probably been in 20 or so cards, and my daughter in another dozen. If you ever see a redheaded angel in any of my art, that’s my daughter. She doesn’t actually have red hair, funnily enough, though her mother does.

My daughter also modeled the Nissa I did for Amonkhet.

Presumably you just had to put Nissa’s face onto it?

Well yeah, but Nissa actually looks quite a bit like my daughter.

Mike Linneman, again, asks what the difference is between good angel paintings and great angel paintings?

(Laughs) Well, if I knew that I’d probably only paint great ones. I think angels are compelling in art when, at least for me, they’re active, either emotionally or physically. There are a lot of angels in Renaissance art where they’re static—they’re almost used as decoration. Part of what makes something like Angel of Flight Alabaster work for me is the lament, the emotion. Here you have this celestial being, and there’s power there—some knowledge, some sort of omniscience. But she’s still experiencing a very human emotion, in this case sorrow. That makes it much more interesting to me.

Is that what inspires your art? Paul Steffens asked, specifically.

I enjoy painting things that are beautiful and in some way uplifting. With Magic, the uplifting part isn’t always possible, but even if a card is gruesome or dark I try to see it in a beautiful way.

I’m the same in the art that I enjoy. Throughout history I’ve loved artists that idealize things and make them extraordinary. If you look at Bernini’s work, something like Apollo and Daphne, it’s depicting something violent. Apollo is essentially assaulting her, but when you stand in front of it you can’t help but be in awe of it—it’s remarkable.

Seeing beauty in something so dark is almost like a spiritual experience for me. These artists create something that transcends the mundane. With all the darkness in the world and all the evil that’s out there, looking at something like this and seeing that a man—an animal—could craft something that makes me feel like this gives me great hope.

You do quite a lot of religious art outside of Magic. Are these two sides of your portfolio ever at odds with each other? Are people turned off by Magic’s depiction of demons and things like that?

That’s never really been an issue for me—it’s a fantasy. The art I do for Magic is a celebration of imagination and joy, and those are both Godly attributes as far as I’m concerned. Even if you’re painting things with dragons or something like that, it’s a fantasy. I don’t believe in creatures with horns and wings that torment mankind, and I think that exercising your imagination is part of what I am here to do.

I have had people message me about that stuff, but it is rare. I do occasionally get, “how can you paint a picture of Jesus and also a topless mermaid?” but I’d say in over the last 10 years that it’s been maybe 3 or 4 emails. Much more often I’ll get someone who comes up to me at a GP and asks, “Hey did you bring any of your Jesus art?”

Do they really phrase it like that?

Every time. Usually they want it for their mom or something like that, so I’ve started bringing some of those prints to events occasionally too.

What’s your favorite thing about attending events and meeting fans?

I really do love meeting the people. I don’t do a lot of GPs. I’ve done maybe 8 up until now though and I’m starting to see regulars. I’ll see people and I’ll say, “Oh we met in Denver” or “I remember you from Louisville!” I’m amazed by the camaraderie, by the support—fans will bring me cards they think I’ll enjoy, or they’ll show me drawings they’ve done. Magic has far and above the best fan base for any license that I’ve worked on.

Someone even showed me a doll of Angel of Flight Alabaster.

What really? Do you have a picture?


That’s amazing. That’s seriously amazing.

I know! It’s so fun to see stuff like that.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve been asked to sketch?

You’d be surprised—some people are very specific. They’ll ask me to do a panda holding a burrito on a surfboard, and I’ll look confused. Then they’ll open up their binder and show me how they have 200 sketches on artist proofs of other artists doing the same drawing. Getting to be a part of something like that—something so incredibly unique, is really special.

This last one is especially important. Tyler Bodie on Facebook wanted to know, “What’s the name of the cat in Harmless Offering?”

I get asked this more than you would believe. So much so that I actually had to come up with a name for him. I call him Chompy Nethers.

I should stress, and this is for Wizards, that the name is by no means canon.

It’s what I call him though.

Howard Lyon will be at Grand Prix Phoenix on October 27th–29th, along with several other of Magic’s greatest artists. Register now at www.gpphx.com and make sure you get a panda holding a burrito on a surfboard sketch.


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