Tuesday, April 21, 2015

an interview with sue ann harkey, magic's greatest art director

Who’s your favorite Magic artist?

A popular answer is Terese Nielsen. From early works like Natural Order to newer ones like Enter the Infinite, her work is breathtaking. Maybe you like Rebecca Guay’s unmistakable watercolors, or John Avon’s innumerable landscapes. Kev Walker has illustrated more Magic art than anyone, and picked up a lot of fans along the way. Or perhaps you have a more alternative favorite, someone that goes against the grain, like Robert Bliss, Chippy, or Scott M Fischer.

Those artists all have something in common: they were recruited to Magic by the greatest art director in Magic’s history, Sue Ann Harkey. She only held that position for six total sets (Alliances, Mirage, Visions, Weatherlight, Portal, and Fifth Edition), but her importance can’t be overstated.

Coming from a background designing magazines, Wizards hired her as a graphic designer. She’s quick to credit Maria Cabardo, who was working in art direction at the time. They had something in common: they “shared a vision of accelerating the quality of the art,” in Harkey’s words. Cabardo promoted her to art director during development of Alliances. The change in art from early Magic was noticeable almost immediately.

The previous art director, Jesper Myrfors, is known to Magic players for his numerous paintings in Magic’s early sets. But he was even more important behind the scenes. “Jesper and all his friends were illustrating these cards, the first three releases. As the game gained an immense popularity, the company grew so much. And then for reasons I don’t know, Jesper decided to leave. It was kind of open, the creative direction.”

At the time, there wasn’t a clean separation between roles: someone who worked for Wizards might, as Jesper did, dabble in painting, art direction, card design, and what we’d think of now as “creative.” With Jesper gone, that left Harkey and Cabardo to decide the future of Magic’s art and storyline.

“Maria came from a comic background, and she had already made relationships with these really amazing comic artists. What we wanted to do was get the best artists in the industry at the time, because we had really big budgets.”

But there was a catch: the earlier model of commissioning Magic art had to change. “The earlier artists were getting royalties when Magic was at its height. When we started art directing, it turned to work for hire. So all the illustrations were copyright, owned by Wizards of the Coast.”

Magic’s unprecedented success made those original artists money. A lot of money. Now that Wizards knew that sets could go into print runs up to 500 million cards, paying royalties per card printed was unacceptable. They had to buy the works for an up-front fee, and the original artists weren’t too happy about that, among other things.

“The biggest thing they freaked out about was dropping the royalties. I was in the position to represent the company in that respect. I was the messenger. I was fine with that. I was the bad guy. I took on that role.” She drafted the contract that all artists would get.

While it didn’t sit well with the original artists, paying up-front for art had benefits. “I commissioned way more than a million dollars worth of art. And I still came more than 20% under budget, because of the way that we structured it.”

She detailed how the new model worked: “we can do 150 cards at 1000 each, we can do 150 cards at 800, we can do 150 cards at [300 or 400], for beginning artists.”

This let Magic art change from its early, nepotistic phase into an era when Wizards was continuously hunting for up-and-coming talent.

“There was a lot of art scouting. We’d go to the comic conventions, art conventions, and we’d look at portfolios. And that’s how we got new talent, while we were also courting existing high-end, known artists.”

Between Cabardo’s contacts in the comics world, and Harkey’s continuous scouting, they introduced tons of artists new to Magic. Then husband-and-wife Terese and Cliff Nielsen, at the time collaborative comics artists, produced wonderful pieces for Magic (Terese’s painted, Cliff’s digital). Artists also happen to hang out with other artists, leading to successful referrals: the relatively obscure artist Ian Miller recommended his British countryman John Avon. His superb Mountains earned him a reputation for landscapes that continues to this day.

There was one specific piece of art she obtained in a different way: a work known at the time as “The Green Man.” This painting of a fantastic ape-like figure was in the portfolio of an up-and-coming artist named Stuart Griffin. It hadn’t been published in any form, so Harkey took a Polaroid of it, scribbled the name, address, and phone number of the Brit on the back of the picture… and bought the piece for use in Magic. It eventually got used on a card called Maro. No other work during her time had already been created before being bought for Magic; it’s just not how things usually go. But the piece moved her so much, she had to make an exception.

The original Polaroid that Harkey took of "The Green Man."
Harkey and Cabardo did have a subtle agenda, though: “we were looking at women artists. We were women art directors! There’s such a gap. Any women artists we would commission, and I would take risks on women artists. It resulted in some rejected card art, and rightfully so.” While it did result in a couple pieces destined for the art graveyard, it also led to Rebecca Guay’s introduction to Magic.

The process of commissioning art for Magic has changed a bit since Harkey’s time. “R&D would provide the brief for every card, and then I would commission from this big stack of briefs.” At the time, R&D was in a different location entirely from the art department. “They were sort of like my client, they would give me the briefs I needed to commission.”

Once Harkey had the briefs, she’d try to find the right artists for them. “I read all the briefs. As I was reading them, I could visualize certain artists for certain pieces. Oh, some hands—give them to [Donato] Giancola! Dragons? Ian Miller! And stuff like that. And sometimes I’d have four or five briefs, and I’d read the briefs to the artists and go, ‘tell me which one of these interest you.’ And the one that they got attached to, I’d commission it to them.”

Her style was a far cry from how current art direction micromanages what’s supposed to be portrayed in a certain piece. “We knew how to get the best artwork out of artists. This is a quote from Maria: ‘we’re not hiring their hand, we’re hiring their mind.’ So the broader strokes, the less detail in the brief, gave the artist a lot more leeway for their vision, and you got a lot better artwork.”
Some of Giancola's hand illustrations.
One preference jumped immediately into her memory: D. Alexander Gregory’s talent for drawing the female form. “He got all the babes. Terese Nielsen and him got all the babes.”

Some of D. Alexander Gregory's "babes."

If you’re familiar enough with Magic art, you might remember that one Nielsen piece from Alliances: Elvish Ranger. “I got in a little trouble for that one, but I think the guys liked it.”

Of course, that one little bit of cleavage could never hold a candle to the king of provocative Magic art: Robert Bliss. “[Bliss] got me in so much trouble! Oh my god. Because Rob, being the naughty chap that he is, would put penises in everything.” Speaking specifically of Polymorph, “nobody saw that penis for ages and ages until we printed millions of them. And ever since then, everyone looked for penises… and then I couldn’t commission him any more.” (Despite looking very carefully, I couldn’t see that one myself until she pointed it out in great detail. When it was reprinted in a core set, they didn’t replace that magnificent piece of art, but they did crop it to make it less obvious.)

The Mirage original and the Magic 2010 reprinting. Note the cropping: the rabbit's testicle-like lower body is cropped out to draw attention away from its intentionally phallic upper half.
Tastes and rules change over time, of course. One piece of his that was rejected eventually became, a decade later, Disembowel. “This was way too gory for them.” At the time, the policy was:

“None of the art should depict overly violent, gory, racist, or sexist images, or demons with or without horns.”

This ruled Disembowel out for multiple reasons.

On Wizards’ site, she had been credited for coming up with Mirage’s African-inspired setting. When I asked about this, she wasn’t sure. “I can’t remember the specifics of it, to tell you the truth.” Will she take credit anyway? “I would love to, if it was good! But it probably was the case, because I did have a lot of ideas for creative direction.”

[7/3/2015 update: Pete Venters contacted me (with a comment you can read below) to offer a correction: he was the one who came up with Mirage's African setting. He has a far more distinct memory of how and why he did this, and he was in charge of worldbuilding at the time.]

Her position as art director meant more than just commissioning art. “Before I came to Wizards, and probably why I got hired, I was a pop-up book designer.” This naturally led her to innovate the way Magic sealed product was displayed: instead of just a nondescript little flap on top of the booster box showing the name of the set, she came up with a way that the booster box would use a flap of cardboard from the back of the booster box, to pop up with the set’s name and logo. Instead of just a boring box, it presented a unique silhouette from the shelf.

Comparison of pre-Harkey Homelands booster box and her "pop-up" Visions design.

The graphic design didn’t stop there. She designed the set symbols, she commissioned Ian Miller to make Visions’s “triangle of war,” she designed the booster packs, she designed the set’s logos for those booster packs. Keep in mind that this is the time when Magic is really starting to print in other languages, so she designed the logo for every set in every language it was printed in.

Despite all that, there were more conflicts than just finding hidden penises. Especially after the new contracts, the old-school Magic artists didn’t like her much. “A lot of them resented my coming on. I commissioned them less than they used to get. I think they felt a little self-conscious in the presence of really famous sci-fi and comic artists.” Artists new to Magic like Geoff Darrow (of Hard Boiled with Frank Miller), Mike Dringenberg (of Sandman with Neil Gaiman), and John Bolton (of various DC and Marvel comics) would make any illustrator feel that way.

I shared my feeling that artists such as Douglas Shuler weren’t very good, and she agreed. “A lot of them weren’t!” But it was written as a rule that they needed to "retain art continuity between sets,” which meant commissioning more by those early-Magic artists. “That was a dictation from R&D. And that was really difficult.”

“I think the fanbase was very important to keep intact, rightfully so. It was worth using some of the artists, but they were unprofessional, they were hard to work with, and they were pissed off about the royalties.”

A promotional poster for Mirage. Art by Adam Rex.
Those of you who’ve read all of Mark Rosewater’s old columns might know a little bit about the tension between her and R&D. “I wasn’t a gamer, and neither was Maria. And that had some conflicts with R&D.”

Once she had commissioned art from R&D’s briefs, that department would go back over to make sure it matched what they wanted. “There were occassionally some conflicts. And rightfully so; R&D had very good arguments for that. But there were other things that I’d push back on, as well.”

I asked her specifically about The Dragon Mask Story. She took issue with how she’d been presented in that.

“As an art director, and you’re working with 80 different artists, and artists, as you can imagine, are incredibly sensitive and emotional people. You don’t promise art getting used. You just don’t do that. They’re too fragile for that. My position is too authoritative and on-the-line to make those sorts of promises. And if I did promise somebody, I would have no qualms taking that promise back given the circumstances.”

“He could’ve very well been right in his argument. What I found disturbing was the negative tone [of the story], and also the sort of line-by-line reenactment of the conversation.”

Unused art by Brom.
The art graveyard certainly provided good evidence that getting commissioned for a piece of Magic art didn’t mean it would get used. Among the rejected Mirage art, in addition to the previously-mentioned Disembowel were pieces that became Pariah, Thieving Magpie, Isochron Scepter, and other cards later in Magic. Some of the rejected art, especially pieces by Brom and D. Alexander Gregory, was of such high quality that I was in disbelief Magic never found a place for it. There were also some Christopher Rush pieces that were, well… not quite what Magic was looking for.

The conflict between her and R&D ran a bit deeper than disagreements over one piece of art. “I think that [Rosewater] in particular had thought it inappropriate for me to be art directing when I wasn’t a Magic player. And so, he might have been more sensitive or looking for opportunities to point that out.”

There had been a former art director that was a Magic player: Jesper Myrfors.

“He was a founder. He had very close ties with the [other] founders. So for some reason, they really wanted him to come back.”

Portal was Harkey’s last set as the art director for Magic. Jesper Myrfors was hired back on. “There was a huge discrepancy between Jesper’s compensation and my compensation… that’s why I left the art direction of Magic: the Gathering, I was challenging that discrepancy.”

Despite the spectacular art she had commissioned while still remaining under-budget, all the big-name comic illustrators she had recruited to do Magic art, all the new talent she had acquired, Wizards hired Jesper back on to work on art and immediately paid him more than Harkey. Understandably, she was upset about this. Her protests got her moved out of her position as art director.

From art director for Magic, she was moved to art director for The Sideboard. It was a fitting position for someone with extensive magazine layout experience, but it was a distinct move down. (Note: a previous version of this listed her as the art director for The Duelist, a publication which commissioned original Magic art. This was incorrect. -04/26/2015)

I asked her about her personal favorite artists that she worked with, and it was a given that she’d immediately jump to Robert Bliss, whom she calls “the best artist on the planet.” Looking at all his other work, it’s hard for me to argue against that. Whether it’s in his black-and-white sketches, his full-color paintings, or his clay sculptures, everything he makes is simultaneously unique and unmistakably Bliss. He only stayed on making Magic art for one year after Harkey left, but not before making art like the iconic Reanimate. He moved on to film work, including for the Harry Potter film series, for which he eventually shared an Oscar win.

Unused art by D. Alexander Gregory.
Ian Miller and D. Alexander Gregory are the next people she names. It’s really a shame that Ian Miller made Magic art in the era before high-resolution wallpaper was released for popular cards, because his linework is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Gregory has continued making phenomenal Magic art, including planeswalkers like the cycle from M13. He’s not stopped drawing babes, though his style has drifted slightly more traditional from the expressionist tendencies of Mirage-era cards.

Harkey did more than just recruit Magic’s greatest artists. She got the greatest art out of Magic’s greatest artists. Terese Nielsen and others might have continued working on Magic, but they never got the open-ended direction that they got from Harkey, or the ability to choose exactly what pieces they wanted to illustrate. Rosewater and others might resent her disconnection from the game of Magic, but if her job was to make Magic art good art, she succeeded tremendously.

Magic has been around for over 20 years. This means that Harkey’s tenure as art director was less than 10% of the time the game has existed. Somehow, though, that short period produced all the best artists in Magic’s history, as well as at least half of the best individual pieces. The conclusion is clear: Sue Ann Harkey is unrivaled in her talent as an art director for Magic, and unequaled in importance to the game’s artistic history.

All quotes are from an interview with Ms. Harkey conducted by the author. Italicized quotes are from printed style guides she kept from her time at Wizards, circa 1995-1998.

Some of Harkey's artist-signed cards.


Dave Lee said...

Great read. Fifth Edition has so many hidden gems of artwork. Thanks for sharing!

Spencer F. said...

Man, it sounds like she was thrown under the bus. I think they're working to make R&D less of a boy's club these days, but it sure took a while!

Glad to hear from Ms. Harkey, and I'm glad for the great work she did in Magic's early days. Can you imagine if artists today got royalties per card printed? It'd be insane.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this. This sets a high water mark for your writing, and I hope that you can continue exploring Magic's past with similarly ambitious projects now that your set reviews have almost caught up to present day (and, unless future sets are designed with an Innistrad level of care, who gives a shit about new sets?).

-I have two old Magic Encyclopedias, the first collects Alpha-Alliances and the second collects Mirage-Portal 1. Even though my old memories of falling in love with the game are more closely tied to the first book, I can never help but notice how GOOD the cards look in the second volume. The new artists, commissioning established comic creators, the return to darker printing that was absent during Legends-Homelands era, and the non-western fantasy of these sets always stood out as something special. I'm glad I know why now.

- I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been to implement a new practice for commissioning work, hiring great new artists, and then arbitrarily having to keep bad old artists because of "continuity." No wonder the short tenure.

-The unused duelist art will now have a sad reminder of what could have been.

Keep it up.

Unknown said...

Great read, thanks! For some reason I was particularly tickled by the part about pop-up books contributing to the booster box design, but just overall, this was a nice, well-balanced piece to read.

I wish you'd given more examples of the cards you talk about, though; as a newer player, I have my limits on how much Gatherer-searching I want to do just to get through one of your posts. In the future, if you could find a way to do more, that would be great, although I know you're just working on your own time here. :-)

BILL GATES said...

Magic in 2015 is lackig a bit of it's femininity - and we are all poorer for it.

Unknown said...

Fantastic article!
I am glad that Ms Harkey had the vision to reach out far beyond the original set of artists (who were, as she said some who worked very well and others who were less profeasional), as well as being willing to 'be the bad guy' on the issue of royalties (though notably, still paid artists well for their work based on the budget she was given for any given set. $1000 per piece 15+ years ago is not nothing).
Without those two decisions, there would be a handful of the original artists with a nice amount of money (which I have no problem with) ... but the art quality would never have have grown in the leaps and bounds that it did, not to mention WotC itself would have had stunted growth due to huge portions of profits going to royalties.
And the Africa-Inspired art was an enormous deal; it took vision and guts to go stray from the path of well-worn-euro-fantasy tropes; but expanded the scope of what Magic 'could be' in the minds of it's players by doing so. As a teen at the time, I *remember* the impact it had on me; I'd never seen anything like it.
It could also be argued that WotC wouldn't have had the same size war-chest to expand and experiment as they did with the profits from that era, and it wouldn't be the company it is today. Just sayin'. It's hard to measure impact of hypothetical, but, I feel it's worth noting.
While we are at it, let's not pretend that the pop-up boxes didn't help them gain dominance over the baseball cards in the baseball-card stores that Magic was often sold in (what a cool piece of trivia, that such came from a background in pop-up books!).

Also - how badass is it that she stood up for pay inequality?
She was delivering great art and concepts, reaching out to new as well as already established fantastic and famous comic-book artists... and somehow doing so 20% under-budget. She dared to point out that the gamer-clubhouse mentality was unfair, and asked them to consider the results of her work should be equal to the fact that this guy 'was an old friend' and 'was there in the beginning.'
While it could be said that there are three sides to any story, the results are plain as day, so this exists as an unfortunate dark-spot on the history of the company.
Maybe the article author didn't include that 'Reparations' card for the funny quote, eh?

It does clearly illustrate how a woman of character and principle stood up for what is right by standing up for herself. It's that kind of character that helps explain how she could have huge positive and transforming impact on WotC, in such a short time.
Doing that took character and strength, and, Ms. Harkey clearly has and had plenty of both.
It is also pretty obvious why 'the clubhouse' would be afraid of a 'non-gamer' who was having that kind of impact.

I am glad to hear that WotC's internal practices have gotten better (and, I have heard this from many sources), and that the company has grown up and focused on being inclusive.

Last thing in my wall of text; I think this article shows the power of inclusion; Ms Harkey wasn't a gamer; didn't read all the same books we had, etc. she brought something new to the table, and broadened our perspective. We need to look and listen for alternate perspectives, because not everyone will be a champion of the value of their different perspective - but - we can all be glad that Ms. Harkey was.

Pete Venters said...

A good read, though frankly a bit rude to the old guard in places.

A couple of things, one an addition, one a correction:

1) Maria and Sue Ann initially met many of the artists that would debut in Mirage when they attended 1994's UKCAC (U.K. Comic Art Convention) which was the only major comics con in the UK at that time that drew a large number of professionals.

2) Sue Ann was not responsible for "Mirage’s African-inspired setting." That was me. I was one of the members of Magic's Continuity team and worldbuilding (admittedly with limited resources) was one of our duties.

Two images spurred the idea of a tropical setting. The first was a painting of a Nubian guard in an Arabian palace. Here was a black man from somewhere in the medieval era covered in wonderful ornate armor and I found myself thinking "why do we not see more of this?". The second was a mental image of a painting featuring elephants and dragons. I'd never seen any such painting which surprised me because an elephant is a great way of showing how large a dragon is. I later used this idea in my painting of Firestorm Hellkite.

I, along with Scott Hungerford, developed the setting of Jamuraa and the look of the three primary nations - Zhalfir, Femeref, and Suq'Ata. Core costume designs for the nations was part of that development.

Sue Ann made some major contributions, but Mirage's initial worldbuilding was not one of them. Errors pop up all the time in articles, it has after all been nearly two decades, but the creation of Jamuraa and the adding of some racial diversity to Magic is one of my proudest accomplishments during my three years working in the Continuity department, so I felt the need to respond. Can you point me at the Wizards article that you reference?

KillGoldfish said...

Mr Venters! Glad you could find the piece. I got the information that Harkey came up with the African-inspired setting from here:

I'll edit in a correction when I get home. Thank you!

Pete Venters said...

Yeah, Bill Rose should know better. I sat down with him when he first arrived at the WotC offices and talked through the broad strokes of the story he had. The Continuity took that and added it to the setting we were building.

Bill's assertion that "Mirage was also the first set to have its creative direction headed by someone other than the designers." is also incorrect, that was Alliances. The first thing I did when I started full time at WotC was write the backstory for Alliances. Scott Hungerford, myself and Sean Carnes did the card naming, and I wrote all the art descriptions. And he wrote this in 2003? Yeesh, some people's memories!

Unknown said...

Unknown said...

Hi there, along with Pete, I wanted to set some fact straight. I’d like to preface this with, it feels strange to have to set some of this straight, but if I don’t do it, who will right?
I am not sure how parts of my history as AD with Magic became incorporated into Sue Anne’s story so here are the facts:
I started working at Wizards along side Jesper in 1992 and was promoted to AD for Magic and Vampire after Jesper left, about the same time Maria Cabardo was hired on. I considered Maria a mentor. She was an extremely talented creative director, had great art connections and taught me how to be a better creative manager.
I was asked by some of the higher up at the company to make steps to help improve the art in upcoming sets. I had the unpleasant task of weeding out a handful of the artists and bring in new ones. I found Cliff and Terese Neilsen by first contacting Cliff’s agent. Cliff wasn’t great with meeting deadlines at the time so he fell away, but Terese was always fantastic in every way possible. I brought Rebecca Guay and Randy Gallegos, who with Terese I admire tremendously.
I was a part of the meetings when Wiazrds wanted to move from a royalty system to a flat rate. There were a lot of back and forth internal discussions and negotiating. It was emotional on both sides. What I encountered with most of the artists, in the end, was an understanding of the business choice.
The transition to the flat rate happened right around the time I left Wizards in 1996.

Thank you Pete and thank you Chris for being the best co-workers during our time of working on Magic together.


Pete Venters said...

Yeah, Bill Rose should know better. I sat down with him when he first arrived at the WotC offices and talked through the broad strokes of the story he had. The Continuity took that and added it to the setting we were building.

Bill's assertion that "Mirage was also the first set to have its creative direction headed by someone other than the designers." is also incorrect, that was Alliances. The first thing I did when I started full time at WotC was write the backstory for Alliances. Scott Hungerford, myself and Sean Carnes did the card naming, and I wrote all the art descriptions. And he wrote this in 2003? Yeesh, some people's memories!

Patrick Scalisi said...

Came across this piece while fact checking an interview with Tony DiTerlizzi for Great interview! Keep up the wonderful work!

Eva said...

This article needs a correction. Too many statements are delivered as fact that simply are not. Too many talented people see their work passed off as hers in the above. Statements are made as fact that are so bereft of the real history of this incredible game that I feel compelled to tell any one who reads it that Sue Ann Harkey was an AD for MTG but this article falls well short of the history of the game and should not be considered an accurate reference.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I am glad to see y'alls comments on this blog. It's important to preserve the history of Magic's art direction for its gazillion players and art enthusiasts, whom I count myself among. This interview was just a recollection 20 year on, of something that caught the interest of Jesse Mason. I would be the first to admit that my memory is not what it use to be. I had no intention of steeling any ones thunder. Though it's tempting to try when the clap is this loud. Jesse did not seem to work in the half dozen or so 'I don't remember' utterances from our 2 hour interview. Not to blame him, it probably was my bad memory. So, I want to apologize for obscuring the facts. Which Pete and Chris, and others have so thoroughly provided us with. I first want to recognize Sandra Everingham's contribution as Mtg's AD when Jesper took his sabbatical. I simply forgot, being 2 WOTC ships passing in the night at the time. And I definitely agree with Chris Rush in that the 'best Mtg AD ever' attribution (in the tile of this blog, which I took as tongue-n-cheek and hope you'll do the same) should be granted to Jeremy Cranford, whom I've had the pleasure to work with and admire greatly. Jesper wholeheartedly deserves credit for starting this lineage and all its spawned. His generosity is unquestioned. I am but a blip in the early history of Magic The Gathering. I had the privilege of designed several other games while at WOTC. It was a transitional time. I was there also. It truly was the hardest, best job I have had to date. And I treasure every moment. All I can say is, I am grateful to have had the opportunity. I hope people won't believe I took advantage, or lacked passion, like some suspect or accuse me of. I proudly admit to being a huge fan-girl towards the artists. And I will try not to regret giving this interview to Jesse, learning of the controversy and hostility it has stirred up, yet again. But I do want to take-back that thing about artists being emotional. That was patronizing. Moving on now. Sue Ann Harkey

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