Tomasz Jedruszek is someone whose work is also genuinely his passion — as the long-form interview below will surely attest. Born in 1977, the Polish illustrator originally studied architecture but began working for role-playing game publishers while still in school. Inspired by fantasy and sci-fi comics as a youth, he became a full-time freelancer after graduation, going to work on such genre properties as Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, and, of course, Magic: The Gathering.
A mainstay of Magic art since the Zendikar block, Tomasz recently had the opportunity to reimagine a key illustration for Modern Masters 2015: Shadowmage Infiltrator, which was originally published in the Odyssey set. ArtofMtG spoke to the award-winning artist via email from his home in Poland, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Art of MtG: I’d like to begin by talking about your new artwork for Shadowmage Infiltrator in Modern Masters 2015. Can you take us through the process of how you created this particular piece?
Tomasz: Well, being a freelance artist for more than 12 years and a Magic artist for more than five, you’d think it would be easy or even too easy — but it’s not. We artists have to put all of our experience and skill into action in order to bring about the high-level product that [Wizards of the Coast] is expecting from us.
When I get the art description from my art director, I simply start thinking about it, not sketching yet. First, I have to construct it in my head, and there are a certain number of things that are important when working on a Magic card illustration: composition, mood, game mechanics and, of course, we have to remember that the final piece will be as small as a matchbox.
So I go for a walk with my kids, or fix the lamp in the kitchen, or just do the dishes. When I clear my mind, I start to visualize my illustration, both the abstract and the technical aspects at the same time. What kind of light am I going to use? Should I put the main character in the composition point or will the card mechanics require me to make the character secondary to the spell?
Then I start sketching a few quick “notes” the size of the matchbox with pencil on paper — we call them thumbnails — just to pick the best composition. After that, I move to my PC to start the digital sketch. I’m not doing line art or grayscale sketches — I just start with full color and lighting, basically to save time and to give my art director the most accurate piece I can at this stage so he can see what is going on in the picture and not be surprised when I send him the final piece.
Usually I do a sketch or two. If I have more cool ideas, I’ll send more than one, but after the third or fifth, you realize they are pretty much close to each other, so two or three is just enough. [The art director] will pick one, usually with an “approved” mark or feedback to change something (like, “Make that dragon bigger”) or sometimes he’ll require another sketch.
In the case of Shadowmage Infiltrator, I made five versions because just like most Magic cards, this one depicts something that doesn’t exist. We have a character here who is physical but who “melts” into shadows, is invisible to the guards. How do you show someone that is invisible but is the essence of the card? That is the sort of thing we have to deal with in Magic on a regular basis. If you look at my artwork for Dissipate, Drifting Shade and Nighthaze, it’s pretty much the same deal.
So my idea for this picture was to show a mage coming out of the shadow, but with a part of him still in shadow and kind of transparent, made of dust or smoke, while his head and arm start to become visible in the moonlight. Like I said, we made about five different versions because we needed to balance that visibility border. In one sketch, he was too invisible; in another, he was too visible. Finally, we just chose the optimal version, and here it is!
Art of MtG: What was it like to be asked to redesign a card that previously featured a Magic Invitational winner, in this case Jon Finkel?
Tomasz: To be honest, at the time I wasn’t aware of the previous version, which was good because every time you have to redo an existing card it’s like taking the Holy Grail and doing it your own way, which is blasphemy. Not to mention the fact that all the fans love the original card already and now you have to come up with something even cooler, right? That sounds like too much stress just for one artist.
So as I said, at first I didn’t know I was redoing an existing card, and I was able to create something very different from the original piece.
Then I read the articles and spoke to some players about the previous version featuring Finkel, and I thought it was a very cool idea to portray real people as Magic characters. I’ve never done that before, neither in Magic nor in any other pieces I’ve done. Well, my brother keeps saying that I always paint my women with my mother’s face. This may be true, especially my “Railla Karnokailen II” piece, which is like my mom in her 20s, except with a saber. I recently realized that my girls are starting to look more and more like my wife, so there is hope for me, I guess.
Art of MtG: I’m glad you mentioned Nighthaze, because what I love most about a lot of your pieces are the details outside of the main subject. In Shadowmage Infiltrator, for instance, the cape is almost insubstantial and the guard in the top right shows the viewer that the mage is sneaking about. In Nighthaze, the hedron is the focal point, so you almost miss the figure in the bottom third of the frame. What other hidden gems have you placed in your Magic artwork?
Tomasz: I never place too many details in my art. I always hate when art directors from other companies ask me to redo details in the background. They won’t even be visible, so what’s the point?
Luckily, the art directors at Wizards know what they are doing and never ask me to do something that doesn’t matter to an illustration.
So, if there are details visible in the picture, that means they are important to the scene, that a story is being told here or, in the case of MTG, that is has something to do with the game mechanics.
In Shadowmage Infiltrator, the guard plays a very important role because, like I said, we had been struggling a bit with making the character visible and invisible at the same time, showing him passing the guards, convincing the player that the spell of camouflage is strong enough to do that safely. And these are even more important to the illustration than the details of the mage’s face — hence, the hood.
But I do occasionally smuggle some “watermarks” into my work. I saw that Disney artists do that a lot in their movies. If you look closely there is a certain figure on the table in one movie and the same figure on the bookshelf, etc. They are saying, “I was working here,” and that can be a very nice thing.
In Magic, I have to be very careful about that because of the mechanics, because you risk the player misunderstanding because the detail is too high. So I’d rather not do that on my Magic art. For example, I was trying to show some breast on Culling Mark, but they spotted it immediately so I had to shadow it in a lot.
But if you look at my illustrations for Game of Thrones, there is a lot of “me” in there. The Battles of Westeros box cover has a little flower growing in the foreground; a card showing the Highgarden cavalry has a Polish Winged Hussar among the soldiers.
Art of MtG: In looking through your Magic portfolio as a whole, it’s incredible to consider the range of styles and influences that you use. How would you personally describe your art aesthetic?
Tomasz: When I was thinking about going to art academy, people used to tell me that I needed my own style, to be recognizable and more believable as an artist. When I compared that to interviews I read as a kid with Luis Royo, Hajime Sorayama, Boris Vallejo or Frank Frazetta, they all said something like: “As an illustrator, you have to be flexible to do very different things. Then you realize all those different things you’ve done is your style.”
I am a pretty good example of that, I think. As a freelancer, I need to meet my client expectations first, so I do the art the way [my employer] will use it for the product. If he needs a sexy girl, I can’t give him an abstract painting. If he needs a painter-ly style, he’s not paying for a cartoon. If he needs a caricature, it can’t be photo-realistic. And for all these years, I’ve been switching those styles many times.
As you said, influences and references play a big role here, too. For example, when I paint a battle for Game of Thrones, I look to Jan Matejko, Aleksander Gierymski and the Kossaks for inspiration. When I work on Magic cards, I watch a lot of movies or read comic books because comics are like mines of very cool compositions and framing samples. The panels are very small, which gives me a good feel for scale before working on a Magic card composition.
In general, you can say that I have a very painter-ly style, especially for someone who works only in digital now. Lots of people tell me that. Magic players always ask me about original oils for cards, and they are very disappointed when I say that they’ve been made in Photoshop and that I only have the pencil sketches sometimes.
George R. R. Martin is another example. I had been doing the Game of Thrones card games for a few years already when I was working on the Battles of Westeros cover and was asked to make a major change. But he wasn’t sure if it would even be possible or too expensive since he thought it was an oil painting. He was thinking that I had been working traditionally for a while before I explained to him that it was digital.
Finally, I never like to be too realistic about my work — I like that kind of comic book exaggeration in anatomy or face features or even architecture.
Art of MtG: You mentioned a lot of artists just now, from illustrators like Vallejo and Frazetta to classical painters. Who or what are some of your artistic influences?
Tomasz: Oh, there are many. There is like a top chart that changes a lot, and then there is like my top 20 that doesn’t change, and then there is like the Holy Church of Mother Art that is like 10 names that are carved into my head like the Ten Commandments:
Art of MtG: You’ve illustrated a variety of creatures for Magic over the years. Are there any creatures or Planeswalkers that you’d like to tackle that you haven’t had a chance to do yet?
Tomasz: I think everything is still in front of me yet. I’ve been working on Magic for just five years, and the world is huge, full of characters and creatures. I can only be excited about all those things I haven’t yet illustrated that are still to come.
I don’t want this to be taken as a complaint or anything, but I wish I could do more ladylike creatures in Magic. Angels maybe? Vampires? And I’m still hoping for a Planeswalker. [smiles]
Art of MtG: So I take it you’ll continue to work on Magic in the future? Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects?
Tomasz: I can only wish for that, but it’s not my decision. You know, as long as they send me art descriptions, I’ll be doing them because this is like the dream job for me.[To answer your second question,] no I can’t. All we do here is highly confidential, and you know that. I wish I could say something about my latest pieces, but I can’t.
But I can tell you about my projects other than Magic — there is the second edition of the Game of Thrones card game coming out with lots of my art inside and on the box cover. There is a new edition of a board game called Stronghold from Portal Games that also has my art on the box cover. And I did cover art for the One Night in Sixes trilogy [by Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson]. That’s three projects already!
I also recently started doing my own tokens for Magic. I find it very cool to do. I was worried that players wouldn’t use them if they were a little different from the regular ones, so I hadn’t done them before. I recently realized that the more original or twisted the token card is, the more fun it gives to the player. This means there is basically no limits to your creativity, which sounds like the perfect job for me!
Art of MtG: With so much going on, how can fans keep up to date on your work?
Tomasz: I’m rebuilding my website, morano.pl. By the way, a lot of players have asked if “Morano” and me are the same person. Yes, Morano is like my nickname that I adopted at the very beginning of my career because I realized that my last name, “Jedruszek,” is very hard to spell or remember.
The new site will be much easier to navigate and will be focused more on my recent work. Right now, it’s more about a gallery for people who have a lot of time to browse. The new one will be like a quick overview of fresh stuff and then categorized subjects leading to the content that really interests you.
Until then, I post my recent work on my Facebook pages, facebook.com/Moranodotpl and facebook.com/tomasz.jedruszek. My Twitter handle is @morano44 and soon I’m going to start feeds on Instagram as well.
Art of MtG: Finally, would you care to name 5-10 of your favorite Magic pieces, either works you’ve done or works you admire?
Tomasz: I really like my Drifting Shade card because when I was still green, I found a copy of Justin Sweet’s Morgue Theft and I was just amazed by his simple yet very contrasted and readable composition. For years, I’ve been trying to get the same feeling in my work, and I think Drifting Shade was that kind of milestone where I finally achieved that.
What else? It will be hard to name just a few. I generally have my favorite artists and just love their cards, but I can try to name a few of the best:
Archdemon of Unx by Dave Allsop — a great example of Magic. Striking composition.
Pyxis of Pandemonium by Dave Palumbo — that is the style I like. No pixel details needed. The story is clear, and the composition and lighting are just perfect.
Human Frailty, also from Dave Palumbo — a great example of a brilliant illustration idea for such a “boring” card that is really something uncommon. You can be a great artist, but only a few artists have brilliant ideas like that, and they are perfect for this job!
Hellcarver Demon by Greg Staples — and all of his other cards!
Progenitus by Jaime Jones — a simple idea, a genius idea!
Blood Artist by Johannes Voss — the perfect way to illustrate that card. I think we could have given it to many other great artists, but Johannes would always win it.
Deathmark by Steven Belledin — another perfect one, just like all others from him.
Lumengrid Augur by R.K. Post — he just keeps surprising me with his ideas, and I love it.
Selfless Cathar by Slawomir Maniak — it’s not easy to smuggle some emotions into card mechanics, and Slawomir did it perfectly for this one.
Patrick Scalisi is a contributing writer to Art of MtG. After playing Magic: The Gathering as a child during the Fourth Edition era, he resumed again in the summer of 2012. He currently prefers red and white decks.