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If you don’t know Volkan Baga by name, you’ll certainly know him by his iconic artwork.
Since 2005 he has contributed greatly to Magic: The Gathering, with some of his best known works including “Elspeth Knight-Errant”, “Snapcaster Mage”, the series of “Mox” artifacts for Magic Online and “Resplendent Angel”; but you may also be familiar with the box artwork for “The Settlers of Catan”, a Mayfair published board-game, and its subsequent expansions.
From the early days as a comic book fan, to a now well-loved and admired artist, Baga devotes himself to his work, and in a previous interview he described himself as a contemporary artist, but strives to be seen as a classical painter. He tells us simply that there are many similar characteristics between classical paintings and his work; notably through the use of oil paints. “My skin tones are inspired by Old Masters, like Rubens,” he said. “The general intensity of colour saturation is lower in my paintings, and this is something that I like when I look at particular historic paintings.
The perspectives in my works are often very straight forward, simple and centred,” he continued. “This is also something that Old Masters used in their artworks compared to the more modern perspectives that we see today.” He uses fish-eye as an example. “|t’s a personal preference. I like the simplicity in perspective but try to incorporate a dynamic feel through the use of other compositional elements like body language or expression.” Another characteristic to Baga’s work is narration. “I try to tell a story. The aim is to offer an image that you can dive into and that is able to speak to you. This is also something that stands out in Old Master’s paintings. I find that fascinating and always try to incorporate that feeling into my work.”
Although there are many aspects in historic artworks that attract Volkan Baga, it’s the individual gestures of people, the background choice, the subtle yet symbolic elements that hold the most gravitas.
So, what’s it like creating art for Wizards of the Coast?
“Magic: The Gathering is a very broad and complex universe,” Baga said when we asked about the creative freedom he’s allowed when creating these works. “Every set has its own visual and story. The creative team at Wizards do such incredible work to form that unique universe and to put it together into a style guide for all the artists that get to be part of that set. I’ve been working on Magic art for many years now and I still enjoy it.” One major reason for this is the vastness that the Magic universe encompasses; from set to set we are continuously seeing new worlds and new creatures.
“All of these elements are produced in a variety of ways based around five colours. I’ve seen such an incredible diversity during my time working for the Magic world. It’s hard to top that. It might get boring if I just had to paint the good guys though, although I love painting angels, there is always the wish to paint badass demons too! The same thing applies to painting lands versus artifacts versus creatures; it’s the ongoing variety that makes working for Magic so fun and unique.”
Quite often the hype for certain types of cards comes and goes, but for something like the Mox artifacts, their pull will never falter. Volkan Baga reworked the set of legendary Moxen with a series of strong artwork but did he know just how powerful they were? “Yes,” he admitted. “I was aware of the importance of the Moxen in Magic’s world, but nevertheless I wasn’t aware that my alternate Moxen would have such an impact on the community. Player’s have really appreciated them, which is exceptional, and as you can imagine, I really enjoyed it.”
Our favourite by far is Baga’s Mox Jet, for its suggestion of self sacrifice, and this is swiftly followed by the Mox Ruby being lifted from the fire; almost a metaphor for the lengths that some people may have gone to to get hold of an original. “With regards to these hidden meanings and metaphors,” he said, “I prefer to take a step back from explaining them. I’ve found it much more interesting to see how my works are interpreted in different ways. And it’s also much more exciting for the viewer to dive into the artwork and explore it for themselves. I had a similar experience once when I was guided through a museum. The guide told me about her interpretation of a painting from the 17th Century, and obviously there had been no explanations from the artist available. My thoughts were completely different but I found it very exciting to have no definitive word on what the painting meant.”
Another enjoyable part of Magic: The Gathering is the community that surrounds it; we all have lasting memories of the set we started playing with (for us it was from before the Urza block), the friends we’ve made from it and the gaming groups still going strong. But from an artistic point of view, there have been inevitable lows along with the highs.
“The incredible base of players and artists is really one of a kind,” Baga said. “I’ve not been involved in another project that has such a great community. There have definitely been highs and lows in the art community, with more lows at the beginning of my career… I remember my first signings at Magic events here in Germany because I had just a few cards published. It was very exciting to me, but players didn’t really know who I was. The line for signing cards wasn’t really a line, it was more of a single or two person thing. I have to smile when I think back on it though, and the more my career has progressed, the more that line has grown. I’m very thankful today for being an established part of the community.”
Volkan Baga’s work is often admired for its depth of emotion and detail. Given the materials Baga prefers to work with, we wondered if digital rendering would remove his personal connection to the art. Digital art can sometimes be seen as a convenient way of creating, and whilst Baga, nor ourselves, dismiss it as an art form, we were keen to know why he opts for a completely traditional way of working when both are highly respected mediums; “There are so many good works made digitally,” he said honestly. “Sometimes I’ve wished to have worked digitally as there have been moments I’ve missed the ‘undo’ or ‘edit layer’ function if I’ve messed something up and had to repaint a section of the painting.
But nevertheless, I’ve never really considered working digitally. It’s another personal preference. I love oil paints and mediums, especially their smell. I like how working traditionally takes extra time with preparing the panel and canvas, cleaning the brushes, mixing the colours, and the haptic feel without electronic devices. It simply feels more fundamental. I guess in that sense I do feel connected to the paintings, but I can’t judge how it would be if I were to paint digitally, it would certainly feel different and unfamiliar to me. Choosing the right medium, no matter if it’s traditional or digital, is clearly a very personal decision which can’t be generalised. I chose oils to express myself and haven’t regretted it.”
One thing that we have found ourselves to be drawn to with Baga’s work for Magic: The Gathering is the “gaze”; many pieces allow the viewer to look directly into the eyes of the subject and form a connection very quickly. Apart from being thrilled to hear this, Baga explains that this is his intention but it’s often a challenge to achieve. “I try to build up that connection between the artwork and the viewer, but I never know if it works out in the end.”
His goal is to create a painting that communicates with you. “If you don’t have that link to an artwork, then it could still be a nice piece, but it might not be able to hold you for a long time,” he continued. “If you walk through a museum then there will be works that you look at and pass by without stopping. But there will also be pieces that catch your eye and you find yourself standing there for a while completely immersed in the painting. That’s the magical thing that every artists wishes to achieve.” There’s no formula though. “You try your best, but never know if it’s going to work out. If it does work out then you have the guarantee that your artwork has the viewer’s full attention, and that’s what I’m striving for…”
For more of Volkan Baga's work, visit his website www.baga.de