Peter Mohrbacher, a concept artist and illustrator working in San Francisco, is best known for his work on Magic: The Gathering, and is the Art Lead for Dragons of Atlantis. He’s been honored with work in Spectrum annuals 18, 19, and 20. He also offers a mentorship program for artists seeking to hone and develop their skills through a gauntlet of evaluations and feedback. He can be found online at vandalhigh.com, deviantArt, Facebook, and Tumblr.
What is your artistic background?
It wasn’t until high school that I developed a passion for art. After I started, there really wasn’t any other option. Everything in my life revolves around it. Having a job as an artist is simply necessary for me. There’s nothing else I can pay as much attention to.
Which artists have inspired you and informed your style?
My earliest influence was anime. Evangelion in specific was my first big anime obsession and I still get excited about it. But as I got older, I began to look at contemporary fantasy artists like Brom (who I later found also came out of Japan). Any artwork that mixed the fantastic with a surreal has caught my eye. Seeing masters like Zdzisław Beksiński overwhelm people’s imaginations with the presence of their work has inspired me to try and explore more horrific imagery.
Naturally, in all your work for Wizards of the Coast, fantasy is an overriding theme. Is fantasy an interest of yours, or is this just a gig, so to speak?
I got the fantasy gigs because I was already doing fantasy. Surrealism and horror are genres I wish I could explore more professionally, but I haven’t found as many opportunities to make a living off of it.
Do you have any other career interests?
I love games. Interactive art has always made me happy. When I was a little kid, kinetic sculptures always captured my imagination. The systems in games are very similar. I think that if I had the opportunity, I would like to make some indie games and explore some of my own design ideas in addition to working on the art.
You’ve obviously got an utter handle on digital illustration, but you also do some natural painting. How necessary do you believe practice in traditional media is to mastery of digital painting?
I’ve picked up natural painting materials painting rather recently. In the past couple years, I’ve poked at oils, acrylics, and watercolors. But it’s been hardly more than poking. I think that digging in on it harder would improve my grasp on the artistic technique. Anyone interested in learning more deeply about painting should absolutely not make the mistake that I did. They should start painting with physical materials early and often.
I’m curious about artist attitudes regarding the democratization of media and the arts. We’ve seen an entire generation raised to worship media and told to follow their dreams, and then handed Photoshop and the soapbox that is the internet, to boot. This has led to an explosion of digital artists of all sorts, largely autodidacts, and including many extraordinarily talented artists whose geographical or economic situation would have, in another era, precluded skill development, let alone fame. Is this abundance of new artists an overabundance? As an active deviantArt member, you are right in the thick of the phenomenon I refer to.
I can’t complain about it because I’m one of those autodidacts that was raised on the internet. Possibly part of the first wave of artists who started by learning digital painting in a democratic forum. It was deviantArt that kept me making art for myself when I was learning how to paint. The feedback loop of posting new work and seeing people’s reactions was like a super challenging game.
The availability of artists has made new industries possible as a result. There is no way the modern game and film industries would be able to create as many visually impressive products without as many trained artists to work on them. You can see this happening on a global scale as visually stunning games and films are now coming from everywhere.
There must be a balance between the number of jobs that the explosion of talent has created and the amount of competition it has spurred. But I don’t know what that balance is. I certainly don’t see skilled and motivated people going without work for very long. Personally, I’ve only seen more opportunities the older I’ve gotten. If a bunch of younger artists are threatening to edge me out of a job, I haven’t met them yet.
We’ve also seen the decline of the practice of apprenticeship in a variety of arts and trades, its role appropriated by colleges. You’ve recently started a one-on-one mentorship program (vandalhigh.com/mentorships)—that is, consultation plus a month-long schedule of critique sessions and a live demonstration. This harks back to ye olde days of apprenticeship, but with the digital touch offered by telecommuting.
I started doing the mentorship because I’ve been doing some form of it on and off for a long time now. I’ve been doing information sharing in the form of blogs, livestreams, community building, and podcasts for almost as long as I’ve been a professional. Now that I have less free time, I decided that I would try to focus that effort down to a paid program.
What my mentorship program ends up being is more like art therapy than art class. Many people are held back by their own assumptions about what they should make or what they think people want to see. I encourage my mentees to explore their influences and resolve to hold themselves to a higher standard. Talking every week about the philosophy of the art, what’s working about a particular piece, and how to recognize your own intuition, can go a long way.
The tools to facilitate this are common and free. Some people prefer Skype, while others like Google Hangouts. Anything that does screenshare and voice chat makes it easy to meet one-on-one. So far, I haven’t tried working with anyone farther away than Canada, but I suppose that it’s possible to do from anywhere with a strong internet connection.
Can you tell us about your Angelarium series?
I started this back in college. When I discovered that there were thousands of angels throughout mythology, I wanted to explore their appearance right away. The main creative choice I made was to take away their identities as people. Angels have no egos per se, so I wanted to reinforce that by taking away their faces. They are what they represent, whether it’s the sky, memory, or vengeance.
There is an alternate definition for the word genius: “The prevailing spirit or distinctive character, as of a place, a person, or an era.” So Matariel isn’t an angel who makes rain. It is the genius of rain. He is like Rain, with a capital “R.”
It’s been fertile creative ground and I’ve been working on expanding the scope of the project as soon as I get some more time.
Do you have a life philosophy?
Make lists. No one does more than what’s in front of them unless they write it down. Lists bring peace, happiness, and wealth.
What keeps you awake at night?
Fear that people hate me. Fear of illness and death. Fear of the dark and the images in my mind that fill those empty spaces. Sometimes I feel I’m afraid a lot. But sometimes, I think my productivity and my preparedness is the result of my fears and anxieties, so I don’t hate it.
What are you working on right now?
Besides Magic, I am working as a producer on an app to help educate breastfeeding mothers. No joke. I’m excited to almost see it finished. I’ve got a Kickstarter in the bag; I just need to launch that. It’s my first one, and it will be geared to towards Magic fans. I’m rebuilding my website to enable me to start doing e-commerce.
I want to write a book about art education. And another book about angels.
Lots of stuff all the time.
What’s your dream illustration job?
I want someone to just hire me to draw whatever I want. I think they will like what they get.
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