I have a signed card and print of this beauty in my office. One of the finds from the 2015 Saskatchewan Expo!

I have a signed card and print of this beauty in my office. One of the finds from the 2015 Saskatchewan Expo!

Traditional Fantasy In an Age of Digital Art

What do Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate, Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone have in common? Each of these games have featured art, either digital or traditional oil painting, from Canadian artist Mike Sass.

Prolific artist Mike Sass grew up in Vancouver and Edmonton as a youth where he kindled a love of all types of paintings – from comics to classics. After attending the Alberta College of Art in the 90s, Sass helped Bioware get off the ground with marketing illustrations for such classic games as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur’s Gate.

Twelve years later, he jumped ship and started illustrating digitally and then in oils for games such as ccg Magic: The Gathering and more recently Warcraft’s mobile ccg Hearthstone. Recently I had a chance to talk about his journey from college to renowned illustrator.

O’Dell: How long have you been involved in art? Did you start in first or second grade and that’s when you got your love?

Sass: I think I started to get more focused on it around grade four. I started to make comics and then I was one of the more serious kids in junior high and then high school quite serious.

I went to high school in Edmonton. (It) had a good art program and teacher who took it seriously. We even had some extra art courses we could take for the very serious students. By the time I was in high school, I was pretty sure I was going to pursue it.

Then I went to the Alberta College of Art in Calgary. There was no sort of path to gaming or video games or comics or pop culture art. It was all general commercial art – early 90s commercial art. They were just training people to be illustrators for local magazines. Stuff that is very generic, not geared toward international industries or entertainment or anything that didn’t exist locally.

I didn’t really start doing what I do now until I got a full time job doing it at Bioware. When Bioware was a start-up, I was the first artist hired when we were just a few guys in Calgary. Never really had specific training for what I do. Never had an idea that it could be done, I kind of stumbled into it by luck. I always had a background in reading comics and liking fantasy movies and animation and what not. I had a background as a normal teenager in pop culture in the 80s. But I wasn’t an expert on it.

There was not really any How-To instructional aspects. There was no courses. There was no specific college support for that stuff. It was kind of interesting and different in that way.


O’Dell: Were you more of a DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse? Where did you gravitate towards those?

Sass: It was all Marvel. I got out of comics in high school. I was into comics more in the 80s, mid to late 80s. And then when they started to go up in price, I sort of did not like them as much.

But I was also interested in realistic art and paintings – portraiture and still life, basically art history type stuff. I always had dual interest of comics and fantasy and painting.

Back in the 80s and 90s, you just enjoyed it as a fan and maybe tinkered around and experimented. When it as my job to do it at Bioware, I had to quickly ramp up to what was going on and produce quality comparable to what the marketplace had already.

Basically my first fantasy paintings were all professional jobs.


O’Dell: Who was an inspiration for you?

Sass: I would say I didn’t have a singular inspiration. It was all kind of equal. As comics go, I liked the guys who were big in the 80s. I was a big fan of John Burn – big fan of stuff like that. I would see the odd sort of painted illustration in comics by Bill Sienkiewicz or when Jon Muth did some watercolor work. Whenever I saw more illustrative finished painted work, that sort of appealed to me.

Years later, I managed to put that all together, but those seeds were there. Sort of fine art and comics, not so much inking and drawing as much as trying to illustrate these things in a realistic sense.


O’Dell: Having been in the industry for awhile, is there anyone that you look at whom you really like as a contemporary of yours?

Sass: I’m inspired by a few guys. But at this point, it gets very, very specific. The things that I like are not going to be obvious to anybody else. I’m liking very specific technical things, specific colour choices or specific ways people draw or design things.

These are all people that are friends or contemporaries in my industry. I’m a peer to people that I enjoy; everybody has strengths and weaknesses. I found my niche quite quickly. The stuff I did at Bioware was quite natural to me – vibrant, colourful, eye-catching paintings.

I still enjoy that stuff and now that I do that in traditional paint, there’s very few people doing that. There’s probably less than 10 guys in the world doing what I’m doing. So when I’m looking at other artists, I’m looking at a very small group of guys that are doing traditional paint for gaming. It’s a tiny crop of guys, everything is done on the computer.


One of Sass's many traditional oil paintings used in the Hearthstone mobile game.

One of Sass’s many traditional oil paintings used in the Hearthstone mobile game.

O’Dell: And why do you think that is?

Sass: One reason is expertise – it takes a long time to be able to hit a quality level. It’s much more difficult and time consuming to do it in traditional media. The quality standards are so high that it’s just way more practical to do this work on the computer. It’s much easier, much faster, you have more power to manipulate things.

To do it in traditional paint requires a lot more experience, a lot more time. But doing that is nice, because you’re part of a small select group of guys that have these originals and have tangible product like that.

For instance, I just sold two paintings to Blizzard Entertainment, original Hearthstone paintings. There’s literally only like five guys doing traditional work and the other 50 are digital. Being a traditional guy, it’s just a matter of supply and demand, there’s just not a lot of supply of this stuff.

There’s actually a collector that lives in Hong Kong who about a year ago bought literally all the Dungeons and Dragons art on the market from all the artists I know. So hundreds and hundreds of paintings were bought by one individual at one time. Now there’s virtually nothing left for anyone to buy because there’s so few artists doing this work. It’s sort of quite rare – it makes the product more valuable and the artist more unique.


O’Dell: When you mentioned that you were drawn to particular colour choices, are those particular colour choices something that comes into play when you illustrate cards for Magic given the different colours of Magic?

Sass: They want the image to have the overall feel of whatever colour card it’s supposed to be. If it’s a green card, it should have a greenish overall tone. You’re supposed to do that, but a lot of people don’t bother adhering to that. They don’t seem to ever really complain, it doesn’t seem to really matter.

But a lot of it is that you’re viewing these cards upside down or across the table. The art needs to look really good upon close inspection blown up on a computer screen, but it also needs to function from a quick read standpoint.

The colour harmonies are ways for them to make the card obvious as to what type of card it is from a quick read. They don’t care about that too much, it is sort of expected. If you’re doing a black card, your tones are not going to be vibrant. They’re going to fit into that overall deck look.


O’Dell: Where do you draw your inspiration for your art? Do you get to come up with a piece of your own and try to farm it out to these companies or do you get a subject matter and you have to come up with something from there?

Sass: You could do both. I’m really known for being more of a jobbing professional where I’m doing assignments all the time. There are other artists who do their own stuff and try to sell publishing rights to their work.

Generally gaming companies need something very specific. They’re not licensing pre-existing stuff. They’re creating sets of content that have design and cohesiveness and specific needs that need to be met.

What I do is dictated by the needs of the client. They ask for specific type of picture with a specific character and then you make it up. They’re giving you a brief and it’s your job to sort of add your spin to that and accomplish the goals that they need.


O’Dell: When you’re looking at those jobs you could potentially do, is there a particular type or subject that you gravitate toward?

Sass: Right now I’m doing a lot of Hearthstone work. That seems to be where I’m quite comfortable. A lot of Magic art, it’s just there’s very few guys doing traditional art for Magic. So much of the art for Magic is epic in scale and very moody and very detailed. For you to accomplish those visual goals with traditional paint, it’s super difficult and time-consuming.

Whereas in Hearthstone, the art is single characters, cropped quite close. It’s easier to fit that into a painting, to do that traditionally in the time allowed. I like both franchises fairly equally, one is just more difficult than the other.

Magic requires you to make more stuff up. They give artists a visual style guide and outline of what things are like. It’s up to the artist to interpret and create new content.

Whereas Hearthstone and Warcraft art, which I do a lot of, all their content pre-exists in the games. You have to make it look more life-like and give it character. Generally, the content already exists so you’re not having to make stuff up.


O’Dell: Are you involved or have been involved in anything with the new Warcraft movie?

Sass: No, some internal Blizzard people did that. But I think a lot of that was handled by the movie production company. It’s all done in California and there’s a lot of different companies that have different levels of control.

People that freelance in the movie industry live down there. Gaming is more long-term. I’ll do work for these companies for years and years. It doesn’t make sense to be on site. You don’t need to collaborate with these people closely. It’s more like you’re getting a new assignment, one or two every month. This gaming stuff, there’s quite a lot of work out there. You can do it from anywhere.

Most people recognize this cover, but many don't have any idea that this was one of Sass's pieces.

Most people recognize this cover, but many don’t have any idea that this was one of Sass’s pieces.


O’Dell: Looking through your website, I noticed that you had done some “Star Wars” stuff. How did you get involved in “Star Wars”? What is your favourite subject to illustrate? And have you done anything recently?

Sass: Because I was Bioware’s marketing artist for 12 years, when they made the “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” videogame, I did the box cover. I did magazine covers and I did a bunch of marketing materials. I did a bunch of “Star Wars” art there and the last few years, I’ve done a few cards for “X-Wing”, which is a miniatures game. And something for a rulebook for a “Star Wars” role-playing game. The publisher and the products are not as big a deal as Hearthstone or Magic.

I’ve only done a few things, but I’ve done some of the more key characters, which is nice. It’s not something I pursue because they don’t pay very much. Some of the stuff is fairly draconian.

These sort of card games are very niche products. Unless you’re doing “Star Wars” art for a very, very high profile thing for a movie or whatever, a lot of it is sub-licensed. It’s the “Star Wars” license applied to a game published by another company. The company that makes these games is called Fantasy Flights.

It’s nice to be able to do these characters and there’s a lot of work you can do for famous products like “Star Wars” and you don’t have to go directly to the level of doing work for movies. You can do it through these smaller gaming products. It’s still goes through Lucasfilm licensing and it still has the same level of control.

It’s great to be able to do that work that everybody recognizes because the characters are so iconic. It also makes it difficult because everyone can tell if something is slightly wrong. You really have to get the shapes and proportions and details correct. It’s just another job but it’s good because “Star Wars” has some cache to it that seems to be bigger than everything else.


O’Dell: What has made you gravitate to Hearthstone over other properties like Magic?

Sass: I’ve never really played it. I don’t understand it. And it’s such a long-standing franchise. You have to be all in. The artists that work on it, it’s sort of their main thing. It’s kind of hard to pop around in these franchises because you have to know how to hit expectations intimately.

Hearthstone – I’ve actually played, because you can actually play it by yourself online. So it’s much easier to get into without having to find a group that’s going to teach you. And it’s also based on a videogame that’s sort of my expertise – very vibrantly coloured videogame content. It’s just a matter of if your personal esthetic matches one product or another.

I would do more Magic art if they offered it to me. And I may pursue it more but I’m quite happy working on Hearthstone right now. If you look it up, it’s not really a step down.


O’Dell: With the Saskatoon Expo not being your first Expo, were there any star-struck moments where you got a chance to meet someone at a con, where you potentially wouldn’t have been able to meet otherwise?

Sass: Yeah, quite a bit. I’ve had actors come by my table and talk to me and want to buy stuff. I’ve had my table beside artists that are 20 years my elder and who I was a fan of. I went to dinner with Steve Rude one time. I’ve had my table beside Neal Adams and Bernie Wrightson – you know a lot of luminaries from the 80s. Those are the guys it’s interesting for me to meet.

This past year in Edmonton, Ken Kelly was a few tables down. He’s a big fantasy painter from the 80s. It’s kind of interesting I meet a lot of these guys at conventions and it’s interesting to be more or less their peer even though they’ve been doing it a long time. It’s kind of fun to be in that guest row.

The first time I was in Edmonton was funny. Normally these cons have a green room and a gold room. They have a lunch room for the TV celebs and then they have a lunch room for the creator guests. The first year in Edmonton they just had one room so I was in there with Nichelle Nichols, who was Uhura from the original “Star Trek” series. And the guy who was the Six Million Dollar Man (Lee Majors). I’ve had some moments like that where I was in these rooms with actors and had discussions with them. It’s pretty funny. They’re just normal people, right?

By William D. O’Dell aka Nicol Billas