Imagining The Ampersand: Wylie Beckert

The Magic: The Gathering artist cooks up two delicious covers for sorcerer superstar Tasha.

by Matt Chapman

Fillet of a fenny snake? Check. Eye of newt and toe of frog? Naturally. Wool of bat and tongue of dog? Affirmative. Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting? Of course. Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing? Yes, everything William Shakespeare suggested might be in a witches’ brew can reasonably be expected to be floating in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. The clue’s in the name…

In the same way that insane beholder crime boss Xanathar introduced us to new character options, Dungeon Master’s tools, spells, and magic items, Tasha is about to expand the limits of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons.

The adopted daughter of the Baba Yaga, frenemy of Mordenkainen, and real name of Demonomicon author Iggwilv, she is now also the star of her own D&D sourcebook.

Former Dragon+ cover star Magali Villeneuve has created the stunning original cover for Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, with Wylie Beckert fashioning an incredible alternative cover. The brief for that alt cover called for an image of the witch casting a spell at her cauldron, with characters and objects associated with Tasha appearing in the smoke. Beckert says she was given the freedom to decide the image composition.

“It’s a rare experience but extremely welcome. It gave me a chance to play with an image that was a little bit abstract and graphic, rather than painting a scene that felt like a movie still. I’m really grateful to Art Director Kate Irwin for trusting me with that level of creative freedom, as I always feel that the end result is more interesting when I’m allowed to run with something like this—not to mention more fun to work on!” she says.

The alternate cover of Tasha's Cauldron of Everything (select to view)

In a nod to that conceptual book cover, Beckert has brought the character to life for a second time on our cover this issue. She wanted this second illustration to be a little less “frenzied”, even though a certain vampire lord who’s been “Revamped” also needed to make his presence felt.

“It was a chance to refine my vision for Tasha, and play with a costume change. I wanted to create a composition that includes a lot of intricate detail and patterning but incorporate it into larger, simpler silhouettes for an image that felt statelier and more iconic,” she says, revealing that Strahd’s inclusion gave her the chance to practice drawing smoke. “I liked the idea of Strahd as a looming, ghostly presence. Still intimidating, but with Tasha feeling more solid and powerful despite her smaller size. She’s definitely the hero of this illustration, and her cocky expression shows she has the upper hand.”

Wicked Kingdom's Queen of Envy (select to view)
Please introduce yourself to Dragon+ readers?

I’m a freelance illustrator, recently settled in the Pacific Northwest. When I’m not working on game art for the likes of Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons, I’m crowdfunding my own independent projects through Patreon and Kickstarter. Heavily-illustrated poker decks are my current hustle, but I’ve also dabbled in fine art, fairytale illustration, and anything else that tells a story.

What led to you using playing cards as a canvas?

I started illustrating my first poker deck, Wicked Kingdom, as a side project early on in my career. I liked the idea of using the two-sided format of a playing card to create dual-identity characters and tell a story. A card deck seemed like a great way of creating a consistent body of work that would also serve a real purpose—it was a product that I could market directly to people who liked my art, at a time when commissions were few and far between.

I launched the finished deck on Kickstarter, where it did well enough to justify my decision to continue down the path of self-directed illustration projects. I’ve been working on my current project, Reign of Sin + Rule of Virtue, for the past three years. The finished version of this two-deck set of playing cards based on the deadly sins and heavenly virtues will be coming to Kickstarter in early 2021.

What was it like to get a second opportunity to bring Tasha to life? And did you do anything differently?

I was really excited when Art Director Daniel Ketchum reached out to me as the first Tasha piece turned out to be one of my favorite covers. Of course, as soon as I finish a painting, I start to notice all the things I might have done differently, so getting the chance to revisit familiar subject matter was a dream come true. I wish I had the time and energy to double-dip on every painting.

Queen of Humility (select to view)
What’s your background in art. Are you largely self-taught or have you been officially schooled and trained?

Although I studied to get an art degree from a traditional college, I consider myself self-taught. A few years after graduating, I realized that I had zero art or business expertise and could just barely draw! I always tell students who are thinking of going to art school to look into alternatives, such as atelier programs, mentorships with working artists, and self-study. My real art education consisted almost entirely of library books and online tutorials. And it’s still continuing to this day. It’s fortunate that I decided to pursue fantasy illustration specifically, because the community has a lot of resources to offer artists who are just starting out. The Muddy Colors art blog is a great place to start.

How would you describe your art style?

I’ve heard my style compared to art nouveau, comic books, and sculpture. But I think seeing your own style is like hearing your own accent. To me, it’s everyone else who has a style, while I’m simply doing the best I can to draw what I see! If I catch myself “doing a style” by repeating certain visual tics or adding decorative flourishes where they don’t belong, I almost always try to dial it back. It’s too easy to stop growing and improving if you get stuck in existing patterns.

(Select to view)
Is there any one kind of art that captures your imagination?

I’m really drawn to golden age illustrators—Arthur Rackham, J.C. Leyendecker, and Alphonse Mucha in particular. They are all amazing craftsmen with an incredible level of technical skill, while still managing to be visually unique. You’d never mistake their work for a photograph but it still feels incredibly solid and “real”, as if they’ve created a world within their illustration that obeys its own set of laws.

What’s your creation process like?

My process for creating an image involves a lot of jumping back and forth between traditional and digital. But I’m a traditional artist at heart and my preferred media are pencils and inks. I start with a tiny thumbnail sketch in pencil to figure out the rough placement of all the elements of my image, then switch to Photoshop to tweak the composition and refine the drawing. The resulting rough sketch is printed out at low opacity, and used as the base for a tighter underdrawing in pencil and many layers of ink rendering.

While most of my finished paintings are fully traditional—especially work that requires tight deadlines and room for revisions—I’ll do some pieces as a monochromatic ink and pencil underpainting in traditional media, then switch back to digital once more to add color and finish out the image.

Your alternative cover for Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything has a different style to many D&D cover images. Was this drawn or painted?

The bulk of this piece was done in pencil and ink. Colors, including an extra boost of deeper values, were then added as transparent layers in Photoshop. While there’s some painting involved, I definitely consider most of my work to be ‘drawn’. I’ll spend many hours sketching and redrawing, getting every pencil line just right. After that point, the touches of ink wash and, in this case, digital color are almost an afterthought. The drawing is everything!

There are a lot of hidden elements within that image. What should Tasha fans be looking out for?

My favorite thing to hide within the image was the spell Tasha’s hideous laughter. In the art brief, this was meant to be a scroll with identifying text on it. But I wanted to find a more subtle way to show it, hence the possessed scroll of laughing imps and skulls. The art brief also called for Graz’zt to be “looking flirtatious”. I figured the flirtiest he could get would be offering Tasha a uniquely demonic valentine.

How did your series of videos capturing your working process come about?

I like to exhaustively document my painting process in photos, written notes, and sometimes even video. This is partly so I can figure out what works and what doesn’t, and partly so that I can bring supporters of my art along for the journey on Patreon. You can find a few past examples of these process write-ups and videos on my website.

What’s your experience of Dungeons & Dragons?

I’m one of those rare fantasy artists who wasn’t drawn into the profession through any kind of fandom, just a love of painting weird and fantastical things. It’s a happy coincidence that the subject matter I enjoy painting lines up so well with the imagery in properties such as D&D and Magic: The Gathering. These pastimes are heavily illustrated, exposing gamers to a lot more art than the general public, so there’s a big crossover between gaming and art appreciation. The love of games really helps keep illustration alive.

You can see more of Wylie Beckert’s work on her official website and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything releases November 17, 2020 with an MSRP of $49.99 and is available to preorder now