Chesley Award-winning artist Mats Minnhagen began his career as a field archaeologist, but a passion for digital art sent him back to school and archaeology’s loss became fantasy and science fiction illustration’s gain. He’s worked with major studios like EA and Wizards of the Coast, as well as book publishers in his native Sweden. He’s recently signed on as part of the Fathomless Abyss collective, already completing two covers for us, with a third in the works. Do yourself a favor and wander his online galleries . . . after reading our interview first, of course!
Philip Athans: Please define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.
Mats Minnhagen: Looking at the world through a mirror to see it with fresh eyes.
Athans: Please define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.
Minnhagen: A testing ground for philosophical and technological ideas. A way to explore consequences on all levels of human experience.
Athans: What was it about the Fathomless Abyss project that captured your imagination, and pushed you to join our little gang?
Minnhagen: A wonderful sense of creative vertigo! Peoples and monsters from all times and places clinging to the walls of a bottomless abyss, building all kinds of vertical colonies, mixing technologies from different eras—how could that not be fun to illustrate? I’ve always had a thing for rope bridges and houses suspended over air. But also, on a deeper level, I like the Fathomless Abyss as a metaphor. We’re all ship-wrecked, like the fallers; little colonies of existence clinging to the walls of nothingness. The dark abyss is always just one step away. The only way to reach salvation is to defy the laws of nature and fly . . .
Athans: You’ve worked as part of a creative staff at EA, and have been freelancing for a while now—do you miss being part of a team at a company like EA, or are you happier out on your own?
Minnhagen: Right now I’m happy freelancing. It’s more varied, and I usually get more creative freedom. As for working in teams, I prefer smaller projects where you can have more influence over the end result. I’m not in this field for the money, I want to express something. The fewer steps between the work I put down and the final product, the better. In a large studio, there are a lot of intervening steps.
Athans: You work in both science fiction/fantasy illustration and in scientific illustration. If you were told that you had to choose one of those, what would you miss most about the other?
Minnhagen: If I was asked that, I would choose fantasy/scifi illustration. And I would probably miss the research aspect of scientific illustration. It’s fun to read up on random things, and try to come up with a way to make sense of it visually. I did a series of illustrations on relativity theory and quantum mechanics a while ago, that was pretty much as hard as it gets.
Athans: You’ve created some extraordinary fantasy landscapes, and all of your art has a terrific sense of place. How much do you credit your academic background in archaeology for that degree of detail, and how much research do you put into pieces like On the Arena (cover illustration for “Krigarens sista strid” by Niklas Krog)?
Minnhagen: I think it helps to have a good grasp of history and prehistory if you’re an illustrator. It gives you something to draw from (literally). That said, if I set out to do a real historical scene I would still need to do a lot of research. There’s an awful lot of nasty little details in any given time period, ranging from obvious things like dresses and hairstyles, to things you’ve never really given much thought, such as door handles, undersides of wagons, and whatnot. Fantasy is more forgiving, of course. I usually use a historical reference as a starting point, but tweak and mix a bit along the way. The arena painting was a fantasy setting, so although it was heavily influenced by the real Coliseum, no one gave me a hard time about the height of the walls, for example.
Athans: You’ve won some prestigious awards, like the coveted Chesley Award and inclusion in Exposé 6. What does recognition like that do for a freelance illustrator? Is it just nice to be recognized, or do new commissions start rolling in?
Minnhagen: It’s a incredible source of motivation. I still have a whole lot to learn, but it shows me that I’ve gotten somewhere, at least. As for new commissions, it’s hard to tell—I often neglect to ask people how they found me. But I think the awards have been good for international exposure.
Athans: Do you work primarily in digital media now, or are you still working in traditional ways?
Minnhagen: For my professional work, it’s all digital. I miss working with traditional media, though—real paintings have a nerve that digital paintings lack. I would love to do more portrait painting, hope to get a chance to do that in a not too distant future.
Athans: I know this is sort of like asking you which of your children you like the best, but if you had to showcase only one of your works, which would it be and why?
Minnhagen: I guess I’d show the Floating Fish painting, although I’m starting to get tired of it. It seems a lot of people like it, so that would be playing it safe. But on second and third place I’d show the first two covers in the Abyss series, I’m pretty happy with those.
Athans: And on the flip side, was there anything we might have seen of yours—excluding anything you threw away before showing anyone—that you wish you could do over?
Minnhagen: I’ve done a lot of lousy pieces. If I had the time and a sledgehammer . . . I don’t want to be too specific, though, it’s bad enough that these wretched things keep popping up on Google for all eternity!
Athans: What do you have coming soon that you’re particularly excited about? Where will we see your work next?
Minnhagen: At the moment I’m mainly working with book illustration for Swedish publishers. If all goes well I’ll be doing the Swedish covers for a best-selling British writer’s new series (don’t want to say too much). Apart from that, I’m really excited about diving back into the Fathomless Abyss!
And believe me, we’re delighted to have you trapped in there with us!