The Warhammer 40K CCG came to life thanks to the artwork of many talented artists. Michael Phillippi is one such artist. His work is prominently featured in every set, as well as on the game’s product packaging and other promotional materials.
Today, Michael is a veteran illustrator and concept artist in the gaming industry, with his artwork gracing popular games such as Magic: The Gathering, Legend of the Five Rings, World of Warcraft, and more. I emailed Michael and asked him to take a walk down memory lane and describe his experience working on the Warhammer 40K CCG, how he’s a huge 40K and D&D fan, as well as how his art style has evolved throughout the years.
PPR: How did you get started working with Sabertooth Games?
MP: A lot of the people who created Sabertooth were originally part of WotC (Wizards of the Coast) working on the Legend of the Five Rings CCG, including me – I was the staff artist for L5R under Paul Timm. When Hasbro forced WotC to cut the L5R CCG game line (AEG Entertainment ended up getting it back), a number of people on the former L5R team left and formed Sabertooth. I went back to freelancing and Sabertooth became my main client for the next couple of years.
PPR: How many pieces did you illustrate for the Warhammer 40K CCG?
MP: Approximately 100 cards for the 40K CCG. I also worked on 7 sets of Horus Heresy as well as 7 sets of Fantasy (War Cry CCG).
PPR: Which 40K CCG piece is your favourite, and why?
MP: It’s been almost 20 years since I worked on those and my work has evolved a decent amount since then. Revisiting these is nostalgic and a bit humbling. One highlight that was a big deal for me was the lightning-based Imperial Guard army [Coronis Campaign – Ed.] I got to design with Paul Timm, the art director at the time.
But, Dreadnoughts were always my favorite…so probably the Blood Angels Death Company Dreadnought (Moriar the Chosen).
PPR: What was your experience working with Sabertooth and Games Workshop?
MP: Working with Sabertooth was just a continuation of what it was like working for the same people while I was at WotC, except now I got to paint 40K, which had been a career goal since college. Paul Timm was the original art director on the Warhammer 40K CCG and we worked together well. To this day, Paul is one of my favorite art directors with whom I got to work.
I didn’t work directly with GW until I went to work on the Warhammer Age of Reckoning MMO in 2005. GW’s zealous fervor for the worlds they have created is infectious, though.
A downside of the experience was a clause in the contract for the early sets that GW insisted on. The clause required all the artists to relinquish the original paintings they did for the CCG to Games Workshop and prevented us from making prints, which cut off a significant source of income that comes with most CCGs.
In the last couple of months, I have been reminded about it as a bunch of those old paintings have resurfaced for sale online (and I have started getting emails about it from both collectors and other artists). It has caused a small hubbub with some of the artists whose originals are being sold, but were never offered the opportunity to get their work back before they were offered for sale. It seems a little ethically “gray”.
PPR: Your body of work also spans across popular CCGs like MTG, L5R, and WoW. What keeps you coming back to illustrating for us gamers?
MP: I love tabletop games. My brother got me started with 1st edition D&D in 1981. I used to steal his Monster Manual to pore over the illustrations and try to copy them. That led to me saving up enough money to buy the Basic D&D Red Box with the Elmore painting of the Barbarian facing off against the Red Dragon (Elmore was the first illustrator I knew by name and could identify his work on sight). Designing and illustrating my own characters and monsters was what got me hooked on illustrating, and it’s been the cornerstone of my career to this point.
In 2005, in large part because of the work I had done for Sabertooth, I wound up in the video game industry, but I always found time to do some illustration jobs for various tabletop games.
These days, I am teaching Concept Art for video games at Ringling College of Art + Design, but I do a handful of illustration jobs every year. The last 40K art I did was for FFG’s Deathguard RPG series.
Whether it is a commissioned illustration or something I just do for fun, I am sure there are still some 40K paintings in my future. I love that grim, dark universe.
PPR: You’re also an illustration professor, and you’ve previously done concept art and graphic design. How hard is it to wear multiple hats in the industry?
MP: It’s not hard; it’s how I differentiated myself to stand out and be able to make a career spanning 20+ years out of painting characters, monsters, robots, and made-up worlds. I have never been the hottest or best illustrator, but I strive to be hard-working, dependable, flexible, willing to learn, and always improving with lots of different interests that help inform my art (e.g., scuba, power kites, motorcycles, firearms, animal sciences, physics, etc. Currently, I’m learning to make a longbow from scratch).
Teaching is also one of the best ways to get better at anything. It forces you to slow down, examine, and explain the process which leads to critical analysis and improvement.
PPR: Are there any recent or upcoming projects you’d like to share?
MP: I just finished up some illustrations for an upcoming set of Magic the Gathering, but it will be a year before I am able to share any of that work. Currently, with the pandemic rearranging life for everyone, most of my time is being spent reworking the courses I will be teaching this fall to allow for different delivery platforms. I am hoping to teach face-to-face come September, but I need to be prepared for online delivery if needed.
I have also been working on some personal paintings for fun and they may wind up in a faculty show in the fall (see below). Hopefully I’ll get it painted in the next couple weeks and it will be in the Ringling Fall Faculty Showcase which will be available online this year.
Many thanks to Michael for taking the time to answer my questions and share his vast experience in the art and gaming industries! Visit michaelphillippi.com to see more of his work or to get in touch.