The Magic Art of Nils Hamm

The Magic Art of Nils Hamm

How does art make us feel? Or maybe a better question is, why does it make us feel? Why, when I look at a painting like this, do I feel like I am there, in the tall grass, as the wind blows and the sun sets? What exactly creates this great sense of calm and ease? Inversely, what about this mountain makes me feel threatened? As admirers of art, we can also ask how the painting itself feels. Yeah, I know that sounds a little hokey, but stick with me, because I want to explore this idea. This idea that a painting, inanimate and inorganic, can possess living qualities and traits. It’s a paradox, but I think we can explain the phenomenon. And to do so, I want to turn to three of art’s most basic, core elements: color, texture, and composition. Color. Texture. Composition. Okay. Through these three elements of design, I want to show you how paintings generate feeling. And I want to do it by exploring the portfolio of Nils Hamm. Nils Hamm was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, and resides there now. As a kid, just like all of us, he was enamored by knights and dinosaurs. His imagination was molded by the folklore of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, which inspired him to pick up the pencil and sketch out the images he saw in these tales. As a teen, he admired artists like Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley, which led to him to pen his own comics in high school. With these guys as both inspiration and role models, Nils decided to study illustration and design, and make a life out of creating art. Simon Bisley, Jeff Jones, Frank Frazetta: the “classics” would lay a foundation for Nils’ work. But you’ll notice that Hamm’s illustrations don’t look anything like traditional fantasy art. Sure, these guys inspired everyone at first, but Nils strayed away from this style early on. If we look at his more contemporary influences, artists like Justin Sweet, Phil Hale, and Rick Berry, we start to see a different genre emerge from the mold. These guys, Nils included, have built their own niche of fantasy art. Mike Linnemman says he sees the 18th century artist William Blake in Nils’ work. This piece here, titled “Nebuchadnezzar” is especially similar to Hamm’s style. Recalling our three elements, we can draw parallels to many of the images we find in card frames today: Blake’s colors are metallic and pearlescent and he employs hues of pink and blue across the painting. His texture is loose around the edges and then tight across the king’s muscle and face. The composition invokes terror in the viewer; the curled, animalistic toes and shriveled brow of the man add tension. The movement in his quadriceps and calves mimic the lines in the backdrop behind him. So that’s William Blake. But what about Nils’ style? Again, we’re looking at color, texture, and composition here. Hamm’s approach can be described as intuitive and spontaneous. He begins with shapes and textures. He builds from chaotic structures based in oil or watercolor, and from there, pulls the form and design out of the havoc. Nils’ textures dictate the direction and movement of his paintings. He likes metallic textures, and many of his creatures look like they’re assembled from scrap metal found in junkyards. Like William Blake, these textures are often very loose and expressive around the outer edges of the piece. As we move inward toward the subject, the brushstrokes become smaller and details begin to sharpen. This technique helps direct the eye towards the center of action and forces us to concentrate on the most crucial element of the painting. The relationship between man and beast, the anguish of war, and the beauty of life are all themes Nils has explored in his work with Magic. Of course, these painterly textures are elevated by Hamm’s rich sense of color. If there is one distinct trademark to a Nils Hamm piece, it is found in his brilliant choice of palette. His favorite colors, the ones we see most distinctly in his illustrations, are purple and green. His greens are often used as a base, and the purples come through as highlights. But these aren’t just any old greens and purples: there is an ethereal quality to these hues that are uniquely Hamm’s. Fastbond shows off these two tones, as does Undergrowth Scavenger. Howling Wolf is composed almost entirely of greens and purples. So both color and texture merge together into distinct forms and give light to our final element of design: composition. From Hamm’s abstract and textured backgrounds appear his figures. A pivotal moment for Nils’ career occurred when studying under Justin Sweet. Recalling both an old art teacher’s painting process of a crab and Sweet’s tutelage, Hamm was fascinated by the loose approach of the hands he observed. Shortly after, he would compose Grave Titan and his seminal work Chancellor of the Spires. Nils concentrates on shape language to form his compositions, and the bodies that sprout from the backgrounds can often be boiled down to geometry. This mountain, for example, is largely just a bunch of triangles, and those pointy edges and textures pair with the deep reds to evoke that sense of unease in the viewer. In contrast, Evangel of Heliod is made of softer, oval shapes. The flowing textures of the prophet’s robes create that sense of ease, which pair with the yellows and purples to generate a sense of calm in the viewer. Nils also uses negative space to compose an image. Rotting Mastodon, for example, is a zombie elephant made of dead tissue and bone. As such, his body forms the image of a skull: the space between his legs form the eyes and his toes make up the teeth. This is a clever trick to communicate a message. We see the same technique in Silumgar’s Command. Between the zombie and the nearby shield emerges the fang of the Sultai Clan. Maybe his most well-known piece, though, is this: Baleful Strix. Here, we can apply everything we’ve learned to better understand why this beloved owl is so often named one of the best pieces of art in the game. Starting with the background, we find a wash of metallic blues and yellows. The textures are both smooth and rigid, but in both cases, unfocused. Directly from the background emerges the owl’s wings. At first, they are blended in and on the same plane, but the closer to the center we go, the more the bird’s dimensions become distinct. The details do the same. The textures get sharper near the owl’s body as the ovals in the wings become triangles in the ears, claws, and beak. Its eyes are equally piercing, and maybe that’s the best way to describe this piece. Piercing. I asked everyone on Twitter how they would describe Baleful Strix. Many agreed: this is a haunting, eerie and hypnotic piece of art. As are so many more of Hamm’s cards. To return to my questions up top, that is, how does a piece of art “feel”, I think we must consider more than just what the painting depicts. We must be aware of the colors the artist favors, and where the artist places them. We must consider how the forms are composed, where our eyes move, how the painting would respond to touch. To me, the work of Nils Hamm “feels” kind of sad. It’s not so much the macabre imagery that he is so often assigned, but the mood these images generate. These are melancholy pieces of art, even when the painting shows us something hopeful. Hamm’s world is a lonely one, but, that’s what I like about it. Because from these horrors always grows some sense of calm. Here, there is terror, but there is also peace. Funnily enough, lots of Hamm’s work outside of Magic revolves around children’s novels. His passion project Astro, a graphic novel for kids, follows the adventure of this little guy. He says he was subconsciously inspired by the 1973 film Fantastic Planet that he saw as a child for Astro. He’s also working on his own character designs and would like to break in to that realm of the illustration business. Of course, Hamm is still very active for Wizards of the Coast. Shadows Over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon gave him a whopping 14 commissions, including the sequel to one of our favorite flip cards of all time, which he also designed back in Innistrad. So to conclude, I want you to be aware of why you feel a certain way when you look at a painting. I want you to consider color, texture, and composition when you study the Magic Art of Nils Hamm. And I want you to ask the question: how does this make me feel? Thanks for watching! [Whoosh sound] Special thanks to Geoffrey Palmer for providing the two animations for this video; he is @livingcardsmtg (on Twitter). As well as Nils Hamm for giving me the go-ahead and some insider information. As well as some hi-res photos for this video. He also became a Patron, so that was really cool. And speaking of Patreon, yeah, you know what to do. So, I actually re-scaffold some rewards. There’s a new goal reward! A lot of people have been asking me for “The Magic Art of John Avon” So if you want to see that video, join the Patreon club! I also created a new tier for the most hardcore fans of my videos. “The Confidant” tier. So check that out too. If you haven’t peeked over at my Patreon, now’s the perfect time to do it. Because not only does it support me, but it also helps me hire Geoffrey Palmer. If you really dug those animations, I want to see more of them in my videos too, so I want to keep hiring that guy. So the relationship works like this, see? Otherwise this month’s signed cards are the Plains and Mountain that were featured in this video from Nils Hamm. But in foil. They look unbelievable–the plains especially. The mountain is my favorite Mountain in Magic but that Plains is so gorgeous in foil. So if you want signed cards from me, check out the Patreon. If you want to just support me for what I do, if you enjoyed the video, it goes a long way so donate a buck or a few bucks, and I appreciate that. Alright, people that is it! I will see you in two weeks, as always, thanks for watching! Cheers!

Dereck Turner

100 thoughts on “The Magic Art of Nils Hamm

  1. Rhystic Studies says:

    watch the rest of the Magic Art series here:

  2. Tony Shiakallis says:

    Great video Sam! If you don't mind a little suggestion for a future content video, I absolutely love the masterpieces from Kaladesh, I know they are various artists but maybe a great concept to cover? Anyhoo, look forward to more videos from you ^_^

  3. KatieWhoAmI says:

    Now I feel really privileged to have Nils Hamm as a professor at my university

  4. P4r_3 says:

    Nice work man!

  5. RzorFox says:

    Amazing beautiful videos. The music, the imaging , the teaching , excellent. Really makes art easily digestible, I learned to much.

  6. Taxle the Duck says:

    Can't wait for Rebecca Guay!

  7. Kayzah Mausiboi says:

    A fantastic video that gave stunning insigt! Keep up the brilliant work!

  8. Emery J says:

    I love what you're doing with this series! For many people, the art gets overlooked, even though it is one of the most important parts of the game, but this series really helps people like me appreciate the art (and artists) a lot more. Thanks, Sam.

  9. Daniel says:

    I'd love to see one of these for Slawomir Maniak at some point, as he's definitely one of my absolute favourites, in particular his art for Ember Swallower (from cards I own, at least).

  10. TronBonne says:

    Some of my favourites:

    Counterflux – Scott M. Fischer
    Blightsteel Colossus – Chris Rahn
    Anything from Clint Cearly (Syncopate, Breya, Grapeshot, Reclamation sage (promo))

    Your series has actually made me realise I'm a big fan of the bold contrasting uses of colour. Hadn't really thought about it before, but I realised all the pieces that stand out to me, quite literally "stand out"!

  11. urmanascrewed says:

    Yes! The art is amazing!

  12. Slyphorever says:

    Fantastic as always, I really do love this series as a way to pay homage to a certain part of the creativity of Magic which is always at the forefront but in turn never truly considered.

  13. Sam Wolthuis says:

    Bro these videos are LIT!!!!!!!!!!! I love them

  14. ronaone says:


  15. Anthony Lee says:


  16. Think Tank says:

    THANK YOU. Terrific content!

  17. MrChocobar says:

    I got drawn into magic for the purpose of strategy and really just something to do and spend my money on as a teenager, but nowadays I'm more into flavor and big combos. Now you've got me interested in the art as well which is nothing I've really thought of. These are really great videos! Any chance of a Rebecca Guay study? I love her art

  18. Kalabalik says:

    OK, now Rob Alexander HAS to be next, right?


  19. Duncan Ellis says:

    thanks for excellent video. You are doing an outstanding job of teaching art appreciation using the medium of Magic art. I am glad you have found your voice.

  20. Glen North says:

    I love your videos! I got into Magic because of the incredible art, it's still one of my favorite things about the game. Thanks for your thoughtful content, it's allowing me to appreciate the art I love even more! 😀

  21. T. Miller says:

    Fantastic study as always.

  22. Jack Kensik says:

    Man that photoshop was on point for the editing in the video

  23. Daniel Kristensen says:

    Sam, you are greatness!

  24. Justin Schneider says:

    Sam, you've got the soul of a poet. You're a skilled filmmaker, too. Grateful for your work.

  25. Noah Golden says:

    please do Rebbeca Guay or John Avon next they're my favorite MTG artists I also would like to see Greg stamples or Rob Alexander

  26. Jacob Derington says:

    I want to see a video of Steve Argyle! One of my favorite magic artists for sure.

  27. Geekified MTG says:

    Great video Sam!

  28. Nikolas Wong says:

    These videos are instrumental to art history and the names behind MTG art. Please continue the amazing art content, they are greatly valued.

  29. Wilhelm Screamer says:

    I love how much more animated this video was than normal for you.

  30. Martín Davico says:

    You should do Amy Weber or Rebecca Guay sometime, I really like both artists. Great video, I'm glad you're uploading more often.

  31. Treasure Train says:

    gotta do Eric Deschamps in one of these man

  32. Vaporman says:

    Hello, MagicManSam ! I wondered, you seem to be really good at analysing art. So, I think oneof your next videos should be on Magali Villeneuve. I find the images that she creates absolutely stunning, and powerful. Anyways, love the concept, love the channel, keep up the good work ! : )

  33. CherryBoyWriter says:

    I don't play Magic. But I do have a massive hard on for Magic art, analysis, and your voice.
    Subbed good sir.

  34. Draken Garfinkel says:

    Could you please do an art video on Daarken? That one's my favorite; and no, not just for the name.

  35. Demetrius A. Phofolos says:

    Fantastic video

  36. André Moraes says:

    This series is gold! Nerdwriter wouldn't do better! We need a Ron Spencer one!

  37. Robert Zed says:

    this channel is more informative than the majority of my art classes

  38. COYADD says:

    I like the spiky, aggressive works of Raymond Swanland. I can understand if I'm alone with that, though. What do you think of his cards? Are they worth doing a video on?

  39. R B says:

    love this video 😘

  40. Sea H says:

    I dont understand why you dont have so many more subscribers and viewers. Your videos are edited so well and so well done. I just wanna say keep it up because these are really top quality videos your producing

  41. YomYestreen says:

    This feels like it could have been broadcast on NPR. Great production. Keep up the good work!

  42. CedricGO Art says:


    I found your video randomly while I was looking for a Kev Walker artbook (unfortunately he doesn't seem to have any) and I must say that I really like this serie. I got into Magic back in 2007 with Lorwyn and while I don't really follow the game anymore, it was a huge inspiration for my artistic development. The way you look at the artists and their art really makes me see them in a new light and gives much more depth to their whole work.

    Thanks for making these videos and I'm looking forward to see more. Cheers!

  43. Garde Noir says:

    MY favorite to date

    Can't wait to hear about Steve Argyle, Jason Felix and Igor Kieryluk

    Wondering if you can find anything about Brian Dugan, aka Chippy, who I think is a huge fan favorite with Master Transmuter, but only has an outdated blog.

    Please keep it up!

  44. Knowledgeabletyrant says:

    I'm meeting him in May.

  45. Kristian T. Kenwood says:

    These are literally my favorite videos

  46. Daniel Hadley says:

    Wow this was mesmerizing.

  47. jeremy debraccio says:

    reminds me of beksinski

  48. jeremy debraccio says:

    Jason Chans cards always get me

  49. Pedro Pillado says:

    How is the theme of the begenning of the video called?

  50. Ellie Gray says:

    I feel like Nils' art is so often very subtle and soft that it's easy to overlook. His art never really stood out to me, but now that I've watched this video I realized how the cards I recognize that he illustrated are definitely some of the best art on cards.

  51. Steven Smith says:

    I'm reading the view count for this video wrong–it says 16,511; but I'm certain that should read 1,165,110, right?

  52. Connor Vana says:

    good job dude.

  53. Lion Reichelt says:

    The one thing I cannot get over and really inhibited me from subscribing for a long time is that you don´t show how many subs you have, it´s irrational, but still, it makes me feel really weird, like you´re trying to hide something or i dunno..

  54. badger616 says:

    Favourite MtG artist by far, loved the video


    do one on chippy!

  56. Blake Williams says:

    this channel is a godsend

  57. Kid Buddy Son says:

    You're quickly becoming one of my favorite channels. You're like the Folding ideas of Magic.

  58. mindless monk says:

    your editing is top notch.

  59. Bruno Casagranda Neves says:

    I'll never understand those 8 that disliked.

  60. John Wang says:

    This video…is so friggin awesome.

  61. ArseneGray says:

    Looks like Deep Dreaming images of AIs.

  62. FeanixFlamage says:

    i kinda wanna go out and get a baleful strix now…… seriously, when it popped up it was kind of unnerving. sort of startled me too, lol.

  63. Cratieox says:

    I haven't played Magic in years, yet I still remember Baleful Strix's hollow eyes staring back at me. The sharp, metallic edges of its wings remind me of just how deadly it is. Its giant wings fading into the mist, barely hiding its true scale. Baleful Strix will always be my favorite card, long after I've forgotten the rest of the game.

  64. Please Stop. says:

    Thanks doc

  65. Manuel Saiz says:

    Nils Hamm was my teacher in an "art group" we could take a part of in elementary school. (In Germany)
    He's such a nice person with so much talent

  66. Equinox Paradox says:

    Was waiting to hear your analysis and comments on the Stryx (my pc background for the least 8 months…I rotate..). I was not disappointed <3

  67. Teddiursa92 says:

    wonder if he started making Astro before or after having initially painted Gilder Bairn

  68. Andrew Blank says:

    How would I describe Baleful Strix? Adorable.

  69. aleckermit says:

    Baleful Strix is a staple in favorite deck :).

  70. Patrick Festa says:

    I have no money for you. But I'm hoping that my praise for your channel makes up for it.

  71. Felix Hamm says:

    He's my uncle and he drew a picture only for me.

  72. Kevin Frieden says:

    just stumbled upon your channel, it seems i have to binge watch all your videos.. thank you for this amazing work of yours!

  73. nathan Mangion says:

    Only found out about you today, but I;m really loving your videos – the art-ones as well as card-history ones too

  74. SomehowEveryNameIWantIsTaken says:

    I love how a lot of his stuff looks like it had oil spilled on it

  75. camfunme says:

    I actually don't like any of these artworks, nor this style.
    I fell the same when looking at any of them, and that is that the viewer has been poisoned, due to the lack of clarity and the greens and purples, which in turn makes me feel ill.

  76. Eli Pye says:

    A video game hand drawn by Nils Hamm would be amazing; something like a creepy Bastion.

  77. Hugh J. Ness says:

    I dont even play magic…

  78. Chief Coffee says:

    i absoulutly love ur videos keep doing it man

  79. Nick Pascoal says:

    The chillest channel on YouTube.

  80. Choptactless says:

    Johannes Voss!

  81. skreedom222 says:

    When's your next content cop coming out?

  82. Matthew Jackman says:

    Baleful Stryx is absolutely beautiful!

  83. Matthew Sawczyn says:

    Glad to find someone else who loves that mountain

  84. Fik Dih says:

    U talk too much about things you dont know and destroy the video. I call it youtubers sickness, not knowing when to speak or what to say. Obciously nils hamm is a genious but you interprate too much.

  85. Dryxket says:

    Is it odd that I'm watch this right before bed?
    It's extremely soothing.

  86. Andrew Howard says:

    I tend to find Nils Hamm's artwork (at least the pieces I enjoy for Magic) to be both enticing and dangerous. From the mountain you showed, to Skullbriar to Baleful Strix and on and on, I want to get closer to them, despite them feeling dangerous.

  87. Andrew Zheng says:

    You make the best documentaries!

  88. Andrea Tavaglione says:

    how can you be so good at this? did you study art in college?

  89. Andrew Colen says:

    Absolutely love these!! Please dont stop making incredible work

  90. Dan F says:

    I appreciate these illustrator videos- but evoking William Blake is really off base. Blake was doing something completely different than these illustrators. It is as if you evoked Richard Pryor as a comparison- they simply do very different things.

  91. Smeagol the Vile says:

    Holy shit, was literally watching your video on the ravnica colors and thought 'I wish he would do a video on my favorite MTg artist, Nils.' then I looked at your other videos. You read my mind from the past! Bravo!

  92. Jacob Shaffer says:

    "immediately buys allll the copies of baleful strix".

  93. circle1902 1902 says:

    Yeah you have really great content. But the begging for money in a lot of the videos is obnoxious.

  94. Danny BRITZMAN says:

    I feel like you could make a souls-like game entirely based off Hamm's lonely artwork

  95. Pflunze says:

    0:43 That mountain is scary because it looks like a huger spider. It has a face and 6-8 legs.

  96. peregrinopablo says:

    Rebecca Guay, please…

  97. Ellen Baker says:

    Baleful Strix is by far the best combination of art and flavour text. I have to wonder which was written first, and which was inspired by it, because both capture that sense of terrible and piercing haunting

  98. JJ Feeney says:

    Holy cow I always think they can’t get better but they do

  99. Vismund Cygnus says:

    Thanks doc

  100. Kevin Bolt says:

    Maybe one vid just showing each card up close, make it like an hour or more! And, no talking.

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