Thursday, January 26, 2017

Aethertide Whale

Some assignments require a lot of problem solving and a ton of revision. Other assignments simply don't. Aethertide Whale is definitely one of the latter, which makes it extremely difficult to write about. As much as I like to explain my decision-making and my thought processes, pieces like this don't really have a lot that bears in-depth analysis. Most of the decisions were made for me. While that may sound like a complaint, it isn't. It's just another facet of the job.

It's probably best to backtrack and start with the art description:

Art Description:Setting: KALADESH
Color: Blue creature

Location: The aether-swirled sky of Kaladesh (for aether reference, see p. 21 in the World Guide)

Action: Show a gigantic flying sky leviathan like the one on p. 128B (note the scale). In this shot, it swims through a small fleet of whaling airships (see p. 105C and D for ship profiles) that scatter to avoid getting smashed. The ships are tiny by comparison. All around are swirls of aether currents. 

Focus: the sky leviathan

Mood: a creature completely in its element

Upon getting the assignment, I must confess that I was immediately taken back to my comic collecting days in the mid-nineties. Among the various titles I collected was Sam Kieth's, The Maxx, a comic which on at least one occasion featured flying whales—"air whales" if I recall. While I'm sure there are instances of implied or blatant flying whales in fiction before that comic series, flying whales will always remind me of that series. Well, that series and the whale from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.


Normally, when writing posts I remove references to World Guide page numbers in the descriptions whenever possible as they lack context. Since I can't show the pages and the designs upon which I base the illustrations, I feel that leaving such references in is a bit of tease. In this case I'm making an exception so as to be clear about what an assignment like this actually requires.

So, taking a second look at the description, we see that the aesthetic for the setting is indicated by images in the World Guide. There were several concept pieces from which to draw inspiration both on that specific page and in several other places throughout the guide and it was clear what they needed. As for the creature, that design too was pretty well established. The description was pointing to a full-color concept design that I stuck fairly close to. The ships were a bit less fleshed out and were just silhouettes on the page. As they were silhouettes, they contained no detail, just the broad strokes of how they should be shaped. There were, however, other ships in the World Guide from which to glean information. There was a little extrapolating to be done, but it mostly entailed looking at the other ships from the World Guide and applying design elements from those to mine all while retaining the overall shapes indicated by the aforementioned silhouettes.

With most of the elements figured out for me, my job was to take them and assemble them in a manner consistent with both the letter of the description as well as the spirit of the description. There was a bit of trial and error to make the image work, but in the end my responsibility was just to compose all of the things, toy with the scale, etc. In the end, I came up with this:

©Wizards of the Coast

When building a digital document like this, I typically keep the various elements on separate layers so that I can move them around, hide them, and resize them as much as I need to. In this case, each ship represents a different layer, and the swirling aether (seen as the white streaks) is on three separate layers depending on where it is in space. The front of the whale is on one layer and the tail is on another. Once I've locked down a composition, I'll typically wait until the following morning to send the sketch off to the client so as to be sure the image still works for me. If not, I tweak it as necessary and then send it on its way.

Wizards gave me the green light with one requested change going forward: the Art Director asked that I change the shape of the lower jaw a bit. Super minor and easily done. I took it to paint and here's how it came out:

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished piece is oil on gessoed hardboard, measures fourteen inches wide by eleven inches tall and was Art Directed by Mark Winters.

Despite being represented by white streaks in the sketch, the aether in Kaladesh is meant to be sort of an aqua color. As I painted the piece, I found that I was having difficulty keeping that color as vibrant as I wanted it to be. The aether tended to disappear into the sky and so I pushed it lighter in color to add more contrast, which only weakened the vibrancy of the intended aqua hue. Keeping the color of the aether was important to me, and so my best option turned out to be pushing the sky in a darker direction in order to allow the teal streaks to pop. Beyond that, there really weren't any struggles of note post sketch.

Jobs like this can sometimes be easier than others which require a lot of problem solving. I mean, there was relatively little for me to think about in this particular case, so what's not to like? However, sometimes these kinds of jobs can be far more difficult than others. After all, they are based upon pre-existing designs and frankly some designs are a heck of a lot easier to implement than others. Some designs or aesthetics don't mesh well with a given artist's sensibilities. Some designs are just plain difficult. And living up to the most difficult designs can be a huge headache and represent far more hours of toil to bring to fruition than something created from whole cloth. So in a way, they represent a problem solving as well. It's just a very different kind.

Fortunately, this time around it was just a whale, some ships, and some swirling aether. It's hard to complain about any of that.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Prismatic Geoscope

Smack in the middle of doing work on Kaladesh and painted alongside Herald of the Fair, came a piece I was assigned for the Commander 2016 set of Magic: the Gathering. It was kind of nice, frankly, to get away from the Kaladesh aesthetic. Nicer still was the opportunity to design something from whole cloth that was unaffiliated with any of Magic's established realms.

Here's the art description as it arrived in my inbox:
Location: Unimportant

Action: This is a close-up of a large, multi-faceted crystal set in an ornate metal mounting. Within each of its visible faces, we see landscape stretching out that matches one of Magic's basic land types--plains, island, swamp, mountain, and forest. We don't need to see all five, but we should see at least three, and each facet of the gem should give a "window" into a different land type. Lit from within by the light of the landscape scenes, the crystal glows with iridescent light.

Focus: The crystal

Mood: The different magical power of many lands is gathered at your fingertips.
While the art description is explicitly talking about landscapes, reading between the lines it's also talking about the five colors of Magic. For the uninitiated, the five colors of Magic are: red (which is represented by mountains), white (which is represented by plains), green (which is represented by forest), blue (which is represented by islands), and black (which is represented by swamp). Traditionally in Magic, those colors also have other colors associated with them in order to broaden aesthetic potential. Oranges, for example, tend to go more with red aspects of Magic. Yellows and beiges tend to be associated with white. Violets tend to represent black. The primary reason for this last one is especially for cases such as what I was being asked to do here. Black does not emit light and thus cannot be a source of light. Violet or purple does, however, and can. Thus such hues are useful whenever glowing, black magic is depicted.

So why are the colors important? Couldn't I just paint some landscapes and be done with it? Yes and no. Were people to get a chance to see the painting at full scale, I could be a lot more subtle about things. But this image needs to read at card art size, which is 2.103 inches (53 mm) wide and 1.543 inches (40 mm) tall. Were I to just superimpose landscapes over crystal facets, it's highly likely that it would be difficult to tell where certain landscapes ended and others began. In order to clarify that, I felt it a natural step to cheat the colors of each landscape in the direction of the color it is associated with. For some it would be easy (forests are already green and mountains can sometimes be red), but things like a swamp are rarely, actually purple. How monochromatic to go would be a balancing act, but I was determined to make each landscape/color read clearly.

The thing is, I'm not the greatest colorist in the world. Balancing the five colors of magic can be a difficult task at times even for artists whose color sense is far greater than my own. While I have been asked to do images that required a full articulation—or at least insinuation—of all five colors of Magic in the past, one of these assignments happen to have resulted in what I consider my weakest Magic painting to date: Maelstrom Nexus. I'm not going to get into why I dislike it so much or why I destroyed the painting, but suffice it to say that at least some of my displeasure had to do with a complete failure in making the color work the way I wanted it to. Suffice it to say that that piece made me a little gun-shy, but also more than a little determined.

For the purposes of this new piece, I felt that I needed to err on the side of yellow for the planes facet. This is primarily due to the fact that I didn't want to go in the direction of pure white and wash the landscape out color-wise as it likely would have read as a bit weak compared to the other facets. Additionally, it made sense to utilize purple in lieu of black. While these choices solve some problems, they created another: now I had a piece that would contain fairly pure hues of green, blue, purple, red and yellow and could potentially become a candy-coated nightmare of competing colors.

While I still worried about the failure of Maelstrom Nexus, I feel like I've also had some success in pieces that required a bright, multi-colored composition. Most of the time, I would just take a few of the colors and use them as the primary visual push of the piece and relegate the other colors to secondary elements. This time around, because of what I had in mind, it would be difficult to do that. Instead, the solution would be better integration of the five colors throughout the piece. So, I'd be doing things like bringing the overall hues of one crystal landscape into the shadows of other crystal landscapes, and the same with the highlights. Additionally, I had the advantage of a the metal construct holding the crystal in place which afforded the opportunity for the various colored glows to play against one another and blend. At least I hoped.

Anyway, with a basic plan in place, I began to cobble the whole thing together digitally. It's assignments like this where digital sketches make the most sense to me. In a matter of a few hours, I can have a potentially workable sketch and sometimes in color. In this case, I went a bit further and even incorporated some of my reference into the sketch in the name of clarity. Usually I'd have scribbled furiously to articulate the planned mountains and trees in the crystal's surface, and indeed that's how it began. In the end it felt like green scribbles and orange scribbles rather than actual landscapes. So, to help the Art Director better understand what she was getting, in the photos went.

As I sketched away, it became obvious to me that the image based on the art order's description wasn't as visually interesting as it could have been. A single crystal with a few visible facets solved the assignment, but it wasn't really clicking completely. Still, I did my best with it and finished it up, then immediately executed a second version based on a quartz crystal cluster. Instead of one crystal, there would be many and each of the crystals would reveal the brightly lit landscapes within. For me, this second version was in keeping with the spirit of the assignment but added more visual appeal. I submitted both and awaited further instruction.

©Wizards of the Coast

The Art Director replied with a single concern: regardless of the version, it was felt that I should consider pushing the swamp imagery toward a more violet hue in order to more clearly separate it from the forest. Seemed fair enough. In fact, I took that opportunity to deepen the color of the various landscapes and reinforce the five colors of Magic (or their adjacent counterparts).

Beyond that, I was given a green light to move forward on either of the sketches provided as the fine folks at Wizards were content with both. I decided to go with the multi-crystal version, and here's how it came out:

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished painting is oil on gessoed hardboard, measures sixteen inches wide by twelve inches tall, and was Art Directed by Cynthia Sheppard.

Clearly upon a cursory glance there are obvious changes between the sketch and the finish. The sketch speaks of a brighter, more luminous crystal. Frankly, I lost that to a degree. I got really fascinated by the articulation of the imperfections within the crystals and spent a lot of time working out how the various colors devolved into the neutral base. Additionally, I ended up tamping down a lot of the blown-out areas in an attempt to better control the eye. Lastly, there was an overall shift in the various colors.

In the sketch, I'd achieved a degree of color harmony while still being fairly true to Magic's colors (minus that swamp crystal, of course). All five of the colors are fairly warm versions of themselves. Upon adding that violet, the whole thing changed a bit in a way that I disliked. The violet swamp crystal just stuck out and called too much attention to itself. So, I ended up shifting the colors throughout until the five colors stopped competing and sat well next to each other.

Looking at the sketch there's a real part of me that finds humor in how far toward completion the sketch got. Much of that is an illusion, however. Most of the photos are fairly raw. Sure they're manipulated, but had I continued digitally, they would have been painted over completely. Still, it feels genuinely like I could have taken this one to completion digitally in a fairly short amount of time. Instead, I chose to project the sketch onto a board and paint it all up from scratch with oils. That's probably a strange thing to some, but I am quite happy I did it. I learned a fair bit from working on this piece and ended up making something I quite liked in the end. Plus, I have this one-of-a-kind thing to hang on the wall. I'm not entirely sure why that matters to me, but I'm fortunate that there are as many folks who share my affection for traditionally painted illustration. But then, regardless of the medium, I'm pretty fortunate that there are as many folks who continue to be interested in illustration at all.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Herald of the Fair

As with every Magic expansion, there is a story that goes along with Kaladesh, and that story centers on an inventors' fair. Machines and contraptions of all kinds are on display and the world is abuzz over the new technology on offer. Standing above the throngs of citizens eager to take a gander at the latest and greatest devices on offer stands the the Herald of the Fair. Equal parts salesmen, town crier, and circus ringleader, he directs the masses and keeps them abreast of each day's events. At least, that's my take on him. I'm sure there's a lot more to him. Or not. But for the purposes of the depiction I was asked to make, that's about all I needed to be concerned about.

The vast majority of illustration work I do for Magic requires little in the way of really deep thought or conceptualization. Many of the images I create can simply be boiled down to figuring out what elements need to be included (often times this is made clear in the art description provided by Wizards of the Coast—complete with reference images or styleguide page numbers that lead me to those reference images), figuring out the priority of those elements (this is usually pretty clearly indicated by the aforementioned art descriptions), arranging those elements in a way that I (and hopefully the fine folks at Wizards) find interesting, and finally making the image. Most of the time, all I need to know is in the styleguide. Sure I'll supplement that with additional reference imagery that I dig up or photograph myself, but the vast majority of the design choices are already made by the time I get my assignment.

Herald of the Fair is no different from such cases and thus is as simple as they come. The art description (which again I failed to save), asked for a man standing above a crowd of people beckoning them to enter a large building or arena to see the wonders of the fair. He needed to be speaking into a device that amplifies his voice in some way. Images of how he would be dressed were provided (though I got to make a few minor aesthetic choices), and his location was also made clear (though that ended up being a bit more generalized for the purposes of the piece).

Taking that art order, I looked at the various pieces and assembled them thusly:

©Wizards of the Coast

Despite lacking any kind of detail in the crowd, this piece was approved.

While I don't do this all the time, in this case I printed the sketch out as a monochrome image (I think it was reddish-brown) on watercolor paper. I then take that printed sketch and paste it down onto a piece of hardboard. The printed sketch is then sealed with several layers of matte acrylic medium which I'll sand down when dry to a relatively smooth surface. Then it's ready to be painted on with oils.

Here's how the painting came out.

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished piece measures fourteen inches wide by eleven inches tall.

One will note immediately that there are some obvious differences between sketch and finish. For one, the herald now has a sash. I think he was always meant to, but I'd forgotten to put one on in the sketch and the Art Director somehow missed it. I ended up double-checking with the Art Director in the midst of painting the piece and learned that my suspicions were correct, so I included one. Additionally, there are some minor architecture changes in the background that I felt necessary as I fleshed the piece out (a better way to put this might be that I made the scribbles into architecture). Beyond that, I ended up tweaking the herald's pose a bit to make him a bit (mostly the hands) to push him a bit more toward performer. Pretty nit-picky stuff, but I somehow felt it all necessary at the time.

Anyway, as with much of my work I handed the piece in and sort of forgot about it. The painting sat in my flat files for about a year waiting for the set to be revealed. When Wizards of the Coast began to ramp up promotion for the set, I was surprised and amazed to find that the herald was featured in the set's video trailer. Not only was he featured, but he moved and talked. Pretty weird to see something I've done come alive to that extent. And a little unsettling. But hey, I'll take it.

Friday, December 23, 2016


I've had the distinct pleasure of being a part of several concept teams over the years that have helped build some of Magic's many worlds. The plane of Kaladesh was one such opportunity, and while it wasn't exactly in my wheelhouse aesthetically, I did a niche to explore: the gremlins. The gremlins were something I worked quite hard on and though the finalized versions printed in the Kaladesh styleguide ended up having very minor differences to my original designs in the end, they were still very much mine.

Funny enough, the design itself isn't exactly out of the ordinary—frankly, the gremlins ended up looking a lot like baby aardvarks—but they took a bit of a winding path to get there. Originally, my designs were deemed to goblin-like, which was a problem because the gremlins really needed to be distinctly separate from goblins. What Art Director Jeremy Jarvis wanted to get across with the design was that these things caused damage but did so without any intent or malice. Destruction was just a side effect of their being. That sentiment immediately led me down the path that produced the first drawing of a gremlin:

©Wizards of the Coast

Sure, things evolved from there (I ended up giving them another pair of legs, bigger eyes, different proportions and various color treatments), but this was how they started, and from there I got to explore them quite a bit.

I'll be getting to those explorations in a future post, but for now here are two important things to understand about Kaladesh and its gremlins: first, in the world of Kaladesh all of the machines, vehicles and contraptions runs on this magical element called "aether" that swirls about in the sky and is harvested by great airships. This aether is blue and glowy, and it is the thing upon which gremlins feed. Second, as stated above, gremlins destroy things and do so unintentionally—they're probably not even aware that they're doing it. As the design evolved, it was decided that gremlins secrete an acidic and corrosive oil from their skin and this is what does all the damage. This corrosion is typically indicated by a purple and green crust that forms on metal.

Anyway, after working so hard on the little guys it should be no surprise that when one of the Art Directors inquired as to whether I had any requests for assignments that requested a gremlin. And a gremlin is what I got in Demolish.

For some reason during this period of time I was out of the habit of saving my actual assignment descriptions, but this one I remember fairly well. I was asked to paint a gremlin laying in the remains of a mechanical construct called the Chief of the Foundry. The gremlin, having just fed on the aether running the device, has a telltale glow and sits among the wreckage as the remaining aether dissipates around him.

Pretty simple in concept, honestly. In delivery, however, I knew it would be a bit of a challenge. The primary cause of this challenge is that mechanical constructs really aren't my strong suit. I mean, it's a lot of straight lines, gears, and reflective metal. I knew I could do it, but I also knew it would be a heck of a time investment to really make the image sing. Fortunately, I didn't have to worry about so many specifics in the sketch. I knew pretty quickly what I wanted to do with it and tore through my preliminary quickly in order to give myself as much time as possible on the finished painting.

©Wizards of the Coast
The advantage of getting away with sketches like this is that I get to merely indicate aspects of the mechanical construct rather than fully articulating them. While there are some recognizable shapes in there, the rest is just scribbles. I knew I'd have to reconcile that when the time came to paint the piece, but for the time being I was just hoping the fine folks at Wizards liked where I was headed. Fortunately they were. Unfortunately, I was once again reminded of how not having everything planned can sometimes be a headache.

The thing is, the style guide for a world like this has a wealth of information. It had examples of decorative gears, various types of filigree, and even basic shape language. I knew that in order to keep the construct feeling like the Chief of the Foundry, that I needed to nail a few key components. So, I kept the head and chest plate in as well as a few legs and hip joints. Then I started adding additional parts of the creature's design jumbled together. Beyond that I really didn't know what to do. Deconstructing something like this is pretty beyond me so in order to figure it all out I started asking some serious questions like: do these things need wires? I mean, they don't run on electricity, they run on aether so does that even require wiring of any kind? What about pistons? How do the joints work? Etc., etc., etc.

While there is a degree of importance to making it feel believable, it took a long time to realize that I was probably overthinking things. After all, I'm not an engineer and these questions were just a distraction. Answering them was only tangential to the success of the piece. In the end, my biggest issues would come from how reflective to make the metal and how accurate the reflections needed to be. I discovered the solution to those issues as I painted. Because of the jumbled nature of the construct's remains, I found that the more accurate and reflective the metal became, the more difficult it became to read the piece. It became harder and harder to see the larger shapes among all the reflections. Luckily, the gremlin was always easy to see given how different he is from the metal, but much of the construct's remains became visual noise that I decided I needed to quiet down and simplify.

So, what started as a panic to try and figure out the inner-workings of a fictional, aether/mechanical-driven construct ended up being about paring things down and making things readable. In doing this, I effectively painted much of the piece twice.

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished painting is oil on paper on hardboard and measures sixteen inches wide by twelve inches tall.

One of the saving graces of this painting is that the various elements I was asked to include in the piece had relatively limited palettes. The construct was sort of a brass color with red and blue accents. The gremlin was a pinkish color with purple accents and its corrosion the aforementioned green/purple. The aether was vibrant blue. These few colors in their variations meant that the piece could be accomplished with a relatively limited palette. It also meant that I could utilize things like the red accents on the metal and the purple of the corrosion to move the viewer's eye around the composition. Lastly, the shock of bright blue juxtaposed next to the bright, fleshy pink was really valuable in terms of hammering home a focal point.

In a very real way, this piece probably represents the most effort I've ever put into a Magic painting. There's a lot of stuff in there and the fact that I ended up reworking vast areas of the piece meant it ate up a fair amount of time. That I struggled with it and came away with something I actually like is no small miracle to me. So often I have a difficult time getting past the adversity I experience in the making of a thing and end up with strong negative associations. This one, though, felt like a real win—even at the time.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Tangleclaw Werewolf, Fibrous Entangler

As part of the concepting team that brought world of Innistrad to life back in May of 2010, I did not expect to get a chance to revisit that world beyond in the assignments to come. I figured that upon completing my last piece for that expansion block of Magic, I would be done with that world of gothic horror forever. I was wrong. Magic would return to Innistrad, and while I was not officially on the concept team for this new sojourn, I ended up contributing a few things since I happened to be in the Wizards of the Coast office for something completely unrelated. I also got to paint a few things. Here is a tale of two of those paintings.

One of the new card types Magic introduced in the original Innistrad block were double-faced cards for changeling creatures. On one side would be Dr. Jekyll, on the other, Mr. Hyde. In this case (as in many others), the double-faced card represented a werewolf. In the first go around with Innistrad, I got to do art for one of these (link). This time, however, the art would require something a bit different. The starting point would be the wolf rather than the human, and card's other face would reveal the horror that that wolf would become.

While I could go on about Magic's storyline and the implications for the sets "Shadows Over Innistrad" and "Eldritch Moon," suffice it to say that this return to Innistrad reveals that something has entered that world and has begun to change it. People and creatures are becoming deformed, buildings are changing shape, tentacle-like vines are cropping up everywhere. There is clearly something more horrifying than usual going on. The result being that much of the art done for these bits of story required some pretty weird deviations to the usual Innistrad nightmares.

Anyway, I seem to have lost my art descriptions on these two but as memory serves, in the first piece I was asked to paint a werewolf with some minor, subtle deformities in an alley. Perhaps there might be some people running for their lives. In the second piece, I was asked to depict the horrifying, tentacle-covered creature that that werewolf turned into about to pounce on a villager. This horror needed to be somewhat recognizable as having been a werewolf at some point. Seemed pretty clear to me, and so I went to work.

©Wizards of the Coast

Here's our werewolf with a few elongated fingers and hints of tentacles in his fur.

©Wizards of the Coast

And here's our horror, lunging at a poor villager.

The Art Director approved the werewolf piece, but felt I could push the horror further. It was decided that the creature felt too much like a werewolf, and so I was asked to give it another go.

©Wizards of the Coast
This one, they liked and they gave me the green light.

©Wizards of the Coast

Here's the finished Tangleclaw Werewolf. The painting is oil on paper on hardboard and it measures twelve inches wide by nine inches tall.

©Wizards of the Coast
Here's the finished Fibrous Entangler. The painting is also oil on paper on hardboard and measures twelve inches wide by sixteen inches tall.

Looking at these pieces, I don't have a lot to say. I don't have any distinct memories of working on either one and I remember them being pretty straightforward. The only thing that really sticks out at me on these pieces is how dark I got with both of them. I treated them more graphically from the start and I feel like that's somehow evident even in the finish. Normally it takes me a while to build up to the level of darkness seen in this work, but I remember going for those darks pretty early in the painting process. Maybe it was the gothic horror aspect of it, maybe it was the digital color studies I'd done, or maybe these pieces were just in my comfort zone. Whatever the case, they came pretty easily for me, which is unusual.

In the end, I'm pretty pleased with how both paintings came out. Subject matter-wise, they have a pretty small audience and probably aren't the kind of thing most folks want to hang in their house, but that's hardly the concern of the assignment. Whatever the case, they're done and out there, and I get to move on.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Fevered Visions

I've failed miserably at posting regularly on this blog. Honestly, I can't really say what has kept me from keeping up to date for most of this year, but I know that I've gotten other stuff done along the way. I updated my website, built a store there, got a few things done around the house, and even got to go on vacation. Beyond that, though, it's been a bit of an off year for me to this point, and the blog has suffered. However, I shall endeavor to finish the year strong and bring the content up to the present in the coming weeks. That all starts here. With Fevered Visions.

So, Fevered Visions. It went pretty smoothly and had virtually no twists and turns. I got my assignment, did my sketch and painted the picture. As usual, we'll start with the assignment:

ART DESCRIPTION:Setting: INNISTRADColor: Blue and red spellLocation: See belowAction: This spell represents a cultist going mad from the influence of cosmic truths. One way to show this might be: show a close-up of a man's face, a terrified expression on his face. He's floating in an insane nonsensical landscape -- it looks like the inside of a massive brain, and tentacle-like neurons squirm around him, mimicking the look of Emrakul lattice. Maybe his eye sockets are empty, and we can see the lattice shapes inside his empty head, as well. Is this a glimpse inside the truth of reality, or has he gone totally bonkers? OR BOTH?

I read the above and somehow ignored it. Well, I ignored bits of it. When presented with a description like this, I tend to spend a lot more time thinking about it than actually drawing it up. I start out by reading the description a bunch of times and then walk away and let it sink in. Maybe mull some of it over. After a time, I'll begin to ask myself a series of questions about the piece in order to prioritize aspects of it, and better understand how I want to attack it. In this case, I asked things like: How close are we to the figure? How am I going to show an empty head? How do I even begin to touch on some of the abstract themes mentioned with a single image?

For me, the idea for the piece came together once I settled upon two things. First, I decided not to bother showing that the head was empty. I wasn't really interested in doing yet another body horror piece, and I felt it was going to be a bit difficult to truly pull off at card size when the environment itself seemed to be more vital to the image as a whole. Second, I decided that the piece needed a way to connect the space and the mental states described in the art order in order to get at the core of the concept. For me, the obvious way to make that connection was through the eyes.

Once I'd figured out the solution to the problem, the rest of the piece was pretty academic. The shape language of Emrakul's lattice is not actually too different from how neurons are actually shaped, so making that connection was easy. Beyond that, it was just a matter of figuring out the best way to present the whole thing. Here are the sketches I turned in:

©Wizards of the Coast

Upon doing the bottom version, it became instantly clear that it was a lesser image. Somehow, despite showing more of the face and hammering home the expression of horror, the idea itself felt watered down. Also, the sketch felt to visually connected to Duress, a piece I did years ago that had no connective tissue to this piece. Still, I'd bothered to make the sketch, and so I submitted it.

This was a bad idea.

There is a common school of thought throughout illustration that if an illustrator submits multiple sketches, the Art Director (or editor, or committee) will invariably chose the one the illustrator likes the least. The best way to combat this is for the illustrator to give them only sketches of things that the illustrator wants to actually paint. By submitting this second sketch, I opened myself up to the possibility of having to paint something I was unhappy with from the outset, and that is truly a miserable experience. Fortunately, the Art Director in this case was smarter than me and the first sketch was the one that was approved.

So I took it to paint.

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished painting is oil on paper on hardboard and measures fourteen inches wide by eleven inches tall.

This assignment was one of an increasingly rare breed where I got to do some deeper problem solving. The piece could have been a dude floating in space amidst a web of neuron lattice with maybe a hint of that lattice within. That might have been a fine painting, and indeed there are some who would have knocked that piece out of the park. For me, though, that image fell short of addressing the mental state. I needed to find a way to allow the viewer to more directly ponder whether the man has plugged into something deeper, or whether the whole thing is of his own creation. The resulting painting is probably no less distressing than that other version, but I think it ended up being more about the question than the man.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Sword of Feast and Famine

The Sword of Feast and Famine is likely the highest profile piece I've ever done in the eleven years that I've worked on Magic. Sure, other cards I've done art for are more ubiquitous, but this one has had greater fan and collector interest than pretty much anything else I've ever done. One might think that because of the card's weight, the assignment would bring with it an extra degree of pressure and stress. Honestly, though, I didn't feel it. Maybe I should have. In truth, I approached this piece the same way I might approach any other.

Normally, I'd start out with art description, but the art description contains a lot of stuff I'd end up having to explain and so I'm just going to cut to the chase and give the explanation. Story-wise, we find the world of Kaladesh in the middle of the Inventor's Fair. Widgets and doodads of all varieties are on display for all of Kaladesh's citizens to peruse and consider. The Sword of Feast and Famine is one such item and I was asked to portray the sword sitting on a stand in a display. The sword was to be elven in make and design and so would be made of both wood and metal. The metal would be near black in its darkness, the wood alive and flourishing.

The shape of the sword was based largely on the ground work done by the team of concept artists that created the world-guide. Elvish motifs and design were fleshed out quite clearly and it was pretty easy to extrapolate the sword's look. Beyond that, I decided that rather than living wood, vines might be a better way to make clear the contrast to the deadly metal blade. In my thinking, vines provided two advantages: 1) I could more densely concentrate lots of living leaves and greenery in order to hammer home the life/death contrast, and 2) vines provided a means of transitioning from one material to another more easily. Sure, I could have integrated wood pieces throughout the sword, but I felt the contrast between the black blade and living plant life was visually a bit too stark and could benefit from a greater degree of nuance. So, being able to wind vines throughout felt more advantageous in that respect.

Additionally, the vines afforded me a small story-telling opportunity in that I could show them becoming less healthy as they approached the blade. Given that the healthiest vines exist at the hilt of the sword, one could go as far as to say that the hilt and its connection to the living wielder represents life and the blade, death. No new ground broken in any of that, nor is the idea particularly deep, so I totally understand if you're rolling your eyes at this point. But it ended up being a part of the thinking that went into the piece.

Outside of the sword, I had to make decisions about the environment and the display. Given that the sword is elvish I though it would be a good idea to reflect that in the design of the stand, as well. Rather than living wood I used dead, sculpted wood (which I guess you could say is dead because it made contact with the sword?) in order to keep the greenery where it was most important. After arranging the elements I had, I ended up with a pretty balanced composition and I decided to double down on that with a symmetrical backdrop of curtain and metal filigree.

This is the sketch that resulted:

©Wizards of the Coast

As you can see, the sketch is digital. Increasingly I've abandoned traditional sketching for assignments for the digital alternative. While it's disappointing to collectors, I have to say that the speed with which I can ideate and create alternative designs is something I rather enjoy. Perhaps I'll return to sketching traditionally sometime in the future, but for now I feel it's working rather well for me. If nothing else, it affords a quick means of doing color and value studies.

Anyway, the above sketch was approved. Here's how the piece came out:

©Wizards of the Coast
Above is the image as I submitted to Wizards. Some of those who've seen the resulting card online have inquired about whether there was any digital trickery used in the making of the image. My answer to that is yes and no. Digitizing any painting—be it through a digital camera or scanner—can be a bit tricky. Minimally, there is a need to do some color adjustments to make the digital image match the painting. For my work, there's often a need to retouch little ridges of paint in brush strokes that catch the light and cause tiny reflections in the file. It's painstaking work, but very necessary. Beyond that, I might do a bit of tweaking, like making an area darker or brighter depending on what might help make a piece read better when it's reduced to card size. That is the case with this piece. There were a few metal reflections that I painted in oil that I later found to be distracting and I dialed them down a bit in Photoshop. Later, I glazed the painting to match. Here's what the painting itself now looks like:

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished image is oil on hardboard and measures fourteen inches wide by eighteen inches tall.

The very decorative world of Kaladesh has many challenges inherent to it. The biggest of these in this context, is the fact that the world is so heavily adorned with filigree, that it's potentially difficult to show that one thing is more important than another. For this piece, I tried to keep the filigree to a relative minimum, make the shapes nice and large, and compose in a very simple and instantly readable manner.

In the end, I'm pretty happy with how this one came out. I like the overall contrast between the red/brown piece and the shock of green. I like the isolated black shape in the middle of the piece. And despite its triteness, I like the bit of storytelling with the dying vines. I only wish that that bit of storytelling read better when shrunken down. I think it's probable that however I tried to deliver that message, it would have gotten a little lost at card size. Even were this idea presented in a film, it likely would be been done with a closeup. Fortunately, anyone who sees the painting in person can get up close to it and do that part themselves.