Friday, August 18, 2017

Scavenger Grounds

For the collectors, players, and fans of Magic: the Gathering, months separate the release of one set from the next. For the artists, that separation simply doesn't exist. And for me the sets all tend to flow together. As soon as have I handed in one assignment, the next rolls in and the two assignments can be sets—or literally be worlds—apart. As a result I can sometimes have a difficulty remembering which card is from what set, and this difficulty is exacerbated by the addition of code names, temp card names, and finally the real names of both the sets and the cards upon release. It's a lot to keep straight.

Anyway, immediately after coming off of the Greater Sandwurm assignment I was again asked to revisit the subject of the Amonkhet sandwurms, but this time in a very different context. For this new piece I was asked to show a wind-blown, black sand desert with bones strewn about, the centerpiece of which would be the skeleton of the sandwurm in question.

While the wurm itself was depicted in the styleguide Wizards provided, the wurm's gross anatomy was not. So, figuring out exactly how to design a sandwurm's skeleton was the difficult part. While a "worm" is an invertebrate, and thus has no backbone, a "wurm" is a different thing altogether. Classically, the creature called a "wurm" is a just a dragon, but Magic typically has pushed its "wurms" in much more of a "worm" direction. So, I split the difference and started by looking at snake skeletons.

While a snake skeletons were a good place to start, they don't quite fit the design of the Amonkhet wurm, which is far flatter and has the vague appearance of being segmented. What to do, then? Make stuff up. Sure, I looked at a lot of different creatures in an attempt at making informed decisions, but truthfully the solution was largely just playing around with shapes until I found something that was satisfying and felt like it might actually fit inside the wurms as they were depicted in the styleguide.

©Wizards of the Coast

Were I to design the thing all over again, I think I'd go a different route and maybe rely more on snake anatomy and find away to flatten it out believably. Instead, I got hung up on the idea of them being segmented and tried to find a way to sell that. As it was, the fine folks at Wizards approved the piece and I was off to the races.

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished painting is oil on hardboard and measures eighteen inches wide by fourteen inches tall. It was art directed by Cynthia Sheppard.

In terms of painting the piece, it was among the easier pieces I've ever had to paint. There was very limited color, so it felt more like a value study than a full-fledged painting. The work went smoothly and I'm pretty happy with the results. Sure, I'd make some different choices were I to do it again, and sure there's some stuff that I had to fudge to make it work, but I think I managed to get what I wanted out of the piece in terms of mood and atmosphere. Most importantly, this was a fun piece to work on. Seriously. This one was a win.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Greater Sandwurm

This post is overdue, but it has a bit of crossover with the next post, so it's kind of worth having pushed it back to be in closer proximity to talking about Scavenger Grounds.

Anyway....

So, Greater Sandwurm.

Within the style guide for Magic's world of Amonkhet, there was a sandwurm that I believe was designed by Victor Adame Minguez, who was a member of the concept team that built the world. I was asked to paint such a sandwurm, but bigger. Much bigger. The wurm would be rising up above the horizon as it plowed through a band of mummies shuffling through the desert.

I'm not going to lie, I looked forward to this assignment with relish do to a variety of art nerd reasons. It wasn't the wurm itself, nor the world it inhabited. It was that I had a clear vision of the lighting in the piece and was looking forward to the challenge of getting it right.

As I've discussed before, my work tends to go pretty dark value-wise as I paint it. I don't exactly spot blacks in the dark areas or anything, but a lot of times shadow areas of my work get dark enough to seem that way. The result is that I feel that a lot of my work lacks the degree of luminosity that I'd like it to have, and I wanted to see if I could do something different with this piece. That the wurm was white and the desert was brightly lit was a big help, I just had to find a way to restrain myself from diving too deep into the darker end of my palette too quickly.

Approaching the piece, I had a clear picture in my mind that I was pretty passionate about. I had a definite idea of the composition and moment I wanted to convey, I had a clear idea of the color and value structure, and what narrative there was to convey fell easily into all of it.  I was pretty eager, so I dove into Photoshop and knocked out this sketch:

©Wizards of the Coast

When asked to paint a giant sandwurm rising up from the horizon, it's kind of impossible to avoid a Dune vibe. Rather than try and fight it, I feel like it's just better to embrace it, instead. I doubt that I'll ever be on the list of aritsts someone asks to illustrate that classic, but I enjoyed the chance to reference the world of Arrakis while I could.

Unfortunately, when painting a sandwurm rising from the horizon, it's also kind of difficult to not paint a giant phallus. And that, as was pointed out to me by a fellow illustrator, is exactly what I'd done with the above sketch. That's not necessarily a huge issue, mind you, after all there's plenty of stuff we see every day that is phallic. In this case, however, it felt blatant enough that it could be mistaken for being intentional (which it wasn't), and that's not something that Wizards would want to deal with. More importantly, my fellow illustrator felt that the wurm's pose was a bit dull and I kind of agreed, so I revisited the sketch.

©Wizards of the Coast

Though I think the revised pose had a positive impact on the piece, there's a real part of me that prefers the original version—dull, phallic (or both) or not. I feel like the the image is more balanced and the composition appeals to my love of starkness. Plus, the pose insinuates scale and weight in a way that second version just doesn't. Lastly, it also nods more firmly to the aforementioned Dune vibe (but that bit's not exactly within the parameters of the assignment or Wizards' needs).

That being said, the folks at Wizards liked the sketch and I went on to the final.

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished piece is oil on hardboard and measures sixteen inches wide by twelve inches tall. It was art directed by Mark Winters.

Looking at the piece a little over a year after I painted it, the question of balance still nags at me. After revising the sketch, I kept moving the wurm within the piece further to the left only to end up putting it back in its original position. I did this probably a dozen times, and will all that pushing and pulling, I never really found a final placement that made me completely happy. Obviously, I settled on a placement at the time, but I'll never be one hundred percent certain that it was the correct call. Right now, I feel like I should have moved it further left, tomorrow I might feel like it's fine where it is. When I see it framed, it'll probably cause the debate to begin anew, but we'll have to see.

So yeah, there's something that nags at me on this one, but I can't say I dislike the painting, either. In fact, there's a lot I'm really happy with. I didn't quite nail the degree of luminosity I was hoping to achieve, but I got much closer than I expected to. Additionally, I like the limited color palette and I enjoy a lot of the details throughout—especially the mummies, the blowing sand, and the landscape beyond. I'd call it a win.



Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Amonkhet Swamp

Basic lands tend to be pretty simple, straightforward processes for me. There aren't characters to live up to, there very rarely are strict designs to imitate, and rarer still is a ton of back and forth between me and the fine folks at Wizards. The swamp I did for Amonkhet kept that streak going.

The art description asked for a desert swamp. A spring or trickling stream perhaps creating a marshy area in the desert with some scrubby plant life scattered about. The sunlight would bet weak as well, so this wasn't going to be a cheery landscape conjuring thoughts of fertility. All of this sounded just fine to me.

There are folks who will ponder the apparent oxymoron that is a desert swamp. While most of our mental images of deserts are sand-covered, hot and dry, this actually doesn't define the biome. Deserts are just places where very little rain falls, and a lack of rain doesn't mean there isn't any water present. Deciding how much of that water existed and how it interacted with the land was going to be the hardest thing to decide.

I tried the idea of a bubbling spring, but it somehow had too much life to it. The swamp I was being asked to depict wasn't meant to have evoke the idea vitality, so an active spring felt at odds with the goal. Instead, I decided that a very shallow stream from an unknown origin might be better. I put that stream in a bit of a gully to add the impression that at some point there may have been substantial water moving the land, but no longer. What remained was not much deeper than the stones it washed over and was as much a mud pit as it was a body of water.

Here's how the sketch came out:

©Wizards of the Coast

Two oddities in this sketch are that it is in color and also includes some painted-over and manipulated photo elements. Both are a rarity for me. If I colorize a sketch, it's typically only after I've gotten approval, when I spend a bit of time puzzling out some color choices before committing to paint. This time I felt that the color was necessary for clarity since a lot of the mud and water lacked separation in black and white. I think there are three colors used in total.

The photo elements are admittedly a bit lazy. I could have articulated all the dried grass, mud and stony shallows myself, but it would have taken more time than I wanted to spend, frankly. I knew I'd be painting the entire thing from scratch and articulating all that detail as I worked on the final piece. The idea of having to do it twice wasn't something I wanted to get into at the time. I don't think I've included photographic elements in a sketch since this piece, however. Nothing against using photos, but it doesn't feel like a particularly organic part of my process.

Anyway, the fine folks at Wizards gave it the go ahead and I took it to paint. Here's how the finished piece came out:

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished painting is oil on gessoed hardboard and measures eighteen inches wide by fourteen inches tall. It was art directed by Mark Winters.

Basic land images like this may be beautiful, but in general they lack any real hook or deep problem solving. Because of this, I kind of feel like they're out of place in the broader body of my illustration work, and so I don't typically include them in my portfolio. These landscapes fall into a weird category. I like them and think they represent good examples of the quality of my work, but at the same time they don't feel quite like they're a good representation of what my work is actually all about. All of that would make a lot more sense if I could rightly point out what exactly my work is actually all about.

So then why not include this piece, my basic forest (link), or any of my Theros lands (forest, plains, island, swamp, mountain) in my portfolio? Maybe it's a fear of becoming pigeonholed as "the landscape guy," maybe it's the feeling in my gut that they're somehow a whole different genre, or maybe it's because those images fail to tell any kind of story. There are plenty of pieces in my portfolio, however, that contradict some or all of the potential reasons listed above. Plenty of that work tells no real story of substance, the inclusion of the architectural landscapes disproves a blanket prejudice, and based on the assignments I get there is no real danger of my becoming just a landscape guy. I think what it all boils down to is that the landscape pieces in question simply don't feel like fantasy and I am (mostly) a fantasy illustrator. While none of the landscapes I've painted actually exist, they feel very much like they could. They seem equally grounded in our world as the worlds they represent. Part of that is due to the assignment and the rest is due to my sensibilities. Either way, the end results feel set apart somehow.

Despite not seeing them as straight-up fantasy, boy are they a lot of fun to paint. That bit is paramount. Doing lands of any type—even if they contain architecture—are among my favorite assignments. Seriously. They're criminally fun. And I have truly been spoiled by the opportunities I've gotten to work on land art over the years. Even better, for the most part I've really liked how my lands have come out and the Amonkhet Swamp feels like a tick in the win column. Here's hoping the opportunities continue.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Black Lotus

The vast majority of the work I do has no baggage attached to it. Most of the images I create are for things that have never existed before and so there's little to nothing to live up to. On the occasions where this wasn't true and I have re-illustrated things that have had previous iterations, the stakes simply weren't that high. Being asked to paint a new image of Black Lotus is a whole other thing. Black Lotus is big. Really big. There's very little else that comes close to it in terms of notoriety in the world of Magic: the Gathering. There were only 1,100 copies of the original card ever printed and individual cards have sold for more than $27,000 a piece. This is the kind of thing that some people steal for and others use as an investment. It's a totally different level than I am used to.

To an extent, all of that is largely irrelevant to me and this assignment. This painting wasn't for a new printing of a Black Lotus card and so wasn't going to be for anything that vast playerbase could ever use. The original Black Lotus artist, Christopher Rush, will likely be the only person to ever have seen his version in physical print form. The only other artist to have painted a version, Chris Rahn, at least had his image utilized in Magic: the Gathering Online. My version was going to be a prize painting—a one-off—to be given to a tournament winner at the Eternal Weekend event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania this coming October.

By "prize painting" I mean just that, a painting that is a prize. It's like a two dimensional trophy. I've painted one of these before (link), so I knew the drill upon getting the assignment. For the most part, such paintings are new illustrations of rare, out of print (and sometimes game-breaking) Magic cards. These paintings tend to be set into a large, printed card border and framed. It's like one of those giant novelty checks one sees when someone wins a golf tournament or the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, only there's an actual painting inside it and unlike its novelty counterparts is actually worth something.

But despite this being a one-off, it's still an important piece that would make for a pretty valuable prize and would make me a small part of the Black Lotus' history. Just another assignment, right? I'm not going to lie. I felt the weight of it.

Usually, I'd include my art description at this point. But now's as good a time as any to explain that I won't be doing that any longer. Instead, I'll be giving a summation of what was in the assignment, rather than quoting it directly. Before anyone jumps to any conclusions, this is not due to a mandate from Wizards. I've not been silenced in any way. I'm making this choice because someone actually wrote the art descriptions and they deserve credit, but it's credit that I don't know how to give. Wizards employs writers who toil away at hundreds and hundreds of art descriptions a year. Then the written descriptions get edited and tweaked both by other writers and even the art directors before they pass them along to us. Who is responsible for what is simply something I don't know and it feels weird quoting someone else's work without giving proper credit. As it is, I edit the descriptions to varying degrees in order to summarize or remove references to things that aren't ready for public consumption, so fumbling through translations of sorts is only a small next step. I hope you all understand.

Anyway, in the art description I was asked to paint the black lotus in water. Wizards wanted the lotus to have metallic leaves and stems. I was asked to include some natural lotuses as well, so as to offset the black lotus and its unnatural state. And that's about it. What they were looking for was pretty clear.

After absorbing the description and its various parts, the first thing I did was start looking for pictures of lotuses and collecting them. The second thing I did was start reading more about lotuses only to find out that most of the images I'd collected were of waterlilies and not lotuses (the two major points of difference being: 1) that waterlily leaves float on the water's surface and lotus leaves tend to be above the water; and 2) that lotus flowers have a different structure in their center than waterlilies do that includes a seedpod). So back to looking for pictures of actual lotuses this time. Once I'd gotten enough of those, I started pondering the metal leaves. For this, I grabbed some wire and aluminum foil. I sculpted leaves out of the foil, taped them to wire and stuck them in the ground in my backyard so they were facing lots of greenery, then photographed them with the appropriate light. Additionally, I dug out a Christmas ornament we own that is a silver maple leave and photographed it in the same setting.

Reference in hand, I started thumbnail sketching.

Based on the timing of the assignment, I knew this was going to be the last painting I'd work on of 2016. Both because of that fact and the weight of what I was being asked to do, I wanted to really knock it out of the park. Given that my wife had to work through the holidays, I decided I had some time to experiment and try some different things in the process of making the painting. Of late, I've gotten into the habit of doing my sketches digitally, but I've always really loved Dave Palumbo's painted sketches. I wanted to give that a try, and so I did.

©Wizards of the Coast

I painted two different sketches. Both of these are oil on hardboard and each measures seven inches wide by five inches tall. While the second sketch doesn't deliver on the assignment's concept, I thought I'd give them an alternate take. Additionally, I went into the first sketch digitally to offer up a couple other options for a total of four.

©Wizards of the Coast

Option "A" was pretty much what they'd asked for in the art description. Option "D" was my alternate take. Option "B" was along the same lines as the art description but with a small tweak. Since the art wouldn't be printed as a card, I really didn't need to worry quite as much about the image being readable at card size. There was opportunity for a more subtle take. I thought it might be interesting to restrict the metal in the leaves to only the leaf veins and stems, leaving the rest of the leaf to the normal, green, organic variety. Finally, option "C" was inspired by a Christmas ornament I rediscovered when digging for the aforementioned silver leaf to photograph for reference. Option "C" keeps the black lotus leaves metal, but gives them a green hue. In all versions, I decided to make the lotus' stamens, stigmas, and seedpod metal as well, limiting the only organic aspects of the lotus to the the black petals themselves.

The fine folks at Wizards decided to stick with option A.

Before committing to the finished painting I looked at the calendar and realized I had the time to experiment with my process even further. I decided to try a color study. While I've never really painted a traditional oil color study before, I have been doing digital color studies on an increasing basis. Since I'd already painted two sketches, I figured it was worth trying my hand at a painted color study, as well.

©Wizards of the Coast

The study is also oil on hardboard and measures ten inches wide by eight inches tall.

The study allowed me to work a few kinks out that I hadn't completely resolved. It also gave me something pretty developed to show my peers in order to get some solid feedback before moving on to the finish. The feedback was quite useful (thanks to all of you who put their two cents in), and I implemented most of the suggested changes to the color study, choosing to hold off on the remaining changes until I began painting the final painting.

Speaking of the finish, here's how that came out:

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished piece was completed in early 2017, is oil on hardboard and measures eighteen inches wide by thirteen inches tall. The entire process was art directed by Cynthia Sheppard.

Between preliminaries and the finish, I made some changes to the metal leaves both in placement and scale. Additionally, I subtly changed the metal leaves' surfaces. In the preliminaries I treating them as basically smooth but shifted their appearance to better imitate the subtle bumps and ripples found in actual lotus leaves. Outside of that, the finished painting was just a more polished version of the image that was a tad more consistent with the reference I had.

Whether any of the process experimentation was valuable remains to be seen. On some level I learned a lot and I went into the finished piece with a higher degree of confidence. On the other hand, I felt like the painted studies had removed any experimentation I might otherwise do in the painting of the finished piece. In short, painted the final piece felt rather rote. Whether I paint sketches in the future or do any painted color studies seems somewhat unlikely for the vast majority of my commercial work. Even for my personal work I feel like so many developed preliminaries would undermine much of the spontaneity I quite enjoy. All that being said, I still think it was worth trying and I was glad that I had the time to do it.

In the end, the result is what it is. I'm rather happy with it, but there will always be folks who feel that there is only one true Black Lotus painting, that being the original by Christopher Rush. Then there will be those who look at Chris Rahn's take on the subject done for Magic Online as the more definitive. I have no control over such things and it's hard to argue with the various points of view. It's like trying to argue with someone over which cast of Saturday Night Live was definitively the best if you even believe there is such a thing in the first place. Point is, folks will either dig mine or not.

Regardless of fans' and collectors' feelings, I'm now weirdly part of Magic history in a way that I didn't ever expect to be. I mean, I've contributed a fair bit between my concept art and the many paintings I've done, but the Black Lotus is singular among fans and collectors of Magic: the Gathering. And whether I like it or not, the Black Lotus painting I've done will be equally singular in my body of work.

Still, this job did offer up a unique event that I will remember for a long time to come. Once it was done, I drove the finished painting down to Renton, Washington and delivered it by hand to a very eager art director. I felt bad since I was interrupting her lunch, but I have rarely felt the degree of appreciation and excitement professionally as when she took the painting into possession. That was a good day.

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.

Anyway...

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:
ART DESCRIPTION:
Setting: NOT SETTING SPECIFIC
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.