Friday, April 22, 2016

From Under the Floorboards

During Magic: the Gathering's first visit to Innistrad, arguably one of my more successful pieces was a little painting of a zombie called, Gravecrawler. At least I think so. Sure, it's horrifying. Sure, it's disgusting. Sure, it reveals how warped my mind can be sometimes. But, boy was I happy with how that one came out. The finished piece was about as close as I'd ever come to recreating what I originally saw in my head. So, when I was asked to do a new painting of zombies for Shadow's Over Innistrad, I was practically vibrating in place. Unfortunately the finish didn't quite make it to the level of Gravecrawler, but there's some fun stuff going on in From Under the Floorboards. And there's even a bit more fun that didn't make it into the card.

As usual, it all started with an art order:
Color: Black spell
Location: Some interior location with wood floors (see below)
Action: Some creeping vines have weakened the wood floorboards of an old mausoleum or church. The floorboards fall away, and out of the hole crawls three zombies. The zombies clamber their way up out of the rotten-wood pit, hungry for the flesh of the living.
Seemed simple enough, so I went to sketch and here's how that came out:

©Wizards of the Coast
To a certain extent, I thought it would be fun to reference Gravecrawler in the central zombie. It wouldn't be an explicit tie-in and is by no means canon, but I was hoping to channel on some level a degree of the success I'd had in the previous piece. I got approval for this, and went to paint.

As I reached the middle of the painting process, for some reason I started to think about the description. "Three zombies," it said. While there were only three main zombies in my sketch, there were others insinuated. What if there was an explicit reason for there to be three zombies? What if it was part of the card's mechanic? I decided it was a good idea to shoot my art director an e-mail for clarification. It was a good catch. Three was the number we wanted to count to, with the number of counting being three. And so I eliminated most of the additional zombies, save one. The last I removed digitally.

Here's the piece as I turned it in.

©Wizards of the Coast

There's a fair bit of digital trickery going on in the painting you see above. First, and most importantly, I painted out the one, additional zombie and added a bit of debris in his place. Second, I recognized that the vines were too thin to be legible at card size, so I fattened them up a bit. I was pleased enough with how these thicker vines came out that I ended up going back into the original painting to do the same. Overall, I was pretty proud of my ability to blend the digital with the traditional. But honestly, it wasn't that difficult a job to begin with. Either way, if the folks at Wizards noticed, they never said a word. In fact, they approved it as is.

Still, I really missed the zombie in the sketch whose head is just beginning to rise above the floor level. He's barely more than a shape, but there was something about him that amused me, and so I kept him. Here's what the the original painting looks like with that zombie still included:

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished piece is twelve inches wide by nine inches tall and is oil on hardboard.

This was one of the most difficult pieces to color correct that I've ever painted. Seriously. It took forever. It's still not 100% right, but it's as close as I've been able to get with what Photoshop skills I had at the time. Upon rescanning the piece for this blog post, I took another shot at it and got a bit closer. So, I guess maybe my skills have sharpened a bit since last year.

If I had any complaints about the piece it's that it feels a bit murkier than I'd like it to. For whatever reason, I went darker faster than I usually do. In fact, it got dark enough that I'm fairly sure it wasn't really necessary to paint out the extra zombie at all. Seriously—he's hardly visible. The piece is dark enough, in fact, that I fear I may have undermined any figure/ground separation that might have helped the image read clearly when shrunken down.

Additionally, from a purely artistic level, this is a rare occasion where I feel like more would have been better. Zombies? More zombies! Debris? More debris! Let's just pile it on! Unfortunately, while that might have made for a more interesting piece to me, it would have failed to solve the needs of the assignment. After all, three was the important number here. Still, it would have been a lot of fun to paint even more zombies bursting out of that hole.

All that being said, I still dig the piece quite a bit. It's weird and fun, and pretty creepy. It's not exactly reinventing the wheel or telling any epic story. It's just zombie's busting out of the floor. But what fun it is to paint such things. Still more fun is that I'm never working on anything long enough to grow tired of it. One job is a mythical landscape, the next a mad scientist. Then it's on to zombies.

This gig can be stupid levels of awesome.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Invasive Surgery

In the past couple of years, Magic has revisited a number of its worlds and for the first time, Magic's storyline has returned to a world I helped build: Innistrad. Once again the game would explore the gothic horror genre and while I wasn't deeply involved as a part of the world-building team for the story's expansion, I was pretty excited about getting a chance to dig into the weird and wonderful plane, its brooding atmosphere, and it's varied inhabitants.

Invasive Surgery — the first piece assigned to me — was a great opportunity to dive into the deep end of the horror inherent to Innistrad, and I was ready to roll up my sleeves.
Location: In a mad scientist's lab
Action: Show a close-up of a female human "mad scientist" who is crouched over her test subject -- an exposed brain. (It should be pretty bloodless -- maybe we only see brain matter through a square in a sheet, or maybe the subject's opened head is angled away from us.) She looks like she's about to go taking samples from this brain -- maybe she has a small bowl in one hand and some sort of drill-like scooping tool in the other. She leans in with slightly twitchy glee, eager to take her first scoop.
Focus: The mad scientist
Mood: "This is for SCIENCE!"
Reading the art order and looking at the world guide reference, it seemed pretty obvious to me what the fine folks at Wizards were looking for, and so I went at it. Here's what the sketch ended up looking like:

©Wizards of the Coast

Balancing the needs of the piece was a little tough when pulling this together. I really wanted to show the patient's face and the description clearly was steering me away from that urge. I tried to find a compromise everyone would be happy with. When I got my feedback, the need for bloodlessness in the piece was reiterated and a request was made that lengthen the fabric covering the patient's face to just below the tip of the nose. Simple enough, and still allowing for some degree of showing the patient in some way. After agreeing to the changes, I went to paint.

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished piece is the usual oil on hardboard and measures fourteens inches wide by eleven inches tall.

While there are the usual tweaks I'd make to this piece and things I'd like to fix, I'm pretty happy with the final painting overall. If nothing else, it was a really nice reintroduction to the insanity of Innistrad and a fun chance to touch on parts of the world that I didn't get an opportunity to depict during the last go around. Honestly, for me there's nothing quite like getting to paint a manic lobotomist enjoying herself while plying her trade — even if it does make for another in a long line of creepy images I've created for Magic: the Gathering. This would only be the first from this new Magic set to to add to that pile of work, however...

Friday, March 11, 2016


Here's a random image from a while ago. Not sure how it got past me, but I stumbled upon the painting in my flat files the other day realized I never posted about it.

No real story behind it, really. Like other pieces before it, I took a some gessoed hardboard and started making marks in oil. No sketch, no real goal, just slapped down, random oil marks. Then I started wiping into those marks with a brush and thinner or a rubber blending tool. Then I'd push back with more paint, then back to wiping, etc. Once I started to see something develop, I worked into it to clarify the image until I could start to see a finish in my head. At that point, I finally began working toward the finish.

The nice thing about working this way is that it's immediate, forgiving, and very low stakes. The absolute worst case scenario is that I end up with a half-baked image that can be scraped away or a surface that now has a ton of random marks on it that I can work on top of. Neither of these scenarios particularly bothers me. Plus, because of the small size, we're not talking a lot of wasted materials, either (assuming one would consider exploration of one's medium without usable results a waste—which I actually don't).

©Steven Belledin

The finished painting is five inches wide by seven inches tall and is oil on gessoed hardboard.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Brief Stop

Later on today, I'll be headed to Vancouver to attend my first Magic tournament in over a year and a half. Before I go, I figured I'd quickly share the painting I did for one of the exclusive playmats available at the event.

The assignment for the playmat was simply to make an image with some sort of ties to the Vancouver area that still felt like it belonged to the greater world of Magic: the Gathering. So I painted this:

©Steven Belledin

Essentially, I depicted a couple of local mountain peaks known as the Lions in the background and included Vancouver's official city bird of 2015, the chickadee, as well as Vancouver's official city bird of 2016, the peregrine falcon. Obviously I played with scale a bit, but it is meant to be a fantasy painting after all.

The finished piece is twenty inches wide by fourteen inches tall and is oil on gessoed hardboard. Those attending the Grand Prix in Vancouver will have an opportunity to check it out in person if they're interested.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Gladehart Cavalry

In great contrast to Goblin Dark-Dwellers, Gladehart Cavalry was a bit less straightforward, though the art description wasn't weird or complicated or anything. I simply was asked to paint three axe-wielding elf warriors mounted on the backs of antelope-like creatures called gladeharts. The blades of the axes, as well as the eyes of both the elves and gladeharts needed to glow green. The piece was to have a majestic, parade-like atmosphere and feature some elven architecture in the background. None of this should have been an issue, really. The designs for elf costume, elf architecture, the axes and even the gladeharts were provided. What could possibly go wrong?

I read and reread the description, looked over my reference, doodled a bunch of things and finally arrived at this sketch:

©Wizards of the Coast

While not my best sketch, it is hardly my worst, but immediately after handing it in there was a problem. This was the point at which I learned the image I was working on was alternate art and that Dan Scott had already depicted this crew. The fine folks at Wizards were kind enough to supply Dan's image for clarification and it became obvious to me why there was a degree of concern. Unfortunately, we'd made a lot of similar decisions and there was a concern that our images were too alike. So how did this happen? Well, there are a couple reasons and one of the biggest contributing factors was my fault.

If you go back through the blog, you'll find that in some of the previous instances where I've made alternate art for Magic, I've been a bit disappointed when I've furnished with an image of the original piece. It can, on some level, be very limiting. And, given the level of talent Wizards has at its disposal, it can also be quite intimidating. My preference would be to not get a copy of that original image, and this is something I'm confident I've expressed in front of one or more of Magic's Art Directors. I suspect that the Art Director I was working with in this case was deferring to my preferences (which was very kind of her, but in all honesty she needn't have listened to the my silly ideals), and the result was a certain degree of parallel creation—or rather, two people coming up with roughly the same thing simultaneously.

That that occurred in this instance is not very surprising. We have three riders on animals with horns that are best depicted frontally. Were you to change perspective even by forty-five degrees, the spacing of the horns starts to present problems in composing an image where all three riders, their mounts and their weapons remain clear and visible when reduced. It's not impossible, mind you, but it wasn't where either Dan's or my gut instincts took either of us.

Now, are the images alike? Yes. We made the same choices in the make-up of the party and even how they're dressed. Were there still differences? Plenty. Was it impossible to further differentiate the two images? Not at all. And that is all the Art Director ever asked of me. She was concerned (rightly) about the similarities of the pieces, but rather than make me go back to the drawing board (which was entirely her right had she wished it), she trusted me to push my piece in a different direction from Dan's using a palette of violets, oranges and greens. Truly I was spoiled by the level of trust.

Beyond that, we agreed that keeping some of the crowd in the piece was valuable, but altering the upper tier of onlookers (that's what those scribbles in the background of the sketch are) might not be a bad idea for clarity's sake. With that, I was approved to go to paint.

©Wizards of the Coast

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

There are aspects of this piece that I think worked out okay, and others that I feel could have been better. The biggest issue is that I continue to wonder if eliminating the top tier of elf onlookers was a bad idea or not. While I like the contrast of the cooler violet color behind the central figure, I wonder if the composition wasn't a bit stronger with that horizontal shape spanning the piece as in the sketch.

As repeat visitors can attest, I doubt myself quite fairly often when it comes to my work and I'm never entirely sure how useful such doubts really are. The painting is done and handed in, after all. On the other hand, I suppose that such feelings are a positive sign that I still care a good deal about making the best images that I can and trying my very best to never let a client down (not to mention let myself down). So I guess I've got that going for me...which is nice.

The obvious remaining question is whether or not I've changed my mind about seeing the original versions of art when called upon to do an alternate take. I think I'd still rather get a chance to create with a clean mental slate, but I recognize that it's not always practical or even practicable. In the end, I just have to trust my Art Directors to make the call.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Tyrant of Valakut

For someone who had no real drive to paint dragons, the last couple years have forced me to get into them in a fairly large way. Lots of drawings, a few paintings, tons of discussion and analysis (not to mention many a headache) was the result. But if I ever thought that my time worrying about dragons was done at the end of the Tarkir block of Magic, boy was I wrong. In terms of preliminary drawings, color studies, the number of images pulled from the internet for reference and total man hours, this piece represents quite an investment in still more dragons. Or rather one dragon. The Tyrant of Valakut (Intro Pack Version).

Here's the art order Wizards gave me:
Color: Red creature
Location: top of a cliff (use pp. 43-46 in the World Guide as a starting point, but make it your own)Action: Show us an immense dragon perched on a rocky cliff. See the dragon on p. 163, but remove the back protrusions. This dragon is thicker with several sets of tusks that protrude from its lower jaw. Its wings are unfurled, as it stands triumphantly over a medium sized dead Emrakul-lineage Eldrazi spawn (see pp. 228-230).
Focus: the dragon
Mood: Raw power. The uncontested master.
After soaking in the information from the description for a bit, I started doodling in my sketchbook in an attempt to grope my way toward a solution of some sort. Having to revise the design of the dragon a bit was an interesting challenge and I tried to remain fairly true to the spirit of the original while making the necessary changes and adding my own flavor to it. Here's where I started to figure stuff out:

Once I got to this point, I move to Photoshop for the sketch.

©Wizards of the Coast

The Art Director seemed to like it and gave me the go ahead. Before going to paint, however, I went ahead and did a color study.

As you can see, elements of the background began to change a bit. I found that as I filled in those large shapes with color, they began to feel uniform and a bit boring. In the end, I felt that breaking those shapes up really added a degree of interest to the piece. Still, I wasn't totally happy with it and showed it to a group of compatriots. They gave me some input and I tweaked it a bit.

A bit more broken up and a greater variety of direction in the floating mountains in the background. I was getting closer. I showed the revised version to my friends again and they had a few more thoughts. more changes were made and I settled on this:

I knew that things would likely change a bit more over the course of painting the piece, but I felt like I was in pretty good shape nevertheless. So, I transferred my drawing to the surface and went to town.

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished painting is oil on gessoed hardboard and measures twenty-four inches wide by eighteen inches tall.

As you can see, the piece became darker in the paint. This is largely due to my love of a heavier palette and the fact that I felt that the background was a little too washed out in the sketch. As I developed the painting, the darker background called for a darker dragon, as well. The added bonus of this was that it became easier to sell the molten crags in the dragon's skin. The downside is that piece isn't quite as luminous as it was in the sketch, and the overall lighting scheme shifted quite a bit. Such is life.

Painting this large for Magic is a tough thing. Inherently, a lot of detail is lost and the printed image fails to do the painting justice. However, as long as the piece reads okay at card size, that tends to not be too big a deal—at least for the purposes of the client, that is. For my purposes, I was just hoping to make a cool painting that had a degree of presence in person. I think I accomplished that. Still, I think it's apparent that this piece might fall outside ideal size for my Magic work. I'm beginning to feel that outside of landscapes, 18x14 is about as big as I can go without losing too much. That's not to say that I won't ever go this large ever again. In fact, it's likely I will should the right piece come along. Whatever the case, this felt like a worthy opportunity to go a bit bigger and it's an experiment that I'm rather happy with.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Goblin Dark-Dwellers

I use the word "straightforward" a lot when describing the process of illustrating for Magic: the Gathering. One could argue that I overuse the word, and I guess one might be right. The truth is that to a greater or lesser extent, the job becomes a bit routine. The assignment comes in, I put a sketch together, I hand the sketch in. If there are any changes necessary, I make them and resubmit the sketch. Otherwise, if I've gained approval, I spend a day or so to prepare the surface of the board or transfer the drawing (or both). Then I paint the piece, digitize and retouch it. Finally, I submit the digital file to Wizards. On average, within a week after the completion of an assignment, the process begins all over again.

Based on the history of this blog, one would be correct in saying that I often struggle with pieces. However, that's not always the case. Sometimes I'm lucky enough to get assignments that just fit into the pattern and schedule, and don't ever cause me a whole lot of grief. Such images come together easily enough for me to not feel guilty about enjoying my life at night and on weekends instead of toiling away on a piece. You know, sometimes a piece is just... straightforward. This was one of those times. As always, we begin with an art description:
Color: Red creatureLocation: underground cavern
Action: In this shot, we are looking up at three Dark Dweller goblins (see p. 109) crawling head first down a semi-cylindrical vertical cave shaft toward us. The goblins are sightless. The shaft is crisscrossed by a network of climbing ropes installed by unseen human adventurers. The shaft is lit from below by off-camera torches. We should get the feeling that these goblins are stalking someone.
Focus: the goblins
After getting my assignment, the first step in my process is always to start doing exploratory thumbnail drawings. While many of my fellow illustrators make beautifully composed drawings contained in perfectly drawn boxes, my thumbnails are a scribbled mess and rarely start in any kind of frame. The struggle for me is always to get poses and mood down first. Only after figuring out a direction for those things do I begin to compose the piece as a whole. In this case, I quickly found that I had a great deal of difficulty with the part of the description about the "semi-cylindrical vertical cave shaft." I don't know why, but I couldn't find a compelling way to sell that part of the image while keeping a satisfying hierarchy of the goblins receding into the distance. Without a doubt, there are artists who could have easily nailed this off the bat (and Karl Kopinski subsequently did a much better job of it in his version of the art), but it was a weird obstacle that became something I got hung up on.

The thing is, one can't dwell for too long on details like that as the deadline is ever marching closer, so I set that issue aside and decided to first attempt to make a piece that I found satisfying and then see if I could make that cylindrical tunnel thing work. The short version is that I decided on a piece that I liked and never got the cave's shaft to feel particularly cylindrical. Still, I thought the sketch was strong enough to submit and hoped that the fine folks at Wizards really meant it when they wrote in the description that the focus was the goblins themselves, rather than the environment they were crawling through.

©Wizards of the Coast

As stated in the description, the design for these guys was already set, so I was basically finding a way to make them work in a new context. While I think Wizards was probably thinking about more of a Gollum vibe, I kind of was thinking more of an "Alien" vibe. In the end, I think it came out somewhere in the middle.

Anyway, they dug the sketch as is and I got approval. But rather than go to paint right away, I did something I rarely do: a quick digital color study.

©Wizards of the Coast

Satisfied with where I was headed, I prepared my painting surface and went to town.

©Wizards of the Coast

The final painting is the usual oil on hardboard and measures sixteen inches wide by twelve inches tall.

In the end, I don't have a lot to say about this piece other than that I'm satisfied with how it turned out. It wasn't particularly complicated in subject, concept, or delivery, and it was a pretty quick turnaround due in no small part to the simplicity of the color palette and the size of the shapes involved. Truthfully, if I could change anything, it would be that the walls would be covered with goblins, but the assignment was to paint only three. While it would seem like Wizards would be happy to get more for the money, that's not always the case. This is a game that I'm illustrating after all, and there's a high probability that any specific numbers mentioned in an art description are tied to a game mechanic in some way — not always, but often enough to have been an issue. So, as in this case, I often go the conservative route and deliver what they ask for. Beyond there not being swarms of goblins, however, I'm pretty content with how it came out.

So that's it. Another piece down. And here it is in its card frame: