Monday, November 29, 2010

The Move

We temporarily interrupt the semi-regularity of this blog to bring you silence. 

I am currently awaiting the arrival of our movers who will be picking up the pieces of our lives, putting them in boxes and cramming them in a truck.  I will have no internet for a week and even if I did, I'd likely be too preoccupied with the reassembly of our lives in our new environs to write much.  Hopefully something entertaining will come out of the move that I can share with you all.  If not, I have an epic tale of a cover painting gone wrong in the months ahead.  It'll be worth it, I assure you.

Random good news for the move:

Today is beautiful and dry.  Amy and I have made the movers' work a little easier by never having completely unpacked from the last move.  Most of my artwork is packed in the suitcases that I drag with me to conventions and can easily withstand the abuse provided by airlines.

Random bad news for the move:

The weather forecast for Wednesday (our moving in day) is rainy.  The vast majority of the pain and suffering lies ahead of us.  I'm tired and the coffee isn't helping.

There it all is in a nutshell.  I'll be back as soon as is practicable and I hope you all a nice week.

Monday, November 22, 2010

An Open Letter To the Sketchbook Circles

When I was in high school, a buddy of mine used to sit at the lab tables (which were in the back of the classroom) instead of the desks in my Advanced Biology Class.  Our teacher, Dr. Freeman, would hold the class at bay waiting for him to seat himself at a desk rather than a lab table, all the while inviting him to “join us.”  It took a bit of coaxing, but he’d eventually come around and sit with the rest of the class. 

Now, to the sketchbook circles at conventions I offer the same invitation: Join us.

While sketchbook circles are something that may have existed at conventions long before I came into the picture, I personally have only recently run into them, myself.  Basically, a sketchbook circle tends to consist of a bunch of young artists and illustrators who, rather than socialize and hang out with the older, more seasoned professionals, choose instead to stick their heads in their sketchbooks, often sitting in a circle with seemingly little socialization even with their neighbors.  At least, that’s how it seems.

While I am usually of the opinion that an artist should draw, then draw some more, and when they’re finally tired of drawing should continue to do the same, there is a time and place for everything.  The way I see it, the seasoned professionals at these conventions are a valuable resource, and not engaging them, listening to their stories, and generally getting to know them is a waste.

Join us.

It has been my experience that the fantasy and science fiction genre of illustration is full of the most open and generous artists I’ve ever met.  They’ve been willing to teach me all manner of things, critique my work and give me advice.  Some have even become friends.  This didn’t happen because I sat on a hotel lobby floor hunched over my sketchbook.  This happened because I put myself out there, asked questions, solicited their thoughts, and had a laugh or two with them. Put simply, we got to know each other.

While I appreciate that drawing is vital to the betterment of your artistic abilities, you just paid good money to attend a convention and sit at on a hotel lobby floor and draw —something you could have done at home for free.  You know what you can’t do at home?  You can’t talk to the likes of Donato Giancola, Todd Lockwood, Michael Whelan, Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, or any other artists of their ilk that may be at your disposal at said event.

Join us.

Seriously.  There are folks out there who would love to get to know you, but aren’t going to engage you while you’ve got your back turned with your nose in your sketchbook.  Opportunities to talk with a lot of these folks are fleeting.  To not drink deeply from this well is a shame — not just because of what you’ll miss, but because of what some of the illustrators standing around and chatting might miss, as well: you.

I will grant you that what I ask can be very intimidating.  It took a long time for me to get the guts to even say word one to some of the folks I mention above.  In fact, there are certain illustrators that I STILL have difficulty talking to after many years of knowing them.  I still stutter, hem and haw.  After all, what does one say to their heroes?  But I’m asking for the difficult — not the impossible.

Understand, also, that I’m not suggesting that you completely abandon your drawing circle nor your friends and acquaintances therein.  Bring them along, in fact!  Have a laugh, try to press the flesh, share a drink, and listen to a tale or two.  Tell a tale or two yourselves, even!  Engage these folks — even if you’re nothing more than a wallflower at first, as I once was.  You may hear a horror story that you can learn from, or a funny story that has you howling…or you may be bored to tears.  But, you won’t know if you don’t give it a try.

Again, it was quite difficult for me at first, but the effort I put into getting over my fears and talking to folks with more experience under their belt has resulted in benefits beyond what I could have imagined.  So, next convention put your sketchbooks down for a night.  Talk to a couple people.  Get to know someone.  Sit back, have a laugh, and

Join us.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Frequently Asked Question 2: Alterations

Do you do alterations? Or, will you alter the picture for me?

First, let me explain what this means to the uninitiated so we’re clear on what this entails. I do a lot of work for Magic: The Gathering, a collectable card game. Given the collectable nature of the game, it is often desirable to some people to have an artist physically alter the card’s image in some way, in order to have a unique version of the card. A very small original piece of art, say. Here is an example of what I mean:

I mocked this up digitally.  It does not exist.
I hated doing it, but it's for clarity's sake.

So, to answer the question: no.

There are a couple reasons for this, but first and foremost is that I don’t like doing them. To my eyes, the end result always looks pretty bad.

For the most part, I’m asked to do alterations at conventions and other appearances. At these appearances, the tools at my disposal are very limited and usually include a variety of Sharpie pens, paint pens, ballpoint pens, and pencils. The ballpoint pens and pencils are right out due to the fact that they damage the surface of the cards. I avoid using paint pens at all costs due to the drying time. So, the primary tool for the job is the trusty Sharpie in all its various sizes and colors.

Even the finest point Sharpie is too unwieldy for the job, due to the fact that the printed illustration on every Magic card is a mere 2 1/16 inches wide by 1 1/2 inches tall. It’s basically like drawing with something the size of a broom handle on a standard letter-size sheet. No matter what you do, the alteration feels horsy and ham-fisted.

Another problem with the Sharpie is that it doesn’t play well with the picture. The ink just sits there on top of the surface, not even remotely integrating itself into the image. No matter what I do, at best it ends up looking makeshift, and at worst it looks like an afterthought. (For more about my complex on this matter, I invite you to read a previous entry, “The Circle On the Oaktag”).

At this point you might remind me that I have, in fact, done alterations in the past. This is true. It took doing them to realize that I don’t like to do them. Plus, I stumbled upon an alteration that had been done by someone on a card that I had signed. The fact that my signature and an alteration were done on the same card insinuated strongly that I had done said alteration. I hadn’t. It was enough to make me want to stop and so I did.

In all reality, I have no sense of whether or not alterations add value, subtract value, or have no impact. It is likely that it’s not even about value, so much as having something special and unique. While I appreciate that, I can’t bring myself to continue to create these little drawings that cause me to cringe.

In truth, I regret every alteration I’ve ever done, but am a little relieved to know that there are probably less than a hundred out there. But of those hundred or so, only one has written upon it, “Last Alteration Ever” and is thus the only alteration I kind of like.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Moving Pictures

Behold!  A Magic viral ad that features a couple of my pieces that have been animated. The ad is for the Mirran faction currently featured in the Magic expansion set Scars of Mirrodin.

See:  The Grand Architect waving his arms about!

See:  A piece I can't say anything more about!

See:  Other people's work!

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Grand Prix and Me

Villa it says in the picture.
©Steven Belledin
This past weekend, I got the opportunity to go to Germany as an artist guest for Magic’s Grand Prix tournament in Bochum.  One of the weird coincidences about this opportunity was that my wife and I had to cancel a trip to Germany last year and were planning on rescheduling for this year.  So, when the offer was made we jumped at the chance and tacked on two weeks of travel to my appearance.  In short, it was awesome.

Berg Eltz...well part of it, anyway.
©Steven Belledin
I will forgo any discussion of the vacation.  No one likes sitting through anyone else’s vacations stories.  Unless of course, those stories are about how terrible the vacation was.  As the vacation was everything I’d hoped and more, I will sum it up thusly: we ate a lot, drank a lot, drove a lot and enjoyed ourselves immensely.  Germany’s a great country, and the place that my family once called home.  I look forward to going back again soon.

Neuschwanstein Castle
©Amy Belledin
So, about that Grand Prix…

For the uninitiated, Magic: The Gathering has a very strong organized play community.  These organized events are held all over the world and consist of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people playing Magic for cash and or valuable prizes.  That this organized play is still running strong after 17 years of the game’s existence is phenomenal to me.  To be asked to appear at one of these events as a guest was even more phenomenal.

©Amy Belledin
The event took place in Bochum — a mid-sized town just 45 minutes northeast of Cologne.  A fun fact about Bochum is that the musical play “Starlight Express” has been running there consistently since 1988.  By now, I would expect that every German citizen must have seen it at least once.  Just next to where “Starlight Express” plays 6 times a week was the home of this particular Magic Grand Prix, the RuhrCongress.

What the organizers expected was around 1,000 Magic enthusiasts vying for a variety of prizes.  What the organizers got was over 1,800.  To the layperson, that may not seem like a whole lot of players, but trust me when I tell you that it is.  Especially when many of those fans have stacks of cards an inch thick for you to sign!

The Playing Masses
©Amy Belledin

This is the first time I’ve ever been to an event where security was necessary.  Not because folks were tearing my shirt off or anything.  Rather, they were there to shut the lines down so that we could get a lunch break in, or go to bed at night.  It was pretty surreal for me. 

As a fan of many things, I understand the desire to get signatures and meet the people responsible for the things I love.  I just don’t understand it when it applies to me.  I’m just some guy who bumbled into being an artist on Magic.  It never occurred to me that there would be fans attached to that.  It never occurred to me that someone might want me to make an appearance.  I’m just some guy.  A guy who happens to paint the weird and wonderful from time to time.

Ah yes, the magical ropes...
©Amy Belledin
Nevertheless, there I was in Bochum.  With a line.  A line that wound its way back and forth between ropes.  And there was security.  I just kept rubbing my eyes and looking about in wonderment.  It was amazing.  Why?  The fans!  Some of them fans of my work.  Some not.  But, forget whether they like my work or not — they’re fans of Magic!  They’re fans of the game!  A game that I still giggle about getting to work on!  After all, it’s a dream job, and the Grand Prix a dream!

I met many great folks while there — folks from all over the world.  Germany, Luxemburg, Brazil, Spain, The Netherlands, France, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, the U.S.  All there to play the game.  There to have fun.  Even the ones who’d lost were enjoying themselves.  It was a great crowd.  Seriously.

Signing away the hours...
©Amy Belledin

I chatted them up, got interviewed twice, drew a whole bunch and signed until my hands hurt.  All the while, I sat there in awe, blown away by the path my life and career had taken.  It was a blast!  I mean, really.  Most folks would dread having to work the last two days of their vacation.  I loved every minute of it and would do it all over again!

For the opportunity I have to thank Dieter Schoeters and his crew.  How they pull off and coordinate these events is something that lies beyond my realm of understanding.  You guys treated me better than I deserve and I thank you all.  To the people of Germany, I thank you for accepting my meager attempts at speaking to you in German, and I also appreciate your willingness to stoop to English when I failed miserably to get the message.  I do not know if I’ll ever get a chance to appear at another tournament in some other foreign land, but I sure am happy I even got this one!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Link To An Interview

Here's an interview I did for Wizards of the Coast while in Bochum (link).  It was a bit difficult to talk and sign at the same time, but I somehow managed.  Plus, Tim Willoughby (the interviewer), did a pretty good job paraphrasing when necessary in order to turn a random conversation into something a bit more clear.

I do have quite a bit to say about Bochum, but I figured this would be a good primer.  More later on what I'm told was the 5th largest Magic Grand Prix ever.