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.


  1. I admit that, early on, I hated alterations too. It felt like I was being asked to vandalize paintings that I'd worked hard to make beautiful. I didn't get it, and I let fans bully me into doing crap I didn't want to do.

    "It is likely that it’s not even about value, so much as having something special and unique."

    I'm a gamer. I KNOW alterations are about fun, not about added value. I do alterations now, but I limit the number and I no longer hate doing them. I'm asked to do them on a limited number of my images (the "fan favorites"), and I've got a stock way of doing them that's not a lot more work than signing them. I write a comic-book-sound-effect "BOOM" on my Lightning Bolts, for example, that the gamer in me finds quite satisfying.

    If you don't like doing them, just tell the fans. They're generally very polite folks (and the ones who aren't, shouldn't get extra goodies anyway).


  2. Chris,

    This post is actually a response to many emails I got after the Bochum event. Rather than write a lengthy explanation to each individual, I decided to write this.

    I guess part of my reluctance is just how pushy certain people have been. For instance, there was a guy that approached me repeatedly at Bochum on what seemed like an hourly basis trying to find a way to make himself the exception to my rule. At the same event there was another guy that got angry with me. That makes me want to do alterations even less.

    As for the added value/fun of it all. Several people at many events have stated it was for one reason or the other - or both! So, it IS about added value to some people. But I really don't care why someone wants it done. Their reasoning doesn't change how I feel about doing it in the first place.

    I certainly don't begrudge those who do alterations such as yourself, and I appreciate that you folks who do them keep from hammering me over the issue. Each of us, in life, must do what we are comfortable with. Perhaps some day I'll relax about how aesthetically offensive they are to me. Perhaps not. I just get asked about it enough to address it.


  3. I agree completely with both of you. I have seen some interesting alterations done by artists other than the card's original artist. However, those artists have time that a convention or an appearance does not allow the original artist. I can also see where the card's original artist would see the process as defacing. If someone did that to my art I would probably feel the same way.

    I have to say I am surprised at the market that alterations have created on eBay. It is an interesting way to bring life (read as hide defects) of highly played (read as abused) cards. Both of you rank among my favorite artists (Magic and otherwise) and I think that fans should respect an artist's decision to alter or not alter cards.

  4. Adrian,

    Thanks for your input. Your points are well taken. I think there's room for all opinions on the subject. Some people will dislike me for my policies on this. Some people will be indifferent. Such is life.

    I can't say that I feel that alterations deface the art, so much. After all, the original oil paintings exist and are (hopefully) intact in their original forms. If people want to alter their own stuff, I'm not going to complain about it so long as they don't insinuate that I'm the one who did the altering.

    For the most part, I have had nothing but respect from the fans and collectors out there on my decision. The fans throughout my tenure have been extraordinarily gracious and I feel really lucky to have any fans at all. No matter what, I'll continue to sign, write dedications for, draw for, take pictures with, and chat up anyone who wants it, as long as there's still demand. It's the least I can do. Alterations just take me out of my comfort zone.


  5. lol, the alterations I do don't add value (I can't imagine how, anyway). The painted alterations I've seen are another issue entirely... they can be gorgeous if done well.


  6. Chris,

    Yeah, the kind of thing Terese Nielsen does is gorgeous. I wish I had the time or the patience to work at such a tiny scale, but I'm trying to force myself to work bigger, not smaller!



I welcome all comments, questions, and discussion so long as you keep it civil.