Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More Sensory Deprivation

As I said in my original post about Sensory Deprivation, the image of someone with their eyes and mouth sewn shut is hardly a new idea.  For proof of this fact, I was pointed to another image by writer, Magic player, and sometimes reader of this blog, John Dale Beety.

©Wizards of the Coast
The image above is that of a card from a game once known as "Jyhad," but which changed its name (for what I think are obvious reasons) to "Vampire: the Eternal Struggle." 

What strikes one off the bat is that the name of the card is exactly the same.  So is the concept behind the image.  If you look at the bottom of the card, you'll notice that it has a copyright of 1995, and that the copyright is held by none other than Wizards of the Coast, the company which produces "Magic: The Gathering" (for which I produced the aforementioned Sensory Deprivation image).

©Wizards of the Coast
So.  You've got the same company.  The same name.  And the same concept.  Naturally, what Mr. Beety wanted to know was whether or not there was a connection.  Was this some weird callback to a game from sixteen years ago?  Did the fine folks at Wizards gravitate toward the sketch for this image for some meta reason?

As much as the answer "yes" might make for a good story, I'm afraid that the answer is no.  I went ahead and spoke to the art director, Jeremy Jarvis, regarding this image and he assures me that there was no conscious attempt at referencing the old image.  Nor was he aware of anyone working on the team (writers, concepters, etc.) who had also worked on Jyhad/Vampire.  It's also worth noting that the working title of the image wasn't even "Sensory Deprivation" to begin with, it was "Dead Senses."  Not a far stretch, but I think it further proof of there being no intended reference.

Of course, all this begs the follow up question of whether or not I was the one attempting the reference.  Again, the answer is no.  I've never played Jyhad/Vampire.  In fact, I've only seen cards from the game a few times.  And I hadn't seen this one until Mr. Beety sent me an image.

Why, then, are the two so similar?  Well, personally, I think it's mostly due to tropes.

I have no idea what Richard Thomas' art order looked like nor do I have any idea what his art director was looking for in the image.  Still, I think it's clear that both Richard and I were likely batting in the same ballpark.  The entire game he was working on was based on the tropes of horror, and that is what the Innistrad expansion set (which my Sensory Deprivation is part of) happens to be about, as well.  In fact, Innistrad is a virtual checklist of horror tropes.  Everything from werewolves, Frankenstein monsters, zombies and even the mobs of angry villagers are accounted for.  And the moment you have a bunch of these concepts at play, with all the stitched beasts and medieval torture that buttresses such things, I think it was only a matter of time before someone broached this idea — especially because the concept works so well with the game mechanics and also because the idea itself is not fictional, which in turn perhaps makes it all the more horrifying.

Given all that, I think it's pretty safe to say that Richard Thomas and I were not only shooting for the same kind of Gothic atmosphere common in such horror tropes, but we were likely both trying to find the most horrifying way of depicting what is clearly the same concept. 

Despite all this, there are some key differences that I think are obvious, but worth noting.  Whereas I stopped at the sewn eyes and mouth, Richard pushed the idea even further with sewn ears and nostrils.  If I'm honest, I got really hung up on the visceral tugging of the mouth and eyelids and just never took the next leap.  Part of me wishes I'd thought to.  Also, my image has more of a mid-struggle approach, whereas Mr. Thomas' image leaves one with quite a different vibe.  There's still struggle — the tension is clear as day — but with everything so sewn shut completely, there's an air of finality, of futility, which depending on the kind of person you are may be even more disturbing.

What strikes me about all this is just how similar the pieces ended up being in palette and composition.  The fleshtones are a little pallid with hints of pink, the hair in both is fairly dark — even the backgrounds have a bluish hue!  Also similar is the scale.  We both went for closeups of the face for a good, clear shot.  These similarities can't just be coincidence, can they?

I'm betting they're not.  I looked at the idea of someone in such a condition and figured that they wouldn't get out much.  Hence the pallor.  The pinkish bits are born of the blush of frustration and tension.  And I chose blue for the background because it sits well and because it would offer up opportunities to pull that color into the face in fun (for me) ways.  Composition was mostly due to a factoring in of reduction.  I had to make sure that everything read clearly when shrunk down.  It's entirely possible that Richard Thomas' decisions were made in a similar fashion for similar reasons.  Or, it could be that we've both seen the same image at some point — be it from a movie or an old painting somewhere — that stepped forward subconsciously to help guide the reins.

Either that or Richard Thomas and I are the same person.

We're not the same person.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sensory Deprivation

Up front, I'm going to warn everyone reading this that it contains an image that is easily among the more disturbing that I've ever painted.  Some might find it pretty hard to look at and if you're not into looking at what is essentially torture, then I suppose you might want to skip this post and catch up with me later.  That being said, it's a new image and I thought it worth sharing.

So, this is the last image I have to show for the new Magic: The Gathering, Innistrad expansion set.  It's called Sensory Deprivation, and it began its life with this description:

Color: Blue spell
Location: Unimportant
Action: This is an abstract piece representing the loss of a person's senses. Show an extreme close-up of a man or woman whose eyes and mouth have been replaced by wrought-iron bars like the windows of a prison. His/her mouth is open as if he/she is screaming, but there are bars in front of the dark, toothless mouth. His/her pupils are gone, and bars cover the eyeless sockets.
Focus: The victim
Mood: My senses are dead to me.

There are a lot of images that flashed through my mind upon reading the above, and in a way, it's more than a little disturbing that the wealth of ideas that did come came so freely.  But it's the nature of my personality, my influences, the books I read, the films I watch, and the genre I've been neck deep in for the last decade.  It's also the partially the result of all the horror flicks I've been forced to watch over the years by my wife and friends (I'm personally not a fan).

Here then, are the top three images I tossed the way of Wizards for their consideration.  They are done initially in pencil and then very sloppily added to with digital paint.  While they are among some of the worst sketches I've ever handed in, their frantic nature belied the vibe I was going for, so I went with it.

©Wizards of the Coast
First up we have the literal interpretation of the image described.  I'm not going to lie, this was also my least favorite.  In fact, I felt like I might have seen the image before, but they asked for just such a thing and I thought it wise to give it to them.  Still, I wanted to try to add my own spin, so back to the drawing board it was.  Here's where that exploration took me:

©Wizards of the Coast
Given that we were dealing with more of a metaphorical image to begin with, I thought it might be interesting if the bars weren't just a fixture in the various sockets, but rather a fully realized physical entity that the face had somehow intersected and grown around, much the same way that a tree will begin to grow into a chain link fence only to eventually envelope it.

The main problem I had with this image was that it smacked of Terminator 2, but since the entire set of Innistrad was about horror tropes, the image being familiar wasn't necessarily a problem.  What bothered me was that it fell short of how visceral I wanted the image to be.  There is less room for struggle in it than I wanted.  It somehow needed to be more about struggle and the physicality of that struggle.  So I took it into a new direction with less a metaphorical twist and more a realistic one.

©Wizards of the Coast
Let's face it, sewing a mouth and eyes shut is hardly a new idea.  But, it was the perfect way to get across the struggle and victimization that I wanted to really nail.  This is, after all, something that has been done to someone.  Bars in the eyes and mouth just don't have that same feel.

Now, on a business note I think it worth stating that under normal circumstances, when handing in multiple sketches, more often than not, the client will decide to go with the image the illustrator is least interested in fully realizing.  This has happened to me on many occasion, but somehow didn't happen with this go around.  They saw the third version, and decided that sewing was better than bars.  So off to work I went.

The first thing I did, as usual, was to hunt down reference to bolster the concept as much as possible.  Then, I added to that some rather embarrassing reference photos of me struggling on the floor that my wife took.  Upon seeing these photos, I decided that the opportunity to turn this piece into a self-portrait was too good to pass up.

Once everything was collected, it was all about the paint, and let me tell you this painting went FAST.  It now holds the record for the fastest Magic piece I've ever painted clocking in at a tiny bit over 17 hours.  It's not quite as visceral as I'd like it to be, but it's far looser than I typically work and was a lot more fun than most.  And here it is:

©Wizards of the Coast
It's 12"x9" oil on hardboard.  And here it is in card form:

©Wizards of the Coast
Curiously, the image being a self-portrait turned out to be kind of prophetic.  In truth, I feel about as bound as that image depicts.  As I write this, I am going through one of the worst bouts of creative block I've ever been through.  Thankfully, my professional work hasn't suffered.  Unfortunately, my personal work has.  I'm completely and totally lost in my attempts to pull together a personal piece or two that I am hoping to show at IlluxCon this year.  I have spent the last week trying to cobble together something that I actually want to paint.  Figure out some though or feeling that I want to convey.  Thus far, I just can't seem to get anything off the ground.  Not with any sort of confidence, anyway.

I have thrown out two ideas that I'd put a fair amount of work into, and the one I like still feels half baked enough for me to set it aside for a while.  I like the image, but I want to do it right and I know that my head space just isn't right for it just yet.  All the cogs have not clicked into place.

The overall problem may be that I have thought about this all too much.  Or perhaps too little.  I have no idea.  What I may try is to go in without any plan at all and see what happens.  It's entirely possible that I'll need to be as blind as this self-portrait to see my way out of things.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Grimoire

So, I've been off the radar for a little while due to a variety of issues ranging from the distractions of work to now having to share our household's sole computer with someone trying to build a website for herself in the name of finding a new job.  For the next couple weeks this spotty posting will likely continue, but I do have some interesting tidbits planned — some of which I will unabashedly hint at in this very post.

But I digress.

So, Magic's expansion set of Innistrad has been revealed and along with it a couple new pieces of art.  The one I'm going to talk about to day is the Grimoire of the Dead.  What's a grimoire?  It's a book of magic.  So it's a book of the dead.  A magic book of the dead.  Never heard of that one before, have you?  You have?  Oh.  Well this is one of those.  Here's the art order I received:

Color: None (artifact)
Location: Unimportant
Action: Show a large tome bound in human skin with finger bones along the spine. Show it on a creepy pedestal. Maybe there are demon heads carved into the pedestal.
Focus: The evil book
Mood: Check this book out. Go on, I dare you.

Pretty straightforward stuff for a book of the dead.  Well, standard if you read and watch a lot of horror.  The first thing I did was went through the shelves of books I own.  Several of said books are very old — early 20th Century old.  While not ancient, they have a well-used feel to them and they're leather bound.  It was a good start.

So I start drawing various versions of the book.  I ruled out early on having a clear face on the cover of the book as that's been done with so many previous necronimcons (necronomica?).  Still, I wanted to have a clear bit of humanity in there to drive home that it was bound with human skin.  It needed to be instantly identifiable.  In the end, I though it would be nice to reference the finger bones on the spine of the book and have a clear hand on the cover.  But just the skin of the hand, of course.

I added a clasp for the book carved from a jawbone with the teeth slipping just over the front cover, designed a pedestal, then drew it all up and sent it off.  This was the sketch:

©Wizards of the Coast
As suggested, I put some demon and devil heads into the pedestal design.  In truth, it makes for a pretty bland sketch and if I'm honest, I was worried about the finished piece being equally bland.  Still I had a few tricks up my sleeve: lighting and mood.

So, I shot reference of one of my older books in my creepy basement, then went online to start a search that undoubtedly landed me on some sort of watch list: I began to look for images of human leather.  I was actually kind of happy to find a relative lack of imagery on the subject, but what I did find was... helpful.

Once the collection of reference was complete, I went to paint.  This is the finish:

©Wizards of the Coast
It's 12"x9", oil on hardboard.  And here it is in card form:

©Wizards of the Coast
As you can see, they've cropped in a bit on the image for clarity's sake.  This is something I generally don't care much about.  They have to do what's best for their product and generally make pretty decent choices.

Now, one of the questions that comes up frequently is how I know what things are supposed to look like in these pieces.  For example, how did I know what the devils on the pedestal looked like?  While I should probably have addressed this as a frequently asked question sometime earlier, I'll give you all the short answer I give at appearances now, but I must confess that I had a pretty good idea to begin with.

For each expansion set, a book is created called a style guide.  It's a visual bible for each Magic plane that gives the 80-90 artists working on a given set a baseline example of architecture, fashion, creatures, landscapes, etc., so that they are all clearly illustrating the same world.  Sure, they bring they're own stylistic choices to the table, but there need to be certain design consistencies to keep the artwork feeling connected.  And that's the guide's primary purpose.

But who creates the style guide?  Well, that depends on the set.  There is certainly a consistent cast of characters involved with each guide, but the contributing artists tend to rotate in and out.  For this world, Innistrad, I was fortunate enough to be one of the artists.  And at some point soon, I'll share with you all my experience, the specifics of what I contributed, and maybe if I'm lucky I can get a word out of those who sat beside me, as well.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Ten years ago, I was living in Woodside, Queens, waiting for my wife to make it home from downtown Manhattan.  When she finally caught a train and arrived back in our neighborhood, I ran out to meet her.  The relief I felt was indescribable, but unfortunately was not something universally experienced.

Several months later, the Society of Illustrators commemorated the events of that day with a show that I helped hang upon its walls.  Asked if I had anything to contribute, I sheepishly said that I'd started a piece but admitted that it wasn't finished.  I was encouraged to finish it and add it to the show.  This was that piece.

It's not brilliant — in fact, I wouldn't say it's particularly good...but, it's all I was capable of at the time.


I think the piece is 16"x20", oil on canvas board, and I wish it was a more fitting tribute to what this day represents to so many.