Friday, December 14, 2012

Personal Piece Update 6

So, it's been a while. Much longer than I'd intended, really. I knew I was going to be away for a bit while I was out of the country over the Thanksgiving holiday, but by no means  was I planning on being away from the blog for an additional couple of weeks. I have quite a list of reasons as to why I've been so distracted, but I'll give you the bullet points version of the biggest (if you happen to be interested).

• Rats. They're in our yard again, and I've spent an awful lot of time working on eradicating them. Poisoning, laying traps, and filling their holes is not how I like to spend my time, but it's necessary to keep them at bay and out of our house.

• Repairs. The good news is that I sold a couple pieces. The bad news is that they'd been packed away since our move from Massachusetts to New Jersey a little less than a year ago. When I pulled them out to pack them up, I realized that they'd both suffered some damage. It was worth it to me to repair the pieces and sell them, and I think I might have even improved the one. However, this took more time than I expected.

• Rumination. It's not really news that I've been in a bit of a funk of late. I'm not super happy about my where I'm at artistically. I'm not as good as I want to be. I'm not inspired. And I'm not exactly as happy as I know I should be being as illustration is basically a dream job. I feel like I'm going through the motions and that I've dropped the ball on a lot of my work lately. Weirdly, I've been assured by art directors that they're just not seeing the lapses that I do, so clearly there's a bit of a disconnect. Knowing that it's mostly in my head oddly has not helped much.

• Rumblings. Potentially a major contributor to the feeling above, there are events on the horizon that may come to pass or may not. If they do, the impact on my work life would be pretty huge. It could mean good things in the long run, but a great deal of upheaval in the short term. If you're thinking it's children or divorce, you're barking up the wrong tree and indeed are not even in the correct forest. Suffice it to say that just knowing that there are even potential tectonic shifts afoot is enough to keep me from feeling settled and truly relaxed. Some people thrive on that tension, but it's the kind of thing that makes me want to hide in the closet until it's all over. Of course, it could all blow over and end up being that thing that almost was, but until we've gotten to that point, I'll be driven to distraction by it.

Now, I started doing this personal piece for a variety of reasons. The first was that I wanted to own something again. The copyright for the vast majority of images I produce is completely bought out by my clients. Throughout my entire art education, I was constantly warned of the evils of this practice only to find that it was standard procedure in my chosen facet of the industry (fantasy and sci/fi gaming). If I wanted to do that kind of work, I'd have to suck up any objections. Indeed, the most I could hope for in the majority of cases is that a given client would let me keep the original painting and maybe sell some prints along the way.

In addition to the surrender of legal ownership, I've felt an increasing lack of creative ownership. Over the course of my 11 years in the industry, the protection of intellectual property and enforceable points of difference between companies' products has led to more styleguides, more unified aesthetics, and less personal influence over the end result. Sure, I often can chose the composition of image and its color palette, but very often the design of the elements I'm playing with are predetermined. Obviously this is not the case for every assignment, and I'm not even sure that I can say that it's true for the majority of them. And, it's also worth noting that certain clients provide a lot more freedom than others. Nevertheless, there's been a very real decrease in the amount of input I get within the body of work that I produce each year.

So, those are two of the major reasons why this piece exists. The third major reason is that I was hoping to shake myself free of the cloudy mental state mentioned above in bullet point three. Thus far, I'm not sure it's worked. If it had, I feel like I'd have finished it by now. As you can see below, I haven't.

Nope. Definitely not done. However, I think I've figured a few things out. Believe it or not, there's been a fair amount of work done on the piece since last I posted an update. Sure, there's the noticeable increase in ground covered with the background being blocked in and all, but there's a lot you might not see beyond that.

Originally, I was thinking the palette might be pretty broad. Despite appearances from the previous images, the skin tones were actually quite warm, as were were many of the darks and medium tones within the figure. For some reason, I decided that I'd rather it be a cooler piece and began reworking much of what was already "finished" to be consistent with the now revised plan. That meant repainting the face, hands, and much of the sweater, as well.

In addition to the revised palette, I decided on a plan of attack so as to perhaps complete this piece sometime soon. Looking at the image above, said plan is probably pretty self-explanatory, but I like typing so I'll just go ahead and spell it out. My goal will be to finish everything within the window frame and slowly work my way out from there. I say slowly because I will soon have assignments competing for my time, relegating this piece to the background to a certain extent. When it will be completed I can't quite say, but I know that I'd rather not rush things. I waited a long time to start bringing this piece into existence, and waiting some more to see it completed seems a small sacrifice if I end up being happy with the end result

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch

At long last I present you with the third Badass book cover. This one is for the upcoming third book in the series, Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch, and went down without so much as a hint of drama. IT was sweet.

Now, as with the previous two Badass covers, I was asked to paint an image incorporating multiple figures. Whereas the first book had three figures and the second had five, this one required four figures... and an airplane. So I guess it's kinda like five... sorta. Anyway, the initial figures requested were: a samurai, a Roman centurion, a Gulf War era U.S. Marine, and the Mapuche warrior Galvarino. The airplane I'd be depicting was a British Spitfire from World War II.

Just as I'd done on the previous two cover projects, I did my sketch digitally using separate layers for each figure. This is how that first sketch came out:

Sure it's a little rough, but it gets the point across and is consistent with the vibe set up by the previous two pieces. As you can see, I added a second Spitfire in the background and tried my best to flesh out the values. I submitted it and waited.

You may be wondering why I kept the various figures on separate layers. The answer is simple: people are prone to changing their minds. It happened on the previous two books, and this case was no exception. While they liked the overall feel of the sketch, they wanted me to replace Galvarino with Queen Boudica, and replace the Roman with a Greek hoplite. Old layers were turned off. New layers were created and doodled upon.

The resulting changes yielded this revised sketch:

Obviously I stole heavily from the Roman in order to create the Greek, but Boudica needed to be drawn from scratch.

A quick aside about Boudica. I was asked to make her sexy and have her showing some skin — but not too much skin. This is a common request in the industry and it's one I have a difficult time with. I know that kind of thing sells, but I'm personally just not into eye candy. It's not that I can't do it, it's that I don't like to. Reconciling what I want to paint with what I know is code for heaving bosoms can be a treacherous path to negotiate, and my primary focus was making Boudica look and feel more warrior-like than anything else. I did my best to cover all the bases and I'm happy to say that in this case I managed to paint what I wanted to and still please the client. I wish more of my experiences in such matters had gone so smoothly.

Anyway, after the revisions, this sketch is what was eventually approved.

Now, as had happened in the previous books, I was given images of the cover's design. Obviously, it was my job to work out just how the figures would live within the confines of that design. I knew from the start that my image would need to fit in the bottom half of the cover under a very large title. Also, title would be neon green.


Yeah. In some respects this is a blessing. I know what I'm up against visually. I can figure out a color scheme that works with the green and hopefully helps tie things together. On the other hand, it was a really bright shade of green — one that was bound to dominate my painting. Fortunately, a suggestion was made early on that the image perhaps be heavy on the pinks and purples. While this sounds like an insanely bad idea, it actually did seem to work well with the typography. So, with plan in hand, I went to paint.

Here's how it came out.

I was happier with the piece than I expected to be, honestly, and I was especially satisfied with everything that was actually going to be seen on the cover. (For reference that includes pretty much everything from the Greek guy's chest on up.) Still, there were some things that nagged at me that I wanted to fiddle with, so after a while I finally got the chance to go back into the painting and tweak some stuff.

Here's how it came out:

Most of the differences are subtle, but the major ones include a third Spitfire, some brighter highlights here and there, a larger sword in the Greek warrior's hand and a repaint of his legs. I also went ahead and signed it, which I'd forgotten to do on the first go around. The changes are really minor ones, but I felt like they made for a better painting. 'Course that's just my opinion.

The long and the short of it is that the Badass books have treated me well. I've enjoyed working on them, and I'm pretty amazed at just how well the paintings work next to one another. There's a pretty clear through-line and I'm pretty proud of that.

Incidentally, this piece will be making its debut at IlluxCon tomorrow. And while I'm plugging things, if it peaks your interest, you should check out the previous posts on all the various Badass projects (link), and maybe check out the site that's the source of it all, Badass of the Week, where you can read a bunch of cool stuff, find some info on the previous books, and maybe pick up a t-shirt or two.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Personal Piece Update 5

Painting today is going to start later than expected for two reasons. First, I had to do a little trimming of a tree damaged in last week's storm in order to hopefully mitigate any potential damage from the storm that's going to come barreling at us tomorrow. Why is this so important? Well, the tree is the tallest thing on the block and looms precariously over the driveway. Fortunately, given the direction of the upcoming nor'easter's prevailing winds, any branches (or heaven forbid the whole tree) which might fall will fall out into the street. Today's efforts were to minimize this possibility. However, should the tree fall, getting to IlluxCon will be interesting as the tree would block me into my cul-de-sac. Hopefully there won't be any stories about my harrowing escape from River Edge, New Jersey.

The second reason for the delay is due to my sudden realization that I wanted to scan a piece that I'd framed and packed for the trip. So, I had to carefully unpack the thing, pull it apart, grab the scans, carefully put it all back together, then plop it back into its box. As far as I can tell, I've successfully avoided hurting anything and now have a decent scan of the painting (whereas I only had a mediocre scan of it before).

Now that that's all completed, I'm ready to sit down and get a bit of painting done. As you can see from the image below, I have my work cut out for me. Progress has been glacial, to be sure. Each painting session has found me distracted by the face and head. I keep sitting down to get work done only to get pulled into trying to correct one thing or another that just doesn't feel right about it. So I fix it, only to see something new the following day. I feel like that bit is finally getting close to what I want it to be now, so I'm starting to make other decisions like what the molding looks like.

The interior itself is inspired by a series of photos of an old abandoned insane asylum I stumbled upon a while back. These pieces of reference are reinforced by a ton of photos I've taken of decrepit structures found over the course of my travels. Not sure why, but I'm really intrigued the idea of the evolution of an interior space into an exterior one as a building deteriorates. The bits of the painting that explore this to some extent are a little ways down the road, but I'm at least starting to figure out how I want to pain the mold and lichen.

Anyway, next week, I'll be making some of the larger decisions about the foreground values vs. the background values, and with that under my belt I suspect that daily progress should become more obvious. At least I hope it will.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Lost In the Storm

Well, I survived the hurricane. Sandy came and went and has put me very far behind where I'd hoped to be at this point. The weekend before the storm found me doing a fair bit of storm prep around the house. Two rain gutters needed repair, all the rain gutters needed cleaning, leaves needed to be raked and bagged to keep from clogging the storm drains, cars needed to be filled with gas, the garage needed to be rearranged to accommodate an actual car, and supplies needed to be procured. You'll note that working on a painting isn't anywhere on that list.

Considering how easy we got off compared to the rest of New Jersey and New York, I'll spare you the details of our week as they're pretty insignificant by comparison. Suffice it to say that trees came down and electricity was knocked out. We don't own a generator and the thick clouds kept my studio pretty dark. While waiting for the power to return, I did a lot of storm clean up and Amy and I walked around a fair bit. She worked from home as much as she could, I finally got around to finishing Chuck Wendig's book, Blackbirds, and we tried to keep huddled together for warmth.

When the juice finally came back on, my IlluxCon prep began in earnest and it's what I've concentrated on ever since. Happily, I should be finished with the vast majority of it by lunch tomorrow. And after finishing my IlluxCon prep, I'll pull my paints out and begin chipping away once again. The day after IlluxCon will also find me hard at work on the piece. And once home from my Thanksgiving break, I'll be putting this lady to rest.

Truth be told, Sandy's biggest impact on my life is that it pretty much killed any chance of getting that big old piece of mine done before IlluxCon. It's frustrating to be sure, as I've been trying to get the piece off the ground for over a year and a half, and now that it's actually progressing I'm faced with additional delays. However, that that is my biggest concern is something I am most grateful for. It's pretty silly compared to the worries of those who lost loved ones or don't have homes to live in anymore.

Before the storm, I was beating myself up about being behind and grumpily grumbling as I did the necessary house work. But in subsequent days I got to see the storm's impact elsewhere, and I gotta confess that I let my frustrations go. Sure, I wish I had that piece done for the show and yeah I think it would have made for a better wall, but I can't bring myself to get too upset about not pulling it off.

I will have the opportunity to make up for the lapse. I should count myself pretty lucky that that is the case. Besides, when this piece is done it'll be followed by another. One personal piece in a year and a half just isn't enough for me, so I suspect the IlluxCon wall next year will be eaten by the things... you know... if I make the cut, that is.

Anyway, I hope all my East-Coast readers were equally as fortunate and are at least on their way back to some degree of normalcy. I should be back tomorrow or the next day with an update on something or other. Until then...

Friday, October 26, 2012

Personal Piece Update 4

This has been an agonizingly slow process. The aforementioned cold has moved to my chest and is making things like painting straight lines pretty laborious. Add to that the fact that the cover revisions took even longer than anticipated, and it's been a pretty frustrating week. The cover, however, will be done today. It requires only a signature. Then I get to concentrate on my piece.

Here's a shot of where we're at. This time around, I've included the entire canvas.

It's interesting for me to see her in a more fleshed-out environment. The original sketch that I've sat on for the last year and a half is more two-dimensional, and believe it or not I didn't really think about the perspective and such until fairly recently. Okay. Maybe that's extremely believable.


Point being that I'm kind of surprised by how she sits in the space. There are tweaks that need to be made and a few bits of reference that need to be collected to fully sell everything, but I'm going to try and get those this weekend so I can really start churning.

Not sure if my thinking I can get this done in time for IlluxCon is delusional or not, but I'm still going to shoot for it. At the moment, it does not appear that the weather intends to cooperate. As I write, a hurricane approaches. I'm guessing that the storm itself won't be too bad, but I expect the power to go out. Power outages around here are fairly frequent when there's a storm, and I'll be a little shocked if this one doesn't follow suit. The hospitals around here are certainly preparing for this possibility. They bought almost every flashlight the local hardware stores had to offer. Should the electricity cease to flow, I suspect I'll likely be reading more than painting as the overcast skies just won't provide enough light for me to get anything substantial done.

I suppose while hunkered down I could do some more IlluxCon prep, but most of that's done. I've designed my wall both with and without the personal piece and am just two frames away from being completely ready. Those have been ordered. I suppose I could do some packing, but that's not really going to eat a whole lot of time either.

Maybe I'll get lucky. Maybe the power will stay on and my basement won't fill with water. If the predictions of anywhere between 4 and 10 inches of rain hold out, however, I'm betting my attention will be in places other than my easel.

The coming week should prove to be quite interesting.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Personal Piece Update 3

Two things have been eating my time. First, you've got the changes to the third "Badass" cover. Honestly, they've proven to need a lot more attention than I'd expected. Second, there's this sickness I seem to have picked up. Some sort of cold... thing. All the sinus stuff isn't a big deal—I can work around it—and while attempting to paint any kind of detail work while coughing can be tricky, it's the general fatigue that's killing me. I find myself in need of a nap mid-afternoon, but instead of taking it I fight through and am probably less productive than I'd be if I just gave in and came back after a rest. Whatever.

The good news is that I'm starting to feel a bit better. The better news is that the "Badass" cover changes are almost complete. Better still is that I should be getting the background on this piece figured out today. This might not involve as much painting as it will drawing and I'll be dusting off my old t-square momentarily. Essentially, I've decided to change things a bit, architecturally speaking. I'll flesh the changes out completely today so that I can start to get through the remainder of the painting and complete it (hopefully) by IlluxCon.

Anyway, here's a picture.

So, yeah. I should have a couple more progress shots in the coming days and hopefully at the end of the week or beginning of next a bit about the cover and why it's now different. Or something.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Personal Piece Update 2

Admittedly not a lot of new ground covered here, but I've reworked some areas and refined others. Not sure I came out too far ahead of where I was before. Nevertheless, I've managed to get the sweater a whole lot closer to done and I also started those sweet leather pants. This is the first time I've painted leather pants since I did art for Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, between the pants and the very chainmail-like sweater, the piece feels somewhat like a bit of a throwback for me.

The big difference between then and now is that I can't rely on a lot of the tricks I used to accomplish the DnD paintings. The main reason for this is scale. Back when I was doing spot illustrations for edition 3.5, my work was extremely small. Indeed, the figures in many of those pieces could be easily covered up by placing my hand over them. The scale allowed for weird tricks that just wouldn't translate to the much larger scale of a 30 x 40 canvas. In all reality, those tricks didn't really survive the jump to Magic, either. Between even that minimal scale increase and the fact that every image now had to have a full background, I was forced to set my bag of tricks aside and learn all new ones. I'm finding the things learned from working on Magic to be far more applicable here.

Anyway, today I'll be fleshing out the pants and the boots a bit and then will begin working on the background. Next week, a lot more ground will get covered if only out of sheer necessity. As that gets dealt with, so too will the changes to the third "Badass" cover (which have all been blocked in and just need refinement). Also, I suspect I'll be doing a lot more raking of pine needles as there is a rather large tree in our front yard that has so far completely blanketed everything twice with the things and is currently in the process of doing it a third time. Right about now, I'm really hoping that the threats of having it cut down next year come to pass. I'm not usually one to get excited about cutting trees down, but I'd rather see something smaller, prettier and less damaging to the lawn in its place. Perhaps a nice red maple. 'Course that's not my decision.


Well, back to painting!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Update On That Personal Piece

As promised a while ago, I'm finally digging into some personal work. I fully intended to be deeper into things by now, but as I mentioned earlier I had five pieces to work on. Originally I'd planned to paint these five pieces no larger than 16 inches wide by 12 inches tall. But after talking to a few of my fellow artists I was convinced that I should go bigger. I settled on 24 x 18 instead and went to work. From the beginning I had a lot of reservations about the increase in size, and to an extent I wish I'd followed my gut as I'd likely have finished them a lot faster and left more room for my own work. What's worse is that their completion was delayed a full week after one of the pieces was damaged. The necessary repair was far more extensive than I'd expected and needed to be done before I could submit it. Such is life, I guess. Anyway, while I wish they'd gone faster, I admit that I kind of like that they're bigger. Next time, though, I'll be listening to my gut.

Anyway, the last piece left the house yesterday and I finally got some work done on the large canvas. Not a whole lot, mind you. I spent more time than I'd have liked at the local FedEx office dealing with shipping the last piece. Shortly after I arrived there, the power went out and they were unable to send or receive because they had no juice to run the scanners. It was pretty typical of my luck.

Either way, here's a shot of the piece as it stands this morning. Okay, not the entire piece, but the part that's actually been worked on.

Basically, I've been tweaking the face a bit and have finally started working on the sweater. Weirdly, this is the first time I've ever had to tackle something like a sweater and the fact that I'm shooting for a loose weave sweater is adding to the challenge. Oddly, it's got a chainmail quality to it in that you can see layers beneath it. That I'm ratting the sweater up isn't helping either.

Once I get a better handle on the figure and am happy with its proportions and values, I'll start covering the larger areas. I find that my brain works better when its reacting to something. Sure, I could figure the whole piece out in studies and just paint as the studies indicate, but that's not fun to me. I'd rather start out with a value and color structure in my head, move in that direction, but keep things open to whim. I like to build up focal points to a certain level of finish then branch out. Admittedly this can cause problems, but it also makes each day of work interesting. What I end up doing may not be what I intended to do.

Anyway, that's where that piece currently stands. Aside from this piece, I'm making changes to the cover of the third Badass book. Rather than show process shots of that, I'm just going to show you both versions of the finish when it's done and talk about why I changed what I did, etc. That should be coming sometime in the next couple weeks. In the meantime, I'll be posting further progress shots on this painting as they happen.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Izzet Chronarch

Izzet Chronarch is a rare piece. It's an assignment that, immediately upon receiving it, I instantly knew what I wanted to do, and whose end result was actually a pretty close approximation of my original vision. It's also rare in that I have quite a vivid recollection of what I was doing when I painted it — down to what I was listening to while I sat in front of the easel toiling away. Given how bad my memory typically is, the clarity with which I can recall this piece is pretty unique, and it's one I oddly have really good feelings about.

Assigned at the very same time as Crimson Muckwader and Tricks of the Trade, Izzet Chronarch predates any of the work I'd eventually do on "Return to Ravnica," but it was very much set in that world. Also, given that it was new art for an old card, I once again had to figure out a way to make it my own.

Two weeks after Amy lost her job, I got the following description:
Color: Blue/red (U/R guild)
Location: some grand Izzet study of your design, a maze of pipes and scrolls and clutter
Action: Show an archmage of the Izzet whose job it is to know every spell that was ever cast. He (or she) should look wild-eyed, scatterbrained, and lost in thought, with the Izzet crest prominent on his/her robes. This is the archetypal Izzet wizard.
Focus: the archmage
Mood: He has all the answers--if he can just remember where they are . . . .
Along with the description, I was also given an image of the original piece that went with the card. Taking the above description and the old image as inspiration, I knocked out this sketch:

©Wizards of the Coast
I submitted the sketch to Wizards with an unwarranted degree of confidence that I'd be able to move forward and paint the heck out of this piece, but it was not to be. Instead of the approval I was expecting, I got a couple notes and a request to resubmit a revised sketch. There were three notes. The first regarded the emblem on the shoulder. That was the symbol of the Izzet guild the first time the game visited the realm of Ravnica. The emblem had since been redesigned. Or would be. They swore I'd get it before I went to paint, but I didn't. I did get it before I got to painting the shoulder, though.

The second requested change was more of an addition, really. In keeping with the Izzet guild, I was asked to include some sort of contraption that had hoses and such sticking out of it either attached to his back or slung over his shoulder. Maybe some blue glowy aspects to this contraption. Simple enough, I guess.

The third issue they had was with the chronarch's face. In the original card art, the chronarch was a white maned man of advanced years. I had a hankering to paint an old man, so I followed suit. And while there are some things in the description that certainly encouraged me down that path, it turns out that that was not what they wanted at all.  They wanted someone who still looked powerful and youthful. They also wanted him to be less befuddled, perhaps. Mildly confused at most.
While it was important to give the client what they wanted, I have to confess that the younger, hipper, more together version is less interesting to me. Nevertheless, I pulled my pencil out and went to work. I made the guy younger, made his expression more mild, and changed the pose of his left hand to be pulling at his goatee in a mighty fist. Surely that would insinuate power, right? 

Fairly satisfied, I turned this second version in.

©Wizards of the Coast
Happily, it got the go ahead.

Now, I knew from the start that I wanted to insinuate a window in the piece just off camera to the right. I knew that filtered golden light would be streaming through that window. And I also knew that if I pulled off what I hoped to, this would likely be my favorite piece in quite a while. I set to work and kept my fingers crossed.

This is how it turned out:

©Wizards of the Coast
The piece measure 12" x 9" and is oil on hardboard.

Now, at the beginning I mentioned that I remember this piece really clearly, and I really do. It was the first job that I worked on where Amy sat shotgun in my studio. I painted away, she built her website and portfolio, updated her resume and began reaching out to people to see where she might find new employment. We had only our one laptop and an iPad, so I'd make sure that what I needed was on the iPad and surrendered the laptop so she could start to figure out how to get back in the saddle. It was pretty awesome, actually. It was the beginning of almost six months of constantly being together, and I have to say I got used to it pretty fast and now miss it terribly.

So what was I listening to? Well, it was about this time that I discovered the joy of listening to podcasts while working. One of the first podcasts I got into was Marc Maron's WTF podcast. Given that I was kind of late to the WTF party, I started going through the back catalog of episodes during the course of painting this piece, as well as those for M13. I can tell you, for example, that while painting the table and the scrolls in the foreground, I was listening to the episode where Mr. Maron interviewed Andrew Dice Clay. The shelving unit with all the scrolls in the background? That was the Richard Lewis episode. The figure itself? Demetri Martin. I listened while I painted. Amy listened while she sorted her future out. It was a good time.

Occasionally Amy would head downstairs, her absence accompanied by the muffled whirring of the stand mixer. Before I knew it, the smell of freshly baked bread would come wafting up to the studio. There was tea, as well. And a surprising amount of laughter for the situation we were in.

Long story short, I really enjoyed painting this one, and I continue to be surprised with just how happy I am with the result. I think it's safe to say that I could stand there to be more like this one. 'Course maybe next time I'll get to paint the old guy version.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Search Warrant

Right alongside Grim Roustabout and Overgrown Tomb was a third piece that was pretty much the dullest of the three to me. It was the least interesting conceptually, least interesting visually, and least interesting to work on. It was a bit of a drudgery throughout, but there were a few upsides.

The third piece in question was this one. Search Warrant. I'll start with the description.
Location: Azorius gate or checkpoint
Action: Show an Azorius soldier (see pp. 34-35 of styleguide) towering over a viashino citizen (like the one on p. 174 of styleguide). The Azorius soldier grabs at the viashino's knapsack, perhaps using the handle of his weapon to snag it. The viashino resists the search.
After reading that art order, I hope that it's easy to see how this piece became known around the house as my "TSA painting." And to some reading this, it might also be clear why this wasn't particularly interesting to me. For the rest of you, I'll clarify. Essentially, what I was being asked to do was arrange two predetermined elements on a page in order to create a scene that is pretty dry, in an environment that's also pretty much predetermined. While I do this kind of thing a lot, I usually have something I feel like I can sink my teeth into — be it a juicy story, an iconic image, or a heavy mood — but this felt like I was going to be painting by number.

Despite all that, and despite my head space at the time, I ended up spending a lot of time arranging, and rearranging the elements. This is primarily why the sketch is almost completely digital. In the end, it was just so much faster to edit, erase, cut and paste. I could lay ideas out fairly thoroughly before they decided to recede back into the gray matter. After much manipulation, what I ended up with was this:

©Wizards of the Coast
For better or worse, the sketch was approved as you see it.

Side note: With sketches like these, is it any wonder to anyone out there that my work is almost never featured on the "Magic Sketches" column over at Magic's webpage? I look at this thing and cringe. Seriously. Yuck.


Did the sketch end up being the most dynamic thing ever? No. I'll cop to that. I'll also cop to the following thing running through my head as I sent the sketch off for approval: "I'll fix it when I go to paint." Yeah... no. This idea works a lot better when I have the luxury of time. Given that I'd decided to dedicate more man hours to Overgrown Tomb than the other two pieces meant that this was the last piece on the docket and the one that had the least chance of getting a fair shake. The deadline was looming and I ended up not having a whole lot of time to muck about.

Still, I did make some changes that I think improved the piece a bit, but I also made a few choices that I think undermined the piece's effectiveness. Here's how it came out:

©Wizards of the Coast
It's the usual oil on paper on hardboard and it measures 12 inches wide by 9 inches tall.

So what changed? Well, between sketch and finish, I shot some reference that allowed for more accurate light mapping and anatomical proportions. As much as I could, I normalized those things in the drawing. Because of remeasured limbs, the relationship between the two figures changed somewhat and I was forced to adjust the poses a bit to keep that all working. I also ended up straightening the viashino's tail as I felt it to be more threatening.

Things I wish I hadn't adjusted include the shape of the soldier's cloak, the angle of the backpack straps, and the lighting on the viashino's sword. That last bit bugs me the most because it's part of the story that gets completely obscured and makes for a lesser piece just from a story-telling perspective. If you can't see the sword, it's kind of hard to make the leap to the idea that the viashino is reaching for it. The change of cloak shape bothers me because I feel my initial instinct made for a more stalwart looking fellow. He feels bigger and it hammers home the scale difference more effectively. The backpack straps? Well, that's just an eye flow thing. The angled version not only indicates more tension, but also helps draw the eye around the piece better. At least I think it does.

One other thing happened in the painting that I think is worth noting that was not intentional, but rather happened quite organically.  A recurring arc appeared throughout the piece. What do I mean? Well, here is a map of the most obvious locations:

©Wizards of the Coast
Are these lines a good thing or a bad thing? Well, I think the line of the tail mirroring the edge of the shadow in the archway above is a good thing. These help to pull the eye around a bit. However, I think the arch as part of the circle on the wall at right distracts a bit from the power of that central mirroring. Outside of that, I can't say as to whether the recurrence does a whole lot. It is possible, though, that it subconsciously keeps the eye moving as it tracks repeating shapes, but I honestly couldn't say for sure.

Now, all that stuff aside, is it a good piece? Well, I think it's better than I expected it to be. If I could redo it, I'd fix the things mentioned above that bother me, I'd fix the perspective issues throughout, and I'd probably push the action further back in space with a couple people in the extreme foreground framing what's going on.

Still, despite the whole thing being a slog and my interest in the piece being pretty low, I'm surprised to find that there are actually aspects I'm really happy with. In fact I think I'm comfortable saying that this isn't the worst piece I've ever done. But that's just one man's opinion.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Overgrown Tomb

When I got this assignment, I have to admit to being a little worried due to the fact that I was being asked to create new art for an existing card. What's worse is that the original version is one that I ended up liking. I say "ended up" because at the time of the commission I wasn't familiar with the original art due to it's being printed well after I stopped playing Magic, but before I started working on the game. I could have looked online to check the image out, but I decided to go in cold and treat the situation as much like a regular assignment as possible. I would wait until it was all over to finally look at Rob Alexander's original with fingers crossed in hopes that I'd done a worthy version.

A quick note. When in situations like this, looking at previous versions of the art can be a mixed bag. If the images that came before yours leave something to be desired, it can be bolstering to your confidence moving forward, and potentially allows you to take inspiration from what worked in those other pieces and ignore what didn't work quite so well. On the other hand, if you take a look at previous versions and like what you see, it can really be a curse. You may fall in love and have a difficult time getting those other images out of your head. Or perhaps you'll feel undue pressure to exceed one of the other pieces. Such a pressure can be crippling.

To keep such pressures at bay, I generally avoid looking at the other pieces until I've turned mine in. Taking a peek when it's all said and done can be uplifting or soul crushing, but at least I don't have to paint in another work's shadow. Lately, I haven't been given much of a choice as the original images have been sent with the art orders, but on this occasion I managed to keep it out of sight and mind.


As I said in the Grim Roustabout post, Amy and I had a lot going on in our lives at the time that this assignment was handed off to me. This was the second piece of the three assigned last November into December when we were making very critical, expensive, and potentially costly decisions about our future. So, this piece was not birthed from a head space full of sunshine and cartwheels. While stressing over our potential move and the trouble Grim Roustabout was causing, I piled on the pressure by setting out to make a landscape that was at least on par with something like Krosa Woods. Or at least close to that.

At the very least, I wanted to make something that in some way proved that I could keep up with the digital painting arms race. Love digital painting or hate it, one thing is absolutely true: a good digital artist can cram a heck of a lot more detail and atmosphere into a landscape in far less time than I can in oils. I wanted to prove at least to myself that I could still manage similar levels of detail, so I knew from the outset that this would be the most time consuming piece of the three assigned. If I could pull off what I hoped to, however, I knew I'd at least get a portfolio piece out of the deal.

The description in the art order was straightforward and was pretty much dependent on references to the styleguide. Said styleguide provided me with baseline architecture as well as a good idea of the kind of plant growth I needed to incorporate into the piece. The sketch came quickly and easily, and for better or worse was the first idea that came to my head. I quickly got it all down on paper, scanned it, messed about with it in Photoshop and handed it in.

©Wizards of the Coast
This was quickly approved and I moved forward.

Knowing how time consuming this piece would be, I decided to take a step I hadn't taken in quite a while. I turned the above sketch into a monochrome green version and printed it out on my usual watercolor paper. Then I pasted this down to the hardboard. Doing this allowed me to skip the step where I lay a ground color down to kill the white, and also allowed me to immediately go after the finish.

Despite the drama going on around me and the frustration caused by the other two pieces, I remember being pretty satisfied with this piece as I worked on it. There were many instances of happy accidents changing the piece in one way or another (the scale shift, the statue in the foreground, the water at the base of the tomb, to name a few), and I found that working on this painting became a bit of a respite from the other two (not to mention my worries over the coming move).

Though time consuming, I found that the piece came together relatively quickly and sadly came to an end much sooner than I'd have liked. What's worse is that upon finishing the piece, I ran headlong into the disappointment of having to go back and clean up the mess of one of the other two, and unenthusiastically put some spit and polish on the third.

©Wizards of the Coast
This is how it came out. The original is 12" x 16" and is the usual oil on paper on hardboard.

At the time, my brain was so clouded with fear and stress that I wasn't entirely convinced that I'd managed anything more than a mediocre landscape. It wasn't until after the stresses started to dissipate that I began to see the piece in a new light. A couple times over the past few months I've pulled it out of the flat files to take a look at it, and I have to confess that I started to get a little excited about finally being able to put it up here, as well as on my website. It turns out that I'm pretty happy with the piece.

When it was finally handed in, it garnered one of Jeremy Jarvis' patented one word compliments on the approval notice. "Nice!" For Jeremy, that's pretty enthusiastic, so I'm guessing that the folks at Wizards liked it. Over the last few days, it's become clear that the fans seem to, as well.

To say that the response has been overwhelming is an understatement. I've never gotten so many emails and messages so soon after a piece was revealed. Of course, much of the response has to do with players' excitement that the card itself has been reprinted. That it was reprinted with art many don't seem to find too offensive seems to be a bonus. Still, there are many folks who've contacted me that really seem to just dig the art. Either way, I can't thank everyone enough for all the kind words.

If the words of encouragement came quickly, then the inquiries from collectors came at warp speed. This piece sold faster than anything I've ever done before, and likely will hold that record for some time to come. Less than a week after its initial appearance, it is already in its new home. I have to say the flat files look empty without it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Grim Roustabout

When talking about individual pieces in the past, I've spoken more than once about my feelings on a piece being tainted by difficulties encountered during the process of painting it. While time can help gloss over some of the struggles, I've never been able to completely divorce my opinion of a piece from my memory of just how much trouble it gave me. Grim Roustabout is one such piece. Not unusually, it was one of several pieces assigned, was the first one I started painting, the last one I finished, and was nothing but frustrating in between.

What's strange is that such a simple piece should give me so much trouble. I mean, it's just a semi-dressed skeleton in front of a fairly minimal background. What's there to trip over? Seems silly in retrospect, but at the time it felt like I was tripping over every single brushstroke.

©Wizards of the Coast
Looking at the sketch, it feels like I've done my homework. I mean, there's a decent sense of lighting and both the composition and costuming are pretty well figured out. Should be a pretty straightforward piece. The folks at Wizards seemed to agree. They approved it as is.

So how did it get so complicated? Simple. I started painting it.

One of the things that worked for me on the sketch was how loose everything felt. The digital brushstrokes and frenetic pencil lines added tension to a potentially stagnant piece. I wanted very desperately to retain some of that tension when I went to paint and had every hope I could manage to keep it feeling alive (despite being undead). Unfortunately, it became clear early on that my paint application was flying in the face of that intention. The piece got awful polished awful fast, and trying to undo that was nigh impossible. This issue got pretty frustrating and that frustration built to a point that I began to lose confidence in much of the piece. So I began to question everything.

Before I knew it my color scheme, intended value structure, and background details went out the window. I was doing terrible digital paint overs in Photoshop to try and fix things that likely weren't broken, and many of my solutions were chosen due to the looming deadline more than anything.

Truth be told, I should have set the painting aside for a day and returned to it with fresher eyes. Then, with renewed perspective, I should have spent some time to figure out how to turn the piece around and into something I actually liked. Once the new plan had been formulated, I should have taken it to a new surface and restarted the piece from scratch.

Instead, I kept futzing with it, tweaking it, painting things out then painting them back in. Before long, it was about turning the piece in so I could wash my hands of it. And that's pretty much what went down.

©Wizards of the Coast
The end result is more polished than I ever wanted it to be, measures 14" x 11" and is oil on hardboard.

Grim Roustabout was part for a job that came at a scary time for me. It was last November into December and Amy had been out of work for a few months. Having had no luck finding a new job in Boston the probability of having to move back to New York began to rise rapidly. At the beginning of the job there was no plan for our next step. By the end of it, however, the plan was set and the move was certain. To say that the fear and the stress (not to mention my fears of the stress to come) had no affect on this job would be a lie. It would also be a lie to say that the legwork required to form the plan and take the necessary steps to enact said plan had no impact. An awful lot of time was spent away from my easel, and indeed the weekend before the job was due I was out looking at new apartments instead of fixing what I felt was fundamentally broken.

While the circumstances taking place behind the scenes were a definite factor, the truth is that I do have some very real issues with the piece and still wish I'd started over. Though I can't be certain that a repaint would have solved all the issues, at the very least I could have built the whole thing up with thinner paint which would likely have given me brighter, purer colors throughout. It's also possible that the thinness of the paint could have preserved some of the sketchiness I was hoping for in the paint application. But, alas, that never happened. I have the piece that I have. And within that piece, I could stand to see the skeleton be a shade or two darker and I feel like I could have better utilized the smoke and sparks to better control the eye. Perhaps I'd change a detail or two about the pose, as well.

I think what I really need, though, is another year or so to pass. With a bit more time, the tension that rises in my gut every time I see this piece will fade. Either way, I'll have to move on and continue to hope that one day pieces like this won't matter so much.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Case of the Missing Emails

Today, a great mystery was solved, and I am no longer plagued by something that has bothered me for months. The issue was this: for the past eight months, I have had great difficulty receiving emails from certain people. There's been no real pattern as far as the senders went, and there was no consistency in the incidents, either. Some messages would arrive. Some just never made it. It seemed like a roll of the dice. The only thing that was consistent was that emails containing attachments were less likely to arrive in my inbox, but that's all I had to go on.

If the sender was fortunate and I knew to expect any of these emails, I'd have the sender resubmit again and again to no avail. So I'd give them another email address to try. If the sender was less than fortunate, and I wasn't anticipating their email... well, let's just say that I can't even begin to tabulate how many emails never made it through.

The only things I was certain of was that I hadn't changed any of my email settings. As such, I spent an awful lot of time with my email host's support desk trying to solve the issue only to be repeatedly disappointed. Today, it reached kind of an apex when I came to realize that I'd missed about a half dozen emails or so.

So back to the help desk I went. Between messages back and forth with the support staff, Amy and I had a chance to chat for a bit about the issue, but we couldn't come up with any reason for the issue off the top of our heads. So, she went back to work and I went back to trying to shake the tree of internet knowledge in order to find a solution. Minutes later, she suddenly forwarded me an email.

Now, back when my website was first created, I was technologically useless. I had no more chance of creating my own website than raising the dead. This is the reason that Amy was my first webmaster. She built the original site and helped me navigate the bayous of html coding and internet jargon. Sure it was all primordial compared to today, but it was pretty daunting to a guy whose computing experience was limited to writing English papers on his old Tandy computer in high school, and begrudgingly doing college work in Photoshop 3 and QuarkXPress in between marathon runs of playing Diablo on his Mac. Amy made sure that I had a site that worked and she lorded over it rather thoroughly. As the years went by, however, I slowly took over those responsibilities so as to not pester her with updates. To my chagrin, as I learned the ropes, the ropes continued to change. Still, I managed pretty well.

Until, I guess, a couple years ago when a more advanced spam filtration system was introduced by my host. I didn't pay it much mind at first, and I set it to a rather mild level of filtration to see if i could curb a sudden influx of spam I was getting from Brazil. It took a while, but after about three months, all of the Brazilian spam began to disappear and I finally reached a pretty happy medium. Problem was that the filter kept evolving. It continued to sift when it needed to stop. No longer content just to block the Brazilian spam, it started to take out monthly newsletters and special offers from companies I'm a customer of. Over the last six months, I started losing emails from friends. About three months ago, emails from clients started to disappear. It's been pretty frustrating.

Of course I know all this in retrospect. From my point of view, due to about a year of getting what I wanted and not getting what I didn't, the spam filter could hardly have been the issue. Still, one fact about the spam filter escaped me: it apparently kept and quarantined emails. Looking at it today, the filter was set to notify me when any messages were held in quarantine, so clearly I should have known about it from the getgo, right? Wrong. Truth is, I never got any notifications. Nothing. Nada. Zip. No indication whatsoever ever reached me to let me know that there were emails being held hostage by my spam filter. Without any notifications, I remained blissfully ignorant of my ability to actually dig through such messages. And of course it was in quarantine where I'd have found my missing correspondence.

Thing is, there was no lack of communication on my host's part. In fact, I was being notified the entire time. Turns out that Amy's name as webmaster had never been removed. She was getting those messages constantly and assuming they were for her own website and email address which are hosted by the same company. Given that she was in the habit of ignoring her own, she naturally ignored mine as well. For some reason, our conversation this afternoon piqued her curiosity and she took a moment to look more closely at those emails and discovered that for the most part, they were quarantine notifications for my email, not hers. That is what she forwarded to me. The most recent notification finally arrived where it belonged.

If I'd have known about any one thing in the chain of ignorance, I could have saved myself a great deal of frustration. All I needed to have known was that the quarantine existed, or that Amy was getting emails about my email address, or possibly even that she was still listed as the webmaster. Alas, no. I managed only an epic fail instead.

After the shear embarrassment subsided, I carefully went through all my settings and made the tough decision to sack Amy as webmaster (something she thought had happened a while ago). These notifications will now come to me, and I should be able to finally keep on top of my correspondence once again.

So, problem solved, right? Sort of.

Sadly, after finally digging through the quarantine and recovering the missing emails from the last couple days, I reached the end. A few days is as far back as the quarantine seems to go. Everything older than that is gone for good, and I'll continue to wonder what I've missed in the meantime. A job? A sale? An offer from a Nigerian Prince?

I guess the point of all this is two fold. First, despite my repeated assertion that the technology was letting me down, it was that it was more my own idiocy and a lack of communication between me and my old webmaster that really nailed me. The technology was doing what it was supposed to (if a little overzealously).  Second, if you're someone who's written me over the last eight months or so and are pondering my rudeness at not having emailed you back, I apologize. I honestly had no idea I was ignoring you, because as far as I knew I never got your message in the first place. I promise to try harder from now on, and will keep my fingers crossed that yet another new layer of email protection is not introduced in the near future.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Of Bob Ross and Bill Alexander

I'm sure you've seen this video by now, but if not, go ahead and check it out.

What can I say about Bob Ross? Some people hate him, some love him, others love him ironically. I, myself, have mixed feelings about the guy, but most of those feelings are positive. Bob Ross will always remind me of being a kid, sitting in front of the television with my father and the dog. If during our weekend channel surfing we spotted "The Joy of Painting," we'd invariably get sucked in and before we knew it a half hour had gone by.

Though much of my interest in watching Bob Ross' show had to do with the fact that I wanted to pursue the arts, it was just as much to do with the fact that it was easily the most relaxing television program there was at the time. Bob's soothing voice spewed nothing but encouragement and positivity. In fact, it could be said that his show was just as much about motivational speaking as it was about painting, and for me it provided a bit of hope that I could one day live the dream

Bob Ross' mentor, William Alexander, also had a painting show called "The Magic of Oil Painting." Alexander was a German ex-pat who had a gruffer presence and was basically the Emperor Palpatine to Ross' Darth Vader. He hunched before his canvas like some disgruntled bear and he created an atmosphere of enthusiastic tension. While both men spoke of "happy trees" living in their paintings, Alexander would occasionally bust out a "mighty tree" which he would announce with giddy exclamations as it was birthed into his world, and extoll the god-like power one wielded as a painter.

While the premise of both shows was to teach and demonstrate, they were just as much commercial vehicles for both men to sell their art supplies. Still, I remember being pretty transfixed, and while I retained some of what they demonstrated, the truth is that I learned little about the painter I would one day hope to be.

Ross and Alexander were wet on wet guys, which is to say that they just kept piling paint onto the canvas without letting any of it dry until the painting was done. Each had a half hour show (Ross' done without any edits), and there was no point in the show where they pulled the fully realized piece from the oven as was so often done in many of the comparable cooking shows. Their work really did come into existence right before the viewer's eyes.

The ease at which they demonstrated their formula belied the years of experience (and what I assume were hundreds of failed works) behind it all. To the few who actually attempted to paint along with the show, I'm sure this was a source of constant frustration, though I'm almost positive that there's at least one painting hanging framed on a wall somewhere done while devotedly following each step in front of the television (let's just hope they remembered to sign their own name rather than that of the host).

Sadly, as many of you know, both of these men have long since passed. But their teachings, respective schools, and happy little trees live on. And in retrospect, there are several things that amaze me. The first thing is that there was a time when there were entire television series about art. I don't think such a thing would fly nowadays. Not enough tension or violence. The subject of the paintings might have both, but the drama's in the doing not the finished product, and there's only so much manufactured conflict that can be crammed into a painting (oh no, I dropped my brush AGAIN). The second thing that amazes me is that these guys demonstrated both their hits and their misses. The quality of their output could vary wildly and both have episodes that resulted in sub-par work (that is assuming you believe they had below par work to begin with). Whether or not the vast majority of their audience appreciated this fact is unknown to me, but I'm sure at least a few recognized it (probably the person with their own framed piece on the wall, at least). Lastly, I'm amazed that both men were ostensibly doing landscapes, but were really doing fantasy work.

That's right. They were doing fantasy work. A very mild form, but fantasy nonetheless. Sure, there were far fewer dragons and goblins than people are used to seeing in such work, but make no mistake, they were fantasy painters. Why? The landscapes in their work simply didn't exist. Sure William Alexander would take his show outdoors from time to time, but he wasn't painting what he saw before him, he was painting what was in his head. Bob Ross did his work in a closed studio with a black backdrop. These guys weren't painting the world they lived in, they were building a new world from whole cloth a half hour at a time. It was an idealized world, a dream world, and for them and many of their viewers, a utopia. What's that if not a fantasy?

What they were doing wasn't a whole lot different from those occasions when I've been asked to do a fantasy landscape. I just tended to take it a step further. Mine had more metal bits or defied gravity more than theirs might, and I let my paint dry more than they did before reworking an area. But if you look at the landscape portions of a lot of fantasy paintings, you'll see scenery that's not unlike what you see in virtually every Bob Ross and Bill Alexander painting ever made.

All that being said, however, I can't say I'm a fan of either of their work. It just doesn't do it for me. I get the appeal, but I'm not their audience.

What I am a fan of is what they set out to do. They engaged people with art, and tried to make it a part of their audiences' life — even if only in some small way. They preached painting as a source of joy and peace, and I was listening. Sure I never really liked any of the specifics that they were working at, but I liked a lot of the big ideas. While they whiled away building their dream worlds, they inadvertently helped me build my own: a world where I got to paint all day. Whether they knew it or not, they were selling their craft to a little boy in Pennsylvania who sat rapt on a couch with his Dad and a miniature schnauzer called Danny.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Two Years In and Diggin Out

I started this blog two years ago today. One-hundred eighty-five posts later, I'm still working at it. A lot of the things I'd hoped to do on here just haven't gotten done. Some probably never will, others I still hope to get to. As it turns out, a blog can eat a lot of time and has the potential to be a pretty big distraction. Were I a writer, I suppose it might more naturally fit into my daily schedule. But I'm not a writer, so there's always a mental gearshift and a period of time spent questioning whether or not I can even afford the bite the blog takes out of my daily routine. And while the posts come a lot easier nowadays than they used to, they still don't exactly roll off my fingertips. Still, I'd like to be doing more.

Unfortunately, my schedule in the foreseeable future will likely make that difficult. Yesterday, I began work on five 24"x18" paintings. They're for Magic, and they're going to take a while. I'm not sure when they'll be done, but it really won't matter to the blog as they won't be released for a full year or so.

Simultaneous to that little project, I'm trying to rework parts of a cover painting I did a month or so ago. It's already been handed in, and despite being pretty satisfied with the parts that will appear on the actual book cover itself, I felt the painting overall could use a bit of extra attention. When that piece is done, I'll post it up here in both states with the usual explanation and self-deprecation.

In addition to the painting inhibiting lots of posts, it would seem that I won't have a whole lot of work to show in the very near future. At least I don't believe I will. (Though I've been surprised by a random Magic release before). So with little work to show, I'm just going to have to put together some more wordy stuff — you know, the kind of thing where I stand on my matchbox or climb atop my rather short pony. Maybe throw in a semi-autobiographical story or two. Try to entertain you all without pictures. See how that goes. Hopefully I can get these paintings done before we all grow tired of that and abandon the blog altogether.

If nothing else, I can provide you with news we all can look forward to: I'm going to be taking some time off. Time off from my normal illustrations schedule, that is. I'll still be painting, but I'm going to be doing some work for myself. I'm hoping to string together a few pieces and see where they take me. I've already started one. It's 30"x40" and has been sitting in it's sadly unfinished state for a couple months now. I'd intended to do the piece earlier this year, but then the aforementioned cover reared its head and I honestly couldn't turn it down. So my personal work got postponed.

This fall, however, I am committing to at least a month where I'm working for myself. I'm going to try and put together a bunch of stuff for IlluxCon so as to have a completely new wall with no repeats from last year. Happily, just completing the 30"x40" piece will ensure this by itself, but I'm not going to stop there. Bottom line is that it should be an interesting ride, and I'm intent on bringing everyone who's interested along with me.

Not sure yet whether the coverage of the personal work will be quite as exhaustive as that of the Valentine cover, but at least it'll be more than just a sketch and finish. In the meantime, to thank you all for sticking with the blog, I'll leave you with this small glimpse of the unfinished canvas as it now appears (taunting me daily with its lack of completion).

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Stamp and A Smily Face

So a while back, I received this piece of mail:

The sender? Greg Manchess. And what's that smiley face on the right all about?

Seems to be pointing at the stamp. Why? Probably because Greg painted it.

Not every day I get mail from the person who painted the stamp affixed to it. Heck, it's not every day I get mail period — at least mail that's not junk or bills. Either way, the novelty makes this one a keeper.

In case you missed it over on the Muddy Colors blog, here's the behind scenes look at how this stamp came to be (link).

Monday, July 16, 2012

Revisiting Reprints: Exotic Orchard

Ahh, Alara. A Magic plane that — when we were initially introduced to it — was divided into five shards, each unattached to the other four. It was an odd block for me, and though I got a good bit of work out of it, it also contains my single least favorite piece of art I ever created for Magic. Whether it's my worst is up for debate, but it's undoubtedly my least favorite. So much so that no one has ever seen the original and never will. That painting is gone. Kaput. Rended in twain during a fit of maniacal giggles that caused Amy to slowly back away from me, hands frantically searching for the door as she went.

But this post isn't about that piece. This is about another entirely.

Before I get into it, I'd like to provide some fun facts about the set, "Shards of Alara," (which was the first set in the three set Alara block). The art director, Jeremy Jarvis, when assigning the art, divided the artists into five groups. Each group was assigned to work on one of the shards. This would be the only shard they worked on for the entire set.

Personally, I was relegated to work on the blue plane, Esper, a land full of metallic filigree. That's basically all I got to paint for twelve weeks. When the second set, "Conflux" came out, the shards had started to bleed into one another, and we got to do a bit of stuff from the other shards. But it wasn't pure. With the worlds beginning to merge, the hallmarks of each shard began to appear in the other shards. So, despite having had my fill, I still ended up painting metal filigree. On the other hand, I got to paint elements of the shards Bant (the white plane) and Grixis (the black plane), so there was at least something new.

Finally, on the third set, "Alara Reborn," the five shards had converged into one world again and the artists finally got a taste of pretty much everything. Well, other artists did, anyway. I still primarily worked on a Bant/Esper imagery, and not surprisingly, filigree was still involved.

Anyway, the point is that the art direction mimicked what was happening in the story. At first the artists were isolated, thus creating a visual separation that mirrored the story and mechanical separation. As the shards collided, the art became more and more mixed, until there was no separation at all. This art direction theme is one I always liked in theory. In practice, I must confess that I grew pretty tired of it. It might be because I felt like I was repeating imagery, but it's actually more likely that I was constantly having to deal with the metal filigree, which could get quite tedious. In the end, though, I liked much of what I did (except the piece which is no more), so I have little to complain about.

This is all fine and good, but what does all this have to do with Exotic Orchard?

All of the above is the context, the back drop, if you will. It explains what the heck is going on in the piece. You see, Exotic Orchard came out of the "Conflux" set, when the shards began to collide. And to illustrate this fact, I was asked to portray a Bant orchard being taken over by Esper filigree. Designing the orchard itself proved pretty straightforward. Naturally, it would be the filigree that proved the most time consuming aspect.

There were a lot of questions that needed answering. How far has the filigree gotten? How sudden is the transition to natural tree? What does that transition look like? Does the trunk filigree differ from the branch and leaf filigree? If so, how? Are all the trees in the image being affected? If so, are they affected equally or at different states? Etc., etc., etc.

I took on each question as I went and eventually came up with this sketch.

©Wizards of the Coast
I know what you're saying. This is just another in a long line of lackluster sketches from Belledin. And you're right. It's sloppy, and should be used as an example of what not to do. It's definitely weak, and I have no excuses, so I'm not going to give you any. That being said, it was approved, and I was permitted to move on to finish provided that I bring some more of the filigree up into the tops of the trees. Seemed pretty simple.

So, I painted it up, and turned it in. It looked like this:

©Wizards of the Coast
This was done in oil on illustration board. The image is only 11 x 8 inches. The Alara block was the last block painted entirely on illustration board. I changed to working on hardboard after the first set in Zendikar. While I prefer the weight and stability of the hardboard (not to mention the fact that it's less likely to curl), I must say that I miss the lighter weight of the illustration board every time I fly somewhere with my artwork. It's not uncommon that I end up being over the suitcase weight limit.

In retrospect, I think I could have done a better job with the metal, but I didn't have the experience that I do now painting that kind of thing. This was four years ago, and I've painted an awful lot of metal since and gleaned quite a bit in the process. On the other hand, I really dig the palette, and I'm pretty happy with the dusty atmospheric perspective. I'm also happy that I managed to capture one of those slow, hot days where nothing looks as attractive as the shade of a good tree. At least I think I did.

Landscapes have been rare assignments for me. I like doing them, but the stars have aligned pretty infrequently and I've seen few opportunities. This was the first, true landscape that I did for Magic, and the first land card my work appeared on. Outside of the two Planechase pieces, I've only done three lands in Magic, but I'm thinking there are more in my future. At least I hope there are. I'd like to paint some landscapes a bit bigger than 11 x 8 inches. And maybe without so much filigree. Truth be told, though, I think enough time has gone by that not even the filigree would stop me.

As I said before, Exotic Orchard first appeared in "Conflux," and has recently been reprinted for the "Planechase 2012 Edition."

Friday, July 13, 2012

Revisiting Reprints: Evolving Wilds

Evolving Wilds is a weird landscape that came out of the final set of the Zendikar block of Magic, called "Rise of the Eldrazi." Truth be told, the concept for the piece came straight of the styleguide. Varieties of the landscape were drawn out on a page of the guide, and I was essentially asked to depict these weird pillars of earth in a more finished fashion.

Each pillar represents aspects of all five environments of Magic (forests, plains, swamps, mountains, and islands), and I was free to change it up however I saw fit provided that I managed to keep the feel of the concept drawings. So, I set upon the task of figuring out just how I wanted to stack the layers of the five land types.

I knew early on how I wanted the piece to look, so most of my time was spent trying to figure out details. Mountains, I knew, would be represented by rock. Pretty simple. I could put rock anywhere in the stack, which made it the most versatile. I decided that each pillar would be sitting in water, so instantly they became islands. To kill two birds with one stone, I went with decaying roots as the base of the pillar to insinuate the swamp. Forest, I decided would be best about two thirds up each pillar. Trees were a pretty easy thing to plug in, as well. Plains, I knew would be the hard part.

The problem with plains is that they're generally flat. That kind of meant that they'd need to be on top. The issue with this is that we're once again dealing with a horizontal piece that has vertical subject matter. It was almost certain that the pillars would be running off the top of the piece. One way to get around this would be to depict the pillars from above so that the plains were more obvious. My explorations of this solution quickly proved, however, that the other land types got shortchanged in order to feature the one. So I went back to the concept drawings where I found that this issue had already been addressed. They're solution? Crystal. Crystal represented the white mana of the plains.

I didn't get it, but who am I to complain?

Coincidentally, shortly before this assignment came along, I saw an article about giant crystal caves in National Geographic. It contained about all the photo reference I'd ever need on the subject. Clearly crystals were the way to go. So I drew it up.

©Wizards of the Coast
It's a pretty straightforward sketch which resulted in a very straightforward approval. On to paint I went.

©Wizards of the Coast
The addition of the birds was a last minute one that I think added a lot. Birds are often used for scale purposes in paintings, and my use of them is hardly revolutionary. I thought about making them brightly colored, but in the end I liked how the white just sat nicely within the piece. They were there, but didn't call attention to themselves.

While the birds are nice and all, I think my favorite part of how the piece came out was the atmospheric perspective of the pillars themselves. The fade into washed-out blue is something I'm quite pleased with, as I've not always been satisfied with previous attempts. A good deal of the effect was accomplished by actually painting them as bluer versions of themselves. The rest was done through glazing a Titanium White/Permanent Blue glaze over them to push them back even further. I remember that the pillar in the front was pulled a little forward with a glaze that consisted of Indian Yellow and a touch Alizarin Crimson thrown in for good measure.

Push and pull. Glazes and final details and highlights. Minutia and subtlety. This is what I find most fascinating about what I get to do, and it's my favorite part of painting. It amazes me how a slight shift can change a piece, and elevate it into a higher strata. Dabbling in these changes is still exciting after all these years, and I suspect they'll never get old. At least I hope not!

As I said before, this piece was first published in "Rise of the Eldrazi," back in 2010. It was painted in 2009. It has since been reprinted in one of the Commander decks, in the "Duel Decks: Ajani vs. Nicol Bolas" deck, and most recently the Magic 2013 Core set.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Revisiting Reprints: Duress

While I've already covered how Duress came to be in a post about reference (link), I figured I'd chat a bit about an aspect of the piece I really haven't spoken about before. But before I do, I figured I'd re-post some images and add something that isn't present in that previous post: an alternate sketch.

Here's the sketch for the piece as it was approved:

©Wizards of the Coast
In addition to the above sketch, however, I was asked to explore another option, just in case. While not revelatory, it does offer some insight into the process. I think.

©Wizards of the Coast
Sure it's a bit Lost smoke monster, but it was definitely worth taking a gander at as there was no telling at the time whether a veiny cage would work. I think it's rather fortunate for everyone involved that it did. Still, it's always worth trying different stuff. It'll either reinforce your decisions or poke holes in them. Both results (believe it or not) are good ones.

The result of the extra exploration was a piece that Wizards first printed in the Magic 2010 core set, then reprinted in the Magic 2011 core set, the Duel Decks: Divine vs. Demonic set, the Premium Deck Series: Graveborn set, and now the Magic 2013 core set. This image has really gotten around.

©Wizards of the Coast
Now, a fun fact about the piece is that I was given the choice as to whether or not the elf was a male or female. Obviously I chose female — ahem — it is obvious...right? I made that decision for two reasons. First, I was tired of painting guys. Second, in my mind, women were under-represented in the game, and given the opportunity to adjust the numbers somewhat, I thought it worth doing so.

To a certain extent, a result of this decision is that I strayed into the damsel in distress territory, which is an area I usually actively avoid. Thing is, in my mind this isn't an elf that is waiting to be rescued. In fact, there's no reason to believe she even will be. She is forever stuck in time under...well, duress. Still, like I said, I typically prefer not to depict female characters as victims if at all possible, so it's strange that I ended up doing just that. Add to this oddity that the image is a popular one (especially among men), and I have to admit that I've questioned my choice. Is it the image they're responding to? The fact that it's a female elf? Or is it the popularity of the card itself that drives the interest?

Either way, I must confess that there's a part of me that if given the chance to do it all over would paint another dude. It would be interesting to know whether it would retain its popularity.