Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What Might Have Been: Mikaeus, the Lunarch

While I will get into the newest work from the last set of the Innistrad block of Magic over the next few days, I wanted to go back and touch on the first piece I did for the block, Mikaeus, the Lunarch, about which I wrote extensively here.

In preparation for the upcoming Spectrum Live show in Kansas City (which takes place at the end of next week), I was going through a stack of old sketches when I stumbled upon this:

©Wizards of the Coast
This is the original sketch for Mikaeus, though at the time I believe he was called something else. It's a sketch that I completely forgot about and it's an interesting nugget of Magic history. Well, at least I think it is. Anyway, this is my first go at interpreting the description as seen below:

Color: White Legendary creature
Location: Inside a cathedral
Action: Show a handsome priest in his 50s. This is Geldus, the Lunarch, the highest-ranking person in the church—the Avacynian Church’s equivalent of the pope. He’s standing on a raised platform in front of dozens of silver candles—the only light in the cathedral. He’s speaking to his off-camera congregation and gesturing dramatically. The light of the silver candles casts the shadow of the holy symbol on the wall behind him.
Focus: The Lunarch
Mood: The embodiment of holy power.
Notes: This should seem like an important character, not just a creature. Give him distinction and personality in a way of your choosing.

To me, the key phrase there was that last one. Distinction and personality. I thought about it a while, and my first instinct was to make him a fire and brimstone kind of guy. I thought he should be a charismatic leader, rather than one of pomp and circumstance. I tried to infuse the scene with motion and drama and present him in a way where you could almost hear his words echoing off the cathedral walls around you. I went through a lot of thumbnails while exploring a solution, and I landed on this one.

Uncharacteristically, I was pretty confident about this image. I knew there might be issues with the costuming. Perhaps I didn't make it elaborate enough and would need to push it further. I thought there might be problems with the face. Perhaps I'd need to handsome him up some more. I thought, however, that at the very least I'd nailed the personality.

What's more was that this image was an attempt to push my work beyond my normal instincts. Left to my own devices I'd have solved this image in a very iconic, but potentially drab way. But I was looking to get a bit further away from that. I wanted drama where there typically isn't any. I wanted action where I would usually reject it. This was a piece I was excited about.

Judging from the finished piece, it's almost pointless to say that this sketch was struck down.  My vision of the Lunarch, my interpretation of what he was about, was rejected. It turns out that what they wanted was the very thing I was trying to avoid: a more ceremonial, stoic approach. What resulted from their notes and my subsequent rehashes was more the vision of the folks behind the scenes than it was my own.

But believe it or not, that's okay. Yeah, it stank on a personal fulfillment level, but as an illustrator I had to remind myself that I was dealing with but one piece among hundreds. The art director? He had a whole lot more to deal with. He was busy building an entire world with hundreds of pieces, wrangling eighty or so illustrators, pawing through virtual stacks of sketches and checking them for quality control and tonal harmony. (Not to mention taking the time to translate the various notes from the fine folks in Research and Development into artist speak along the way). He had a better idea of where and how the Lunarch fit in with the grand scheme, and while he likely knew that I would have knocked my version of the Lunarch out of the park, it was clear to him that it would not have synced as well with what the set actually needed.

There is a level of trust that needs to be extended when working with art directors. There's an old adage that if you provide multiple sketches, invariably they'll pick the one you like least. As irritating as that can sometimes be, the reason for this is not necessarily because the art director has no taste or is out to get you — let's face it, if they were out to get you they would not have hired you in the first place. Rather, their choices are often due to the fact that they've got a lot more of the puzzle sitting in front of them than you do. It's not the whim of an all-powerful art director at play. It's the conjunction of the various needs of all the various departments that deal with the images in some way (be they marketing, research and development, etc).

Illustration is a collaborative process. Sometimes your ideas win out, sometimes you've got to go with the ideas of someone else. It's a partnership of give and take, of push and pull. While that can be a real drag at times, personally it's just motivation to work harder to get my ideas pushed through more often.

So all that being said, do I dislike the final Lunarch piece? Is there part of me that hates the piece for not being solely my vision of the man? No. I'm pretty happy with it, in fact. I tried to address my concerns with the piece along the way, and managed to bring enough of my own choices into the mix to be satisfied. It ended up being a pretty decent piece, spawned this comic as well as some fun discussions about candle safety, and it looks pretty good on a wall. Also, like many pieces, it looks even better framed.

Still, when I unearthed the sketch this past weekend, there was a part of my brain that began to wonder what might have been. With this piece, considering its timing with the move to Massachusetts, and the chaos that move produced, it's just as likely to have been a flop and one I actually do hate for very legitimate reasons.


  1. Man, I would love to have seen this one painted out. Such a different vibe. Well rest assured, it turned out great anyway, even if it's not what you wanted to do.

    1. Thanks, Chris. It would have been cool, to be sure, but it's possible that I'll get a chance to recycle the gesture at some point. Or, not. We'll see.

  2. I agree with Chris. Completely different vibe. There's a lot of potential for portraiture with this composition. It's about action and emotion. I think the image that was eventually chosen has a more otherworldly feel. He's not quite human anymore, but more about power. Both versions are successful in totally different ways.

    1. Absolutely true, Matt. Like I said, I'll probably dig this fella up next time I'm asked to do something similar. Well, IF I'm ever asked to do something similar, anyway. If not, there's always a chance he'll end up a personal piece of some sort. Different costume, and such, but certainly using this as a starting point.

  3. I love the feel of this one. I'm a huge Magic fan, and a big fan of yours as well (along with Chris Rahn and Matt Stewart, both of whom I also follow on here). I would have loved to see this one painted.


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