Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Stairs To Infinity

Here's the story behind the land piece I did for the recently released Planechase 2 set for Magic: the Gathering.

Typically, I'm a guy who avoids architecture like the plague. Painting straight lines is torture for me as I don't have the steadiest of hands. On the occasions I have done work with lots of buildings and such, it's been a constant and painstaking series of brushstrokes that are inevitably wiped away with a rag, only to be repainted anew and likely removed yet again. So, when I got the following description in the old inbox, my heart kind of sank.
Color: None -- represents a location within a plane
Location: see below
Action: We're looking for an Escher-like composition here, similar to his Relativity or Concave/Convex. In this planar location, a zigzagging set of stone stairs seems to lead nowhere and is mirrored horizontally, so that what happens on the top side seems to have a loose equivalency on the inverted bottom side. Ideally the scene is mostly architecture but includes some small figures and incidental actions.
Focus: the paradoxical stairs that lead into each other
Mood: Dizzying and surreal
My first instinct was to really latch on to the mood statement: dizzying and surreal. I thought it'd be cool to look down into a deep, cavernous hole with staircases winding this way and that. The problem with this idea, it turns out, is that the moment you're looking down you only see the tops of the various staircases (or bottoms as the case may be). This more precarious perspective would eliminate any chance of a clear representation of the world being two-sided. Sure, you could have folks peering over the edge and looking back up at you, but the potential issues of readability after reduction were enough to make me abandon the whole idea.

After being defeated in my initial attempts, I reread the description again, this time with the idea of layering staircases in various positions, different directions, and opposing perspectives so that you'd see the sides of some, the tops of others, etc. But what caught my attention in the description was the specificity of the top and bottom aspect of things. I wasn't sure, but I felt there might be a mechanical aspect to what the card does that was driving that idea. Balling up 10 different points of view would destroy the notion of a strict top and a bottom to the world, so I abandoned that effort, as well.

My next step was to go ahead and look at the Escher pieces noted in the art order. Under normal circumstances, I would have taken this step much earlier on, but I'm pretty familiar with the pieces in question and I wanted to see if I could solve the various problems in the piece first, then come back to the Escher pieces and sort of check my work. Since the situation didn't come together quite as I'd hoped, I now picked over the Escher pieces in hopes that I would find something — anything — that would get me off the ground.

It didn't help.

Finally, I just asked myself this question: what does the architecture in this plane actually look like? If I could figure that out, maybe I could begin to build a piece around the aesthetic. So I began drawing. After a while, I started to come up with some stuff that I thought could actually work. I began layering things, and flipping the sketch over periodically to make sure it worked in both directions. Finally, I arrived at this:

©Wizards of the Coast

I'm not going to lie. It's not one of my prettier sketches, but it got my point across. I imagine that this plane (or this portion of the plane) is completely hewn from rock. The architecture is largely monolithic, broken up only by vast spaces where stair cases flow from one "building" to another.  The facades are sculpted to a point, but dissolve into natural formations from time to time. Shafts of light filter in here and there, and I would suspect that there are places in the Stairs to Infinity that are receive some light all day and night as the sun rotates clear around the thing, infiltrating gaps along the way from every angle. Or something.

Anyway, I got approval to move forward on the painting with only a request that I make sure there were clear figures on the bottom of the world, not just the top. Seemed simple enough, so I put out my palette and went to work. Here's how it came out:

©Wizards of the Coast

The piece is 16" x 12" and is the usual oil on paper on hardboard.

What would have helped me quite a bit is if I could render things in 3-D. It would have saved me a lot of grief to have completely designed this piece on the computer so that I didn't have to do so much math in my head. But I don't know any pertinent programs that would have helped. As a result, there are almost certainly some horrendous perspective errors. The best I could do was a few cardboard and clay models of a few chunks of the piece, but their accuracy was limited. Still, I'm not entirely unhappy with how the thing came out. I just accept that there are flaws.

That being said, there's an odd thing about the piece. When describing it to someone the other day, I made note that the reproduction was less than accurate. I made the claim that the color was far more intense and that it was very much a play between orange and blue. After taking a look at it this morning, I'm pretty disappointed in my memory. The image above is as accurate as I can make it, and the cards weren't too far off. At least the couple I've seen so far (I didn't get my own copies as it's a promo card and thus I don't get any, myself).

Anyway, when I submitted the piece to Wizards of the Coast, I let them know that they were free to publish it either as I presented it or upside-down — whichever worked better with the card boarder.  They went with my original orientation, and it was printed thusly:

And here's a link to download a wallpaper of the thing: link.

Planechase cards are a lot of fun. They're twice as large as a normal Magic card, and on top of this fact, the art is full-frame. Add to this that they're landscapes and you've certainly got my interest. The two pieces I've gotten to do for the set have certainly been a lot of fun, and I'm not going to lie, I'm hoping for a Planechase 3.

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