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.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Crimson Muckwader

Crimson Muckwader is a rarity. It's a piece painted in front of other artists, which means there was daily, live feedback as it came to be. As I mentioned yesterday, this job came in the midst of a great deal of upheaval. Much of the uncertainty was dealt with while working on Tricks of the Trade, and after that piece had been finished I was whisked away to an artist retreat.

I'd planned to attend the retreat much earlier in the year when things had looked to be running smoothly. I'd also planned to work on a personal piece while there. By late summer, however, it became clear that bad things were afoot with Amy's job, and I felt it prudent to take on more work than I'd original intended to so as to pad our pockets (just in case) and scuttled plans for a personal piece. Thus, I ended up working on Crimson Muckwader instead of the canvas which I only recently (and finally) began.

Truth be told, I had mixed feelings about going to the retreat at all. Things were tight and spending the money didn't seem like a wise move. Amy encouraged me to go, however, and I compromised by eating in instead of out. In retrospect, I was a fool to even consider canceling.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the beginning, shall we? Let's take a look at the art order for what was then called "Marsh Skink":
Color: Red creature
Location: A swamp
Action: Show a poisonous lizard emerging from the dark water of the swamp. Its bold, poison-dart-frog-like coloration (please keep red as a color on him) is in sharp contrast to its murky surroundings. The lizard is about six feet long and resembles a fanged skink.
Focus: The marsh lizard
Mood: There's no doubt it's dangerous.
Right away I'm going to confess a problem I have: I can be a bit literal. I want to reiterate that this thing was originally titled "Marsh Skink." What that meant to me was that I needed to start by looking up various species of skinks and extrapolate from there. To my mind, they obviously wanted a skink because they'd bothered to call it one. Clearly I'd forgotten on some level that this was Magic, and clearly I'd completely ignored the fact that skinks are pretty tame looking creatures and not very threatening, because I started with this:

©Wizards of the Coast
While this sketch does solve several aspects of the art order, the skink in question falls well short of anything that could be confused with "dangerous." Well, that's not entirely true, as many things that turn out to be dangerous look pretty innocuous, but that's rarely — if ever — called for in Magic. Wizards tends to want things to be a bit more flamboyant. Fortunately, I understood that on some level, because I went ahead and handed this second version in for insurance:

©Wizards of the Coast
If you're sitting there failing to see how that's much of an improvement, it should be no surprise to you that I was asked to revisit the piece, this time ignoring the idea of it being a skink at all. Evil lizard was what was called for, and so went back to work and gave them this:

©Wizards of the Coast
Finally, I managed a sketch that seemed to meet their criteria in a satisfactory way and I got approval. So, I went about creating a cruddy, clay maquette, shot it, and compiled a bunch of photo reference from the internet.

Sculpey on a piece of bright blue plexiglass.
Next, I printed the sketch out, mounted it on hardboard, and slapped a very simple acrylic base down, painting the lizard pure Cadmium Red Medium and everything else Terra Verte. That was the painting's condition when I finally set everything up in a barn in Western Massachusetts alongside the following artists:

Boris Vallejo
Julie Bell
Dave Palumbo
Anthony Palumbo
Greg Manchess
Lars Grant-West
Dave Seeley
Winona Nelson
Dan Dos Santos
Scott Brundage
Randy Gallegos
Sam Burley
Chris Moeller
and Arkady Roytman

God I hope I didn't forget anybody.

Anyway, there I was with a tiny Magic painting while most folks were cranking away at much more substantial work. The fact was, though, that I needed to get the piece done as there was a deadline afoot, so I set to work. Given that there were so many artists in the room, it was inevitable that I soon began getting a comment here, a suggestion there. Unfortunately, I go so much input and this took place long enough ago that I honestly couldn't say who said what, but I remember that most (if not all) of the shared thoughts were helpful. Still, despite the weird start to the job, I was pretty confident that I knew what I was doing, and much of the input ended up being pretty nit-picky, which was all I could ask for, really.

Here's how it came out.

©Wizards of the Coast
It's 12"x9" and is the usual oil on hardboard.

Of various bits of input made by my fellow artists over the week in Massachusetts, the most notable were the suggestion that a bit of the elbow from the opposite arm be visible just to the right of the neck, as well as the suggestion of the shadow that falls across the tail. Really simple stuff, but that kind of thing adds quite a bit to the piece — at least in my mind.

Aside from getting a piece done, I managed to gain a certain level of confidence in my process. Many artists I know feel self-conscious about their process in some way. I don't know if it's the isolation from other artists or the prolonged feeling that they're somehow getting away with something, but I know a lot of illustrators who are are clearly uncomfortable with how they go about putting a painting together. The best cure for that kind of thing (at least for me) is to go out and spend a few days painting with a few other folks. Sure, I can't even come close to doing what Greg Manchess or Boris or Chris Moeller do, but despite the vast chasm between their work and my own, there are threads of commonality. They put their paint down one brushstroke at a time, just as I do.

And, as much as I preach to others that each of us should do whatever it takes to accomplish the final image, sometimes I forget to take my own advice. Looking at the differences within the various processes, it's clear that each person has resolved this concept in their own way. Seeing and understanding that kind of thing can be invaluable to someone who is struggling, and I must confess that coming away from the retreat with the knowledge that I was not a painting troglodyte helped buttress me mentally for the months of uncertainty that lay ahead.

In total, I think it took me about four days of solid work with an hour or two of fussing to put this piece to rest. All the while, while toiling away, I sat pondering what I should do for a personal piece. I had a bit of time before IlluxCon and I still wanted to have something new. In my second to last day at the retreat, inspiration finally came and I knocked out a couple sketches. These little nuggets ended up becoming The Weight of Midworld, which I managed to complete (or so I thought), just in time for the trip out to Altoona, Pennsylvania. So, I guess in the end I managed to get some personal work done at the retreat after all.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Tricks of the Trade

Despite what that title might indicate, this is not a post in which I reveal to you bits and bobs that can make your work look more (or less) professional. Okay, it sort of is, but that's not why it's called "Tricks of the Trade." No, this is all about new Magic art, which appears on a card whose title happens to be "Tricks of the Trade." But don't let that stop you from reading on, because there are actual secrets revealed herein. Dark, horrible secrets, from a life filled with shame and regret...

Let's start with the description, shall we?
Color: Blue Spell
Location: A dimly lit temple or shrine
Action: The spell shows the use of magic by an amazing merfolk thief. Show a rogue hanging upside down as she slides down a rope into a dimly lit temple or shrine. She’s about to steal something, and she’s using powerful stealth magic. Her merfolk skin shimmers with waves of subtle blue-green light. Maybe she’s using just her feet to slide down the rope, which is an incredible feat of athleticism. She’s young, attractive, and dressed in the dark-colored clothes of a thief. Maybe we see the object that she is planning to steal, but it’s not necessary.
Focus: The scene
Mood: Who needs picklocks when you’ve got spells?
This piece is from the new Magic 2013 core set. Unlike the expansion sets which have fancy names and come with style guides, the core sets tend to be visually less specific in their location, and tend to allow the artists to do their own concepting for a change. In other words, we get to play around a bit more and stretch our legs.

While I'd like to say that I got to do all those things and come up with some insane stuff on this piece, I can't really. You see, with the description above, I got a bunch of examples of what the merfolk should look like. While not a formal style sheet, the sample images effectively served the same purpose. I knew what the merfolk were meant to look like, and I knew vaguely what their clothing should entail. Now, I'm not mentioning this in an attempt to file a complaint, but I'm also not going to deny being a little disappointed that I was following someone else's designs on an annual set that has traditionally been more open-ended. It would have been nice to just do my own thing. Disappointment or no, it was the assignment I was given and there were still problems that needed solving. I could complain or I could try and do my best with it. I chose the latter.

So, I took the description and attached images and I immediately started to finagle a solution. The first hurdle was figuring out a pose that solved the problem. My big worry when posing things typically is the reduced size of the reproduction. It's always a potential issue that the figures won't read correctly in card form. In this case, I had a merfolk suspended from a rope by their legs. Not necessarily an easy task. I drew a bunch of different things and finally settled on a pose. I quickly realized, however, that with the pose and the rope it was going to be difficult to fit into the composition in large enough form to read properly. Honestly, the piece felt like it should be a vertically oriented, but I somehow had to fit it into the horizontal space allotted. The only way I could get it to work was by rotating the camera and viewing the thief from below, forcing her into a pretty severe perspective.  I drew it up formally, and handed in the following sketch:

©Wizards of the Coast
Despite it's rather lackluster quality, this sketch was approved, so I shot reference and went to paint.

Wait. Let me back up a second. I just glossed over something that I think is worth talking about: shooting reference. While I've talked at great length about the generalities of shooting reference, I think it's worth talking about this bit of reference specifically. While I'm not going to show you the pictures, I can tell you that the reference for this piece required Amy and I to take turns posing and photographing one another. We posed by balancing on our stomachs atop an old steamer trunk, arching our backs and attempting to mimic the position seen above. It was pretty taxing physically, but I got what I needed, and I'm not going to deny being sore the next morning.

Unlike a lot of folks, I tend not to Frankenstein a bunch of shots together to create a master reference image. Instead, I select two or three that come the closest to the desired result and bounce between them. This process is just a different means to the same end, but I find that my mind is a bit more engaged while I'm working. Having worked both ways, I honestly can't advocate one method over another, I think it's always best to figure out what works for you and go with that.

So, yeah, the painting.

Given how much of the aesthetic was already determined, I decided to spend some time on the architecture. Seemed to me that it was the one place that I could add something significant to the piece, and it was a subject that was still sorely lacking from my work in general. Even if this didn't end up being a portfolio piece, it was at least practice.

The magic described in the art order was pretty vague, but the obvious solution in my mind was for the magic to look almost like water reflections. Not sure why it was obvious, but it's what my gut told me to do. My only concern was that these magic reflections wouldn't stand out properly. My solution was to give the piece a very warm palette, while keeping the magic glistening very cool and slightly out of place.

At least that's what I intended. Then life got in the way.

©Wizards of the Coast
This is what the painting looks like. It's 12"x9", is the usual oil on hardboard, and for whatever reason I didn't incorporate the magic glow into the piece from the beginning. This lapse was a mistake to be sure because it caused a headache and resulted a finish that looks quite different from the published version.

While it's not a very good excuse, I can tell you that this piece was done right as Amy lost her job in Massachusetts and the daunting conversations surrounding her career's future and our potential relocation began while I was painting this very piece. Obviously there's a lot to be concerned about when big things like this hit you, and as I'm a pretty nervous guy by nature, my worry levels increased ten fold when Amy's job went kaput. Unfortunately, a lot of my fears and self-doubt wound up in this piece. I remember feeling pretty confident about things after the sketch was approved, but I can tell you that I lost much of that confidence as the image progressed. I lost faith that I could pull it off, and I resolved midway through to polish it off digitally.

In retrospect, this decision was pretty curious given that my digital skills are pretty weak. If there's anything I should have had little to no faith about, it should have been my ability to do a decent job painting the magic in Photoshop. For some reason, however, it seemed like a really good idea. Since I'd lost faith in my ability to pull it off in paint, at least I would be switching to a medium that allowed for pushing and pulling to my heart's content. I could do something and undo it just as easily.
Given how the timing was working out, with the deadline looming, I had left myself no other options. Not if I wanted to turn the job in on time, anyway. So I plugged in my Wacom tablet and went to work.

This is the result:

©Wizards of the Coast
I've got mixed feelings about this hybrid piece. I like both versions, but I'm not sure I like the version with the magic more. I guess that's why I've left the painting be in its original form. I'm not sure if that's a mistake or not. Either way, I was too quickly on to the next job to go back into it, and I've honestly not thought a whole lot about it since.

In many ways the fact that I pulled it off and handed it in on time was a miracle. There were a lot of sleepless nights and hard conversations happening at the time, and I was pretty distracted. Eventually, Amy moved into my studio with me and did much of her job searching from just a few feet away. We got to spend four months hanging out together while figuring out our next move, and believe it or not it ended up being more fun than stressful. Initially, though, I was just a ball of nerves and this painting will likely always remind me of that. All things considered, it could have come out WAY worse.