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."


  1. I love some of the esper artwork. I liked Ethercast Knight so much I built a deck around it.

    First time visitor to this blog - just starting up as a freelance illustrator - I appreciate hearing on topic posts from folks like you.


    1. Thanks! Best of luck on your freelancing future!


  2. Replies
    1. Indeed. And also, your misspelling was at least interesting. I just realized I misspelled "orchard" in the title!

  3. Hello Steven, I found your blog searching for the picture of Exotic Orchard.

    Im a big fan of green, and this picture was so awsome when I find it, that instantly start searching for a PlayMat of it... But sadly they are all out of stock in each web I looked (Even on Ebay)

    Can you send me the picture in FULL HD resolution so at least I can make a custom Playmat with it? (Will be the same as the original... But won't be Ultra Pro...)

    In the case you know or had a playmat with Exotic Orchard, will you sell it to me?

    Thanks a lot for you work on all of your arts.

    PS: Sorry, my english is terrible... I hope you understand.



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