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.