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.


  1. This one really kills, man. After what you mentioned about competing with the digital guys, I really think this one is a great example of the texture and mood that oils can bring to a scene...not that I'm biased or anything.

    1. Thanks, Chris. Your (lack of) bias is noted. Still you're not wrong that oils bring something to the table, but it still takes a heck of a lot more time to bring it all together and the disadvantages of that are pretty substantial.

  2. Wow, this is one of my favourite arts from the new set so far. You did the card justice!

  3. Hey steven just sent you an email but let me tell you this art is one of the best in my opinion when I got my hands on it I just hand to look you up keep the great work coming look forward to see more and more. Bummer that you don't sign stuff but I understand and sorry to hear about the stressful situations but it sure paid off amazing amazing work.

  4. I found my way here searching for this art so I can use it as my computer wallpaper background.(I hope you don't mind.)

    Add +1 to the list of fans who loved this. I already owned a playset of Tombs and still picked up a set just for the art upgrade. You nailed the Golgari 'mood' very well.

    I read your blog post about this being a difficult time for you and I hope you get through it ok. Maybe it helps to know that this art was appreciated by many. At the RTR release party there were a lot of us asking each other, did you see the new Overgrown Tomb? It was one of about a dozen standout cards that people were showing to each other :)

  5. This is absolutely incredible. Looks good on the card, but I didn’t quite realise the scale of it until I saw it in full glory here. I never noticed all the tiny people before!

    Magnificent. You’re an excellent artist.


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