Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Recent Magic Events by the Numbers

All figures below pertain to the duration between January 1st, 2013, and February 25th, 2013.

3: The number of Magic tournaments I appeared at.

2: The number of those events which were Grands Prix.

9: The number of sharpies I wore out during those events.

2: The number of sharpies that were silver (the rest were black).

8: The number of days spent signing autographs.

62: The total number of hours spent signing during those 8 days.

2: The number of lunch breaks taken during those same 8 days.

12: The total number of ibuprofin taken to address back and wrist issues from sitting all day doing nothing but signing my name and drawing.

1: The number of cards accidentally signed that were not ones I did art for.

2: The number of cards intentionally signed that were not ones I did art for.

1: The number of items signed that were not related to the game of Magic (it was a copy of the first Badass book).

0: The number of card alterations done.

10: The number of hours spent working on playmat commissions in hotel rooms after signing all day.

42: The number of times I was asked if I was a digital artist.

1,600: The appoximate number of players that attended the Magic Grand Prix Atlantic City in January.

2,693: The total number of players in attendance at the Magic Grand Prix Charlotte this past weekend, making it not only the biggest Grand Prix ever, but the biggest Magic tournament in the game's history. Additional interesting numbers on the subject can be found here: link.

3: The number of on-camera interviews done.

9: The number of hours spent driving.

470: The number of miles driven.

2: The number of flights taken.

1: The number of locations visited that were new to me (Charlotte, NC).

3: The number of other Magic artists I spent time with (r.k. post, Eric Deschamps, Terese Nielsen).

3: The number of meals shared with any of those other artists.

10: The number of hours spent making prints in preparation for the events.

4: The total number of prints destroyed by my printer.

3: The number of hours spent packing.

2: The number of hours spent unpacking.

3: The total number of days spent recovering.

3: The number of months until I make another appearance (Spectrum Fantastic Art Live in May).

Additional facts:

The card I signed most often: Overgrown Tomb.

The runner up: Gravecrawler.

The event I did in Edison, NJ, was the most offensive smelling event I'd ever been to. The entire venue smelled strongly of wet dog due to the combination of a dog show that was running at the venue simultaneously and the winter storm which preceded the weekend.

Numbers I wish I had:

The total number of cards signed.

The total number of a particular card signed.

The total number of autographs.

The total number of playmat drawings.

The total number of times I screwed up my own signature.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Syndicate Enforcer

Syndicate Enforcer is about as straightforward a piece as one can get, really. There really are no interesting facts to share other than that it was the first piece that I painted after I moved to New Jersey. I remember that the house was just barely unpacked when I finally started it, and I remember feeling very odd sitting in the new studio. Still, the sketch came together pretty easily after receiving the following art order:
Color: Black creature (Orzhov guild)
Location: Behind a shopfront in Ravnica, or some other out-of-the-public-eye location in the city
Action: Show an Orzhov enforcer, a kind of well-paid thug that comes to bleed people of their hard-earned wealth. He's human and dressed in dark Orzhov armor like the knight on p. 137A (Ravnica world guide), but instead of a helmet or faceplate, he wears a hooded cloak over his armor. He looks strong, merciless, and mean -- the perfect Orzhov extortion-bully. Perhaps he's stalking off (toward us) with a coin purse, after having roughed up his victim (in the background, maybe a stunned Ravnican elf is slumped against a stone wall -- but don't draw focus from the thug himself).
Focus: The Orzhov enforcer-thug
Mood: One of the many criminal jerks who keeps the power structure of the Orzhov running "smoothly"
The first thing that came to mind after reading that description was the image of Billy Dee Williams walking down a dark, smokey alley in shots from one of his Colt 45 beer commercials from the 80's. To some reading this, that will seem like a pretty obscure reference, but I suspect there are some of you who will know exactly what I'm talking about. Of course, I have no idea why the image of Mr. Williams walking down that street all cool and collected with his trench coat blowing in the wind was the mental leap I made, but I accepted it and went with it. This sketch is the result:

©Wizards of the Coast
There's a part of me that wishes I'd translated the images I remembered from those commercials more literally in terms of composition, but I'm not unhappy with how that sketch came out. And neither were the folks at Wizards. They approved it.

Before I move on, I need to provide a little back story for those who aren't completely up to date on their Magic lore. This piece is set in Ravnica, which is a plane entirely covered in city — kinda like Coruscant in Star Wars, only with no Jedi and fewer diners. Within this city, ten guilds vie for control. Each of these guilds draw power from two of the five environments in Magic (plains, forests, islands, mountains, and swamps). Each of these environments has a corresponding color associated with it (plains are white, forests are green, islands are blue, mountains are red, and swamps are black). The central figure of this image — as mentioned in the art order above — is from the Orzhov Syndicate, which draws its power (or mana) from the plains and the swamp and so is associated with the colors white and black.

Black and white are awesome. Except when you're trying to paint a full-color piece. As such, over the years, those images associated with white and black cards have had to expand their color repertoire a bit. Yellow has joined white to help represent the plains and purple has joined black to represent the swamps. And so it was that I came to the rather easy decision that this piece would be a play between yellow and purple.

Boy that was a very long-winded explanation.

Anyway, I went to paint and stuck to my intentions pretty closely. Except that I didn't. Well, not entirely. The problem was that I wasn't completely satisfied with the straight yellow and violet palette. I found I liked it better when I introduced more orange and brown into the mix. On the whole, it felt more visually congealed. So, once again, I went with it, and here's how the piece came out:

©Wizards of the Coast
The painting's the usual oil on paper on hardboard and measures 14 inches wide by 11 inches tall.

Before submitting the piece to Wizards, I ended up removing a bit of red from the image in order to make it a much straighter yellow and purple image as initially intended.  I thought it would work better for their purposes. But the image above is pretty accurate to the painting.

At the end of the day, I rather like this piece. It's not pushing the envelope in any way, and it's not really a think piece, but it tells a story and provides a decent level of atmosphere. I think it does exactly what it's supposed to do.

Here's what it looks like in card form:

Friday, February 1, 2013

Nightveil Specter

Oh boy. Nightveil Specter. What can I say about this piece? Well, I could tell you that when I painted it, it was tied for the title of largest Magic painting I'd done. There's a fun fact. I can tell you that it was among the first pieces I painted after I moved to New Jersey a little over a year ago. I suppose that's another fun fact. And lastly, I will tell you that it stood in the shadow of another piece from the very beginning. That fact is less fun.

The piece started with a description. This is that description:
[Nightveil Specter]

Color: Blue/Black creature (Dimir guild)
Location: The night sky over Ravnica.
Action: Show us a Dimir specter [similar to the one in Line styleguide p. 319C] who is flying through the night sky on some gruesome mount. Perhaps the mount could be an undead cross between a naked mole rat and a bat (don’t be too literal). Maybe the creature is up-lit from the ambient light from the city or a stained glass window that it is flying by.
Focus: The Dimir specter and its hideous mount.
Mood: Horrifying and deadly.
Seems simple enough, right? Nothing weird or unusual. Except, of course, for the minor fact that the description was accompanied by a note and an attachment (which is, actually, very unusual). The note made it clear that this piece was for a promotional card, which meant that my version would essentially be the alternate version. The file attached to the email, it turned out, was the original piece of the art which had just been turned in. Here is that art:

The art director's motives for sending me the original image are beyond me. For all I know, it might have been completely innocent and been more about the sharing of cool art than anything else. Intentions aside, I saw the inclusion of that email attachment as a challenge. Min Yum's image is what I was expected to live up to, and I've got to be honest, I really wasn't confident in my ability to manage that.

Now, I'd done several promotional images for Magic to that point, and nbever before had I been provided with the other versions. I was happy with this. I liked that I was off on my own to figure out what I could. It's not that I was free of influence on those occasions (style guides still were a factor), but at least the influence wasn't so specific. For example, there's a vast difference between being given an art order that turns out to be a description of the Mona Lisa with landscape and era-appropriate clothing provided for reference, and being given a picture of the Mona Lisa and being told "paint this... but, you know...different."

This situation shouldn't be all that dissimilar to any of those times I did new art for existing Magic cards, though, right? You know, like I did for Kiki-Jiki and Izzet Chronarch. Well, despite the fact that it pretty much is the same thing, there's a very important factor that's different: time. When I've been asked to do new art for existing cards, the cards have been around for years. With the passage of those years has come a shift in the aesthetic of Magic and often a shift in what the art needs to depict. There's inherent freshness built in.

With Nightveil Specter, for the first time, I was being given a piece that was brand new, very specific and clear, and being asked to do my own thing with it. All I can say is that I had a heck of a time doing it. Try as I might, I couldn't get Min Yum's original out of my head. I suppose I might have been able to come at the piece with a clean(er) slate if I didn't like the original version or had a lot of faults with it, but that just wasn't the case here. I felt like a headlining act that had just been blown out of the water by the opening act before even getting a chance to take the stage.

Still, I did what I could. I sketched away and came up with this.

©Wizards of the Coast
Looking at the sketch, I almost wish I could have painted it in black and white, but of course that just wasn't possible. On the other hand, the folks at Wizards seemed to like the piece enough to give it the green light and I was permitted to move forward to paint. Before doing so, however, I passed it by my brotherhood of evil illustrators to see what they had to say, and while there were a few suggested tweaks, they seemed to dig it at this point. And so I took it to paint.

As I began to work it up, I realized that the moody, atmospheric vibe I'd gone for in the sketch felt too similar to me to that original version. I began to worry about whether or not I'd been too affected by that really solid image, and came to the conclusion that I needed to further differentiate my own piece from Min Yum's. I did this in two ways. First, I shifted my palette away from the original. Second, I decided to articulate a lot more of the city below. Sure there'd still be some degree of atmosphere, but I thought it'd be cool to actually show the city and give some reason for the creature's lighting. Or something.

Point being, areas that on the sketch are just smears of gray gradually became a city. Not surprisingly, this took quite a bit of time, and before I knew it I was neck deep in the most prolonged battle with a Magic painting I've ever fought. This thing ate three weeks of my life and I grew to hate it as a result. The worst part was that I never knew when any aspect of it was finished. I just kept throwing man hours at it in hopes that it would magically come together. Truth be told, the only reason I stopped working on it was because it was due.

©Wizards of the Coast
The end result is a bit muddled in terms of value. In fact, I think it's a lot muddled. What started as a strong sketch full of contrast and light became a much murkier image. What's worse is that I didn't do myself any favors when I scanned it, brought it into Photoshop and started color correcting the thing. I boosted the color saturation and skewed the color into a purer color palette for reasons I can't even begin to explain. Either way, the card has been printed, and I think it's clear that I failed to meet the perceived challenge.

At least the fight was over. But, it turns out, the story isn't.

After turning it in, I submitted the image to my illustrator cabal. While the responses were kind, there were still clearly things that nagged at them and nagged at me. Still, I'd spent a few weeks trying to nail this thing down and I just didn't have the heart to do a few more rounds. And so the thing sat on top of my flat files staring at me for months. At some point I got tired of seeing it and I chucked it in a mostly empty drawer. Then more time passed.

Finally, in December, I pulled it out of its drawer to take a look at it again. I pondered it for a while and decided to pull out the paints and mess with it again to see if I could improve it some. Besides, I'd forgotten to sign the thing, so there was that. After a few days of tweaks, I decided it was done. Once dry, I took another stab at color correcting it. This is as close as I can make the digital image look to the original painting:

©Wizards of the Coast
The painting is 20" x 16" and is oil on paper on hardboard. It's not brilliant, but it's done.

Here it is in card form:

Note: the color shift in the card image is there to represent that the card was printed on foil paper. It's all metallic and shiny and whatnot. At least I think it is. Either that or I really need to check my file settings.

Post Script: I probably gave the impression that I'm unhappy with the finished painting. In truth, I'm quite pleased. If I didn't like it at all, I probably wouldn't have taken the time to go back in a tweak it a bit. Truth be told, I'm a bit confounded by how much better the piece works at a larger scale, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the level and type of detail involved with the piece. It's entirely possible that I found my personal threshold of how large a piece is too large to successfully translate into a Magic card. Whatever the case may be, I'm the type of person who dwells on the faults within a piece and this case is no different. I guess I can add dwelling on the reproduction to that, as well.