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