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.


  1. Wow, that's tough to be given shiny new art and have the AD say "do this, but different"

    I actually saw your version first on the magic website and really liked it, so I'm surprised unsatisfied you are with it. After seeing Min Yums's, my reaction wasn't that one was better than the other, just that they had very different tones. Your specter had an ominous feel as it was prowled over the city. What grabbed me was the under lighting. Min Yum's was more about the power and terror of the specter. Different feelings for each piece, not different levels of quality.

    1. Thanks, Matt. I agree about the difference in tone and I'm pretty satisfied with the quality in the end. It was just really frustrating to have that other piece in my head.

      This is also a rare piece for me in that I think it falls apart to an extent when reduced to card scale. I'm actually really happy with how it feels in person, but I continue to be disappointed with how it looks reproduced (which is mostly my own fault).

      Thanks for your very kind words, as well. I really appreciate it.


  2. Yeah, I really like this one. Ever since I saw in on your easel back in May, I think it really came together nicely. And while Min's illustration is really nice too, and i'm sure was a super pain-in-the-ass to try and diverge from, I think your's has a nicer feel to it. The other image has that digital "movie still" spot-light look that I feel everyone is doing now. And plus the highlights on his teeth just look great.

    1. Thanks, Scott. To be honest, I don't look enough at the work of my contemporaries to say whether or not something is a visual trend. I spend more time looking at work from a hundred or more years ago than I do flipping through web pages.

      Whether or not Min's piece relies on something that is common among digital work these days doesn't subtract from how strong a piece it is. And that's what I struggled with. Whether or not I or anyone else like it is besides the point, it is a very strong visual. Thus, for me, it became (as you so eloquently put it) a super pain-in-the-ass.

      That being said, I am satisfied with it. I wish it looked better on the card, but I believe I can blame myself for that.


  3. i really love the art you done for this piece its my favourite card in my deck!

  4. Man I think this turned out to be a killer piece! I love the contrast of the warm light from the city vs the cool light from the sky. The skinny limbs on those creatures are creepy cool. And that high angle and sense of motion and is really working.


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