Monday, December 29, 2014

Logen Ninefingers

During the late summer and fall, I spent a fair bit of time on planes and in airports, and so I burned through quite a few books to pass the time. Among the books consumed were Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy. Shortly after finishing the books, I found myself in eastern Pennsylvania on a week-long artists' retreat.  On one of the last days of the retreat, I decided to try and knock out a couple of small paintings in one sitting.

Without a sketch or plan, I began to smear paint across the first board and wipe into the random strokes until I started seeing something. Before long, I found myself working on a portrait of a scarred and brooding man. With the recently read books fresh in my mind, I decided to just go ahead and push the portrait in the direction of one of the trilogy's main characters, Logen Ninefingers.

Not particularly sure if I ended up doing the character any justice, but it was a quick piece that I ended up liking a lot about.

The finished painting is oil on gessoed hardboard and measures 5 inches wide by 7 inches tall.

This piece represents the thinnest paint application I'd done in quite a while and I had a lot of fun slapping paint down then wiping the paint both with a paper towel, as well as with a rubber blending tool. While the piece was almost completely done during my time at the retreat, I did go back into it a few days after returning to Seattle for about five additional minutes to push the darks a bit more.

Like I said above, I'm pretty pleased with this one. Is it the most dynamic, interesting result? Maybe not, but I'm happy with how I let the brushstrokes sit and be their own thing. I have yet to figure out how to apply this to my professional work in a similarly satisfying way, however. But I'm still trying. In the meantime, I guess I can keep at it with small pieces like this.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What Remains

Over the summer, I took some time off of commissioned work to try and put to bed the large personal piece I'd been working on and to see if I could get a couple additional pieces done along the way. As luck would have it, my health got in the way to a certain extent and I ended up not getting quite as much done as I'd hoped. While I'm quite fortunate that the type of issues I was having weren't life-threatening, they did prove uncomfortable and painful enough to keep me from my usual routine.

But I digress. This post isn't about health issues. It's about the fact that I ended up finishing that piece.

This is basically what it looked like through most of the beginning of the year:

The undeveloped space in the lower right hand corner was a problem. It originally was meant to be aged and rusty armor piled up and covered in moss and growth. But after mocking it up several ways, I became pretty dissatisfied with that direction. Dissatisfaction eventually yielded to uncertainty and before I knew it I was completely without direction. And so the painting sat in this unfinished state for a few additional months.

In June I finally got fed up with it and did something I was formerly reluctant to do: I asked for help. I sent the above photo to a couple close artist friends for their opinion. Their feedback was huge and was fairly consistent across the board. I chose the thoughts and ideas that really worked for me and got back to work.

Unfortunately, I failed to document a full day's worth of work wherein I began to fill in the great mystery spot in the lower right hand corner by continuing the architecture from above. After doing that, I began to destroy that very architecture and reveal the environment beyond.

One of the things I find kind of funny is at the beginning of this painting, the left column was going to be broken (as evidenced by this post). It's interesting to me that I eventually circled right back to that idea (with a little help from my friends, of course).

When I got to this point, I decided that I'd destroyed quite enough of the building and decided to start adding more moths — an element that had always been part of the piece from an early stage.

Once the moths were finished, I decided to call it and signed it. Thus the largest painting I'd done since college was completed.

The painting is oil on stretched linen, measures thirty inches wide by forty inches tall, and is titled What Remains.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Abzan Falconer

Painted at the same time as Armament Corps, Abzan Falconer proved to be far less fraught with issues. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't free of revisions or anything, but it was not nearly as difficult a process.

Here's the art order:
ART ID: 156996    title: [Abzan Falconer]
Setting: KHANAR
Clan: Abzan
Color: White creature
Location: Tower or aerie of an Abzan citadel
Action: Show a male human soldier of the Abzan who trains giant desert birds of prey. He squints bravely into the sun as behind him, a brown-feathered, sharp-beaked eagle or hawk perches on a stone perch (maybe with a falconry hood over its eyes). The bird looks almost big enough to pick up the falconer himself.
Focus: The Abzan falconer
Mood: A watchful expert

Pretty simple and straightforward, honestly. I sketched it up and sent it in. However, the intitial version I sent in, I'm afraid, seems to have been lost. I sketched it digitally and I seem to have either saved over the old file or deleted layers. Either way, it was different than the one below. The falconer himself is virtually identical, but the scale and positioning of the falcon itself was altered a couple times.

©Wizards of the Coast
For the most part, the tweaks required me to make the falcon larger. There was also a concern that the falcon was too important within the composition (a concern that remained even with the version of the sketch that was ultimately approved). I suspect that the fear was about the fact that mechanically speaking the Abzan Falconer is not a flying creature, and so there was some worry that a composition that featured the falcon too prominently would insinuate otherwise. In the end, I ended up offering up a crop of the image that downplayed the falcon and promised that with lighting and color I'd ensure that the falconer was clearly the more important of the two elements.

Once that was agreed upon, I was given the go ahead to complete the piece.

©Wizards of the Coast
The painting is oil on paper on hardboard and measures sixteen inches wide by twelve inches tall.

While talking with Chris Rahn, about this piece and the minor difficulties during it's creation, he volunteered that his solution would have been a bit different. He suggested that he'd have zoomed in even tighter on the falconer and depicted just the feet and legs of the falcon behind him. That might have made for a better piece. It also might have made for an instant approval rather than several back and forth emails and a few sketch rehashes.

Why I didn't think of this alternate solution is beyond me. Truth be told, I was having such difficulty with Armament Corps that I just wanted something to go right, and so I sketched something I was happy with and hoped for the best. It worked out, but now I kind of wonder if this really was the best option.

Still, I'm not unhappy with the piece. I like the color and the mood and the lighting. So there's that.

As I suggested, they cropped in on the piece when they printed it. It's really a fairly subtle crop, but it does help the focus for the purposes of the card.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Armament Corps

The third piece I did for Magic's "Khans of Tarkir" expansion set is called Armament Corps. Unlike Ankle Shanker and Sagu Archer, which were pretty straightforward get-the-description-do-the-sketch-paint-the-picture assignments, this one required a period of me failing to solve the inherent issues of the assignment to an epic degree. It just wouldn't come together for me. I shall explain as we go, but first we'll look at the art order itself:
ART ID: 157070    title: [Arsenal Caravan]
Clan: Abzan
Color: Green/white/black creature
Location: Desert
Action: Show a shot of the Abzan soldiers who are manning a war wagon (p. 41C for scale relationship of war wagon to beast).  This mobile siege platform is used to deliver more supplies to the Abzan clan, so we'd like to see whole wagon bristling and clattering with dragonscale shields, scimitars, and other Abzan gear as well as the Abzan soldiers themselves. This should be a shot that's close-in enough that we can see at least a few of the human Abzan soldiers clearly -- it should be more about the people than the vehicle.
Focus: The Abzan soldiers and the gear they're delivering
Mood: "Our cargo is WAR!"
The page numbers indicated in the description are references to the styleguide, or visual bible for the set. I've left those in because they raise a couple talking points. Primarily, they clue one into the fact that the central set piece of the image Wizards was looking to get out of me was a "war wagon." In the context of Tarkir, war wagons are giant fortresses on wheels that are towed about the world by equally giant beasts of burden.

So off the bat, I have to find a way to compose the piece in such a way where it is clear that we're on a war wagon as opposed to some sort of stationary architecture. Why is this important? Well, I have to assume on some level that such a visual cue might be important to the mechanics of the card the art will be printed on.

Second, I have to show a bunch of Abzan soldiers gearing up for war on the aforementioned war wagon. Seems simple enough, really. Except it isn't. And for good reason.

Put simply, the difficulty is this: I have to somehow compose a shot that is far enough away to include details of the immense war wagon that make it clear it's a war wagon (say part of the beast of burden or the rigging for attaching said beast to the wagon itself), while being close enough to clearly show the soldiers and their equipment. This image then has to be legible when reduced to printed card scale.

There are, without a doubt, artists who would come up with some really awesome solutions to this that solve all of those issues. I, it turns out, happen not to be one of them. In my mind the description reads more like a ten second moving image rather than a single shot. It requires a lot of boxes to be checked and then for those checked boxes to still work at a very small scale. In the end, after over a week of sketching, all I could come up with was a sort of helicopter shot looking down on the mobile fortress and the troops within. It was about as unsatisfying a visual as I had ever seen and I wasn't particularly interested in painting it. In fact, I never took it past the thumbnail stage. Why? Well, there was an additional problem. My only solution conflicted directly with the requirements of the topline email.

What's a topline email?

Well, before an illustrator's Magic assignment is sent out, they first receive an email referred to by Wizards as a "topline." This email provides information about the nuts and bolts of handing in our finished work (Photoshop settings for folks who hand their work in digitally and the shipping address for those who are so inclined to send in their original paintings) as well as some very vital information about the tone Wizards is looking to achieve in the set as a whole. Some sets require lots of night scenes and moody lighting. Some require mostly broad daylight. Some sets are meant to be very colorful, while others utilize a more depleted palette. Sometimes they're looking for more wide-angle points of view and at other times they require boots-on-the-ground style shots in the midst of the action. The specific looks the Magic creative team is looking for are always listed in this topline and taken into conjunction with the styleguide, the purpose is to have each Magic set gel visually despite being painted by 80-90 different artists.

In the case of "Khans of Tarkir," the topline suggested points of view from the midst of the action. They wanted everything to be from a human perspective. My birds-eye-view was anything but that. Having finally hit the wall, I sent my crappy thumbnails and an explanation of my shortcomings to my intrepid art director in the hopes that we could either think up a solution together or tweak the description a bit.

Opening that line of dialogue with my art director proved a life saver and after batting thoughts back and forth, I tossed out the idea of viewing the clearly manned war wagon from below as it rolls by the viewer. Along side it, a supply train of weapons and armor would stretch off into the distance, disappearing into the dust cloud. She suggested I sketch that one up and send it in. And so I did.

©Wizards of the Coast

Overall, the creative team at Wizards liked the direction this was headed, but felt that the supply train wasn't quite right and asked me to replace it with an army instead. And so I did.

©Wizards of the Coast

This version got the go ahead and I took it to paint.

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished painting is the usual oil on paper on hardboard and measures twelve inches wide by nine inches tall.

So what's the take away? I like this piece. There might be a few kinks that I'd smooth out if I had another day to work on it, but all in all it came out pretty well. I certainly never expected to like the thing in the midst of my frustration during the sketch phase and any chance I get to surprise myself is a good thing. Among the compliments I've gotten repeatedly has been the opinion that the image is atypical for a Magic painting (at least I hope that was a compliment), and that's something I agree with. It might seem pretty pedestrian to some, but that's what I like most about it. It's not some critter screaming at the viewer or some badass muscular guy wielding a giant sword. There is no magic in this Magic painting. Instead, it's the kind of imagery that (I hope) causes the viewer to buy into the world because it captures something so believable. It's just an army, marching off to war. With a giant war wagon.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sagu Archer

The second of four pieces I contributed to the Khans of Tarkir expansion set to Magic: the Gathering is Sagu Archer. Of the images I created, this was easily the most straightforward assignment of the lot.

As usual, I start with the art order:
ART ID: 156520    title: [Naga Ambush Archer]
Setting: KHANAR
Clan: Sultai
Color: Green creature
Location: Sultai jungle area
Action: Show a male naga perched up in one of the trees of the steamy jungle. He has his bow out, and he already has an arrow nocked and drawn, aiming upward at some unseen thing in the sky.
Focus: The naga archer
Mood: Lurking, waiting for his moment to snipe something out of the air.
For the uninitiated, a naga in this context is one of a race of snake people. Designs for these snake people were found in the style guide and I went to work. After a bunch of thumbnail sketches, I settled on the gag of the naga archer being wrapped around a branch to stabilize itself as it aims up through the canopy at a target. This also gave me a pretty dynamic and angular pose.

The result of my efforts was this sketch:

©Wizards of the Coast

The fine folks at Wizards seemed to like this sketch as is and gave me the go ahead to commence with the finished painting. Here is that painting:

©Wizards of the Coast

The painting is the usual oil on paper on hardboard and measures 14 inches wide by 11 inches tall.

As I painted, I found that I had to knock back the coils of the naga's tail to keep focus where it belonged. There was something about the repetitive highlights along the coils that seemed to pull the eye away from where I wanted to go. So, I ended up glazing that area back to keep the face and arms more important in the overall visual hierarchy. The downside is that the fun gag of the coils became harder to see. The upside is that the focus became clearer. It's a shame that I couldn't find a way to highlight bother equally well, but at the end of the day it seemed best to cut off the arm to save the patient.

Outside of that, things went smoothly. There were no major rehashes, problem, or any controversy to speak of. There was an assignment, I created an image that I hope did a decent job of fulfilling that assignment, and then it got approved. Simple as that. I wish they all went as smoothly.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ankle Shanker

For the first time since Innistrad, I had a pretty good idea what was coming with the latest Magic: the Gathering expansion set. However, my knowledge was not due to being a member the Khans of Tarkir concept team. Rather, I was involved a bit later in the process and helped flesh out some things well after the world had been established (something I'll be expounding upon at a later date). As a result, I got to see the Khans style guide before it had been fully completed and gained a pretty intimate understanding of this new world along the way.

My first assignment in Tarkir was for two paintings. The first I'm going to talk about is (as the title suggests) Ankle Shanker.

It's a rare thing that I get asked to paint goblins. I'm not sure whether this is due to a belief that my talents are better served elsewhere or that they are a subject I'm not particularly interested in. Given that I don't have a complete understanding of how the variety of pieces in a given set are actually assigned to the various artists involved, I can't rightly or intelligently comment on the first point. The second point, however, is entirely incorrect. I like goblins and I like painting them even more. So I was pretty excited when I was asked to depict a Tarkir goblin.

Here's the assignment itself:
ART ID: 156597    title: [Ankle Shanker]
Clan: Mardu
Color: Black, red, and white creature
Location: Scrubby steppe
Action: This is a female goblin warrior of the Mardu Horde. She is famed for her speed and ferocity on the battlefield. Show her charging toward us on foot, dripping saliva as she roars, brandishing a sharp-bladed Mardu sword. Perhaps she wears a torn Mardu banner as a scarf/cape.
Focus: The Mardu goblin warrior
Mood: What she lacks in size she makes up for in viciousness. It will probably be a bit funny given her proportions, but she takes battle (and herself) very seriously, so probably best if you play it straight here.
For me, a notable aspect about this assignment was the specific request for a female goblin. I have no idea whether or not this has been asked of anyone before in Magic (I'm sure it has), but this was certainly a first for me. Looking at the style guide, the sex of the goblin designs were not explicitly stated, but I went out on a limb and guessed that they were all male. The issue then became how to feminize the goblin and figure out how far to take that feminization.

Instinctively, I felt that I shouldn't push very far at all. The last thing I wanted to do was add hips and lipstick. Instead, I felt I should start by removing some of the hair and slightly softening some of the features. The eyes got a bit larger and rounder, the lips a bit plumper. And that was about all I did.

The result was this sketch:

©Wizards of the Coast

Fortunately, the folks at Wizards seemed to dig the direction I was headed and gave the go ahead to proceed. Here's how the painting that resulted came out:

©Wizards of the Coast

The painting is the usual oil on paper on hardboard and measures 14 inches wide by 11 inches tall.

Despite my attempts, I think our little goblin friend still reads as pretty masculine. Not the end of the world, but I think another pass might have helped indicate a slightly more female vibe. But it's still entirely possible that if one were to see this goblin next to her hairier male counterparts perhaps her sex might be a bit more obvious. Or not. Either way, I gave it the old college try.

Aside from the issue of sex, I think maybe I could have shifted the legs to exaggerate the pose more. Action shots are not really my strong suit and I sometimes fall short of really nailing motion. I think that is a bit of an issue in this piece, but I also don't think the pose criminally stiff. The whole thing might have benefited from another pass during the sketch phase to see if I could really make her fly. But that didn't happen and so here we are.

When the card came out, I discovered that my image was used only for the Intro Pack version of the card. Zoltan Boros did the art for the standar card found more commonly in card packs everywhere. I can't say as I have much of an opinion either way on that move by Wizards. The truth is, whenever there are multiple illustrations done for a single card, it always polarizes the audience to a certain extent and one will hear folks preferring one image over another. It's only natural. We like what we like.

A blatant disadvantage of having my art only on the Intro Pack version of the card is that it's likely that the vast majority of folks playing will not associate my art with the card itself. To an extent, this affects how iconic the image ends up being. But, the upside is that my version appears in this cool package and I'll get one or two of those for my collection. So there's that.

Regardless of what I would change and how folks out there will feel about it, I rather like my Ankle Shanker illustration. It was fun to lose myself in painting its angry little face and flowing ginger hair, its busted armor plates and little red cloths. When I tell folks that it's criminally fun to do what I do for a living, this is the stuff I'm talking about. This truly is a dream job at times and I hope I never have to wake up.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Frequently Asked Questions 12

Why are your prints so expensive?

Those aren't prints. They're original oil paintings.

Wait, you work in oils? I thought you worked digitally.

Nope. Oils.

But I thought you had to work digitally to work on Magic.

"Could you rephrase that in the form of a question? After all, this is 'Frequently Asked Questions.'"

Oh! Okay. Ahem.

Do you have to work digitally to work on Magic: the Gathering?

Why thanks for asking that question, good sir and/or madame. Allow me to address it in some sort of official blog-type capacity:

It is my belief that artists hoping to get work doing art for Magic can work in any medium. Okay, well, maybe not cast bronze or wrought iron. Let's say any 2-dimensional medium that can be reproduced well. Watercolor? Yup. Oils? Absolutely. Acrylic? You bet. Pastel? Why not? A mixture of several types of media? If it meets the criteria of reproducing well, then yes.

Obviously digital art isn't a problem. Just look at the virtual who's who of digital artists who either currently work or have worked on Magic in the past. There are some amazing folks who've produced some absolutely gorgeous work. But the digital medium itself wasn't why they managed to get their foot in the door. It was the quality of their work. It's my belief that if any of them had done equally good work in a traditional medium, they'd have met with equal success.

So, if getting an opportunity to work on Magic is your goal, then I suggest the following: stop worrying about the medium and do good work.

Seriously. That's it.

Okay, that's not entirely it. I confess that there is some specificity lacking in that statement. I should say, rather, that you should do good work that's appropriate for Magic: the Gathering. This means that it should be fairly realistic and in the fantasy genre. Stylization is not out of bounds, but the end result should still be a fairly realistic take on an imaginary world.

Now, I could elaborate on the best way to go about accomplishing realistic fantasy work, but that would be a little off topic and redundant to hundreds of posts scattered throughout the internet and a bunch of really good books available at bookstores everywhere and perhaps even at your local library. There are more free and low-cost resources out there for you to consume than ever before and I encourage you to seek them out.

However, if the part about making work appropriate for Magic is where you're falling short then I urge you to really look at recent Magic work and figure out what is lacking in your work that is present in the Magic art before you. Is it a matter of design? A matter of readability at reduced scale? A lack of a decent figure/ground relationship? I could go on, but going into depth about what makes a good Magic image would likely take longer than the entirety of this entry and therefore warrants its own article. The short version, though, is that if you put your work next to the work of that which gets printed currently on Magic cards, it should feel at home.

All in all, the most important thing is quality. Medium, I assure you, is not the determining factor. How do I know this? Well, for one, the current lead art director for Magic is a water color artist. Water color, I'm sure you're aware, is a traditional medium. I find it extremely unlikely that such a person would discriminate against his fellow paint pushers.

But why listen to my conjecture? Why don't we look at some facts to back up my claim? With each new Magic set, there are typically one or two new artists brought into the fold. Off the top of my head, here are three new additions to Magic's roster that work traditionally: Lindsay Look, Mike Sass and Scott Murphy. All three use real, live, brushes (some of which even have real hair in 'em) and paint that comes in tubes (some of which is highly toxic and should not be spread on toast and taken internally). And they're not even the only three. So clearly, traditionally produced illustration is not dead in Magic. But I have to confess that it sometimes feels rare.

Of course, this is due mainly to the fact that illustrators who work solely traditionally are rare (at least when compared to the numbers of folks who work digitally). It's becoming less and less common to see folks leaving art school with a portfolio that is completely full of traditional work. Obviously that increasing infrequency is reflected in the ranks of Magic's current artist roster. But like I said, the medium really doesn't end up mattering. 

Look, I have no doubt that there are companies out there that require artists to work digitally. Magic just happens not to be one of them. And I don't think that will change anytime soon. So if you're looking to work for Magic, feel free to rock whatever medium it takes for you to do your best work.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Chief Engineer

In great contrast to the restrictions put upon me during Avarice Amulet, the painting of Chief Engineer was surprisingly lacking in guidelines and strife. Chief Engineer also happens to be one of those weird hallmark pieces — not because of anything to do with the piece itself, but rather to do with the goings on around its creation. This piece was the first assignment I accepted after learning that Amy and I would be moving to Seattle from New Jersey, and it would be a rare painting done on the road.

Here's the art order I got in early June of 2013:
title: [Chief Engineer]
SKETCH DUE: 6/24/2013 12:00:00 AM    ART DUE: 7/19/2013 12:00:00 AM

Color: Blue creature
Location: Inside a artificer's assembly line.
Action: Show us a male vedalken artificer who is up on a walkway overseeing a group of laborers below. The vedalken's costuming could have all kinds of unique fittings and attachments that give him a feel of "master mechanic". The laborers are human and they are creating strange machines. [The trick here will be to keep it feeling fantasy and not sci-fi.]
Focus: The vedalken overseer.
Mood: "I demand perfection."
With the description in hand, I set to sketching immediately. I knew that we'd be needing to make the trip to Seattle in only a matter of a few short weeks, but at the time I wasn't exactly sure when. My goal was to have the sketch approved, my surface prepared, the sketch transferred and the underpainting completed before heading out. Of course, that all depended on whether or not I could put together a sketch that earned approval.

It seemed to me that I was given a pretty big gift here. The fact that the piece was not a part of a particular set was awesome, as it allowed me to make a lot of stuff up. Plus, there was a vedalken involved, and it turns out after painting Grand Architect that I rather like painting those lanky blue-skinned folks. This was definitely my kind of piece. The only hiccup, in fact, was waiting an extra day to find out whether this particular vedalken was of the two-armed or four-armed variety (this varies depending on the world we're talking about as they appear in many different iterations). After being assured that we needed just two arms (a bit of a bummer as a four-armed engineer would have been kind of awesome), I knocked out this sketch:

©Wizards of the Coast

Luckily, this sketch was given the go ahead and I managed to do exactly what I hoped. Before getting on a plane to Seattle, I got the piece put together and the underpainting finished. My art supplies were being shipped across country and I'd be good to go once my feet hit on the ground.

Unfortunately, due to the needs of making a smooth transition, this was not a piece I got back to for a couple weeks. Upon our arrival in Seattle, our first priority was to find a place to live, and this is something that took an unexpectedly long time. It was a much longer slog than expected and we began to get dangerously close to Amy's start date at her new job, which would have complicated apartment hunting beyond measure.

Fortunately, only a few short days before that deadline, we found a place to rent and settled our schedule for the remainder of July and the beginning of August (something that required a trip back to New Jersey to settle our affairs and pack our belongings up, a trip back to Seattle, and more temporary housing while we waited for our boxes to arrive at our new flat). With the dust beginning to settle, Amy began her new job on Monday, July 8th. And that was the first day I finally got to work on this guy.

©Wizards of the Coast

This piece is the usual oil on paper on hardboard and measures 12 inches wide by 9 inches tall.

For the most part, this piece was painted in a basement apartment on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. Aside from my art supplies, I brought some lighting, a tabletop easel, and an old sheet to use as a drop cloth. It was nothing like the space I was accustomed to working in, but it ended up being pretty comfy. And once the painting was finished, I drove it down to Wizards of the Coast and handed it in in person — the first time I'd ever done that in my entire career.

This is another piece that falls under the category of something I'm not unhappy with. There are a few tweaks I might make to fix a thing or two, but overall I'm quite pleased with it. Honestly, I was extremely fortunate that it come together as well as it did under the circumstances. I was surprisingly free of stress throughout, and managed to just buckle down and get everything done.

Still, even if I didn't like the piece, I'd likely still have a soft spot for it. After all, it coincided with a pretty big shift in my life, so I guess it's fair to say that it's pretty special to me.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Sketch of Wayne

Since moving to Seattle just over a year ago, I've had the privilege of working in-house several times alongside a virtual who's who of talent. I'm pretty sure that I was more valuable most days as a color commentator than an actual contributor of creative content, but I think I did end up adding some fairly positive things to the mix along the way. While I wish I could talk about some or all of what I was working on, I'm afraid it's going to have to wait. But I think it's safe to share this one little sketch.

On my last day in-house, after running out of steam drawing things that don't exist, I turned my gaze instead to things that do. Sketching away before me were several other artists and I decided to quickly knock out a drawing of the closest one. Honestly, I wish I'd thought to do this earlier as I'd likely have drawn everyone present at the time, and should I get the opportunity again I'll definitely do just that. For now, I'll just have to be happy with this one, incomplete little doodle of Mr. Wayne Reynolds hard at work on his own last drawing.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Avarice Amulet

This one has a bit of a strange story. It was the kind of piece that caused trouble from sketch to finish. Not because the piece itself was difficult, mind you, but because there was a highly specific thing that the Art Director was going for. Much of the conflict stemmed from my initial unwillingness to acquiesce to the AD's needs, and that unwillingness is part of a greater turmoil that I am experiencing across the board on my job. But I shouldn't get too far ahead of myself.

Let's start with the piece in question.

Avarice Amulet started with a phone call. This almost never happens and I'm not entirely sure why it did this time around. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I would need to paint this piece while trying to get settled in my new home of Seattle. Perhaps it was because the AD knew that I'd be illustrating in-house for a couple weeks and wasn't sure if I'd be interested in taking on even more work. Whatever the case, there was a phone call.

During this phone call, I learned that there was something special in store for the Magic 2015 core set. Apparently the fine folks at Wizards asked a wide variety of specific personalities throughout the gaming genre to design Magic cards, and like all Magic cards these would need artwork. I was asked to provide artwork for one of these cards.

I said yes and the assignment was emailed to me.

The job was to illustrate a card designed by the folks at Penny Arcade. More specifically, this was to be an image inspired by a recurring item throughout Penny Arcade's history, the Pac-Man watch — the gag being that the watch in question is highly coveted and has driven the characters in Penny Arcade to murder one another for it. Repeatedly.

Okay so far. Nothing too out of the ordinary. Except for a quickly drawn image done by the Art Director that was attached at the bottom of the email which gave me the exact solution for the assignment. I've thought long and hard about whether to include a recreation of that sketch, but in the end I rejected the idea for reasons to be explained later. Suffice it to say that it had a cracked, gold amulet being held by a bloody hand.

Now, relying on images to complete Magic assignments is nothing new. Each world the game explores comes with a styleguide, which is essentially just a book of reference materials designed to bring a visual unity to each of those worlds. But this little drawing was a pretty rare occurrence. Essentially, this was a "do it like this, but better" scenario. And it took me a while to recognize that.

So, I set that image aside and got to work trying to do my own take on things. Given that I was holed up in temporary housing with nothing better to do, I knocked out a couple sketches for the piece.

©Wizards of the Coast

©Wizards of the Coast

It would probably help to explain that the reason that this amulet doesn't look overtly like Pac-Man is simply because Wizards didn't have the rights to use Pac-Man. The important part was to invoke the idea of Pac-Man — and a watch for that matter. But it obviously needed to be different enough to not cause any legal problems.

So, aside from a vague notion of what the actual amulet looked like, these sketches were not based on the original little drawing provided to me. Sure, they contained all of the required elements of the piece, but I was attempting to make the piece my own. I was groping for that combination of the piece they need and the painting I want to paint.

Neither of these sketches was to be the solution, however. Unfortunately for me, I was pushing the image too far away from the AD's sketch.  It really did need to be a riff on that exact image.

Back to the drawing board.

©Wizards of the coast

If I couldn't change the image, I thought, then perhaps I could mess with the design of the amulet. So, here I have the Pac-Man pointing upward about to consume a power pellet (which I figured would be a pearl) and I thought it'd be cool to include balls in the chain representing the normal dots that seem to comprise much of Pac-Man's diet.

This didn't get by, either. Too much like Pac-Man. I totally understood. No need to get sued. Perhaps I could do something different. But no. The AD really did need the amulet on the sketch.

And so I did this:

©Wizards of the Coast

While this was accepted, there were two requested changes. First, the ghost motif at the 12:00, 3:00, 6:00 and 9:00 positions was too overtly ghosty. Second, the "mouth" of the Pac-Man part was still too open and still felt a little too much like the actual Pac-Man. Okay, makes sense. We're being conservative here. Avoiding a lawsuit would be swell.

With the changes in mind, I painted the thing.

©Wizards of the Coast

The painting is the usual oil on paper on hardboard and measures 14 inches wide by 11 inches tall.

The end result is basically a painted version of the sketch done by the Art Director. So, posting that image at the start of this article would effectively have been redundant. In fact, the only things I added were a maze motif to the edge of the amulet, and the lapus ghosts at the clock's quarters. I also decided that large diamonds would be used to fill out the remaining hours of the "watch" and would represent the power pellets from the Pac-Man game. Missing is the large diamond/power pellet at the 8:00 position where the crack/mouth lies. The gag is that Pac-Man has eaten this power pellet and in keeping with Pac-Man's mechanics, this is why the ghosts are blue.

Yup, the weird video game nerd details that about 1% of the viewers might have noticed is about all I really contributed to the piece creatively. And I guess the smokey texture in the background.


You might correctly have guessed that I have mixed feelings about this piece. On the one hand, given my schedule at the time and the fact that I was busy trying to unpack my life in very new surroundings, I needed the a piece that was pretty simple, and this was anything but a complicated piece to paint. But looking at it, I feel like the least creative person in the world. There is very little in it that I feel is mine.

Truth be told, I should have let it be an easier piece than it was. But I didn't want to settle for that. I wanted to make my version of this image and not just be a pair of hands. If I had my way, I'd have painted the second sketch — the one with lots of hands jostling for ownership. Not a huge change, but one that would have made it a cooler image (at least in my opinion). At the very least, there'd be more of a story to that version (not to mention more for me to sink my teeth into artistically), and in some ways would be more in keeping with the source material.

But getting to make all of the creative decisions isn't always the job. Sometimes, it's about giving the client exactly what they're asking for. Sometimes it's about suppressing your own needs and desires to get the assignment done. And sometimes it's about working on something that you know could be better but needs to be what it needs to be. Not exactly sexy, but that's part of the deal.

Anyway, I leave you with the Avarice Amulet in card form for you to contemplate.

Monday, May 19, 2014

MicroVisions Part 3

With the first and second MicroVisions pieces under my belt, I finally got to concentrate on the third and final painting. Like the second, I began it with some sort of idea. This idea, however, was a bit larger than the piece I would be painting. Still, I figured that this was a chance to put together a study or proof of concept.

Once again, I returned to the well of small birds. But rather than pair a small bird with a fantasy trope, I decided to set this little bird on fire. Not a horrifying, consumptive fire, mind you, but a fire emanating from within. So, kind of a miniature phoenix...but not really.

Anyway, I started with a palette of burnt sienna, raw umber, burnt umber, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red medium, titanium white, and payne's gray. I worked the piece up to a certain point and suddenly began to question whether or not I was happy with the color scheme. It was feeling a little monochromatic. So, I took a quick photo of it, brought it into Photoshop and created two alternatives for myself. I then showed the two options to my wife for her input.

Amy chose the more colorful option, and I'm happy she did. Though the piece didn't end up nearly as saturated, I think adding the cooler colors was the right way to go.

Since being asked in February to participate in MicroVisions, my plan was always to paint multiple pieces and let the organizers decide which one they'd like. Once I'd completed this one, however, I knew full well it would be the one they chose. Still, I emailed the options and awaited their decision. Not surprisingly, this was the piece I ended up shipping out to the Society of Illustrators for the show.

The really great part about this piece is that it confirmed for me that a larger, more involved painting involving a similar subject was absolutely worthwhile. Whether it will cause me to kick to the side the large work that I seem to have stalled on has yet to be seen, but I feel like this one's got momentum and may be the next thing I set to once I've completed my current slate of commissions. Either way, it's something I'll be keeping everyone posted on. I suspect that it will be a fun and challenging painting.

That I was invited to participate in MicroVisions this year is a little mind-blowing to me. Given the caliber of artists in previous years and the quality of work produced, I honestly didn't feel worthy. But I'm very grateful to have been included, and I'm happy with the work that I got out of it.

But really, that's not the important part.

After all, this show is actually about raising money for a student scholarship fund. This piece and the others in the show are to be auctioned off and that auction went live today (May 19, 2014). Hopefully, it goes well.

If you're still interested in seeing the works in person, they are still on display at the Society of Illustrators in New York City and will remain so through May the 24th. If you're interested in seeing all of the works online, they can be found here: link. And, of course, if you're interested in bidding on the pieces, the ebay auction can be found here: link.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

MicroVisions Part 2

After completing the first piece for the MicroVisions show, I started the second and third. To change things up, I began both of these with at least a kernel of an idea. The second completed was the most heavily referenced of the three in that it ended up being based on a photo of a model I'd hired a couple times in the past.

There's really not much I can say about the process of this one, as there really wasn't much to it. I had the photo and I laid out the composition with the paint and went to town. It actually came together pretty quickly. The palette this go around was fairly limited again and was mostly alizarin crimson, pthalo green, a little payne's gray, yellow ochre, flesh tint (Windsor & Newton), Naples yellow and titanium white.

Some of you may have noticed that flesh tint was used both in this piece and the last. I'm not sure a whole lot of artists use the color regularly (if at all). That it's called "flesh tint" to begin with has always amused me as it's a pretty unnatural color to be. Were anyone's flesh actually that color, they should see a doctor immediately. Consequently, I rarely use it to paint actual skin. More often the not, it's something I mix into other colors, and is only something I use out of the tube in skies and clouds (though it finds itself elsewhere from time to time).

Weirdly, the first time I used both flesh tint and Naples yellow was after they were forced upon me by a professor during a figure painting class in college. Looking at my palette at the time and watching how I worked, he rummaged through his own supply and added them to the fairly limited range of colors I was using. Something clicked for me with both colors and they've made regular appearances on my palette ever since (though I have to admit that Naples yellow gets far more use).

All that being said, it's pretty likely that flesh tint did, in fact, find its way into the skin on this piece (though mixed down quite a bit).

Looking at this piece in the context of the range of pieces contributed to the MicroVisions show, it's fascinating that many of the contributing artists chose to paint a female face or figure. I'm not entirely sure why so many of us chose that direction. Perhaps because we assumed it might sell well and raise more money? Perhaps because it's a subject we don't often get to do? Perhaps because it's been a recurring theme in art since antiquity? I can't really speculate much on the reasons why the other artists chose to go in that direction, but I know that all three of those factors passed through my head at one point or another while painting this piece.

When I passed my options along to the organizers of the show, this piece was not the one that was chosen, and again I was okay with that. I don't dislike it, either. The real problem is that I just didn't like it as much as the one that actually made the cut.

Next week, I'll talk about the third and final piece — you know, the one that actually is in the show. Speaking of the show, as of this writing (May 15, 2014), MicroVisions is still hanging at the Society of Illustrators in New York City and will remain there through the 24th of May. Might be worth a look-see.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

MicroVisions Part 1

Back in February, I was invited to contribute to this year's MicroVisions show. For the uninitiated, this is a show of small illustrations donated by artists to the Society of Illustrators for an auction to help bolster their Student Scholarship Fund. Given the cause, the virtual who's who of past participants and the amazing quality throughout the history of the show, I excitedly said yes, but truth be told I was nervous as all getout.

Why the nerves? Well, given the names of my fellow artists, I concluded early on that it was a foregone conclusion that I'd be bringing up the rear quality-wise. Seriously. Let's take a look at the names of the other artists, shall we?

Tran Nguyen
Nicolas Delort
Robert Hunt
Eric Fortune
Iain McCaig
Karla Ortiz
Greg Manchess

So, yeah. How am I supposed to live up to that? I couldn't. But I did have an idea.

One word: volume.

I decided that instead of doing one piece, I'd do three. The way I saw it, doing more than one relieved me of the pressure of doing that one, amazing piece that would blow everyone away while simultaneously curing world hunger, revealing all of the mysteries of the universe, and finally getting people to like me. By doing three, I could spread out such responsibility and decrease my risk of feeling like an utter failure while dramatically increasing the chances that at least one of the resulting images would be worth a damn. So I set to work.

As far as constraints go, there are virtually none with MicroVisions. There's no theme, no art direction. The pieces produced just need to be 5 inches by 7 inches. Vertical or horizontal. Given that I've of late been trying to keep some small pieces going at all times for experimentation purposes, I had a lot of spare boards laying around the studio.

The first I produced was a bit odd for me. A fairly confined value structure with a limited palette of leftover paint from a previous project. It was a pretty quick one that basically resulted from making marks on the board with paint, then wiping periodically until I saw something to build on. No preconceived notions, no photo reference. Just a bit of cloud-seeing and some crossed fingers.

Here's the piece that resulted:

It's an oddly muddy painting and is one of the most difficult pieces I've ever tried to digitally color-correct. I'm pretty sure this still doesn't do it a whole lot of justice, but the image above is as close as I've been able to get it.

If you're a curious art nerd like myself, the colors on the palette included Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Yellow, Magenta, Flesh Tone (Windsor & Newton), and Titanium White. As it got close to completion I might have added to this list, but I don't recall whether that ended up being the case. I started the second and third pieces just before finishing this one and I did make an honest attempt at keeping the palettes separate.

Anyway, after I'd completed all three paintings, I showed them to the folks organizing the show and offered up whichever they wanted. Any reading this who've seen posts about MicroVisions on Facebook already know that this wasn't it, and I'm totally cool with that. But I'm not unhappy with the piece. It was a fun little exercise and I rather like the limited color and value.

Next week, I'll show you another piece done for the show and will follow that up with the third to coincide with the opening of the auction. As of this writing (May 6, 2014), the pieces are hanging at the Society of Illustrators in New York City and will remain so through the 24th of May. If you have a chance, go have a look.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Scourge of Fleets

I originally started this post with an explanation of why I don't have a whole lot of work in the last two sets in the Theros block of Magic: the Gathering. For brevity's sake, I scrapped all that so I could just boil it down to two things: first, I had a lot going on at the time. During these sets, Amy and I were starting to figure out how to end our time in the greater New York area, pull up our tent poles and move on. Pretty heavy stuff that required a lot of attention and research. Second, it just so happens that I'm not a huge fan of the ancient Greek aesthetic from which the block draws rather heavily.

The primary reason that I rewrote most of this post is that trying to explain that second thing to any degree makes me sound whiny and I don't want to do that. I suspect that no one would want to read it, either. Suffice it to say that the lack of enthusiasm I felt about the block was not dissimilar to the lack of interest other artists likely felt going into sets like Mirrodin (a world completely made of metal), or Lorwyn (a very story-book, fantasy world). Let's face it, it was inevitable that Magic's constant rotation of worlds and aesthetics (my favorite aspect of working on the game) would eventually result in something that just didn't float my boat — or trireme, as the case may be. So, my solution was to focus on projects that weren't Magic and to prepare for my eventual relocation to a new part of the United States.

Outside of the five basic lands that I wrote about last November, I only contributed two more pieces to the Theros block. The first was Floodtide Serpent and Scourge of Fleets is the second. I guess it's time I talk about the second.

I seem to not have saved the art description, but I can tell you that Wizards of the Coast asked for exactly what I depicted: a giant sea kraken coming up from the depths, about to swallow a ship whole. But the really weird thing about this particular assignment was that I was invited to do something that rarely seems to happen to me: I was given the option to either follow the designs of one of the krakens in the styleguide, or come up with a design of my own. Given these two options, I honestly don't know anyone in my shoes who would have pulled out the styleguide and started copying, and so I began to build a new creature from scratch while keeping the styleguide open to maintain a certain degree of visual continuity.

Thinking about the overall composition, I reread the description several times and eventually a very clear image popped into my head: the book cover and movie poster for Jaws, painted by Roger Kastel (if you're unfamiliar, look it up as it's a pretty great piece that is simple in its design and execution). Whether or not I wanted to pay close tribute to that piece was something I had to decide early on. Imitating the composition exactly was going to be tough for a variety of reasons. For one, the aspect ratio was quite different. The cover/poster for Jaws is, of course, vertically oriented and mine was to be a horizontal piece. Second, the proportions needed to be vastly different as the creature needed to be able to consume the entirety of the victim above and thus would take up more space, while the ship would get smaller.

Given the necessities of the card art, the classic image became just a springboard, and after a few iterations I put this sketch together:

©Wizards of the Coast

It was approved and I went to paint.

©Wizards of the Coast

The painting is the usual oil on paper on hardboard and measures 14 inches wide by 11 inches tall.

As you can see, not a whole lot changed between sketch and finish. The ship got a bit of a reworking, and there are some minor tweaks to the creature, but all in all it's pretty much the same.

The big challenge for me on this one was the waterline. For some reason, no matter what I did, everything below the waterline felt small. I think this is mostly to do with the actual line of water crossing the "lens." The waves depicted within that line aren't particularly large and seem to insinuate a scale to the stuff in the water below. Or something. The point is that I found it difficult to get the kraken to feel appropriately massive. I'm not really sure I actually fully succeeded in that effort, honestly, but I think it ended up being a lot closer in the end than where I initially began.

Aside from that one issue, however, this piece went pretty smoothly. Of course, it wasn't until after I'd completed the thing that it occurred to me that this piece was an excellent opportunity to pay tribute to one of my all-time favorite Magic images: Drew Tucker's Dandân. I'm not sure if it would have worked or turned out equally as well, but it might have been fun to explore. Truth be told, however, it would have been difficult to unseat the very iconic piece by Roger Kastel as a source of inspiration for this one.

All in all, there's a lot I like about the piece. I like the design of the creature and I'm happy I thought of the sharks and fish schooling around the creature in anticipation of a free meal. Jesper Esjing added to this piece with the suggestion that I add birds fleeing the ship. If you look closely, they're there. Perhaps fleeing, perhaps biding their time before scavenging what they can. This is a detail that totally gets lost in the reduction, but that's hardly a new thing for me.

Like I said above, I've always felt that one of the best things about working for Magic was the fact that it was constantly bouncing around to new worlds. While I like what I got out of Theros, I'm happy to be moving on to the next world. Should be fun to roll up my sleeve and dig in.

Friday, March 7, 2014


This falls under the "not brilliant, but fun" category. At least I hope it belongs to the latter part. Nothing mind-blowing, but a clear extension of a previous small piece I did called Chickadee. Like that piece, I tapped into my fascination with small birds (something I'll likely continue to draw from considering a couple larger pieces I have planned).

Anyway, aside from subject matter, this is another painting that I kept cooking on a back burner during  assignments. It's been worked on here and there along with several others small works. Fifteen minutes here, a half hour there — drips and drabs of effort resulting in a finished piece. Or rather pieces, considering that there were more than just this one.

It's oil on gessoed hardboard and measures 5 inches wide by 7 inches tall.

As has been the case with all these small pieces, I had no sketch to begin with. I just wanted to figure the whole thing out along the way. It was sloppy and loose to start with and then got tighter as time went on. Honestly, I think this one ended up much tighter than I prefer, but that's where the process took me.

Rather than drone on with any deeper analysis, I'm just going to let it rest. It's Friday, after all. Let's just enjoy the silliness and move on.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Searching For a Revolutionary

A couple weeks ago, I was sketching for a new assignment and I decided that I needed to work larger to figure things out. I've often found that changes in scale can sometimes help me out and so I took a trip down to the flat files (which are currently in my basement) to get a larger pad of paper. When I flipped the cover over, I was confronted by something I had not laid eyes on in quite some time. It was the page on which I had hunted down the image that would eventually become Cho-Manno, Revolutionary.

Illustrating a new version of Cho-Manno was one of my earlier Magic jobs and also happened to be one of the more intimidating as the original depiction of Cho-Manno had been done by the Brothers Hildebrandt. I did not feel up to the task, honestly. But I went forward to tackle it as best I could nonetheless.

A lot of the making of this piece has been lost to time, unfortunately. My memory about this painting is pretty vague. What I can recall is that I painted the piece when I lived in Astoria, Queens, New York, back when my studio was also my living room. And that's about all I can tell you. Seriously.

I wish I could tell you that the sheet of paper I rediscovered upon which I sought out a solution to the piece yielded a flood of new memories, but alas it did not. However, the page remains a pretty good depiction of the ugly start of my process that is typical of most of my work.

I'd like to say that I do tons of thumbnails. But I don't. Not every time, anyway. When I do extensive explorations, it's usually because the assignment is maddeningly complex or difficult to compose. In most instances, however, I'm asked to depict fairly straightforward imagery. So, for the most part, the work typically comes together like this:

Step 1: Steve gets the assignment.

Step 2: Steve reads the assignment several times and looks over any necessary reference.

Step 3: Steve sleeps on it after exhausting his brain by obsessing about the assignment all day.

Step 4: Steve rereads the assignment and looks at any necessary reference again.

Step 5: Steve goes off and does something completely unrelated to the task of solving the assignment. This often includes watching YouTube videos or listening to podcasts unrelated to art or his industry. And sometimes video games.

Step 6: During the aforementioned activities (which resemble procrastination but actually are not), Steve gets a flash of imagery in his head that finally gets the ball rolling and pencil finally meets paper in a meaningful way.

This flash of imagery can vary wildly. Sometimes I'll get an idea of a general composition. Sometimes it's a pose for a figure. Sometimes it's just a silhouette. Often times, the image is vague. Other times, the image is super specific.

When the idea is specific, I will do a bit of exploration to disprove the validity of the idea. Typically, however, this tends to strengthen the original image I have in mind. If the idea is vague, however, I have to hunt the final version down. Cho-Manno was typical of this vague beginning.

This is not to say that things go smoothly once Step 6 occurs. In fact, the exploration that comes from the initial idea can lead to a dead end. When that happens, I'll often repeat Steps 4-6 in hopes that a solution will come. And, of course, there are instances where Step 6 never happens in the first place. When that flash of imagery doesn't happen at all, I'm forced to wrestle with the assignment the old fashioned way (which usually involves a pencil, lots of paper, at least one knife fight and an offering to the illustration gods of no fewer than sixteen boxes of Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch).

Above is the page on which I found Cho-Manno. It's worth noting that this was not a high concept piece. I was really looking more for a pose than anything. The setting was to remain similar to the original version and I wasn't being asked to radically redesign the man, either. Sure, there were requested tweaks, but it was still meant to clearly be Cho-Manno.

Among the things you might notice about the page above is just how awful the drawings happen to be. They're rudimentary and as fast as I can make them. This is due primarily to the fact that my brain works much faster than my hand, and I'm trying desperately to keep up. I put down what information I can and move on after a certain point. As I'm doing this, my brain jumps around from broad explorations of gesture to quick doodles exploring specifics of costume. Then back again. Unfortunately, a lot of ideas get lost along the line because I simply can't draw or even write things down fast enough.

Anyway, looking at this sheet of paper I'm struck by the fact that several of the poses that I eventually rejected could have worked out just as well as what I settled on. Indeed, there are a couple that might have been kind of awesome. Something else that I was surprised by is that the pose I actually chose isn't even on this page. As I recall it, I simply turned to the next page and knocked out the finished sketch at a larger scale. But honestly, looking at the page above and the sketch below you can see how I arrived where I did.

©Wizards of the Coast

Why I decided to tilt the camera is something I can't quite explain. I'm not sure that I would do it again were I to repaint this piece now, as I'm not sure it adds a whole lot. The folks at Wizards didn't seem to mind, though. They were more concerned with the lack of ornamentation on the clothing and asked me to jazz it up a bit.

So I did:

©Wizards of the Coast

But even that new bit of ornamentation ended up changing when I went to paint as you can see in the finished piece below:

©Wizards of the Coast

And here's the piece in card form if you're curious:

So, why did I choose to share all this? Well, the earliest part of my process tends to be muddled and embarrassingly awful. Usually, the crappy thumbs and explorations are hidden away in sketchbooks or tossed out entirely, and I'm not generally keen on showing them. I guess I was just feeling a little nostalgic when I saw this page again and I was kind of surprised at how clear the thought process actually was. At least I think it is.

It's also kind of fun to take another look at alternate takes on the piece and ponder what might have been. Maybe, had I gone another way, I'd have had an even better result. But honestly, I'm pretty pleased with how it came together anyway.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Frequently Asked Questions 11

Does it bother you out when your art gets put on a crappy card?

Though I've worked on other card games in the past this question primarily comes from Magic players, and my feelings on the matter are simultaneously simple and complex... which I guess makes them just complex.


Before I delve into the matter, I feel it important to first make something absolutely clear: I do not control the cards my art gets put on. As of January 2014, I have illustrated somewhere in the neighborhood of 110 Magic cards. Of these cards, I have been given the option to assign which cards my art is put on exactly zero times. And I'm not alone. Ask any Magic artist and you'll hear the same thing. I do not know the whys or hows of who gets assigned the art for which card. For all I know, it's determined by a machine that, using advanced algorithms, assigns art using such factors as the dates of our various births, our star signs, and the number of letters in our accountants' names. Or it could be done through trial by stone. Or a dartboard. Point is, where my art ends up within the confines of Magic isn't really within my sphere of influence.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, let me explain to you the complex feelings I have about this: yeah, I kind of care if my art ends up on a crappy card.

The primary reason for this feeling is simply that lesser cards result in less exposure. See, I make this stuff so that people will look at it. If the work ends up on cards that people don't want to play, then obviously there are fewer people taking note of my art — something that is especially annoying when the art in question is a piece I'm particularly proud of.

From the folks who do take note of the work, at best I might hear, "that's some cool art, too bad it's on a crappy card." But despite this qualifying as taking note, truthfully their interest in such work pales in comparison to their interest in work I've done that is on better cards. That's the stuff they get excited about seeing in real life and those are the pieces they drag their friends over to take in. Meanwhile, the art from the lesser cards gets relegated to being filler at my convention table. It's the stuff that people flip past to get to the "good" art.

Inherently the work from lesser cards is less marketable. Far fewer folks end up having any interest in the artist proofs or prints or the original painting. This is not to say that I'm stuck with the art from crappy cards, but if you were to look at my list of available Magic originals, you'd see that most of what's still available are paintings from cards that just don't see a lot of play.

So, clearly I care on some level. But the question of whether or not I care is kind of the wrong one, in my opinion. The real question is how much I care.

The answer (predictably) is not much. When I sit down to make a piece of art, I sit down to make something I'm proud of and am happy with. My goal is always to make something that I'd be happy to put on my own wall should I never be able to sell it. That doesn't always happen, of course, but  even my biggest failures began with a great deal of excitement about how cool this next painting was going to be. What I've never thought was how cool this next card was going to be. The fact that the art is part of a card game is (to an extent) arbitrary to me from the onset.

After the work has been handed in and the cards produced, I'm fairly removed. I'm already on to the next set. Inevitably, however, I find out what's popular and what's not and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't even the smallest twinge of disappointment when I discover that a piece of my art is on a card that no one uses. But being told that my art is way better than the card it's associated with is high praise indeed. At the very least, it's praise I'm not too ashamed to take.

The fans who share such sentiment are not the only ones that, for me, raise up such work. At events, I quite relish meeting those folks who just appreciate the work for what it is and divorce it from its context. Such folks take the time to look far beyond the rules text and the card name, and ignore such things as resale value. If only for a few seconds, they are appreciating what matters most to me, and all else becomes secondary. If only for a little while there is no card. Only art.

It's a smaller audience, for sure. But not a lesser one. And their interest gives even the crappiest card's art some value... which is why I really don't care all that much about the whole thing.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Floodtide Serpent

Once again, I shall reveal to you how the sausage is made. Hopefully, you still find said sausage delicious by the end, but it's entirely possible that you will be at least a little sickened by what you see herein.

So, Magic: the Gathering is about to spill forth its most recent expansion set, Born of the Gods, and this is the only piece I contributed to that set. I'm sure there's a reason why I didn't take on more work (assuming, of course, they'd have offered it if I'd asked), but I cannot recall what that reason is. What I can tell you is that this piece was painted at the same time as the Washout painting I also did for Magic.

Anyway, as with any Magic assignment, this one began with an art description. Normally, I'd include the full description, but it would be unfair to you, the reader. Three quarters of the description are references to images in the style guide. Being as I can't show you those, you'll just have to accept this highly edited version:
Action: Show a sea monster coming out of the ocean to attack a town. Have it in the process of terrorizing and/or destroying parts of the human enclave.
Focus: The sea monster.
Mood: There goes the neighborhood.
That part about the mood was really in there, and despite its light tone this piece was meant to be straight up monster movie material.

The first thing I had to decide was what the monster looked like. I was given a variety of options from which to choose in the style guide and I went with one that was more like a fish than a crustacean. The second thing I had to decide was just how the thing was going to be threatening us. I though long and hard about having it looming above the viewer and tried some thumbnails out, but didn't like any of the compositions.

I ended up going with a composition that was more about the monster's silhouette and used the city itself as a way to frame the whole thing.

©Wizards of the Coast
I admit that this is kind of a mess of a sketch, but it I think it's still pretty clear what I was going for. We can see that the thrashing of the beast is causing huge waves that are destroying the city below. By pulling back away from the beast, I was able to directly show the devastation, the city, and the monster's scale. Or something. Truth is, I don't really think about things like that when I'm working. Things either feel like they're working or they don't. If they don't feel like they're working, I adjust stuff until they do. That being said, there's a lot that doesn't fully work in this awful sketch, but it's all stuff I knew I could adjust as I painted.

Point is, that it got approved to go to paint.

Before I actually put brush to surface, however, I did a lot of reference hunting. Primarily, I pulled a lot of photos from the internet of whales breaching. In addition, I pulled reference of tsunami waves (something that I felt was necessary, but resulted in my seeing a lot of stuff I wish I could unsee). Lastly, I built a small clay model of the big fish as seen below.

As rough as the sketch, but quite valuable nonetheless.
Armed with all this reference, I finally charged my painting palette and went to work. This is the result of my efforts:

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

In comparison to the sketch, you'll notice that there's a lot less water exploding off the surface from the monster's breach. This is an adjustment made after seeing how little disturbance is caused by whales doing the same. I tried to scale it up as this thing is much larger than a whale, but I tried to keep it relatively proportional.

You may also notice that there's a statue missing in the foreground. This I eliminated fairly early in the painting process. I felt that the statue obscured too much of the water's destruction below. Seeing more of the devastation helped better tell the story. It also added visual clarity as a whole, and allowed for a less-muddled image when shrunken down to card size.

Speaking of card size, here's what it looks like in frame:

The post-game analysis of this one is pretty simple. It was more fun than I thought it would be, and it came out a little better than I thought it might. As with most of my work, there are some things I'd change were I to do it all over again, nevertheless I'm pleased with the result. If nothing else, the water surging in to destroy the buildings came together nicely (as disturbing as that is to say), and considering that that was the aspect of the piece that most worried me, I guess I came out ahead.