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.