Monday, January 26, 2015

Monk Token

The third and final piece I did for the Fate Reforged expansion set for Magic: the Gathering, was a first for me: a piece of art for a token. I can now check that box off. Such an assignment is about as straightforward as they come. Most tokens, after all, consist of a single figure or creature in the middle of the composition.

Here was the art order:
Clan: Jeskai
Color: White creature
Location: A Jeskai martial arts school in a Jeskai fortress similar to one of the ones on pp. 206-208 of the Fate Reforged worldguide.
Action: Show one of the student monks in this Jeskai fortress. The student is a young, bald female, about 15-18 years old. She has a straight staff and stands, ready battle. (she is costumed similar to the monk on p. 204C of Fate Reforged worldguide)
Yup, pretty much a monk in the middle of the picture. The result was this sketch:

©Wizards of the Coast

This preliminary was completely digital and I considered very seriously seeing it through to a fully realized digital finish while waiting for feedback from the fine folks at Wizards. But then I remembered how much I like to paint traditionally and started prepping my surface as soon as I had the green light to move forward.

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished piece is oil on paper on hardboard and measures twelve inches by twelve inches.

Honestly, this was a pretty quick piece. The sketch pretty well articulated where I was going with the painting and since I painted directly on top of a digital print of said sketch, there was very little left to figure out. Aside from the face redesign, the process felt a bit like paint by number. Or something.

Anyway, here it is in card form:

Friday, January 16, 2015

Citadel Siege

This was, without a doubt, the most complicated piece I've ever done for Magic: the Gathering. While not conceptually challenging, this assignment presented a visual balancing act that lead to more crumpled paper and discarded digital layers than any image I'd done for the game to that point. What was so difficult? Let's take a look at the art order and discuss it.
Color: White spell
Location: Abzan territory. The ancient capitol city fortress of the Abzan - similar to pp. 196-199 Fate Reforged - it should look solid, impressive but show signs of dragon attacks - scorching, claw marks, etc.
Action: Show the dragon Dromoka (p.234 Fate Reforged worldguide) attacking the fortress city of the Abzan along with some of his breed (p.235 Fate Reforged worldguide). Dromoka could be attacking the ramparts of the fortress with his claws, or crushing some hapless Abzan guards, or breathing a blast of searing white light at the fort or some soldiers - up to you. Dromoka should be noticably larger (his body is about the size of a school bus) and more badass than his breed dragons.
Some Abzan mages are shooting blasts of swirling sand magic at some of the lesser dragons, scouring their wings and tearing their hide. The outcome of this battle is far from predictable.
Focus: The battle between clans and dragons.
Mood: Epic scale. A brutal war in the desert - steel and magic versus dragons!
"So," you might say, "it's a battle scene. What's the big deal?"

The big deal is that there is a lot in this description to articulate, a ton of stuff to reference, and all of it has to fit within the dimensions of the card art and be readable when the image is shrunk down to its 2.103 inch x 1.543 inch printed size. Believe it or not, this was no small task.

Looking closely at the vast majority of Magic images, one can see a fairly clear trend. A large portion of images contain at most two or three figures (or creatures), and those figures (or creatures) often retain a very clear silhouette. Indeed, the figure/ground relationship has traditionally been pretty important to Magic paintings as a whole. While a figure needn't always be something that can literally be cut out of the background intact, it does have to be easily discernible. Having a figure that visually pops off of its background (either through a high level of contrast or a difference in color, or via some other means) is typically a very good way to retain legibility when an image is reduced. The more complicated the image becomes, the less likely that image will retain that legibility when at printed scale. There just aren't printer dots small enough to articulate it all.

As a result of this very basic need, epic battle scenes are a rarity in Magic images. They're not wholly absent, mind you, but they're not exactly regularly featured. While I'm not entirely sure whether the rarity of such assignments is due to Wizards' understanding of how muddy the results can be, or if they're just sympathetic to the amount of work this kind of thing can entail is beyond me. All I knew was that I was pretty intimidated going in.

To be clear, were this a battle scene completely composed of humans and human-sized creatures, I kind of feel that things might have gone a bit smoother. If all of the fighting parties were roughly the same size, I likely would have selected a few central figures to focus on and then insinuated a lot of the rest. These central figures could have occupied a large enough portion of the composition to keep them readable. On the other hand, having a bunch of humans fighting a dragon whose body is roughly the size of a school bus immediately forced me to push the camera back from where I might otherwise have placed it in order to show enough of the dragon for it to clearly read not just as a dragon, but the specific dragon it was meant to be. The result of pulling the camera back was that humans became smaller and smaller and the task of keeping the action clear became a little less straightforward. I did a number of thumbnails and scanned them into Photoshop to see if I could make any of them work. One by one, I shrunk them down to see if I could still determine what was going on in them. The results were primarily mush and I was forced to restart the process more times than I'd like to admit.

However, after several frustrating days of trying to approach the problem from a variety of angles and failing miserably, I scribbled this:

It probably appears to nothing more than complete gibberish to most looking at it, but trust me when I tell you that there's a dragon in there and a bunch of guys fighting him, along with a magic user, an explosion, and a some architecture. As horrible as the image is, it actually contained most of the elements that would eventually end up in the completed painting.

In order to address the smaller figures, I decided to layer them in groups and back-light them in order to get high contrast silhouettes for maximum readability. While there would end up being no stand-out human individuals, at least the troops had a fighting chance of still looking like troops at the smaller scale.

Anyway, I scanned and digitally painted over the above sketch and got this far:

Not my finest moment of digital painting, but you can see where I was headed. Sort of. Unsure of myself, I sent the image both to the art director, as well as a couple of my fellow illustrators for fresh sets of eyes and to see if I was headed down a usable path.

The criticisms that resulted were these: 1) the main dragon was not big enough; 2) Wizards wanted me to give the dragon's breath weapon a go; 3) the dragons felt a little crowded together; 4) the location felt a little nebulous; 5) could there maybe be more dragons?

All valid points. I took all that in and made another, tighter pass.

This is still a very bad sketch. But it was an attempt to address the notes listed above. I likely would have done another pass on it, but I showed it to the AD again at this stage to make sure I was on the right track. To my astonishment, the reply I got was an approval.

At this point in the process, I did not like this piece. But I had the green light and needed to move forward. The clock was ticking and so I set to work trying to salvage the piece. Here's how it ended up:

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished painting is oil on paper on hardboard and measures eighteen inches wide by fourteen inches tall.

After handing it in, I was asked to make a small tweak to the piece, which I handled digitally. The dragon's breath is meant to be intense light rather than focused flame and it was felt that I needed to push things a bit more to make that clear. So fifteen minutes of Photoshop later and I had the issue corrected. I ended up reworking the painting a bit to incorporate those same changes, but that happened weeks later.

Along the way, I didn't have a whole lot of confidence in my ability to make this one work. When writing back and forth with the art director and discussing the states of my various sketches, she gleaned that I was less than enthusiastic and asked me point blank if this is a piece I'd like to give back. After a moment's consideration, I answered no. I knew this piece was going to be a challenging slog because it's not the type of thing I typically do. On some level, however, I knew that that was precisely why I needed to see it through.

This painting has a lot of hours in it. I worked and reworked large areas and grew pretty frustrated with my stupid, stupid fingers. And, unfortunately, I ran out of time. I could have invested a LOT more time on this piece than my deadline would allow for. But I ended up being happy with more than I originally expected to, so in my book it's a win.

I'm a little unsure of whether or not I'll ever be assigned something with this much going on in it for Magic ever again. I'm sure there will be card art not unlike it in the future, I just doubt they'll call on me to do it. But, I surprise myself a little when I say that I wouldn't say no, and I'm starting to wonder what more complex personal work might look like, as well.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Silumgar, the Drifting Death

There's a bit of a background to this piece that is worth talking about, but is something I'm not going to get into just yet. Suffice it to say that I was part of a two week concepting stint that helped design the look of Fate Reforged, the second expansion set of Magic: the Gathering's Khans of Tarkir expansion block. The designs of the dragons were a part of that gig, and I admit that I had a some input along the way.

At the end of the concepting push, I was asked whether there was anything in particular I'd like to paint when it came time to do the actual card art. I'm not the kind of guy who likes to ask for anything, so I kept my request general. I simply stated that it would be nice if I got to see something that I'd created to its natural conclusion. In essence, I wanted to paint something I'd actually designed — something that did not happen when I'd helped build the world of Innistrad. The response I got was a simple okay, and the world moved on.

What I expected to be assigned as a result of that request was some cool paintings of one or two of the clans I'd reworked for the world. Maybe some cool architecture or something. Yeah. Not so much. Instead, I got assigned Silumgar. One of the main dragons featured in the set.
Color: Blue Black Legendary creature
Location: In the sky over Sultai jungle. p.222-225 Fate Reforged worldguide.
Action: Show the epic movie poster shot of the dragon tyrant flying over his domain (see p. 240 Fate Reforged worldguide). Put the camera in the air with the dragon - helicopter to helicopter. The dragon is flying toward us, greenish gas trails from his mouth as he flies.
In the far background we can see a purplish-blue storm brewing in the sky.
Focus: The dragon
Seems pretty clear. I knew what the dragon looked like and I went to work.

©Wizards of the Coast

Like a lot of my sketches nowadays, I started with a pencil drawing but quickly abandoned it in favor of a digital value study. Honestly, the speed of laying down the values in broad strokes is something I really like a lot. It allows me to more easily keep up with what's in my head and allows me to get to iterations that I'm satisfied with more directly. Or something. The short version is that sketching can be painstaking at times and in the past I've actually gotten burned out on a piece before I even went to paint. Planning is important, sure. But for me, there's such a thing as planning too much.

Anyway, the above sketch was quickly approved and I was laying out my palette before I knew it.

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished painting is oil on gessoed hardboard and measures eighteen inches wide by fourteen inches tall.

The sharper eyed of you will notice some difference between the sketch and the painting. These include (but are not limited to a change in the landscape below and a shift in values around the dragon's head. Neither of these changes required approval and both were done on the fly. The altered landscape is simply due to the fact that I realized mid-painting that the landscape as it originally was designed failed to echo actual landscapes of Tarkir. I wasn't exactly sure why I had ignored such a thing, but I rectified it pretty quickly after realizing how off I was.

The value shift was simply about pulling the eye to where it needed to be most. After painting the horizon to mirror the sketch, I quickly realized that my eye lingered anywhere but the dragon's face. I kind of wanted the viewer to linger there a bit, so I wiped what I'd done and made the adjustment.

Strangely, despite being sucked into the world of fantasy art, I'd only ever painted one or two dragons before this piece. Truthfully, it's a subject I'd actively avoided for a while. Why? Well, as far as tropes go, I don't know that I have a whole lot to add and it's one I'm not particularly interested in. For me, dragons are a bit tired. For others, it's something that remains endlessly exciting. I wish I had such enthusiasm. Obviously, I can't fault anyone for liking what they like, but if I'm sitting down to paint something for myself, dragons are pretty low on the list of subjects I want to visit and explore. So, it remains a little weird to me that I was asked to paint this guy.

That being said, I'm very happy to have gotten the opportunity. There is value in being pushed to do something that one might otherwise not be inclined to do. Eating vegetables for example, or trying on a pair of skinny jeans (which it turns out is not a good look for me). In this case, it was a paid gig, sure, but that didn't mean that I was going to enjoy it at all. Surprisingly, however, I had quite a good time working on the piece and it's one that I'm rather pleased with.

Still, don't expect me to release a series of dragon paintings anytime soon.