Friday, December 23, 2016


I've had the distinct pleasure of being a part of several concept teams over the years that have helped build some of Magic's many worlds. The plane of Kaladesh was one such opportunity, and while it wasn't exactly in my wheelhouse aesthetically, I did a niche to explore: the gremlins. The gremlins were something I worked quite hard on and though the finalized versions printed in the Kaladesh styleguide ended up having very minor differences to my original designs in the end, they were still very much mine.

Funny enough, the design itself isn't exactly out of the ordinary—frankly, the gremlins ended up looking a lot like baby aardvarks—but they took a bit of a winding path to get there. Originally, my designs were deemed to goblin-like, which was a problem because the gremlins really needed to be distinctly separate from goblins. What Art Director Jeremy Jarvis wanted to get across with the design was that these things caused damage but did so without any intent or malice. Destruction was just a side effect of their being. That sentiment immediately led me down the path that produced the first drawing of a gremlin:

©Wizards of the Coast

Sure, things evolved from there (I ended up giving them another pair of legs, bigger eyes, different proportions and various color treatments), but this was how they started, and from there I got to explore them quite a bit.

I'll be getting to those explorations in a future post, but for now here are two important things to understand about Kaladesh and its gremlins: first, in the world of Kaladesh all of the machines, vehicles and contraptions runs on this magical element called "aether" that swirls about in the sky and is harvested by great airships. This aether is blue and glowy, and it is the thing upon which gremlins feed. Second, as stated above, gremlins destroy things and do so unintentionally—they're probably not even aware that they're doing it. As the design evolved, it was decided that gremlins secrete an acidic and corrosive oil from their skin and this is what does all the damage. This corrosion is typically indicated by a purple and green crust that forms on metal.

Anyway, after working so hard on the little guys it should be no surprise that when one of the Art Directors inquired as to whether I had any requests for assignments that requested a gremlin. And a gremlin is what I got in Demolish.

For some reason during this period of time I was out of the habit of saving my actual assignment descriptions, but this one I remember fairly well. I was asked to paint a gremlin laying in the remains of a mechanical construct called the Chief of the Foundry. The gremlin, having just fed on the aether running the device, has a telltale glow and sits among the wreckage as the remaining aether dissipates around him.

Pretty simple in concept, honestly. In delivery, however, I knew it would be a bit of a challenge. The primary cause of this challenge is that mechanical constructs really aren't my strong suit. I mean, it's a lot of straight lines, gears, and reflective metal. I knew I could do it, but I also knew it would be a heck of a time investment to really make the image sing. Fortunately, I didn't have to worry about so many specifics in the sketch. I knew pretty quickly what I wanted to do with it and tore through my preliminary quickly in order to give myself as much time as possible on the finished painting.

©Wizards of the Coast
The advantage of getting away with sketches like this is that I get to merely indicate aspects of the mechanical construct rather than fully articulating them. While there are some recognizable shapes in there, the rest is just scribbles. I knew I'd have to reconcile that when the time came to paint the piece, but for the time being I was just hoping the fine folks at Wizards liked where I was headed. Fortunately they were. Unfortunately, I was once again reminded of how not having everything planned can sometimes be a headache.

The thing is, the style guide for a world like this has a wealth of information. It had examples of decorative gears, various types of filigree, and even basic shape language. I knew that in order to keep the construct feeling like the Chief of the Foundry, that I needed to nail a few key components. So, I kept the head and chest plate in as well as a few legs and hip joints. Then I started adding additional parts of the creature's design jumbled together. Beyond that I really didn't know what to do. Deconstructing something like this is pretty beyond me so in order to figure it all out I started asking some serious questions like: do these things need wires? I mean, they don't run on electricity, they run on aether so does that even require wiring of any kind? What about pistons? How do the joints work? Etc., etc., etc.

While there is a degree of importance to making it feel believable, it took a long time to realize that I was probably overthinking things. After all, I'm not an engineer and these questions were just a distraction. Answering them was only tangential to the success of the piece. In the end, my biggest issues would come from how reflective to make the metal and how accurate the reflections needed to be. I discovered the solution to those issues as I painted. Because of the jumbled nature of the construct's remains, I found that the more accurate and reflective the metal became, the more difficult it became to read the piece. It became harder and harder to see the larger shapes among all the reflections. Luckily, the gremlin was always easy to see given how different he is from the metal, but much of the construct's remains became visual noise that I decided I needed to quiet down and simplify.

So, what started as a panic to try and figure out the inner-workings of a fictional, aether/mechanical-driven construct ended up being about paring things down and making things readable. In doing this, I effectively painted much of the piece twice.

©Wizards of the Coast

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

One of the saving graces of this painting is that the various elements I was asked to include in the piece had relatively limited palettes. The construct was sort of a brass color with red and blue accents. The gremlin was a pinkish color with purple accents and its corrosion the aforementioned green/purple. The aether was vibrant blue. These few colors in their variations meant that the piece could be accomplished with a relatively limited palette. It also meant that I could utilize things like the red accents on the metal and the purple of the corrosion to move the viewer's eye around the composition. Lastly, the shock of bright blue juxtaposed next to the bright, fleshy pink was really valuable in terms of hammering home a focal point.

In a very real way, this piece probably represents the most effort I've ever put into a Magic painting. There's a lot of stuff in there and the fact that I ended up reworking vast areas of the piece meant it ate up a fair amount of time. That I struggled with it and came away with something I actually like is no small miracle to me. So often I have a difficult time getting past the adversity I experience in the making of a thing and end up with strong negative associations. This one, though, felt like a real win—even at the time.

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