Thursday, January 26, 2017

Aethertide Whale

Some assignments require a lot of problem solving and a ton of revision. Other assignments simply don't. Aethertide Whale is definitely one of the latter, which makes it extremely difficult to write about. As much as I like to explain my decision-making and my thought processes, pieces like this don't really have a lot that bears in-depth analysis. Most of the decisions were made for me. While that may sound like a complaint, it isn't. It's just another facet of the job.

It's probably best to backtrack and start with the art description:

Art Description:Setting: KALADESH
Color: Blue creature

Location: The aether-swirled sky of Kaladesh (for aether reference, see p. 21 in the World Guide)

Action: Show a gigantic flying sky leviathan like the one on p. 128B (note the scale). In this shot, it swims through a small fleet of whaling airships (see p. 105C and D for ship profiles) that scatter to avoid getting smashed. The ships are tiny by comparison. All around are swirls of aether currents. 

Focus: the sky leviathan

Mood: a creature completely in its element

Upon getting the assignment, I must confess that I was immediately taken back to my comic collecting days in the mid-nineties. Among the various titles I collected was Sam Kieth's, The Maxx, a comic which on at least one occasion featured flying whales—"air whales" if I recall. While I'm sure there are instances of implied or blatant flying whales in fiction before that comic series, flying whales will always remind me of that series. Well, that series and the whale from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.


Normally, when writing posts I remove references to World Guide page numbers in the descriptions whenever possible as they lack context. Since I can't show the pages and the designs upon which I base the illustrations, I feel that leaving such references in is a bit of tease. In this case I'm making an exception so as to be clear about what an assignment like this actually requires.

So, taking a second look at the description, we see that the aesthetic for the setting is indicated by images in the World Guide. There were several concept pieces from which to draw inspiration both on that specific page and in several other places throughout the guide and it was clear what they needed. As for the creature, that design too was pretty well established. The description was pointing to a full-color concept design that I stuck fairly close to. The ships were a bit less fleshed out and were just silhouettes on the page. As they were silhouettes, they contained no detail, just the broad strokes of how they should be shaped. There were, however, other ships in the World Guide from which to glean information. There was a little extrapolating to be done, but it mostly entailed looking at the other ships from the World Guide and applying design elements from those to mine all while retaining the overall shapes indicated by the aforementioned silhouettes.

With most of the elements figured out for me, my job was to take them and assemble them in a manner consistent with both the letter of the description as well as the spirit of the description. There was a bit of trial and error to make the image work, but in the end my responsibility was just to compose all of the things, toy with the scale, etc. In the end, I came up with this:

©Wizards of the Coast

When building a digital document like this, I typically keep the various elements on separate layers so that I can move them around, hide them, and resize them as much as I need to. In this case, each ship represents a different layer, and the swirling aether (seen as the white streaks) is on three separate layers depending on where it is in space. The front of the whale is on one layer and the tail is on another. Once I've locked down a composition, I'll typically wait until the following morning to send the sketch off to the client so as to be sure the image still works for me. If not, I tweak it as necessary and then send it on its way.

Wizards gave me the green light with one requested change going forward: the Art Director asked that I change the shape of the lower jaw a bit. Super minor and easily done. I took it to paint and here's how it came out:

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished piece is oil on gessoed hardboard, measures fourteen inches wide by eleven inches tall and was Art Directed by Mark Winters.

Despite being represented by white streaks in the sketch, the aether in Kaladesh is meant to be sort of an aqua color. As I painted the piece, I found that I was having difficulty keeping that color as vibrant as I wanted it to be. The aether tended to disappear into the sky and so I pushed it lighter in color to add more contrast, which only weakened the vibrancy of the intended aqua hue. Keeping the color of the aether was important to me, and so my best option turned out to be pushing the sky in a darker direction in order to allow the teal streaks to pop. Beyond that, there really weren't any struggles of note post sketch.

Jobs like this can sometimes be easier than others which require a lot of problem solving. I mean, there was relatively little for me to think about in this particular case, so what's not to like? However, sometimes these kinds of jobs can be far more difficult than others. After all, they are based upon pre-existing designs and frankly some designs are a heck of a lot easier to implement than others. Some designs or aesthetics don't mesh well with a given artist's sensibilities. Some designs are just plain difficult. And living up to the most difficult designs can be a huge headache and represent far more hours of toil to bring to fruition than something created from whole cloth. So in a way, they represent a problem solving as well. It's just a very different kind.

Fortunately, this time around it was just a whale, some ships, and some swirling aether. It's hard to complain about any of that.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Prismatic Geoscope

Smack in the middle of doing work on Kaladesh and painted alongside Herald of the Fair, came a piece I was assigned for the Commander 2016 set of Magic: the Gathering. It was kind of nice, frankly, to get away from the Kaladesh aesthetic. Nicer still was the opportunity to design something from whole cloth that was unaffiliated with any of Magic's established realms.

Here's the art description as it arrived in my inbox:
Location: Unimportant

Action: This is a close-up of a large, multi-faceted crystal set in an ornate metal mounting. Within each of its visible faces, we see landscape stretching out that matches one of Magic's basic land types--plains, island, swamp, mountain, and forest. We don't need to see all five, but we should see at least three, and each facet of the gem should give a "window" into a different land type. Lit from within by the light of the landscape scenes, the crystal glows with iridescent light.

Focus: The crystal

Mood: The different magical power of many lands is gathered at your fingertips.
While the art description is explicitly talking about landscapes, reading between the lines it's also talking about the five colors of Magic. For the uninitiated, the five colors of Magic are: red (which is represented by mountains), white (which is represented by plains), green (which is represented by forest), blue (which is represented by islands), and black (which is represented by swamp). Traditionally in Magic, those colors also have other colors associated with them in order to broaden aesthetic potential. Oranges, for example, tend to go more with red aspects of Magic. Yellows and beiges tend to be associated with white. Violets tend to represent black. The primary reason for this last one is especially for cases such as what I was being asked to do here. Black does not emit light and thus cannot be a source of light. Violet or purple does, however, and can. Thus such hues are useful whenever glowing, black magic is depicted.

So why are the colors important? Couldn't I just paint some landscapes and be done with it? Yes and no. Were people to get a chance to see the painting at full scale, I could be a lot more subtle about things. But this image needs to read at card art size, which is 2.103 inches (53 mm) wide and 1.543 inches (40 mm) tall. Were I to just superimpose landscapes over crystal facets, it's highly likely that it would be difficult to tell where certain landscapes ended and others began. In order to clarify that, I felt it a natural step to cheat the colors of each landscape in the direction of the color it is associated with. For some it would be easy (forests are already green and mountains can sometimes be red), but things like a swamp are rarely, actually purple. How monochromatic to go would be a balancing act, but I was determined to make each landscape/color read clearly.

The thing is, I'm not the greatest colorist in the world. Balancing the five colors of magic can be a difficult task at times even for artists whose color sense is far greater than my own. While I have been asked to do images that required a full articulation—or at least insinuation—of all five colors of Magic in the past, one of these assignments happen to have resulted in what I consider my weakest Magic painting to date: Maelstrom Nexus. I'm not going to get into why I dislike it so much or why I destroyed the painting, but suffice it to say that at least some of my displeasure had to do with a complete failure in making the color work the way I wanted it to. Suffice it to say that that piece made me a little gun-shy, but also more than a little determined.

For the purposes of this new piece, I felt that I needed to err on the side of yellow for the planes facet. This is primarily due to the fact that I didn't want to go in the direction of pure white and wash the landscape out color-wise as it likely would have read as a bit weak compared to the other facets. Additionally, it made sense to utilize purple in lieu of black. While these choices solve some problems, they created another: now I had a piece that would contain fairly pure hues of green, blue, purple, red and yellow and could potentially become a candy-coated nightmare of competing colors.

While I still worried about the failure of Maelstrom Nexus, I feel like I've also had some success in pieces that required a bright, multi-colored composition. Most of the time, I would just take a few of the colors and use them as the primary visual push of the piece and relegate the other colors to secondary elements. This time around, because of what I had in mind, it would be difficult to do that. Instead, the solution would be better integration of the five colors throughout the piece. So, I'd be doing things like bringing the overall hues of one crystal landscape into the shadows of other crystal landscapes, and the same with the highlights. Additionally, I had the advantage of a the metal construct holding the crystal in place which afforded the opportunity for the various colored glows to play against one another and blend. At least I hoped.

Anyway, with a basic plan in place, I began to cobble the whole thing together digitally. It's assignments like this where digital sketches make the most sense to me. In a matter of a few hours, I can have a potentially workable sketch and sometimes in color. In this case, I went a bit further and even incorporated some of my reference into the sketch in the name of clarity. Usually I'd have scribbled furiously to articulate the planned mountains and trees in the crystal's surface, and indeed that's how it began. In the end it felt like green scribbles and orange scribbles rather than actual landscapes. So, to help the Art Director better understand what she was getting, in the photos went.

As I sketched away, it became obvious to me that the image based on the art order's description wasn't as visually interesting as it could have been. A single crystal with a few visible facets solved the assignment, but it wasn't really clicking completely. Still, I did my best with it and finished it up, then immediately executed a second version based on a quartz crystal cluster. Instead of one crystal, there would be many and each of the crystals would reveal the brightly lit landscapes within. For me, this second version was in keeping with the spirit of the assignment but added more visual appeal. I submitted both and awaited further instruction.

©Wizards of the Coast

The Art Director replied with a single concern: regardless of the version, it was felt that I should consider pushing the swamp imagery toward a more violet hue in order to more clearly separate it from the forest. Seemed fair enough. In fact, I took that opportunity to deepen the color of the various landscapes and reinforce the five colors of Magic (or their adjacent counterparts).

Beyond that, I was given a green light to move forward on either of the sketches provided as the fine folks at Wizards were content with both. I decided to go with the multi-crystal version, and here's how it came out:

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished painting is oil on gessoed hardboard, measures sixteen inches wide by twelve inches tall, and was Art Directed by Cynthia Sheppard.

Clearly upon a cursory glance there are obvious changes between the sketch and the finish. The sketch speaks of a brighter, more luminous crystal. Frankly, I lost that to a degree. I got really fascinated by the articulation of the imperfections within the crystals and spent a lot of time working out how the various colors devolved into the neutral base. Additionally, I ended up tamping down a lot of the blown-out areas in an attempt to better control the eye. Lastly, there was an overall shift in the various colors.

In the sketch, I'd achieved a degree of color harmony while still being fairly true to Magic's colors (minus that swamp crystal, of course). All five of the colors are fairly warm versions of themselves. Upon adding that violet, the whole thing changed a bit in a way that I disliked. The violet swamp crystal just stuck out and called too much attention to itself. So, I ended up shifting the colors throughout until the five colors stopped competing and sat well next to each other.

Looking at the sketch there's a real part of me that finds humor in how far toward completion the sketch got. Much of that is an illusion, however. Most of the photos are fairly raw. Sure they're manipulated, but had I continued digitally, they would have been painted over completely. Still, it feels genuinely like I could have taken this one to completion digitally in a fairly short amount of time. Instead, I chose to project the sketch onto a board and paint it all up from scratch with oils. That's probably a strange thing to some, but I am quite happy I did it. I learned a fair bit from working on this piece and ended up making something I quite liked in the end. Plus, I have this one-of-a-kind thing to hang on the wall. I'm not entirely sure why that matters to me, but I'm fortunate that there are as many folks who share my affection for traditionally painted illustration. But then, regardless of the medium, I'm pretty fortunate that there are as many folks who continue to be interested in illustration at all.