Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Black Lotus

The vast majority of the work I do has no baggage attached to it. Most of the images I create are for things that have never existed before and so there's little to nothing to live up to. On the occasions where this wasn't true and I have re-illustrated things that have had previous iterations, the stakes simply weren't that high. Being asked to paint a new image of Black Lotus is a whole other thing. Black Lotus is big. Really big. There's very little else that comes close to it in terms of notoriety in the world of Magic: the Gathering. There were only 1,100 copies of the original card ever printed and individual cards have sold for more than $27,000 a piece. This is the kind of thing that some people steal for and others use as an investment. It's a totally different level than I am used to.

To an extent, all of that is largely irrelevant to me and this assignment. This painting wasn't for a new printing of a Black Lotus card and so wasn't going to be for anything that vast playerbase could ever use. The original Black Lotus artist, Christopher Rush, will likely be the only person to ever have seen his version in physical print form. The only other artist to have painted a version, Chris Rahn, at least had his image utilized in Magic: the Gathering Online. My version was going to be a prize painting—a one-off—to be given to a tournament winner at the Eternal Weekend event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania this coming October.

By "prize painting" I mean just that, a painting that is a prize. It's like a two dimensional trophy. I've painted one of these before (link), so I knew the drill upon getting the assignment. For the most part, such paintings are new illustrations of rare, out of print (and sometimes game-breaking) Magic cards. These paintings tend to be set into a large, printed card border and framed. It's like one of those giant novelty checks one sees when someone wins a golf tournament or the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, only there's an actual painting inside it and unlike its novelty counterparts is actually worth something.

But despite this being a one-off, it's still an important piece that would make for a pretty valuable prize and would make me a small part of the Black Lotus' history. Just another assignment, right? I'm not going to lie. I felt the weight of it.

Usually, I'd include my art description at this point. But now's as good a time as any to explain that I won't be doing that any longer. Instead, I'll be giving a summation of what was in the assignment, rather than quoting it directly. Before anyone jumps to any conclusions, this is not due to a mandate from Wizards. I've not been silenced in any way. I'm making this choice because someone actually wrote the art descriptions and they deserve credit, but it's credit that I don't know how to give. Wizards employs writers who toil away at hundreds and hundreds of art descriptions a year. Then the written descriptions get edited and tweaked both by other writers and even the art directors before they pass them along to us. Who is responsible for what is simply something I don't know and it feels weird quoting someone else's work without giving proper credit. As it is, I edit the descriptions to varying degrees in order to summarize or remove references to things that aren't ready for public consumption, so fumbling through translations of sorts is only a small next step. I hope you all understand.

Anyway, in the art description I was asked to paint the black lotus in water. Wizards wanted the lotus to have metallic leaves and stems. I was asked to include some natural lotuses as well, so as to offset the black lotus and its unnatural state. And that's about it. What they were looking for was pretty clear.

After absorbing the description and its various parts, the first thing I did was start looking for pictures of lotuses and collecting them. The second thing I did was start reading more about lotuses only to find out that most of the images I'd collected were of waterlilies and not lotuses (the two major points of difference being: 1) that waterlily leaves float on the water's surface and lotus leaves tend to be above the water; and 2) that lotus flowers have a different structure in their center than waterlilies do that includes a seedpod). So back to looking for pictures of actual lotuses this time. Once I'd gotten enough of those, I started pondering the metal leaves. For this, I grabbed some wire and aluminum foil. I sculpted leaves out of the foil, taped them to wire and stuck them in the ground in my backyard so they were facing lots of greenery, then photographed them with the appropriate light. Additionally, I dug out a Christmas ornament we own that is a silver maple leave and photographed it in the same setting.

Reference in hand, I started thumbnail sketching.

Based on the timing of the assignment, I knew this was going to be the last painting I'd work on of 2016. Both because of that fact and the weight of what I was being asked to do, I wanted to really knock it out of the park. Given that my wife had to work through the holidays, I decided I had some time to experiment and try some different things in the process of making the painting. Of late, I've gotten into the habit of doing my sketches digitally, but I've always really loved Dave Palumbo's painted sketches. I wanted to give that a try, and so I did.

©Wizards of the Coast

I painted two different sketches. Both of these are oil on hardboard and each measures seven inches wide by five inches tall. While the second sketch doesn't deliver on the assignment's concept, I thought I'd give them an alternate take. Additionally, I went into the first sketch digitally to offer up a couple other options for a total of four.

©Wizards of the Coast

Option "A" was pretty much what they'd asked for in the art description. Option "D" was my alternate take. Option "B" was along the same lines as the art description but with a small tweak. Since the art wouldn't be printed as a card, I really didn't need to worry quite as much about the image being readable at card size. There was opportunity for a more subtle take. I thought it might be interesting to restrict the metal in the leaves to only the leaf veins and stems, leaving the rest of the leaf to the normal, green, organic variety. Finally, option "C" was inspired by a Christmas ornament I rediscovered when digging for the aforementioned silver leaf to photograph for reference. Option "C" keeps the black lotus leaves metal, but gives them a green hue. In all versions, I decided to make the lotus' stamens, stigmas, and seedpod metal as well, limiting the only organic aspects of the lotus to the the black petals themselves.

The fine folks at Wizards decided to stick with option A.

Before committing to the finished painting I looked at the calendar and realized I had the time to experiment with my process even further. I decided to try a color study. While I've never really painted a traditional oil color study before, I have been doing digital color studies on an increasing basis. Since I'd already painted two sketches, I figured it was worth trying my hand at a painted color study, as well.

©Wizards of the Coast

The study is also oil on hardboard and measures ten inches wide by eight inches tall.

The study allowed me to work a few kinks out that I hadn't completely resolved. It also gave me something pretty developed to show my peers in order to get some solid feedback before moving on to the finish. The feedback was quite useful (thanks to all of you who put their two cents in), and I implemented most of the suggested changes to the color study, choosing to hold off on the remaining changes until I began painting the final painting.

Speaking of the finish, here's how that came out:

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished piece was completed in early 2017, is oil on hardboard and measures eighteen inches wide by thirteen inches tall. The entire process was art directed by Cynthia Sheppard.

Between preliminaries and the finish, I made some changes to the metal leaves both in placement and scale. Additionally, I subtly changed the metal leaves' surfaces. In the preliminaries I treating them as basically smooth but shifted their appearance to better imitate the subtle bumps and ripples found in actual lotus leaves. Outside of that, the finished painting was just a more polished version of the image that was a tad more consistent with the reference I had.

Whether any of the process experimentation was valuable remains to be seen. On some level I learned a lot and I went into the finished piece with a higher degree of confidence. On the other hand, I felt like the painted studies had removed any experimentation I might otherwise do in the painting of the finished piece. In short, painted the final piece felt rather rote. Whether I paint sketches in the future or do any painted color studies seems somewhat unlikely for the vast majority of my commercial work. Even for my personal work I feel like so many developed preliminaries would undermine much of the spontaneity I quite enjoy. All that being said, I still think it was worth trying and I was glad that I had the time to do it.

In the end, the result is what it is. I'm rather happy with it, but there will always be folks who feel that there is only one true Black Lotus painting, that being the original by Christopher Rush. Then there will be those who look at Chris Rahn's take on the subject done for Magic Online as the more definitive. I have no control over such things and it's hard to argue with the various points of view. It's like trying to argue with someone over which cast of Saturday Night Live was definitively the best if you even believe there is such a thing in the first place. Point is, folks will either dig mine or not.

Regardless of fans' and collectors' feelings, I'm now weirdly part of Magic history in a way that I didn't ever expect to be. I mean, I've contributed a fair bit between my concept art and the many paintings I've done, but the Black Lotus is singular among fans and collectors of Magic: the Gathering. And whether I like it or not, the Black Lotus painting I've done will be equally singular in my body of work.

Still, this job did offer up a unique event that I will remember for a long time to come. Once it was done, I drove the finished painting down to Renton, Washington and delivered it by hand to a very eager art director. I felt bad since I was interrupting her lunch, but I have rarely felt the degree of appreciation and excitement professionally as when she took the painting into possession. That was a good day.


  1. Steve - this is beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing your process and the narrative. I'm excited to participate in Eternal Weekend this year and I can only hope to take this home with me!

  2. For the record, putting the Black Lotus next to natural ones was something I wanted, because I enjoyed how it made the iconic lotus feel special among many. I collaborated with Kelly Digges who wrote the actual art description (he is far more skilled at the words part than I am). You're 100% correct that to some degree every single card is a carefully crafted collaboration, often starting with 4 or 5 people in a room looking at a whole set holistically, and figuring out the best concept for each card... before I rattle on forever: Have I mentioned how much I love this painting? :)

  3. Mrs. Sheppard, I think a great number of us Magic players are interested in stories/ art descriptions like these. I know you can't make them compulsory but perhaps more artists could be encouraged to make these efforts and art descriptions sanitized for public consumption made available? It's such an incredible process to see an artists take mere words that describe something in their head and watch an artist bring it into being. Thanks you again!


    1. I appreciate the encouragement and interest in sharing more about the process, thank you! Magic keeps us busy enough that reaching out doesn't happen very often from our team, (which is why it's nice when Steve and other artists share their insights), but do know you are heard.

    2. Thanks a lot, Cynthia. I appreciate you adding further insight and credit. Despite having been privileged to get many peaks behind the curtain at Wizards, I continue to be amazed that things come together the way they do, with so many moving parts along the way.

  4. Steven you're one of the best out there doing mtg nowadays

  5. This painting is utterly incredible -- it's a tragedy we may never see this in a usable form for our favorite game. Wizards would be idiotic to not have a promo Black Lotus with this art for MTGO. Some day, I hope!


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