Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The First Eruption

This assignment was an easy one to wrap my head around, but difficult to execute on several levels. The challenge: paint a tapestry depicting the Ghitu people's creation story of their home continent of Shiv. The Ghitu and Shiv are parts of classic Magic history and are names most Magic fans will likely recognize. If you happen to be one who is less than initiated in Magic's lore however, the short version is that the Ghitu believe that an egg of stone hatched and a yolk of flame erupted, becoming the continent of Shiv. Somehow, this tapestry needed to depict that pivotal event.

The first challenge was that this image was not going to show a tapestry in its context. In other words, the art would not show the wall upon which the tapestry was hanging, nor would it show a loom or any such clue as to what we were looking at. Having such additional elements would be useful and would likely make selling the tapestry that much easier. But for the purposes of the card, it was necessary to show the tapestry by itself. This meant trying to figure out how to make the tapestry read as a tapestry in some other way. I chose to do this through texture.

Depicting the image on a tapestry is the easy part. The hard part is making it clear that the image one is looking at is a tapestry (vs. a painting vs. a print). That means figuring out how to depict the medium itself, which is woven fabric. I did a lot of research. I looked at a LOT of images of tapestries. Most importantly, I looked at a lot of close-ups of tapestries. In doing this, it became evident to me that recreating some semblance of the weave I saw on many of those close-ups was the key. All I had to do was figure out how to articulate that weave with oil paint.

Why paint? Well, it's what I use. I confess, however, that I thought long and hard about doing this piece digitally, since I knew that superimposing a weave onto an image in Photoshop would be a piece of cake. In fact, doing that would have taken mere moments whereas my solution took several days. But as much as I knew I could save time, I rather liked the idea of the challenge in doing it all with traditional media. Plus, I thought it worth the gamble that someone would want to buy the finished product.

Anyway, after some experimentation on a piece of gessoed cardboard, I decided how I was going to go about painting the piece. This involved filling in the basic fields of color within the design, then adding very thin, parallel lines in a darker value, and finishing each strip with dabbed highlights indicating individual fabric strands. It was going to be tedious, but I thought the result was a good compromise between the appoximation of a weave and a painterly finish.  Next came the issue of figuring out how to depict the Ghitu legend itself.

Deciding on the design of the tapestry was less straightforward than I'd expected. I knew that the image needed to contain an egg (or egg shape) breaking open, a volcano erupting, and a couple of dragons. The image also needed to be somewhat graphic in order to be in keeping with a woven tapestry. All that was left was to answer three key questions:

1) How literal should the depiction of the creation story should the image be?

The solution to this was to create a bit of variety, so I did four different sketches depicting the origin story in different ways. For some, the breaking egg was very literal, for others, it was shown in other ways. In general, though, I kept the elements required to tell the story very clear and pretty literal. I didn't see a need to get too fancy or obtuse.

2) What kind of stylization (if any) would there be in depicting the image?

The art order provided for the assignment suggested that I look at the aesthetic of Persian rugs as a starting point. Instantly, however, I noticed a real problem with that. Persian rugs are typiclaly extremely elaborate and decorative. While that's cool at life-size, shrunken to card size the designs became a liability and a bit of a visual mess. I decided to go with something more simple and graphic. If that direction were deemed too simplistic, I could easily start to find ways to make the image more decorative. However, I strongly suspected that because of the many elements needed for the composition, even a graphic treatment had the potential to feel pretty busy at card-size. So, I went with a graphic treatment throughout that had a degree of simplification and stylization upon which I could add slightly more decorative elements.

3) What would the color palette be?

The color palette ended up being the simplest part. In the world guide for the set were very clear color cues for Ghitu costuming. I took those and ran with them and attempted to keep the entire tapestry limited to those colors, but in a broader range of values. It was little paint by number, but it worked.

The four sketches I drew up were done in Photoshop. My hope was that the folks at Wizards would like one of the designs as is, but I was also prepared to mix and match elements as necessary. So, I kept each element on a separate layer within each document thus giving the folks at Wizards options (after all, this was everyone's first time doing something like this). Once done, I crossed my fingers and submitted the images.

©Wizards of the Coast

To my surprise, they liked elements of all the sketches, but favored one in particular (the one above marked "A"). I ended up doing some additional tweaks and submitted a final version. Then it was time to paint.

I knew painting this piece was going to be tedious and draining. So, I made things a bit easier for myself and created a colorized sketch that I printed out and pasted down to my surface. The colors weren't exact, but it was basically like having the piece blocked in. Still, I ended up blocking everything in with oil paint in the correct color palette. Once that was done, I moved on to painting the details and instantly made a stupid mistake.

©Wizards of the Coast

As stated above, my shortcut for depicting the tapestry's weave was largely built around parallel lines. I could have included these in my printed sketch for ease, but I decided early on that imperfections were necessary to further sell the weave, and there's no better way to add imperfections in parallel lines than doing them freehand. No big deal, really.

Now, one would think that maybe I'd start painting these parallel lines along one of the edges of the piece and then slowly work my way across the entire painting. That certainly would make sense, but it's not how I chose to do it. Instead, I started in the middle. And no, I didn't start with vertical lines that went from the very top to the very bottom. I just started an isolated set of parallel lines within the yellow section of the volcano's eruption. I had no real clue whether the lines I painted were parallel to the sides of the piece, since I didn't even do tick marks or anything like that. I just went for it without a clue. It took two days of work before I realized I should make sure the work thus far was square.

Fortunately for me, the starting point was off parallel but such a small amount that it was unnoticeable and required no changes. Still, I can't really explain what I was thinking besides the fact that I simply wasn't. It was a dumb move that happened to work out. If you ever have to do one of these things yourself (or are crazy enough to want to try it for "fun"), then I highly suggest you don't do what I did.

Anyway, once I'd established that the line segments I'd painted were square (enough) I decided to paint all of the parallel lines for the entire piece. Now, these lines were quite close to one another and are about one sixteenth to three thirty-seconds of an inch away from one another. It was tedious work to say the least. Once done, I turned to filling in the areas between the lines and then finished off the areas with highlights.

Here's a shot mid-process:

Throughout, the painting was methodical and taxing. My movement was restricted and was mostly from the wrist and fingers. The result was severe hand cramps and occasional hand spasms. It was probably the least fun I've ever had painting in my entire life, and I've been painting regularly since I was nine years old. The pain ended up cutting many days short, which prolonged the process (and the discomfort). Eventually, though, I finished the piece, scanned it, retouched it, and handed it in.

©Wizards of the Coast

Above is the painting as I handed it in. The finished piece is oil on paper on hardboard and measures seven and three-quarters inches wide by eighteen inches tall. It was art directed by Mark Winters. The piece did receive one final tweak after I submitted it to Wizards in that I added my initials and the date to it. As it was, adding my signature undermined the illusion of the tapestry, but some form of it is now on the final piece.

Here are some closeups for your perusal:

Basically the only two brushes I used for the entire thing.
The small round brush in front was basically ruined in the process. 

There are some very important realities that I had to face with this painting. First is that there is a real limit to the amount of detail that would to appear at card-size. In fact, most of the work I did will not be visible at all. It's entirely possible that one will get a hint of the indicated weave at card size, but it's pretty unlikely. So why bother? Well, the image will likely be used for promotional purposes and show up in a much larger format. With those kinds of things, the detail I poured into the piece will be much more apparent, not to mention important. That alone makes the whole thing worthwhile.

The second reality is that despite the amount of effort and time the finished painting represents, the result is something that I can never use in my portfolio. Why? Well, it's stylistically a total anomaly, as is the execution. The piece simply doesn't fit in with the rest of my work and it doesn't represent a direction I wish to go. Is that a bad thing? Not at all. The challenge of the assignment was interesting and forced me to grapple with a lot of questions regarding my process. I actually had to think about a piece in an entirely different way and couldn't just paint from the hip. That was a valuable exercise. Additionally, this assignment was the first time in a long while where I really questioned whether it was worth painting in oils, and in the end it reaffirmed that aspect of my work.

Style-wise, it was an escape and a chance to play in a space I normally wouldn't have gone into. Can I see revisiting the graphic nature in some way? Sure. Much of my college work contained a mix of graphic and realistic elements, and I can see experimenting with that again. The results (provided they're worth a damn) would likely not produce imagery appropriate for Magic, mind you. But there's always my personal work (though even then I'm not so sure). But yeah, it was a valuable experience in that way as well.

Still, I would not fully paint a tapestry again if I was asked to do another one. Instead, I would paint the image in oils and do the tapestry texture in Photoshop. Mostly that decision is built around how vivid my memory is of the pain and swelling in my wrist this piece caused, but part of it is that I genuinely don't see the point of doing it again. I've done it already and didn't really enjoy it enough to dive back into it. But then, I change my mind constantly, so one never knows.

All that being said, there'd be a part of me that would be pushing to just learn how to actually weave and go that route, instead.


  1. I truly appreciate the effort and talent that went into this piece.

  2. Just wanted you to know that I love this art, and even in the small card image I could tell it was a tapestry before reading your article, so excellent execution! Definitely worth it.

  3. One of the most breathtaking MTG cards to date... I am going to play this card in everything just to enjoy the art. Your time spent making the weave texture is VERY noticeable at card size... I'm just stunned it's not done digitally.

    Thanks for risking life and limb (and thumb) on this one!

  4. It's gonna become one of the legendary pieces of art in Magic, i'm sure

  5. Absolutely phenomenal work and the amount of effort that you put into it is truly evident. Thank you for the incredible job you did and please know that Magic players and art-lovers alike will enjoy and be grateful for your work on this piece forever!

  6. Really amazing work. It is so evocative of the older days of magic but with so much more skill Thank you

  7. You were my college class mentor in 2010 back in FIT and you still got that amazing level of talent and patience you had back then! Keep rocking on Steve!

  8. As a weaver, I truly appreciate this work. Weaving is all about texture and you absolutely go that and mimicked the appearance of texture in a textile. And i appreciate your recognition that a woven piece would square up. Your use of a "colorized sketch" as an overlay recreates exactly what a tapestry weaver does in using a "cartoon"; I find it fascinating that in creating a modern solution for your piece, you recreated a traditional technique. This is lovely. Well-done.

  9. This card deserve higher rarity just for your work alone.

  10. Unbelievable work, Steven! I can promise you that you absolutely blew the socks off the collective MTG community when we saw your art. Thanks so much for the work you put in, and for sharing your process!

  11. I want this art in needlepoint. No, no; better yet, I want a needlepoint playmat of this art!

  12. Congrats on your labor, its truly a gorgeous painting.

  13. You are a crazy person! As soon as I saw this card image I could tell it was special, and seeing your name in the artist credit just confirmed it. Amazing, amazing piece.

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