Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Mox Amber

Getting opportunities to do art for cards like this feels fairly rare to me. Don't get me wrong, I've gotten to do art for some pretty high profile cards in the past—not to mention some extremely playable (though lower profile) cards that have literally been in use for a decade at this point—but in general I'm not the guy Wizards calls to paint something as high profile as an angel or a planeswalker (though I'd be happy to take one on should they change their mind). That's honestly not a complaint. I've been on record as saying that painting a planeswalker would probably be one of the more boring images I could ever be assigned, given how little room there is for invention and editorializing. But, even that is its own interesting challenge.

But I digress. This isn't about what assignments I don't get, but rather about this one that I did.

Mox Amber.

This was big. For the uninitiated, the original five mox cards ("Mox Ruby," "Mox Emerald," "Mox Sapphire," "Mox Jet," and "Mox Pearl") are among what have become known as the "Power Nine"—nine of the most powerful cards in Magic's history. Wizards has subsequently added a few additional mox cards that don't rank quite as high in the lore or on the power scale, at least as I understand it (which is not particularly well considering that my own Magic playing days probably ended somewhere around 1997 or 1998, and things have changed a bit since then).

Anyway, it's been quite a while since they added a new mox card so I knew it was quite special, and for some reason they chose to assign the art to me.

As an aside, I want to address something that has been brought up many places on the internet as well as mentioned directly to me. Over the last few years another artist, Volkan Baga, has gotten to paint new art for all of the mox cards. There seem to have been a fair number of folks who expected that Wizards would give Volkan this new mox so as to keep a consistent aesthetic. I get it. I really do. I don't know why they didn't go with him, but I strongly suspect he'll get a chance to do a new version in the future. Clearly there was a specific, non-Volkan direction that Wizards wanted to take this card in and I'm not the one to ask about it. All I know is I got an assignment and then I painted something for them that they liked. I'm betting that eventually Volkan will get to make his version. Even I look very forward to seeing it.

Again, I digress.

So, there's a part of my brain that really worries about the weight of such assignments. The rest of me just goes about trying to solve the problem as I would any other.  Fortunately, the part of my brain that worries wasn't an impediment to the process. My own sensibilities? Well, that's a different story.

What Wizards asked for initially was a little confounding to me, but it subsequently was simplified a bit. To start, they wanted a silver necklace with the amber being the necklace's charm. The necklace would be cradled in someone's hands. However, there were two specific stipulations: 1) the piece should not feel like it was part of Volkan Baga's cycle of mox paintings that also include the various moxes cradled in hands; 2) there should be no recognizable things floating in the amber (I assume to avoid any reference to Jurassic Park).

I took this all in and I thought about it for a while. I knew immediately what I wanted to do with the amber and how I wanted to set it in the piece of jewelry. What I didn't understand was why they wanted hands at all. I mean, if we were trying to avoid any reference to Volkan's pieces, the hands felt like a weird move.

Pencil sketch measuring approximately thirteen and a quarter inches wide by ten inches tall on larger paper.
©Wizards of the Coast

After handing this in, it was clear to everyone that the hands really weren't necessary and thinking back to the original mox images done by Dan Frazier (which are awesomely efficient), it was decided to go with a simpler approach. So, I was just left to my own devices to find a way to depict this new mox.

Pencil sketch measuring twelve inches wide by nine inches tall on larger paper.
©Wizards of the Coast

The thing about magic items to me is that I'm not really a huge fan in general. I think this is largely due to burn out from other properties. World of Warcraft is a really good example. Seemingly everything in that game is magic and has glowing parts or an overall aura. It all is meant to feel important somehow and because it all is meant to feel important, nothing actually does. Instead, it's just flash piled on top of flash and nothing ends up feeling particularly special. At least to me.

In contrast to that is The One Ring, from The Lord of the Rings. It's a simple, gold band that is unassuming. I absolutely favor this approach. As another example, it's a lot more interesting to me that the genie's lamp could be mistaken for a piece of junk rather than the powerful item it is. And while I've painted plenty of magical items over the years that sort of fall into this category, they still tend to be depicted sitting on a pedestal, lit with god lighting, and presented with a great degree of importance. In my head, it would be more fun to see the genie's lamp just sitting among the junk not calling attention to itself. So, my approach to Mox Amber was in keeping with that idea. I depicted the mox amber sitting upon the leather wrapping in which it was kept secreted away (or so I imagined). Sure it was special, but we didn't need a shaft of light to make that clear.

But the fine folks at Wizards disagreed. To them this second version felt haphazard and not special enough. And you know what? They were absolutely right.

My take on magic items is fine and all, but it's also situational. There is room for my version in the greater scheme of things, but it's not in keeping with the moxes. In fact, it's really wrong for the moxes. While they weren't trying to guide me down the aesthetic path that previous mox illustrators had taken, they were absolutely trying to keep me on the right tonal path, and that was where I'd fallen short.

Anyway, the good news was that they liked the design of the necklace from this second sketch (though I don't recall them ever explicitly disliking the first version) and dug the leather surface as well, so I automatically had something with which to rebuild. The issue then became figuring out how to present the amber necklace in a way that made it feel special. I spent a lot of time trying to hash something out in my sketchbook, but in the end I found it easier to take a piece of my wife's jewelry and arrange it in different ways on the back of her splayed leather jacket. Eventually, I settled on the idea of winding the necklace's chain in a spiral around the amber charm. I mocked it up and asked for Wizards' input.

Pencil Sketch measuring twelve inches wide by nine inches tall on larger paper.
©Wizards of the Coast

They liked this take and I was off to the races.

In the past, I have bemoaned how much detail I feel compelled to put in a given piece. High amounts of detail can be laborious and often results in paintings outliving my enthusiasm for them. In other words, paintings tend to take so long to complete that by the end of the process I have long-since ceased enjoying myself. The thing that I love doing almost always becomes plain old work. I'd like to work more loosely, but as odd as it seems, I don't know how to. I love loose painting in the work of others, but when I sit down, it just always feels half-finished.

Anyway, this piece was a bit of an exception. The image contains a lot of detail, sure. But I enjoyed it until the very end. It was easy to get lost in the folds, cracks, seams and wrinkles of the leather and I kept discovering new ones as I went along. Unlike with The First Eruption, the detail wasn't monotonous and repetitive, instead it was something I got to repeatedly invent along the way. In short, it was fun. A lot of fun.

Here's a shot of the piece in progress:

As you can see, I've blocked in the major shapes with paint and am beginning to complete the piece from the center outward. I don't always work that way, but it was helpful in this case since I knew I'd be able to consistently avoid resting my hand in wet paint.

Anyway, a lot more work went into the piece from there (I know I'm skipping a lot but that is the only photo I took while working on it) and the final painting ended up looking like this:

©Wizards of the Coast

The finished piece is oil on hardboard and measures eighteen inches wide by fourteen inches tall. It was art directed by Mark Winters and Kelly Digges. It is also a piece I like. Seriously—I'm genuinely happy with it. I don't say that often, but its true. It turned out pretty much how I hoped it would. Sure, the necklace isn't as unassuming as I'd have liked, but it's not exactly shouting its value or power, either. It is, in many respects, the perfect example of my aesthetic philosophy (whatever that means), and it's something of which I'm rather proud.