Friday, June 27, 2014

Avarice Amulet

This one has a bit of a strange story. It was the kind of piece that caused trouble from sketch to finish. Not because the piece itself was difficult, mind you, but because there was a highly specific thing that the Art Director was going for. Much of the conflict stemmed from my initial unwillingness to acquiesce to the AD's needs, and that unwillingness is part of a greater turmoil that I am experiencing across the board on my job. But I shouldn't get too far ahead of myself.

Let's start with the piece in question.

Avarice Amulet started with a phone call. This almost never happens and I'm not entirely sure why it did this time around. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I would need to paint this piece while trying to get settled in my new home of Seattle. Perhaps it was because the AD knew that I'd be illustrating in-house for a couple weeks and wasn't sure if I'd be interested in taking on even more work. Whatever the case, there was a phone call.

During this phone call, I learned that there was something special in store for the Magic 2015 core set. Apparently the fine folks at Wizards asked a wide variety of specific personalities throughout the gaming genre to design Magic cards, and like all Magic cards these would need artwork. I was asked to provide artwork for one of these cards.

I said yes and the assignment was emailed to me.

The job was to illustrate a card designed by the folks at Penny Arcade. More specifically, this was to be an image inspired by a recurring item throughout Penny Arcade's history, the Pac-Man watch — the gag being that the watch in question is highly coveted and has driven the characters in Penny Arcade to murder one another for it. Repeatedly.

Okay so far. Nothing too out of the ordinary. Except for a quickly drawn image done by the Art Director that was attached at the bottom of the email which gave me the exact solution for the assignment. I've thought long and hard about whether to include a recreation of that sketch, but in the end I rejected the idea for reasons to be explained later. Suffice it to say that it had a cracked, gold amulet being held by a bloody hand.

Now, relying on images to complete Magic assignments is nothing new. Each world the game explores comes with a styleguide, which is essentially just a book of reference materials designed to bring a visual unity to each of those worlds. But this little drawing was a pretty rare occurrence. Essentially, this was a "do it like this, but better" scenario. And it took me a while to recognize that.

So, I set that image aside and got to work trying to do my own take on things. Given that I was holed up in temporary housing with nothing better to do, I knocked out a couple sketches for the piece.

©Wizards of the Coast

©Wizards of the Coast

It would probably help to explain that the reason that this amulet doesn't look overtly like Pac-Man is simply because Wizards didn't have the rights to use Pac-Man. The important part was to invoke the idea of Pac-Man — and a watch for that matter. But it obviously needed to be different enough to not cause any legal problems.

So, aside from a vague notion of what the actual amulet looked like, these sketches were not based on the original little drawing provided to me. Sure, they contained all of the required elements of the piece, but I was attempting to make the piece my own. I was groping for that combination of the piece they need and the painting I want to paint.

Neither of these sketches was to be the solution, however. Unfortunately for me, I was pushing the image too far away from the AD's sketch.  It really did need to be a riff on that exact image.

Back to the drawing board.

©Wizards of the coast

If I couldn't change the image, I thought, then perhaps I could mess with the design of the amulet. So, here I have the Pac-Man pointing upward about to consume a power pellet (which I figured would be a pearl) and I thought it'd be cool to include balls in the chain representing the normal dots that seem to comprise much of Pac-Man's diet.

This didn't get by, either. Too much like Pac-Man. I totally understood. No need to get sued. Perhaps I could do something different. But no. The AD really did need the amulet on the sketch.

And so I did this:

©Wizards of the Coast

While this was accepted, there were two requested changes. First, the ghost motif at the 12:00, 3:00, 6:00 and 9:00 positions was too overtly ghosty. Second, the "mouth" of the Pac-Man part was still too open and still felt a little too much like the actual Pac-Man. Okay, makes sense. We're being conservative here. Avoiding a lawsuit would be swell.

With the changes in mind, I painted the thing.

©Wizards of the Coast

The painting is the usual oil on paper on hardboard and measures 14 inches wide by 11 inches tall.

The end result is basically a painted version of the sketch done by the Art Director. So, posting that image at the start of this article would effectively have been redundant. In fact, the only things I added were a maze motif to the edge of the amulet, and the lapus ghosts at the clock's quarters. I also decided that large diamonds would be used to fill out the remaining hours of the "watch" and would represent the power pellets from the Pac-Man game. Missing is the large diamond/power pellet at the 8:00 position where the crack/mouth lies. The gag is that Pac-Man has eaten this power pellet and in keeping with Pac-Man's mechanics, this is why the ghosts are blue.

Yup, the weird video game nerd details that about 1% of the viewers might have noticed is about all I really contributed to the piece creatively. And I guess the smokey texture in the background.


You might correctly have guessed that I have mixed feelings about this piece. On the one hand, given my schedule at the time and the fact that I was busy trying to unpack my life in very new surroundings, I needed the a piece that was pretty simple, and this was anything but a complicated piece to paint. But looking at it, I feel like the least creative person in the world. There is very little in it that I feel is mine.

Truth be told, I should have let it be an easier piece than it was. But I didn't want to settle for that. I wanted to make my version of this image and not just be a pair of hands. If I had my way, I'd have painted the second sketch — the one with lots of hands jostling for ownership. Not a huge change, but one that would have made it a cooler image (at least in my opinion). At the very least, there'd be more of a story to that version (not to mention more for me to sink my teeth into artistically), and in some ways would be more in keeping with the source material.

But getting to make all of the creative decisions isn't always the job. Sometimes, it's about giving the client exactly what they're asking for. Sometimes it's about suppressing your own needs and desires to get the assignment done. And sometimes it's about working on something that you know could be better but needs to be what it needs to be. Not exactly sexy, but that's part of the deal.

Anyway, I leave you with the Avarice Amulet in card form for you to contemplate.


  1. I really enjoy reading your blog. It's an insightful and informative look at the life of illustration.

    You are one of my favourite Magic artists. I'm sure everyone says this, but this is a beautiful card. Even the blood, which I usually find is difficult for artists to portray in a sophisticated way, is nice. Your atmosphere, colour, value, they are all doing their jobs.

    I also enjoy symbolism. It is always a treat to get an in-depth look at the meanings of the subjects in an artist's work.

    Thanks, again,


    1. Thanks a lot for this. I'm happy to hear that you dig this piece, and I'm flattered to be one of your favorites. Hopefully, you'll continue to find this old blog of mine interesting and I'll keep doing work that continues to earn a spot among your favorites. Thanks for reading!

  2. Did you ever ask the AD (afterward) if he would have accepted something other than his original sketch? It could save heartache in the future if you know how much creative room you have in the first place.

    I think the final version of the art is actually better than your other two sketches... Your first sketch doesn't feel dangerous at all, and your second seems overly chaotic - the type of "story" (as you say) that just doesn't seem realistic, or at least it is over-the-top. The final version is best because it evokes two key elements to the artifact (the "one ring to rule them all," if you will). The blood around the hand suggests an immensely tight grip on the chain, to the point of breaking one's own skin. Second (or alternately), the blood suggests that a murder has just taken place. While you might have wanted to fill in that story more, it is actually /better/ that there is nothing else in frame. It leaves the viewer more room to speculate... and I believe that's the true key to "telling a story" via one painting.

    Just found your blog and can't wait to read some more. Thanks!

    1. Because of any potential legal issues, and because the concept itself was under some debate at Wizards, it kind of had to be the presented solution. Fortunately, I'm close enough to the AD to allow for frank discussion and I got the full story behind the whole thing (which I really don't want to get into here).

      Either way, the fact is that the degree of creative freedom one has on these assignments varies wildly. During a given assignment made up of multiple images, one can be asked to create an entire world for one while being asked to slavishly recreate specific visuals on another. It's not so much heartache as it is the luck of the draw. My motive for sharing this particular assignment wasn't so much to garner any kind of pity, but to be frank in the realities of the job.

      As far as your take on the image, I certainly see where you're coming from, however it's not the story I wanted to tell. Originally, as described to me the emphasis was on the idea that the amulet incited murderous jealousy (in fact, even the working name for the card reflected this). While I agree that this is achieved in a more subtle way in the final image (and indeed the AD's initial sketch), I believed (and still do) that an image could have been created that more explicitly told that story while still focusing on the amulet itself. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, both versions of the story have exactly the same degree of subtlety, just in different ways. But aside from the story, I really wanted to explore the juxtaposition of the chaotic mass of arms grabbing at one another to the relative calm of the amulet. Visually, that was potentially interesting to me in a way that this simply was not.

      While I'm typically all for economy in imagery, this still was an opportunity for me to get to paint something that I normally don't get to and to further separate my piece from the very long list of hands holding artifacts throughout Magic's history. But obviously that wasn't meant to be.

      No matter how you look at it, the resulting image still isn't my own and this was a rare piece that had zero chance of ever becoming a portfolio piece for me because of that, which is a frustrating thing as my intention is to make every piece I do of such quality. While the final images don't always reach such lofty heights, rare is the piece that never had a chance.


I welcome all comments, questions, and discussion so long as you keep it civil.