Fell the Pheasant

A pheasant hunt is a typical enough scene in art history, so to be assigned one for Magic: the Gathering’s Throne of Eldrane, which remixes fairy tales and classical fantasy tropes, wasn’t too unexpected.

One issue right off the bat was that the description called for a few riders returning from a hunt, including their hunting dogs. Now, perhaps that whole aspect of things is distasteful to some. For me, it was more a compositional issue: Magic cards are small, and though the print quality is usually really good, and has improved significantly over the years, squeezing that stuff into a small art box is a challenge. I considered cropping in, which is a fairly standard solution to increase the legibility of figures. But I also liked the idea of showing the scene as such, rather than have it be a character-based illustration.

Pencil study, 8x10”

Pencil study, 8x10”

In deciding to pull the camera back some, I knew I’d be having to solve some of these compositional problems. By using a low horizon, I could minimize the size of other members of the party as they come over the hill more easily. By using a simple palette, I could avoid some of the visual confusion that too many colors could introduce. I mentioned last time that I had chosen a Zorn palette for this set to evoke that classic art feel in these pieces, and that suited me well here. My primary inspiration for this particular piece was the work of Arthur and Lucia Matthews, California painters from the turn of the 20c., who did a lot of wonderful landscapes and some fanciful pieces as well, associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. I noticed that they too used a palette which if it wasn’t Zorn’s, was very much like it and could be mostly reproduced using it. The other thing I appreciated in studying their work anew (their originals can be seen at the Oakland museum as they lived in the SF Bay Area, and the monograph of their work is really good) was their simplification of form within their landscapes. I felt that approach would be good to help me with my goal of simplifying a composition that was going to risk being too busy and small for a card.

Tiny details, even at 18x24” overall size

Tiny details, even at 18x24” overall size

In this case, I may have modified the palette a tiny bit; I may have pushed the yellow with some Cadmium Yellow Dark through glazes, and I think I did add a touch of blue to my black to push the gamut just a tad wider, to get those golden tones a little richer.

Overall, it was an interesting challenge to work in that method with regards to the landscape. If you know my landscape work, it can be very detailed while also being quite brushy in places. Rendering the trees in their style as masses was very much against my grain, and since I was painting the background before the figures, I had to trust that the simple shapes I was painting back there would read well when the more detailed figures came in.

I think it did work out however. At the end, when I got the digital file of the painting, and shrunk it down tiny, I was still concerned that the point of the piece—that a pheasant was hunted—was getting a bit lost still at small size. So I did overlay some digital light in the upper right, the point of which in the painting was to emphasize the main figure holding out the pheasants. But the art below is just the painting before that was added.

Fell the Pheasant 18x24” oil over acrylic on panel

Fell the Pheasant
18x24” oil over acrylic on panel

A thanks to my friend who lent me her pupper Petri as a model. She trains service dogs, and has her own dog too. I was happy to let Petri feature in my painting, in fact she got to pose for both dogs!

Still Life, as Illustration

A bit of speculation, interesting but relevant even if it’s not what happened:

A humble token card

A humble token card

A year ago in late October, I scheduled a week of time during which I would work on some Still Life painting. I had a guest staying for a few days from out of state that we wanted to spend some time with, so Still Life was a good way of being able to stay productive without requiring long studio days, and I wouldn’t have to leave problems unresolved one day to the next. You can read more about that week at this post here.

In any case, on the Monday that I began doing these, I received an email asking about my availability for an upcoming Magic set. I responded back indicating my interest and my schedule availability, and continued working on the still life pieces. There are usually a few days during which the Art Directors collate responses then figure out who is going to do what in a given set.

Each day in the meanwhile, i was live streaming my still life painting on Facebook (the videos are still up and you can find them in my photo albums). It was a lot of fun and I was happy with what I’d produced. Each day I streamed one painting, done alla prima in one sitting.

Well, imagine my surprise when I was assigned a “Food Token” illustration for what would eventually become the Throne of Eldrane expansion set. It was really out of left field as a type of illustration, and I sat wondering if my prior week’s work had influenced Art Director Cynthia Sheppard assigning it to me. I know she’s active on Facebook, after all, and being an artist of considerable skill and talent herself, it did not seem odd that she might see me enjoying those paintings of fruits and vegetables, have a particular assignment requiring similar, and so hand it to me. I don’t know if that was the case, but bravo if so.

Food token illustration study 6x8” acrylic and pencil on toned paper Sold

Food token illustration study
6x8” acrylic and pencil on toned paper

The commission was indeed for fruits and vegetables, but all with some kind of magical twist, and in the case of the bananas, maybe an actual twist! For this commission I actually did a couple of really unusual things, as my illustration work goes, including painting from life, exactly as I did for the small paintings I’d done earlier. I went and purchased some fruit, split a pomegranate, and used some unfortunately mundane bananas. I did this after thumbnailing my composition out, and then laid out my setup next to me. I did a black and white study for submission and submitted it. I was only asked to remove the tendril-y bits from the pomegranate seeds so the food wouldn’t look harmful; I opted to make seeds glow instead.

I utilized the tight-but-loose method of painting I incorporate in those paintings and largely handled this just like a traditional still life painting. For the watermelon, wanting it pyramidal, I printed out large color sheets of watermelon skin texture and glued them to a foam core pyramid, then placed that behind the other fruits.

In the live streams the week before I mentioned that a few of them had been painted in modified limited palettes. Because Throne of Eldrane was supposed to hearken back to classical paintings, including 19c works, in terms of its color space, I opted for a Zorn palette of White, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, and Ivory Black. These colors stayed on my palette for a bit and I ended up doing a few paintings in a row using them, or with maybe single color modifications.

I’m not gonna lie, this was as much fun to paint as it looked. Because the Zorn palette does have a limited chroma, and the glowing apple was supposed to be a bit punchy, I did add a bit of Photoshop sweetening to it. In the end, it sat next to other Food illustrations in the same set by Steven Belledin, Donato Giancola and Lucas Graciano, excellent painters I am honored to stand side-by-side with, who handled other types of food still life pieces for the same set.

I said it didn’t matter too much if I was wrong about the speculation: if it was totally by chance that I got this commission when I did, it still remains that having spent a week on still life paintings the week before, I was ready for this in a very unique way, and it was still a great prelude to working on this.

Food token illustration 11x14” oil on panel Original available this week

Food token illustration
11x14” oil on panel
Original available this week

The Legacy of Varden

The Legacy of Varden  24x36” oil on panel, 2019 Original sold

The Legacy of Varden
24x36” oil on panel, 2019
Original sold

Private commissions usually work like this: basically, commissioning me to paint you something, same as an illustration client would. I do those from time to time, and you can learn about that process here. A particular landscape, a fantasy scene, a Hearts for Hardware piece I haven’t yet done: all of these can and have been privately commissioned in the past.

There is another category of private commissions, which is of the “paint me and/or my X” variety. Those are trickier and I’m more hesitant in accepting them. Primarily, it’s that anything with a portrait is asking for trouble: even Sargent and Rembrandt had sitters fume over portrayals of them.

Additionally, any work that is too specific to an individual finds itself a black hole of time; while the work might be worthwhile, unless it is strict formal portraiture, there is a good chance that it won’t fit into my larger bodies of work, won’t make a portfolio piece and so is carving out a slot of my calendar for the pay but no further use. I might show it initially but it’ll sort of disappear after that.

One thing artists value is accumulating art they can use in various ways over their careers.

So when I was asked about doing a private commission that would be of not one but about a dozen individuals, I proceeded with the conversation per normal, but figured that it was not going to work out. Usually, I’m right with these predictions. In this case, the collector was open to making it work. The portrayal would be of himself, his soon-to-be-wife, and nearly an entire group of friends who had formed a Live-action Role Playing group in years past.

There were so many logistical hurdles to leap that it seemed impossible it would work out. The more things I have to extrapolate in portraiture, the less successful it will be. This group had some costuming they could bring to bear, which was helpful, but how to get good reference of this many individuals and have it cohere?

I envisioned this nightmare scenario where I receive photos from different individuals in different cities, taken by different people under different lighting, heights and distances and such. I’m on the west coast and they are mostly all on the east coast. I tried to arrange with my late winter / early spring travel schedule for the many events I was doing to try to get together with groups of them. I even had an artist friend nearer to them who was open to meeting the group and shooting reference for me based on sketches! I owe that artist a solid for even being willing to help with a crazy reference shoot like that.

One main purpose for this commission was as a wedding celebration for the commissioner and his now-wife. It turns out that the group would all be in Washington DC for the groom’s bachelor party. When he agreed to fly me out to shoot reference, to have his crew present and in-costume, and to rent a small dance studio space, I had everything I needed and what seemed impossible began to take shape.

So, I flew out to DC on a Friday, crashed in a hotel and met them Saturday morning for a 3-hour window, after which I had to get back on a flight home and they had to move on with their day’s festivities. I had done thumbnails and gotten a very rough sketch approved. This was happening.

The crew arrived and though there was some confusion in the dance studio—a ballet teacher was quite put out that we’d been booked in her space through no fault of ours, so we relocated to another room—this group of guys and gal assembled, got in costume and we got to work. I’d shipped some lighting equipment ahead of me, which was super helpful, and this group of friends was a lot of fun to work with. Certainly it was one of the strangest things they’d done together. It was also probably the strangest commission I’ve ever worked on!

A photoshoot accomplished. Now time to jump back on a plane home!

A photoshoot accomplished. Now time to jump back on a plane home!

The underpainting at my retreat solved many problems and gave me the confidence that the rest would go fine

The underpainting at my retreat solved many problems and gave me the confidence that the rest would go fine

I shot a lot of reference including sub-groups of people and individual shots as needed, knowing I’d have to massage it together digitally. But I had real people with their costumes in consistent lighting and environmental conditions. I flew home, satisfied that I had what I needed and a little bewildered at what I’d gotten myself into.

Not long after, I found myself at the annual painting retreat I’ve done for a number of years now. I shipped a 24x36” panel to the retreat location, on which I only had basic outlines transferred in graphite, and spent much of my time there doing a detailed tonal underpainting. I shipped it back home at the end of the retreat.

The painting itself from there was continually interrupted by event travel, event preparation, and other more time-sensitive commissions that came along. Though the final was a few months delayed compared to what we had originally hoped, this was communicated and all parties were fine with it.

This is an issue with private commissions: often, their schedules are pushed for client work as those are ongoing relationships that have to be kept up. I try not to let it get crazy: more likely scheduling issues will keep me from ever starting a commission. But once begun, it often gets done with some but hopefully not egregious delay.

In-progress. I painted the main character portraits really early to get approval before diving in on everything else.

In-progress. I painted the main character portraits really early to get approval before diving in on everything else.

In the end, we had this really rather nice “group of heroes” portrait that is full of life and character, handled seriously but with some rather light touches, courtesy of a really fun group of people who enjoy each other’s company and were great sports. I also have a story to tell of one of the most unusual experiences I’ve had as a professional artist.

Springbloom Druid

There have been a couple of occasions lately where commissions kind of line up with things going on in my life. In this case, Art Director Cynthia Sheppard reached out to me to illustrate this card, which featured a pretty basic description of a Druid bringing life back into a forest ravaged by fire.

Springbloom Druid 18x24” oil over acrylic on panel Original art sold

Springbloom Druid
18x24” oil over acrylic on panel
Original art sold

It just so happens that some half year or so prior to this assignment reaching me, we here in Sonoma County went through the North Bay Fires of October 2017. While we were spared here, we did spend most of a week under advisory evacuation, and during that conflagration we knew too many people who lost their homes. Out of that horrible experience came my painting “Turning Point” as a meditation on hope after loss.

Preliminary study, 8x10” acrylic and pencil on paper Original art sold

Preliminary study, 8x10” acrylic and pencil on paper
Original art sold

I asked if that had been intentional, and Cynthia responded that no, it was not but that it might have been subconscious, since I had posted about my experience on social media at the time. Given the potential for being sensitive to the topic she asked if I wanted to pass on painting this, but no this was exactly up my alley and in line with the message I had communicated in “Turning Point” just a couple of months prior.

Shrunken down to card size, the burnt out trees look almost comical in their lack of branches (compared to a fully rendered unburnt tree as in my painting “Resilience”). And yet, one of the things you learn after a devastating fire is how most of the thinnest branches of a tree simply burn away, or break and fall to the ground where all but the biggest branches are consumed by fire, leaving these anemic sticks were mighty trees once stood. The completely ashen ground that is leftover until the rains come to wash it away or turn it to mud is another striking feature. And that weird ruddy sunset color that makes up the sky while the air is still choked with smoke.

In the midst of this sits our druid, a riot of plant life emerging before him and beginning to reclaim the barren wastes. Glowing eyes and hands are a common trope of this kind of art, so I enjoyed placing the magical image of a flower in bloom on each glowing palm.

Addressing this topic of hope after ruin twice in just a few months was a good experience for me, and I’m glad to have this part of my story in a sense recorded in the game that has been a part of my story for so many years now.

As an aside, as of this writing, the first of the families who I know whose home was lost has finished rebuilding, and within a month or so from now the second family will get to move back in to their rebuilt home as well. So many yet to go, though.