Vindictive Vampire

Revisiting a realm from Magic: the Gathering is fun. It's familiar, but different, since the narrative usually has in store changes from the last time it was portrayed so as to bring in something new to the familiar. Last time the game visited Ravnica I did two landscape-styled pieces and one other. Back in the original set I did a few illustrations, too. All told, including the present art, my work for Ravnica was produced in San Jose, CA (Ravnica), Pienza, Italy (Dissension), and NYC (Gatecrash/Dragon's Maw) and now Sonoma County, CA (the current art). Ravnica's history therefore stretches across large swaths of my life. And is also fun.

16x20" oil over acrylic on panel Original art available

16x20" oil over acrylic on panel
Original art available

Pencil sketch, ~6x8" pencil on tracing paper Original art available

Pencil sketch, ~6x8" pencil on tracing paper
Original art available

For this illustration, I was asked to illustrate a vampiric character. With a knife. That's it. Sometimes Magic's descriptions can be very heavy, directing the artist to a very limited set of solutions. This one was the opposite! I dug through the world-building source materials and hinged my concepts on the claustrophobic nature of the place, choosing a crowded, non-descript street scene and imagining our vampire pushing through it to reach the player.

With that in mind I put together the sketch. I think the Art Director was a little surprised at the extra characters since I think they really were just thinking badass-vampire-looking-badass. I was asked to zoom in a bit more on the main character and proceed.

sketch as submitted for review, digital over pencil

sketch as submitted for review, digital over pencil

I felt their proposed crop was fairly minor and that I would just paint the fuller angle anyway and crop for final or let them do so as they pleased. Work continued apace from there through to completion, beginning in acrylic with a tonal block-in then proceeding in oils to finish.

Upon submission however we hit a couple of roadblocks, as the more fleshed-out final and color portrayals were not quite the stylistic notes they were hoping for in this unaligned character. That can happen sometimes, and since Ravnica has so many guilds that Wizards goes to great lengths to keep unique and recognizable--no easy task, and hats off to the Concept Design teams--once those lines are drawn it's important to keep them recognizable at small size. After all, most players get very few non-rule cues to set the narrative tone, so keeping the cues clear is something Wizards puts a lot of thought into.

A little process gif up through first submission.

A little process gif up through first submission.

card.png

I began making changes in paint but since this was going to take a couple of back-and-forths to get right I decided to switch to digital, and so finished up the piece in the end digitally, and then reapplied portions of what I liked to the painting after hand-off. Lastly, there was a decision to crop even further in, as there was late concern that her movement toward the viewer might be interpreted as giving the creature Haste, which it doesn't have (!).

So, in the end, what's on the card ends up looking a bit different from the final painting. But that's how collaboration works: I get my microcosm view of what I'm doing, art-wise, while the Creative team has to balance the hundreds of cards, narrative beats and other artists' styles, to achieve the cohesive vision they intend.

There's a reason people become passionate about what is "just" a card game. It's because the depth of thinking that goes behind every aspect of it is impressive.

White Owl

One recurring theme (of a couple) that I revisit with my work for Every Day Original is that of illustrating music. Music has always been very important to me, since I was a kid in the early 80s, listening to AM stations on a small handheld transistor radio. This led straight into the high school retreat-to-your-bedroom scenario where I spent long hours listening to music after school and drawing or painting instead of doing homework or being social with my peers.

Through college, music was my best friend, keeping me going and inspired through very, very long nights working on my art school homework assignments, and the long drives back and forth to school each day.

After college, I even gave a turn to playing and recording with a band while trying to hold together my illustration career (that didn’t go so great).

While music probably factors less into my life as it did in earlier decades, certainly it is still my favorite form of art outside of painting. So, it’s a medium I enjoy marrying to my visual art from time to time. When choosing to create art born of music, I tend to prefer songs with moods and/or lyrics that are mysterious or dreamlike, that lend themselves to the sort of Imaginative Realism that I prefer in my personal work.

When I ran across the track “White Owl” by Josh Garrels in December, I was immediately struck by it. I came across it one night while working. I had playing in the background the Game Awards webcast, which was at least 50% trailers for upcoming video games. One trailer had the intro music of this song running behind it. Within seconds my ears pricked up and I rushed to grab my phone to identify it via the Shazam app. From there, straight to YouTube to hear the whole track, including the lyrics. I probably listened to it nonstop the rest of the evening, and it dug itself into my subconscious so that when it was time for my EDO calendar date, there was almost nothing else to do but to create art based on it.

White Owl 6x8” acrylic on illustration board Original sold

White Owl
6x8” acrylic on illustration board
Original sold

I began in acrylic paint, as I often do to quickly block in colors before moving to oils, which I tend to prefer for its smoothness and open drying time, allowing me to push the paint around freely. I worked in acrylic almost exclusively until 1998, when I switched to oil or oil over acrylic. From time to time, working on the underpainting, I ask myself how far I can take it—can I take it all the way to finish? Why not? But eventually frustration with the medium forces me to move over.

This time, however, as I had made significant progress on the piece and had some extra time, I stopped and wondered if I couldn’t try using that extra time to continue on, to tighten the piece up in acrylic and actually finish it. I could always switch if it wasn’t working. So I let myself go—something which happens a lot with these EDO experimentations. And in the end, I had my first (I think) finished acrylic painting of this millennium.

In-progress, tiny details

In-progress, tiny details

What was interesting is that in 1998 when I ditched acrylic, I had from high school, through art school, and into my first professional years developed a very particular method of working with the medium, which I relied on. Having now spent over 20 years primarily in oils, I found that I used the acrylic very differently. I probably couldn’t even have painted it using my old methods if I’d tried. In essence, a prior way in which I created art has been lost, even to me. It’s a strange feeling. I mean I guess I could technically try to do things the same way, but they’d feel very foreign now and I’d be very dissatisfied with it as a method of working. I wouldn’t even want to try.

Is that what happens to musicians, too? We all know artists whose early music had a certain quality that, many albums later, is no longer present. Sometimes that annoys me, in that I may not appreciate what they develop into, and I wonder—don’t they have that earlier spirit still in them? Could it be that in the creative life of trying new things, song after song, they lose touch with old methods, old sounds, to the point where years later they almost don’t know how they ended up where they did, either?

Tome of the Guildpact

Typically, an Art Director will ask you to paint things in line with work you’ve shown. Magic: the Gathering however assigns hundreds of illustrations a year, with visuals that define entire worlds. And that means there will be some things that need illustrating, which might be hard to find in artists’ portfolios. Like old books. It’s also possible you are THE Old Book Artist, with a portfolio of paintings of old, tattered tomes. You’ve been sending it out to art directors the world over but they never had an assignment for you, and if they did it might’ve been years after getting your samples so they forgot to call you.

Sorry ‘bout that.

Tome of the Guildpact 9x12” oil over acrylic on illustration board Sold

Tome of the Guildpact
9x12” oil over acrylic on illustration board
Sold

But, as an artist working in the genre of fantastic art, you have to be ready to paint anything. Key to this piece was a really old heirloom book my wife owns, from Ecuador. Its spine is tattered and torn as seen in this painting, and I would not have been able to make that up without seeing it.

There was the desire on the part of Art Director Cynthia Sheppard that the book not be your standard brown leather, which was fine: this eschewing of standard visuals is typical of Magic.

Tome of the Guildpact, preliminary study 6x8” acrylic and pencil on toned paper sold

Tome of the Guildpact, preliminary study
6x8” acrylic and pencil on toned paper
sold

In preparation for the painting, I worked up a more detailed than usual study in acrylic and pencil. Typically I might only render out the main figure(s) or some environmental detail I want to get right before moving to paint. As you can see in comparison to the final, I didn’t bother with the marbling on the counter/table surface at this stage, but otherwise the piece is all there. Were I a digital artist, this would have been sufficient to start and then digitally color.

Me, working on the final painting, possibly at a point where I was not impressed, based on my expression.

Me, working on the final painting, possibly at a point where I was not impressed, based on my expression.

The final is a bit smaller than usual, but scaled large enough to let achieve the details I want, without being larger-than-life, which is always tricky to paint and can be awkward to look at in person. I took it with me to my annual painting retreat in Pennsylvania last winter and painted the bulk of it there, alongside other Magic artists such as Dave and Anthony Palumbo, Winona Nelson, and Allen Wiliams (pictured behind me). I began it in acrylic and quite a lot of what shows in the final is acrylic. When I returned home, I switched to oils and rendered out the hand and other details, softening areas and doing more of what is difficult to achieve in acrylic.

Thankfully, this one was printed on a decently playable card, and as such is attracted more attention than usual resulting in the painting and sketch making their way into collections in record time.

Last Art of 2018: Thistle

2018 was busy, of the sort where you wonder in prior years if things can get more busy, and then they do. But this was largely a good thing. I somehow managed to spend more time out of the studio, attending and selling at events, even going on vacation for my 20th wedding anniversary, and yet I upped my painting output. And looking back, I’m a little astounded that I managed it.

When you buy canvas on large rolls, one edge often is unfinished, this is a piece that came off that side of the roll.

When you buy canvas on large rolls, one edge often is unfinished, this is a piece that came off that side of the roll.

Uncharacteristically, I came back in at the end to work out more of the background gradation.

Uncharacteristically, I came back in at the end to work out more of the background gradation.

After a particularly hectic November and December, during which I ran late (with permission) on a client commission (something I rarely have to do), I had one last painting to do. I had hoped to take a solid week off at the end of the year, but it was not really to be.

Aforementioned wife hoped I could squeeze in a commission for her by way of Christmas present. Since I am horrible at gift-giving, this was in a sense a welcome request. So I ate into my vacation to do a still life of thistles, which she particularly wanted. But since she is my wife, who I love and all that, it was worth doing.

And so, due to aforementioned hectic autumn, my Christmas gift was a couple of days late. Wife was completely understanding, part of why she’s great. It also rounded out my year as the last thing finished on the easel.

I’m itching to get going on 2019, as it’ll be busy in the kind of way where I wondered in 2018 if things can get more busy, and then they are about to. I hope your year was good, and I also hope 2019 surpasses it. Life is good.

Thistle 10.25” x 6.25” oil on canvas Not for sale

Thistle
10.25” x 6.25” oil on canvas
Not for sale