Art Talk

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.

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?

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

Back to Magic, Vizier of Remedies

Spoiler alert: This post is mostly about my work on Magic: the Gathering in general, but I've peppered it with process shots of Vizier of Remedies, my latest illustration for it.

"Vizier of Remedies" 14x18" oil on panel Original sold

"Vizier of Remedies"
14x18" oil on panel
Original sold

Magic: the Gathering has been a part of my entire career, from my very first year as a freelancer, before I was old enough to drink alcohol. That relationship is one I didn't see coming, but has shaped everything I've done since. It has been a fairly casual relationship, and there have been years I didn't participate in the game. The longest stint was these past three years.

Digital study over pencil/pastel drawing. I submitted this to AD Dawn Murin for approval. Approved, with change requested to hair: she should have a styleguide-approved updo. Check!

Digital study over pencil/pastel drawing. I submitted this to AD Dawn Murin for approval. Approved, with change requested to hair: she should have a styleguide-approved updo. Check!

I have worked with I think every Art Director that has held the seat. Considering that each AD has their specific vision for the art of the game, I'm pretty proud of that. Certainly I worked with some ADs more than others. This is doubly amazing for me because I am not one to really make an effort to send ADs emails when I am not working with them. I send each AD an introduction letter eventually, but that's about it, so if I fall out of sight and out of mind, well then I don't really get asked. There could be a longer blog post on that topic, but it is enough to bring us to the present.

When I turned in my last illustration, Treasonous Ogre, three years prior, I went about my business as usual after. When a set or two passed me by, that was not unusual--I was engaged in my large painting Alieis by then. If you don't know the story, it is the painting that led indirectly to where I am now: my still life series started while working on it, and my Hearts for Hardware art would not have started without first painting squash and tomatoes; and by expanding in those directions and enjoying them, I then expanded again into incorporating more landscape art into my mix, which had just been an occasional side thing up to that point. With an extended hiatus from Magic, I had time in my calendar to engage these other projects, which have become mainstays of my work these days.

After transferring the drawing to my board, I applied a brown wash of color, then began with the final rendering, working mostly background-to-foreground

After transferring the drawing to my board, I applied a brown wash of color, then began with the final rendering, working mostly background-to-foreground

Art Directors changed during that time, with Cynthia Sheppard and Dawn Murin stepping in where Jeremy Jarvis was the commissioning AD last time I worked with them. And clearly I was out of sight, out of mind for both of them. So a year ago I figured I'd drop Cynthia that email saying that I was still interested in working on Magic if that was in line with her vision for the game.

There was one caveat this time, however: I suggested that as much as I was still interested in working on Magic, I was only interested in doing like one painting per wave of commissions, and that I understood that the headache in dealing with a totally separate artist for just one card when there are hundreds to assign might mean it was not worth it, and I was cool with that. Surprisingly, they were cool with that, too. So I've done a piece here or there for them in the past year, and "Vizier of Remedies" is the first to release.

There are two reasons for this limitation: first, it is very tempting to want to take as much work as can be offered because money. But an illustrator has to be aware of their limitations, since this can quickly backfire on them, where they accept more work than they can handle at the expected level of quality. My own work has occasionally suffered on this count over the years, and I realize this sometimes short-changed my client and sabotaged my own career.

Some folks liked the hands on this piece, so here is a close-up of that.

Some folks liked the hands on this piece, so here is a close-up of that.

You'll note the background is a bit glowy-er than the painting. I added a bit more extreme light digitally at the end to improve how the shapes read at card size.

You'll note the background is a bit glowy-er than the painting. I added a bit more extreme light digitally at the end to improve how the shapes read at card size.

The second reason was mentioned earlier: I do a lot more things now, and I really like those things. And now that I've added Magic back to the mix in this limited way, I have another thing I like now back in the mix. It has been the busiest period of my entire career, but creatively the most exciting few years. I don't want any one thing to dominate my work right now. I want to have like 6 cakes and eat them too.

So, for at least the next year you'll see new Magic art from me, and I'm quite happy with all of it. Beyond that? Well, that's ultimately out of my control, but I've always tried to enjoy the ride while it's lasted.