Magic the Gathering

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 available

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

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 might 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.

Guildpact Informant

guildpact-informant.png

War of the Spark serves as a kind of culmination of a few years of Magic: the Gathering storyline. To be honest, I couldn’t recount most of the story to you: it’s long and involved and I tend to focus on those aspects I’m asked to illustrate; sorry, I’m not super keyed into the constantly evolving world. One thing that is a feature of this sort of climax is an all-in number of Planeswalkers (sort of legendary main characters, for the uninitiated—think recent Avengers films). Apart from them basically all appearing in this set on their own cards, they appear in many other incidental cards. So it is that I was asked to paint the character Jace in one of these incidental cards. The card appears exclusively in the Jace Planeswalker Deck, not in the randomly packed booster packs.

Guildpact Informant 11x14” oil over acrylic on panel

Guildpact Informant
11x14” oil over acrylic on panel

On the one hand I was happy to get an opportunity to portray one of these characters, on the other the card is not about Jace in particular, but on this rather common faerie instead. So it’s an unusual dichotomy between the special and the common.

Guildpact Informant, study 6.25” x 8.5” acrylic and pencil on toned paper

Guildpact Informant, study
6.25” x 8.5” acrylic and pencil on toned paper

In progress, the acrylic underpainting right before beginning to switch to oils.

In progress, the acrylic underpainting right before beginning to switch to oils.

The story of this set also features a day to evening theme, with certain story aspects appearing earlier in the “day” and others, later. In my case, this was supposed to be a “morning” illustration. Bright crisp sunlight without the evening golden tones, is the way I think of it.

In this case, Art Director Dawn Murin and I worked on focusing the piece more on the faerie who is the creature the card depicts. We discussed that the art should crop in more on the faerie, and so Jace should crop out, otherwise he’d take over the image. And this was the correct way to proceed. Since I had already drawn out the fuller composition, I just told her that I’d be painting the fuller art anyway, and then they could crop in for their needs. A win/win.

As mentioned in past entries, I generally only ask for one or at most two illustrations these days when asked to join in on a Magic set. So, this is it for now! At the moment, I am commemorating 25 years since my first illustration work with Wizards of the Coast. It’s been a long road, but it’s a genuine thrill and rather amazing to be showing you new work from my first client, so many years on still.

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 Sold

Pencil sketch, ~6x8" pencil on tracing paper
Sold

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.

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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.

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.