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!

Inspiring Cleric

My second piece for the Ixalan release of Magic: the Gathering is this rather simple image, yet there were a couple of ways for me to make it less-than-simple.

"Inspiring Cleric" 18x24" oil over acrylic on panel Original sold

"Inspiring Cleric"
18x24" oil over acrylic on panel
Original sold

For starters, as mentioned in my breakdown for Ixalan Merfolk, I usually do the heavy decision-making on which image to present to the Magic Art Director myself, giving them just a single option to thumbs-up or down. For other types of clients, multiple sketches might be required or preferable but with Magic, the overwhelming majority of the time, one is sufficient. If anything I might get a little bit of, "Make sure you focus on this bit," or, "Adjust the [thing] a bit like so, but go ahead." It's pretty rare that I'm sent back to the drawing board entirely. But sometimes, there might be cause to submit more than one image for the Art Director to choose.

The first reason is because I simply can't decide which one to choose, so rather than make that awful choice, I'll leave it up to the Art Director. The other is that while I may prefer one very slightly over another, the other has an aspect that the first doesn't which might be more important as a card or composition.

In this case, it was more the latter. The assignment was fairly simple: show one of the Conquistador-inspired Vampires presenting a sword wrapped with some fabric containing some of the pre-designed and gothic-inspired text used by their culture. The environment in this case was to be the interior of one of their galleons, though that wouldn't necessarily be obvious in a small format. However, it gave me enough to go on, and the darker interiors would play nicely with the pale fabric and skin.

"Inspiring Cleric' preliminary study 8x10" pencil and acrylic on paper Original sold

"Inspiring Cleric' preliminary study
8x10" pencil and acrylic on paper
Original sold

Both studies, as submitted to Art Director Dawn Murin. Digital over pencil/acrylic

Both studies, as submitted to Art Director Dawn Murin.
Digital over pencil/acrylic

Compositions like this tend to be a bit more limited in that with the pose being specified, there are reduced opportunities for what to do or show. I liked this sort of at-angle version best from my thumbnails, and worked up the study of it. However I thought the presentation-of-the-weapon aspect was not necessarily as obvious as the version that had the character presenting the viewer with the sword; additionally, by making the figure more straight-on, it was more clear that she was holding a sword. Straight forward and side portrayals tend to emphasize shapes and objects much more than at-angle views.

So, I worked up a second study and submitted them both. I wasn't going to be surprised either way, but they went with the first study, and I was off to the races.

Choosing a size for a painting is a struggle on its own. If you take a figure, say, and enlarge it many times by intervals, you start to get a sense that some of the sizes are good for painting at, and others are bad. And as the figure grows, it's strange, you'll find it's good at a number of growing sizes, then it may hit a streak of enlargements that would be less-than-ideal, and then it suddenly gets to good enlargements again. I think a lot of traditional painters would agree with this, though for any given composition we might differ on where those lines are for each of us. But in this case, I chose an 18x24" panel, for only the second time.

I mentioned back in the run down for Vizier of Remedies that my newest entries in Magic illustration were being done a bit differently. Only taking an occasional commission now, I am more intent on just enjoying them as paintings; this means that I can choose larger sizes more often, which I might've chosen before but which were painted smaller than I really wanted sometimes just because I had more commissions to get done.

Ixalan Merfolk

In Magic: the Gathering, token cards are interesting--they are cheap and the opposite of a power card. But unlike a run-of-the-mill common card that may just never see play, since these are proxies for things that happen fairly commonly in-game, they end up seeing a decent amount of use when that token is usable in the current tournament cycle.

So, Merfolk. Along with their Lorwyn set counterparts, these merfolk designs feature heads with fins. The assignment called for a particular kind of merfolk standing astride a river, weapon at the ready, in a sort of guardian pose. Simple enough, and since the card design features larger-than-usual art to be printed, it also allowed me a little more room to add in more detail that might be unwise in an illustration reproduced at a still smaller size.

Using a card border ghosted in Photoshop and printed on sketch paper repeatedly, I did my thumbnails at actual reproduction size. Here are a few:

Pencil and white acrylic on toned paper

Pencil and white acrylic on toned paper

You can see a few that I starred in the upper right. These were among the ones I had to agonize over before picking one for final. The one directly under the one chosen was a very strong contender as well, and a year later I'm not sure why it wasn't chosen. I quite liked the lower-right one too, but the kneeling pose was too reminiscent of an older piece of mine, Sway of the Stars and so I think that was why I decided against it.

From there, a study was done using a combination of acrylic, ink and pencil. I've been utilizing this combo of materials quite a lot with some of my work for Every Day Original, and it's started leaking back into my other work.

8x10" pencil, acrylic and ink on toned paper Sold

8x10" pencil, acrylic and ink on toned paper

From there, a bit of digital additions provided my submission to the art director Dawn Murin, which was accepted outright:


That rounded border is unusual and not a shape I was actually going to paint on, so it was important that I design with it in mind the entire time, of course that also means that the rectangle features extra art not seen on the card! Approval in hand, I enlarged my drawing to 16x20", transferred it to my panel and got to work, starting with a quick acrylic block-in:

Acrylic block-in, AKA "The Ugly Phase"

Acrylic block-in, AKA "The Ugly Phase"

Background in progress in oils

Background in progress in oils

When working on the figure, I've generally adopted the philosophy of nail the face before moving on, so after pushing it around for a bit and feeling satisfied, I was off to the finish.

When working on the figure, I've generally adopted the philosophy of nail the face before moving on, so after pushing it around for a bit and feeling satisfied, I was off to the finish.

This painting didn't present many problems at all, and was a joy to paint, frankly. That's rarely the case, so it's memorable. Most pieces, I can talk about road blocks that were hit and needed to be worked through or solved. The resultant piece therefore came out like this:

"Ixalan Merfolk" 16x20" oil over acrylic on panel Sold

"Ixalan Merfolk" 16x20" oil over acrylic on panel

The merfolk design includes these fins that come off various parts of the anatomy, including one that kind of projects outward from the elbow. On the left you can see it clearly. In the sketch, I kinda had it tucked behind the arm, in the direction it would've gone, but I decided that at card size that would confuse the shape of the arm, so made the assumption that it was running behind the upper arm, but out of view, to keep things clear. After some discussion with the Art Director I went in digitally and added it as another silhouette shape (you can see the final on my Illustration portfolio page), I also did a couple other small digital tweaks by request, but above is how the painting was completed.

The Dragon's Descent

Working on Laurice Molinari's series The Ether was a lot of fun, coming as it did at the beginning of the year over the course of three years. The series varied a bit in its execution each year. Where the first book had me reading a completed manuscript and concepting the illustration, the second and third book had to be painted before the final manuscript was in, in both cases. That meant getting a brief for the type of scene or image they wanted to see, which is a lot more challenging.

For the third book, we had the title and I was given the task of showing Vero armored up and ready to do battle. That's about it.

My initial sketches included a couple of concepts that I really pushed for, that were a bit more symbolic than literal, in that since we didn't have any text to go on, I intended to portray Vero armored, but with the enemy clearly indicated as wanting to destroy him. There were also a couple of others that featured the dragon in one manner or other.

A few of my unused concepts, digital over pencil

It took an awful lot of back-and-forthing on this piece for some reason, despite having numerous solutions that worked well. In the end we settled on one and I got to work.

I think by the time I got the go-ahead on the final, the actual deadline had passed. Not my fault! My sketches were in on time but there were very long stretches waiting on approvals, tweaks, new concepts, approvals. When it came time to go it was basically a matter of needing it yesterday. I got to work, beginning with an acrylic underpainting and then switching to oils.

I probably will never get to reading the other two books in the series, unfortunately, but I hope the direction I got does the stories justice. It is a shame I wasn't able to read the stories, as interpretation is a large part of what an illustrator can bring to the table. It's not that Art Directors and Editors have bad ideas necessarily (though sometimes, they really do), it's just that I think you tend to get the best from an illustrator when they are able to bring their whole creative selves to a project.

In any case, this series is wrapped up as far as I know, and it was good fun. The paintings, too, have been well received and all three covers sold fairly quickly.

"The Dragon's Descent" 12x16" oil over acrylic on heavy watercolor paper

"The Dragon's Descent" 12x16" oil over acrylic on heavy watercolor paper