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

Glossai Pyros

For the fifth year running, I attended a fall painting retreat last year. It continues to be an amazing highlight of each year. You'd think I would get blasé about it, but it's still a pinch-me sort of experience.

Hard at work. Lauren will kill me for this photo, but it was the only good one of me working

Hard at work. Lauren will kill me for this photo, but it was the only good one of me working

All but one year, I've worked on a studio piece, not a client illustration. As if fate was shaking its finger at me for the one year I brought a client commission to work on, it turns out that that particular painting got stuck in development limbo and has still not seen the light of day, despite being done 3 years ago!

This year, I was hugely busy leading up to the retreat. I spent a few months on a big, frustrating project that in the end went nowhere. The retreat landed right towards the end of it, but I certainly didn't want to spend my retreat working on it. I had an idea, but the time was approaching and I had not so much as a thumbnail, though I did have an idea in my head. I was getting worried that I would show up unprepared.

The weekend before leaving, I contacted a couple of models hoping to book a last-minute reference shoot I could take with me. I also reached out to a young lady I'd met a month before. I had asked if she'd be willing to model down the road, thankfully, and she was. She was the only one to respond with such short notice. As she lived out in the area I'd be in, we arranged for her to come down on Monday, while at the retreat. Whew.

The first day of the retreat is not always that productive. I brought a small side thing to work on a bit, but there are only a few hours after setup to work until dinner happens. Being everyone's first day in, we're all eager to catch up with one another. Afterwards, my model showed up and with the help of Lauren Panepinto--book designer extraordinaire--we set about shooting reference. Poor Lauren, she spends a lot of time attending photoshoots with illustrators, and here she was having to do it again on her "off" time. Well, it was a working retreat.

End of day 1 underpainting

End of day 1 underpainting

Prior to the trip, I ordered some string LED lights, and did a couple of self-tests to see if they would work. They don't let out a lot of light, being like very thin glow sticks. A tripod and time exposure and a dark room were necessary. With Lauren's help, I wrapped the LED lighting around the model, she'd hold it in place, and I'd go set the camera, shoot, review and reshoot as needed. We tried a lot of variations and got a few fantastic shots. I was thrilled by the results, and that evening got to work.

As with "A Fractured Mind" the year before, I set to work with no prior drawing. I had a board pre-primed and toned with a mixture of acrylic Raw Sienna mixed with a bit of gesso (if I recall correctly). From there I went straight into oils, drawing out the scene in oils directly on the board. As I've been happy with all my recent attempts to work like this, directly on the panel, I hope I can find more opportunities to do so in the future.

The next morning, I had an under painting in Mars Violet with a bit of Alizarin Crimson in it. I thought I knew what I was going for, but just in case I grabbed a small scrap of primed paper and did a tiny little color study. I don't do these often in this way, but it became a very simple and undetailed map of where I was headed.

Color study, 2.25x1.5" Oil on paper   The notes indicate that the background would be painted in a mixture of Raw Sienna, Alizarin Crimson, Burnt Sienna, (Gamblin) Chromatic Black, and a touch of White

Color study, 2.25x1.5" Oil on paper
The notes indicate that the background would be painted in a mixture of Raw Sienna, Alizarin Crimson, Burnt Sienna, (Gamblin) Chromatic Black, and a touch of White

A few people came over that day and made especially positive comments about this little scribble. I thought it was rather funny, I mean they're all accomplished painters and artists in their own right, so compliments can be hard to come by sometimes. This often happens with very, very loose sketches. Perhaps it's that the viewer can at this stage import into the image all the ways in which they can see it turning out more awesome than the artist will actually make it. I mean, the artist rarely hits his own vision, too.

But objectively, there's nothing really there. Ah well, I'll take a compliment where I can get one.

That said, as the piece went on during the week, the feedback was generally positive, which I appreciated. The vibe is always so fun and positive with these fine folks that it really would make a pretty wonderful day-in-day-out work environment, and this from someone who can go all week without saying a word to anyone, if left alone, and be just fine (arguably).

Sometime on day two, background blocked in

Sometime on day two, background blocked in

This year, the retreat moved from where it's been held for about ten years to a new venue in rural Pennsylvania, which was gorgeous, and the shared work room had large windows with a beautiful view. As I arrived first, along with Scott Brundage (who has suffered driving me to and from every year), I snagged this prime spot. Maybe an hour or two at sundown the sun would beam straight into my eyeholes, and we had to lower the blinds a bit, but really, it made for a wonderful week to have this out behind my easel.

From there it was just about executing. It was an exhilarating painting that came together last second, with the help of a great model and friend, and painted among inspiring artists, with their feedback. I got about 80% of the way through by the week's end and polished up the rest here and there after.

Vero Rising

"Vero Rising" 12x16" Oil and acrylic on watercolor paper sold

"Vero Rising" 12x16" Oil and acrylic on watercolor paper

The eagle-eyed will have noticed that today's image has been on my main homepage portfolio for months now. Though it was revealed by the publisher many months ago, the book whose cover it is only released recently, therefore I figured it best not to talk too much about the context of it without you having access to it, if you wanted. Usually an image goes up on my site and blog all at once.

It is often the case these days that book publishers will approach an illustrator with a brief that spells out pretty much what they want to see. There are reasons why they do this, and sometimes those reasons are inflexible. But I have always believed that the more you allow an artist to bring their creative skills to the table, the better. We are trained to deal with specific concepts or scenes we're given, but we enjoy and even thrive on interpretation. We just don't get to do it as often, these days.

So it was with this cover. I was given two scenes from the book by Laurice Molinari that they wanted to see sketches for, and I was given the text from the books that described these scenes. That's helpful on its own--sometimes you just get the description from the publisher. I read through them and immediately thought it might be tricky--the scenes were pretty specific, and one did not lend itself well to great image-making because of the odd camera decisions required to do it.

(Above:) Alternate concepts, digital

I asked the publisher if I could read the whole manuscript, and thankfully I was able. So I sat and read the book and a number of concepts bubbled up, including gaining more context for the scenes they wanted to see. I did intend to produce sketches of their desired scenes, but I added in some other concepts that I thought were both more surprising or interesting, and/or summed up the book better than a discrete scene in what is in many ways an adventure story that has many discrete scenes. I began putting together the sketches.

Shortly before submitting them, I attended an opening at the Society of Illustrators for their annual competition. There is always a wide range of illustration shown, and it is always inspiring and challenging, while also a little frustrating, to see. But it always shakes up my head a little. Towards the end of the evening, as I was reflecting on the show, the image that would become the cover appeared to me essentially complete. It was also a precise scene in the story, but one that I believed summed up the whole much better. I created it and added it in and submitted them.

In-progress. I overpainted the gold tone and patterning over fleshtones that were rendered in environment lighting

In-progress. I overpainted the gold tone and patterning over fleshtones that were rendered in environment lighting

After much back-and-forth it was finally decided to make this last sketch the cover, which I was relieved to hear. From there it was off to the races. Incidentally, one of the other sketches/scenes I quite liked: the snow-angel one, apparently attracted the marketing people. I don't know that they referenced my image or were inspired by it, but they ended up using that same scene as part of their video marketing campaign, filming it with a young actor. Had I known that was going to happen, I would have recommended the model I used for my illustration! He actually has spent a number of years now performing in community theater, and looks more like my Vero, too!