art talk

Guildpact Informant

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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.

Petaluma Evening

Petaluma is a small city in Northern California. As you cross the Golden Gate Bridge out of San Francisco, and pass through Marin County, Petaluma is the gateway to Sonoma County on Highway 101 there. You'll know it because while Marin County is pretty nice, you suddenly enter this area of nearly endless rolling hills and oaks.

Petaluma Evening 24x30" oil on panel Original art available

Petaluma Evening
24x30" oil on panel
Original art available

Sometimes, as in this painting, there is essentially no pre-drawing, I just paint as I go.

Sometimes, as in this painting, there is essentially no pre-drawing, I just paint as I go.

I mentioned last time that I was going to branch out from vineyard related paintings for a bit, and part of that is from wanting to explore this area more. I just said that Petaluma is endless rolling hills, but this painting only indicates two such, and focuses on trees; well, actually it focuses on light.

On the same trip where I took reference for this painting, I also took reference for the right side of "Turning Point." I saw enough gorgeous stuff in one afternoon walking around to inspire a dozen paintings. Now it's just a matter of finding them time to paint them!

Outside of my illustration work and Hearts for Hardware, a lot of my other work doesn't really utilize pre-drawing these days anymore. That's quite a change from my earlier days. I just go straight to paint. Sometimes that means "drawing" with the paint, other times it just means massing in the forms and defining as I go, as with my still life paintings.

The smooth transition of evening sky was much simpler to just paint as a mass of sky and then paint trees over it, rather than try to maintain the color gradations in all the little holes in and around the branches and edges of the tree shapes.

The smooth transition of evening sky was much simpler to just paint as a mass of sky and then paint trees over it, rather than try to maintain the color gradations in all the little holes in and around the branches and edges of the tree shapes.

Turning Point

"The chief beauty about time is that you cannot waste it in advance. The next year, the next day, the next hour are lying ready for you, as perfect, as unspoiled, as if you had never wasted or misapplied a single moment in all your life. You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose." -Arnold Bennett
"Turning Point" 24x36" oil over acrylic on panel Original art available

"Turning Point"
24x36" oil over acrylic on panel
Original art available

August of 2017 I was invited by the Wilshires, whom you may know from their spearheading IX Arts, to participate in a group show at Haven Gallery on Long Island, on the subject of Time. That's it. There was very little guidance beyond that. I was excited to be a part of the show, especially because time is a concept I spend a lot of time thinking about in various ways, and always have.

Over the next month or so I cast about for ideas, things I might want to express relating to the theme. I did have in mind that clocks and memento mori were probably not going to figure into whatever I did. I assumed other artists would have interesting things to say with those visuals, and so I decided to find my solution elsewhere. But it was proving a little difficult.

Time changed that.

Detail

Detail

October 9, 2017 I awoke and shambled to the kitchen to begin preparing coffee, as usual. My wife had spent the night in Santa Rosa with her mother. As I approached the kitchen I heard my phone ringing in the drawer where I kept it. I answered my wife's call and still half-asleep tried to process the rambling, disjointed and somewhat panicked and frustrated nature of what she was telling me. Fires. That they evacuated at 2AM. That she'd been trying to call me all night but couldn't head north to get me because the freeway was closed due to fires (her mother doesn't live anywhere near the freeway). That there were over a dozen different fires. Various buildings reported destroyed (in geographically distant parts of the region). I was trying to process the rapid-fire information she was relaying to me and finally managed to lift my sleepy gaze out the kitchen window for the first time.

My studio, as I left it after ransacking most of my art to leave with.

My studio, as I left it after ransacking most of my art to leave with.

When I did, the hillside outside our window had giant plumes of smoke billowing off of it. And this was a good half hour from where she had been overnight.

The Santa Rosa fires--the most destructive in CA history and the most expensive in US history--occupied my life that week as I evacuated my own home, and as I discovered through that morning and the days that followed that multiple friends had lost their homes as I slept.

Upon returning home, thankful that I had one, I began to hear their stories, including my model's here, who lost the home she was living in and a pet rabbit along with all her possessions as she fled. Over the next few weeks I began to understand that in very significant ways this fire was a definitive Turning Point in these friends' lives, and would be one for me as well, even if for different reasons, having escaped loss myself.

Thumbnail sketch, 4x2.5" pencil and acrylic

Thumbnail sketch, 4x2.5" pencil and acrylic

Ruminating on all that, I began to put together my image. 

I began to think a lot about Turning Points in general after that. About how people decide (or don't decide) to look beyond the wreckage of the past--literal or metaphorical--towards something else, something better. Away from the fallout of bad decisions, injustices, hurts or betrayals, tragedies.

The unbelievable nature of what was damaged or lost is often something we spend a lot of time oriented towards, looking at it, trying to understand and mourning continually. Sometimes Turning Points are forced upon us that sever us from a past that should have been left behind long ago. All of these topics factored into creating my painting. Can we turn away from sorrow and toward something brighter? Can the future be beautiful when all we can see is destruction?

Emphatically, I think the answer is yes.

Detail

Detail