Resilience

I love big gnarly trees. One unfortunate aspect of liking gnarly trees as a painter is that you then might feel compelled to paint them. Painting gnarly trees is a lot of work. Absent most or all leaves, trees are maddeningly complex, but it’s precisely this complexity that makes them interesting.

“Resilience” 24x30 oil on panel Original art sold

“Resilience” 24x30 oil on panel
Original art sold

Sonoma and Marin county up here in Northern California are home to many great gnarly trees, many but not all various kinds of oaks. Added to the rolling hills, there is lots to paint if I want to paint lots of gnarly trees. But if I do, I will probably age prematurely. As with my earlier landscape entries of vineyards, I enjoy spending a little time on various aspects of the local landscape, then moving on to another, and probably coming back around again in time.

This tree in particular just looks impossible, with that trunk and an overall sweep that looks like it spent its entire life buffeted by strong winds. Nevertheless, there it is, large and amazing. To be honest I’m not sure if it’s actually still alive; I would need to revisit it later in the year to see if it ever put out leaf. There did seem to be a few stubborn past leaves clinging to it which makes me think it had recently been in leaf but perhaps was late to bloom again. But even if it isn’t coming back, that it’s still standing there defiantly was pretty inspiring. So I titled the painting, “Resilience” just since it was such a great visual metaphor for so much about life.

“Resilience” was accepted into the 28th Annual National Juried Exhibition of Traditional Oils, and will be exhibited for the Oil Painters of America at Illume Gallery of Fine Art in Saint George UT this Spring.

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.

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?