25 Years On: Spring 1994

25 years ago, I started this journey as a professional artist.

Working on my first commission for “Vampire: the Eternal Struggle” (then known as “Jyhad”). The illustration for “Cloak the Gathering” was complete and is pictured. I am working here on a piece that never saw release.

Working on my first commission for “Vampire: the Eternal Struggle” (then known as “Jyhad”). The illustration for “Cloak the Gathering” was complete and is pictured. I am working here on a piece that never saw release.

One of my final projects, 36x27” acrylic on watercolor board, 1994

One of my final projects, 36x27” acrylic on watercolor board, 1994

I was just finishing up my last semester at the California College of the Arts in Oakland CA. I had studied there since Fall 1991 and, knowing I was not going to finish my degree, was finishing up the coursework I intended to get out of my experience there. My plans were that I would finish my Spring semester, take the summer “off,” painting for myself and working on some new portfolio pieces, then I’d start pursuing work in the Fall.

Late March or early April, my friend called to tell me Magic’s Art Director Jesper Myfors (also an early artist) would be doing a card signing in San Francisco at a game shop. I knew about then-new Magic but hadn’t played yet. But I knew it was growing quickly in popularity. Still being in the middle of coursework, I didn’t have anything like a portfolio, but I gathered up a number of paintings and took them there (possibly also slides and a loupe lens…it was 1994). After his signing, he stopped to look them over and chat and he offered me a gig on their next game, Vampire: the Eternal Struggle (then, “Jyhad”), having missed the schedule to start me on Magic’s “The Dark”.

“Wake With Evening’s Freshness”, 1994 7x8” acrylic on illustration board For Vampire: the Eternal Struggle (formerly Jyhad)  Original art available

“Wake With Evening’s Freshness”, 1994
7x8” acrylic on illustration board
For Vampire: the Eternal Struggle (formerly Jyhad)
Original art available

At the age of 19, still in school, I had received my first professional commission!

The world of White Wolf’s Vampire (on which the game was based) was not my mother tongue of fantasy and sci-fi. So that first job was rough for me, but I learned a ton. The main mistake I made was in not understanding how to work on it while also working on final projects for my classes. I was working around-the-clock that last couple of months, but it was also on the high of working on the project and finishing up with school. Along with the illustrations that were printed, were 3 others that were canned along the way for various production reasons.

16x20” oil on canvas, 1994  Original available

16x20” oil on canvas, 1994
Original available

Finishing my final projects around the same time that the illustrations were due, I celebrated in part with my first trip to Yosemite. That summer, I did two paintings based on reference I shot there, including this Squirrel painting featured here. These were personal pieces, and the Squirrel went 23 years unpublished until I started producing my own tokens for use in Magic—lo and behold there was a Squirrel token, and this piece finally saw the light of day then.

While I worked part-time doing 3d modeling for an independent software developer, I was able to continue with my plan of taking the Summer “off” working on mostly landscape paintings, thinking that my time for painting stuff like that might be coming to an end soon, before dedicating my time to genre illustration starting in the fall. It was an exhilarating start to my career. The world was very different then and everything was still ahead of me, unknown. I could hardly guess how great it would be.

For a limited time, some of this period’s original art is available for purchase.

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

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.