Art Workshop: Spelljacked!

A formal art critique of the picture on Spelljack. Know what negative space is? Well, you will after this is done!

I care about the artwork of Magic. In fact, if it were not for the art, I might not be involved with the game at all as a hobby. For me, the art evokes my imagination and helps create the fantastic world that makes the game enjoyable.

As such, I am a discerning customer of the artwork of Magic. Are you?

Do you have a favorite artist? Do you have a favorite card that you value more for its artwork than its utility in the game? Do you compare the various versions of reprints, and quietly celebrate when the new version is an improvement – or conversely, do you gag when the new one falls short?

When you make judgments such as these, you are acting on your personal preferences and dislikes. That is all well and good; however, one thing that distinguishes the discerning customer is the ability to objectively evaluate the quality of an illustration based on the aesthetic rules of art. The reason it may be important to be artistically discerning is that every time we purchase a box, pack, or single, we are really buying small pieces of art. I think it always helps to be an informed consumer. In many other ways we have become informed consumers of Magic cards and related products. Just look at the endless debates about the balance between colors, the copious set reviews, the discussion of potentially broken cards or mechanics, and what should be the fate of the dual lands.

On those subjects mentioned, and on many others, we are well-informed consumers. Along those lines, if we can evaluate a card’s merit based merely on the written words that describe it from a spoiler (like spell type, power and toughness, casting cost, and the card text itself), then why not develop the critical skills to evaluate the quality of the artwork – which is itself an important part of the product we are buying and using?

The current expansion at the time I started to play Magic was Urza’s Saga…. And while I thought the art was good on average even then, I believe it has been continually improving ever since. As a discerning customer, though, I would like the art of Magic to strive for even greater heights of excellence. Of course the artists themselves, as well as the art director for Wizards, have the most important roles in the continual improvement of Magic art. However, I think we as consumers can play a role. The thing we can do is participate in a dialog about what we like and dislike about the Magic art that we consume. Even if we don’t evaluate the art academically, it will be helpful just to talk about our preferences regarding the artistic product.

To get an idea of how to become more discerning regarding artistic quality, let’s look at an example. I’ll show you how I evaluate a piece of Magic artwork, based on my knowledge of the aesthetic rules of art. Because of the imminent release of Judgment, and since Wizards has posted an excellent image of the card Spelljack, I’ll use it as the subject of my critique. To view the complete artistic story behind Spelljack, including the original description given to the artist, rough draft drawing, final art, and the actual card image, follow this link to Sketches of Spelljack from the Judgment Expansion.

For your convenience while reading this critique, the final artwork is shown below. You may want to ‘right-click & print’ on the image in order to have it handy, thus avoiding the need to scroll up and down, or swap between this site and Wizards in order to follow along.

My first impression of this new card was very favorable: It is an excellent piece of Magic art. If not for one important error, I would have given it an ‘A plus’ as a grade – but thanks to that error, which I will discuss towards the end of the critique, I can only give it an ‘A minus’ grade. Still, not bad; when was the last time you were disappointed with an ‘A minus’ for a grade?

The primary strength of this painting is the quality of its composition. By this, I mean how the elements are arranged within the framework of the canvas. The trunk of the tree provides an excellent foundation for the piece, which in turn anchors the character. The tree also imparts a sense of strength, and believably holds the weight of the character. Finally, by being rendered in dark brown, the bark of the tree provides an appealing visual contrast to the lighter colored sky in the background. One minor aspect of the composition is distracting – and that is the choice to rotate the horizontal reference by about fifteen degrees. This is apparent in the way that the clouds are angled away from horizontal.

It is obvious that this was the artist’s choice, and not a production decision to rotate the piece; we know this because we have the artist’s name, which appears at the same angle. There is nothing to explain why we as viewers would see this scene on such an angle – perhaps it was chosen to be a unique viewpoint, or to add drama…. But personally, I would have preferred that the clouds be rendered horizontally.

Another nice part of the composition is the way the elements point to, and converge on, some unseen thing outside the frame. Notice the way the outstretched arm, as well as the tree limb both point towards the mysterious source of the green magic. This technique gives movement to the painting, and engages the viewer to wonder what is out there. Often much is accomplished in art by what is not actually rendered. So this approach gives right to left movement to the piece, and increases the drama.

I suspect that the desire to control the direction of movement was the reason the art director flipped the art about the vertical; remember from the description that Spelljack is catching a spell, rather than delivering one. The action of catching is better conveyed after the flip, where the final direction of movement is left to right on the printed card. I believe left to right better depicts the ‘catching’ of the spell, because that is the natural way that we read printed words on a page. This successful modification demonstrates how the art director can actually improve the overall effect of a card, and make it more consistent with the intended flavor. Note, however, that the power to improve a piece also comes with the risk that the art director can diminish a piece upon final printing. Without even researching other occurrences, I can recall at least two instances of poor cropping by the art director that turned a fine painting into a mediocre illustration on a Magic card.

Before leaving the subject of composition, notice the excellent definition of positive and negative space. Positive space is any part of the scene that is occupied by an object, such as the character, and the tree. Negative space is the surrounding empty space. The reason this is such a good example of space definition is because of the very interesting shapes that have been purposefully created. Notice the negative space formed by the underside of the outstretched arm and the outline of the bent leg. For that matter, look at the entirety of the space that extends under the hand, and is bounded on the bottom, by the top of the tree limb. That is a beautiful negative space – and it was expertly crafted! The crowning feat, though, is the way this space is used to funnel the green spell towards the spellbook. Outstanding!

Consider, on the other hand if the tree was perfectly straight, and the sleeve overlapped the leg and had thereby obscured the negative space. The effectiveness of this piece would have been drastically diminished. If you like this drawing, without knowing exactly why, the success of the negative spaces was probably a subconscious factor in your appreciation.

The depth of field is also well done here. The painting does not appear to be flat at all; instead, it appears to be very three-dimensional. This is accomplished in large part by the use of foreshortening on the hand that holds the spellbook. Notice that the hand appears to extend out of the canvas towards the viewer. This creates an item of interest in the foreground that lends depth. The effect is amplified by the presence of the leaves and clouds in the background.

The leaves and clouds are also lighter in color, and appear somewhat hazy. This shows great skill on the part of the artist to control the depth with his choices in execution. While this piece is an overall success, it is somewhat risky because the use of foreshortening is difficult to master. To be correctly drawn, the foreshortened limb – and the book, for that matter – must be expertly rendered, and drawn in proper perspective. It is difficult to explain perspective with words alone, but think of it as the need for parallel lines on an object to trail off into the background, and converge on a point on the horizon in a believable way. If they don’t, the result will be distracting, and the affected parts of the drawing will appear squashed and distorted. It would have been very easy for a less experienced or accomplished artist to make a mistake on the arm, hand, and book combination depicted here.

Another way that depth and dimensionality has been conveyed is via the careful rendering of form. The primary means to capture form is by the use of shadows. Note that the underside of the tree limbs (as well as the part of the trunk in the lower left-hand corner) are darker than those parts exposed more directly to sun. Also, the hand that holds the book casts a heavy shadow. In all instances here, the shadows reveal the roundness of the tree – and since the tree looks ‘right,’ we find the scene believable and pleasing to the eye.

Finally, I’ll discuss the character itself. This is a very effective drawing. The face is accurately drawn, and has an interesting expression. The rugged features and wrinkles, not to mention the interesting hairdo, convey a crusty but wise mage. The choice to keep the eyes closed implies intense concentration, and shows the mage’s strength since he can capture this spell without even seeing it coursing through the air. The costume is well done, and the folds in the fabric look correct. Once again, the shadows within the folds and behind the character (as well as the cast shadows on the tree) convey form successfully.

The color palette for the clothing is also very nice. The subtleties between the shades of blue are pleasing to the eye. Another subtle success in the color execution is the richness of the blue costume, which is slightly darker than the powder-blue sky and clouds in the deep background. This technique is used to show depth wherein darker objects appear in the foreground with objects becoming successively lighter the farther away they are in the scene.

(As an aside, is there any question that this mage was going to be blue? Does blue need anything else to dominate? I think not. But I digress.)

As for the bulk of the body, the artist has mostly done a good job with proportions. Since this appears to be a human-type character it must obey the rules of proportion that apply to the human figure. Basically, given a certain head size, the other body parts must be proportionally sized. The rule here is that the typical person is eight ‘heads’ tall; also, the ribcage is one and one half heads tall, and the pelvis is one head tall itself. Another part of this rule is that crotch area is the midpoint of the standing figure. As such, it should be four heads from the bottom of the feet, and four heads from the top of the head. There are many related rules, but these are the fundamental ones. A rough check of Spelljack shows that for the most part, things are correct; the crotch area looks to be about four heads below the top of the head. Also the arm appears to be the right length, and the standing straight leg looks right although it ends off the frame. This is acceptable to the eye because the lower tree limb appears to join the main tree trunk at the right place, and seems to provide a foothold on which to stand.

And now it is time to discuss the one major weakness of this painting: Can you see how the thigh of the bent leg does not appear long enough? It should look to be about two heads long; however, to me it looks closer to one and one half heads long.”Not much of a mistake,” you say – but to the discerning eye it is very noticeable.

Keep in mind that if foreshortening had been used on the thigh, which it has not, then the limb could still be correct – if the leg had been opened outward and was pointing further into the background, or opened less and pointed towards the viewer, it might have looked right. However, we can tell that the thigh remains in the plane of the painting because of the angle of the foot.

I can see how this error occurred: The artist was intent on making the most of the negative space under the outstretched arm – and perhaps rightfully so, since that space is really the key to this piece. The artist had to cramp the dimension of the thigh to preserve the negative space.

Nonetheless, this drawing is overall very good, and the cramping of the thigh length serves the purpose of strengthening the critical negative space in that area.

To wrap up this critique, I reiterate that this is an excellent painting. Its composition and interesting negative spaces are its strengths. Add to that the quality of implied movement and the effective depth of scene make this a compelling piece that is both engaging and pleasing to the eye. Its only weakness is the malproportioned thigh – but even that is acceptable because of the way it strengthens to critical negative space under the outstretched arm. My appreciation goes out to the artist Pete Venters for a job well done.

So this has been my attempt to give a somewhat formal critique of a piece of Magic art. To my knowledge, such a critique has never been done before. Hopefully, you also care about the art of Magic, and you can relate to this article; if so, I’d like to hear from you!

Michael Jay LaRue

Engineer Legend

[email protected]