Magic Art Matters – A Bird In Seventh Is Not Worth Two On A Branch

When I consider Thieving Magpie, as it was commissioned for Urza’s Destiny and painted by Una Fricker, I see a wonderful painting that is crafted in the naturalist style and pays tribute to a prominent naturalist and painter of the 19th century – John James Audubon.

Is Thieving Magpie just another blue creature? How about a bird with a big butt? It survives a Shock; it’s got to be a good card, no? Maybe it’s a slightly over-costed flyer that can sneak in that one point of damage a turn? Arguably there are faster clocks, but a point a turn is nothing to sneeze at.

Okay, well… Maybe it is sneezeable, but I’ve never claimed to be a master strategist or even a judge of card efficiency for that matter. With that said, let’s not forget its card drawing ability – anything that promotes ever popular card advantage deserves some respect. Have I missed anything? Perhaps it is nothing more than a throwaway card that you now use as a bookmark. Maybe it could be too”serious” a painting for you; maybe you like more fantasy inspired cards.

It may be all of these things to you, or it may be none, but when I consider Thieving Magpie, as it was commissioned for Urza’s Destiny, and painted by Una Fricker, I see at least one additional thing that is not mentioned above. I see a wonderful painting that is first, crafted in the naturalist style, and second, pays tribute to a prominent naturalist and painter of the 19th century – John James Audubon.

I guess there are several factors that contribute to my being familiar with that style. Having grown up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC, I have been an occasional visitor to the National Gallery of Art, which houses a number of Audubon prints. I am sure that being the son of a high school biology teacher, whose graduate studies were in the field of ornithology played a role. I clearly remember going birdwatching* on a number of weekends with my father, with any one of a number of birdwatching field guides in hand. These types of guides provide another example of how the naturalist style is practically employed. All the above, when considered together explain how I might be able to pick out Thieving Magpie amongst all the other Magic cards as being different in this special way.

To establish how Audubon paved the way for Thieving Magpie let’s look at a couple of examples of his work. To begin Audubon’s own American Magpie is shown below.

You may have seen some of his work reproduced on a variety of U.S. postage stamps. In researching this article I discovered that there exists a thriving market for Audubon prints. This market was evident by the existence of galleries such as www.donaldheald.com, and www.jjaudubon.com. I recommend that you visit these sites if you would like a quick introduction to Audubon’s art.

As for the life and mission for Audubon, a summary bio is in appropriate. Audubon was born in Haiti, in the year 1785, and lived in France from 1788 to 1803. He moved to America in 1806 and set to work to on a collection of paintings that would come to be known as”The Birds of America.” He was on a mission to record every native bird known to exist, and the result was 435 large plates which covered 1065 species.

Lithographic plate reproductions, printed by Havel of London, were published and sold as a collection between the years 1827 through 1838. As a testament to the continuing value and esteem with which these prints are held, the last know complete Havel edition was sold in May 2000 for $8,802,500. Quite an impressive figure, don’t you think?

I gleaned that information from a variety of sources; I recommend the two following links if you’d like to read either a brief or extremely in-depth biography. Both are excellent and informative.

Now it is time to consider Una Fricker’s Thieving Magpie.

Thieving Magpie - NM/M

After viewing Audubon’s work, I hope you can see the similarities in approach and how it serves as inspiration in part to this piece.

As far as its own artistic merit is concerned I think this is a beautiful painting. Similar to many of Audubon’s works, more than a single bird is featured, in this case a pair, one perched, and one in flight.

A quick glance over other Audubon paintings establishes the important role that branches and trees play; he expertly incorporates those and other similar items as important elements of his compositions. This is also evident in Fricker’s painting.

The perched specimen is wonderfully composed in the frame – its placement is central, but not directly so. Dead center placement would have killed the piece, making it boring and devoid of dynamic tension. As it is, the anchor provided by the tree trunk perfectly counterbalances the pair of birds that occupy the upper left portion of the frame. The fact that the major bulky items in this piece are aligned on a diagonal line, a line which traverses from upper left to lower right, contributes to the appeal on a subconscious level.

So there is a diagonal emphasis here to capture the bulk; note how that line is nicely complemented by the lines of action for both of the birds. They provide a contrary line, one that sweeps from lower left to upper right. I think this supplies a wonderful sense of tension. Furthermore, the lines of action for both birds are parallel. The line for the bird in flight provides a subtle echo to that of the perched bird. I kid you not; reviewing these aspects in detail, and discovering their role in the success of this painting is giving me goosebumps. Please forgive me for my enthusiasm – but, seriously, I kid you not. I have goosebumps**!

Regarding the tree trunk, notice its detail. Surface features, including the bark, the stashed trinkets, and the red-green ivy leaves are superbly drawn. The latter of which also provides a nice accent and serves in part as the foreground object of interest.

The sense of form is convincingly conveyed most effectively in the shading of the underside of the trunk and its main branch which retreats into the background. That branch serves the additional purpose of showing the depth of this painting – and very effectively so, I might add.

It’s goosebump time again: See how the perched bird is nicely framed in a V-shape, formed by the splintered shard of wood on the right side of the trunk, and the retreating branch. Now notice the flying bird, and how it is also framed by the V formed at the end of the extended branch. This is another case of a subtle echo, similar to the parallel lines of action evident in the two birds. Very nice work; very nice indeed.

It goes without saying that the perched bird in particular is exquisitely rendered. Reminiscent of Audubon, delicate brushstrokes capture the feathers, especially nicely so in the areas where the white overlaps onto the black body and wings.

Fricker accentuates the depth by careful execution of the branch in the far background. It is finely rendered and its tone is appropriately muted, following the rule that objects fade from dark to light when receding from foreground to background.

In summary, I want to say something about the perfection achieved in this composition. In addition to the points already made regarding the conflicting diagonals, and the beauty of the echoes – the birds’ lines of action, and their similar framing within a V shape – the balance between positive and negative space is outstanding. Every opportunity to create an interesting negative space has been exploited. Each swatch of blue sky is a wonderful jigsaw puzzle shape that gives the eye something interesting to contemplate. Outstanding!

This is now officially my favorite bird of Magic.

To wrap up this article, I want to leave you with some eye candy and a rant, in that order.

Regarding the eye candy; in all honesty I can not name another painting by Una Fricker, however this one is so nice that I will be paying more attention in the future. I do not recall that name in recent expansions, so maybe she has been dismissed along with Rebecca Guay. If so, that would be a shame because I for one would love to see more of this kind of work rather than less. Anyway, given my lack of familiarity with Una’s work, I did a google search.

Well it turns out that my intuition was right; she seems to be a bona fide practitioner in the naturalist style. Thieving Magpie was not a fluke, or a one time tribute to the distinguished Mr. Audubon. The Una Fricker search revealed not only the picture at this link, which is nice, but also the following painting, which I submit for your viewing pleasure – enjoy!

This frog is a perfect example of the naturalist approach, this time applied to an amphibian subject. I’ll leave it to you to come to your own conclusions, but this painting has it all. Even in its simplicity it is dead-on good!

As for the rant, I want to say something about the direction that the Wizards Art Department is headed. I do not recall any piece which rivals the Urza’s Destiny Thieving Magpie in terms of the naturalist style in recent sets. I consider this painting to be a very sophisticated piece of art that is reminiscent of – and pays tribute to – greats like Audubon. All things considered, it is in flavor for the game of Magic as I know it. Unfortunately, as you have probably already noted to yourself, Thieving Magpie was reprinted (good news!) in Seventh Edition, but however with different art (bad news!). While the Seventh Edition version of the Magpie*** is not bad on its own, it does not hold a candle in any way to the Urza’s Destiny version. It’s not even close.

My point is that, why commission new art for pieces that are perfectly acceptable as is, especially when the art is of such high caliber as the UD Magpie? Another perfect example of this is the Gravedigger debacle. How any art director could look at the Tempest Gravedigger and commission not one, but two vastly inferior versions, both of which saw the light of day in Seventh and Odyssey respectively, is beyond my comprehension. Fortunately, the Tempest Gravedigger will return as a result of the”You Select Eighth” promotion that was conducted over the summer.

To me decisions such as those discussed above, along with the Eighth Edition redesign call into question the quality of the stewardship that Wizards has put in place over the artistic aspects of this game that we love. I am sorry to have to say that, but I think that it is a true and legitimate concern for those of us that genuinely care about the artistic elements of Magic.

In parting, and to end on a good note, I will reiterate that however many years ago it was, Una Fricker did a fantastic job on her version of Thieving Magpie – a classy bird of the color blue, tough on defense, evasive on offense and effective in the quest to gain card advantage. Nice job Una!

Michael Jay LaRue

Engineer Legend

[email protected]

* – At the time, those outings seemed devastatingly boring; now I look back fondly and appreciate the value of such time spent with my father.

** – Well, I guess another possible explanation is that maybe I am wired on Dr. Pepper-supplied caffeine. I can’t be sure of the cause, but either way I am a little jiggly right now. Maybe I should compensate with ingestion of some MSG-laced Doritos. No wait, that wouldn’t help, would it? I think that would make matters worse. Forget it; nothing that is fun to ingest is good for you! Cheese, pizza, Doritos… I could go on….Oh well, such is life.

*** – So finally the motivation for the title to this article is revealed; the Seventh Edition version, while it’s okay, is Not worth two on a branch – the Urza’s Destiny version.