Magic Art Matters – An Overlooked Gem from Judgment

During my last artwork critique, I offhandedly stated that Worldgorger Dragon was the best red artwork in Judgment. Well, I was browsing through the Magic Arcana archives on magicthegathering.com, and let me tell you I missed a doozie.

During a recent visit to the Wizard’s Magic Arcana Archive, while viewing an installment of ‘Sketches’ from early June, I discovered a beautiful painting that I had previously overlooked in my assessment of Judgment artwork. This gem is the piece of artwork commissioned for the red sorcery Burning Wish. In retrospect I consider this a big error on my part because in my haste to supplement my Screech and ‘Snapper critique with honorable mentions, I favored, artistically speaking, a much weaker card* as the representative for red.

Not only is this piece visually stunning, it also appears to represent an almost perfect implementation of the artistic process used to create a card once its name, type, and mechanics have been determined. In order to appreciate the comments that follow, please visit the Burning Wish installment of Sketches within the Magic Arcana Archive, and familiarize yourself with its contents. Pay special attention when viewing both the preliminary sketch as well as the final result, to all that pertains to composition and the use of space.

It is tempting to plunge right in to discussing the art; however, that would do a great disservice to the art director. I say that because the director played a great part in setting up this piece for success, even before it was decided to whom to give the assignment. What is my reason for saying this? For the answer, look at the simple description that was given to the artist:

“This is a red card and should show a djinn handing a barbarian a fireball with which he accepts with awe.”

This simply and directly tells the story of the card, and it perfectly embodies the mechanics of the card. Recall that the card text reads as such:

“Choose a sorcery you own from outside the game, reveal that card, and put it into your hand. Remove Burning Wish from the game.”

First of all, by choosing a fireball for the djinn to be handing off, the director is paying homage to a classic red sorcery, Fireball, which was last printed in 5th Edition. How appropriate! A red sorcery that lets the active player search for another sorcery that is currently outside the game. After all, the object is not an artifact such as Urza’s Bauble, or a Voltaic Key; it is none other than the old-school Fireball.

The fact that Fireball has long since rotated out of Standard is furthermore consistent with its being”…outside the game.” I think that is brilliant, and whoever is responsible should get a bonus from Wizards for a job well done. In fact, I am seriously considering pitching in a little something myself. Since Maro has not yet complied with my request for a re-imbursement for my Pale Moon, I will gladly send this art director my Mint Pale Moon. What the heck; I am feeling pretty generous – I’ll even sign it! How about that?

One more noteworthy item regarding the art direction before moving on; it is a nice touch that a djinn was suggested as the means of ushering in the fireball. It seems very appropriate that a magical character, such as a djinn, after it materializes from a column of wispy smoke, would be the means of transfer into the game. I can’t imagine that there exists a better way, artistically speaking, to communicate this part of the card’s story.

The actual card is presented here:

From the outset, the artist Scott Fischer knew how he wanted the final painting to look – both on canvas, as well as in card form. That is apparent from the sketch he provided back to Wizards for approval to proceed to final art. The cropping lines are clearly apparent. By superimposing them on his sketch, Scott was paying respect to the importance of composition. He wanted to insure that he was using the frame effectively and at the same time increase the likelihood of producing visually appealing art that conveyed the story of the card. Beyond that, he knew that for purposes of the final painting on canvas he wanted a composition that was much taller than it was wide.

Committing to the larger view provided great benefit to the smaller composition; this is true because it allowed him to create the sense of connection to the ground for the female barbarian, and to set up the background effectively so it served both views. This can be likened to an iceberg for which only the topmost extreme is visible above water. The tip of an iceberg that is visible above the surface of the water must by nature rest atop a massive foundation that is submerged and unseen. Although it is unseen, the foundation is quite present and essential. By fully executing the tall version correctly, both in composition and connection to the ground, Fischer insures that the cropped version will also look correct.

Regarding the success of the small frame version, notice the following: The central object of interest is the fireball itself. Even though it is the”star” of the composition, it is carefully placed off-center. It is both slightly below the midpoint top-to-bottom, and slightly right of center. The placement, as shown, makes for a better composition than a more perfectly centered placement would have provided.

Also notice how the outcropping of rocks on the right side occupies the negative space in that corner. The rocks balance the two characters in the center, and form a visual boundary – almost as if to contain the figures inside the frame. These rocks also provide a nice counterbalance to the large inky black-and-maroon expanse in the upper left corner.

Closer examination of that expanse also shows how effectively it balances the entire piece. If you cut the frame on a diagonal line, from lower left to upper right, that ominous black and maroon, smoky mixture fills up most of that corner. In contrast, the figures, with their detail and brighter colors take up residence in the lower right half. The result is an almost perfect balance between, both light and dark, as well as between an area of detail, and another of murkiness and foreboding.

Before leaving the subject of balance, notice how the spear dramatically connects the upper left and lower right halves. It forms a bridge that is accented by the sharp blade and its highly reflective edge. The ‘white-hot’ edge clearly conveys a strong light which emanates from the upper left corner, outside the frame. Fischer carefully and consistently sheds light on the remainder of the scene a believable way. In summary, the spear-tip is expertly composed and rendered. It provides a sharp object of interest and adds visual tension, cutting as it does into the clouds. The end result is an interesting and well drawn object that ties the composition together diagonally.

Movement is provided by the column of smoke that forms the djinn’s lower body. In addition, the djinn’s ponytail is carefully placed and rendered with nice line quality. Do not be tempted to take these efforts for granted – because they are in fact quite exquisite. Notice how the djinn’s”body” starts in the foreground of the lower left. It rises slightly into the background, then folds over towards the center and loops behind the back of the barbarian, finally to angle upwards to form the djinn’s waist.

The final aspect of movement is provided by the djinn’s arm which projects forward and around to the front of the barbarian, ultimately to hand over the glowing fireball. All of this beautiful movement did not happen by accident; it was carefully planned and executed. Very nice!

As for the fireball itself, it is simply a red ball; however, the way that it appears to glow internally and shed its warm light on the torso and arms of the barbarian is well done. It casts its light believably – not only back-lighting the djinn’s hand, but also illuminating his upper torso and face. All this adds up to a wonderful effect for the lighting of this scene.

The anatomy and proportions of the female barbarian are for the most part correct. One might be able to argue however that the female’s left upper arm may be slightly too long, and the foreshortened forearm may not be perfectly rendered in perspective. If these two items are wrong at all, they are only very slightly so. A thorough critique would not be complete or even fair for that matter, if it did not mention these as possible errors upon noticing them.

Other notables – there are plenty of appealing negative spaces, there are no tangents, and there are no mistakes in the lighting. This small frame version, as it appears on the actual card is extremely good. My appreciation to Scott Fischer for an excellent job!

All of the above was said with respect to the small frame cropped version. Before concluding, a few words are in order about the”tall” version. It may help to revisit our reference material briefly, paying special attention to the large sketch, and the large final painting.

All the good things said above about the small frame version also apply, however there are additional noteworthy aspects contained within the tall version as well. As for the overall execution of the anatomy and proportions, the figure appears to be correctly drawn. It seems to be eight heads tall, with the midpoint being properly placed at the crotch area, four heads from both the ground, and the top of the head. The previous comments about the left arm, speak to very minor problems, if they can even be considered problems at all.

The configuration of the rocks is important to the composition of the tall version. The sheer rock faces on both sides of the background once again form a boundary for the characters, and direct interest towards the center. The outcropping in the lower central foreground forms the pedestal upon which the barbarian stands, and overlaps the rocks in the background. The technique of overlapping objects is a method to convey depth and placement which has not been previously discussed. Nonetheless, here is a fine example of effective overlap to convey space and relative placement. Combine this with the fact that all instances of rocks in this piece are rendered dark-to-light, when receding from foreground to background. The result is a painting which very convincingly portrays both depth and form.

As far as artistic discretion given to the artist, it is interesting to note a departure that was taken to draw a female rather than male barbarian. This was a good call by the artist – and fortunately, he had the latitude and trust of the director, to act according to his instincts for the betterment of the work.

Finally, the trail of smoke continues expertly in the tall version. Notice how it continues its spiraling movement, and even envelops the barbarian at knee level. The semi-transparent appearance, its subtle transition from purple to green while ascending the column, is reminiscent of techniques used for rendering drapery**, and is very well done. In all cases, the interplay between the green and purple smoke and its surroundings create fantastic negative spaces. It is the combination of all these seemingly small, subtle techniques that, when added up and taken on whole, clearly separate this as an outstanding example of artwork created for the game of Magic.

As can be seen from this examination of Burning Wish, the artistic process begins well before the artist ever gets involved. Furthermore, by being creative, and by communicating clearly with an effective artistic description, the artistic director can truly enhance the artistic potential for a scene.

This seems to me to be an almost perfect example of the evolution of Magic artwork. It is an interesting, well-costed mechanic that was commissioned and assigned with a clear and creative artistic instruction. To top it off, the artist did a beautiful job in all regards. This is true for both the”tall” version that will wind up displayed on someone’s wall, as well as for the smaller, Magic-card version. I am extremely happy that artwork of this caliber is being creating for Magic: the Gathering!

Michael Jay LaRue

Engineer Legend

[email protected]

* – I had given an honorable mention to Worldgorger Dragon, which was a mistake. I would not have noticed without the help of some attentive readers in Canada. Normand, and his wife Yolaine, said they felt let down by Wayne England’s ‘Gorger art and directed my attention to his Stone-Tongue Basilisk from Odyssey. While I certainly enjoyed the Odyssey pre-release card and its artwork (still do), the ‘Gorger now seems highly derivative, and un-original when the two are compared side-by-side. Regardless, on artistic merit alone, Burning Wish should have gotten the honorable mention.

By the way, Yolaine is a big fan of squirrels in Magic; squirrels make Magic fun! Well, Magic is fun for a lot of reasons, on a lot of levels… But still, squirrels do their part to help make Magic fun.

** – Believe it or not, the study of drapery, referring to how fabric, with its characteristic bends and folds, lays over a form, is an important subject in art school. Students of both sculpture and painting can spend semesters devoted to mastering such artistic techniques, even going so far as to distinguish between the characteristics of both wet and dry fabrics. There is a difference, I assure you. If you don’t believe me, witness the modern popularity of wet t-shirt contests. You’ve never heard of a dry t-shirt contest, have you?