Magic Art Matters:
Cavotta Critiques Back!

So Michael’s been running around critiquing various artists in Magic, telling ’em what paintings are good, and why. Well, one artist couldn’t take this treatment – and so Matt Cavotta himself steps forward to talk about his pieces and composition! A must-read for ANY art fan!

For today’s installment of Magic Art Matters, I have the great pleasure to welcome a collaborator in the person of prominent Magic artist Matt Cavotta. This is not only good for me, but it is also fortuitous: Good for me because I get to share the writing duties, and fortuitous because Matt’s work will be the subject of my critique. Not only am I appreciative of his willingness to participate in this project, but I also think it will result in something informative and entertaining for you – because, after all, who better to lend insight on the creation of his paintings than the artist himself?

Even though I am bristling with excitement over the prospect of working directly with a respected and accomplished artist like Matt, I am also somewhat apprehensive. Fact is this is somewhat of a test for me. Matt has free reign to speak his mind. I could get called out – exposed, told indelicately to remove my cranium from the non-mouth terminus of my alimentary canal. Ouch! But then again, maybe not – we’ll see soon enough.

First, to set your expectations, a few notes on the purpose and format are in order. As always with Magic Art Matters this will focus on the art of Magic. I will be offering a critique of three pieces created by Matt, and their evaluation will be conducted with respect to the aesthetic rules of art. As for the format, I will rattle on as normal, however, whenever he thinks appropriate Matt will be able to interject. My comments will be denoted by this font, Matt’s comments will look like this, and the editor will, as is customary, interject his comments however the heck he wants.

(Needless to say, such input by the editor will be both brilliant and fascinating – The Ferrett)

I want to make perfectly clear that this is neither an interview*, nor is it an artist’s biography; I have no intention of taking you behind the canvas. There is nothing behind the canvas. The only thing behind the canvas is an easel, or a wall, wire, hook and nail. The primary topic here is the art; we just happen to be fortunate that Matt will offer his take on, not only my critique, but on his own art as well, and the process used in its creation.

I began my research for this article at Cavotta.com, which features images of all of the fifty-nine paintings he has created for Magic. In addition to the quality of the art I was impressed by the approach taken in the site design. At the same time that it is effective at showcasing his art, it is also light-hearted and humorous as well. Plus, there is enough coherent writing on the site that I did not have to worry about Matt being up to this challenge.

Or at least I hope I don’t have to worry… We’ll see. There are no bizarre sentences like -“…I drawed this myself; ain’t it purty?” so we’re set to go!

After examining all of the artwork presented at Matt’s webpage, I arrived at the following set of three to review: Noble Panther, Thornscape Battlemage, and Headhunter.

Of course, in making my selection I was looking for quintessential pieces, ones that were representative of the strengths of the artist. In addition, I was hoping to find a theme. I think this trio truly captures the essence of Cavotta’s work, and does indeed demonstrate a theme. To me these are characterized by how effectively they capture an instant in time, and the feeling of that moment.

The first piece we will look at is Noble Panther, from Invasion, which was painted and printed in 2000.

As for the theme, I think this painting captures the moment of conquest after a fierce battle; this, of course, is evident primarily in the dominant pose of the Panther. In addition, Matt has done a really nice job rendering the Panther to convey tautness in its musculature. The way the muscles ripple under the Panther’s coat very effectively shows domination. If you are familiar with how a cat or dog raises a ridge along its back under stress, I think you’ll agree that this artwork captures the feeling of the moment very effectively.

All aspects of the anatomy are drawn believably, and are in proper perspective. To confirm this, look at the head, which is shown in 3/4 view. It has convincing volume due to the obvious care taken in rendering the perspective.

I do see one slight problem with the pose though: Notice the hind leg, on the left side? Given the clear view we have of the front legs, this hind leg appears to be somewhat long. Also due to the interaction of the leg with the”pointy-thing” of the vanquished Phyrexian, some questions about anatomy and placement remain. I think that with a little bit of adjustment to the composition, or if the silver armor was drawn larger to conceal more of the Panther’s leg, then this confusion would have been avoided.

I agree. The back leg is a tad sketchy. I really did not want to extend the leg at all – a crouching pose seemed more appropriate. However, this is where art plows off of the road of reality into the wild woodlands of aesthetics; I wanted the bright color to extend down lower in the composition. I guess I wanted it more than I didn’t want to put in a stupid-looking leg.

As has been discussed before, whenever an artist is ambiguous about the feet of a creature, there seems to be a potential for problems. Clearly visible feet, such as the front left shown in this painting, are critical to establishing the creature’s connection to the ground, and greatly assist in establishing an appropriate sense of both weight, and weight transfer.

The panther’s coat is very nicely crafted from an array of colors that are both interesting, and pleasing to the eye. Notice that Matt has created a subtle dynamic tension and balance between the bright, honey-colored tones of the Panther – which is in contrast to the much darker and muted colors used for the Phyrexian, the ground, and the background.

It makes me so happy as an artist to finally know that the crap that we think about when making art does not go unnoticed. It may seem like Michael is talking out of his rump, but the Butt speaketh the truth. I chose to pop the Panther out by using mainly cool colors around its warm and candy-like coat.

The tail, perhaps surprisingly, plays a very important role in this composition: It provides three extremely important artistic attributes to the painting. First, it provides movement, something for the eye to follow by virtue of its graceful, sweeping curves. Secondly, the tail – again, due to its curves – provides contrast to the rest of the painting, which is primarily straight-edged and angular. I do not know if Matt was consciously aware of this while working on this painting, but it sure is a nice touch.

Finally, the tail plays a giant role in creating depth, which would otherwise be notably absent here. The tail, which I take to reside in a flat, horizontally oriented plane, deftly connects the background to the foreground. The tail originates at the, uh…”back-end” of the cat, recedes very slightly into the background, turns forwards, and then gracefully snakes into the foreground. As such, it serves the additional purpose of supplying the obligatory”foreground-object-of-interest.” Even though the Panther/Phyrexian combination is rendered nicely to show depth and volume in itself, the tail is the element that ultimately serves the painting by creating the needed sense of depth overall.

Compositionally, the painting is nicely set up. There are numerous beautiful negative spaces particularly about the tail and the Phyrexian’s”pointy-things.” In addition, the”pointy-things,” which are shown in silhouette on the right side, provide additional depth to supplement the major contribution of the tail in that regard.

One important aspect of composition that I question, however, is the lighting. I am unclear about what source is providing the light. On the one hand, there is a strong overhead light; witness the back, shoulders, and head of the Panther. Then again there is softer secondary lighting from behind which illuminates the underside and tail of the Panther and lights the lower half of the background. Is that backlighting coming from the Moon? Or is the Moon lighting the topside? I can not tell, but the confusion, for me at least detracts slightly from the overall success of the painting. If the Moon is providing backlight, then I could envision how nicely it could be incorporated in the composition, perhaps in the lower left-hand corner.

There is no moon on the blasted desolation of Phyrexia. There is, however, pretty blue glow that emanates from all useful angles in Artistland. The backlighting was put in to add more cool colors to the mix, and to add more reflected light in the metallic elements of the Phyrexian. The glow is all about drama, and thumbs its nose at reality. It’s a lot like the scenes with the Black Riders in the Shire – no one is really holding a blue fog lamp behind the Riders, but it looks so cool that we happily accept the glow.

Regardless of the minor points regarding the hind leg, and the ambiguous light source, this is a very beautiful piece of Magic art; it is perhaps my favorite among Matt’s numerous fine offerings.

Before I leave this painting, check out this nice touch that I only noticed upon the close examination required for this critique. The shield of the dead Phyrexian is the Invasion expansion symbol. Maybe I am just dense, but I never noticed that before. That is neat! Good job Matt!

Mike, you’re not dense – but you are very imaginative. I wish I could take credit for it, but as far as I know, it’s just another quirky face-like symbol similar to the ones on other Phyrexian beings.

The second of Matt’s paintings for discussion is Thornscape Battlemage, which appeared in Planeshift, also in the year 2000.

First of all, this is a very successful painting that happened to grace a popular Planeshift card. The thematic moment that I discern here is the moment of preparation, and the feeling of anticipation prior to battle.

As is so often the case, the make or break element of this painting is its composition. It is beautifully done, with an interesting choice of camera angle. Clearly the viewer is looking upwards, only to see this massive creature and its master looming fearsomely above. This creates in us a sense of intimidation, and prompts the question -“What next?”

One thing that I think is particularly successful here is the convincing volume of the steed. It is clearly massive, and that is communicated by careful rendering in perspective, and by attention paid to lighting. By being properly drawn in perspective, the head and neck seem to be projecting towards the viewer, out of the plane of the canvas; for example, the lighting helps convey volume by distinguishing between the side of the neck and the underside of the neck. The curved shadow on the underside of the right horn really sells the volume very effectively. That very small area on the horn perfectly clarifies for the viewer the shape of the horn. And by having it clarified, there we do not need to bother”figuring-out” the opposite side; we simple assume it is symmetrical, as are so many things in nature. As an exercise, try to imagine how many other ways the horns could be interpreted if not for that small shadow. Very nice work!

Something that is very clever about this painting is that despite the fact that this is about the Battlemage, notice how he takes up only a very small portion of the canvas. To me, this is a unique approach, and consistent with my theory that oftentimes in art, less is more.

Notice that this technique also plays a big role in establishing the depth of field. By employing the somewhat obvious, but nonetheless critical rule, that, the closer an object, the larger it should appear. By the Battlemage being so pronouncedly smaller, it really makes the depth all the more convincing.

The art description for this one called for our elf/colos team to be trampling over a phyrexian. I called an audible on this one and axed the phyrexian. Pulling back any more would have pushed the”less is more” thing into a”less is… Where’d the less go? Oh, there it is” thing.

An aspect of this painting that I think is somewhat better than the Noble Panther is the greater completeness of the background. For the Panther, the background seemed distant and unconnected to the composition; it served as nothing more than a backdrop. In this painting, the background is complete, albeit, still simple – just some treetops in the lower corners, and the ominously clouded, orange-ish sky. The trees must be close to the horizon, and since the treetops are close to the bottom of the frame, the upward camera angle is reinforced.

I happen to like the orange sky. It reminds me of growing up in Maryland, when often, just prior to a torrential summer thunderstorm, the sky would take on an eerie orange glow. I do not know if this was a conscious choice or not, to convey an ominous or foreboding atmosphere, but I like it – another nice touch!

There is a distinct difference between the goals of the Panther and Battlemage pieces. The battlemage may seem to have a more developed and successful background, but it was conceived as a”scene.” The Panther, on the other hand, was conceived as an iconic image. Bam! There it is, with no extra mumbo-jumbo distractions. Take a look at the Odyssey Sengir Vampire – nothin’ but dude! We should not lament the absence of setting when the characters are cool. (If they are not cool, then that opens ’em up for serious ribbing.)

Nothing too remarkable about the Battlemage himself; he is capably drawn in proper perspective. Witness the extended arm, which is properly drawn, and appears to be projecting out of the canvas.

In his comments about this painting on his website, Matt mentions that the red and white colors on the battlestaff were originally planned to be incorporated on the clothing; obviously, this is a much better design solution. The battlestaff actually serves a vital role in the composition, providing itself not only as a foreground object of interest, but asserting itself, small and delicate as it is, in contrast and balance to the bulky body of the beast.

Okay; Mike takes two from the Battlemage, for he has insulted HER.

Finally notice the many small details and flourishes that complement this painting; the flowing reigns, the angular spike strips dangling off of the saddle, the windblown ribbon on the staff, and the battlemage’s hair. While these may seem like small details, they greatly enhance the artwork. Each is carefully crafted in terms of shape, fluidity, compositional placement, and color. They provide visual variety and texture to this painting.

Before leaving this piece, and moving on to the Headhunter, I must say I tried to apply a critical eye to this piece to find something to criticize; I found nothing to suggest that needed correction. This is the kind of timeless Magic art that I could not envision needing an upgrade in case of reprint. As long as there is a Thornscape Battlemage, this is the art that should adorn that card.**

Thanks a bunch, man. I, however, could go on and on about things that I would change if I had her on my desk to fix up. I choose to not get into all the nitty-gritty here (I don’t want to convince anyone to not like her.)

Now for the final painting under consideration, Cavotta’s Headhunter, commissioned for Onslaught in 2002.

Matt’s Headhunter is by far and away the most light-hearted painting amongst these three. As for the theme, to me this painting captures the moment of flight after commission of a hideous act. Not that I can relate to that – but I can imagine, sort of. As is expertly captured in the face of the main character here, the corresponding feeling is, somewhat disturbingly, a feeling of glee.

Uh… Okay.

But seriously, I like this one as well. I find it interesting that scenically speaking, this is the most complex and intricately rendered of the three; while both Noble Panther and Thornscape Battlemage seemed more like cameos in that their backgrounds were so sparsely developed, this painting has the most complex background, and exhibits the greatest degree of storytelling. I can’t tell if this is evidence of Matt’s development as an artist for Magic, or if it is just a coincidence of the three pieces I choose. Regardless, I like the effect, and I always place a premium on the storytelling aspect within Magic art.

I’d like to say there was some greater purpose to the complexity of the piece, but I think I was just looking for a change from the simplicity of pieces like Battering Craghorn and Crown of Vigor. I think it lends itself nicely, however, to the”look at what just happened” concept. It could also be that this card was assigned to me as a sorcery called”Thought Plunder,” so character focus would have been inappropriate. I’d like to think that they dug my portly nerd so much that they decided to give him his own card.

No sooner do I commend the increased complexity of the background as a positive, I have to say that there is a small downside: In what almost seems to be overcompensation for the sparseness of the Panther and the Battlemage backgrounds, here the complexity soaks up most of the available negative space. The background is so saturated that my eye almost longs for a patch of negative space in which to rest for a moment. To be fair though, it is not that much of a downside and the improvement realized in the storytelling is worth the risk.

I agree. This thing teeters on the edge of too busy.

In this painting depth is conveyed once again by the relative size of the characters. I assume the Headhunter is roughly the same height as the recently be-headed one. Well, check that… that was probably true prior to the point in time that the head was separated from the victim. Oh well, my bad. That technicality notwithstanding, the size difference nicely sells the sense of depth.

Compositionally this piece is very nice. The Headhunter is prominently placed in the foreground, but not dead-center, which is good. While I normally decry the absence of clarity about the foot placement, the treatment here is perfectly acceptable. First of all, the fact that we can not see the end of the raised left leg does not matter. The fact that it is raised already tells us that it is not carrying weight – unless, of course, this guy is climbing up an unseen wall, which I don’t think is happening. If it is not carrying weight, then it does not need to be anchored; case closed.

Regarding the other foot – the fact that the heel is shown, and its proximity to the ground is clear, then I am a happy camper. The artist is introducing no ambiguity. I think the sophistication needed to show just enough of the anchored right foot, without wasting valuable canvas space on an otherwise unimportant element of the character, is a sign of maturity and accomplishment on the part of the artist; this is another good painting.

Feet are expendable in CCG art. Oftentimes, 1.5 x 2 inches is just not enough for the full head-to-toe shot.

Well, that just about wraps it up. I think that Noble Panther and Thornscape Battlemage are examples of timeless Magic art. I can not envision how there would ever be a need to improve on what has already been created by Matt. I appreciate the light-hearted, albeit gruesome Headhunter, and the fact that its background is somewhat more developed. Ultimately I think this will benefit the storytelling dimension of works by Cavotta.

Obviously I like all the pieces reviewed here, but more than that, I have enjoyed the opportunity to become more acquainted with the work of Matt Cavotta.

Matt demonstrates the kind of enthusiasm and dedication to creating Magic art that has distinguished him as one of the finest – and will continue to do so. Matt, thanks for the chance to work with you on this article. Keep up the good work.

Thanks, Michael, for taking it easy on me – and for the opportunity to directly address Magic art fans. Before I sign off, I would like to say something in the name of all my artist brethren:

When looking at a piece of art of any kind, do not think of things it does not have; instead, start thinking about all the things it does have. Not every artist means to use realistic perspective, tight painting technique, or believable anatomy. Do not cast them down for not using these things. Rather, give ’em props for the juicy nuggets they do give us. For examples of this, crack open your dusty binders and look at Vertigo, Political Trickery, and Bazaar of Wonders – all wonderful illustrations. There it is…

Matt Cavotta

(And in my second interjection here, I’ll whore myself out where Matt fails to do so – visit Cavotta.com and buy Matt’s art! And don’t forget to take a look at the original Cavotta artwork that we have for sale, either – Bash To Bits, Crypt Rats, Mystic Visionary, and Scavenger Folk! – The Ferrett)

Michael Jay LaRue

Engineer Legend

[email protected]

* – Note that I do not actually have anything against the interview/biography style of article when it comes to Magic artists. In fact, I have been enjoying the work of Toby Wachter who has been doing a nice job for www.magicthegathering.com, covering behind the scenes conversations with artists. Rather, my focus is on the art itself, and the general discussion of why art matters in Magic.

** – Regarding the notion of retaining good art for reprint cards, I could have told you (Wizards of the Coast) the same thing about Dermot Powers’ Gravedigger from Tempest. Now his Gravedigger is being reprinted in 8th Edition; unfortunately, we had to endure some rather weak, comparatively speaking, intervening art for that staple card in both 7th Edition and Odyssey. So, Wizards, if you are listening, let’s avoid that mistake in the future; keep Cavotta’s art on the card whenever the Thornscape Battlemage – or even the Noble Panther, for that matter – is reprinted. M’kay? Good. Thank you very much in advance.