Magic Art Matters: Deformed Soldiers Can’t Fight!

When running, your legs tend to move in a bicycling pattern; they do not flail about wildly in the extreme positions as shown on Deftblade Elite and Glory Seeker. If I were an enemy soldier witnessing these two run towards me in battle, I would probably laugh at them, thinking, It won’t be long before these two uncoordinated twits fall over on themselves.

Recently our friends at Wizards posted an article that featured Magic artist Arnie Swekel. As is typical for articles in the Behind the Canvas series, this piece focused on Arnie’s contributions to Magic art, his background and motivations. I always find it interesting to hear about an artist’s training, and about how they got their big break.

Once again, Toby Wachter did a fine job conducting and writing this interview. He managed to elicit great information about Arnie’s techniques and approach, and even got him to reveal his least-favorite painting among those that he has done for Magic. Good stuff, and required reading for aspiring artists interested in fantasy and gaming illustration.

Unfortunately, for what is an otherwise fine article, Toby chose to begin the whole shebang with an incorrect statement. The sentence in question, which is ironically, the first sentence of the first paragraph, reads as follows -“The greatest assets an artist can have are creativity and a love for his or her work.”

This statement was put forth glibly, as if it were a universally accepted truth. Now, I do not know how Toby came by that misconception, but it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard in the numerous drawing classes I have taken.

If such a list of most desirable artistic assets actually existed, it could be argued that creativity and love for the work might deserve a place somewhere in the lower half of the top ten. In any case, I’d like to suggest two candidates as being vastly more important for consideration:

[1] Mastery of the fundamentals of drawing, and:

[2] A keen and well-developed eye.

Mastery of the fundamentals of drawing is arguably more important to success as an artist than is creativity. Of course creativity is essential, but creativity can only be fully realized once mastery of the fundamentals has already been achieved. Similarly it is more important for an artist to be able to see his subject clearly and with an insightful eye than it is for him to simply love his line of work.

It is the”seeing” of something that is the essential skill – what is it about the subject that lends itself to artistry? What details capture its essence? What nuances most effectively represent the unique qualities of the subject?

Once the artist sees these qualities in his subject he can then employ the skills and techniques of his trade in order to capture it on paper, relying all the while on his mastery of the fundamentals. Note also that part of this skill of seeing includes the artist’s ability to detect an error in a work in progress, thus clearing the way to fix the problem.

What are the fundamentals you ask? Well they are the frequent subject of this very column, Magic Art Matters – things like composition, form, line quality, and negative versus positive space, perspective, proportions, and anatomy, just to name some of the most important.

So you may ask: Why the big buildup? Why focus on one seemingly innocent statement that overestimated the role of creativity and so-called love of the work?

I’ll tell you why – and the answer is two-fold.

First of all, the distinction is important – and if I can help, I would like readers to be more well-informed on artistic matters such as this very distinction. Secondly, I think the Wizards art department could stand to be reminded that fundamental drawing quality is extremely important, and that there are some customers out here who are paying attention.

Why would I make such a brash statement, saying that Wizards needs to pay more attention to the fundamentals? Well just look at the quality of some of the artwork for the Soldiers of the Onslaught block so far to find the answer.

Later on, I’ll site three examples of dysfunctional soldiers and discuss some of the problem areas. Throughout the course of those discussions, and as appropriate, it will be helpful to revisit the fundamentals, primarily proportion and perspective, and to a lesser extent, pose. To end this article on an upbeat note though, I will discuss an example of an Onslaught soldier that is perfectly acceptable regarding these elusive fundamentals.

The subject of proportion was discussed previously in my Gravedigger critique. It can not be emphasized enough that when drawing a human character, adherence to the rule of proportions is essential. The basic idea is that the typical human is eight heads tall. Of course, there can be exceptions to the rule that may represent a design choice. For example, illustrations from the field of fashion design frequently use a figure height of eleven heads to establish the proportions. This is done to emphasize the long lines and style that are characteristic of fashion art. This choice also highlights femininity – and I would not be surprised if the Onslaught Pacifism, for example, used an eleven head rule.

Another exception that applies, especially in the genre of fantasy art, is that human-like characters such as zombies, elves, goblins and dwarves are allowed to break these rules. That is, after all, part of the appeal of fantasy art; we get to imagine creatures that don’t really exist, and as such there is no reference for what the proportions should be. The artist is then free to adjust the rules. That’s where creativity on the part of the artist plays a perfect role.

To reinforce the rule of proportion, I invite you to look at this reference drawing of ideal male proportions. This page is from a classic instructional book on drawing technique entitled”Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth,” by the artist and author Andrew Loomis. Most students of studio life drawing will recognize this graphic; I myself have spent many hours practicing duplication of this drawing and memorizing the relationships between the size and spacing of the various parts of human anatomy.

As an aside, I should mention that practicing drawing technique with this graphic is, for the art student, very similar to the exercise of playtesting for a Magic player. The many hours practicing and memorizing the proportions, and acquiring the motions of drawing into the artist’s muscle memory will save the artist time in the studio when presented with a live model. Less time need be devoted to visually measuring the length of limbs and torso. He just needs to decide on a size for the head, and then everything else on the drawing will be relative to that initial choice in much the same way playtesting against the various matchups will help the tournament player prepare for a match. Less time needs to be wasted learning the opponent’s deck and what responses are best during the actual match – hopefully, such things become second-nature for the well-prepared Magic player.

For an example of mistaken proportions, let’s look at Glory Seeker from Onslaught. I have noticed some of Dave Dorman’s previous work and I have liked it. Unfortunately, this piece seems a little rushed, and fails to live up to the quality I’ve seen in some of his earlier work.

Glory Seeker - Onslaught NM/M

To start with, it seems like Dorman has rendered the soldier’s head correctly and with nice artistry. The length of the forward leg, from kneecap to heel, does appear to be two heads tall – which is correct, proportion-wise. Unfortunately after that point, both the torso and the thigh of the forward leg are too short. The torso, from the very bottom of the throat to the very bottom of the pelvis should be approximately three heads in length (remember that from the top of the head to the crotch should be four heads). Even taking into account perspective, foreshortening, and the forward leaning pose, the torso seems to be at best two heads in length. Add to that the fact the thigh appears to be no more than one-and-a-half heads in length, and we are starting to have a seriously misshapen soldier.

A side effect of this is that the forward leg also appears to not only be at the wrong angle, but also attached too high on the torso – almost as if it were coming out of the body right below the bottom of the ribcage. That is not a good sign, especially since the leg is supposed to attach to the pelvis, at the hip area.

It is unfortunate because I can easily imagine this as a nice drawing – that is, of course, if the pose was totally upright, and the proportions handled correctly. But that is not how the pose was set up and the results are less than optimal. If I were to guess as to what happened, I would say that in an attempt to fit a full figure into the frame, given the head size that he started with, the pose became overly crouched. In such an unnatural pose it is even harder to capture the proportions correctly.

I do have to say that I like some aspects of this composition: Dorman has provided a nice outcropping of rocks in the lower left corner that serve as a foreground object of interest, and also counterbalances the bulk of the figure. Now what role the rocks play in the storytelling, I do not know, but at least they serve a purpose compositionally.

Now moving on to the subject perspective, I’d like to call you attention to the cover of another instructional art book by Burne Hogarth. Hogarth’s specialty is the drawing of figures in deep perspective – and this book in particular, entitled”Dynamic Figure Drawing,” is full of beautiful illustrations and instructions in the technique. I provide this as an example of excellent perspective work. I consider pieces such as this with awe, and could admire this and many of the drawings in the body of the book for hours on end, given their demonstrated mastery of the fundamental drawing attribute of perspective.

As described in the my earlier Spelljack critique, perspective refers to tendency in a drawing for lines that are parallel on the subject properly taper and recede into the horizon in a believable way. Even if the subject has no actual hard-edged lines, it can be simplified and visualized as some combination of cubic volumes. As long as those volumes are drawn in proper perspective with respect to one another and the horizon of the piece, the drawing can be said to show perspective correctly.

The examples of perspective within the Spelljack painting include the way that the outstretched hand that holds the spellbook, and the bent leg on the right side. Respectively, the hand seems to project outwards away from the canvas and towards the viewer, and the leg receded inwards, towards the deep background. Both of those elements of Spelljack show proper execution of perspective.

As for poor treatment of perspective, using an Onslaught soldier as an example, let’s look at Deftblade Elite.

Deftblade Elite - Legions NM/M

In the case of this painting, Alan Pollack seems to start out with the right idea… But somehow fails in its execution. Focusing mainly on the forward leg, we can see that Pollack is attempting to show perspective. The upper portion of the leg does appear to be a reasonably-rendered cylinder that seems to be projecting towards the viewer. That is all well and good; however, the leg is altogether too large. By drawing the two thighs with differing size, the artist is indicating depth; however, it is not plausible for the front leg to be so severely larger, unless some type of lens distortion is being implied. I do not think the latter is the case here; there are no other clues to lead us to that conclusion.

Notice that if you block out the forward leg this drawing, it is an otherwise fine drawing, including the execution of proper proportions. Speaking of proportion, that is another tip-off to problems with the Elite’s forward leg: Given the seemingly harsh forward lean of the pose, we should expect to see the Elite’s head forward and in nearly the same plane as the lower leg. That does not seem to be the case here, because the visible portion of the lower leg itself, below the knee is two heads in length. Based on that I would estimate that the entire lower leg would then be about three heads tall. That is clearly too long, given that it should be about two heads from knee to heel.

Before leaving these two pieces, it is worth mentioning that I do not find either of these poses very satisfying. Little thought seems to have gone into visualizing how a human should actually look while running. For the most part, while running, a person is upright, with perhaps a very slight forward lean. The exception would be if the runner was in fact”hurdling” over some object, in which case a more forward lean would be acceptable.

Furthermore, when running, the legs tend to move in a bicycling pattern; they do not flail about wildly in the extreme positions shown by these two soldiers. If I were an enemy soldier witnessing these two run towards me in battle, I would probably laugh at them, thinking, It won’t be long before these two uncoordinated twits fall over on themselves.

As for the last of the defective soldiers, I must say that the problem, compared to the other two pieces discussed is relatively minor. In fact it looks more like an oversight – something that would be akin to a typographical error in the writing world. Still, it is an error, and it should not have been hard for Wizards Art to catch and correct.

The piece in question is Stoic Champion, which is another nice painting by Greg Hildebrandt.

Stoic Champion - Legions NM/M

There are a lot of things I like about this one, including the effect of the apparent reflection shown in the highly-polished shield of the subject soldier. There is nice composition, depth, and form, but the problem lies in the lower anatomy and carriage of weight.

Notice how the soldier is crouched, with the one visible leg bent. This implies a symmetrical pose with the second leg similarly crouched, and hidden by the shield. That’s where the problem is – the bottom of the shield is narrow enough that it should by all rights reveal some part of the second leg, especially given how wide the visible leg appears. Without showing that leg, when it is clear that it should be large enough to be seen, we seem to have been presented with a dysfunctional anatomy.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the second leg is required to carry half the weight of the figure. Without showing the leg, we have problem anatomy, and unresolved balance.

If Wizards would have been paying attention, this minor problem could have been easily fixed it in-house, without even causing the need for it to go back to the artist himself. Unfortunately, they either failed to see it – or they saw it and chose not to fix it. I guess that is okay, but I for one would like to see art that is correct as possible in the fundamentals. To me correct proportions, perspective, anatomy and pose, i.e., the fundamentals of drawing, are all more important than whether or not a Sliver has the wrong number of arms. I guess that is where Wizards Art part ways in our consideration of Magic art.

Just so you don’t think I am bagging indiscriminately on Onslaught soldiers I’ll leave you with an example of one that is perfectly acceptable regarding the fundamentals. Consider Gravel Slinger.

Gravel Slinger - Onslaught NM/M

A nice piece by one of my favorite artists, Kev Walker. So let’s go down the checklist

Proportions: Correct, no problems.

Perspective: Seems okay, but the pose is simple enough that everything is in the same plane, easier to draw – but it looks good, so no complaints here.

Pose: Looks fine, it is dynamic and has movement. Plus, there are no”dysfunctional” elements.

(I should mention, though, that the choice to overlap the arm totally on the torso is an interesting choice – what that does is reduce the strength of the pose somewhat in silhouette, not a great loss overall though, because otherwise the silhouette is still strong.)

Form: This is fine; the figure seems three-dimensional and light wraps around it in an appealing and dynamic way.

Composition: The composition is superb. Note that the legs are cropped off, but the weight still seems”carried” correctly – the choice to crop below the knee allowed Walker to create a full figure with a good amount of detail. To see what I mean, compare the Slinger’s head to the Glory Seeker’s head; they are roughly the same size – but can’t you see how the Seeker is cramped and forced-looking, while the Slinger is relaxed, dynamic and compelling.

In summary, aside from Walker’s Slinger, a number of Onslaught soldiers display some nagging problems regarding execution on the fundamentals. While they may be arguably small problems, they are problems nonetheless. In each case, it seems as if Wizards could have spotted these problems – if not in the rough draft stage, then at the very least in final production prior to printing. Sometimes work has to be turned back to the artist with the comment,”the pose is wrong,” or”the perspective needs to be fixed,” or”correct the proportions and anatomy,” and so on. Why things like this do not get caught, and go on to production unfixed I do not know.

I do know however, that until such time as Wizards Art routinely catches and fixes problems like the ones discussed here, Magic art as a whole will not achieve the levels of accomplishment that it is capable of achieving. And while clearly, creativity and love of work are important assets that a Magic artist can possess, they should not be overly valued at the expense of the fundamentals of artistic execution.

Some of the soldiers of Onslaught indicate that there is room for improvement. I just hope that your reading of this article has helped you see that, and that it has also helped you become better informed about Magic Art Matters.

Michael Jay LaRue

Engineer Legend

[email protected]

P.S.: Keep in mind that we may soon have”Creature Type – Human” adorning the face of our cards. At least that may serve as additional reminder to Wizards that they if the creatures are labeled Human, they better darn well look like humans in terms of anatomy, perspective, proportions, and pose.

P.P.S.: My casual multiplayer group is still looking for additional adult players. If you’re interested, we play in the Los Angeles, Orange County area, near South Coast Plaza and Newport Beach, usually on either Thursday or Sunday nights. Drop me a line.