Magic Art Matters – Digging Up Old Art For Eighth Edition

Three Gravediggers from three sets – and only one of them is artistically flawless. Which Gravedigger doesn’t belong? Check it out for a full art critique of Tempest, Odyssey, and 7th!

The essential point of my previous article, which featured a critique of the Spelljack illustration, was that Magic artwork can be objectively evaluated on its merits by applying the aesthetic rules of art. A secondary but still important point was that it will be helpful for us to be informed customers on this subject so that we can have a positive influence on the quality of future Magic artwork.

It seems that my article was rather timely – because the artistic approach that will be taken for Eighth Edition was the subject a recent Latest Developments column by Randy Buehler.

In his column, Randy summarized the planned philosophy that will be used for Eighth Edition art selection. In effect the approach will be:

[1] about 10% of the artwork will be newly commissioned and executed;

[2] Wizards will use”greatest hits” approach to the art, meaning that they’re going to use the”best art that the card has ever had…”

And finally,

[3] when two”good” version exist, the customer community will be able to choose which one goes in the set.

Notice his use of”best”, and”good”; this is encouraging, because it reveals awareness by Wizards that the quality of artwork is both important and measurable, and that they are intent on truly delivering the best artwork possible for the next basic set.

I personally like the approach that will be used. Furthermore, I am encouraged that such a prominent spokesman for Wizards is publicly discussing the quality of Magic artwork, and thereby acknowledging its importance within the game. All of this bodes well for the future prospects for Magic art; while it is already very good, it will in all likelihood continue to improve as new sets are developed and released under this philosophy.

Now, given that we will have a say in some artistic choices for Eighth it is best that we continue to become versed on the aesthetic rules of art. Again I will put forth a critique of existing Magic artwork. However, this time to make it germane to the choices that will soon be put to us, I will compare three different versions of a common staple card that has shown up numerous times, and is currently in Type II. The card I have chosen to discuss is Gravedigger as it appears in its Tempest, Seventh Edition, and Odyssey versions.

Before proceeding, I should point out that while change is inevitable, it is not always for the better. This is contrary to what some self-help books or management gurus would have you believe, and it is true for Magic art; change is not always for the better.

7th Edition Gravedigger

I believe that the weakest of these three is the Gravedigger printed in Seventh Edition. The choice of composition doomed this piece from the onset. First of all, the object of interest is placed smack dab in the middle of the frame. This is a boring choice, and stifles any potential for movement in the drawing. In addition, the central placement makes the negative space that surrounds the character overly symmetrical, and therefore uninteresting to the eye.

Secondly, the artist has not made it clear whether the Zombie’s right leg (which appears on the left side of the drawing) is behind the mound, or is in fact inside the pit of the grave. By being unclear, the artist has not properly shown how the character’s weight is distributed during the activity. If the leg is behind the mound and the arms are extended as shown, then the center of gravity would cause the Zombie to tumble forward without any other means of support. If the leg is in the mound, then it must be clear – otherwise the weight distribution simply looks wrong.

A related problem with this part of the scene is its flat appearance. Note the highly-lit negative space formed between the legs. If that space was as bright as it appears even on this moonlit night, it would bring enough light into the grave that it would actually shine into the grave and cast shadows. Without realistic behavior of the light and shadows, the image seems confusing to the eye, and in particular makes this part of the drawing seem very flat and lifeless as a result. As was discussed in the Spelljack critique, correct rendering of light and shadow is critical to the proper display of form in a drawing.

To his credit, the artist has done a good job creating depth in the background with a well-executed set of fog enshrouded tombstones and rickety fence, all of which are shown in silhouette.

Interestingly, I think this illustration could have been saved with some judicious cropping. To see what I mean, block off the bottom half so that no part of the burial mound is shown. Notice that nothing is really lost by obscuring the bottom half – because in fact the mound itself does not add anything to the scene! Also, notice that there is nothing in the foreground to create additional depth. It’s a bad sign when removing so much area from a drawing improves a piece; more evidence of a problem with the composition.

After blocking off the bottom half, now obscure the leftmost portion of the picture in order to restore the aspect ratio of the canvas size. What is left is a tight drawing of the character, bounded on the bottom by the midpoint of both thighs, and on the left by the tip of the shovel.

Notice that this suggestion would solve many of the other compositional problems, such as the central placement of the character, uninteresting negative space, and the absence of a foreground object. If cropped as suggested, the figure would become better placed in the left-center of the frame, and the shovel and Zombie hands would become the foreground object.

As a general rule, though, I would prefer that the art director not tamper with composition via cropping unless it’s absolutely needed. In other words, cropping should only be used to improve the composition of a piece; unfortunately, there are ample cases where cropping has hurt a piece. Discussion of such examples may be the topic of a future article.

Odyssey Version of Gravedigger

With regard to Odyssey version of Gravedigger, it is a somewhat better piece than the one just discussed. This is primarily due to the well executed depth of the scene; there are faint, interesting shapes in the background, and an askew tombstone in the foreground. The proportions, form, and anatomy of the character are correct, making this a good drawing; however, once again I am unsure about the placement of the feet. When doing something as physically demanding as shoveling, the connection to the ground is critical, and it would help us as viewers to see the carriage of weight via visible, well-placed feet. As it is, it almost looks like the artist was taking a shortcut. We will never know if this is the case, however; this piece would be markedly better if the feet were visible and correctly drawn.

Tempest Version Of Gravedigger

Now for the superior painting within this trio, let’s look at the Tempest version of Gravedigger. Compositionally, it is excellent. The character is placed slightly to the left, and it appears to have bulk, weight, and well executed form. This choice of placement yields a very interesting negative space surrounding the character. The beauty of the negative space is heightened by the way the shovel is situated in the composition.

With regard to form, the figure appears very three dimensional; this is achieved in large part by the interplay between the light and shadows. The prime example of well rendered form is found in the highly-muscled upper arm of the zombie.

As was discussed in the Spelljack critique, proper observance of the rules of proportion are important when drawing characters. A human must be roughly eight ‘heads’ tall to look correct. When drawing a non-human character like this Zombie, the artist is free to make it up as he goes, because there is no true reference for Zombies. This one in particular seems very bulky on top, with relatively spindly legs… But we are not put off by this, because we expect a fantasy creature to look different than a human. It is evident, though, that this artist has mastered the rules of human proportion through countless hours in life-drawing classes before he has taken the liberty to skillfully bend the rules here for artistic effect.

The subject of perspective, or foreshortening, is not even an issue in this scene. That is because all elements of the drawing are in the same plane of the canvas; nothing at all is receding into the background, nor is anything protruding outward towards the viewer. Thus, nothing has to be drawn in perspective, since everything is in pure profile view. In some ways, this is easier for the artist. In this case, the choice does not appear to be a shortcut, but rather a reasonable decision to compose the scene for the effect desired by the artist.

As for the outstanding lighting that is evident in this piece, notice how the back of the Zombie’s upper arm as well as the back of the head is bathed in white light. This implies a strong light source, which I infer to be a full moon and which is most likely placed in the upper left corner, just outside of the scene. The lit portion of the arm is contrasted by the dark region of shadows between the two figures. Those dark shadows are in fact very interesting shapes, and they are the darkest parts of the drawing. Note that the eye is usually first drawn to the darkest object. We do not feel cheated, as if deprived of seeing something interesting in there; we accept that based on where the light is coming from, there would be a dark shadow on the interior.

For now, we should just appreciate that the artist has done a good job creating interesting dark shapes that also serve to reveal the form of the figure. This is very nice!

Another strength of the composition is that the bulky figure of the Zombie on the left is counterbalanced nicely by the shovel on the right. This literally gives a sense of balance and creates a certain visual tension within the piece. Careful crafting by the artist has resulted in very nice negative space between the shovel and the unearthed corpse.

Great depth is conveyed in the scene by the indication of trees in the far background, tree limbs and perhaps roots in the middle background (just behind the shovel), and the half buried skull in the foreground. Also occupying the foreground are the hanging branches and leaves in the upper left corner. Depth is also reinforced by the application of the rule that, from foreground to background, objects go from darker to lighter. This is a subtle strength of this drawing. A side benefit of this dark to light execution is that it gives the drawing movement so to speak, in that our eye is drawn from lower left to upper right by this technique.

A noteworthy aspect of this drawing is the beauty of the atmospheric quality captured by the artist. The way the fog is captured in the background is excellent. Also, the points on the tops of the two figures’ heads that receive the most light are saturated with a white glow that in fact obscures the actual edges of the figures in that area. This is an artistic technique by which the artist implies a shape without even actually drawing it. In this case, the artist has made use of a”soft edge” to capture the tops of the two character’s heads.

Ironically while these areas (the Zombie’s head and shoulders) within the Tempest drawing are beautiful, the same areas on the Seventh Edition version are harsh due to the presence of a hard line. To make matters worse, this hard line is rendered in an inappropriate color. The result is the appearance of on outline that is rarely evident in the way we see things normally.

There is one significant problem with this drawing, though; notice the shadow cast by the shovel? It starts at the buried tip of the shovel, and is cast downward to eventually meet the figure at the Zombie’s sandaled foot. This direction of a shadow is not consistent with the way moonlight strikes the head, neck, and the back of the arm of the Zombie. For the light to be where the shovel shadow indicates, the top of the shoulder should be receiving much more light – which it is not. Furthermore, if the shovel’s shadow was correct, then there should be a corresponding shadow being cast by the Zombie which would fall on the ground to the left of the character. The space on the ground that now receives the thin shadow of the shovel should in fact be occupied by a broader shadow which would be cast by the Zombie given the apparent position of the light source which was previously discussed.

Finally, one aspect of this drawing that deserves praise is how thoughtfully it was created in the mind of the artist before he even put pen to paper. The artist carefully crafted this scene in his head to be an almost perfect depiction of what the card is in the game of Magic. First notice the shovel; it is planted off to the side and the character is not even using it to dig. The artist is using the shovel as a symbol to indicate that this character is a gravedigger, without resorting to the boring cliché of drawing* the digger while digging. This choice lets the shovel be an interesting balancing element in the composition, and frees the character to develop another aspect of his functionality within the game. Remember, the card text says”…return target creature card from your graveyard to your hand”. In this depiction, the gravedigger is actually interacting with the creature that is being retrieved from the grave. In what now appear to be a stroke of genius (it is either that or a very fortuitous coincidence) notice how the gravedigger’s hands are prominently placed near the center of the scene, and how they are holding the graveyard creature. Recall that the text says return”…to your hand.” I think that is brilliant!

And if you may have been tempted to overlook the role of the hands in the composition, the artist wrapped the right hand in a loose bandage. The bandage, along with the fact that the hands are slightly oversized subtly draws attention to the hands and insures that they are not lost amidst the surrounding artistic elements. This is just more finishing touch that clearly separates this as the superior piece amongst the three discussed in this article. My appreciation goes to the artist Dermot Power for an excellent job on a beautiful illustration!

In preparing this article, I really enjoyed the process of close examination of this artwork. More and more I came to an awareness of, and appreciation for, the craftsmanship evident; especially in that of the Tempest version. The more I considered the Tempest version – which, by the way, was also used in Sixth Edition – the more perplexed I became at the decision by Wizards to re-commission the illustration for both Seventh Edition and Odyssey. Rather than sticking with a beautiful piece, that perfectly embodies (pun intended) what a Magic Gravedigger is, they fielded not one, but two lesser versions for sets that followed after it was last printed in Sixth Edition.

That is why it is important for us to come up to speed on these types of considerations for the artwork of Magic. This is true now more than ever since we will soon have the unique opportunity to influence the artistic content of Eighth Edition. I believe that this example, a comparison of different versions of Gravedigger, is appropriate to prepare for the artistic choices that will be put forth for Eighth Edition. If Gravedigger was destined for Eighth Edition, and we voted between the possible choices discussed here, I doubt that the other versions would prevail over the superior Tempest/Sixth Edition version.

This is a great invitation being that Wizards is making, and I for one am excited by the prospect of participating** in the process; I hope you are, too!

Michael Jay LaRue

Engineer Legend

[email protected]

* – Both the Seventh Edition and Odyssey versions of Gravedigger were drawn with the characters fully engaged in the act of digging while the Tempest version was more contemplative; he was, in fact, not digging at all. That in itself does not make the Tempest version any less of a Gravedigger. It just means he has taken to heart the old saying – but modified it slightly for his own purposes; he has simply”…slowed down and taken times to smell the corpses.”

** – For me, participating in the process includes sharing my knowledge of the aesthetic rules of art with the Magic Community. If this is helpful to you, please let me know, and also, do not be shy about letting The Ferrett know as well.