Magic Art Matters: Is Anyone Paying Attention To The Top Half Of The Card?

From what I can see through the limited portal provided by Arcana, Magic art is thriving in spite of Wizards Art Department, not because of it. The style guides we’ve seen are of horrid quality – and these are the models that Wizards asks their artists to emulate! Furthermore, the Wizards Art Department is wasting time by providing poor specifications that require sudden (and potentially shoddy) redrawings, while genuine artistic errors go through. They seem to think that just so long as”stuff looks cool,” everything will be all right… And I disagree.

Okay, I’ve got to admit it: I like Magicthegathering.com. I check it almost every day, and I especially like to tune in to hear what Rosewater and Buehler have to say about what’s going on in the world of Magic making. Of course I am duty-bound to read each installment of Wachter’s "Behind the Canvas," which is always a good read and informative to boot – too bad that, strictly speaking, there is nothing behind the canvas.* I also try to catch Alongi’s articles, but more for nostalgic reasons – I used to love his work here at StarCity, where his personality and multiplayer anecdotes were both present in abundance. Unfortunately the corporate gig seems to have caused all the personality to seep out into the ether, lost forever like so many socks in the dryer.

Speaking of personality, I surely do miss John F. Rizzo writing here on StarCity. He does continue to extrude periodic offerings at the paltry rate of about two a year – but I guess I just wish he’d be more regular. I don’t even mind having to step around the occasional "ass" worship theme – I just miss the personality in his writing.

As an aside, I actually met Rizzo at Grand Prix: Boston. That’s right, I made the trip from LA to Boston; I wanted to prove to all who care that I could figure out a way to lose badly at Sealed Deck events on both coasts. And lose badly, I might add, despite having cracked Akroma, Angel of Wrath, Dragon Roost, Pinpoint Avalanche, Erratic Explosion, and Shock with plenty of good support Goblins and Soldiers. Anyone with half an ounce of Magic skill would have made day two easily with my deck… But despite scrubbing out of the main event, I had a fun weekend, and meeting Rizzo was but one of many memorable moments. He even threw me a bone at the trial Friday night when he asked me what I thought about the composition and negative space of Starstorm. I realized later that he contrived that exchange as a way of fitting me into his GP Boston report. I thought that was really cool; thanks for the mention, John.**

Back on point though, one of the main reasons for me to pay attention to mtg.com is the inclusion of the regular feature known as Arcana. With its focus on the artistic side of Magic development activities, I find it both very entertaining and informative. I’ve often quoted or referenced Arcana here in Magic Art Matters, as there are ample preliminary sketches of commissioned works, as well as high-resolution, large scans of the final paintings turned in by the artists. These come in handy when I review such a piece – it is much easier to see the details of the work in a relatively large JPEG rather than have to squint at the art in "actual" size on a card.

Anyway, as good as the Arcana feature is, it also tends to be a mixed blessing – or at least it is for me. I kind of chalk it up to the old "ignorance is bliss" truism: Without Arcana, my view of the art is limited to cards themselves. The cards stand alone, and can be judged purely on what they look like. This levels the playing field and allows each to be judged on its own artistic merit.

Now however, with the introduction of the Arcana feature, new aspects of the behind-the-scenes processes are laid bare. When Wizards shows how they conduct artistic development, they open themselves to scrutiny along the lines of "…why did they do it that way?" That is where I come in; I am the guy that asks why, and by writing Magic Art Matters, hopefully I help you to become better equipped to ask similar questions.

With that in mind, I want to talk about several recent Arcana offerings that really make me wonder about what is going on in the Wizards Art Department. At the conclusion of this article, I will offer a theory as to what I think is happening.

Since the beginning of Arcana, there has been the occasional cropping problem such as the one mentioned in the Walking Desecration installment of Magic Art Matters. No biggie, live and learn… But then earlier this year we found out about the (gag!) new cardface design. Then there was my series of observations about the Onslaught Soldiers – the soldiers discussed in that article are quite badly misshapen and most likely prone to ambulatory dysfunction.

All things considered, I am starting to see a trend: For the first of two examples of ongoing artistic freakiness, please look at this installment of Arcana on the subject of the style guide for the Onslaught Wizards.

The text found there adequately describes the purpose of the style guide; basically it is created to serve as the model for the wizard characters that artists should try to emulate in their assigned paintings. The problem lies in the actual quality of this model sketch that was produced by Wizards Art Department.

In short, it is a very flawed piece.

Normally, I would not care that much that a single piece was flawed… But this is the model distributed for the artists to emulate! If that’s the case, then Heaven help the poor artists; hopefully, the quality of their training and their own judgment will help prevent them from taking the suggestions of the model sketch too seriously, especially when it come to pose selection, anatomy and perspective.

Let’s start with the pose. What is this wizard doing? Because of the trailing leg, and outstretched arms, he looks like he is supposed to be running. If that is the case, then the pose is extremely unnatural. To be in a proper stride, I would expect the front leg to project forward slightly and be drawn in perspective. Furthermore, it would look better if the heel was striking the ground first. Clearly, neither of these is true – the wizard is supporting his full weight, flat footed, on a perfectly straight standing leg. That is not a normal running position.

The artist, who happens to be un-credited, looks like he tried to project the foot forward by making the standing foot larger, as if in perspective. Unfortunately, no other part of the leg is in perspective, which would be required for consistency. The leg is straight, with no bend at the knee at all. Furthermore, the way it is drawn, the foot appears unnaturally large compared to the size of the head. This is especially true, since it appears that the wizard is intended to be depicted as leaning forward – which is, again, not natural.

As for the trailing leg, the foot is properly placed – too bad that the anatomy and proportions of the rest of the leg are totally mangled! The human thigh is a pretty massive object as body parts go, but I can not account for it anywhere in this drawing. Where is the knee? There is a knee-like corner, but it cannot be placed where it is shown and still correctly connect to a thigh – there is no way to account for a thigh that could connect that knee to the corresponding hip.

Perhaps this wizard is some kind of misshapen mutant – but I think that possibility was ruled out in the descriptive text, which explained that this breed of Onslaught Refugee Wizards is "human-like" compared to the wizards found in the follow-up sets in the block. To me it looks like the artist became committed to a pose in silhouette, put some time into the drawing, and later realized the problematic anatomy. Rather than fix the pose, he chose to obscure the problem in a vast uniform shadow under the cape and torso area hoping that no one would notice.

Well, I noticed.

One more serious problem that could have easily been avoided is the tangent formed where the trailing foot just barely touches what appears to be the knee area of the standing leg. The effect is that the tangent makes the foot now appear as if it is in the same plane as the standing leg. That simply can not be – the leg is otherwise drawn to be in trail. With just a slight overlap either way, the position could have been clarified and the drawing improved commensurately.

Topping it all off is the meager negative space that the artist created – the "L" shape between the legs is actually quite a boring shape. So, not only do we have a tangent, but the resulting space it ultimately created is boring.

Great! We now have what is commonly referred to as a "Lose-Lose" situation.

The funny thing is that I would not normally care about these shortcomings on this drawing… But this is what they published as the model to strive for! On top of that, this is being put forth on the website as the means of giving insight into the artistic development process. If Wizards is going to give us insight – which is a good thing – I’d prefer they use strong examples rather than weak ones. The message it sends is that the Wizards Art Department doesn’t really care all that much about the fundamentals. Just so long as "stuff looks cool," everything will be all right.

Excuse me, but I beg to differ. The fundamentals are important.

For the second example of freakiness, take a look at this installment of Arcana Sketches, which features Noxious Ghoul from Legions. The point of this particular installment is to show how a drawing evolved based on review and input from Wizards Art. I will use it as an example of how Wizards Art is focusing on trivial things, all the while leaving the important fundamentals untended.

I hope you took time to look at all three sketches in sequence, and that you caught the blurb – "The art team had a lot to say about this card, so there were several changes."

In this case, I really feel for the artist. Luca Zontini was given a reasonable description: "…show a refugee zombie moving towards the viewer surrounded by insects or flies that spread disease. Several of these can be closer to the viewer so we can tell what they are. Make sure, however, that the focus is on the zombie."

To his credit, Luca did a fine job following these instructions. Based on what they asked him to do, and given what he produced in response for final approval, there was nothing wrong with his initial effort… Nothing wrong at all.

This is a case of Wizards Art just creating a moving target, somewhat capriciously – and asking for rework arbitrarily. If it was so important for this zombie to have "six-pack abs", and be the epitome of a "hulking, mutated Noxious Ghoul", then why not ask for it in the first place? Did you see any mention of six-pack abs, hulking figure, and "…extra arms (and creepy fingerlike appendages)"?

Neither did I.

These artists work hard and have busy schedules, often working on very tight deadlines. The fact that Luca had to respond to numerous go-backs for things that were not even in the original specification strikes me as quite absurd. It reminds me of those old Western movies where the bad guy makes his captive dance by shooting bullets at the ground beneath him. I guess that go-backs wouldn’t bother me that much… But at the very same time, they are letting other much more flawed work get printed such as the twisted Onslaught soldiers.

Bottom line my plea to Wizards Art is this: Don’t bother with go-backs on trivial matters, when work is slipping past your review that is weak in the fundamentals of drawing. Focus on insuring the highest quality possible when it comes to the fundamentals; fix the nice-to-haves afterwards, not first, and certainly not at the expense of the fundamentals.

So in essence, from what I can see through the limited portal provided by Arcana, Magic art, it seems to me, is thriving in spite of Wizards Art Department, not because of it. If Art has done anything that contributes to artistic success, it must be limited to the area of recruiting and retaining quality artists – the Rebecca Guay fiasco notwithstanding.*** Having a reliable stable of skilled, well-trained artists, which is for the most part true, in some ways the art takes care of itself – it can survive weak leadership from the Art department, the artists know what they are doing, and just execute within their skills, training and experience. That is a good thing.

However if Wizards Art was really on the ball, the art we enjoy on our cards could be taken to even higher levels of achievement and accomplishment.

I think we may be lacking is strong leadership within Wizards Art. To be fair, maybe quality leadership is there, but it is just not that visible to us. On the other hand, consider the leadership roles that Rosewater and Buehler play.

Rosewater plays the role of the primary spokesman for the entire game. In that role, it is clear that he is enthusiastic, articulate, and passionate about Magic, and he promotes it as such. Furthermore he operates with a sense of vision and purpose for the maintenance and growth of the game. Likewise, Buehler performs a similar role as the lead of R&D. How many times have you heard these guys talk about the color wheel and the ongoing effort to balance and rebalance the wheel for the betterment of the game? With regard to "flavor" and "mechanics," both gentlemen speak and act with vision and purpose. I am sure that that leadership carries over effectively into the day-to-day operations within Wizards. The degree of success that they, along with the entire Wizards Magic production team achieve, is evident in the current healthy state of the game as it approaches its 10th anniversary. That is quite an accomplishment for the first CCG!

Unfortunately, I do not see comparably strong leadership for the artistic aspect of the game. It would be great for someone within Wizards to put forth a vision**** for the future of Magic art. Ideally, that vision would include, among other things, ongoing commitments to [1] achieving the highest levels artistic performance possible and, [2] doing so by striving to promote and demonstrate mastery of all aspects of the fundamentals of drawing for all Magic art. Hopefully, the person who articulates that vision will be as effective and skilled in his role as the Rosewater/Buehler team currently appears to be in actual practice.

After all, Rosewater and Buehler are doing a great job tending to the bottom half of the card, who is doing the same thing for the top half of the card?

Something to think about…

Michael Jay LaRue

Engineer Legend

[email protected]

* – There is nothing behind the canvas – unless you count an easel, or a desktop. The artist stands in front of the canvas while working on a painting. Oh well. I guess having a catchy title is more important than having an accurate title. No biggie, it is still a good series.

** – I thought the mention was really cool especially in light of the fact that, in at least some small way, I consider Rizzo a mentor of sorts. If not strictly speaking a mentor, then he is at least an inspiration of sorts. I wrote my first, and so far only, tournament report partly in response to his infamous Seventh Edition "review" – if you can call it that. Furthermore, I conceived of the idea for Magic Art Matters in the aftermath of the Rizzo departure from StarCity, and partly in response to our esteemed editor’s resultant "call for submissions.”

*** – Hmm… Maybe I am conceding their skill in handling the stable of artists too soon; that whole Rebecca Guay affair was handled very badly. That caused quite an uproar out hear in the Fans of Magic Art World.

**** — Just so we are clear, I do not consider the "vision" demonstrated by the 8th Edition cardface redesign to qualify for what I am talking about. Aside from the fact that I think the new design is hideous and ill-conceived, how it was carried out and executed is the quite the opposite of what I am advocating.

Instead, I offer the suggestion that the redesign is itself evidence of the lack of effective artistic leadership. I am simply focusing on what it might take to successfully cultivate and further the actual art itself.

P.S. – This article made no mention of Hundroog. (Hundroog! – The Ferrett)