I have been pretty busy lately, but things have been going well for me, and I have a lot of reasons to be grateful. At work, I have switched to a new position that came with a promotion and greater stature in the organization. My fitness is improving as a result of more discipline in my exercise regime and due to taking up the Atkins diet.* I’m taking another life drawing class at the community college after a several-year absence, knocking off the rust, and re-acquiring my drawing skills. I have plenty of great friends, and to top it all off, my playgroup has added two and a half** new people, putting us at five and a half regulars.
Through all of this activity, I seem to be doing a good job of staying young-at-heart, and I am enjoying life. Part of my success in that regard is that I consider myself to be a man of simple pleasures. I do not live life in the fast lane, and I don’t have extravagant tastes. I can have a great time just sitting out on a jetty enjoying a sunny day, watching the surf off of Dana Point here in SoCal. Riding my Schwinn Beach Cruiser around the neighborhood is another example of a simple pleasure that I enjoy. I sometimes find myself just riding in front of my own house, doing lazy figure-eights,*** just like that crazy racist from”A Beautiful Mind.”
I can even have a good time just sitting on my front porch late in the evening, smoking a cigar, and listening to Led Zeppelin on the boom box. Of course, I must confess that my taste in cigars has become more sophisticated. Starting with enjoying the lowly Swisher Sweet (back in the day, with my good friend Jay), I now am more likely to choose an Ashton Maduro – at a price factor of at least forty-eight times what I paid for the Swishers. And that doesn’t even account for inflation, since after all, my enjoyment of the Swishers was from an era some time ago.
In many ways, Magic is also a simple pleasure for me. It is a multifaceted game that combines collectability, deck design, strategy, both casual and competitive play options, and for me, it also includes elements of art appreciation. All in all it is a darn good game; well conceived, designed and maintained by Wizards of the Coast, for both our enjoyment and their profit – a win/win situation for all concerned.
One of the highlights of Magic for me is the prerelease tourney. I look forward to these events with a childlike anticipation. While this may sound hokey to you, it is something I really enjoy, and I am sure it plays a role in keeping me young-at-heart even though, undeniably, relentlessly, time**** is marching on.
So amidst all this talk of enjoyment, what do I consider to be the quintessential”simple pleasure” for a prerelease? I guess I’d have to say that any prerelease tournament that starts with me finding a flying bear in my pool is bound to be a fun day.
As luck would have, this exact situation occurred last month as I found myself once again in the basement of the LAX Hilton*****, cracking boosters for the Mirrodin prerelease.
I opened my fair share of good cards from the set and was able to build a nice W/R artifact deck – but you have probably already guessed that it was the Leonin Skyhunter that really caught my eye. The last time I remember opening a prerelease flying bear was Gaea’s Skyfolk – another personal favorite of mine from Apocalypse. Nothing beats a 2/2 flier for two******, but maybe that’s just me.
What makes the Leonin Skyhunter all the better is that it is the work of the artist Kev Walker. He has been creating fantastic Magic art for some time now, and I’ll have to admit, he’s my current favorite. With this card, he proves once again that he is at the top of his game.
All the fundamentals are strongly in evidence, which I will discuss shortly. However, there is something very distinctive about this painting that caught my eye. It is an aspect of artistic technique that I have not previously discussed, and I encourage you to examine the painting on your own. See if you can discern what I am alluding to before I reveal and discuss this unique characteristic.
Regarding the basics, the ever-important composition is once again flawless. Beautifully situated in the frame, the two characters comfortably share the space. One does not overshadow the other despite their readily apparent difference in size – the characters are perfectly balanced! Their placement on the page makes me think that Walker probably did several rough sketches, experimenting with different options to achieve the optimum pose. This is one painting that I would really like to see covered in an Arcana, Sketches article. (Hint, hint… Are you guys at Wizards reading this?)
I really like the fact that the picture has been allowed to overlap the edges of the frame. It gives the painting a sense of the mystery that exists beyond the confines of the frame. This approach encourages the viewer to imagine what is outside and unseen, yet it does not rob us of important detail – that which is important is shown. We do not need to literally see that the dragon has wingtips; our mind fills that in for us.
One thing that is curious about the cropping, though, is the way the dragon’s”beak” is cut by the frame. I doubt Walker would have composed the painting like that because to a certain extent, the”beak” is an important part of the creature’s look. Furthermore, the arcing rein that is shown nearly forms a tangent with the bottom of the frame. Again, I don’t think that that would have been Walker’s preferred solution, since tangents are bad in that they tend to flatten out the painting…
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining this time. It appears that Wizards art department has actually done a nice job cropping the piece. The only small compromise is that a small part of the”beak” got cut off; no big deal. Everything else about the resulting composition is superb, especially all the wonderful negative spaces that are evident surrounding the pair of characters.
As far as anatomy and proportion are concerned, no one really knows what a Leonin anything looks like – because, after all, they are”made-up” things. However, using lessons he probably learned in countless hours of life-drawing in the studio with a human model, or even while at the zoo drawing from live animals, Walker has created a very believable”Cat Knight.” The creature has a roughly human form, except for its somewhat longer arms. All things considered, it is pretty believable.
With regard to perspective, the artist has done a nice job on the outstretched arms. The creatures’ right arm is parallel to the plane of the canvas and is therefore in full side view, with no need for foreshortening. However the left arm is another matter. Walker has created the impression that it recedes into the canvas by  making it proportionately shorter, and  making it taper ever so slightly, getting smaller when going from shoulder to wrist, as it should be when drawn in perspective. This impression is perpetuated by the careful relative sizing of the two hand-held swords. Notice how the one on the left is just a little bit larger that the one on the right? This is expertly done! Ideally, when that artist has done a good job, all of these considerations are transparent to us as viewers.
However, that does not mean that it is a simple matter to accomplish. All these things are problems that the artist is faced with, and solutions that must be determined (half the problem) and then executed (the other half).
The dragon itself, which is normally the”star” of any painting in which it appears, seems to be reluctantly (but effectively!) sharing the spotlight this time.
Its pose is perfect for the painting. First of all, from what I have noticed observing a number of species of seabirds along the SoCal coast, it is entirely plausible that the dragon’s head would be somewhat down due to the bobbing head motion that some of those birds show in flight. In addition the placement of the head serves to deconflict it with the seated cat knight. It is as if the dragon is saying,”…oh, all right, I’ll duck down a little so they can see you… but next time; you just wait ’til next time!” These are not accidents. The artist worked hard to achieve this wonderful composition.
I also like the dragon’s anatomy. Walker has attained a nice balance between the muscular and the web-like elements in his rendering of the wing on the left side. The darkened skeleto-muscular limbs seem to have the appropriate bulk to convey strength. This contrasts nicely with the less substantial, almost transparent wing membrane. Notice also how the right-side wing and the tail are rendered in a lighter value of color. This is Walker’s way of economizing his own effort, and stopping short of putting too much detail into those areas of the painting that are farther from the viewer. They are by definition less important, and if drawn with comparable level of refinement would compete needlessly with the foreground details. A second benefit of the choice to use the lighter color is that it heightens the sense of depth; paintings that are accurate in depth gradually transition from dark to light when receding from foreground to background.
Finally, form is well rendered – this scene seems very three-dimensional. This is largely due to the control of value on the characters. The darker undersides of objects, along with the relatively lighter topsides indicate an overhead source of light. Looking closely, it seems like the scene is set on an overcast day, which would cause what is called flat lighting. In other words, there are no sharply defined shadows. Such is the case here; of course the undersides are darker, but only so much so that it is consistent with what would be expected on an overcast day – Walker really knows his stuff. More evidence of a great job!
Just to prove the point made above, take a look at another fine painting by Kev Walker – Unnatural Selection.
Notice that the sky is bright blue, indicating that the scene should be fully immersed in sunlight. Again Walker has captured the light correctly, and this is apparent in the cast shadow on the ground, as well as shadows cast by the various facial features. All the shadows have sharply-defined edges, unlike the Leonin Skyhunter which exhibits overcast, flat lighting conditions.
I must offer a disclaimer, though. Unnatural Selection does look suspiciously computer-generated, but I can’t tell what techniques were used in its creation. It is possible that the whole image is a computer model created within an animation program and then rendered with a blue sky background and an overhead light source. My confusion notwithstanding, for the sake of discussion let’s assume it is all hand done with traditional techniques rather than computer ray-tracing to account for the apparent accuracy of the shadows. With that said, these two pieces by the same artist display two different lighting conditions – one, bright sunlight, and the other, overcast.
By the way, if any of the preceding light discussion is hard to grasp, just think – Groundhog Day! No, not the lame movie, but the rodent coming out of his burrow to look for his shadow – you know the story.
Now to solve the mystery posed at the beginning of this critique – what aspect of the Leonin Skyhunter is especially unique?
The answer lies in the fact that Leonin Skyhunter is a monochromatic painting. By definition, a monochrome (courtesy of www.dictionary.com) is”a picture, especially a painting, done in different shades (or values) of a single color.” A secondary definition is”a black-and-white image, as in photography or on television.”
Essentially, the monochromatic approach constrains how the artist is allowed to convey form via the values of color used in the painting, with the primary constraint being that only one color gets used.
In modern art instruction, beginning students of painting are given exercises and assignments that are monochromatic. To improve their ability to see and capture the simple shapes and shadows that comprise their subjects, the student must attempt to convey form using a single color. The different values that they achieve can only be a function of how much white and black paint they mix in to their base color to obtain the needed range of values.
In the case of Leonin Skyhunter the basic color is a faintly purplish gray. The end result of this approach is more like a black-and-white picture rather that the typical full-color painting we are most accustomed to in Magic art. Just think of the numerous cards that feature a wide range of color – those cards are the norm for Magic. However is this case, observe how much is being conveyed with a limited palette, and ultimately how satisfying a piece it is. This is truly a masterful effort in that regard.
While the monochromatic exercises are helpful to the beginning painter these same techniques were used by the old masters, and are still commonly used today. The technique itself is called underpainting. When using this method the artist first solves the monochrome value questions and then goes back and applies desired colors of the appropriate values, to complete the painting. I found a good description of this process at wetcanvas.com in a short series of articles by contributing editor Michael Georges.
So there you have it. I was really happy to get this card on prerelease day. Happy that it was a flying bear, happy that it was by Kev Walker, and happy to discover that it is a distinctive and beautiful example of a monochromatic painting – a rare thing in the world of Magic art.
The actual details of my tournament performance (another sad 2-2-0, buoyed up by a fourth round no-show) are rather boring. Furthermore, they don’t have much to do with what I call my simple pleasures for the day – but finding out that there was a flying bear in my pool? That was a great way to start my day!
Michael Jay LaRue
* – Atkins works! How does losing twenty-one pounds in about a month sound? Pretty good huh? Starting at 224, my target is around 180. I am doing great and feeling fantastic, with no downside, or ill-effects. The diet itself is very do-able. I eat a lot of protein and fat, and carefully limit carbohydrates to only low-sugar vegetables – there is no counting of calories or weighing of portions, I just cut out the candy bars, Doritos and fries. And snacking isn’t bad at all, as long as you like almonds and cashews. Guess what I had for dinner Saturday night – filet mignon wrapped in bacon, hollandaise sauce and petite lobster with drawn butter, plus a hefty salad topped with chunky blue cheese. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
** – Sorry about using the peculiar accounting notion of”half a person,” but given the circumstances it is the best way to convey the situation. The regular group of me, Ken and Laszlo are happy to welcome Jodi and Mike, and their friend Randy. The”half” refers to the fact that Randy will only be able to play every other week. I suppose that sometimes Laz only counts as a”half” also, which only really happens during football season and when the Bills have an afternoon game. I’ll let you figure out the connection there, but suffice it to say that Laz is both a Bills fan, and a beer fan – and I don’t know if I got those two in the right order. Anyway, it sometimes makes for an interesting game, since we usually start around 6 p.m. each Sunday – right after most of the games are complete.
Anyway, we’re very happy to welcome the new folks although we do have to have a talk about certain play-etiquette house-rules, especially concerning the acceptable frequency and target of Mindslaver activations. To summarize, the answers to the preceding items are”almost never,” and”never me,” respectively, m’kay? Someday, after I come to terms with the awful experience, I will tell you how Mike, on his first night playing with us, targeted me with his Mindslaver’s ability. I suspect that a person’s first night in prison, bent over and pointing the wrong way would have been more pleasant than what I experienced as a result of Mike’s devastating play. Mindslaver is just plain wrong!
*** – By the way, I was doing that bicycle-riding, figure-eight thing long before I had ever heard of John Nash, or of his habit of riding in figure-eights. Does that mean I have a beautiful mind as well? I’d like to think I do – well, everything except for the”crazy racist” part.
**** – Speaking of the relentless assault of time, let me suggest a great song on the subject -“We Close Our Eyes” by Oingo Boingo. I have a preference for the version found on their live 1995 Farewell Concert CD. I had the good fortune to actually attend that very last show of Boingo’s last tour, which was held on Halloween night at the Universal Amphitheater in 1995. What a kickass show that was, and what a great two disc CD set – recorded mostly on that night that I attended. In fact, in the spirit of Halloween fast approaching, and given my mention of time passing, I wrote this article with the Farewell Concert as my background music.
***** – This time though I remembered my hard-earned lesson from the Scourge tournament – I brought my foam earplugs to protect against the shrieking PA that once again so annoyingly delivered Dan Gray’s booming voice. I was very glad to have the plugs because they really helped protect my ears. At least they made it barely comfortable enough to play the game. All through the day, when an announcement was made I glanced around and saw people actually putting their cards down and covering both ears, wincing at the loud intrusions. As for me I just smiled and enjoyed the relative quiet provided by my 29 dB plugs.
****** – As much as I like 2/2 fliers for two, there is also a lot to be said for 1/1 fliers for one. However, we all know that there was quite a span of time between Suntail Hawk and the much-maligned Scryb Sprites. You may laugh at the Sprites, but we’ll see how you feel if I happen to be beating you with a Rancored Sprite on turn two when I play my Treva deck. Heck, forget the Rancor; now that Mirrodin is out, I’m swapping in a Bonesplitter!
P.S.: In parting, I wanted to thank Bud Leiser for the nice e-mail he sent to me earlier this week. He was basically writing to see what I’ve been up to with my writing since I haven’t posted an article recently, and to offer some encouraging words. Like I said, I have been very busy lately, but I certainly did appreciate his e-mail. It is great to see evidence that the message of Magic Art Matters is getting through, and that as a result sometimes it even changes, for the better, the way a person perceives and appreciates the everyday art around them. That made my day; thanks, Bud.
P.P.S. – Thanks to Jan for picking up the tickets for Knott’s Halloween Haunt; that was fun!