Magic Art Matters: The Scourge Art Preview

Is it possible that I have already seen the best piece of Scourge artwork here? I could easily imagine that it’s true – and if not, then there must be some really special works in store for us.

It happens three times a year… And that seems about right. Four would be overkill, and would only make the event too routine. Twice doesn’t seem like quite enough, and once – well, the game would just plain old die on the vine.

Of course, I am talking about the triannual release of expansions for Magic: the Gathering.

There is still enough of the kid in me that I look forward to the prerelease tournaments and retail release dates. I’m not jaded yet – and I hope I never will be! The fact is, deep down, enjoying this game is a way for me to hold on to youth and retain a bit of that childlike enthusiasm. I am grateful to Richard Garfield and to Wizards of the Coast for what the game provides me; grateful to Richard for creating the game in the first place, and grateful to Wizards for keeping the gears turning and continuing to produce a quality game in its many facets.

Speaking of youth (and acknowledging that time does indeed march onward), I fully expect that Magic will be a viable game for a long time. A strong foundation in the fundamental integrity of the color wheel, the basic game concept, and the basic ruleset itself will allow for a long run. I believe many players will grow up with this game, and will enjoy it* throughout their lives. Let’s face it; if you picked up this game when you were fifteen and stuck with it, you are now approaching the age of twenty-five years. Plus, look around next time you go to a prerelease or a Grand Prix – I am sure you will see a fair number of mature players. (At least that’s the way it is in Southern California.)

With that said (and with the release of Scourge fast approaching), spoiler tidbits and art previews are popping up here and there. As for the art, our own StarCityGames has posted links to TheMagicTutor.com, which has many art previews for this set.

When the link first went up, I went there immediately. Knowing that I might like to discuss some of the pieces for Magic Art Matters, I copied all eleven images onto a folder on my desktop. That provides easy access via thumbnails, and it is a great way to assimilate the paintings as a group.

The paintings I saw in this sampling, on average, seemed very good; hopefully, this bodes well for the overall quality of Scourge artwork.

As for today’s effort, I plan to discuss two pieces, one weak and one strong, and then I will address a”go-back” to the Onslaught preview time frame of last summer. I was very critical of one piece, and I want to talk briefly about a different painting by that same artist. My point is, anyone can have a bad day – and thankfully, one mistake should not doom us. One bad painting does not a bad painter make.

As always, it is not my intention to proscribe to you which art to like or dislike. I simply mean to share my observations – and at the same time, provide the rationale to explain my conclusions. In the process, hopefully, if you like or dislike a piece my analysis might help to explain why subconsciously, in terms of the rules of art, you may have come to your own conclusions.

To start with the weaker piece, I refer you to TheMagicTutor.com site to look at what I call”Crouched in a Tree.” There does not appear to be a signature, and I can’t discern the artist from the style alone. While not overtly bad, it is what I think to be the weakest amongst the bunch of available previews. As one of the participants in last week’s Echo Tracer Dilemma discussion used the word”amateurish” to describe Mistform Seaswift, perhaps that word could apply here also.

When I first considered this painting, I struggled to figure out what it was about it that was bothering me. For the longest time, I couldn’t put a finger on the problem. Many aspects seem perfectly acceptable – color, anatomy, line quality, composition, and form all seem okay at first glance.

Then it became clear to me when I evaluated the piece for its success as a”storyboard” panel. Storyboard art plays a big role in animation, television**, and feature film development. Storyboarding is the first step in figuring out how a film will be shot in order to tell the story intended by the script, as the director envisions it.

Each panel in the storyboard establishes the placement of the characters in the shot and determines the camera angle and movement. Specific camera angles can be used to convey certain moods, emotions, and dramatic story points. There is a whole vocabulary of camera angles – and since I really haven’t studied Film outside of a”Storyboarding for Animation” class, I will stop here. But be aware that for every film you watch, each and every camera angle has been carefully chosen to manipulate your impressions and to further the cinematic goals of the director. A good way to think about storyboard is to liken it to a comic book – a medium that tells its story largely via pictures, and whose success often rides on how dramatic and interesting the story can be made in large part due to things such as the viewer’s perspective and”camera” angle.

As for this piece, it is clear, based on the background and prominent tree limb, that this is intended to be a strong”upshot.” As viewers of this scene, we are told that we are looking upwards; all the action is well above our eye level, and we are looking at the underside of everything above us. Forget about the character for a moment and observe, yes everything is consistent – we are looking at the underside of a canopy of trees, and the underside of the large tree. This latter fact is reinforced by the way the light is rendered on the limb – light along the upper edge, and dark below, thus indicating the shady side on the bottom.

Now back to the character. Everything about the pose and the rendering of the figure indicates a full profile view, a view that appears, from the way that it is drawn, to be at eye level. By profile view, I mean side-view, at eye level – this character could be just across the room from you on your same level based on the way it is drawn. This in itself would be okay, if it was consistent with the rest of the scene. Unfortunately that is not the case. Everything else about the scene screams”upshot.” All the cues about the character itself though say”side-view-at-eye-level.” Fundamentally, it is this fault that detracts from the success of this piece. Based on the implied camera angle conveyed by the background we rightfully expect to see the underside of things – unfortunately all we do see is the side of the head, the side of the in-plane leg, and the front of the out-of-plane leg.

The most profound tip-off though is the angle of the head. We should be treated to the underside of the chin and neck, but we aren’t, we see the side – hence the mistake.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, a little proactive input from the Art Department could have alerted the artist to this mistake and could have provided cause to initiate a correction prior to final submittal. It seems like they didn’t see it – or they did, and deemed it acceptable as is. But I saw it.

Now for discussion of what I consider a substantially better piece, which I’ll refer to as”Wings with Claws.” Again this piece is unsigned, and I can not immediately tell the artist based on its style alone.

Whereas with the”Crouched In A Tree,” I did not know where to start in discussing the problem, I do not know where to begin singing the many praises of”Wings with Claws.”

Compositionally, it is beautiful; the character is well-placed but not dead center. The character is firmly perched on the outcropping of rocks, establishing its weight and helping to convey mass. Depth is conveyed in part, by the two distinct rock formations; dark in the foreground, light in the middle-to-background. The similarity in the two ridgelines of the rocks is visually interesting and invokes a sense of movement within the painting from right to left – it’s as if the creature could take wing at any moment and fly off to the left. I find this very nice. One more strength of the composition, even though I will discuss negative space later, is the way the clouds are composed as a frame-within-a-frame. They are expertly drawn to echo the general shape of the wings. The wing in side view has an echo in the large bulbous cloud above it; the wing in edge-view has its own small echo right above it. Notice how the general angle of the cloudbank matches, on the diagonal as it is drawn, the angle of the neck and head of the creature.

Subtle consistencies in the artist’s execution really set this apart as an accomplished piece of fantasy art. Super!

Another element that sets this apart is the artist’s choice of wing placement. How easy would it have been for the artist to show the wings as completely symmetrical? We have seen that type of placement many, many times, and it is a visually dead choice. But not so here in this case. The artist has drawn the right wing in side view, and the other in edge-view, at what appears to be a 90-degree angle of separation. In the process, a sense of volume is conveyed for the set of wings. They are both clearly muscular and thick as far as the limbs themselves are concerned. That would not have been as clearly communicated if the wings were drawn symmetrically, both in side view.

Note that a secondary benefit of the asymmetrical wings is that the drawing of the edge-wise wing tends to project into the deep background. This greatly enhances the depth of the piece, all for little extra effort on the part of the artist.

Regarding the remaining anatomy of the creature, it is all believable and looks functional. The tail in particular is an exquisite element; it is finely tapered, and has been given a fluid, and dynamic shape to hold, not to mention the extreme success of the various negative spaces created by the sweep of the tail and how it intersects the legs and feet.

All those little triangles under the legs – the needle’s eye shape formed by the tail, and those formed by the arcs of the wing webs are all beautiful negative spaces – they are gifts to you from the artist. They are the artist’s way of saying to you, I am going to be careful and precise with my work in order that you will have interesting shapes to look at – this is my little gift to you…”

So as you can see, I like”Wings with Claws” very much. Is it possible that I have already seen the best piece of Scourge artwork here? I could easily imagine that it’s true – and if not, then there must be some really special works in store for us, which of course would be great.

That is the extent of what I wanted to say about the Scourge previews themselves. I did find several others to be attractive, but the two I discussed were the most noteworthy.

Given that I was somewhat critical of the”Crouched in a Tree” piece, I wanted to recall a much earlier review of Onslaught artwork. At the time of my review of Mistform Shrieker, neither the name of the card nor the name of the artist was known. I went out of my way to poke fun at the Mistform Shrieker, which I called”eye-gougingly” bad. I perhaps went overboard in an attempt to be engaging, even to the point of saying it was the morph I’d always want to play, and keep, face down.

Regardless, neither I never meant to imply that Glen Angus is a bad artist. I only meant that the Shrieker had some serious faults as a painting. The fact is, since that time, Glen has produced another piece, based on the same type of character, which I think is a very nice painting. The painting I speak of is Mistform Wakecaster.

Mistform Wakecaster - Legions NM/M

This is a very beautiful piece of art. Coincidentally, almost all of the things I just said about”Wings with Claws” could be easily translated to describe this painting. It is well-composed in the frame with many nice negative shapes resulting, the wings are interestingly drawn – not symmetrically, but the clouds form a vital and appealing frame within the frame and they nicely complement the form of the character. Finally, the”tail” provides a graceful, unifying element that contributes to the effective partitioning of the negative spaces. This piece is full to the brim with visual interest, movement, and drama – all that you’d want in a piece of fantasy art and more.

I guess my point is that while I did not hear from Mr. Angus regarding my review, it must not be pleasant to read a harsh review of one’s own work. In retrospect, I just assume that it was one bad painting out of many good ones; we all have bad days.

Similarly, with”Crouched in a Tree,” although I did find some faults, I don’t intend to demean anyone. On the contrary! I have a lot of respect for these artists, their creativity, and their skills in execution. They certainly contribute a great deal to this game.

Michael Jay LaRue

Engineer Legend

[email protected]

* – To be sure, this whole”enjoy the game throughout our lives” depends a lot on my suspicion that, as players mature in their lives and perhaps outgrow the strictly competitive PTQ scene, they will migrate more towards casual, multiplayer formats of Magic that are typically played around the kitchen table. I hope that is the case. It is a great way to have a guy’s night out. Also, it can still be rather competitive as my group can attest – now, if we can only wean Ken off of his favorite escape hatches (currently Balance and Nevinyrral’s Disk), we’ll be in good shape. Ken plays/pops these whenever he gets in the slightest bit of trouble, partner be damned. While I’m on the subject, Laszlo – quit intentionally taking mana burn to speed up the game when Ken gets an early lock with his cheesy expensive decks – you never know what we’ll pull!

By the way, if this sounds even remotely fun to you, we always welcome adult players to our group that meets in Costa Mesa, Orange County, Southern California – drop me an e-mail if interested.

** – I would not be surprised at all to hear that Mark Rosewater knows quite a bit about the storyboard process and practice, what with his former involvement with”a certain popular sitcom of the 80’s.” (Somehow, I don’t think they really needed to storyboard Roseanne, Roseanne not being the most visual of shows – The Ferrett) Why don’t you ask him about that? I bet he could talk your ear off on the subject, and it would be interesting… Well, at least to me it would be interesting. Let me know what he says.