Well, I am glad I got that out of my system. Yesterday’s review of Big Blue Bird was a necessary evil. Credible art criticism isn’t only about singing the praises of art that is obviously appealing. Sometimes it calls for getting down and dirty. Sometimes it calls for deconstructing some eye-gougingly bad art. That painful experience notwithstanding, by providing objective reasons to account for why some art is bad, the purpose of criticism is fulfilled – and that’s a good thing, especially if it helps to promote the general level of artistic education* among Magic enthusiasts.
Such was the case yesterday.** Big Blue Bird just blows, plain and simple, and I gave some objective reasons to back up that claim. But that is history – it is time to move on and tackle some Tier 1 art from the soon-to-be unveiled base set Onslaught.
Since I first noticed Kev Walker’s work in the form of Highway Robbers from Mercadian Masques, he has been one of my favorite Magic artists. He seems to have mastered the style of the graphic novel, and I think that style translates very well to Magic.
It is a worthwhile activity in itself to check out that card if you’ve got one handy. Notice the storytelling that is apparent, the depth of field, the wonderful composition, and the fantastic atmospheric lighting. Artistically, it is a really nice card, plus it is fun to use, play-wise, in combination with gating creatures.
Fortunately for the artistic prospects of this set, Kev Walker is listed on the MtgNews spoiler for a total of eight cards. More would be better, less would be a travesty… But eight is acceptable.
From amongst the several paintings by Walker that have been either leaked or released, I have chosen Krosan Colossus for the topic of discussion today.
For context, the creature as it is listed in the spoiler is as follows:
Krosan Colossus 6GGG
Creature – Beast R
Morph 6GG (You may play this face down as a 2/2 creature for 3. Turn it face up any time for its morph cost.)
When it walked, it altered geography. When it bellowed, it changed the weather.
Kev Walker 270/350
The actual art, as it is available from the news article on MtgNews, looks like this:
So what we have here is your typical, accomplished Magic artwork. Good compositional choices have been made here, starting with the placement of the creature. Of course, it is centrally placed, dominating the frame, but notice, it is not perfectly dead-on center. That would have been lifeless and uninteresting.
A nice balance has been struck in the relative light and dark portions of this paining. See how from bottom-to-top the dark green foreground counterbalances the light blue-gray sky on the top. Similarly, left-to-right, the dark green”claw-limb” counters the light green limb that trails into the background on the right side.
The bottom-to-top contrast also serves another purpose in addition to the visual balance it provides. It also plays a key role in conveying a convincing sense of depth. As we have seen on many other occasions, the proper usage of dark-to-light, when receding from foreground to background accomplishes this quality of depth.
One of the most successful aspects of this piece is the strong presence of volume that is evident in the beast. It clearly looks massive and three-dimensional; its flesh appears to be heavy, and seems to hang believably on the creature’s frame.
The primary method used here to show that volume is the control of how the light wraps the form. Clearly a strong source of light is present off-frame, in the upper left corner, and behind the subject. This is shown consistently in the ways that all the shadows are being cast. This is even nicely reinforced by the way the two birds are shown with their white wings heavily lit on the topside, in contrast with their very dark undersides.
With regard to effective lighting, one small area of the painting deserves special notice: Observe the limb on the right side. There are only three distinct colors involved; however a lot of information about the volume of the limb is conveyed by careful control of the shapes. Very little blending of the colors is employed, yet it still looks very full and rounded.
See also that the predominant green area is uniform in its tone; this would normally indicate a flat surface. Fact is though, that by careful craftsmanship in controlling the shapes of the remaining lighter colors, as well as the lighting of the claws, the volume is revealed. No more detail is required, and the artist achieves an economy in his work that is very nice.
An example of a complex, fully rounded volume that is rendered with more detail in both color transition and color blending is the Anurid Swarmsnapper, which was featured in a previous installment of Magic Art Matters. That piece features much more transitional blending to achieve a very nice affect. Both approaches are effective, and both result in pleasing renditions of Magic creatures.
The requisite foreground object of interest is provided by the pair of birds on the left side. It is debatable that they are actually in the foreground, but I conclude that they are since they cast no readily apparent shadow on the beast. They are rendered too sharply to be in the deep background behind the beast. In addition, if they were in the middle-ground, alongside the beast, then they would have to cast a shadow on it, based on where we can surmise the light source is placed.
Finally, the artist has accomplished a convincing quality of both movement and dynamics. This is done by the way the fragments of vegetation have been tossed about as result of the slashing motion of the tusks. Additionally the sense of motion is reinforced by the placement of the birds. They appear to be fleeing, having been roused by the stampeding beast. There seems to be a visual tension in that the Colossus’ head is tilted slightly towards the birds. Such a giant creature being distracted by such small ones is an exceptional finishing touch which punctuates the balance that is evident elsewhere throughout this piece.
If I would register any complaints at all, here they would pertain to a slight lacking in the utilization of negative spaces. Specifically, there are no negative spaces that stand out in particular. In a couple of cases I think more care with the negative spaces could have actually helped clarify the painting. For example, the leg on the right side could have been better de-conflicted by moving it very slightly over to the right. This would have created more negative space between the legs, and would have moved the leg out from behind the lower jaw, and the disturbed vegetation. A side benefit of this would have been that the space between the right leg and its companion right claw-limb would have been tightened up, and made to be more interesting to the eye.
There you have it; another critique for your reading pleasure, and another successful day for me, free and clear of the demon that goes by the name of Doritos – Ranchero Flavor. Still guzzling the Diet Dr. Pepper – but hey, in the grand scheme of things, is that really all that bad?
* – This is not to say that I think it is necessary for all Magic enthusiasts to be aware and appreciative of artistic matters to enjoy the game. I simply mean to say that the art is important to at least some portion of the community already, and that there may be others who could benefit by learning some of the basics of art. Magic as a game, hobby, and collectible endeavor is rich and diverse enough to be enjoyed in many different ways, including from an artistic perspective.
** – The conclusion of yesterday’s critique found me basically giving up in disgust at the severe dysfunction in the art that I had unfortunately chosen to review – keep in mind that it was ostensibly a random, rogue-like choice. Once the choice was made, though, I decided to stick with it no matter how much the act stood to scramble my visual center – and worse, possibly erase numerous years of training and practice in studio drawing. My consolation at the juncture of my departure was that I had the rest of a nice Los Angeles Sunday afternoon to enjoy, to be followed up by multi-player later that evening at Lazlo’s house***… Interested to hear how that went? It was great up until about 8:35 p.m., just as I had predicted. During a night of four-player games, in two-against-two teams, my team was getting trashed by a fast and aggressive green deck, which was teamed with a blue/white”steal your creatures” Control Magic/Bribery deck. I was with my green/white/blue flying deck that features Treva at the top of the food chain.
I was experiencing color-screw, and we were dying quickly. Finally, I got the right mana to cast and protect Treva. As soon as I started swinging with Treva and activating the ability, the tides of fortune changed in my team’s favor. Keep in mind that our group has restricted Congregate due to the cheese factor, and due to the resulting frustration that goes with the abrupt reversal that that kind of life-gain enables.
Anyway, my team won, just as pizza was delivered. At this point, one member of the team that just lost, packed up and stormed out, without saying hardly a word – forsaking pizza, of all things. Pizza that he had already pitched in for! Just a bad day for that person, I guess. In fairness to him though, I think there may have been other considerations. I have been told I play somewhat slowly, painstakingly thinking over my decisions and such. Also, I made a mistake earlier, failing to clarify that my Mystic Enforcer turned into a 6/6 flyer by using dice to indicate P/T once I had reached threshold; this cost him a creature in combat. I can see how that can be frustrating.**** But frustrating enough to walk away from fresh, hot pizza? I think not…But maybe that is just me.
*** – Added bonus anecdote: early in the day, when setting up the gaming session time and location, Lazlo had promised to tape the Sopranos while we played at his house so that we could watch it at the end of the gaming session. Thanks a lot Lazlo; who promises to tape something on HBO, forgetting that he doesn’t even get HBO? Doh! That is so lame! Anyway, good thing Ken had his VCR set. Props to Ken for both:  knowing that he has HBO, and for  taping the Sopranos while we played. Now, just do not forget and tape over it before I get to see it!
**** – All this excitement over Treva, no less; you know, Treva – the Sucky Dragon… Incredible!
One of the most compelling aspects of art in its many forms is its capacity to engage, provoke, and elicit a response from its viewer. Whether it is a novel, a poem, or a painting, the reader, listener, or viewer is given the opportunity to participate in a world roughly constructed by the artist. I say roughly, because the tangible product of art is only the starting point. Without someone on ‘our’ side of the page or canvas, the art is dead. Without a viewer the art has no more life than a rock, or a cup of distilled water. The art requires a person to respond to it in order for it to take on relevance.
In the case of the novel, the reader takes in the words and constructs a visual image that corresponds to the written words as they were laid down. As such, the reader plays an active part with his imagination to attempt to experience what the author is offering. In this way, the written word serves to elicit an infinite number of scenes – and each one is unique to the reader.
Similarly, poetry can be used to create visual images in the mind of the listener or reader… But this experience is often enhanced by some lyrical or rhythmic aspect of how the words have been crafted. An important attribute of poetry, which is often exploited by the poet, is that the sound of a word or phrase can be more important than its literal meaning.
Regarding typical visual art-forms such as painting, or drawing, similar factors are in play: In order to tell a story, capture a likeness of a person, or simply to create something that is visually appealing, the artist goes about his work using a variety of techniques. These techniques are governed by what I call”the aesthetic rules of art.” Those rules, and their relevance to the creation and appreciation of Magic art, are the driving influence behind the”Magic Art Matters” series of articles.
The key point – and the one that will be the foundation of this review – is the question each Magic artist must first address;”…for my subject, how will I capture it in my frame – what’s in the scene, and what is on the outside?” This is the fundamental question, and it goes back directly to the criticality of composition; how the artist answers this seemingly simple question reveals starkly the skill level, accomplishment, and maturity of the artist. This is true because it essentially determines how effectively and intimately the viewer will be engaged. This in turn determines the ultimate success or failure of the art.
To demonstrate these ideas, today I will use a slightly different approach than the last several articles – each of which focused on a single piece of preview art from the upcoming Onslaught. The approach today will be to discuss only small, relevant parts of two separate pieces of preview art.
Daru Cavalier 3W
Creature – Soldier Common
When Daru Cavalier comes into play, you may search your library for a card named Daru Cavalier, reveal it, and put it into your hand. If you do, shuffle your library.
Dany Orizio 18/350
The actual art, as it is available from the news article on MtgNews, looks like this:
At first glance this appears to be an adequate, and for the most part is a visually appealing painting by Dany Orizio. It is reasonable in many regards, and I can not find any major errors worth noting.
However, there is that nagging question about what should be inside, and outside of, the frame?
This is a case where I think the artist missed a great opportunity to make this painting orders of magnitude more engaging: It has to do with the chain-link weapon.
First of all, I think the shape that it forms in the air is totally unnatural. It does not seem to me that a weapon like that could be thrown to assume such a shape; it simply defies the laws of gravity, what with the ample slack near the throwing hand. That, however, is not my key concern.
The missed opportunity is that portions of the chain weapon could have easily been relegated to overlap, and reside slightly outside of the frame. Essentially, this would give the artist to chance to clarify, and improve the shape of the chain to be both more natural, and visually appealing.
For example if a backwards ‘C’-shape were allowed to loop over the right margin, the effect would be accomplished. I can envision a similar benefit if this approach was also used on the top of the frame. This would leave the hook and its partial segment of chain where it is; a short segment would be visible crossing the upper right corner diagonally, and the segment attached to the hand would remain, except that its chain segment would be trailing off the right edge.
Keep in mind, though, that this approach should only be used if it does not result in a tangent that could possibly be formed by the edge of the chain meeting flush with any part of the edge of the frame. The artist would have to be careful to avoid this to avoid flattening out the composition.
What would this approach mean for me as a viewer? It means that I would get to use my imagination to”fill in the blank” for the segments that are implied, but that are not explicitly drawn. By definition, I would be more engaged. As mentioned previously, that’s a good thing.
For the artist, the consequence is a missed opportunity. It also means that the artist is left with a drawing that contains an element, the chain-link weapon, that looks unnatural, and that looks almost force-fit to reside fully in the frame. I think that that is a less than optimum solution, because the piece is less engaging and less visually appealing as a result.
To be fair to the artist, I am not saying that this is a major error that ruins the painting: I am simply saying that an opportunity to make the piece more engaging has been missed.
Now let’s examine a piece that is more successful in carefully using implied elements to engage the viewer and achieve a better overall result.
Voice of the Woods 3GG
Creature – Elf Lord R
Tap five untapped Elves you control: Put a 7/7 green Elemental creature token with trample into play.
The ritual of making draws upon the elves’ memories and pasts. And elves have long memories and ancient pasts.
Pete Venters 297/350
The artwork, in the context of its actual card, looks like this:
I first gained an appreciation for the work of Pete Venters in the course of my earlier review of Spelljack. Spelljack is an exceptional piece in many ways, and it too shows the effectiveness of implying elements outside of the frame rather than explicitly drawing them. In that case there is some implied source (or is it a target? – again, the choice promotes the engagement of the viewer in figuring that out) of the green spell that crackles through the painting.
With Voice of the Woods, a similar technique is used. Obviously, the Elemental in the middle ground is vastly bigger than the elves in the scene, but only its torso and forearms/hands are shown. This choice promotes our engagement because it forces us to imagine the head chest, and legs of the creature.
Rather than paint yet another big green creature as if we have not already seen a bunch of them through the years, just a hint of this one is shown. I find this to be a very effective technique.
A side benefit of this choice is that it allows the Elemental and the co-patriot elves to exist in the same frame without overpowering them, thus avoiding the possibility of reducing the elves to small, cartoonish afterthoughts that lurk in the shadow of the larger creature. The elves share the scene assertively, even though we all know who the star of the show really is.
As for the rest of the painting, I have no complaints here: Depth is conveyed by the fact that the front-most elf is drawn taller in the foreground than those in the background. Proper perspective for the drawing of the three elves is apparent. While I might normally take issue with the perfect centering, left-to-right of the piece, it is in fact the correct solution here. That is true because this actually is a”tall” painting that is cropped, and off-centering would actually confuse the interpretation of the piece.
All these small things, when taken together, are indicative of an expert approach; further evidence of the many skills that set Venters apart as one of Magic’s best artists.
As I have attempted to show here, the key question, asked and answered by the artist, as to what goes in, and what stays outside of the frame, is critical to the success of the painting. The approach taken ultimately determines how successful the piece is in both, engaging the viewer by enlisting his imagination, and accomplishing the artistic goals of the artist.
Once again I am done – and for yet another day, no Doritos have been harmed during the making of this article.
Afterthought #1: I appreciate the encouraging feedback that I have received regarding the Daily ‘Slaught, and Magic Art Matters as well. I will be writing back shortly: It seems like there is an audience for this type of endeavor, and I am gratified that those who have written have found it both entertaining and informative. In case you haven’t noticed, I take this opportunity to share these ideas with you very seriously; in fact, I recognize that just like this article points out, writing, even such as this, is an art in itself. Your participation by continuing to read is what makes this relevant. As such, I take that responsibility very seriously, and I do strive to make the experience engaging for you.
Afterthought #2: In addition, I want to thank those of you who wrote to share your evaluation of Genesis versus Leaf Dancer. I found your observations insightful, and I truly appreciate the time you took to do that exercise and write me with your conclusion.