The Kitchen Table #248 – Art Attack!

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Thursday, August 28th – For as long as I have played Magic (since Summer 1995), I have heard people talk about the art on cards. We talked about the good art, and we talked about the bad art. Today, I want to do something very simple. I will tell you what my favorite pieces of artwork are, and why I like them so much.

Bonjour! The column that is dedicated to the casual welcomes you back. I am your interpreter, finding and translating numerous topics dealing with the casual. Today I want to take a step back and address one of the long going topics in Magic. I’ve addressed it before in my articles, but I have never dedicated a whole article to it.

For as long as I have played Magic (since Summer 1995), I have heard people talk about the art on cards. We talked about the good art, and we talked about the bad art. Which illustrator someone particularly enjoyed changes over time. At first, Amy Weber was my favorite illustrator, but after a year of playing, I slid into Tom Wanerstrand as my favorite (a position he holds to this day, despite not making many cards in the intervening years).

I recently discussed my feelings that I believe the style guide has made Magic art too homogenous. It used to be that we had truly great art, and really bad art, side by side. Now, virtually all art is sufficient. It’s neither really good nor really bad, but just adequate. Art should strive to be more than adequate. There are exceptions in the modern day, as the rare piece of art that sheds the restrictions of the style guide and becomes something truly great.

Today, I want to do something very simple. I will tell you what my favorite pieces of artwork are, and why I like them so much. I’ve played this game for a real long time, so I have a lot of experience with various cards to draw upon. Now, I’m no artist. Other than miniatures and terrain for wargames, I don’t do anything artistic. As such, I cannot critique upon technique or anything like that. Therefore, this article will be more useful to see what I, a random guy who has played with virtually every card ever printed in some deck or other, think is the best artwork. Then you can discuss your opinions in the forums, so it’s also a nice way of bringing the topic out. What are your favorite pieces of art? What do you think of my choices?

For purposes of this list, basic lands will not be eligible. The restrictions for basic lands are obvious, and we have so much baggage when assessing their artwork, that I am going to steer away from them entirely. Frankly, we could easily have a list of twenty basic lands pieces and say they are the top twenty pieces of art from Magic, and probably be right in saying so. Basics have beautiful art often unhampered by many of the design issues of the modern illustration. Other than a world to portray, the art can be the color and illustration of the artist’s choice, so we get grandiose and detailed art with breathtaking beauty and captivating interest. As such, I will be staying away from basics.

Okay, here we go.

1. Necrite, Fallen Empires, Drew Tucker. Face it, Drew Tucker was a “love him or hate him” artist. I loved Drew’s highly artistic interpretations of traditional fantasy and medieval fare. His art evokes emotion. The only thing you have here is two flesh colored figures, one being laid down, or picked up, or something, and the other bending over the first. There are no teeth or weapons or spikes or horns or armor plates or any of the nasty badass artwork that we see in most modern artwork. You have no idea what the first figure has had done to it, or if it is even still alive. The second figures are doing something. Who knows what? It doesn’t matter, because the scene evokes something. It evokes something else the first time you notice the half shrouded face in the upper right corner. What is that person doing? Watching? Ordering? Spying? It is the master who created the scene or the knight who will strike for vengeance? I like to think of it as my enemy Planeswalker, watching as the Necrite kills one of the creatures it just summoned. A card that gives you so much flavor for such a small amount of detail is a masterpiece. I’d be proud to have Necrite’s artwork on my wall.

2. Rain of Tears, Tempest, Charles Gillespie. I want you to do something for me. Do a search for the 19 cards Charles has painted and just stand back in awe at this artist’s mastery of color. Few cards have the color of Rain of Tears, and yet pull the card off convincingly as a Black spell with a Black border. There is a lot of red, blue, and green in the artwork this Black spell. This is a card that uses color so well, the scene becomes more realistic. It is a shame that Charles didn’t do more artwork for Magic, because I would have loved to have seen what else he could do. His Disenchant is the best artwork of the many pieces to have been around it, and his Power Sink is the best of those as well, so he knows how to make a good piece.

3. Sea Kings’ Blessing, Legends, Randy Asplund-Faith. This was the most beautiful card I had ever seen until Mirage block came around and brought artists like Charles Gillespie and D. Alexander Gregory to the scene. It is a shame that such work has languished in obscurity over the years due to the poor quality of what the card actually does. You are not likely to find many deck lists that can actually use this card. Also, many Legends cards have a washed, faded look to them, so the artwork is diminished first by the card it is one and second by the printing of the time. Still, this is a beautiful piece of work, with the Viking era ship on the sea, the setting (or rising I suppose) sun, and the ghostly figure of the Sea King motioning towards the vessel. The color and look of the card is majestic and I would love to see the card with a darker hit.

4. City of Shadows, The Dark, Tom Wanerstrand. Since I have Tom as my favorite artist, I wanted to give you one of my favorite pieces of work by him. The City of Shadows is remarkable to me, not because of great color, but the total absence of the same. The card art is almost Black and White, with just a few hints of brown in the trees. And yet, it is very haunting and very beautiful. A modern day version of this piece would likely have a lot of color, but this minimalist interpretation of a City of Shadows is just pitch perfect. Don’t worry, I’ll show you Tom’s color later, but look at the detail he achieved with watercolor on this piece of art. I love it. In a set called The Dark, on a land called City of Shadows, with a grey and black border on the card, this is a perfect piece of art, to my mind.

5. Merchant Ship, Arabian Nights, Tom Wanerstrand. I’ll hit up my other Tom piece that I absolutely adore here as well. Tom has some landmark pieces. His Mirage Plains are among the best Plains ever seen in the game, for example. However, just like Randy Asplund-Faith had one of his best pieces on a lousy card, Tom has been cursed with a cavalcade of crappy cards as the home for his art. Merchant Ship is another example The color is great, with the oranges, browns, and blues all hitting the right notes. His watercolor works perfectly with the sea scene, and frankly, water and the ocean is Tom’s best portrayals (see Pirate Ship, Tidal Influence, and others for more examples). Here’s another…

6. Skeleton Ship, Ice Age, Amy Weber and Tom Wanerstrand. This is the last piece that has any Tom influence at all, I swear. I mentioned before that Amy Weber was my favorite illustrator initially, and this piece of artwork is the synthesis of the two styles, and I love it. The sea is classic Tom, with the normal washed out watercolor. You get great Amy artwork too, like the dolphin, turtle and flying skeleton knight, which have obvious Weber influences. The coloration of the ship looks like Tom, but the outline and details look like Amy. The colors used are vibrant and enticing. I love this piece of art!

7. Diaochan, Artful Beauty, Portal: Three Kingdoms, Miao Aili. This is another strong piece which has never seen much light of day because few have seen the P3K cards. The color is amazing on the piece, and the detail quite good. Miao dies a fantastic job focusing on Diaochan, but in the background are the two people she gets to fight each other using her powers of persuasion and guile. Imagine this piece if it were black bordered! It would be even more beautiful.

8. Yosei, the Morning Star, Champions of Kamigawa, Hiro Izawa. It seems like a lot of the Kamigawa block gave illustrators a chance to create outside of the normal scope of their assignments, so a lot of cards do wild and creepy things, and the result is a very good looking block from an artistic perspective. Yosei is the best of the lot with the tangled Asiatic dragon look to it, and the little things flying around almost like those fish swim around sharks. The oceanic symbolism of the dragon in combination with the detail and coloration of the dragon make me a happy Abe when I see it.

9. Natural Order, Portal, Alan Rabinowitz. Sometimes I don’t really have an opinion one way or another on an artist, but then they have one piece that just speaks to me, like Alan’s Natural Order from Portal does. The imagery of the man and the blast with the leaves is very nice, and I like the use of red in the picture. It’s a nice piece of work, and the idea works with me somehow. In my mind, Alan transcends his normal pedestrian work here and makes just a strong artistic piece, because you are left wondering. What is going on behind the man? Was it a magic blast? Is he being attacked by leaves? Why is the man green? Perhaps he is actually a tree-man and he is being stripped of his leaves. I like a piece of art that makes you wanting more.

10. Lobotomy, Invasion, D. Alexander Gregory. Lots of people like D. Alexander Gregory’s work, and for good reason. He is, in my estimation, one of the best artists Magic has had working for them, with a distinctive style that pushes past the merely realistic and moves to surreal. I love his style, but none of his works are creepier than Lobotomy, which is truly a haunting image. The chick kissing the (metathran?) guy with her long claw like fingers and obviously disdain for him is very well done, while he has a look of abject fear on his face. Why is her kissing her, then? Has he been enspelled? The card title is Lobotomy, and the first time the card was done, the artist interpreted it literally, but here, we just get the idea of her taking from him. It is a great piece of art as a result.

11. Force of Will, Alliances, Terese Nielsen. Do you want to know why Force of Will is a banner card for Blue art, making it on boxes and other promotions? Because the art should be on a Red card. Put this on a Red card, and it’s nothing major. One of the issues I have with the art folks at WoTC is very simple. The color wheel philosophy appears in the real world. Let me explain this. Blue, Black, White, Red and Green are supposed to represent different philosophies, personalities, and world views. The colors represent these in the same way that the letter ENTP represent a personality type in the Myers-Briggs scale. That does not mean people who are ENTP should have ENTP in their names, nor does it mean that people who are allied with Blue should wear Blue clothing ALL THE TIME. Consider this, list the major races in Blue (I’m using Blue as an example because FoW is Blue, but this is true of all colors). Vedalken, Merfolk, Cephalids, Metathran – note they all have blue skin or blue tones. Why? Take a look at the clothes being worn by Blue wizards. They are blue. Why? Are there not wizards with vibrant green or red wardrobes who are aligned with the Blue philosophy? The same is true of other colors, like White with its white-robed clergy and races like the Loxodon. In the Magic world, realism takes a back stage to the simple fact that they want their creatures and wardrobes to look like the philosophical color they have been assigned to, and the occasional piece of art that deviates is really nice to look at. Force of Will deviates a lot, so it is really great to look at.

12. Meekstone, Alpha/Beta/Unlimited/Revised/5th, Quinton Hoover. Mr. Hoover is another of my favorite artists from a time long ago. His artwork had an impressive amount of detail for watercolors and was among the most complex of its time (see Nettling Imp and Feedback for other examples) at the forefront of Magic art. I like Meekstone because, like Feedback, it shows a scene. This burly warrior guy is down on the ground and reaching futilely towards a large crystal from which emanates magical energies. From the first set, this is one of the best pieces, and I still enjoy looking at it today.

13. Syphon Soul, Legends, Melissa Benson. This was a landmark card to me because it was the most colorful card for years in Magic. The bright vivid purple of the background along with the bright colors in the soul bubble things made for a beautiful piece of art. There is nothing wrong with slinging spells that are beautiful, and nothing unmanly about finding art beautiful. This is beautiful to this day.

14. Divine Offering, Mirage, Terese Nielsen. Other than Tom himself, Terese and one other are the only other artists to have multiple pieces of art chart on the list, and as you can tell, I must like this artist’s art a lot. I do… it’s really strong, as is this piece. I love the idea of the strong male destroying the spear above his head with magic coming out of the piece. It’s a nice “In the moment” piece of art. I also enjoy the circles and masonry around the character, focusing on the character. In order to get that kind of architectural background, I suspect the man is at the top of a dais, over an altar for sacrificing the magical in favor of the natural. That’s what I believe, anyway. You get stories like that from old school art.

15. Elven Cache, Portal, Rebecca Guay. Another good Green Portal sorcery art on a card with a casting cost of 2GG. Rebecca Guay is one of a many older artists with distinctive styles. Of her cards, this is the premier piece of art, to my mind. She usually draws her characters with some sort of concave pose (take Elvish Lyrist or Gaea’s Blessing for examples). However, the figure here is facing out, and I like that. It seems stronger to me, whereas some of the other poses are weaker to my eyes. I also appreciate the detail in things like the dress and trees.

16. Dissipate, Mirage, Richard Kane-Ferguson. Frankly, it’s hard to distinguish between pieces by RKF to find out which one is your favorite. Along with Drew Tucker, I’d say RKF is the most distinctive artist in Magic history. You could largely replace various RKF pieces with other ones, such as swapping the art for Dissipate with the art for Kaervek’s Purge. Except for the red tones in the artwork, they’d be largely similar. Richard Kane-Ferguson is one of the all-time favorite artists of many people I’ve met. They love him, and a lot of people still compliment his work and style. It’s so dense and thick and the work is full of motion. He might be the best artist at capturing motion I’ve seen on a Magic card.

17. Angelic Chorus, 10th Edition, Jim Murray. There are not many cards with new art where the new art is just unmistakably better, but this one is a good example of it. Jim Murray’s Angelic Chorus is beautiful. It’s very colorful with the feathers and the leaves and the blue in the background. I am sure there is some digital artwork in here with the detail involved. (You see a similar technique is his Reveillark). It’s not an obvious picture for the two words, Angelic Chorus, which is why I suspect I like it so much. Proof that I can like newer art and digital media if done well. Other good pieces from recent base sets include Lord of the Pit, Wall of Swords, Mahamoti Djinn (see my FoW discussion as to why) and Terror.

18. Ghostway, Dissension, Jim Murray. I mentioned earlier that Tom, Terese, and one other artist are the only ones with multiple pieces hitting my list, and Jim Murray is that third artist. Ghostway is just a beautiful piece, but here’s the thing, Jim Murray might feature two pieces in my countdown, but I find that too many of his pieces are just the boring normal sufficient stuff that gets printed these days. You don’t have to look farther than Dimir Doppelganger, Blind-Spot Giant, Tibor and Lumia, or Ursapine for proof of my point. The same guy who did great pieces like Reveillark, Angelic Chorus and Ghostway did Ursapine. I think Ghostway is a great piece of art for several reasons. I love the color, so that’s one reason. You really have to look close to see what is going on, and there is lots of detail, so that it another reason. The poses of the figures are realistic and unusual, that’s a third reason.

19. Toils of Night and Day, Betrayers of Kamigawa, Matt Cavotta. I’m not normally a fan of Matt’s work, but this piece is particularly good, and I wanted to mention it here. I like the one dragon with two halves and heads, each one representing night or day, with the background of the sky severed into contrasting times of the day by the body of the draconic creature. It’s a simple piece but very symbolic. I like it a lot.

20. Stream of Consciousness, Betrayers of Kamigawa, John Avon. I think most people think of John Avon as the land artist. He has created some terrific art for lands, but I love this piece of his the best. I love the Shinto Shrine barely seen in the backlight of that sun or magic phenomenon. The colors going by, the shadow of the figure, the light, the shrine – it all makes for a lovely piece from an unconventional angle. Green creatures often have the “looking up at it” angle, but Blue spells? Not so much. I like the work very much as a result of these elements.

And that brings us to a close for today’s article. With twenty cards out of the way, you get a chance to see what I really value. To me, the golden age of Magic art was Mirage and Visions, just before the unification of art that would be seen in Tempest block with Rootwater and Moggs and en-Kor and such. Ever since then, I believe that the guidelines for creating art have largely stifled the independence of the artists. Mirage block combined some of the best artists in Magic’s history, and few artists today can stand up to those that went before. In fact, most of the work today does not strike me as art, but it strikes me as illustration.

Again, this is all from the angle of the uneducated. Then again, the uneducated is the group that the company is producing art for, so I am in their target audience on this one. I hope you enjoyed a different look at Magic cards today. See you next week!

Until later…

Abe Sargent