Painting "The Promise"


Recently I had the honor of being allowed to contribute to Light Grey Art Lab's show paying tribute to 25 years of Magic: the Gathering ( I've been playing MtG since my good friend Matt taught me how, on the floor of his room when we were both 10 or 11. The gameplay was a blast, but it was definitely the art that hooked me! Each of the cards held an image that was a self contained story, with characters, setting, action, and plot all within a few small inches. So when I was selected to create a piece for the show, I wanted to create something that did the same. Portrait or character drawing of one of MtG's famous lore-related characters would have been fine, but I wanted to create something that literally draws you into the picture and takes you to another world.

The question that laid before me now was.... what the hell do I paint???

Well, here's what I've always liked about Magic: the Gathering's lore and universe: it's basically science fiction with a fantasy veneer. Of course, there are elves, and goblins, and dragons, and dwarves... all the usual Tolkein fare, which I've always been a hug fan of. But underneath it all, there are these edgy concepts that traditional fantasy didn't usually venture into: a multiverse with indite different planes of existence, not all of which have a similar cosmolgy or even laws of physics as the world we're familiar with. Inter-planar portals and beings that could walk between them at will were what made up Magic's early story and this left so much room for creativity in Magic's plot lines, characters, and locales.

One of my favorite planes has always been Phyrexia: a metal world filled with biomechanical creatures, a globe of concentric layers that got worse and more hellish as you go down through them, much like Dante's vision of hell in The Inferno. Magic has always done a decent job depicting this terrifying plane and the creatures that belong to it, but there is a really interesting story around how it came to be, contained in The Thran, by J. Robert King. It's a story that took place thousands of years before the "start" of Magic's lore - where all of this stuff is ancient history - and has therefore never been depicted on cards or supplemental art of any kind. That left some room for artistic license!

Phyrexia was not always a biomechanical hellscape, it was a world of pure metal life, an imitation of the nature of other worlds, with no ill intent behind it. The psychopathic progenitor of the Phyrexians was a charismatic healer who started by saving a populace of a devastating plague, and convincing many to come with him to a place where they would transcend into these biomechanical immortals.

But what would Phyrexia look like during the time of the Thran? And the early students and followers of Yawgmoth? What about the people who walked through the portal to Phyrexia with Yawgmoth, not because they were as insane as he, but because they were downtrodden lower caste that had nothing else to live for, and longed for the strength and wholeness Yawgmoth promised? That unexplored period was what I wanted to paint, and I wanted you, the willing viewer, to follow that promise of power and be drawn into the plane of Phyrexia.

The Thumbnail Sketches

I usually sketch out a few thumbnail images before settling on a compositions, but in this case I knew from the start I wanted a literal interpretation of being "drawn in", and with not-so-subtle ironic grin I decided to settle the "Follow Me" style of photo (we've all seen 'em! Both the professional originals by Murad Ossman and amateur Facebook vacation pic versions).  I settled with this thumbnail picture from the start.




Next I needed to figure out a portal, and this was the problem: I wanted to keep the aspect ratio of the image which is roughly that of Magic card art (after all, this is an MTG tribute show painting!). That meant I needed a portal design that would visually read as a mechanical portal the the average person: and what better way to do this than get a poll? I thew the image above up onto my Facebook page looking for feedback and I was glad I did! My personal favorite design was type C, but the overwhelming majority thought type A was best. To me this meant the most simple of the designs was probably also the most familiar; and if I was going for maximum readability, familiarity would be key. I had my choice.

The Sketch

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The the sketch was a ton of fun. I needed a way to to make this woman who's guiding into Phyrexia look relatable, yet Phyrexian. Also, she's going to need a name: let's call her.... Via. She'd also need a story, which I did come up with and I may include at the end. A motivation, a reason for forsaking her world and her humanity, and bringing you along with her.

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The metallic and skeletal exoskeleton would justapose Via's smooth and slight figure, and the delicate, sheer skirt would contrast the the harsh metal all around it. Her expression would be promising you eternity, with full knowledge of the price. The world would look organic, like metal formed into bone structures, lit by the sickly glare of an artificial sun (meanwhile, Soundgarden's Black Hole Sun comes up on Spotify and I cant resist, fits right in with the paradoxical relationship theme!).

The Painting

One problem was Via's expression: it.... didn't quite hit the feeling I was going for. I mean, it kind of looks like she's taking you shopping somewhere she's proud of... like you're a lifelong Android user and she's bringing you to your first ever Apple store. No way!

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I was very happy with the gravitas Via had after the face re-work, and started laying in color in digital oils. At this stage, I was trying to block in the general colors and values, using the wet mixing of the digital oils is my preferred style of painting in Photoshop, and I like the effect of blending it provides. 

The perspective of the skeletal arms was bothering me. Also, the banana--fingered hands! If there's one thing James Gurney taught me, is that - when in doubt - get photo reference, and/or make miniature models. Why not both?? 

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A bright doorway is a literal portal, right? And aluminium foil is metal.... accuracy!

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I have some clay, wires, and a posable model. My neighbor has a creepy murder shed in his yard that nicely fits Phyrexia, so why not set up the scene? Joking aside -  the complex shapes of the arms and effects of perspective on the whole figure were really though to draw from imagination. Making a maquette and taking a close-up photo really helped with proportion, perspective, and lighting. The murder shed merely set the mood.

The Revisions and Finishing Touches

This stage actually took almost half of the total time spent!

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Re-rendering many of the areas, including Via's hands and grafted exoskeleton, took quite a bit of time. I really wanted to nail this piece and turned to the advisement of a few fellow artists I respect and admire, notably: Joel Chaim Holtzman and Bruce Brennaise. I received a fair bit of composition advice, as well as color and contrast, and some great tips on improving the environment and textures in the scene. The image certainly would not have gotten to the place it did without the knowledge of these fantastic artists. 

This painting was one of the most enjoyable I've ever made. Magic and the story of Phyrexia is a subject matter that brings me back to my childhood and teenage years, and I'm glad that the creatives that pour their heart and soul into the worlds and stories created by Magic the Gathering artists and Wizards of the Coast have had this opportunity for 25 years, and I hope they have 25 more. As one inspired by this art, I'm honored, once again, to have been invited to pay tribute to such a great game, and to show alongside many other talented artists. 

Until next time,




Shop of the Exhibition:


Exhibition Link:


Photos of the space: 

Magic:the Gathering Tribute + The Ultimate Fantasy


Oh, and Via's story...

Via was born an Untouchable - a caste of exiles banished to the undercity caves, for either their crime or their disease. The great Thran city of Halcyon sat above, in it’s technological splendor, while Via and her twin sister - a sister born weak and crippled - scrounged for a means to live in the dark depths below. Via had to carry her frail sister, strapped with cloth to her back, like a satchel of everything she ever loved. They spent years traversing the caves, spending time between the ramshackle camps of other Untouchables, but never finding a true home. 

Via’s sister was a burden, but one Via bore gladly. While her legs were wasted away, Via’s sister’s arms were strong and sure. With those arms, she helped Via climb to places one could not climb alone, or defend them from the bandits who would ambush from behind. They survived together, and the companionship they had was all that mattered: not the Thran people above, nor the other Untouchables, nor the darkness and disease that always surrounded them. They had each other.

That was, until, the day the Thran Mana Rig exploded and sent Via and her sister plummeting from a stony bed to the ground below.

Via’s sister was all that saved her life from the fall, and suddenly... she was gone. 

Via lost the will to fight for survival in that very moment. She returned to the other Untouchables, broken and unwilling to live. Unwilling, even, to fight in the rebellion when the Untouchables stormed the city streets of Halcyon and tried to take it from the Thran. It was not long after returning to the Untouchables that she contracted the pthisis... the wasting disease that plagued people above and below the city. 

Via would have wasted away, if it were not for this great healer Yawgmoth: the once-exile, who was restored to the city to cure the Thran people of the pthisis. It was Yawgmoth himself who personally administered her the treatment to her on one of his visits to the Caves of the Damned. It was on that day, that Via’s life began anew. 

It would be impossible to comprehend exactly how Via felt from that point on; from the moment her disease was cleared; to the day she brought from the caves into joining the ranks of Yawgmoth’s Health Corps; to the Weeks where Yawgmoth began moving the infected from the city and caves to this new place of healing, called Phyrexia; to the months she spent changing in Phyrexia’s oil vats, after Yawgmoth sparked the civil war and began ushering over those willing to follow his promise of completion.

But through Yawgmoth, she was given back her sister, in a way. Made completely free of the phtisis, and the dark depths of the Caves of the Damned and that bleak existence. She saw the light; she saw the future for the Thran people; and she would invite you - dirty and downtrodden as she once was - through that portal... and into Paradise. 

New Website


This is is my first time creating a website, and I'm sure it shows! I've created this page to serve as a portfolio and to post my ideas and inspirations. It's pretty basic right now and I'll work on fleshing it out more as time goes on. 



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