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 (http://lightgreyartlab.com/mtg-tribute). 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 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.
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!).
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!
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??
A bright doorway is a literal portal, right? And aluminium foil is metal.... accuracy!
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!
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:
Photos of the space: