Thursday, September 15, 2011

Magic Innistrad: "Grizzled Outcasts"

It's always a fantastic surprise to be a part of the first wave of a new Magic: the Gathering block. For the uninitiated, each year, 3 sets of cards (one large, two small) are released that explore a storyline and theme set somewhere in Magic's Multiverse. Essentially, this allows for a yearly reboot of the story and visual style of a phenomenally creative game. Occasionally I've been given inside hints as to the genre or theme of a coming story arc, but I've never been privy to concept art beforehand, for instance--even when I've known the illustrators involved. It's a responsibility I wouldn't want, as leaking this information is deadly serious business, and I wouldn't even want to accidentally mumble a secret in my sleep and have a neighbor hear through an open window.

But when I've had the privilege of being on the first set of a new block, checking out the style guide for it is always a ton of fun. Not only is there great art in it, but great possibilities, and the knowledge that if I am able to participate in more of the block, I'll be living in the world for a good nine months or so. It's just enough time to marinade in it and absorb it, but not enough to get bored before the game is off to the next thing.

So, for this year's set we have something which one might sum up as Magic's take on Gothic Horror. Given how far Magic has stretched the notions of what fantasy art is, it's always fun to see it move closer to home, as it were. New to the game are werewolf cards, wherein characters are featured in their normal form on one side, and werewolf form on the other. I think Rage did something like this years back, also with werewolves, but I didn't work on that game.

I was assigned one such card, and will discuss the flip-card design components in this and next week's installment. For this week, we have, "Grizzled Outcasts."

In this case, we had four, well, grizzled outcasts, who have banded together and live outside the towns. They were to appear united, and suspicious of those who might encounter them. Though this was essentially a "line-up" of characters, I figured I'd use some branches or foliage in the foreground to create a barrier between the viewer and our crew. On the flip-side, I was to portray the same four, who by night head back into town to sort of say hi to those who cast them out. Very neighborly.

Though I often do digital thumbnails, in this case I did a group the old-fashioned way.

In all the werewolf art, you'll see that the artists were instructed to create visual cues from front-to-back so that the characters could be understood to be the same on both sides. The werewolves themselves were to also have identifying characteristics. So, for single figures, many artists went for mirror-image compositions, for instance. For four figures, it was a little tougher. I sought two ways of fulfilling this goal, and one of them was just to create a wider-than-usual gamut of physical types to transform into werewolves. This allowed me a great excuse to introduce more ethnicities into the illustration, which Magic is always grateful for. What we westerners know as fantasy art has a long history of being primarily of a Western/European template, and with Innistrad itself moving back to a more European-inspired approach in terms of setting, I figured this variety would also just make a nice visual treat.

So, I picked one asian woman and one black male character. I gave another guy an eye patch and a hunch, and there's default dude there, too. I didn't want to go all United Nations and overkill it.

"Grizzled Outcasts" study, purchase information here

I busted out my charcoals and did this "sketch" (the term is losing its meaning a bit the more I develop these, shall we say "study" instead?). One can see a couple of changes that were already being made. Intentionally: the patch on the leftmost character was boring. Instead, I gashed his entire right eye shut, and intended to replicate this on the flipside. The walking stick the next guy is holding no longer appears at the top of the composition--as I went from thumbnail to study, I had to compress the figures in more, and there just wasn't room at the top of the frame anymore. I initially thought he might have some fish or something hanging off it. Would've been a nice touch, but had to go. Unintentionally: the leftmost character had a high collar and a kerchief or something blocking most of his face. By the time the study rolled around this was gone, and I'm not sure why. In retrospect, I might've left this detail.

Innistrad has a lot of costuming, and the goal of making it look worn, particularly for these grizzled outcasts. They shouldn't look completely threadbare and impoverished--after all these were people outcast from the local town--who knows what sorts of lives they led before being infected with lycanthropy? So some of them have rather nice clothing, even nice furs. Modified tricorn hats feature prominently on the humans in this society. But with my black character I opted against it, just to break it up. But then again, what hair style to give him? Surely African tribal hairdos, which might otherwise rock Magic's world just fine, were out of the question. But blacks aren't going to be found in most European art going back to that era either, to see what they were wearing. I went to the civil war and looked at photos a bit, but most men seemed to simply wear a simple afro of varying length, usually fairly short. Hmm. So instead I went Frederick Douglass. One of Magic's keywords, with regards to artwork, is the word, "Badass." Well, Frederick Douglass was a badass if ever there was one. Granted, he was primarily an intellectual badass, but still. And he had a rockin' hairdo. I don't pretend he was the only fellow wearing his hair like that, necessarily, but being famous in his day, we have the luxury of having lots of photos of him. So, Frederick Douglass. Badass.

I was told to lose the eye scar, as another artist had already done that fairly prominently. Shoot. So, I simply emphasized the corners of his beard near his jaw. That would be one cue.

"Grizzled Outcasts" final painting, larger view and purchase information here

 There are two other tweaks that I made along the way. First off, the walking stick was anemic in the sketch, so I made it a nice branch with character. Second, the spacing of the characters had the main guy's elbow tangenting with our female's bosom, which was a bad idea. So I brought that figure in a touch.

The last thing of note is the environment, which is foggy and lighter in tone than my usual. First, with a composition featuring four figures, simplifying shapes was going to be key. Also, empty or negative space was going to be necessary. It was for this reason that I varied the heights and positioning of the characters to a triangle leading to the main guy, and why I opted for there being a nice negative space to his right, so he still has visual supremacy. The werewolves were obviously going to be shown at night, so I wanted the contrast with day to be clear. I also changed the manner of patching on the sleeve of main guy and added a clasp to the overcoat on the leftmost figure. Little changes like these often happen throughout the process.

And next week, we'll discuss the flipside of this image.