In order to explain aspects of this piece, I’m going to break from the norm and provide a peek of the painting in progress in order to show you a pattern.
The pattern in question is done roughly in pencil directly to the left and right of the whitish rectangle at middle (though the pattern at left is a bit more fleshed out than that on the right). Out of necessity for the image, I’ve drawn the repeating pattern in perspective, but laid flat it’s a riff on squares, squares within squares, and rectangles. Why show this to you first? Well, the pattern is kind of key to the image—not only from a design standpoint, but also from a conceptual one. The central “gag” of the image literally depends on and references this pattern. So, with that out of the way, I hope that some of my thinking in the early stages of this assignment will be a bit clearer.
Now, on to the assignment…
The image I was asked to paint a pool of water whose surface was rippling in some semblance of the aforementioned pattern, which is specific to Magic’s plane of Zendikar, which has lots of floating bits of geography. This geometric pattern pervades certain locations within Zendikar (at least as I understand it), affecting the shape of architectural forms and even covering the floors, walls and ceilings in some form or another.
The central concept of this piece was that the very nature of the pattern is so pervasive that it not only affects the structures, but also the very water of this pool itself, and so I’d have to find a way to sell water rippling in a seemingly artificial way.
Despite being a landscape, the piece was mostly going to comprise of architecture—some of which was floating and at odd angles. Normally, architecture gives me a bit of a headache, but this time I was really interested in the challenge because the overall quality of said architecture was quite a bit more abstract than anything I’ve done before. I knew it was going to be difficult at times, but I figured it might be rewarding in the long run. And so I dug into sketches with a good deal of excitement.
In the end, the fine folks at Wizards liked that last sketch and asked for some tweaks. The card itself needed both an island and a swamp influence. While it was felt I was getting the island influence in there, there clearly wasn’t enough swampy, muddy gunk to sell that aspect of the piece. And so I did some quick changes and resubmitted.
This was approved with a suggestion that I push the swampiness even further and so off to paint I went. Well, not really.
Because this required architecture in perspective, I needed to kind of draw it out. While I did project the image above onto my surface, it was only very lightly indicated so I could get the placement and proportions correct. The perspective was worked out based on that sketch and then used to clean the whole image up and make it more “correct.”
All that line work eventually resulted in this drawing:Keen eyes will note that the water level on this final drawing differs from that done in my sketch above. Originally, I thought it would be interesting to indicate that the camera wasn’t actually at an angle by making the water level with the viewer’s eyes, thus revealing that all of the architecture was at an angle. However, it never quite worked for me. For one, it kind of didn’t feel like it was on purpose, and second, it made the waterfall—which would flow vertically—look really wrong. It’s possible that if I had skewed the architecture further that the idea might have worked better, but I think it’s probably something that I’d have fought no matter what. Regardless, I decided to make the water level consistent with the angle of the architecture.
With that, I started to throw some paint down.
With the acrylic down, I started in oil.
A second note about the water. While the notion of square waves seems unnatural and outlandish, Mother Nature once again became a valuable resource. The very real phenomenon called “cross sea,” (but sometimes known as “squared sea” or “square waves”) is well documented and there are some excellent images of it out there in all kinds of lighting conditions. Not surprisingly, that helped a lot.
As an aside, should you see this phenomenon in person, you should probably skip swimming—square waves can indicate some really dangerous waters.
Anyway, I kept painting…
And finally this:
Except this isn’t the final. It’s close. But it needed a little extra push. It was felt that the piece wasn’t quite swampy enough, and so I was asked to push that a smidge further.
And that’s how we got here:
The changes that brought us to the final are pretty subtle. But if you look closely, it’s murkier, muddier, and a bit more dour. Whether one could tell the difference at card size is a beyond me, honestly. Regardless, the client wants what the client wants. And so I that’s what I gave them.
None of that matters to me, though. I like the piece and I’m happy with it. It provided a lot of noodly irritations along the way, but I think it was all worthwhile. And that’s not something I always feel—certainly not immediately after completing a piece. But in this case, I liked it as soon as I signed it, and that hasn’t changed at all since.
Personally, it doesn’t get much better than those occasions I’m able to make both my client and myself happy in a single piece. Don’t get me wrong, my goal at the outset of any given assignment is to make something that pleases the client, but is also something I would be proud to hang on my own wall at home. That…doesn’t always work out for one reason or another. But it’s always something I reach for, and sometimes I’m lucky enough to pull it off.