Magic Art Matters - Judgment First Impressions
Before launching headlong into today's article, a few words of follow-up regarding my Gravedigger critique are in order: About a week to the day after that article was posted I revisited Wizards' Eighth Edition Promo Page. To my amazement, I found that in fact we have been invited to vote on which version of Gravedigger art we prefer for Eighth Edition, with the choice being between the Tempest and Seventh Edition versions of Gravedigger. Whether I have some undiscovered extra-sensory perception, or if it was just a lucky guess, or if Wizards took my article as a de facto suggestion that there should be a choice available for the Gravedigger art in particular, I may never know. In any case, it was quite a pleasant surprise so soon after the posting of the article!
Regardless of which of the two versions you prefer, I encourage you to cast a vote one way or the other; each choice will be left open for two weeks, so about a week remains on the Gravedigger vote. Being involved as informed consumers is, after all, the inspiring spirit under which I write these articles.
The first critique - and the one that laid the groundwork of this series - was the Spelljack critique. To summarize that critique, Magic art, like any other art, can be objectively evaluated by a set of aesthetic rules, and the better informed we are as consumers, the greater role we can play in influencing Wizards to always strive for the highest possible standards for Magic art.
Regarding reader feedback, I am appreciative of the thoughtful and encouraging e-mail that I have received. I also appreciate that the articles themselves are subject to critique. A number of those responding thought I had made the wrong interpretation on what I thought was the shadow cast by the shovel; I can see that it is quite possible that the shape was actually the shadow cast by the Zombie himself - either that, or the shape was the cavity of the grave itself. In any case I am gratified that the articles are having the desired effect of causing Magic enthusiasts to pay closer attention to the artistic merit of the product we first buy, and then use, in our gaming experience.
As I opened my packs at the Judgment Prerelease, two cards stood out for their superior art, and caused me to immediately begin formulating my approach to this article. Given that this expansion was designed to emphasize Green and White, I thought it was a nice coincidence that my two favorite cards came from those colors. Both were uncommons, and their abilities involved flying* in some way.
So which two cards am I speaking of? Well, none other than the Anurid Swarmsnapper** and Battle Screech. These two cards are complimentary in many ways - in fact, if they were redrawn to reconcile their differing vantage points for perspective, one could envision them as two elements within a single composition.*** This is in part due to the shared theme of flying, but also due to the similarity in treatment of the sky, and to a lesser extent the reliance on the rocks upon which the primary subjects of both cards rest. When the cards are placed side-by-side with the Screech on the left, the two compositions look great together.
Unfortunately, since the Screech is a sorcery, which goes to the graveyard upon resolution, these cards are destined to forever reside in different zones. You may appreciate them together in your hand, but never together in the in-play zone.
The Anurid Swarmsnapper is first and foremost pleasing to the eye. This is largely due to the convincing sense of apparent bulk, weight, and form. The careful rendering of color plays a large role in the successful revelation of form. The form is further enhanced by the way the color green wraps over the surface of the creature; the darker green towards the edges and backside of the limbs contrasts with the soft white-green of the form's central areas.
This creature looks bulky and has a convincing sense of weight. The appearance of weight is achieved in part by the way the feet wrap firmly around the supporting rocks. In addition, the foot on the leg in the foreground appears more flattened due to the weight it must be receiving. We believe that the front leg is bearing more of the weight, since it is lower than both of the back legs. The second front leg is probably at the same level as the foreground leg; it only appears, at first glance, to be on a higher plane due to both legs being properly drawn in perspective.
An expert job by the artist on the perspective has contributed to our appreciation of the bulk and three-dimensionality of this creature. Just imagine if the artist had drawn all the feet in the same plane, thereby avoiding the multi-level pedestal effect of the rocks in the composition; this drawing would have been totally flattened out and would fail to hold our interest nearly as well as it does now.
Anatomically, this Anurid is well drawn. Looking at the leg on the left, we are aware of the bony structure that appears to be just beneath the thin, almost translucent skin of the leg. Notice also how this upper leg and knee are drawn with foreshortening. The leg is convincingly foreshortened and appears to be coming out of the painting towards the viewer; likewise, the lower leg, which is more bulky and muscular is also foreshortened, but in this case appears to recede into the canvas. Subtle folds in the skin of the leg, along with the control of light striking the figure, make this creature very believable to the viewer.
Adding to the depth provided in the perspective and light-play discussed above is the artist's use of a gradient background. As has been discussed in previous reviews, an effective way to convey depth is to render from dark to light when proceeding from foreground or middle ground into background. A simplified approach has been used for the sky in this case. It starts out dark green in the negative space under the anurid's belly, and goes through successively lighter shades of green to the almost white, light green at the top of the painting. While missing an opportunity to tell more of a story in the space consumed by the background, the artist has wisely left it uncluttered - allowing us to focus on, and appreciate, the drama that is taking place in the middle ground. Under the circumstances, I think this was a good choice.
Compositionally, this piece is very well done. The main character is somewhat off center to the right, and is balanced beautifully by the bat-like creature in the upper left. This careful composition has yielded some very nice negative spaces, particularly between the two characters.
As far as movement goes, this painting is very appealing. Of course the element of the red, ropy tongue provides a sweeping, circular movement in and of itself... But take a moment to appreciate how well the scene is crafted. First there is some nice misdirection; the Anurid is facing out-of-scene to the right, which draws our eyes in that direction. No sooner does your eye make it to the right edge than the tongue takes over and sweeps down, then outwards towards the viewer, then up, and finally back to lance the target bat-creature. We get the impression that the bat has been trying to escape upwards and to the left, but has unfortunately fallen victim to the 'Snapper. The result is a very dynamic composition, full of movement, and invested with a great sense of both literal and visual tension between the characters. A great job by John Matson!
There is one significant flaw evident in the artistic production of this card. I cite the artistic production, rather than assuming that it was the artist's fault himself, because the error could have been introduced by the art director due to his choice of cropping. The flaw has to do with the"tangent" that is evident where the wingtip of the bat meets the top of the frame flushly.
Just as in math, where a line can be drawn tangent to a circle, the curved wing seems to meet the frame at one point only. Arguably, it may not be a single point in this case - but the amount of intersection is so small that for all intents and purposes, it is one point. The reason that a tangent is bad is that it puts the adjacent objects in the same plane, even if they were not intended to appear as such by the artist. The effect is a flattening of the drawing, which can defeat all the other efforts expended by the artist to strive for a three dimensional effect in his art.
This particular tangent could have been easily avoided if the tip had been drawn (or cropped) to be either fully detached from the frame, or if it had been made to simply overlap the edge more completely. I believe the artist submitted a painting that was slightly larger than the frame and the art director had to make a choice on how to crop. To be fair to the director, shifting the piece down in the frame might have caused a similar problem with the bottom on the green part of the front leg... So perhaps what we see is the result of the best compromise possible. In any case, the tangent formed by the wingtip is distracting, and if it had been avoided the overall effect of the artwork would have been improved.
Now let's look at the Battle Screech. Once again the strength appears in the composition.
I had to look carefully at this piece to figure out why I liked it so much. Slowly, I began to realize that all of the space is used very nicely - and the result is an array of visually appealing shapes. The underlying structure of this drawing is triangular in nature. Obviously, outside of what I will call the observant bird in the foreground, there are three bird creatures in various stages of flight. Notice how the central bird divides the space into three separate and almost equally-sized areas: The first area is the hazy background sky that is cradled between the extended wings of the central bird. This area constitutes a very nice negative space; it is symmetrical, but not perfectly so, thus keeping it interesting to the eye. The second area is the lower-left corner, which hosts the close flying bird. Finally, the third area occupies the lower right corner and hosts both the observant bird as well as the distant flying bird.
Notice how the two flying birds are both rendered very softly, in somewhat lighter tones than the foreground objects. This once again enhances the appearance of depth by moving through dark to light coloration when receding into the background. If you look carefully, you will also notice that the flying bird on the right side is slightly lighter in color that the bird on the left; the artist has convincingly sold the depth by careful control of the subtle color changes between these simply drawn background characters. Very nice!
Before leaving these background areas, notice how well the flying birds are composed within their respective areas, and how they are rendered very casually, with a dreamy feel. This is a nice approach; the artist appears to be saying..."I know how to draw these birds, and you know I know how to draw the birds, so I won't bore you with all the details; I'll just draw them simply, in an almost abstract fashion." This choice is also consistent with the fact that some details would be obscured due the motion of the birds while in flight.
A unique aspect of this composition is the choice of perspective such that the scene is viewed from behind, with only the backsides of all the characters visible. I can not recall any other such occurrence in another Magic card, and it certainly is nice for a change of pace. The choice also creates a sense of movement; these creatures are taking flight, moving first into the background and then to the right of the scene.
Notice the orientation of the head of the central character, and its opposition to that off the observant bird's head. The former is pointed right, in the direction of its eventual flight, while the latter looks left; this is the primary source of visual tension in the piece, and effectively adds interest and anticipation.
Anticipation is further built by the way the central bird is poised for flight. If it had been drawn to be shown sitting statically, like the observant bird, or if it had just taken off with legs straightened after leaping to initiate flight, the piece would have suffered. As it is, there is anticipation built into the pose; the potential energy needed for takeoff is stored in the bent legs of the central bird.
The artist has made a good choice for a foreground object in the form of the observant bird, and he has executed it beautifully. It is very nearly the darkest object in the painting, thus emphatically placing it in the foreground and thereby further enhancing the effect of depth. The other dark area - in fact, the darkest area - is the underside of the central rock ledge. By its darkness, the artist has established an effective anchor for the composition.
Finally, within the foreground I like the way the small tree is rendered with a very nice line quality in evidence. It has the appearance of the scruffy type of tree that you would expect to find on a high outcropping of rock."Line quality" refers to the nature and execution of a line. Is it straight and hard-edged, or squiggly and articulated? On all of the foreground objects, as well as the battlestaff that the central bird is clutching, a very precise line is apparent. I do not mean straight - simply that the lines have been thoughtfully and interestingly drawn. This adds to the appeal of the piece, and also serves to contrast with the looser, softer shapes used to depict the birds already in flight in the background. This is yet another example of how an artist employs a type of contrast to add texture, depth, and interest to their artwork. In this case, Randy Gallegos has done a wonderful job on Battle Screech; my appreciation goes out to Randy!
I have shared my impressions of two excellent pieces of art from Judgment. Hopefully, this has added to your understanding of why you find some Magic cards more artistically appealing than others.
As an exercise, I glanced through the Judgment Player's Guide to experience the art for all one hundred and forty three cards within this set. I was trying to see if these cards held up in comparison to other art within the expansion, since my choice for review of these cards was based on the limited number of cards that I actually opened or saw in play at the pre-release. I was satisfied that in fact, these are among the very best pieces of art from within the set.**** Both John Matson and Randy Gallegos have created outstanding pieces of art for these new cards.
Michael Jay LaRue
* - As an Aerospace engineer, many of the cards, creatures and themes within Magic that I gravitate towards involve flying. On the upside I get to enjoy an aspect of Magic that I can relate to - but on the downside, I am afraid I have become predictable to my multiplayer group. I won't tell you how many times I have died to a well-timed Hurricane.
** - Of course, the Swarmsnapper has a cousin by the name of Anurid Brushhopper, who has gotten considerably more press based on its strength as a nearly unkillable, recurring creature. While the 'Hopper may be the mechanically superior card, I think the 'Snapper excels artistically.
*** - Are you aware that on at least one occasion, artwork for two Magic cards has been gleaned from a single painting? My memory fails me on the companion card, but one of the subjects was Spur Grappler from Prophecy. Unfortunately, while it might have been a time-saver for the artist (ironically, Randy Gallegos), and of some benefit to Wizards, since they likely had to pay for only one painting, the result was rather disappointing. I have always been put off by the appearance of Spur Grappler. It seems to float, unconnected to its surroundings. Furthermore, it simply looks distorted. I can offer a guess as to why this is evident: I believe it has to do with the fact that the artist must make a choice for the apparent vantagepoint of any scene. This choice thereafter affects all aspects of the perspective. When only one of the characters is extracted into its own frame, the viewer's vantagepoint is changed. Essentially, the perspective that looks right for the large composition fails to look correct when one of the elements is isolated.