NEIL MELVILLE Web Site
How I Made a MtG Card Illustration

The Announcement

On October 25th 2004, Mark Rosewater (Head of R&D) announced the 3rd installment of YOU MAKE THE CARD for the Magic the Gathering card game.  Unlike the previous events, the card illustration would be chosen from general submissions.  It seem to me as good a time as any to try my hand at card illustration, and I resolved to submit to this illustration contest.

Before any submission got to a popular vote, it was going to be screened by the Magic the Gathering Art Director (Jeremy Cranford) and the creative team(Brady Dommermuth, Brandon Bozzi, Matt Cavotta, Doug Alexander and Mark Rosewater).  In the official contest rules it specified that they would "review all Submissions and determine the finalists using the following criteria: originality and creativity (40%), artistic merit (40%) compatibility with gameplay (20%)."

Being quite familiar with the game, I had no doubt I could create an image compatible with gameplay.  Specifically, I wanted to create something that could end up being used in multiple ways.  Now, artistic merit was some concern, as I have great respect for the abilities of many of the artists currently illustrating Magic cards.  With the submission deadline 3 weeks away, it would not be realistic to expect any significant change in my abilities.  As for original and creative, I figured it just needed to be different than existing illustrations.

The Process

I took about an hour and made about a dozen sketches of different ideas (It never once occurred to me to submit a piece of art that I had already created).  After making those sketches, I did not have opportunity to return to the task for the rest of the week.  At the beginning of the next week, I narrowed down my selection to one of 2 sketches.  I broke out my art supplies and started doing some warm up work to get into the groove (it had been quite a while since I took a piece beyond a sketch without resorting to computer).

The next night I decided to start working with this sketch.  I thought it would be good practice before moving on to the other piece.  If this one turned out well, I might not even have to try the other one. 

The last serious illustration gig I had was over 5 years ago, and that was for black and white interior art.  The art direction was high contrast, which works well with my years of amateur comic book art.  So, as a matter of lapsing into habit, I started THIS illustration by inking the sketch...

2 days later I started on the coloring.  (I have a busy day schedule, and really didn't work on this project until after the kids were in bed.  That usually means after 11pm.)  I used markers to lay down an overall color base with foreground and background in contrasting hues.  I chose low saturation non-primary colors, because I like to focus the high saturation on important foreground details...

Unfortunately, the picture sat at this stage for almost a week (what with a birthday celebration for one of my favorite artists - me).  At this rate I would not be able to finish a second piece, so I just focused on this one.  I made another pass with colored pencil, to create more variety and texture in the color.  The lighter and less saturated color at the top of the background is intended to make it recede.  I wanted to pull all focus to the foreground, without making the background darker.  So the darker colors were brought forward, to frame the glow effects that I knew I would eventually add.

Now with 2 days left before the submission deadline, I scanned the image into Photoshop.  I have been using Photoshop for almost 10 years, in creating 2D images and texture maps for video games.  I started by pushing the saturation and contrast, and adding some more blue light cast onto the cyclops from the glowing orb area.  I specifically chose to keep the texture in the fabric of the robes and the background.

At this point, I adjusted the position of the smaller armored figure to be more centered in the glowing orb.  I also replaced the blacks in the armor with a grayish blue, so that he would look like the glow was enveloping him, rather than in front of him.  I drew in the lightning arcs that were hinted at in the original sketch.  I then used additive layer effects to create the blue glow of the sphere, the lightning, and the hands.

All that remained was to address some problems with the cyclops head.  The form was a bit muddy, and all the glowing blue overpowered it.  It was out of balance.  For the overall rhythm and flow of the piece, I needed to have someplace for the viewer's eye to go besides the glow.  

I added more light to face, and sculpted and blended the form.  I created the glowing blue light in the center of the helmet.  For a final touch, I faded the hair/tentacles with the background color to better define the shape and depth of the head.

If I had had more time, or taken the time I didn't have to get more feedback from other artists, I sure it could have been improved.  But as it was, I was out of time, and I wanted to give myself 24 hours to make sure it got submitted in time.  It was November 15th, 2004, and I emailed the image to Wizards of the Coast.  And then I waited...

The Result

On January 25th, 2005 (over 2 months later), the finalists were announced.  I opened the announcement page, and discovered that 10 finalists had been chosen.  I scrolled down, one picture at a time.  There were many very nice illustrations here, and I wasn't seeing mine among them.  That is, until I got to the very bottom of the page.  The final finalist.  I felt like I had just barely squeaked into the top ten. 

I excitedly emailed people I knew (and I should have emailed people I didn't know too, but I didn't know their email addresses) - "My illustration is piece #10, and by the looks of it, my meager entry has some worthy competition.  I think it is no small miracle that my piece was chosen by the art director(s), but the winner is going to be chosen by the voting of random fantasy art/game fans.  If any of you are so inclined, you can vote for your favorite out of the 10 (I'm hoping that many will choose #10)."

When the votes were tallied, the fans confirmed my suspicions - I had come in at 9th place with 300 votes.  The winner was finalist #5, with 3726 votes.  I found that this artist had chosen a different path for her piece.  I think it is important to note these distinctions, as I feel they greatly increased the popularity of the illustration, achieving superiority in both quality and content:  It was a piece that was created previous to the contest being announced, it was created using ref