Sunday, October 9, 2011

Art Critic's Corner: Innistrad Basics

Welcome to a new feature I'm trying out for the blog. I have a background in art, having studied fine art and commercial art/graphic design for some years. I'm the sort of guy who finds documentaries about fonts utterly fascinating, and usually has at least 1 card in each of my EDH decks that I know shouldn't be there, but I'm playing because I like the art too much.

So it seems only natural that I should combine my love of art with my love of Magic - especially since art plays such a huge, important role in making the game stand out and capture people's attention.

The art in Innistrad, overall, is phenomenal. They really went all-out to capture the mood of 'dark gothic horror' and I'd say the succeeded quite well overall. Of course I'm a huge sucker for all things dark and gothic, so I will readily admit my tastes are heavily biased in favor of this set's theme... but that doesn't mean I don't look at the art objectively. There are plenty of cards in Innistrad whose illustrations don't really thrill me much. But far more of the cards do boast some exceptional work.

For this first article, I want to narrow it down a bit, though. Reviewing a whole set, especially one as fantastic as Innistrad, might be tedious. So, I think I'll just do the Basic Lands of the set. I've already posted about why I think it's important to choose Basic Lands that have an aesthetic that matches the rest of your deck. Basic Lands are the one thing in Magic where you know which specific card you want but have dozens and dozens of options where artwork is concerned.

With that in mind, it seems logical to begin this little experiment by critiquing the Basic Lands of Innistrad. NOTE: I am posting the pictures of each land here, but I'm basic my critiques off the actual physical cards which I have right in front of me as I write. This is because computer monitors are pretty inconsistent in how the display colors, but the actual cards will not vary in this way.

First up, we have the Plains.

Good, subtle use of color here. The sky has just a hint of purple to contrast with the hint of green in the land below. The dark clouds in the sky are rather oppressive and ominous - which works for the mood and theme of the set. Just a hair too much green, though. This clearly isn't a forest, but it also doesn't make me think "white mana" right off the bat.
This artist went for a similar execution as the one above. Greenery below contrasts with hints of pink and purple in the sky above, with dark clouds above suffocating everything beneath. This pieces winds up a bit more colorful than the previous one, though, with more color in the sky, and the little touch of rust/orange in the bottom right corner... this illustration also effectively conveys the right mood, while still evoking a sense of white mana.

I'm a huge Jung Park fan, and was following his work before he started illustrating for Magic. However, this isn't his strongest work. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it's the weakest of the three Plains arts. But Jung did do some things right here. First of all, does this look like a Plains in the sense that it could be a source of white mana? Yes, to me it does. I also think that this piece utilizes a better prospective than the other two. In the first two, the horizon line is much closer to the bottom of the frame, lending to an elevated perspective, while Jung's piece puts the POV right on the ground, with the horizon much higher. This makes it feel like the veiwpoint of a person standing there on the ground.

Ultimately, I have to give Adam props for the most aesthetically pleasing illustration, though it comes up short in evoking a "white mana" feeling. Jung Park's illustration is the least aesthetically pleasing, but he employs a stronger grasp of perspective, recognizing the importance of POV in this set. Finally, Eytan Zana probably does the best at hitting both points - selling the concept of "Plains" and "white mana" while still making a visually arresting piece through bold use of color.

Next, we've got Islands.

 James Paick is another illustrator I happen to be a big fan of. However, this illustration isn't my favorite work of his. It looks great on-screen, but the printed card is much darker and you loose a lot of that great detail at the bottom of the canyon. Also the rocks on the right side look almost completely black on the printed card, so that the illustration just looks like it's about 65% solid black with no detail. I wish the printed piece looked more like the digital version, but even if it did, this wouldn't be my favorite Island.
 I really dig this one in concept. The battered ship cresting a big wave is just cool as hell. The water and the rocks in the foreground are neat, and a good way to give the art some texture. However, I think Adam Paquette's brush strokes are just a hair too smooth, giving the piece an almost airbrushed look. It reminds me of those tacky paintings people do on black velvet. Despite this flaw I'm still a fan of this Island, and I'm currently using it as the basic of choice in my Garza Zol vampire deck.
After a miss with his Plains artwork, it's nice to see Jung hit a home-run here. I love this illustration. The green/orange contrast to the foliage is superb, and the ghostly hint of a city in the far background adds an element to help capture the mind's eye and draw you into the piece. This is another one where the printed card is a tad too dark, but you at least get some of the color and detail on this one. Definitely my favorite of the three.

All three Islands boast good artwork, but that first one just came out way too dark. I think I can find other Islands that are similar but more visually interesting. Adam's piece has a great hook in the form of the tossed-about ship, but I think he should have worked in some stormy weather and lightining, in place of the big grey cliffs in the background. The foreground is great, while the background is just boring. Jung Park wins this time, with an aesthetic piece where the background is just as interesting as the foreground.

Swamps are next.

First up, Adam Paquette turns in a solid piece. Great use of color and texture make this one his strongest illustration so far. It has that up close and personal feel that was lacking in his Plains illustration, and he utilizes the background as well as the foreground, avoiding the primary flaw in his otherwise great Island piece. This illustration reminds me of Scooby Doo, for some reason, and I'm not convinced that's a bad thing!
 If I have to pick a weakest among the swamps, this one is it, but that's not to say it's a bad piece. The concept nails the mood dead-on, and this is on creepy fucking swamp! My only real complaints are that the horizon line should have been a bit higher to give some more attention to the land, because the sky dominates this piece, while being the least interesting part of it. And the other complaint is that the color values are too monochromatic. James should have used just a tad more color to break up the monotone sky.
And the winner again is Jung Park. This illustration is great. One thing you'll notice if I do this type of column often, is that I tend to dislike monochromatic pieces. Even where it makes sense, I just rarely find monochromatic art interesting or appealing. This piece stands out, to me, though precisely because it manages to be a monochromatic (mostly) illustration, while still being visually arresting and aesthetically pleasing. Partly because it's a graveyard, giving the artist room to add details via the headstones, and partly because the artist utilized a very important technique by including that one little tattered red banner on the right. That one little splash of color both gives the piece a way to break up the monotone greys and blacks, and gives it a way to catch the eye, and hold it.

Adam consistently comes in second with another solid illustration, while Jung shows his grasp of using color and detail to compensate for a lack of broad color palette. Once again, though, James Paick sees another well-executed piece hampered by too-dark printing, and his reluctance to use color value to his advantage.

Now for some Mountain action.

 Finally, a James Paick piece that I love. Frankly, this illustration possesses the same flaws I complained of in his Island and Swamp contributions, but the concept here is unmistakably that of the creepy mountain pass leading up to Dracula's castle (or Oliva's I guess in this case?). The hint of sun breaking through the clouds in the top left gives the piece some much-needed contrast. The printed card still comes out too dark, but the reds in the sky alleviate this problem somewhat. More than anything, though, what's important is that when I look at this peice, I so badly want to follow that mountain road to find out where it goes! Very cool.
I'm starting to see a trend in Adam's work. He likes to put in some man-made element, or some other central feature that doesn't quite belong (like the ship on his Island, or the little boat on his Swamp). It's an effective technique, but like all techniques, it becomes less effective if you rely too heavily on it. Still, Adam hasn't hit that point yet, cause I dig this Mountain art. The blue/red contrast is very effective too. I like this one quite a lot.
There are very, very few Mountain illustrations that I would consider "gorgeous" or "beautiful" but this one deserves both adjectives. From the sky to the flowery field below, this piece is just gorgeous. Even the big rock has it's own appeal. But, the question must be posed: Does a big rock count as a "Mountain"? I don't know but if I were a planeswalker needing to lob a fireball at an enemy, this wouldn't be the first place I'd imagine to draw red mana from. I like to see artists thinking outside the box a bit, but this just doesn't evoke the right feeling to me. It is really pretty, though, so I can definitely see using this one anyway.

It's kind of a toss-up here, as to which I like best. James' is the best concept and evokes the mood the best, but Adam's and Eytan's are both more aesthetically pleasing. All three are quite good in their own rights, which is weird to me, because Mountains are usually the ugliest of the bunch in most sets.

Wrapping up with Forests...

 With the first two Plains we looked at, I appreciated the green/purple contrast utilized in those illustrations. Here, though, it might be a bit too much. Especially since the printed piece looks slightly more pinkish. Finally, James Paick decides to utilize some color, and he winds up overdoing it! Still, it's not bad - it does have that spooky, foggy look to it that fits the set well. This is my least favorite of the Forests but I definitely don't hate it.
Another superb illustration mired by the printed version being too dark to make out the details. I never would have know there was a little rowboat by the creek if it weren't more clearly shown in the digital version. But with the dark tone and the splash of blue in the creek, this is still a great peice, and I definitely think it would fit perfectly into a Blue/Black/Green deck, capturing elements of all three.
Fabulously done. Defintely my favorite Forest, possibly my favorite basic in the set. The fall-colored leaves, with the green grass, and the twisted, gnarled old tree. Perfect concept, perfect execution. When an illustration makes you want this badly to actually BE there, you know the artist has succeeded.

Well, this wraps up my latest attempt at being an art snob. Hopefully this wasn't too disappointing of a distraction from EDH decklists!

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