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Top Ten Tips for 3D Alterers


This week, instead of writing a step-by-step guide for making a 3D card, I want to give some general tips for 3D alterers. I hope you’ll learn something that will help you improve no matter what card you’re working on. Let’s go!

1. Take your time!

Do you take the same amount of time to consider your plays when you’re playing a casual game as you do when you’re in a tournament? I certainly try to be more careful in environments where mistakes will be more costly. When you’re cutting cards, there are no “take-backs.” When you’re painting a card, you can use toothpicks to undo a wayward stroke, but no such tool exists for the wayward cut. Every cut you make changes the card permanently, so take your time and cut slowly. Make sure the cuts you want are the cuts you make.

You want to remove Brion’s fingers, not your own.

The importance of patience applies to gluing your cards together, too. Get a sense for how long the glue you’re using takes to dry and make sure you give it the full time to set. Few things are more frustrating than pressing some freshly glued pieces together and having a previously glued layer slip because it wasn’t fully dry.

At the same time, mistakes aren’t the end of the world. Just because you cast Shock on your opponent’s creature when he was at 2 life doesn’t mean you automatically lose—it just means you’ll have to find another opening to push through those final points. If you make a bad cut, maybe you’ll be able to use that copy of the card for a different layer or detail where the bad cut won’t be visible. If your gluing alignment is a little off, it might not be too late to peel apart the layers, clean up the half-dried glue, and try again.

2. Plan ahead.

Along with being patient and taking your time, planning ahead can help minimize mistakes. Take some time to think about what layers you’d like to cut. If it helps, you can use Photoshop or even MS Paint to help mock up your potential layers like I did with this Peregrine Griffin:

The order in which you cut your layers can make a difference as well. If you start by cutting the further-back layers, you’ll be able to recover from more of your mistakes. Simply use that piece to create a different, further-forward layer where the miscut section was going to be removed anyway.

Starting each layer by working on the more difficult cuts can save you time in the long run. If you know a particular section will be challenging for you, don’t spend ten minutes cutting other sections of the card before tackling an area you know might trip you up. Do the hard part first so that if you mess up you can grab a new copy of the card without wasting as much time. When I made this Master Transmuter, I failed to do this, and a late mistake on the thin lines that circle her meant I had to redo another section.

3. Edging makes a huge difference.

The simplest thing that could improve most 3D alters I see is better edging. Anywhere a card gets cut, the white interior is visible around the edges. The effect can be very ugly and distracting; because the white is brighter than the card’s art, it stands out to the viewer. By tracing the edges with a pen or marker, you can hide the inner white and eliminate the ugly distraction.

Some people prefer do all of their edging in black. I tend to do a mix of matching the color of the card’s art along with using various grays. Whatever you decide to do, do it thoroughly! For every 3D card that’s left completely unedged, there’s a card where the edging is incomplete because the alterer didn’t take the time to go over small spots that were missed the first time.

Hiding the white is the most important part, but it is possible to go too far in the other direction. If you edge a light section of art with a dark color, you might end up giving that piece a dark outline that detracts from the look of the card. While working on this 3D Child of Alara, I ended up buying a peach pen because nothing I owned was light enough to edge the energy lines crossing in the background.

I haven’t used that pen since, but it was still worth it to get that edging just right.

4. Check your alignment.

After poor edging, misalignment of layers is the most common problem I see. This is because each copy of a card varies in how well-centered it is between its black borders. More recent printings are usually better than older printings, but if you line up your cards based on the exterior border, there is still a chance that the art won’t line up perfectly.

This card was one of the first 3D alters I made, and it’s from the Middle Earth CCG (that’s Deagol diving down to pick up the One Ring). It has a lot of issues, but to me the most glaring one is that the stones in the top few layers are misaligned.

Luckily, this is an easy issue to fix. Don’t trust that lining up your layers by the exterior border will be correct—always check your alignment before you allow your glue to dry!

5. Focus on what matters.

“Only focus on what matters.” Jon Finkel’s famous quote about how to improve as a Magic player applies to 3D alteration as well. The process of cutting and layering a card doesn’t just change a card physically. Turning a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional object can change the focus of the art significantly. Recognizing this can save you a lot of stress.

Practically, this change means two things:

  1. Further-forward and more complicated parts of the art will draw the eye so strongly that small items or things in the background will be ignored at first glance. Thus, it’s less important that those background elements are perfect. A friend was considering making a 3D Gomazoa, but was concerned about being able to cut the tiny strands of the background Gomazoa. In the end, the worry was wasted; that jellyfish was barely noticed due to the complex foreground.
  2. With some art elements, you have the opportunity to cut and layer things to have different depths than the artist intended, and your interpretation will be perceived by the viewer to be correct due to the way the eye interprets the 3D information. On the Craw Wurm I made for my first article, either of two sections of the Wurm’s body could have been further back, so I just chose one.

6. Stay sharp!

The sharper your blade, the less pressure you’ll need to use to cut through a card. The less pressure you need to use, the more control you have over the cut you make. Change your blade often to keep it sharp and maintain the control you want.

Having sharp blades with the tips still intact is crucial for cutting very small details. However, if you throw away your blades as soon as they lose a tiny bit of the tip, you’ll be going through a lot of blades—which equals a lot of money. The best blades I have found for small details are X-Acto brand #11 Light-Duty blades. They’re excellent for cutting, but they’re not cheap considering how often the tips break or bend.

My current process involves rotating through three blades. At any given time, I have one new blade with a pristine tip, one blade with an almost perfect tip, and one blade with a pretty good tip. I do most of my cutting with the second-best tip, saving the pristine tip for the smallest details and using the third-best blade for broader cuts or straight lines. If you can help it, don’t waste your brand-new tips on cuts that don’t need that level of precision.

7. Light your work area well.

While proper lighting isn’t as important as if you’re working with paints, it can still make a big difference. Don’t go out and buy a $100 Ott light for cutting cards; while full-spectrum bulbs can be very helpful for color-matching paints, all you need is something to banish the shadows caused by your hands. A cheap desk lamp with an adjustable neck is perfect, allowing you to reposition your light source as you move your hands around the card. It’s hard enough to cut smooth lines—don’t try to do it in the dark.

8. Take better pictures.

If you’re going to share pictures of your 3D cards online, it makes sense to put as much care into taking quality pictures as you put into the creation of the cards. Whether you’re looking for advice, accolades, or commissions, having a blurry or poorly lit picture greatly reduces the chance of receiving what you’re looking for.

The first pictures I ever took of my 3D cards were made with my Macbook’s iSight camera, and they looked awful. I’m still no expert, but I have come a long way since then. Here are three simple things you can do to improve the quality of your pictures:

  1. Use the macro function. Most digital cameras have a special mode designed for taking close-up pictures—look for the little flower symbol.
  2. Use better lighting. Just like lighting can help you get better cuts, it can help you show off those cuts better. Indirect white light is best; a simple, cheap way to get this is to take pictures in the shade on a sunny day. Occasionally, direct light can be helpful to highlight details that don’t show up in pictures otherwise.
  3. Take a lot of pictures. This gives you a lot more to choose from when you go to share your work with the world. Showing pictures from multiple angles also can help viewers get a better understanding of how you layered each card.

Sadly, two-dimensional images will never be able to capture the full effect of any 3D card—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to capture as much of your hard work as possible!

9. Find ways to experiment.

If you’ve been making cards for a while, it can be easy to get stuck making every card in the exact same way. While practicing the same methods can improve your execution and speed, experimentation can help you take huge leaps towards higher-quality 3D cards.

For each person, experimentation might look a little different. Maybe you need to try out some different glues or pens. Maybe you should try adding more layers of detail or even going in the other direction, reducing the number of copies you use. Try using spacers of varying thicknesses to see how they affect the finished product. Consider swapping out backgrounds, adding things to the text box, or combining multiple different cards into a single 3D creation.

Experimentation can also make your 3D alters more unique. If you have experience with painted alters, why not combine the two? You can make 3D cards with extended or alternate art or simply use your paint to hide background elements more effectively. Consider working with mixed media—perhaps adding foil, hair, foam or something else could make the card you’re working on stand out.

Currently, I’m experimenting more with forming and shaping the layers and detail pieces I cut. I’ve done this in small ways in the past—for example, by curving the eyeball of the Gitaxian Probe I made a couple months ago. Thanks to some advice from Eric Klug, I recently picked up a set of pottery tools, which I’ve been using to give some of the pieces I cut more individual depth. The first card on which I used the tools was this 3D The Wretched:

The Wretched’s body, head, and wings all have some depth added by shaping the pieces. The border of the art box is also slanted down in the top layer, something I have never done before. As mentioned in the previous tip, a shot with direct light makes these changes more obvious:

10. Be proud of your work.

The first card that I ever used to make a 3D alter was from the Middle Earth CCG:

If you’ve played Magic for a long time, you might immediately recognize Quinton Hoover’s old artistic style. I loved the art, and when I finished constructing the card I was incredibly proud of it. Sure, looking at it now, all I can see is how sloppy it is: Nothing is edged well, half of the leaves are missing, a big chunk is missing from the cuff of Radagast’s sleeve, and there’s a nasty gash in the frame at the bottom. At the time, though, I was right to be proud of it; it was a huge accomplishment for me.

If you’re putting in the effort, every card you make is an accomplishment to be celebrated. Be proud of each step you take towards making better cards.

It can be easy to look at something like the Maro that Seishiro Ookubo made for Mark Rosewater and be overwhelmed. Don’t be.

He made this seven years ago, and he’s only been getting better since.

Earlier this year, Ira Glass talked about how hard it is to start out in any creative endeavor, and while alteration is a bit different, a lot of it still applies:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners . . . All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline . . . It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions . . . It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

In my experience, improving in 3D alteration is easier and faster than in the more complicated creative work Ira is talking about, but the main point is the same: Don’t get frustrated because your first cards aren’t as amazing as you want them to be. Work hard at it, and you really will notice positive change.

If you’ve been making 3D alters, what are some of the things you’ve learned? What tips do you have that you think I should have shared or could benefit from myself?

Drew Sitte

AlteredCity at gmail dot com

@AlteredCity on Twitter


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