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The Shift to Traditional Paintings


What's up with the shift to traditional paintings?

Isn't everything digital?

Wait, it is, right?

This is just a money thing, or?

Why are artists who appear to be digital-only artists now painting traditionally?

Today, I'm here to explain why this is happening despite an increasing trend in artists shifting to digital. From Noah Bradley making giant sized color studies of basic lands, to Peter Mohrbacher making a study for Magic Online's Reflecting Pool, artists have done everything from thumbnails in a sketchbook to full pages of pencil sketches they scan in and keep working in Photoshop. This has occurred since digital tools began coming to prominence in art circles. The newest two artists to enter that fold are Zezhou Chen and Svetlin Velinov, the latter in acrylic on paper with Roalesk, Apex Hybrid. What is radically different now is artists are going full traditional, completing a painting in its entirety as you see it printed on the card. No digital doctoring.

Why are artists comfortable in Photoshop, Painter, and all manner of other digital programs making the switch? I asked four artists why they made the change.

From left to right: Zezhou Chen, Tyler Walpole, Joseph Meehan, Svetlin Velinov

Joseph Meehan made the swap in Dominaria with his Phyrexian Scriptures painting, netting $8100 in auction with his masterpiece, and had this to say:

Mike: Hello Joseph, and thank you for making the time. To start us off, your work was predominantly digital, and now we see you with a traditional final painting for Magic, what were the reasons for the shift?

The collector community is the main reason, from a purely logical standpoint for slightly more work on my end I can get paid at least twice as much, and in the case of Phyrexian Scriptures much more than twice as much. I will say though it has been a rewarding challenge on my end. I hadn't used real paints in years and kind of thought I never would again. I think it was good for my brain to look at a very familiar challenge, i.e. creating an illustration, from a totally new angle.

Did you learn how to paint traditionally in oil or acrylic first and are reverting back, or have you been painting this way all the time and just not for Magic?

I drew a lot with pencil in high school, and really only painted a little with acrylic, I never really learned thoroughly. In my senior year my parents got me a Wacom tablet upon my request because all my favorite art, mainly video game concept art, was digital. After that I was strictly digital and basically have been since. So Phyrexian Scriptures was the first traditional painting I had done in about 8 or 9 years.

How does your process now differ? (Are sketches digital or traditional? Do you digital edit at sketch stage or just with the final? Do you go back and paint all the digital edits?

Because I feel so much more comfortable with digital art I do everything digital right up until I have to start painting the final image. I sketch digital, and do the color rough digital. And to use the term "rough" is being generous, my color roughs usually look practically like finished paintings. I do this extra work because real paint is so much more unforgiving than digital, and I want to leave nothing to chance.

I hear you there.

There's no undo with traditional of course, but it's so much more than that. In digital it's so easy to be basically done and decide, I think I'll just brighten the hero's face a bit, or darken this corner a bit, or make the entire piece a hair warmer.

Crop of Hydroblast by Joseph Meehan


It all has to be planned from the beginning or you are going to be repainting things. And no I have a strict policy of not painting over my pieces digitally, as tempting as it is, just because I want whoever buys the painting to own exactly what they see on the card.

I see. Though I definitely know some oil painters who do that, and go back and finish their painting with oils due to time! Do you plan on making more Magic paintings traditionally?

Yes I do, I have one coming out in late summer I believe, and I'll be doing more in the future.

Is the medium you are working with going to stay the same?

The painting that's coming out in summer is in oil. I'm not sure about the medium going forward, I might go back to acrylic. A lot of people like oil because in theory the physical painting looks better because of the translucent nature of oil paint, but when done for a print medium like MTG that really means nothing. Oil also has a longer dry time, which makes it a little easier to blend. But oil also stinks to high heaven, and is much messier, get a spot of oil paint on the back of your hand and you'll soon find smudges of oil paint all over the house.

Real painters all smell like turpentine. It's the artist cologne indeed. Thank you Joseph and congrats on the new addition coming to your family!

Going across the globe, I then asked Zezhou Chen, an artist from China, who also made the switch from digital to traditional.

Mike: Do your family and friends call you Zezhou, or do you have a nickname too?

Friends call me Zezhou. Some relatives call me Zhou. Parents call me son. No nickname.

You live in the interior of China, in Chengdu. Americans know of Sichuan by food, but can you talk about how it is different from Beijing?

In ancient times, this place of Chengdu was called the "Kingdom of heaven." It's not about religion though. It's about a happy and lazy life. Chengdu is like a smaller version of Beijing on the map, but the real differences are the people and food. They say it is the most inclusive city in China. People are more willing to accept different ideas. The food is so cheap, so good, and so spicy. And there is so much variety! The hotpot, the chuanchuan and hundreds different kinds of noodles. I love it! There is too much I can say about the food here. It would be better to watch a documentary by yourself than hear from me.

How did you learn how to be this good- Did you go to art school? If so, where?

I learn painting mostly on my own. Although I studied design and digital art in college, it is related to painting somehow. Still, design and painting are quite different. I like painting but don't like design as much.

Got it. So, moving to traditional. Wardscale Crocodile, you painted this traditionally instead of digitally, what made you switch for this art?

Painting traditionally is cool! It is something I always wanted to do and it is not too difficult for me. I understand its core, I'm just not familiar with its methods. And last, I saw how the auctions for Magic original paintings were going. I know I should do this as early as possible!

It's my first time doing a commercial commission with oils. I did this with great caution. I can always paint wild and crazy in the digital format because it is easy to edit and modify. But traditionally, I need to do everything step by step. If I found the head is too big, or arms too short in a later stage, that would be trouble! Nothing in digital painting though!

Thank you Zezhou!

A work in progress shot of Wardscale Crocodile by Zezhou Chen. Oil on canvas

Moving to our next artist, let's ask Tyler what made him made the change.

Mike: Tyler, thanks for the time. I've been talking to digital artists dabbling to totally switching to traditional paintings for Magic. Can you walk through your decision to start using traditional media?

Oil painting is something that I have wanted to get into for years, but I was in a situation with gaming illustration where the pay rates demanded that I produce a high volume of work if I wanted to be able to pay my bills. The result of those constraints was that I never really felt I had the time needed to create traditional works, just because it's more labor intensive to work traditionally. Then along came Magic. I did my first few cards digitally, and had several inquiries from people looking to buy the original for my Dominaria Knight Token piece.

Knight Token by Tyler Walpole


That led me to start looking into the collector's market. When I saw the prices that original Magic paintings were going for in auctions I realized that this was finally my opportunity to make the jump.

So, honestly, it's because of the support of the collector community that I decided to make the switch.

How did this begin then? Have you always had these skills and suppressed them, or have you been working on them the whole time?

I actually started my career as a comic book penciler. Finding paying gigs with little experience was tough, so I started doing pen and ink work for tabletop RPG's, and eventually started adding tones, and then color to that work, which finally brought me to digital painting. A few years ago I realized that I wanted to learn to oil-paint, because most of the artists in my crit-group are oil painters, so I made a few attempts here and there, and actually managed to complete a couple of oil paintings. One was a Boba Fett cover for FFG, and one was for a licensed Dresden Files print...oh, and I did a Predator painting just for fun.

So, while there were a handful of abandoned pieces, when I did the Rakdos Firewheeler, that was only my fourth completed oil painting. Ever.

Luckily my AD on that piece was Andrew Valles, and he and I worked together quite a bit on Pathfinder back when he worked at Paizo. When I told him I wanted to try to do my first Magic piece for him in oils, we already had the trust in our working relationship that I would deliver something he'd be happy with, even if it just meant me making digital tweaks to bring it over the finish line. But I was thrilled that my first original piece for MTG was approved with no changes! Things really solidified for me at that moment that I wanted to keep pursuing my oil work.

Does this mean you've given up your Wacom tablet?!

I jump back and forth between digital and traditional right now. Traditional thumbnails, and sketches first, then once the AD and I have settled on the concept of the piece, I work it up a bit digitally while incorporating photo references and working out the color scheme. Based on that I work up a tight drawing and then do the under-painting digitally, which I then print and mount to a board so I can render everything in oils. As far as changes go, I try to update my art director at every stage so there's no surprises when I turn in the final. So far I've only had two minor tweaks that I've done digitally, and I plan on adjusting the paintings to match as closely as possible.

Do you plan on making more Magic paintings traditionally?


Wonderful! Anything else you would like to add?

Just that I am an overall happier person since I started working traditionally. Spending hours working at an illustration while being unplugged from my computer has been tremendously beneficial for my mental health. That was a benefit I did not anticipate when I made the decision to make the switch. I am super grateful to the collectors supporting the Magic artist community for empowering me to do so!

Moving to our final artist, I reached out to Svetlin Velinov, your favorite Bulgarian Magic artist to hear how he is utilizing traditional media to make Magic art.

Roalesk, Apex Hybrid by Svetlin Velinov

Acrylic on paper, 52cm x 37cm (20.5x14.6")

Mike: Hello Svetlin, got a few minutes to talk about digital to traditional art?

Svetlin: Absolutely.

Great! For the article, I'm hearing how artists made the jump. Can you let us know how that process worked for you?

I'm mostly known as a digital illustrator, so my origin as a traditional artist is quite unknown. It was about time to reveal that part of my skill set. It is a bit rusty and I'm struggling with technical difficulties with the media but that makes the result more satisfying and challenging. Of course there is a main reason that brought me to that idea of creating original art for Magic and it is a number. My work and contribution has grown to a number I never suspected at the beginning and now I have more than 200 illustrations made for Magic. This score has to have its own moment of celebration, so there wasn't any other option in front of me rather that doing what had to be done...

So you picked up the brushes.

Well, yes.

Nice! I do remember seeing a previous traditional color study you did of Thought Knot Seer, but never a final. You mentioned reveal, did you always have these skills?

I graduated in fine arts, so I had to learn the traditional way. I then shifted to digital but for me it is a matter of choice of a tool and expression. In my opinion there is no conflict between digital and traditional art. It is just a matter of choice of creative weaponry.

Thought Knot Seer color study by Svetlin Velinov

Watercolor on paper, 11.7 x 16.5 inches (A3)

Then that begs the question: how does traditional fit into your overall process?

It all differs and there is no formula. Even if I'm starting with a rough digital sketch, I'm doing more precise traditional work as well. If I'm going to go with traditional, I stick to it in the final. It would be odd to me if one day a collector could own the painting and it doesn't look exactly the same as the one that is officially published.

Does this mean you will be doing Magic traditionally going forward, since you hit a really high threshold?

I'm planning to do more work on other traditional paintings in the future but I'm not so brave to say that I'll shift to traditional for good. I won't hide that I was surprised how fast I was with the paintings and that's how one of my doubts fell from my shoulders building my confidence and motivating me for the future to work on more original art. I'm also awaiting another one to be released shortly.

Nice subtle add there. We see you.

Your new Roalesk, Apex Hybrid is a lovely piece and people are really enjoying it. Do you have any other things coming up?

As I mentioned previously there is that milestone of 200 illustrations made for Magic: The Gathering. What better way to praise that achievement with an Art Album - it is in the works.

What a way to end. Thank you Svetlin!

Thank you to Tyler, Zezhou, Svetlin, and Joseph for providing some insight into why they switched. It really does come down to cost per illustration, and the total overall value they will be able to recoup from an original's sale that matters the most. But we cannot dismiss that painting, including all the paint set up costs, time, and smelling like turpentine brings artists back to the core elements they picked up as kids. It's fun to pick brushes again, and be the kid that Bob Ross said you could be while painting.

This does beg the question whether digital artists who can paint traditionally will take multiple commissions, and then only paint one of them traditionally, the one they think will net the most at auction, like a rare, legendary, or other indicator that is the lowest risk. Painting a 24x36" painting of a 2/2 for 2, a "grizzly bear" as it is, is a high risk endeavor that could take weeks to finish and net a mere $1000, if anyone is willing to purchase it all. I would fully expect art directors to prepare for the crowd that can slide between mediums to start asking more what the card does or is. While they may not be able to tell the artists with a crystal ball, or even check in with the Play Design team, quite literally their time to paint and livelihood depends on minimizing the risk of an original auction.

I think that's quite exciting, rather than nerve-wracking for artists. Collectors can now suspect that more legendary creatures will be traditionally painted, and more will be available for art exhibitions. I can't argue with the community and cultural benefit of that.

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