Artful Breakdown: Roadmap 2023

Aaron Radney • January 18, 2023


Happy New Year one and all. Welcome back once again to the Artful Breakdown, the article series that takes a look at the fantastic art of Magic and pulls back the curtain to spotlight the neat tricks, underappreciated techniques, and cool storytelling the artists use to get the job done. I'm Aaron, a fantasy illustrator myself who's been playing the game for 15 years at this point. It got me through art school, and I love dissecting its illustrations to find the wonderful ways other artists solve storytelling problems. 

Normally I spend these articles doing just that. It's what I've done to greater or lesser degrees of success for the seven articles I wrote for Commander's Herald last year. It started with a moment where I got excited and did a massive Twitter thread gushing about the technical fundamentals of a few cards in Streets of New Capenna. But it was an ad hoc kind of writing. I make no bones about the fact that I stumbled backwards into this gig and spent much of the year making things up as I went. We're starting fresh now. Inspired by the Mirror Gallery over on Hipsters of the Coast (as a lot of other decisions on this column have been up to now), I'd like to take a minute and make a plan, so for this first Artful Breakdown of the year, while we have some time, I'd like to examine what I want this space to be and set a roadmap for how we'll get there. 

Art of Cosmic Epiphany by Eli Minaya
Cosmic Epiphany by Eli Minaya

What Are We Doing?

I think one of the hardest elements is figuring out how to even define what this column is. In the past I've referred to it as a review column and compared what I do to being an art critic, but neither of those is entirely right. Review and being a critic implies a level of... well, critique, and if I'm honest that's not really what I'm here for. The internet has a lot of negativity already, and illustrators face a slew of it. Often we're the worst about it toward ourselves. The average professional illustrator's inner monologue is, to put it mildly, not something you'd want to hear. 

Instead what I've settled on the idea of this as an art appreciation column from an illustrator's perspective. We may still talk occasionally about pieces in a way that borders on critique, especially in interviews if that's a thing an illustrator wants to talk about (and I know at least one who's expressed some interest in our talk going there), but I'd rather highlight positives. I want readers to be excited about the stuff that sparks my own excitement in the game's art. 

I also want to keep focus on the storytelling and compositional tricks the artists use. There's mountains of storytelling that can be done just by how someone places elements in a frame. But that means we won't ALWAYS talk about the big headlining pieces in a set. Sometimes you can't not talk about them, but other times they just suck the air out of the room and these little unique gems hanging out in the corner get missed. I also want to highlight the skill and ability that goes into what these folks do. Some folks believe artists are just born able to do our thing; that talent is a mystical ability you either have or you don't. This couldn't be further from the truth. Talent is a lie. Every artist you've ever seen started with stick figures on scrap paper or in the dirt. When you see an amazing piece, what you're seeing is the diligence and dedication of a kid who just got addicted to the feeling of having their art hung up on the fridge and never stopped. 

Art of Daily Regimen by Warren Mahy of a giant liftinga rock like a weight. Comically, one arm is significantly larger than the other. The image is designed to reference both hard work and the whole new years resolution thing.
Daily Regimen by Warren Mahy

Which leads us neatly into...

Goals for the Year

Now that I've established what this space is for, it's time to examine the plans for the future. I've got a few ideas that I hope are as appealing to you as they are to me. 

Stop to Smell the Roses

The product grind feels relentless lately and shows no sign of abating anytime soon. We're bombarded with great work. The artists for Magic are some of those working at the top of their field. But good art shouldn't be rushed through like a burger between rounds at a Magic Fest, so this column will likely take a more leisurely pace through sets and art doing things similar to what ended up happening with Unfinity. If it takes more than one article to discuss the art of a set in the way that feels necessary, that's what we'll do even, if it puts us a little behind the product release schedule. We'll stroll through the gallery here rather than rushing to get everything done in one trip. It'll also give me time to highlight new faces to the game's roster of artists when I spot them because those are people who, eventually might turn into the next most beloved painter in the game.

Art of Kamigawa Plains by Piotr Dura. The image has beautiful rice patties in the foreground with pink lotus flowers in the air all leading toward a city in the distance.
Kamigawa Plains by Piotr Dura

Conduct More Interviews

It's my sincere belief that the art of the game and its artists don't get to talk about what they do in their own words nearly enough. The interview with Bruce Brenneise was a lot of fun, and I'd love to bring more of that energy into 2023 as well as get a chance to talk to artists about the ways they approach the story in their own work. If you find that as exciting as I do, stick around, I've got some ideas brewing. 

Show Off the Fundamentals More

Do any of you have that friend who's really into one sport or another and won't stop talking about their favorite player? And not because they're explosive or showy but because they have their fundamentals down so perfectly? Yeah, I learned recently I'm that guy but for artists. There is something incredibly appealing about that, and I love highlighting it, but there are times I'm certain my point isn't as it could be. In my first ever article, I did diagrams of the art to point out how small background details had huge impacts. I've done it rarely since, and for the life of me I can't figure out why. We're gonna fix that in 2023 and lean into using those diagrams to make clearer what I'm seeing and hopefully make it clearer to everyone else too.

Discuss the Secret Lairs

Full disclosure: I'm not a fan of Secret Lairs. Not in execution or as a product or a concept. That said, there was truly great art dropped in them that I mostly ignored due to my personal biases. I do believe that's a mistake on my part. I may not like them, but it can't be denied they are incredible avenues for unique treatments and storytelling, especially the artist series where they allow the illustrator so much license to put their own identity into the work. So when the art warrants it I want to set my prejudices with regards to the product aside to try to talk about it. 

The eerie and hauntingly beautiful art of Magali Villenueve's death shadow from their Artist Series secret lair.
Death's Shadow by Magali Villenueve

More Interaction

It's still surreal to me that I'm writing this at all and that anyone reads it. I'm grateful in the extreme. And that's why my last major goal this year is I want to interact more. That means down in the comments with all of you and with my fellow writers here at Commander's Herald. I'd love to hear more about the stuff you're enjoying and finding to love in your favorite pieces. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

Without a doubt, 2022 was a shocking year for me. It was my first time writing articles for anything, really, and I'd like to think I learned a fair bit along the way. At the same time, it was probably one of my busiest years as an illustrator I've ever had, and it was a challenge keeping all the plates spinning at once. My hope is that this year builds on what was learned and we get into more of a stream of consistency, and with that consistency I hope I'll end up finding my specific voice in how I like to do these. It's a journey I'm excited about, and I hope you'll come along with me. Pack some snacks. 

Art of Kamigawa's Uncharted Haven by Lorenzo Lanfranconi. Shows an idyllic landscape of lilly pads and mangroves in bright greens and magentas. A large mountain surrounded by clouds in the distance.
Uncharted Haven by Lorenzo Lanfranconi