MTG Altered Art: A Brief Discussion – Imperial Painter by Stuart Waddicor

MTG Altered Art: A Brief Discussion – Imperial Painter by Stuart Waddicor

It happened! I was asked back. Now this means two things:

For me, it means I get to talk at you all some more about alters…

For you, it means you have to listen to me talk some more about alters.

Send letters of thanks/disdain/explosives to Tu at Manaleak. [Editor: Oi!]

Lets go!

In the last (first) article we discussed a few different aspects of what Alterists actually do and we gave a brief overview into the processes we follow at the brief, design and finish stages. Today and for the next few articles, I want to break that down and start to go a little deeper. Lets first look at the brief and how this translates into the finished product.

Show Us Yer Briefs!

I’ve spoken a little to a few Alterists I really like (James Griffin, Christian Steifan AKA BigUp and Ashley Kapounek or AEK) the work of and together I want to share our collective experience of what the brief is and what it does.

Firstly, what happens when you give no brief at all? You just say “Here’s a rough theme, do what you like!” and you wait for the result.

James Griffin showed me these beauts that he did quite some time back:




Now James tells me all he had to work with for these was “I want the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on some Thoughtseizes.”

A brief seldom gets more open-ended than this, short of being “Do whatever, dude.” What James has done here is entirely rely on his own style. He’s referenced images (some of which he tells me were quite gruesome and unenjoyable) and built four images that his Mind’s Eye thinks are the best fit. This is where we tend to see an artist’s “mark” (something I was asked after the last article to elaborate on) or personal style.

As artists, we will always naturally gravitate toward certain kinds of imagery and will usually be influenced heavily by it when we are given Carte Blanche.

My own example is this:

You may recognise it from the previous article. I’m a big fan of street art, graffiti, fantasy and… well, the kind of art you see on heavy metal band merch! My brief for the Phelddagrif (props to the legend that is David Inglis) was:

“Basically, I want the hippo off the card… but like, more badass? and BIGGER.”

I went into the tank and this is what I resurfaced with. I sketched it onto the card in soft pen and just painted it right on there. I know this card was a gift… never did find out who the recipient was!

In all truth, I rather enjoy these open-ended pieces, where I get to play.

Brief, but Detailed.

Moving up a notch from the little-to-no brief, we have the detailed brief. This is the lump I would apply to commissions where the end product is a very easily recognisable image or style. You know you’ve got to nail this specific image, or colour palette, or line style etc but then you get a little play room in exactly how you do it.

There are certain tools and techniques we have to use in order to produce replicas of recognisable things (or at least that’s true for me – I’m sure other people are good enough to just eyeball a perfect portrait) and the addition of new things makes for a new challenge.

Take this example (Again from James):

His brief here involved not a clearly recognisable image, but a style – one that is fairly unmistakeable in my eyes:

The 60’s, the era of psychadelia – this music poster was the visual reference for James’ brief this time. As I’m sure you can appreciate, this offers a unique challenge in that there’s no clear “This is what I have to draw” answer, but there is certainly a very clear “This is how it has to look” outcome. I think James’ piece subtly captures the 60’s feel in a really groovy way. Totes impressed.

Lets look at a piece from Ashley:

For those of you who don’t recognise Calcifer, he’s a little fire demon from the (and I can’t stress this enough) BREATHTAKING animated film Howl’s Moving Castle, by Studio Ghibli (if you haven’t seen this you need to, even if you’re not an anime fan).

Now I must state that Ashley wasn’t available for direct comment (though she did give permission for the images to be used) but one would have to assume that whether this is a commission, or a stock piece the same restrictions apply. People know this little dude, they know exactly what he should look like and this image is an actual slide from the film. There is little-to-no margin for error or interpretation here as the source material is pre-existing and well known.

I feel that these alters cause the most stress and are the most difficult to do, but on completion can be amongst the most rewarding. Personally I do not currently own the set up to do reproduction alters fully (though in about a week I will be able to! Eek!) and so I don’t have a great deal of experience doing this kind of thing, but rest assured it is not easy!

Exquisitely Brief.

Finally, one for the sticklers. Sometimes a brief contains every last detail. Every single pin-point of paint is pin-pointed to a specific point on the produced painting (too many P’s? yeah… too many P’s).

Now I get to swoon at some BigUp alters.



I think perhaps one of the reason Christian produces such gorgeous work (and it is, I will hear no argument to the contrary) is because as he tells me, his customers are often hyper specific.

Nothing is more frustrating, yet also more fun than when you get a job and every little detail has been requested specifically. Sure, in the second picture someone’s ordered one of Christian’s now famous damaged cards and I’m sure the exact positioning of the damage or the exact amount is his decision, but I’m willing to bet the zombie, the tentacles, etc… all exactly as asked for.

As for Grumpy Cat. Well… you can see the pay-off for giving your Alterist a quality brief.

Here we see an artist working with specific images, in specific positions, with specific colour palettes and the end result is mind-blowing.You get out of an alter exactly what you put in – the more information your artist has to work with, the more they can fine-tune the piece to be exactly what you want to see.

When Good Briefs Go Bad.

restoration angel banner

Sometimes it’s as easy as “Continue the card-art outward to cover the whole card.” I’m sure this statement seems pretty specific to most people reading this, but is it actually?

What was outside of those borders, before the image was squashed into the card window? What about below? Look at Restoration Angel for example. The full art for the card is readily available, as WotC published it as a wallpaper. There isn’t anything below the card image! What are you supposed to do!?

If you wanted a Resto altered, would you explain to your artist what you wanted below? Or leave it up to them?
Do you just want a corn field and the rest of the kneeling knight? Do you want the field to be awash with blood and corpses for the angel to get busy restoring?

One of these ideas gives a very stock looking alter. The other a piece that is more unique, more interesting. I wonder if I have a spare Angel in my folder? Might be worth producing that.

If you’re considering having an alter done, ask yourself these questions – even before you approach an artist. I promise you, regardless of who alters your card – if you’re prepared and communicative you will get a superior piece to the one you’d have got by being vague.

Well, that’s all for part two. Next time we’re going to start to look at design and finish (which I’m lumping together because I don’t want you to get bored) and then on to discussing some individual styles where I’ll show off more cool, painted cards!

Thanks for joining me again and special thanks to James, Ashley and Christian.


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