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Creating the Art of Innistrad

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The letter I!nnistrad is a plane of misty hills, autumnal color, canopied forest, overcast days, and deadly nights. I'm going to take you on a guided journey down the twisty path that led us here visually.

Forest | Art by Eytan Zana

Let's rewind a couple of years. As we were concepting the look of the Eldrazi brood lineages we knew that we had to keep them off of the toes of the Phyrexians, because we knew that's where we were going next. Easy enough, right? Not really, because we knew we needed to both broaden and specify new angles on the Phyrexians, but it had not been done yet... For example, what would white Phyrexia look like? They were still visually unanswered. Then the issue became compounded when it became clear that "Shake" was going to be gothic horror. It's easy to look back now and see that each question was successfully answered in its own way, but at the time it was daunting to know that we had sets in back-to-back-to-back blocks that were subjectively "dark."

Eldrazi were solved with textures and colors that are not associated with Phyrexians: bone protrusions, tentacles, bifurcated anatomy, that weird honeycomb surface etc. For color we looked at sea anemones, crazy real-world insects, squids, beetles, frogs and the like. For as terrible as they are, they are actually very beautifully colored.

Spawnsire of Ulamog | Art by Izzy

Pathrazer of Ulamog | Art by Austin Hsu

That kept them away from where we wanted to go with Phyrexia. What keeps them away from horror world, which could potentially contain tentacled monsters? Daylight. If you go back and look the Eldrazi are almost always shown in daylight. I can finally tell you that that was specifically because of Innistrad.

Now the Phyrexians. We were going to have to produce and direct two "horror movies" in a row, that both really did have to be horror movies, and not let them diminish one another's impact. Metal did a lot of the work—not only the metal "natural" anatomy of the corrupted Mirrans, but also the Phyrexian augmentations and enhancements. They let us push a sort of surgical grossness that would not be welcome in a more gothic setting. We also hammered on Phyrexians having bizarre silhouettes. Innistrad would be zombies and vampires and humans etc, all basically humanoid. Now look at Richard's concept art for the Praetors.

Concept art by Richard Whitters

They all have bizarre non-human shapes, even the ones with human elements.

I've talked before about using the stable of illustrators working on a given setting to reinforce that setting's visual goals. New Phyrexia was rife with digital painters, not only to really sell the terrible sheen of metal, but also so I could redirect for the look of Innistrad, which is a more grounded, relatable and straightforward place, and would benefit from a more "traditionally painted" feel. On the note of "straightforward," I also used camera direction to separate the two. It's a subtle thing to pick out on a card-to-card basis, but it can grant a setting a very specific feel. I wanted to keep Innistrad "on foot."

The set should feel like a horror movie you are actually in. It's YOU that walks around the corner and sees a vampire pounce on your neighbor. It's YOU that pulls back the curtain and sees something terrible outside the window. New Phyrexia had a more dispassionate, objective camera. We were flies on the wall watching things unfold. Not so in Innistrad.

Let's compare:

New Phyrexia

Numbing Dose | Art by Brad Rigney

Innistrad

Art by Volkan Baga

These are clearly scenes from two very different "films." The first-person, on-foot camera also informs other decisions. If the monster is flying, we're looking up at it. If something is attacking you, you might see your hands in the frame. Let's enjoy some first-person images.

And

Art by Clint Cearley

Here

Olivia Voldaren | Art by Eric Deschamps

We

Art by Bud Cook

Go!

Art by Eric Deschamps

Okay, I've gotten a bit ahead of myself. Let's rewind to our concept push. We needed concept artists who could deal with several varieties of humanoids and make them all interesting. We had a setting that needed to feel quasi-historical, almost like a period piece, but not actually be regurgitated real-world architecture and garb. On top of all that, we needed them to be able to channel some darkness.

Here's the concept art team:

Richard Whitters (lead)

Concept art by Richard Whitters

Steve Prescott

Concept art by Steve Prescott

Steven Belledin

Concept art by Steven Belledin

Daarken

Concept art by Daarken

That was the in-house crew for the concept push. By the time the style guide was final, we had fantastic contributions from Vincent Proce, , Wayne Reynolds, Adam Paquette, James Paick, and Jung Park.




Getting clothing right was critical and, at times, difficult. Walking that line of reminding you of this place at this time but not actually being that place or time is very tricky, and often a matter of mere degrees. The guys dug in, did their research (Belledin was already a bit of a historical costuming buff), and really delivered.

We feel strongly on the creative team that desperate, shabby, scruffy-looking human garb is not exciting or appealing, even if it can work in-world. For example, the humans of Innistrad could have been peasants being picked off one by one on isolated farms and homesteads. We didn't want that. Fairly early on the decision was made that Innistrad would be a cold plane. Not freezing, but cold—cold enough that the humans can't wear tattered pants and potato-sack shirts. They needed coats and boots. Maybe hats. This gave us more design canvas to play with. The direction I gave was a sort of "street opulence." Things are nicer than just utilitarian—high boots, extra straps, bucks and buttons—but the clothing isn't really in good condition. That's probably the only coat that guy owns. Here are some of the concept drawings these conditions led to:




A cold plane also gave us a reason to develop a significantly different direction for vampire garb: what do they care if it's cold?! They can show some skin and be their vain, arrogant, aristocratic elegant selves.



By the way, there are four vampire bloodlines on Innistrad. One of them is "Markov." That's right, Sorin is from here. You'll note the same trademark eyes on all Innistrad vampires. Black scleras and brightly colored irises.


Art by Matt Stewart

The cold also affords us mists and fogs that never burn off, ever hanging heavily on the shores, between the hills and through the trees.

Forest | Art by Jung Park

Art by Cliff Childs

We weren't sure how the werewolves would end up mechanically (though we all really hoped the double-faced cards could actually happen), but we knew they were going to be in the set visually somehow. Werewolves have been done to death. I knew I did not want the Lon Cheney man-in-wolf-face-wearing-clothes version, and we could not have the straight-up wolf, or even big wolf, version, as there are normal wolves in the set (more than a couple). We couldn't have them being mistakable for each other. And we wanted something cooler anyway. We wanted monsters... hulking, feral predators.

We were close, and continued nudging the silhouette until we nailed it. They are more gorilla in shape (but not in their movement) than anything else. They have visually powerful, hulking upper bodies, with less important lower bodies, and thumbs reduced to almost vestigial appendages to reinforce their regression to beast visually. Prescott nailed these guys.


Wolf

Art by Wayne England

Werewolf!

Howlpack Alpha | Art by Svetlin Velinov

This set is all about delivering on the resonant stories of the genre, both flavor-wise and visually.

Art by Eric Deschamps

So what happens when the set demands something be included that really doesn't fit here naturally? For instance, a dragon. Remember all the dark gothic tales about werewolves fighting dragons? Me either. Not a natural fit in the lore. What does one do? You make it look at home. I pushed the team for a dragon that was inspired by the architecture. A dragon that you wouldn't notice if it sidled up to a gothic cathedral at night... until it moved. Prescott and Richard slam dunked it.

Want to see what a gothic dragon looks like? Check it out:

Art by Eric Deschamps

I, for the first time ever, get to show you the whole card preview! Click here.

And since this is in essence an article for those who like to peek behind the curtain, here is the concept art that led to Balefire Dragon's art.


There are two more elements of Innistrad's visual identity that I want to touch on.

The first is restraint. The set is on-foot, resonant, and more restrained than most Magic settings. Don't get me wrong—the stakes are still high (get it?), and the monsters are terrible—but people throwing fireballs willy-nilly in the streets would be really jarring here.

Jenna Helland ran point on the card concepts. We had open discussions about being deliberately restrained but still serving up images that were impacting and made the setting feel richer. She came through like a champ. We have images the likes of which have never graced a Magic card. Judge for yourself.

Grasp of Phantoms | Art by Izzy

Art by Kev Walker

Art by Jana Schirmer & Johannes Voss

Art by Howard Lyon

Art by Howard Lyon

Art by Christopher Moeller

Art by Slawomir Maniak

Art by Anthony Palumbo

The last element of Innistrad, and really what puts the gothic feeling into any gothic horror, is romanticism—not in story necessarily, but visually: the architecture, the dead roses, the ornate iron work, the elaborately framed mirror on the wall and maybe even some lace here and there.

Art by Howard Lyon

I'm constantly looking for new artists to help me create these settings and tell our stories. Watch for those new artists in this block. All of the work is excellent, but I was surprised by how much was brought to the table by newer guys like Ryan Yee, Peter Mohrbacher, and Adam Paquette, and new ladies like Cynthia Sheppard and Winona Nelson.

Bloodcrazed Neonate | Art by Cynthia Sheppard

Art by Winona Nelson

Art by Ryan Yee

Island | Art by Adam Paquette

Art by Peter Mohrbacher

Speaking of ladies, I know you're out there, and we haven't forgotten about you. I took the demographics at our recent PAX party and panel as strong evidence that our female player base is present, healthy, and growing. And yes, gay brethren, I know you're here too.

I'm going to sign off with one for the ladies (and bro-philic bros) out there:

Art by Winona Nelson



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