Battle for Zendikar

160816 Sphere of Exclusion

Quarantine Field – Battle for Zendikar

Back in July of last year our son was born. Anyone with a kid knows how hard it is to work full-time when you have a new baby in the house. Over the first 8 days I had a combined total of 8 hours of sleep. When I did get some sleep, I was waking up every 2-5 minutes because every sound made me think “OMG is my son ok?”

Right after he was born I received my Origins commission, which included the description for Fiery Impulse, Consul’s Lieutenant, and Hangarback Walker. Those weren’t exactly simple cards to illustrate, so it was challenging trying to finish those cards while helping to raise my son. After I finished those illustrations, I asked my AD if I could get some easier cards for the next wave. Luckily my AD threw me a bone.

The first three cards I received for Battle for Zendikar were Jaddi Offshoot, Ghostly Sentinel, and Tide Drifter. It was still hard finding time to work on my freelance and teach my mentorship. I would often have to paint while holding my son as I bounced up and down on a yoga ball. For some reason he would only stop crying or fall asleep while bouncing on a yoga ball. Although, it was good exercise!

You can probably tell that these three illustrations are a bit looser than some of my other illustrations. I have to say, the fish brush saved my life when I was painting Tide Drifter. Thanks Jonas De Ro!

brood butcher

Brood Butcher

This was also around the time when I was trying to push myself to create different and more dynamic compositions, like in Fiery Impulse. I think for the first three illustrations I resorted to my typical painting style, probably due to the lack of time. When I received the briefs for Brood Butcher and Quarantine Field, I tried to push myself again.

There are still some things that bug me about these illustrations, like the dark object in the foreground in Tide Drifter and the poorly rendered water in Brood Butcher, but sometimes you gotta turn in what you have.


160289 Chandra's Scorching

Fiery Impulse – MtG Origins

It has been a long time since my last post. We just recently moved and with my work schedule and helping raise mini Daarken, things have been pretty busy.

Origins was a special set for me. I was lucky enough to be on the concept push for Origins, so I helped design the look and feel of the set.

If you have seen the other cards that have been previewed, you will know that architecture, vehicles, and elaborately designs props and weapons play a huge part in this set. Those are also all things that I normally don’t paint, so it was a real challenge.

Before I started working on the concept push, I received a mixed review on my book Elysium. The person said

“I didn’t give it 5 stars like many others though, everyone has their own perspectives and reasons; me, I would have enjoyed more variety in color and poses. I understand that that artist is commissioned for specific pieces, but it doesn’t feel like he takes much risks. I’m not sure how many pieces he worked on to be exclusively for this book, but that would have been a great opportunity to get out of his comfort zone. It feels like he has a formula that works and is in a safe place at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, I became an instant fan, the book is high quality, I agree with many of the reviewers, but didn’t give it the 5 stars because every other work was a little expected.”

Most people might ignore a review like this or think “they don’t know what they are talking about.” For me, this review really made me take a closer look at my decisions as an artist. I thought about it for weeks and months on end. I’m the type of person that will dwell on one single bad review instead of the hundreds of good reviews. This review wasn’t really bad, but you know what I mean.

Kaladesh Captain - MtG Origins

Kaladesh Captain – MtG Origins

After I received that review, I went to Renton for the concept push. Maybe the art gods were keeping tabs because I ended up having to work on a lot of architecture, vehicles, and elaborate props. It was great to get out of my comfort zone, but I was constantly second-guessing myself.

When it came time to work on Fiery Impulse, I did the sketch how I normally would. It was just the standard standing pose with Chandra casting some magic. Nothing special, but it got the job done.

After I finished my sketch, the words of the reviewer echoed through my head. This person was right. I wasn’t pushing myself or taking enough chances, so I completely started over. I tried to come up with something more dynamic and something out of my wheelhouse. If I hadn’t received that review, I probably wouldn’t have come up with that composition.

Hangarback Walker - MtG Origins

Hangarback Walker – MtG Origins

I guess the moral of the story is to take any negative feedback you receive and try to improve upon it. Don’t get mad or stomp around your house pouting, try and become a better artist. You are going to constantly receive criticism as a professional artist. If you can’t take it, you probably won’t last long.

I think it also helped that this person was nice with their feedback. Had they resorted to trolling, the result may have been much different. So I guess there is a double moral to this story; if you give someone a critique, be professional about it and try to give them feedback that will actually help the person.

WotC Concept Push – 2015

Photo Jan 19, 8 31 09 AM

Day 1 at WotC

I just got back from another 3-week concept push at WotC. Of course I can’t tell you what we worked on and unfortunately you probably won’t see any of it for another couple of years. Boooooo, I know.

The concept crew this time consisted of Tyler Jacobson, Cynthia Sheppard, Chris Rahn, and Steve Belledin, with additional help from Sam Burley.

I have to say, out of the 5 concept pushes I have been on over the years, this one was probably the hardest. I felt like I was spinning my wheels and I don’t feel like I produced as many concepts as I usually do. Typically I feel like that during the last few days of the push, but I felt like that by day 2. I had actually worked on some of this stuff last year, so maybe that was why I was feeling burnt out.

There are two things that were probably my greatest contribution to the push. The first was my laptop. There was a TV in the room we were working in, so I brought in my laptop and hooked it up. Movies galore! We seemed to be the talk of the office. Every so often someone would walk by and look through the window. We would then hear them comment about whatever movie we had playing at the time.

For me, watching movies while I work is something I do every day, but I guess for others it is a novel idea. I really hate working in silence. I actually find that when I work in silence, I become more easily discouraged, frustrated, and more prone to putting my painting down and walking away.


Turtleneck & Chain – The concept artist edition

My second best contribution, and probably my greatest contribution in my entire art career, was the Turtleneck & Chain concept artist edition photo. The day before we were listening to the song by The Lonely Island, so later that night my wife thought it would be a good idea for me to photoshop our heads onto one of the Turtleneck & Chain pictures.

The original picture only had three people in is, so I was only planning on adding the heads of Tyler, Chris, and Cynthia. The more I thought about it, the more I thought I should add all 5 of us. I combined a few other Turtleneck & Chain photos into this one, and behold, my greatest creation ever!

Initially I was just going to use the photo of myself that I photoshop onto all of my photos, but it was really grainy and it didn’t match any of the other heads. I went to the hotel bathroom (it had the most light) and took a few pics of myself with my phone.

Tyler Tech...wait, what is that on the roof?

Tyler Tech…wait, what is that on the roof?

It’s actually really funny how many people thought this was a real photo. To me it looks obviously photoshopped, but I guess I can understand why some people might be fooled. Chris and I do make a pretty good couple. I think I need to hang a large print of this above my mantle, when I have a mantle that is.

I foresee some turtleneck and chain shopping in the near future. All I need now is a furry couch…

One day when I was walking around the parking lot, I noticed that Tyler apparently has an office next to the WotC building conveniently called “Tyler Technologies.” That Tyler and his ego, jeez! Of course when I stopped to take a photo, Tyler himself was overseeing his building. Probably to make sure everything was running smoothly. That guy is everywhere!

Khans of Tarkir – Concepts & Illustrations

156633 Sarkhan, the Dragon's Voice

Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

Hey everyone! I have some more Khans of Tarkir art to show you. I’m also going to go ahead and repost the illustrations from before so that you can get the whole picture of what I’ve done for Khans of Tarkir.

Today WotC posted the video of their Khans of Tarkir Worldbuilding panel at Pax Prime 2014. If you weren’t able to attend Pax Prime, be sure to watch the video! They also posted a high-res wallpaper of Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker.

Since they spoiled a few pieces of my concept art at the panel, I wanted to show some higher quality images of the same concepts. For some reason they looked incredibly dark at the panel. I’m not sure if it was the projector they were using or what. I know my name is Daarken, but my paintings aren’t that dark! Or at least they aren’t anymore.

Back in January, 2013, along with Chase Stone, Tyler Jacobson, Sam Burley, and Wayne Reynolds, I helped concept Khans of Tarkir. Over 15 days I produced almost 40 painted concepts…which is pretty fast for me. The other guys probably produced between 60-80, so I’m pretty slow compared to them. One day we came to work and Chase whipped out this fully rendered illustration that could have been slapped on a Magic card and called it done. That sneaky little jerk painted that whole illustration the night before at the hotel after hours.

The Pitch

Actually, I should probably start at the beginning. Back in September, 2012, I received an email from Jeremy Jarvis asking me if I would like to paint a pitch illustration of Sarkhan Vol because they were planning on returning to his home-plane. I believe I was actually the first person to create a painting for Khans of Tarkir. This was back before the project had been approved by the higher-ups.


Original Sarkhan concept

I received the email on a Friday and they needed the sketch by the following Monday and the final a day or two after that. It was a pretty short turnaround, especially since nothing had been concepted yet for the world.

I was basically given the phrase “a heavy metal Mongolian inspired empire” and told to run with it. Of course that world is so large and expansive that it was hard to narrow down the essence in a single painting. I basically tried to throw everything into the same painting and hoped it worked.

To the right is the original Sarkhan sketch I gave them on the following Monday. I knew I wanted to pull something from my original Sarkhan Vol design from Shards of Alara so that you could more easily identify him as Sarkhan Vol. I thought similar pauldron spikes might be a good way to link the two designs.


Updated Sarkhan iteration

After some feedback, I submitted the following painting. I changed the position of his head to match the original Sarkhan Vol and I continued to refine his costume design. I personally like the original head position better.

I also added an embroidered dragon claw on his left pauldron. They wanted some sort of clan symbol on his armor, so this was my first stab at a Mardu symbol. The Mardu symbol was later changed to a set of wings while Temur adopted the dragon claw symbol.

The following January we arrived at WotC to concept the rest of the world. I didn’t actually work on Sarkhan while I was at the concept push. He was already in a fairly good place and there were much more important things to worry about, especially since we had a limited time to finish everything.

After I returned home at the end of January, I was contacted again to see if I wanted to update Sarkhan since I had just spent three weeks working on Khans of Tarkir. I knew a little more about the look of the world and they wanted to see my take on an updated design.

Sarkhan_Concept 02 05

Third Sarkhan iteration

Sarkhan’s previous design was a little too convoluted. Since I didn’t know what the Mongolian inspired world should look like, I had just thrown everything in the design. I tried to simplify the design a little more and focus on the large scale mail as the repeating shape of their culture.

The pauldron spikes were replaced with two dragon horns. Hopefully they are still reminiscent of his original spikes while also adding in a bit of narrative regarding his connection with dragons.

I also changed his weapon to fit more with the look of the other Mardu weapons we created. There is also a little storytelling element on his weapon.

He also needed some more color and more bits of fur. The fur was tricky to add due to his red pants and black boots. Do you know anyone else with red pants, black boots, and white fur? Yeah, I really didn’t want him to look like Santa and every time I added the fur with the red pants and boots, he looked like Sarkhan Claus. I tried to hide the pants as much as possible and keep the colors toned down. If you are a good little boy or girl, Sarkhan Clause will bring you a bleached dragon skull for Christmas!


Like I mentioned before, a few of my concepts were spoiled at the Khans of Tarkir worldbuilding panel at Pax Prime. I wish I could show you more, but these are the only ones I can show right now. Maybe I’ll release more in my next book!

You’ll notice that the Temur ice elemental has the text “Temur Djinn” written on it. My original idea was that this was what a Temur Djinn would look like, but they later decided to make him an ice elemental instead.

Usually when I concept something at the pushes, I don’t receive card commissions of anything I concepted. This time was different. I was able to illustrate both my Temur Ice Elemental and my Sultai Rakshasa…and Sarkhan of course. I also illustrated a fetch land, which is really cool. I’ve only illustrated two lands before this one, Badlands and Fetid Heath. I think Badlands was only released on MTGO.

Mardu trailer illustration

Mardu trailer illustration

After the concept push, I created this Mardu illustration featuring Zurgo Helmsmasher which was going to be used in the SDCC teaser trailer. This illustration also had a really short turnaround. I think  it was also commissioned on a Friday and I turned in the final on the following Monday.

Females play a large role in this set, so we wanted to show them in more powerful positions…and wear normal armor, sans boob plates.

I hope you enjoyed this closer look at the concepts and illustrations I created for Khans of Tarkir. If they release more of my concepts I’ll be sure to post them. If not, you might see them in my next book (if I ever make one).


Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014

Vedalken ArtificerAbout a year ago I was commissioned to paint a player avatar for Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014. The game just came out last week, so I can finally post it!

Actually, you have to thank Dylan Safford. When the game came out, I posted a little challenge on my Facebook page. The only way to unlock the avatar is to mulligan down to one card and then win the game.

On my page I said that if anyone unlocked the avatar and posted a picture, I would post my painting. It took over a week, but Dylan pulled through and unlocked the avatar. Great job!

GP Portland

20130519-151141.jpgEarlier this month I was at the GP in Portland. Unlike most shows where there is only 1 or 2 artists, this GP had 6! RK Post, Anson Maddocks, Steve Argyle, Chuck Lukacs, and Mark Tedin were there.

I had never been to Portland before, but I’ve heard that it is supposed to be full of hipsters! Actually, I didn’t really see any hipsters…maybe I was in the wrong part of town.

Some of my friends from Seattle were there, so it was funny to hear them argue with the people from Portland over which city is better.

I also got to hang out with an old college buddy who I haven’t seen in about 10 years, Emi Lenox! Emi has an awesome comic called EmiTown published by Image. If you don’t know about her, go and get her book! She gave me a copy of vol. 2 while I was there, so I’m a happy camper.

Photo May 07, 3 56 05 PMTo commemorate the reunion, I gave her a Vanishment alteration featuring one of her army cats. I used DecoColor paint pens and Sharpies.

I also gave her a copy of my book and Cat made sure to give her a sherbet Oreo. Technically it was a Shure, Bert! Oreo. Emi got hooked up!

Sunday night she took us to Biwa for dinner, it was awesome! Thanks for the tasty food! Hopefully next time we will have more time to hang out.

Photo May 12, 7 16 06 PMAs always, I had a great time at the event. Unfortunately there is never enough time to hang out with the other artists since we work the entire time.

I think Saturday I ended up working for 13 hours and Sunday I worked 9 hours. My wrists were pretty dead by the end of the show, but it was worth it.

I know some of the other guys put in longer hours than I did. They are insane.

I would like to thank Tim and all of the WotC staff for inviting me out there and to all the fans who dropped by to say hi. I would also like to thank Cascade Games, Ultra PRO, and WotC for the beautiful Progenitor Mimic playmat that was made specifically for this event. The playmat came out great!

So what is next? I’ll be at GP Las Vegas next month. This is going to be a special GP because they are going to have an art gallery on-site at the Cashman Center from June 21-23. The art gallery will feature large format, museum-quality work from the Modern Masters expansion.

Photo May 10, 1 50 26 PMAccording to Cascade Games, “art from every mythic rare card and every rare card, will be on display for all to see, along with every single new piece of art in Modern Masters. Over one hundred gorgeous pieces of art will be hanging in the Modern Masters Fine Art Gallery.”

This sounds like it is going to be a great show, so please be sure to drop by. It is free and open to the public.

See you there!

Dragon’s Maze

Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 11.41.26 PMHowdy!

This past weekend I was in Temecula, CA for the Dragon’s Maze prerelease. I also wanted to post some of my new cards and a few process shots of Hidden Strings and Progenitor Mimic.

I don’t go to very many prereleases unless they are close enough to drive to. I had a lot of fun in Temecula and I would like to thank Damyan of Tier 1 Games and all of the fans for having me out there. Despite there being only a handful of people, I still wrecked my wrists. Hopefully I will do a little better in Portland and Vegas.

Speaking of Portland, I’ll be at the GP from May 11-12 along with fellow artists RK Post, Tyler Jacobson, and Mike Dringenberg. A special playmat featuring my art from Progenitor Mimic will be available. There is actually an interesting story behind the art for Progenitor Mimic.

146665 Transformancer 08Originally there was only a single figure and she was flying. I went through the sketch approval process and I was well on my way to the final painting.

A week before the final was due, I received an e-mail saying that they had to change the mechanics of the card and therefore I needed to change the painting.

The new painting needed to include a second figure and they both had to be standing. Oh crap.

146665 Transformancer 09I tried to salvage as much as possible due to the short deadline, plus I had other freelance paintings I was working on at the same time.

I decided to paint them standing on some type of magical thingy, and since this card now copies itself, I wanted to make it look like the copy was being created from the magical “walkway.”

I tried to make it look like the copy was rising up from the magical walkway, which is why part of her legs are disappearing below the walkway while magical remnants still cling to her upper legs. I’m not sure if it really comes across though.

147778 Smeltward GatekeepersWhen the painting was first posted online, it was fun to read the comments from the fans speculating what it was all about. Several people got very excited about the prospect of Simic angels, but many pointed out that the Simic angel had Boros armor designs so it was probably a card that took control of another creature.

Sorry Simic, no angels for you!

The one card I am happy with is Hidden Strings, so I wanted to do a little tutorial. Unfortunately I never record any of my freelance paintings, so this will be a written tutorial.

Here is the description I received from WotC.

Show a female Dimir vampire who has mesmerized a Boros knight. His sword lies on the floor, his vacant stare looking off at some faraway place. She lazily puts a pale hand on his shoulder and looks at us, her gaze telling us that this is child’s play for her. Another knight is off in the background, slumped to the floor. A pale, bluish light illuminates the blackness of the undercity’s gloom.


I started out with two sketches but I can’t remember why I decided to go with the second one. I did this painting almost a year ago, so I guess I forgot. Looking back now, I think I like the first one better. Whoops.


Like I usually do, I started out in black and white. It is much easier for me to get started when I don’t have to worry about color, especially if I’m working on 8-9 paintings at the same time.

The figures were feeling a little small, especially at print size, so I tried to make them a bit bigger.

146752-Neural-Dominion-04Here is a closer shot of a WIP of the girl’s face. I typically start with faces since they are usually the focal point. It also helps me focus on something and gets me excited about starting a new painting.

People usually ask how far I take my black and white painting before I start with color, but it really depends. Sometimes I only take a black and white painting as far as the first sketch I did for this painting (the one I didn’t pick to do) while other times I take it to an almost completely rendered painting.

At this point I am ready to start with color. Boros players might be thinking “Hey, his armor shouldn’t be dark.” You are correct. Boros armor is usually silver or white.

I decided to go with dark armor because otherwise the girl’s hands wouldn’t read at print size. Her hands are pretty important to the story, so I didn’t want them to get lost. Also, the dark armor could show that he has become corrupt and is now under her control.

146752-Neural-Dominion-051). For the first stage of adding color, I added an overlay layer and started blocking in the base colors.
2). After I have the base colors down, I start painting opaquely on top of everything.
3). I added another overlay layer to push the blue glow in the background.
4). I added a soft light layer and painted it with blue to bring some harmony to the greens in the middle ground. I also added several color balance adjustment layers.

146752 Neural Dominion 06Now I am starting to push the blue color scheme and I am beginning to render the painting. At this point I think I am mainly painting opaquely.

I typically only use layer modes to get the base colors down or to add effects. The majority of the color work is done with good old-fashioned opaque painting.

One of the problems with working digitally is that people tend to think you can add color in one step. Well, you COULD, but it would look like crap. Adding color is a long process, most of which is done with traditional techniques.

146752 Neural Dominion 06bThe faces were getting a little too cool in terms of temperature, so I added warmer colors in order to make them pop.

I am also adding in some foreground elements, like the hanging moss and the figure on the ground.

Also, more rendering. This is where patience comes into play. The hard part is knowing how much or how little to render or refine.

146752 Neural Dominion 08I decided to ditch the stairs and go for a more simple pillar design. I think the stairs were going to be too small for stairs and the ground was getting a little cluttered, not leaving a lot of space for the sword.

I also desaturated the colors.

Some of the perspective is a bit messed up, but I guess I didn’t notice it at the time.

146752 Neural Dominion 09Yup, more rendering. Now I’m getting down to the small details, like adding the red designs on the knight’s tabard and resizing his hands.

I just realized that I haven’t really even started painting her outfit or her other hand. I also haven’t worked on the guy in the foreground, right now he is still just a dark lump.

146752 Neural Dominion 10Boom, done!

Magically I finished painting her outfit, hand, and the dude on the ground all in one step!

For the background I did a gaussian blur to push the depth and to pull more focus on the main figures.

The easiest way to blur parts of your image is to select the entire image, copy it, and then paste it. You then apply the gaussian blur, add a layer mask, and fill it with solid black. Then you paint with white in the layer mask to reveal the blurred areas.

I also added some floating specks of dust to give the painting a bit of atmosphere.

As always there are many things I wish I could go back and change, but all in all, I think I am pretty happy with how it came out.

new phyrexia

WotC just posted the entire sortable spoiler on their site for New Phyrexia. This set looks amazing! I always say that whenever a new set comes out, but it is crazy how the art seems to get better with each set. It is very intimidating. I always wish that I had been able to spend more time on my illustrations or somehow make them better. It is a constant battle that never seems to end. As soon as I reach one point, I feel that I am no where near where I want to be as an artist. I keep thinking I need to make a change. Maybe if I change something my work will be better. Maybe I should go back to school or study more. I always play around with the idea of going back to school and getting my master’s degree or trying to learn 3D. It’s just hard putting in more time on the side due to my wrists. The past few days have been really bad. Bah, anyway, I hope you enjoy these new illustrations.

Rise of the Eldrazi

Yay, my first spoiled card from Rise of the Eldrazi. I am sure most people are aware of this, but usually my “new” cards aren’t new at all. This illustration was completed 7 months ago. I think that is probably the typical turnaround time for the release of an illustration (for MTG anyway). Being able to publicly show my “new” art has always been a love/hate relationship. On one hand I get to finally show my work, but on the other hand the work is so old that I always end up not liking it anymore (not that I particularly liked it in the first place). I always find so many problems that I wish I could have fixed or I wish that I could have spent a little more time on the illustration. The lighting is blah, his anatomy is messed up (his arms are kinda whacky), composition errors (his hands are cut off at the wrists), there isn’t enough refinement in his costume design, the flags are ridiculously loose, there isn’t enough value/color change in the creatures…bah.