The Magic Art of David Palumbo

The Magic Art of David Palumbo


In looking at my favorite artists working for Magic from a bird’s-eye view, I’ve noticed that I gravitate towards the illustrators who all have three things in common. The first is a strong sense of color. This may be in fact the first thing I notice about a painting; color can almost instinctually invite me in or completely turn me away from a piece of work. In museums, I tend to spend very little time with a painting whose colors don’t grab me. Jesper Ejsing’s color palette, for example, is so satisfying to look at that I could blur the painting entirely and still find pleasure in the abstract image. The second aspect is texture. Now, admittedly, this is more of a bias than a tool for analysis, but I really, really dig seeing the brushstrokes and mark-making in a painting. For me, this ties the physicality of paints to the medium: I like seeing the essence of the objects an artist uses to create a piece of work in the final render. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everything has to be expressionistic: Volkan Baga has very tight rendering, yet his treatment of fabric is painterly in such a way that it could not be reproduced with the same effect in any other art form. Conversely, the reason I favor this Mountain by Nils Hamm so much is because of its looseness. This piece is very much a painting and very much not a photograph. The third aspect is composition. Viewers of this series will know that I’ve explored these three elements once before in my study on Nils Hamm. Composition, for me, has become more of a relative term since then. It’s not just how an artist arranges the subjects within the frame. It’s also how an artist takes into account the presentation of the final piece and the ways in which their arrangement is informed by their imagined viewer. Composing a gigantic piece meant to be displayed on an entire wall, like the go-to example of The Coronation of Napoleon, will greatly differ from illustrating for a tiny Magic card. These are works of two separate scales, and I’ve noticed that I tend towards art that is cognizant of its intended show size. Which leads me to David Palumbo. Today I’m thrilled to cast light on Palumbo’s work in order to explore these three themes again. Ultimately, I hope to get closer to the overarching question of this entire series, which is: what makes a good painting? And how can the life of an artist combine with their visual style in order to produce an excellent illustration, or even a masterpiece? David Palumbo was born in Michigan, but grew up in Pennsylvania surrounded by a family of artists. In 2000, he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he learned the ways of the realists and the beauty in figure painting. The latter is an aspect of art that never left him. The majority of his paintings within Magic are images of an expressive body, and outside of the game, Palumbo has bolstered his portfolio with paintings that explore the visual language of the human figure. Now, in order to capture that language, Palumbo resorts to photography. This is the first aspect of his style that I’d like to bring to your attention, because I believe it is ultimately the reason that his cards are so legible. Like many Magic artists, Palumbo will take a series of reference photos before he paints. But his goal isn’t simply to get an idea of lighting and posture. Rather, he is interested in the psychological aspect of getting into character, as it helps inform shape language and composition in a way that is unavailable without a reference. In his own words, from his post on the Muddy Colors blog on this topic, “If the reason that we shoot reference is to get new information that we would not have imagined, living the conditions of the scene can introduce some great details and ideas.” This theory is best seen at play in Moorland Inquisitor. For this render, Palumbo championed a costume, then poured pots of water over his head to simulate a rainstorm. He needed his gear to be dripping to better depict it in the painted form. This level of dedication to his craft is one reason among many that his paintings are so successful. They’re also successful because they respect the medium of a Magic card. Palumbo knows his illustrations will be compressed to just a few inches in area and imagines his figures accordingly. This is what I will henceforth refer to as “legibility”. If art is to be utilized as a mnemonic device for the game, then the philosophy at play here is to compose images that are clear and defined so they can be easily read by its players. I think Kev Walker has always been one of the most legible artists because he reduces the scene to its core elements. David Palumbo approaches his compositions in a similar way. Let’s look at one of his most famous pieces, Totally Lost, to understand what makes a painting ‘legible’. Without knowing the title of the piece, or even understanding Magic at all, you can read this painting. The terrified look in the homunculus’ lone eye is mirrored in his body language as he recoils from the bustling citizens passing by. He is out of place. Palumbo’s colors here mirror his uniqueness to the scene: the homunculus is a distinct brownish-green that contrasts the dark pants and boots around him. Those legs blend together and overlap the creature in the foreground. All of them are mid-step, and your mind completes the rest of their movement, which creates that implied motion. This action is emphasized by Palumbo’s larger brushstrokes: the chunky paint in the pants and around the homunculus all have little movements of their own, which add to the energy of the scene. I asked David how he felt about Fblthp becoming a cult classic in the game. He responded: “It’s so great to see something like that, particularly on a card that I don’t think sees much play. I think the description that they gave me really set a picture in my mind of this very sympathetic, fragile little guy trying not to get kicked in this busy crowd, so I really wanted to hit that note as hard as I could. I also remember when I was working out the sketch for it, I went out to a part of town with a lot of tourist traffic and laid down on the sidewalk to shoot photos across the street of people’s feet and legs. Nobody paid me any attention the whole time.” Again, David’s commitment to his craft helped him better understand the dynamic of pedestrian crowds. The result is a highly legible card that captured the humor of Magic players all over. We can apply these same principals of color, texture, and composition to his other paintings in Magic. Chief of the Edge and Chief of the Scale are a fun diptych that communicate with one another. On the left is a creature who gives your dudes power, so she’s flying around with a sword. On the right is a creature who gives your dudes toughness, so he’s planted behind a shield. Both pieces feature a prominent central figure in front of a crowd that is composed of very loose brushstrokes. This motif is a favorite of his for creature cards. Phalanx Leader, Medomai the Ageless, and Welkin Guide all display darkened creatures atop white-washed backgrounds. Returning to the ideas in Totally Lost, this strong contrast helps the tiny images read very well at card size. David’s loose brushstrokes were not always a staple of his style, though. If you look at his earlier work in Magic, you will find much tighter renders. But over the course of his ten-year career, he has grown bored of the expectation to make everything clean and smooth, and thus has nurtured a more painterly voice full of larger, more expressive marks. This transition began in 2012 with Warclamp Mastiff and has only become more established since. Developing his own visual trademark carried over into his other commercial projects and personal work as well. In 2014, he was commissioned to illustrate a bulk of select scenes for the collector’s edition of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. The theme of dread lives at the core of this story and Palumbo’s looser style helps deliver on that unease. Depicting something abstract, like terror, is at home with a style that is not clean-cut and straightforward. Palumbo has also re-worked the covers of classic novels as part of one of his many personal projects, painting directly on the hard cover with a re-imagined scene from the book within. One of his biggest projects was a cover for an Italian edition of Rolling Stone back in 2013, which depicted a portrait of David Bowie against a baby blue background. And among his personal projects is his collection of female nudes, which harmonize expressionism with the intimacy of figure painting. As far as color is concerned, Palumbo’s palette is very similar to that of Karl Kopinski: lots of earthy tones mixed with dark shades of brown and black. Because of this tendency, he is often assigned white and black cards. A very recent piece, Vanquish the Weak, embodies David’s color choices perfectly and harkens back to one of his favorite artists NC Wyeth. The colors present here match my mind’s eye of how pirates should be colored, which is probably influenced by Wyeth’s work on Treasure Island. The light browns of the wooden ship and the deep maroon of the victim’s sash play into the pirate trope without taking it over the top. Personally, I would’ve liked to see more of this subdued style in Ixalan. For this reason, it is a standout piece among the set. So to tie this all together, I want to return to my original questions. What makes a good artist, and a good painting? I think studying David Palumbo’s work can teach any appreciator of art about how to organize figures within a frame, as well as the importance of making your images legible. His interest in reference photography, and photography itself as an art form, draws from the nuances of the real world and translates them into one of fantasy. And his looser textures help concentrate an image and provide a painterly element to an increasingly-digital landscape. Outside of Magic, Palumbo has displayed his work in gallery shows and made a name for himself independent of commissioned projects. As such, like I’ve said about a few Magic artists before, I think we are lucky to have an artist of this caliber making art for our game. Into the future, look for those loose brush marks, darker, subdued colors, and expressive figures, and you’ll be pleased to find another work by David Palumbo. This channel is a proud partner of Card Kingdom. Use Cardkingdom.com/Studies to help support the show! So, David Palumbo writes for the Muddy Colors Blog, which is a big collective of artists—fantasy artists and otherwise—that are writing about art-making, art theory, and about the process that goes behind each of their paintings. So if you enjoyed this video, that’s where I got a lot of my information from, from the breadth of articles that David has written over the past few years there and there are a few other Magic artists that write for Muddy Colors, so I suggest if you want some extra information about art, start with David Palumbo’s articles and just browse the Muddy Colors Blog. Big thank you to David! Thank you so much for letting me do the research and produce this video, thanks for taking a risk on me, I really appreciate it! If you enjoyed David Palumbo, go ahead and leave me a comment in the comment section below with your favorite piece of art by his. That could be in Magic or otherwise—what I was so surprised about in researching this video, is just how many pieces of art he’s done. His portfolio is gigantic, I feel like he’s been painting 8 hours a day for the last 10 years. So, I suggest you type in “David Palumbo art” in Google Images and have a blast. Right, of course, here’s where I also promote my Patreon page. If you’ve enjoyed this video, then, I would like you to consider supporting me there. It helps me keep going and it’s a nice way to say “thank you”. Happy October, everybody! Hook ’em horns. Go coffee! Thanks for watching. Cheers, guys!