The Magic Art of John Avon: Perspective

The Magic Art of John Avon: Perspective


When we look at a painting, we’re free to roam around anywhere we’d like within the frame. We can get really close and pick apart the nitty-gritty details. We can also stand back, way back, and see it all together as one collective image. Paintings, though, like photographs, trick you a little bit in this regard: while we have freedom to move within the frame, we cannot choose where we stand in relation to the subjects inside of it. The author decides this. Other pieces of art: buildings, installations, sculptures, can be seen from multiple angles by virtue of their three dimensions. Paintings, however, provide no such liberties. We must therefore be aware of where a painter chooses to place us within their work. Today, I want to bring your attention to John Avon’s use of perspective in his landscapes. This technique, alongside his use of light that we explored in the previous installment, helps John build nonexistent worlds and make us feel like we’re right in the middle of them. Alright, so let’s first establish what I mean by “perspective”. In a general sense, it is our point of view within the painting. Sometimes, like in this Forest from Portal, we witness the scene at the eye-level of a human. Here, we are standing in the woods, and the trees are proportional to our perspective. Other times, like in Meteor Crater from Planeshift, we are given a more overhead, bird’s-eye point of view of the scene. Perspective affects how the painting feels and the message it wishes to send. Had Avon employed the perspective from the first painting in the second one, much of the effect would be understood differently. We wouldn’t see all the ripples caused by the crater, but we may feel closer to the impact, and thus, more vulnerable. The same could be said about Cloudcrest Lake. Because we’re viewing this landscape from above, we understand just how expansive it is. Remember, those are choices that an artist makes; there is no “formula” for the best perspective. Concentrate instead on the effect of that choice. Perspective can also be used as a composition tool. We all know that objects look smaller the further away they are, but it took artists quite a while to fully understand how to recreate this in their paintings. Prior to the 15th century, European artists used class status and religious significance to determine how big a figure was in their paintings. The bigger the figure, the greater their importance. Spatially, this didn’t made sense, but the underlying message outweighed the verisimilitude. It wasn’t until Filippo Brunelleschi’s famous experiment on the Baptistry of Florence that accurate representation of three-dimensional space became an important aspect of two-dimensional drawings. Once Brunelleschi figured out the formula and Leon Battista Alberti wrote the treaty on “linear perspective”, artists utilized it in every mathematically-accurate painting henceforth. This formula for “linear perspective” is actually pretty simple. Let’s look at Boros Garrison as an example. First, you must find a horizon. This is often a horizontal line that stretches across the painting and intersects item #2: the vanishing point. For landscapes, the horizon is typically, well, the horizon, but you can have a horizon line in a painting that depicts an interior, too. The vanishing point is where all the objects converge. In this example, there is only one vanishing point, and thus is called “one point linear perspective”. You can have multiple vanishing points, but John usually sticks to one. Finally, you need orthogonals, which are just lines that emerge from the vanishing point and intersect the edges of all the shapes within the landscape. Here, the orthogonals help dictate the shape of the garrison’s towers. They are elongated and exaggerated, which fits early Avon’s comic book style. An artist can also use something called “aerial” or “atmospheric perspective” to create space and depth. This technique corresponds to the phenomena of objects becoming more monochromatic and faded the further they are away from the viewer. This Mountain from Mirrodin gives us this effect: the closest tower is detailed with dark shadows and distinct strokes. The middle ground is less so, and the furthest buildings in the back have no detail at all. Dormant Volcano is an extreme example of atmospheric perspective. Explore shows off atmospheric perspective, too, and is one of my favorite Avon pieces. Returning to our first question, that is, where do we stand in a painting, I see two possible responses here. The first is more straightforward: we are floating slightly above the ground, some feet behind this adventurer who gazes upon the expanse. However, we could also argue that our perspective is the same as the explorer’s: we mimic his vantage point. Our eyes move first from locking onto him and then into the rest of the scene. He is our placeholder, and it is us gazing into the deep green valley. This is why John Avon creates art. For Avon, fantasy isn’t as much an escape as it is an opportunity to entertain a new reality. One that has endless potential, and one that can exercise his very vivid imagination, and in turn, ours, too. His use of perspective, of the vantage point, and of orthogonals can exaggerate the terror of being trapped atop a cursed pillar. It can place us at the bottom of a peaceful cascade, practically emerged in the water of the soothing cave. It can set us in the middle of a field of wheat at sundown. It can emphasize the gravity and significance of the buildings in front of us, even without scale birds. Avon elongates form in this Forest from Invasion to generate a sense of looming unease: we’re suffering vertigo as the haunting trees and strange figures linger over us. And in Armageddon, we’re presented a miserably simple scene that shows us…nothing…and gives us the eye-level perspective from the ground to emphasize that emptiness. Having studied architecture, Avon was a perfect choice for many of the Ravnican landscapes which heavily rely on perspective to assure the buildings’ proportions are correct. In the original Ravnica block, Avon was assigned all ten bounce lands. When we returned to the city in 2012, he also received another cycle of basics, which all employ some degree of aerial perspective. The Forest, as of the writing of his book, is his favorite Magic piece to date. It was inspired by a dream he had of his late father in which majestic buildings were converging with walkways and bridges along the same epicenter. This piece is beautiful and shows another subtle aspect of Avon landscapes: paths. John is our guide. He wants to show us the way. When he paints, he imagines what life would be like to live in the landscapes. I’d like to end with a quote by Jeremy Jarvis, Magic’s Senior Art Director, from the foreword of John Avon’s book Journeys to Somewhere Else. It speaks perfectly to John’s significance to the game: “Basic Lands could easily be viewed as something tired that the game is saddle with… every setting must always include Plains, Islands, Swamps, Mountains, and Forests. How mundane and ignored could those cards easily have been after Magic’s twenty-plus years of existence! But no, world-class landscapes are now both expected and celebrated as an integral part of Magic’s visual identity. I believe it is obvious that John’s work has played an enormous role in this phenomenon.” So, when you look at an Avon landscape, remember light and perspective. Consider how these two techniques are molded by the artist to place you in another world. Remember that reality is whatever you make it, and that if you believe it, then it is real. Thanks for watching! Special thanks to John Avon and his agent Guy for allowing me to do these videos. If you haven’t seen part 1, check the link out in the description below as well as links to all my other Magic Art Series where I cover a bunch of Magic artists. Don’t worry! There’s a lot still to be covered, I know! Go ahead and check out my Patreon page as well. All the people on your right are people who donate to me monthly and I very much appreciate that. I have a new stretch goal so that’ll allow me more time to do research for these kinds of videos. They take quite a while but my heart’s in it and I appreciate all you guys who help me out. Alright and special shout out to the guys in blue here, they are the Confidants—they’re my highest-tier Patrons—they get shoutouts in the videos and they get access to my videos before anyone else! As well as monthly signed cards so thank you guys! You also have access to behind-the-scenes videos of my editing. 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