The Magic Art of Nils Hamm

The Magic Art of Nils Hamm


How does art make us feel? Or maybe a better question is, why does it make us feel? Why, when I look at a painting like this, do I feel like I am there, in the tall grass, as the wind blows and the sun sets? What exactly creates this great sense of calm and ease? Inversely, what about this mountain makes me feel threatened? As admirers of art, we can also ask how the painting itself feels. Yeah, I know that sounds a little hokey, but stick with me, because I want to explore this idea. This idea that a painting, inanimate and inorganic, can possess living qualities and traits. It’s a paradox, but I think we can explain the phenomenon. And to do so, I want to turn to three of art’s most basic, core elements: color, texture, and composition. Color. Texture. Composition. Okay. Through these three elements of design, I want to show you how paintings generate feeling. And I want to do it by exploring the portfolio of Nils Hamm. Nils Hamm was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, and resides there now. As a kid, just like all of us, he was enamored by knights and dinosaurs. His imagination was molded by the folklore of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, which inspired him to pick up the pencil and sketch out the images he saw in these tales. As a teen, he admired artists like Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley, which led to him to pen his own comics in high school. With these guys as both inspiration and role models, Nils decided to study illustration and design, and make a life out of creating art. Simon Bisley, Jeff Jones, Frank Frazetta: the “classics” would lay a foundation for Nils’ work. But you’ll notice that Hamm’s illustrations don’t look anything like traditional fantasy art. Sure, these guys inspired everyone at first, but Nils strayed away from this style early on. If we look at his more contemporary influences, artists like Justin Sweet, Phil Hale, and Rick Berry, we start to see a different genre emerge from the mold. These guys, Nils included, have built their own niche of fantasy art. Mike Linnemman says he sees the 18th century artist William Blake in Nils’ work. This piece here, titled “Nebuchadnezzar” is especially similar to Hamm’s style. Recalling our three elements, we can draw parallels to many of the images we find in card frames today: Blake’s colors are metallic and pearlescent and he employs hues of pink and blue across the painting. His texture is loose around the edges and then tight across the king’s muscle and face. The composition invokes terror in the viewer; the curled, animalistic toes and shriveled brow of the man add tension. The movement in his quadriceps and calves mimic the lines in the backdrop behind him. So that’s William Blake. But what about Nils’ style? Again, we’re looking at color, texture, and composition here. Hamm’s approach can be described as intuitive and spontaneous. He begins with shapes and textures. He builds from chaotic structures based in oil or watercolor, and from there, pulls the form and design out of the havoc. Nils’ textures dictate the direction and movement of his paintings. He likes metallic textures, and many of his creatures look like they’re assembled from scrap metal found in junkyards. Like William Blake, these textures are often very loose and expressive around the outer edges of the piece. As we move inward toward the subject, the brushstrokes become smaller and details begin to sharpen. This technique helps direct the eye towards the center of action and forces us to concentrate on the most crucial element of the painting. The relationship between man and beast, the anguish of war, and the beauty of life are all themes Nils has explored in his work with Magic. Of course, these painterly textures are elevated by Hamm’s rich sense of color. If there is one distinct trademark to a Nils Hamm piece, it is found in his brilliant choice of palette. His favorite colors, the ones we see most distinctly in his illustrations, are purple and green. His greens are often used as a base, and the purples come through as highlights. But these aren’t just any old greens and purples: there is an ethereal quality to these hues that are uniquely Hamm’s. Fastbond shows off these two tones, as does Undergrowth Scavenger. Howling Wolf is composed almost entirely of greens and purples. So both color and texture merge together into distinct forms and give light to our final element of design: composition. From Hamm’s abstract and textured backgrounds appear his figures. A pivotal moment for Nils’ career occurred when studying under Justin Sweet. Recalling both an old art teacher’s painting process of a crab and Sweet’s tutelage, Hamm was fascinated by the loose approach of the hands he observed. Shortly after, he would compose Grave Titan and his seminal work Chancellor of the Spires. Nils concentrates on shape language to form his compositions, and the bodies that sprout from the backgrounds can often be boiled down to geometry. This mountain, for example, is largely just a bunch of triangles, and those pointy edges and textures pair with the deep reds to evoke that sense of unease in the viewer. In contrast, Evangel of Heliod is made of softer, oval shapes. The flowing textures of the prophet’s robes create that sense of ease, which pair with the yellows and purples to generate a sense of calm in the viewer. Nils also uses negative space to compose an image. Rotting Mastodon, for example, is a zombie elephant made of dead tissue and bone. As such, his body forms the image of a skull: the space between his legs form the eyes and his toes make up the teeth. This is a clever trick to communicate a message. We see the same technique in Silumgar’s Command. Between the zombie and the nearby shield emerges the fang of the Sultai Clan. Maybe his most well-known piece, though, is this: Baleful Strix. Here, we can apply everything we’ve learned to better understand why this beloved owl is so often named one of the best pieces of art in the game. Starting with the background, we find a wash of metallic blues and yellows. The textures are both smooth and rigid, but in both cases, unfocused. Directly from the background emerges the owl’s wings. At first, they are blended in and on the same plane, but the closer to the center we go, the more the bird’s dimensions become distinct. The details do the same. The textures get sharper near the owl’s body as the ovals in the wings become triangles in the ears, claws, and beak. Its eyes are equally piercing, and maybe that’s the best way to describe this piece. Piercing. I asked everyone on Twitter how they would describe Baleful Strix. Many agreed: this is a haunting, eerie and hypnotic piece of art. As are so many more of Hamm’s cards. To return to my questions up top, that is, how does a piece of art “feel”, I think we must consider more than just what the painting depicts. We must be aware of the colors the artist favors, and where the artist places them. We must consider how the forms are composed, where our eyes move, how the painting would respond to touch. To me, the work of Nils Hamm “feels” kind of sad. It’s not so much the macabre imagery that he is so often assigned, but the mood these images generate. These are melancholy pieces of art, even when the painting shows us something hopeful. Hamm’s world is a lonely one, but, that’s what I like about it. Because from these horrors always grows some sense of calm. Here, there is terror, but there is also peace. Funnily enough, lots of Hamm’s work outside of Magic revolves around children’s novels. His passion project Astro, a graphic novel for kids, follows the adventure of this little guy. He says he was subconsciously inspired by the 1973 film Fantastic Planet that he saw as a child for Astro. He’s also working on his own character designs and would like to break in to that realm of the illustration business. Of course, Hamm is still very active for Wizards of the Coast. Shadows Over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon gave him a whopping 14 commissions, including the sequel to one of our favorite flip cards of all time, which he also designed back in Innistrad. So to conclude, I want you to be aware of why you feel a certain way when you look at a painting. I want you to consider color, texture, and composition when you study the Magic Art of Nils Hamm. And I want you to ask the question: how does this make me feel? Thanks for watching! [Whoosh sound] Special thanks to Geoffrey Palmer for providing the two animations for this video; he is @livingcardsmtg (on Twitter). As well as Nils Hamm for giving me the go-ahead and some insider information. As well as some hi-res photos for this video. He also became a Patron, so that was really cool. And speaking of Patreon, yeah, you know what to do. So, I actually re-scaffold some rewards. There’s a new goal reward! A lot of people have been asking me for “The Magic Art of John Avon” So if you want to see that video, join the Patreon club! I also created a new tier for the most hardcore fans of my videos. “The Confidant” tier. So check that out too. If you haven’t peeked over at my Patreon, now’s the perfect time to do it. Because not only does it support me, but it also helps me hire Geoffrey Palmer. If you really dug those animations, I want to see more of them in my videos too, so I want to keep hiring that guy. So the relationship works like this, see? Otherwise this month’s signed cards are the Plains and Mountain that were featured in this video from Nils Hamm. But in foil. They look unbelievable–the plains especially. The mountain is my favorite Mountain in Magic but that Plains is so gorgeous in foil. So if you want signed cards from me, check out the Patreon. If you want to just support me for what I do, if you enjoyed the video, it goes a long way so donate a buck or a few bucks, and I appreciate that. Alright, people that is it! I will see you in two weeks, as always, thanks for watching! Cheers!