The Magic Art of Steven Belledin

The Magic Art of Steven Belledin


This is Crimson Muckwader. It’s a simple piece. It’s innocuous, low-to-the-ground. It’s a red lizard in a swamp. Apart from the gentle ripples near its hind legs, there’s very little action here. It’s quiet. It’s also, weirdly enough, one of my all-time favorites pieces of Magic art. I’ve been trying to reconcile this for as long as I’ve been playing the game. I mean, of all the extravagant illustrations of dragons and warriors and creatures high-fantasy, why this little lizard? Part of me will never really know why I like something; art is subjective and picky and particular like that. You like what you like, and sometimes no amount of analysis or argument could convince you otherwise. A greater part of me has a better answer now after spending much more time with this piece, and with Steven Belledin’s work as a whole. Crimson Muckwader is enjoyable to observe in much the same way something like Planet Earth is to watch and black coffee is to drink. The colors are rich and earthy, the subject matter is familiar and not completely farfetched, and amidst the visually intense and action-packed, spell-slinging world that is Magic, this little amphibious fellow can ground you. Bring you back to the real. Give you a sense of the world it inhabits. The art of Steven Belledin is like that; it’s methodical and objective and understated, and today, we’re going to slow down and survey it. Steven Belledin was raised in Pennsylvania, a woodland state with a rich history of illustration. Home of the Brandywine School, Belledin considers Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth among some of his greatest influences. These illustrators laid the foundation for the storybook style of late 19th century novels like Robin Hood and Treasure Island, and would inspire generations of aspiring artists well into the modern day. Belledin also admires Gregory Manchess and Michael Whelan, two living artists who belong to the greater genre of ‘imaginative realism’. After four years at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in New York and a trip to Seattle to market himself to Magic’s Art Directors, Belledin would begin to dip his toe into this genre, too. Now, ‘Imaginative Realism’ is a term that comes up often when discussing Magic Artists, and I would like to spend a minute to define it now. It may be that you’ve seen or read James Gurney’s guidebook bearing the same name. ‘Imaginative Realism’, in his mind, is painting something that does not exist. A still life of a skull, for example, is its antithesis: you have the reference right in front of you when you sit down to draw, and you’re free to manipulate it as you see fit by changing the lighting and the orientation at will. But what if you want to illustrate dinosaurs roaming about a city marketplace, as he does in Dinotopia, or, as is often the case in Magic, a dragon destroying an Abzan citadel with its breath weapon made of light? That’s a bit harder to capture in a reference photo, and thus, requires mastery of the first half of the term’s namesake. Taking this idea a step further, Patrick Wilshire in his essay ‘The Reality of Imaginative Realism’, states “the genre of imaginative realism covers not just what an artist can’t see, but subjects that no one has ever seen, or will ever see. It’s not rendering from imagination, it’s the rendering of imagination”. Thus, when combining with the second half of the term, ‘realism’, you, as an illustrator, are provided a range. In depicting the things that “no one has ever seen or will ever see,” you get to decide just how ‘imaginative’ those renders will become. And while it’s a matter of taste, sometimes leaning too far into the unreal can lead to cold and disjunct pieces of art. This is the first reason for which I admire Steven Belledin’s work: he starts each piece from the realist end of the spectrum. See, his work reminds me of Jean-François Millet, who himself was part of the 19th century French Realism movement. Millet’s portraits of peasants, his panoramas of the barren countryside, his deep browns and yellows, and his objective eye for the harsh earth came together as a response to the glorification of Romanticism. Millet painted the world as it was, taking away flashiness in favor of nuance. I told Steve that his style recalled that of the French Realists and asked him if they were an influence on his work. He responded: “I think the foremost thing that I’ve always really been interested in as far as the realist schools of painting are concerned is the extremely straightforward presentation of the subject matter. I find that keeping a degree of that blunt presentation is something that appeals to me and my more minimal aesthetic sensibilities when it comes to fantasy.” That word, “straightforward”, is a term that Steve uses quite a bit in his blog. Magic’s art direction often asks for a very direct product: we need a soldier, so paint a soldier. But how you handle that request is, again, a mixture of various levels of the imaginative and the real. Let’s look at Floodtide Serpent to see what I mean. The art description called for the classic trope of a sea monster destroying a shore-side town. You’ll notice first here how much equal space Belledin gave to both the town and the serpent: this is just as much a detailing of the creature as it is the city. We see a couple of ancient Greek temples, some cypress trees, and a few citizens scattered across the scene. We also see the monster’s little teeth, its slimy skin, and, thanks to the end of its tail emerging from the water, we have a sense of its size. The piece is balanced and doesn’t rely on any special effects to sell the movement. Now think about our perspective here: presumably, we’re tucked away into the city, but we don’t take the first person viewpoint of a citizen. We also aren’t looking up at the monster from below, which would exaggerate its size. There are no scale birds or motion lines either: we’re just simply there. And it’s this objective presentation of a rather dramatic scene that really sticks with me when I look at Belledin’s artwork. It reminds me quite a bit of the work of my favorite director Paul Thomas Anderson. PTA is known for his slow pacing, his drama, his oners. He’s very good with dialogue and characters and cares about the traditions of cinema as an art form. More specific to this study is his camerawork. The camera in his films takes a neutral stance; if it’s not stalking his protagonists, it’s firmly placed on a tripod with one job: to observe. It’s just there. No tricks. No embellishing. It sits down and slowly eats film. Its role is to let you live inside a scene. The same thing is going on here. Belledin, in a sense, put up a tripod and invited us to observe the attack as-is. To help compose the scene, he researched the amount of water that whales displace when they breach and scaled it accordingly as to not overdo the waves. His serpent isn’t overly decorated or menacing: it’s believable. It looks like a big fish that’s doing what big fish do. The town is believable, too; it looks like the land that inspired the set. Go to the Isles now and you’ll find those same terra-cotta roofs and mossy granite cliffs. Now, the colors here are a little brighter than Steve’s usual palette, which I think work well with the Mediterranean aesthetic of Theros. Looking at his portfolio holistically, though, you can see Steve tends towards the deeper tones; dark greens, browns, blacks, and violets, which lend well to his organic approach. It wouldn’t make much sense, for example, to lean deep into the real world as a point of departure for your work, then paint your creatures with pastels or neons. Jesper Ejsing’s world is full of whimsy, and thus his colors demand a much lighter and vibrant palette. Steve’s world is grounded and earthlike, and his choice in paint matches his approach. Maybe his most realistic renders come from his cycle of basic lands in Theros. This Plains reminds me of running around the foothills in Boulder, Colorado, and could easily find a spot on the wall in the downtown art museum. There’s no magic here. His Forest is similar: we have a giant olive tree that centers our focus and places us in Greece with restraint. The light is gentle and it reads great on a card. Extending further into Khans of Tarkir was Armament Corps, another one of my favorites for its unique composition within the context of that block. Nothing screams fantasy about this: apart from the giant beast pulling the wagon and, to an extent, the stylized armor, this reads like a snapshot of an assembling Mongolian army. Karl Kopinski’s Mardu Heartpiercer felt much the same. Of this piece, Steve says “It’s not some critter screaming at the viewer or some badass muscular guy wielding a giant sword. There is no magic in this Magic painting. Instead, it’s the kind of imagery that—I hope—causes the viewer to buy into the world because it captures something so believable. It’s just an army, marching off to war, with a giant war wagon.” This piece reminds me so much of the first Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I suppose that’s a great analog for my point, too. Those three films showed us a living, grounded world, and The Hobbit fell flat because it lost that edge. But this isn’t to say that Steven can’t lean into the imaginative, too. Some of his more fantastical works are such cool pieces of art that I would be doing a disservice to only emphasize the realist in him. So many Magic players admire the conceptual element in Surgical Extraction. Its eerily lonesome background is reminiscent of Dalí and its visceral imagery is so haunting that it often comes up as one of the game’s best works. Death Mark is right by its side: the black mana symbol as a pupil, the upside-down composition that serves to disorient the viewer as well as curse your opponent when playing it in-game is on-theme and works perfectly on a card. Rampant Growth’s nod to The Great Wave of Kanagawa is a clever homage that fits within the landscape of Magic’s visual style. His Wasteland depicts a decaying cathedral buried into the side of a cliff. It shows the crumbling effects of time. This idea is furthered by its shape language: at card size, it resembles a buried crown to suggest a kingdom’s harsh end. Even Avarice Amulet came from a completely imaginary world. Designed by Penny Arcade, the card pays tribute to Pac-Man: the cracked golden talisman is Pac-Man’s mouth. Pellets mark its rim, and in between the dots are the shapes of the game’s ghosts, now blue because Pac-Man has just eaten one of the bigger pellets. And I would be remiss as well to not touch upon Steven’s dragons. Belledin worked on the concept team for Fate Reforged and Dragons of Tarkir and is responsible for Silumgar’s visual design. Somewhere along the way, the team compared Silumgar to Magic’s version of Jabba the Hut. Steve took this idea and ran with it: it was his idea to have Tasigur hanging from the opulent Dragonlord’s neck, an idea that bemused Jeremy Jarvis and his love of bad horror films. And Drifting Death, much like Crimson Muckwader, is just one of my favorite pieces of Magic art. I like what I like. But Steven doesn’t like dragons all that much. I think he’ll always prefer the more grounded pieces. The ones of the realists. His Black Lotus reflects such a preference. It’s a blooming flower amongst others whose only real difference is the shade of its petals. It’s not glowing or swirling with mystical energy. It’s just there, like a lizard in a swamp. One of my professors in graduate school said it best: it’s the understated message that has the greatest effect. I think Steven Belledin is the best example of such an idea. His work is mellow, his colors subdued, his subjects rooted in the real world. And with a portfolio chock-full of award-winning art, I’m certain that there is something there that will encapsulate you the same way Crimson Muckwader and Izzet Chronarch do for me. And into the future, keep a keen eye out for that objective presentation that invites you into the scene and lets you live in it. Thanks for watching! This channel is a proud partner of Card Kingdom. Use affiliate code “studies” to help support the show. A very special thank you to Seteven Belledin for allowing me to do the research for this video and produce it but also for giving me his time for that small interview I sent over. Thank you, Mr. Belledin! Very much appreciate it. I would recommend all of you guys go and read Steven’s blog, that’s where I got a bunch of the tip-offs for all of the artwork in this video and chances are if you have a favorite Steven Belledin piece, he’s probably written about it. I don’t think there’s any artist in the game right now hustling as hard as he is in terms of producing, written content for all of his work; so please check out Steven’s blog. As you know I’m a partner of CardKingdom! You guys can use the affiliate code “studies” like I said in that end-screen to help the support the show. You can also support the show directly through Patreon. Speaking of Patrons, I am sending out a foil Dragonlord Silumgar to one of my highest-tier Patrons this month so that’s really cool. I very much appreciated Steven’s work on Silumgar and I think this thing looks sweet in foil! So, there’s perks if you want to support the show directly or indirectly through Cardkingdom! That’s it. I don’t have anything else to promote other than Steven Belledin’s work. Let me know what your favorite piece is in the comments below! And I will see you in a few weeks for the next video guys. Cheers!