Here's why the old art is better

Written by Ron Saikowski, February 19, 2018

That's right, the old Magic the Gathering card art is better. It's far better than what we have on cards today. While it may not be popular to say so, it's an opinion held by many (often in secret) and despite the fact that what makes art "good," is in many ways... subjective, I can explain exactly why the old art is better.

It's quite simple really. It comes down to one thing. It's the fact that the artists of years ago knew and understood where their art was going to end up. They knew what size their artwork was going to be reproduced at and they accounted for this.

An example from my past to help illustrate the point.
In my former life, I was an Art Director. It was my job to find artwork.

Let's back up a second and start by making sure we understand what we are NOT talking about here. There are a number of ways art can be judged and one piece determined to be "better" than another. The following are not the methods I'm talking about.

Technical skill
This can vary wildly from artist to artist. Some are better than others at drawing certain things. Each artist brings a unique set of strengths and weaknesses to the table. If they'd made it to the point of being assigned the job, this was not a factor.

Again as varied as the artists themselves. Sometimes incredibly refined and polished, sometimes the artist was exploring something new. If they'd made it to the point of being assigned the job, this was not a factor.

Medium and size
The final art arrived on my desk in digital format. The resolution and specific file type were clearly defined at the beginning of the project. The artist was free to work in their preferred medium at their preferred size. When it came to submitting the digital version of their art, they either met the requirements or not. Not a factor.

Subject matter/direction
This was provided to the artist by way of a copy the story they were to create the art for and maybe a brief note of what I was looking for. This was usually nothing more than explaining the basics of the project. Size, deadline, general concept, etc.

Outside of that, I gave my artists complete freedom to interpret the story how they felt appropriate. The submission and approval of concept sketches was only done in the instances where the artist had more than one idea they wanted to narrow down or they wanted to refine a certain concept.

So what makes the "right" image then?
It comes down to how the art looks when reproduced. Some of the projects I farmed out were small spot illustrations no bigger than 3 inches by 3 inches, some were the size of a magazine cover and some were even bigger than that. Some were full color, some were black and white only.

The issue is NOT technical skill, style, medium, or art direction. The real question is, does the artist create an image that works at the final reproduction size?

If it's only a 3 inch square, do they send me an image so elaborately detailed that when reproduced at production size, it blurs together and all the detail in it is completely lost or do they send me a relatively simple illustration that conveys the point clearly in the restricted space given to them?

If it's the cover of the magazine or even larger, does the art have enough information to convey the the point clearly or is it missing pertinent visual information that would have made a substantial difference?

"Does the artist understand that no matter what size they work at, what medium they use or subject matter they address, their art is going to be reproduced at a certain size and they need to account for that in their work."

The old Magic artists knew this.
They knew their art was going to reproduced no bigger than 2 inches wide by 1.5 inches tall. It didn't matter how big they worked, what medium they worked in (oil paint, watercolors, etc.), this tiny half of a playing card was the final reproduction size. An oil painting as tall as they were or a watercolor no bigger than a standard postcard, it didn't matter. Both were going to be reproduced at 2 inches by 1.5 inches.

There was no need to include enough detail to fill a movie billboard or bigger. There was no need for subtle color and value transitions across every single millimeter of every single surface. All these effects and extreme detailing just weren't going to be seen in the end product. All that super fine detailing, color blending and shading simply disappears at a reproduction size that small.

They knew there was no need to add a hundred finely detailed elements to the image when two conveyed the point. When you know your image is going be reproduced at the size of half a standard playing card, you make different choices.

Today's artists have the technical skill, style, medium, and art direction. There's no doubt about it. Their art is beautiful. Combined with art direction, the game has successfully crafted a distinct look.

But no one seems to be accounting for the fact that all of that art is being reproduced at a size no bigger than 2 inches wide by 1.5 inches tall. Until that happens, the old Magic artist's work will always be a step above what is produced today.

Image credit: Stock art found online