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Part 1: ‘Alliances’ Original Force of Will Art Being Auctioned LIVE Now!

Force of Will has always been my signature Magic: The Gathering card, the one that elicits the most excitement and questions.

Amongst those questions are:

1) “How many Force of Will cards do you think you’ve signed?” …as they hesitantly place their four FOW’s in front of me.

2) “Did you know how good this card would be when you painted it?”

3) “Do you still have the original painting and how much do you think it’s worth?”

Regarding the first question, I guess we will just never know the answer to that –one of the great mysteries of the universe. What I do know is wherever I go more FOW playsets come out to be embellished with a signature. So apparently I haven’t signed them all yet.

Secondly, did I know how good the Force of Will card was at the time? The answer to that is both yes and no, more on that below.

Thirdly, I don’t know what the original Force of Will painting is worth. Stay tuned though…we’re about to find out! 

The OG Force of Will is For Sale!

The original buyer in Sweden (who I sold the art to many moons ago) has put the original Force of Will art up for auction! The auction runs November 28th- December 17th 2023. 

After all these years, having this prominent MtG painting change hands has me reflecting on the various aspects of Force of Will from its creation to its lasting legacy.

A general policy in life I adhere to is “never say never”. However I’m considering this post to be the be-all-end-all comprehensive, final Force of Will write-up.  I’m squeezing the last drops of detail out of the FOW stone so to speak.

A few of the aspects regarding illustrating Force of Will have been touched upon before in various places, but this write-up is the definitive resting place for all things FOW. We’ll do a wee bit of retreading in an effort to be appropriately comprehensive.

How Did I Get Work Doing Magic?

In 1991 right out of art school, I hit the pavement running! I landed jobs for theme parks, magazines, and computer games. A couple years later superhero trading cards became the 90’s rage. Having grown up reading comics it was exciting to be making art for Marvel, DC and Wildstorm.

Meanwhile over at Wizards, the art director for MTG at the time, Sue Ann Harkey, was a big comics aficionado. As I recall she told me she saw my work in the comic industry. She was actively on the prowl to find more artists to illustrate for Magic. 

Sue Ann phoned me up and asked, “Would you like to take on a few cards in the upcoming Alliances set?” I was delighted and eager to break into a new venue, and accepted at once. When she was talking to me about my assignments, she mentioned in reference to Force of Will, “I’m not sure, but I think this is going to be a good card for you.” Back then I had no idea what “a pretty good card” was or meant in the grand scheme of things.

Obviously Sue Ann was in-the-know or a prophetess, as it’s been the hallmark of my Magic: The Gathering career.

Force of Will was my First Magic Card

I worked with Wizards creating a reimagined version of Nightmare for a calendar as well as some card art for Vampire: The Eternal Struggle. That said, I believe FOW was my very first magic card for the then up-and-coming Alliances set. Force of Will was a commission alongside Energy Arc, both Elvish Rangers, and both versions of Foresight. Notice the pic from my 1996 planner from way back then. It indicates the exact day I allegedly started working on it. 

My memory is that Force of Will was completed first out of the six illustrations for Alliances. I vaguely remember Sue Ann (the then WOTC art director) wanting it finished in advance for use in various MTG promotional material. In retrospect I’m torn between my memory of events verses what my scheduler of the time seems to indicate. It’s hard to say anymore for sure.

Sketch-wise I’m fairly certain the entirety of the Alliances set were drawn at the same time. After each card is drawn they’re sent off to WOTC as a batch for simultaneous approval. All six sketches are unanimously approved. Unfortunately I didn’t own a scanner in those days and I do not have scans of any of the sketches for Alliances. (If any collectors own any of them I’d love to have archived scans of them.) 

The drawings were fed into the high-pitched, squealing fax machine and sent on over. For you young people, faxes came right after pony express in the timeline of things. I always work out sketches with graphite on tracing paper parchment. I still draw on the same parchment and not only that but use the same smoothed-with-time technical pencil. That blue Staedtler Mars Technico pencil became my Insta-Bestie from 1984 on. (Let’s not do the math on those years.)

Force of Will Sketch Unknown Whereabouts

Let me insert here, as far as the Force Of Will original sketch, I have no record of where it sold, to whom it sold, or even surviving scans of what the original sketch looked like. It maybe sold for $150 on the high end, but in that era even that might be a stretch. I would love to see it again if the current owner happens to see this.

Cogs a Turn’n!

Back in the early days of Magic the art direction and descriptions tended to be much looser. BTW, the art descriptions were also sent over via fax. I wish I still had the original art description on a faxed scrap of paper. As far as I can remember, this is all it said:

  • Red card
  • Depict a Shaman using fire or red magic
  • Working title: “Stop Spell”

I hear you asking, “What was your inspiration for the look of the shaman?” I didn’t fill up biblical-sized tomes of lore in advance. Nor did I stuff pages of iterations and possibilities into my sketchbook. My mindset was practical. I need a tough warrior-dude that’s all about fire. I didn’t visualize him as a big spellcaster or summoner, but more of a tribal champion whose essence emanated fire.

Of course, any brutish wasteland warrior worth his salt needs some sort of cool armor. Given his penchant for pyromania the shamans armor clearly required a design capable of of surviving flame. Reptiles of course exist all over the world across many habitats and biomes. When I think of hot, desolate environments reptiles are some of the only creatures you’ll see actively basking atop a hot stone or slithering between scorched shrubs. The cold-blooded nature and protective scaling of reptiles allows them to not only survive, but even capitalize on the unbearable heat hostile to nearly every other creature around.

So what DID inspire the look of FOW?

Reptiles, Football, KISS and Wolverine 

Going off the aforementioned initial impression I arrived upon a hybrid aesthetic. It was an amalgam of stone and scale. The armor needs to deter would-be aggressors but also minimal enough to leave the majority of the musculature still on display. I went with something large and jagged configured like football pads.

The improvised reptile motif flowed into other aspects of his design. Notice his needle teeth, slitted eyes, fang-adorned speedo and general irritable demeanor. I’ve said it somewhere else before, but I think dreads are cool, thus, it was an easy choice. I was going for a wild, unkept, swinging mess of hair, tamed by the suggestion of dreads.

Good ol’ Gene Simmons from KISS was likely lurking in my subconscious as an influence from my teens. Remember his Destroyer album costume?? … his monstrous appearance, sizable hairdo, and badass lizard boots? Then there’s the Wolverine archetype, a “Don’t mess with me” vibe. As a nod to Wolvie’s energy, FOW gets the claws. In retrospect, the concept of the claws minimally strapped around his burning hands was a ridiculous but fun concept. Thankfully, comic and fantasy artists receive generous leeway in that regard.

Preparing the Force of Will Drawing to Paint

Thinking back on the process of painting this, I initially thought I had transferred FOW’s sketch directly to the illustration board using transfer paper. The only time I use transfer paper now is for tiny alterations on cards. That said, upon further reflection and research, it turns out Force Of Will was actually painted atop a mounted Xerox enlargement of the original sketch.

This was most certainly a situation where I’d run to Kinkos (not a sex-positive store for bored couples) but instead a then monolithic xerography chain/empire. I did have a copy machine in my studio. However it wasn’t large enough to print this sketch at the larger size I wanted to paint. After I had the Kinko’s copy in hand I submerged said copy into water. I then painted a layer of matte medium onto the 16 1/2 x 13 1/2” cold-press, heavyweight illustration board. Violá! The drawing is now the size I want and ready for paint!

Tape off Those Edges!

This is important! Why? The most joyous part of a painting is peeling off the tape. Why?! Because peeling the tape off means I’m done! There’s something especially gratifying about the revealing of a pristine white edge appearing next to the painted image area.

Ok, it’s taped off! Take a large brush and load it with water and lightly wet the entire board. Then before that dries, mix gouache into a soupy consistency and have some spontaneous fun. Punch in loose swipes of red and orange. Then spatter in yellows and crimson. These all melt and merge with each other in a somewhat soft, marbled look. I generally fuss with this stage for about a half hour. My first intent is to obliterate the white of the board. The second reason is to create an interesting display of color and textures that approximate the feel I’m after. This backdrop is imbued with a feeling of fire, lava, molten spittle, rippling gases. All of this yummy primordial stuff is the bedrock, tone and texture for the illustration to emerge. 

Blocking in the Figure

The next step is loosely using a burnt sienna/umber wash in the mid to low-end value range. Past write-ups state Force of Will is predominantly rendered in gouache. In careful retrospect it’s incredibly hard to say if it was entirely gouache or a combination of gouache and acrylic. Such things will most likely remain a mystery. 

Gouache is a medium I used almost exclusively during my last two terms in art school. It has a boldness in color and opacity that works well for the way I like suggesting a background environment. I largely began transitioning out of it in favor of mostly acrylic. A year or two after graduating I tired of dealing with gouache’s petulant nature. I switched to using it only in the initial stages of a background.

The background of FoW was certainly done in gouache. Was the central shaman also rendered in gouache? I’d only know at this point by licking a finger and smudging it across the original painting to find out. It’s unlikely I’ll be approached to provide this service, but any future collector can hit me up! 🙂

The midtones of the subject are then roughly laid in using a burnt sienna/umber wash. The figure is taken to a certain level of detail with the midtones and basic colors. Then one begins punching in some of the darker values and pushing the value range further. I layer in charcoal and Prismacolor pencil atop the base to contour and carve out edges. I then enter the phase of building up the lights starting with the head and face area. 

Reference Photos

Up until the time of this writing, I was operating under a false impression that the shaman’s grimacing visage was loosely based off of my very own. To my shock, upon revisiting my singular, bleary Polaroid reference, everything above the neck is entirely cut off and out of frame. So, in retrospect, it turns out the face was done entirely from imagination. This explains what is, hopefully, a lack of resemblance between the two of us.

My standard and preferred reference-photo workflow in that era was to photograph a friend or family member. I used a 35mm and subsequently rushed the film to a 1-hour photo lab. Force of Will, however, had to be drawn that night. All the 1 hr photo shops I depended on were already closed. In that case, late night photo reference had to be blurry Polaroids or nothing. Remember, this was years before the advent of cellphone cameras or even the Y2K-era of digital cameras. 

Using dark, fuzzy Polaroids was only slightly better than drawing entirely from my head. I was up against a wall and there was no time for anything more refined. Regardless, I hovered over a blazing hot bulb, clenched my fists and flexed my abs. It was adequate as a springboard for lighting and posing.

The Conveyor Belt Called, “Life as an Illustrator”

The other five Alliances cards were backed-up waiting to be painted, and likely six other art jobs, all stalled out on the ever-pressing conveyor belt called “Life as an Illustrator”. There were many many times when my Nebraska slaughterhouse meat-packing plant summer job resembled how my art career was going at that point. Grab it with the meathook, paint it real quick, and throw it to the next person just in time to grab the next tower of churning briskets hurtling uncontrollably toward me.

While I DO still have the aforementioned FOW reference Polaroid in my possession, it will remain unseen as it’s just a bit more than I really need floating around the internet. I’m told eighty-year-olds give no f’s so maybe then we’ll auction off the Polaroid alongside a happy birthday reenactment Polaroid in the same pose 🙂 

Red ‘Stop Spell’ Morphs to Blue ‘Force of Will

By the time of Alliances release later that year, FOW transformed from a red card into a blue card, and its name had shifted from “Stop Spell” to “Force Of Will”. I preferred the new name to its placeholder original. However, I felt the contrast between the red painting and screaming cyan border just didn’t harmonize well. In retrospect, that jarring visual contrast probably made the card itself far more eye-catching to most viewers. 

At the time of FOW’s initial release it seemed to be more or less just another card I’d completed and had under my belt. As time went on, FOW was increasingly venerated. The consensus grew that it was a very “good” card, indeed.

I did not make time to learn to play the game in any meaningful way, thus I, myself, never had a real opinion on the card mechanically. I was only able to gauge public opinion and the excitement surrounding it by the feedback I was receiving at events and in fan mail.

No doubt in some alternate universe where FOW was implemented differently in its gameplay function, its art would not be regarded with the same level of reverence and fervor than it is now. Needless to say, many thanks to whomever initially designed it!

The Sad Tale of Artist Proof Cards

Around this same time period, before ANY idea that Artist Proof cards would become their own collectible MtG sub niche AP’s were given to us sort of willy nilly. The amount given to us from Wizards could be anywhere from a smattering of “zero”  to a sizable stack a few inches high. In the case of Force of Will, I’d say I received a hefty 4-5” inch stack of APs. We looked at them as “Hey, look at these cute little business cards we can give away with our art on them!” 

In that era when the internet was still an obscure, burgeoning thing, AP’s predominantly functioned as the TCG equivalent of magazine tear sheet for artists… something you could hand to an art director to show you’ve had work printed and were worth hiring. Thus we proceeded to mass disseminate at any and every convention with no idea of the value they would eventually represent. 

For the most part, the general player base was confused by artist proofs given their uselessness in gameplay. The idea of an AP as some sort of niche artists’ collectible didn’t seem to really hit the collective MTG unconscious until well into the mid 2000’s. No doubt I disseminated hundreds of Force Of Will AP’s that are now lost to time. 

Force of Will Painting is Heating Up Heritage Auction Now!

The FOW painting sold (circa 1998) at GP Stockholm for $2,200, which was an astonishing amount of money for a piece of original art at that time. Amazingly, FOW has never swapped back and forth through an array of hands over the years. Force of Will has instead remained in the constant care of the original buyer since that initial sale.

Now, nearly 25 years after the original sale, Force of Will is available again. Jump into the bidding fray or grab some popcorn and watch it close. Proxy bidding at Heritage Auctions will close shortly with the final auction dates being December 16th-17th, 2023.

Stay Tuned…

Masters 25 was actually the THIRD time I was commissioned by Wizards to paint Force of Will?!

👉 Click here for part two! 👈