The Magic Art of Seb McKinnon

What you are watching is a scene from a new chapter in the KIN Fables tale titled “The Stolen Child”. Five years ago, in 2013, the project debuted with KIN, an atmospheric short film that followed a young girl, a faceless knight on a pale white horse, and a circle of dancing spirits that linked their two worlds together. KIN went on to win Best Cinematography at the Fantasia International Film Festival in the Quebec Short Film Category later that same year. The success of the picture led brothers Ben and Seb McKinnon to turn the stand-alone project into a trilogy, introducing both modern and high-fantasy characters to the story and expanding their artistic potential in the process. Seb’s own musical compositions set the soundscape and drove the narrative in all three parts. And after losing his brother in late 2016, Seb has revived the world with an outstanding installment that hints at future chapters. This one is dedicated to Ben. I introduce and lead with these short films because I would like to talk about atmosphere and mood in this video. When one explores Seb McKinnon’s work for Magic, mood is perhaps the most immediate quality that ties his pieces together and separates them from the rest. By looking at his cinematography, as well as the artists that influence him to paint, we can begin to understand how he develops the eerie, ephemeral worlds we see in his commissions. We can also get an idea of the power in conceptual art that ignores the tenets of realism in favor of leaning into the imaginary. Ultimately, I would like to talk about Seb’s art because it presents a world of high fantasy without being bound to the rules and traditions of Magic. Seb McKinnon grew up Montreal, Quebec, Canada alongside four wildly creative younger brothers. As kids, they made up “Map Game”, an imaginary role playing game that utilized sketches of knights and armies to tell their stories, and played it everywhere they went. Eventually, the boys found Magic. Seb was drawn to the illustrations and collected cards accordingly despite not knowing how the game worked. Given the energy in the family, to pursue anything outside of the creative arts as a career would have been remiss. So Seb enrolled in technical school, got a degree in Illustration and Design at Dawson College, and snagged a job at Ubisoft after graduating. He worked on the concept team for the Rainbow Six franchise before landing his first commission with Wizards of the Coast in 2012. Attended Knight in the M13 Core Set was Seb’s first illustration, which aligned with the medieval, Arthurian worlds that set the foundations for his love for fantasy. The image shows a knight atop an adorned horse beside a soldier carrying her lance and shield, both situated amidst a garden within the walls of a castle. The mood is hopeful and valiant: Seb used a palette of pastels across the piece, dropping light from above to highlight the power-pose of the knight. The castle walls break in the background to center and draw our eye towards her. The garden is full of growth, the sky has thick, wispy clouds, and all seems well in the kingdom. This piece debuted just after the Innistrad block, which as a whole could serve as the antithesis of the mood found here. It is also one of McKinnon’s favorite planes, one where he feels most at home. Since Attended Knight, Seb has provided art for nearly 100 cards, and a strong majority of these pieces show dark, eerie, melancholic compositions. Art Directors continually assign him black cards because of his ability to turn the macabre into something beautiful. It makes sense when we look at his influences within the visual arts. McKinnon credits the legendary Swedish fairytale artist of the early 20th century John Bauer for inspiration. The flat planes, the washed-out watercolor palettes, and the slightly haunting, dreamy imagery is synonymous with Seb’s style. He also credits Ivan Solyaev as a contemporary artist he admires. Solyaev’s work taps into the strange and uses monochromatic figurework to generate a sense of dread in viewers. And Alan Lee, a concept artist for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, mixes tightly-rendered landscapes with much looser atmospheric elements like fog, water, and light to breathe life into the fantasy world. McKinnon employs these same elements in his work as well, which has become a staple of his style. Most of his illustrations depict characters outside, either grappling with some manifestation of the natural world, or emerging from it like an extension of its essence. It makes sense that his admiration for Newfoundland, where he enjoys filming because of its picturesque and otherworldly landscapes, would trickle into his art. Moss is the motif that gives Growing Ranks its mysterious mood, and fire and lightning generate chaos and destruction in Vandalblast. But perhaps the most useful and significant elements for Seb’s narrative are fog and water. With these two devices, he is able to keep his renders loose and expressive, and heavily tap into the abstract. In the early days, fog and water could help set the scene and do exactly as you would expect. Millennial Gargoyle, for example, would certainly read differently without that heavy white blanket beneath him, which renders this creature quite threatening despite his withdrawn posture. Unknown Shores, one of my favorite pieces in the game, is also different without that stringy mist that wraps around the seashells like tinsel. Vaporkin goes all-in on the texture and cautiously draws the viewer in. “Is she to be trusted?” we may ask. This character, like the gargoyle, is withdrawn, shy, reserved, eerie. Many of McKinnon’s subjects are. They are not imposing, but instead taciturn and quiet. If we think back to Kubrick, aren’t these the much more terrifying characters? Not the ones that scream and surprise us through jump-scares, but instead the immobile ones that say nothing at all? This idea leads me to what I believe was Seb’s first stand-out artwork in Magic: Odunos River Trawler. The piece depicts a character who is able to bring back the dead, and is doing so in a frighteningly calm way. Apart from a dozen or so hands emerging from the still water, there is no movement. The character is outside, in a barren, open swamp that shows very little signs of life. Like Steven Belledin’s work, this landscape is heavily grounded in the real world, and without the creature in the center of the frame, it would work beautifully as a basic land for the game. To identify the mood, we can ask ourselves: how does this make me feel? Or perhaps, how would it feel to be there? To me, this piece is so successful because it requires no knowledge of the game to be understood. The haunting atmosphere inhabited solely by a steward of death is a trope that can be found in virtually any western culture. It embodies the idea of resurrection, but with a cost. Seb’s highly subdued color palette of light browns and grays evokes the emptiness of the themes at play, and perhaps recalls Alan Lee’s depiction of The Dead Marshes in Tolkien’s novel. The most striking aspect, though, is this very small brushstroke behind the character’s head. In a composition that is almost entirely horizontal, it reminds us of the medium and gives an aura of mysticism to this creature. It is so subtle, yet so effective. It merges the background to the foreground, bending the rules of perspective, and lends just enough contrast to make the lifeless face stand out. Like in a dream, when everything makes sense until you catch a glimpse of the surreal, and you slowly realize you are asleep. Seb returned to this motif in Shadows Over Innistrad with Pale Rider of Trostad. This piece also shows another aspect of his style, which is a shift away from three dimensionality in favor of a more uniform, flat visual plane. Over the years, McKinnon has pivoted between the traditional division of foreground, middleground, and background, and blending those three layers into one. By doing so, he has leaned further into the realm of the conceptual: instead of depicting concrete representations of creatures and places, he can render the idea of those creatures and places instead. In Grim Return, for example, McKinnon shows us the process of being saved from death. It is a three-panel story that is easily told in comic books but very difficult to achieve on a single Magic card. A heavily washed-out background lets the viewer understand that this is not three different knights, but instead a progression of an action taken by one. Coumbajj Witches takes this a step further and asks the question: is this a dance between two women, or a conceptualization of mortality? We all have to die, and coming to terms with that fact, or remaining constantly at odds with it, is what uniquely makes us human. The ethereal hair, the floating necklaces, and the mirroring of colors across the piece tell viewers to not take this image literally, but instead to ask what the piece has to say through symbolism and composition. Art can speak to you, and the mood through which it does will inform you of its message. Chronostutter is another example of an outstanding conceptual piece that tries to capture the vague idea of time. How do you depict what is so inherently abstract? I asked Seb about this piece and he told me that the art description called for an ornate hourglass enveloping a human warrior who is struggling in the quicksand. He built upon this idea and made it his own by replacing the sand with pebbles, adding a pair of statues made of driftwood, and setting the scene in front of an open sea of gentle waves. The entire image is washed in a blue hue which, again, gives it such a melancholic mood. McKinnon said that the idea of the ocean helped solidify the theme of time slowly and methodically eroding away all things. The piece is symmetrical, but not a simple mirror image of itself, which helps it feel more organic. It’s an artwork that I love, and if I were an art director, I would continue to assign Seb McKinnon prompts that even I would have trouble defining. “Hey Seb, can you show me the value in protecting the innocent?” “Hey Seb, you know the tinge of sadness that haunts a sunny Saturday afternoon? Paint that.” “Hey Seb, show me regret.” For the Egyptian-inspired plane of Amonkhet, McKinnon delivered another exceptional painting in Archfiend of Ifnir. Hopefully by now you can see all of the artist’s signature elements coalescing to form a highly unusual render of a Demon. Traditionally in Magic and in folklore, these creatures are menacing and angry, hellishly pursuing the living to exploit their desires. McKinnon’s demon is very much the opposite: it is taken aback and hides behind a leaning obelisk. Behind him are a series of cyclones, evoking an abstract danger that only bad weather brings. From the cloud of dust, the Demon’s wings emerge, which are loosely rendered and blended into the background. Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice the creature’s torso is two-dimensionally layered onto the plane, and its neck is turned a full 90º to face the viewer. The stare is empty: a blank expression void of all emotion. Like in Odunus River Trawler, Seb draws us to its face with a gentle wash of golden light atop its horns. The path below him invites us in, as if to say that the creature’s shy, withdrawn posture suggests it is the one afraid of us. Once more, we have a symmetrically balanced piece: the weight of the tower pushes against the crooked and sinister body of the beast. Everything is perfectly still. And in writing this description, I realize I have seen this image once before. Seb’s affinity with the German illustrator Nils Hamm is one he finds flattering. He has admired Nils’ portfolio for a long while, and credits Hamm’s ability to mix beauty and melancholy as a mutual goal of their work. Both artists’ uncanny capacity to utilize digital brushes as if they were watercolor, and to push the boundaries of the format into places that traditional paint struggles to do itself, is what separates them from the common criticisms of digital artwork. Mike Linnemann commented on this aspect in his art review of the Nicol Bolas Archenemy set: “Seb has been on fire as of late for really interesting compositions and beautifully rendered textures. The, “is he digital?” questions I field on Twitter are far from zero and that’s wonderful. Nils and Seb are keeping people guessing, forcing people to appreciate the art first, and think about medium second.” Their choices in opaque colors and roughened textures also very much lend themselves to the foiling process on physical Magic cards. Not all foils harmonize with their respective compositions, but McKinnon’s paintings tend to synchronize with the glimmer. So to bring the Magic art of Seb McKinnon to a close, I invite you to take a moment to look at this piece. This is not an image common for our card game. It is largely two dimensional and connotes the work of Leonora Carrington and, once again, John Bauer. Ask yourself how you feel, with whom you identify in the piece, as well as where your eye travels when you sit and observe it for a while. Whose side are you on? What does the arid and pinkish mountainscape behind the figures do for the piece? How does it benefit from forgoing the rules of painting with one-point perspective in favor of figures with very little spatial depth? What does the color red do? What happens if we choose to read this figuratively, and symbolically, instead of literally? How does this piece converse with the artist’s prior work, namely the conceptual images we looked at earlier in this video? To ask such questions is to listen to what the artist has to say, and to hear their message. Thanks for watching. All of the music in this video is composed by Seb McKinnon under the name “Clan”. That’s his music project which set the soundscape, like I said in the header of this video, for his short films. Well, Seb wanted me to relay onto you guys that soon he will be releasing limited edition playmats, doing a kickstarter so that he could fund a feature length film for the “KIN Fables Project”. It’s his way of having his art fund his other art so, that’s really cool. He’s a renaissance man. If you enjoyed the music, please reach out on Bandcamp and if you enjoyed the video or the art, please reach out in the comments and tell me which one your favorite is. This video for me has been like 8 months in the making, so I’ve been excited about—it’s just been ruminating, so I’m excited to finally put it out there. I think there are a lot of fans of Seb Mckinnon in the Magic community so it felt good to finally do it! Alright, guys. Thanks a lot for watching, I appreciate ya! Cheers!


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