Welcome to the Mirror Gallery for an exclusive collaboration article and the world premiere of the brand new Command Zone and Game Knights Kickstarter playmat, “Epic Play” by legendary Magic artist Jesper Ejsing!

“Epic Play” by Jesper Ejsing

This Kickstarter just launched this afternoon and is the only chance you have to get this new Game Knights playmat. It runs from now to September 27, 2020, and has signed and unsigned versions available for Command Zone fans both within and outside of the US.

The artist behind this work is none other than Jesper Ejsing, who has illustrated more than 150 cards for Magic, and works almost exclusively for the game as both a concept artist and illustrator. We have been friends for several years and talk art every chance we get.

Jesper and I at Lightbox Expo in Pasadena, CA in September 2019

So when he said he was working on something super exciting with the Command Zone and asked if I wanted to go “Behind the Brush” on this new artwork, I jumped at the opportunity.

This article is going to explore the artist’s inspiration, take us through each step of the painting process, and reveal some really cool factoids about the artwork, Jesper’s art in general, and even some of his Commander decks along the way.

Let’s jump right into it.

Behind the Brush: “Epic Play”

Good morning Jesper, and welcome to the MIrror Gallery here on Hipsters of the Coast! First things first: Who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?

JE: I am a Danish fantasy artist. I live in Copenhagen, Denmark, and now I primarily only work for Magic. I decided a year ago that Magic is a #1 priority as a player and as an artist, and by far the job I am having the most fun with, and the one that I’m enticed and inspired by. More or less I did not accept any other job offers, and I told Wizards this as well, that I only wanted to do Magic card artworks. And they have been very forthcoming that way for card commissions, and I was also on the concept vision team for the Ikoria set that came out a few months ago.

(To see Jesper’s Ikorian contributions, check out the Mirror Gallery article A Walk in Fantasyland: Jesper Ejsing’s Ikoria.)

You and I have talked about this but some folks might not know you’re quite the Commander aficionado. What drew you to Magic, and then the format?

In 1993 I went to my first RPG convention. I had just moved away from home, and I saw guys playing a weird card game there. I thought it was stupid because at the time, I only wanted to play role-playing games. Then in 1994, the RPG convention came back and even more people were playing, so we decided to try it. This was when you could still buy Arabian Nights and Antiquities boosters in the store. We bought a lot of boosters, and when we went back we wanted more cards with the “scimitar” on it. They said we don’t have those any more, they were limited edition, and we went “Ohhhh, ok, we get it now.” And we bought all the Antiquites boosters in the store.

This was also when you basically played with all the cards you had. I had a Mono-Black deck with one Sengir Vampire but five Demonic Tutors. So every game, it was “Play Demonic Tutor, get Sengir Vampire.” It was just another outlet of a fantasy hobby.

I took a break for a few years, and didn’t play from Ice Age until Urza’s Saga, because I had no one to play with and was doing my studies, and other things. I finally got the job with Wizards around Lorwyn, and when you do artwork they send you a box of cards. I immediately started collecting again and playing in smaller tournaments. When they sent me the full box of the first Commander set with Zedruu the Greathearted and the others, I tried it out. I didn’t like the competitive scene, with all the hardcore and nervous guys, and the seriousness. The appeal of Commander was that it was a social game, and your opponents, you can tease them and taunt them. I really love the political side of playing, and the manipulation game that goes on. I was hooked.

Do you have a Favorite Commander or a Favorite Deck?

My first deck was Kangee, Aerie Keeper, because I made the art for the owl that puts feather counters on things (Aven Mimeomancer), and it was the only other card that used feather counters. It was really dumb, but I remember it.

Birds of a feather (counter)

I can’t say I really have a favorite, but Donny, I’m much more nerdish about this—I build a deck every day. I’m constantly fine tuning and goldfishing decks, so my favorite is the one I’m working on at the time. My favorite right now is Omnath, Locus of the Roil. Green/Blue is my favorite color combo, with a splash Red or Black. I don’t like White, and I always play Blue. (Authors note: I don’t either, and so do I!)

With me, if I win the way the deck is supposed to win, I get bored with it. The decks I like are the ones that have three or four win cons. Endless combo, or a route to victory that has combat damage, or another win con—I want to have a bunch of different ways to win. If it’s linear I get bored, because I want to carve out a win condition. It makes me a better player, and it’s difficult for opponents to know what I’m doing.

The Playmat—”Epic Play”

On to this incredible painting. What sort of art description did you get before you began?

Josh had the idea that the theme was “big play,” maybe it was someone casting Obliterate or a flying dragon exploding the world, or a dragon crashing into the city. My idea was for a female dragon rider, because I more and more dislike the old, traditional fantasy depiction that sexualizes women. I’ve tried to take it onto myself to portray cool, badass women, and if they’re sexy, it’s because they’re confident and self-reliant. It’s as if she’s saying “Forget all y’all, I’m riding a dragon!”

She is definitely a badass! What did you use for reference for the dragon?

For the dragon I used a lot of photo references. I looked at bat wings for the dragon wings, and how the shoulder joint connected to the skin. For the mouth I looked at crocodile mouths, and the skull is based on a T-Rex—you can really see it in the eye sockets and shape of the head.

Photo reference is super important; using real life reference adds credibility to the image. You can believe in the creature, even though it’s a yellow and purple screaming dragon, because it’s based on real things.

For the warrior, I wanted her to look like a dragon cosplayer, with her dyed hair the same color to match the dragon and her armor to match the scales. I like to think she colored her hair to show that they were friends.

Was there any inspiration for the composition?

I wanted this to be dynamic and very messy, with lots of crashing and burning, like a snapshot from an action movie. This is the first time I did a full painting all digital. No paper sketches. I’m not sure I want to do that again, with the ability to zoom and render details forever. I prefer the combination of traditional and digital. The digital process is more spontaneous: you can move the sketch around, can move pieces, turn and twist things, and puzzle around to make things read the best.

It was a learning process, but will help me to work more spontaneously when painting traditionally.

What sort of sketches or color studies did you do? Can you take us through your process?

Thumbnail sketches for “Epic Play”

I did a few thumb sketches in pencil, and once I decided on composition, I sketched it really roughly digitally, turned it down to 15% and sketched again on top, and just kept working on top until I had a final rendered drawing I liked.

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Progression of sketches on top of one another

Then I blocked the colors in until I was happy, and no color studies because I could just continually try colors. I wanted to show a bright, happy day in Fantasyland, but just the city is destroyed. Bright and colorful, like candy wrapping paper.

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Doing it digital just took me longer because I could noodle with anything and everything forever. If you zoom in on dragon’s eye or the warrior’s face, there’s an insane amount of details in there:

I took a lot of time on her face because I wanted her to be pretty, but also someone who can hold her own.

Is there anything we wouldn’t know about this image just from looking?

The narrative is pretty narrow, so there isn’t really anything hidden. Except! There is the Game Knights logo on the lady warrior’s shield

Also, when I finished the first version of the sketches, I thought it looked like the dragon was escaping, and he looked less like the antagonist. I added the tower in his leg to show it’s actually him ripping the city apart—it was an afterthought.

What are you most proud of in this painting?

Both the dragon and the woman have the same enjoyable expression, laughing maniacally, crazy, like “We got this!” They have the same expression and are totally bonded together. It’s quite difficult to make a dragon look happy, but I think he looks angry-happy, which is what I wanted. It’s hard to make an expression on something that doesn’t have lips…

I think these bonded expressions really make this shine.

Before we go, you’ve had a bunch of new Magic artwork already this year, and I think you have more coming, right? How excited are you for the Magic that’s on the horizon?

2020 is the Commander year, but it is very much going to be my year too, I think. I’ve painted a lot of exciting cards that have come out and still should come out this year, and I cannot wait to build decks around them. A highlight is when a card I made the painting for is playable in Commander, something like Thassa’s Oracle which was fantastic; it’s a really good card.

I was super excited for Ikoria, the Commander decks, and soon the Commander draft (Commander Legends) set that is gonna be amazing. I’m just really, really excited.

Jesper, thanks so much for taking us through this awesome new playmat artwork. We can’t wait to see what else you have coming off the easel, and I’m sure we’ll talk again real soon. And hopefully we’ll get to see each other again in person next year and finally play some Commander!

Wrapping Up

What. An. Illustration.

I hope you enjoyed this behind the scenes look at this amazing artwork. It’s always a treat to talk with an artist and see something develop from start to finish, all the while discovering each element that went into making the final piece.

Again, check out the Game Knight’s Kickstarter to score one of your very own. It just launched today and runs for a limited time. This is one exclusive playmat you don’t want to miss.

I want to give a special shout out thank you to Jesper for the opportunity to showcase his new work, and Jimmy, Josh, and the whole Command Zone crew for letting me share this story with the world. Game Knights reignited my love of the Commander format and is my favorite Magic content to watch, so this is a real privilege.

To read more about Magic: The Gathering artwork and the stories behind the art on the cards, check out my columns, The Mirror Gallery and Art Market Minute, right here on Hipsters of the Coast. You can also follow me on Twitter—feel free to ask questions or retweet to continue the conversation.

Be well folks, and let’s talk again real soon. Only one may stand!

Donny Caltrider has been playing Magic since 2002 and collecting original Magic art since 2017. He has an M.A. in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University and enjoys telling stories about art, objects, and the intersection of fantasy with real-life. You can find him on Twitter talking about #mtgart, museums, and other #vorthos related goodness. Follow along and continue the conversation!

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