Art Appreciation: Douglas Shuler
Having joked about it for a long time, Sancho finally makes good on his promise to dedicate an installment of our Art Appreciation series to Douglas Shuler. And on closer inspection, the works of the most misspelled of the original 25 Magic artists as it turns out, include many iconic pieces that indeed are no jokes.
Admittedly Douglas Shuler never made it to my top 10 of favorite artists illustrating the cardboard, which has consumed so much of my time (and money). I have a few times in my previous articles made light of some of the work he has done for the game though. But each time I joked about the shoulder pads on his characters, I became less convinced about the validity of not considering Shuler, a very important figure in the history of the game. I have albeit slowly come to the realization that his contributions have indeed been formative to how I perceive Magic visually and what I expect from a card.
The Art of Illustrating Being Unholy Strong
While illustration is often perceived as a craft somewhat inferior to the high spheres of visual arts, illustration does, as all forms of crafts, contain an element of art and Douglas Shuler is a great example of an artist with an understanding of how to direct his art for practical and illustrative purposes.
The briefings for the artists illustrating Alpha Limited Edition have sometimes been said to have consisted of merely the name of the card and the instruction that the art should work at the small size it had to be printed at. And you could expect that this would lead some artists to take it as a carte blanche to go in whatever direction their whim would lead them. Even if this was, by today's standards, very loose art direction, the results were mostly quite literal illustrations of all but the most abstract of concepts. The styles were refreshingly diverse when looking at Alpha cards compared to more recent sets, but what you saw on the cards did indeed make sense in relation to their name and function.
Nowadays, new players have more experienced players, MTG Arena, and whatnot to teach them the game. This makes it less important for the card art to function as literal reminders and perhaps Wizards of the Coast and Richard Garfield just wanted to make absolutely certain that unnecessary levels of detail would not distract players and make it harder to focus on learning the complex game.
Personally, I am inclined to believe that the diverse styles of the artists, as well as the literal interpretations of the card names, did indeed ease the introduction to the game for the first generations of players who had to teach themselves how to play. The artwork, as such, was an important part of making Magic a lasting success – that is, for its mnemonic qualities rather than artistic value.
Urza's Semiotic Reading Glasses
The often quite successful attempts at presenting less than concrete concepts through simple and clean illustrations with high contrast that made different cards easily recognizable – even when playing in murky rooms late at night – exemplifies the success of Douglas Shuler's work in the initial Magic set. Drain Life, Drain Power, Power Surge, Psionic Blast, Unholy Strength, and Weakness are all examples of what it takes for a craftsman to be able to illustrate artfully without muddying up the ideas. While those pieces may not be the most artistic illustrations from Shuler's hand, they are great Magic illustrations in the sense that they function as reminders. You won't have to repeatedly read a card once you have seen it played a few times.
Other cards are, of course, even more literal since they represent more tangible things, such as Volcanic Eruption, Glasses of Urza, and indeed creatures such as Douglas Shuler's undisputedly most iconic Magic illustration, Serra Angel. What makes Shuler's earliest illustrations for Magic so great is how simple they are. His use and obvious understanding of modalities are much in line with what Professor of Semiotics Gunther Kress and linguist Theo van Leeuwen would in a few years later describe in their seminal work, Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (which I spent very little time dusting off and getting reacquainted with for this article – more or less just for these paragraphs, so feel free to correct my rusty recollection).
Old Shuler Reading Lesson
By using almost plain colors or only very gentle gradients for the backgrounds, Shuler creates a low modality. This is in contrast to the higher level of detail for the important part of the illustration –often represented by a character, as in Uthden Troll and Prodigal Sorcerer. Even when some elements are present in the background, they are usually of a lower modality than the foreground. For example, the silhouettes in Dwarven Warriors were put there to fit the plural in the card's name and the fir trees in Northern Paladin underline the geographical origin of the character.
Given that this is just an entertainment article, I have not done any eye-tracking studies on how people read Magic cards, but my guess would be this: At least in the earlier times of Magic, when illustrations were allowed to have a color scheme noticeably different from the card frame, the eyes would probably initially focus on the illustration, go to the title of the card in the upper left corner, then return to the illustration once more before examining other elements. This is, of course, pure guesswork and if anyone has the setup to actually examine the validity of my claim, I will read your results with great interest.
There may even be a differentiation when it comes to more experienced players: They first look for casting cost, power/toughness, and rarity indicator in the set symbol. If only I had to do my paper for that course… I have the Kress and van Leeuwen book now and the reading of Magic cards would surely be my subject.
Well, this is not back to school, so back to Shuler. His strong focus on making the cards legible through illustration could have also been the reason why he used the pentagram, associated with devil worship, in his illustrations for Demonic Tutor and Unholy Strength, leading to much controversy as I have described here.
While his Volcanic Eruption may have been very simple and Glasses of Urza even simpler, in Alpha, Shuler did let his artistic skills shine through here and there, being one of the few of the original Magic artists with actual prior interest in the fantasy genre. His Hypnotic Specter and even more so, his Frozen Shade stand out as some of his more remarkable pieces. Tranquility sees Shuler willing to go wherever the card name suggests he should go, hitting the abstract concept spot on – it fits the card so well, you don't even stop to think about it.
Bigger, Better, and More Badass
Later sets saw Shuler exploring his artistic side further in the artworks for Hallowed Ground and the Swamps for Ice Age, while also making entertaining pieces, such as Orcish Conscripts and Old Fogey. On his personal website, you can get a good idea of his current style, which is very classical fantasy and includes remakes of some of his most famous Magic pieces.
Finally, cards illustrated by Douglas Shuler that could be described as the biggest, best, strongest, first, only and most something include:
- Both the best and the highest-powered creatures of Alpha: Serra Angel and Force of Nature
- The most expensive creature card: Again, Serra Angel in its Summer Magic printing
- The highest-powered creature in Magic for decades: B.F.M. (Big Furry Monster) (Version 1) and B.F.M. (Big Furry Monster) (Version 2)
- The most metal Magic illustration: Joven
- The first mention ever of Urza: Glasses of Urza (in the same set as Sunglasses of Urza, but at least alphabetically earlier)
- The only basic land in the first Magic expansion: the famous Mountain of Arabian Nights
- And, of course, the strongest card in Magic: Contract from Below
It all adds up. And even though Shuler has not been an active Magic artist since Ninth Edition (nearly a decade and a half ago), it is obvious that his contributions to shaping the game cannot be dismissed as trivial. Lucky, fans may even still run into the artist and commission him to do one of his many alters, some of which can be seen on his official Facebook page. This includes Magic-related works from Magic Fest 2019 in Tampa, Florida and many of which, naturally, are alters of his legendary Serra Angels.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.