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Admiral Brass, Unsinkable

Admiral Beckett Brass Sails Again

Art directors Dawn Murin & Molly Smith

It's summer of last year, and I'm swamped; I've taken on a large d&d project that has a cover & three large city spreads, and my last available gap in my schedule is filled because I -have- to take at least one fallout card. I'm late again on my artist proof orders and I absolutely can not take anything else on.

Then "Ixalan 2" shows up.

For those who don't know, Ixalan holds an extra special place in my heart as the set I was able to cast my mom Valerie Rainville as the leader of the Brazen Coalition, Admiral Beckett Brass. She deserved so much more out of life and would pass a short four years later so to be able to depict her as the confident character, one that would win some fans, was a real gift. She saw decks named after her, cosplay, and even got to sign cards and prints.

So when I heard the next Ixalan set needed some artists, despite how busy I was I had to at least inquire as to something important; I asked the art directors if Brass would be making a return, and if so, if I could have some of her cards. I was clear to them that I in no way felt as if I "owned" Brass because of the choice I made to cast my mom, or that I should necessarily be given first dibs. If they already had a different artist in mind that was fine. I just had to ask.

She was making a return, and yes, I could illustrate her again! I was given the world guide and after reading it I definitely wanted to give her a wardrobe update. Brass is now more of a "settled" admiral, administrating more than plundering, and I thought giving her something a bit more "fancy" and official. My original outfit for her also felt a bit more haphazard and didn't have enough nods to real world coats and doublets and such.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, here's the paraphrased brief:


Brass and company find themselves wandering through a blue aligned cavern in the center of the world after having suffered a shipwreck. The whole crew including her are beat up, with torn clothes and smears of dirt. Brass is at the center, still confidently striding towards her goal while her crew follows, carrying whatever salvageable equipment and booty they can. The mood is "a born leader."


I started as I always do, with thumbnail sketches created at card size. Creating sketches so small has a number of advantages: one, it saves time. Ideas don't come fully formed, nor do I usually hit on a good idea right away. Making a larger number of sketches gives me a chance to explore ideas more fully, iterate on the ones I feel show promise, and generally just "get it all out there." but I can't create 20 fully realized magic cards or even 20 nice sketches every time I have a card, and especially now I'm pressed for time, so smaller sketches helps.

But there's also the arguably more important consideration of composition. Creating an effective composition usually means something simple and cohesive, and it's easier to make broad strokes and large areas of value at a smaller size.

For my first thumbnails I tried to explore a variety of compositions and moods. Some like the top left here are flat and more classical, but I just recently created Storm the Seedcore and didn't want to overdo it. The top right (if you can discern many details in that, or any option) features a bit more of a top-down view as Brass leads her crew up a cave climb. Others feature a more central or dynamic setup. The bottom right one features a neat idea: a halo of rainbows, created by underground waterfalls.

I explored that idea in the second half of the page, along with other more dynamic composition

I did a little more on another page as I wasn't really satisfied with my explorations, specifically regarding dramatic lighting and values. I'm glad I did, because the thumbnail I'd eventually turn into the final image is at the center top.

I brought the sketches into photoshop and had to make a quick decision as to which I'd spend my time working up for options. I chose two main ones. Hindsight is 20/20, and I still wonder if I should have chosen this one. It has a more sombre feel, and it's based off of a photo of my mom where the lighting could be copied directly; it's very hard to maintain a likeness when you have to switch the lighting properties.

All of the elements i hope to include are present in both the colour options I cooked up though: Brass at the front, her bedraggled pirate crew behind her, blue watery caverns, and if I could, a view at that amazing curvature of the inner planet. I was also hoping to add dinosaurs for flavour: to combine my mom with my childhood favourite, dinos, would be amazing.

This was the composition I chose to send in mainly because of the lighting. It has a much more optimistic tone, which I feel is important since my mom has passed. The shadowy one where she's shrouded in darkness felt a bit off, a bit too depressing with that context. I sent off the new sketch and it was approved.

The last time we saw the Admiral, she was backed up by her pirate family which... was her actual family! My uncle, myself and my sister (though there was no reference shot for her at that time, so she's there in spirit as the other female pirate) were present as the models for the swinging swashbucklers. Of course it would be the same with Brass' new card.

It's indulgent, especially when the pirates are meant to be diverse, but in this one case I added all the people I consider family, rallying behind our leader. Myself helping my uncle along, my dad in the back scouting, my sister, her partner Ernie, and my partner Christina. It was fun to involve my family in the reference gathering process!

I solved some of the narrative early on; Beckett Brass has to show confidence and determination (and I was hoping to show her with maybe a smile), but the group as a whole has to seem downtrodden and well worn after a recent disaster. I couldn't have it seems as if the group was begrudgingly following a smiling leader, that would imply incompetence, and potentially a mutiny around the corner!

My solution worked for the literal story, and for who my mom was; she's bound the wound of one crew member by tearing off a piece of her fancy new gold-embroidered shirt, and given her blue and brass cloak to another, who is modeled by my sister. Both of these examples communicate not only that Brass is a capable leader but illustrates how my mom is taking care of us. In life she sacrificed and made do so that we could have the best lives we could. I'm glad to be able to express that in this piece.

With my narrative set and my reference sorted, I began re-sketching everything. I do several iterations of re-sketches, usually 3-4, getting more and more detailed. This first image is essentially just traced over my reference. I don't normally trace my reference because doing so has a tendency to make everything feel still, but in this case I had lots of likenesses to get right and had direct reference for them. I was also, again, low on time and needed to make the process as efficient as possible.

As I progressed with the sketches I added the background, make small adjustments and generally try to make things "fit." at the end, the final sketch doesn't have nice linework; it's only meant to be a guide for the rough colours.

the "rough colour" part of my process means setting the sketch layer to multiply to make it transparent, moving elements roughly into place, and then painting over them progressively, usually on one layer. While I call it "rough" colours, at the end of this stage the image is going to look maybe 80% the same as the final. While doing the final render over-top of the lines and everything only adds the last 20% or so, it's fully half of the work.

I also don't do paintovers, but in this case again I needed help with Brass' face, and so used a photo of my mom as the base. more on that later;

Once the flat colours are moved into position, I paint over-top until I'm more or less satisfied that I either have a good foundation for the remainder of the process, or if I squint my eyes it looks "good" to me.

Here specifically I'm trying to balance the values so Brass is the center of attention, and the background view of the curving landscape doesn't steal the show. I try to balance that with some warm light to the left of her in the mist which also explains the presence of the rainbow (which I wanted to include to symbolize her passing) to be added. I'm also realizing that the image will print far too dark, and take some time to lighten it up overall. Fully formed now is her new outfit: a new black leather coat with a collar AND large... lapels? Not sure what the terms are to be honest, but with the fancy doublet and shiny brass cravat I feel this is a much more cohesive design than her first iteration.

I had a TON of trouble with her face, like I also did the first time around. My mom has a distinctive face and it's always hard to capture someone you know well. So I also want to talk a bit about... tracing!

Tracing gets a, sometimes deserved, bad rap. But if you A) don't infringe on copyright and B) have the skills to pull it off normally, it can be a big time-saver. What's important is that you truly understand form, lighting, and the underlying structure of what you're tracing. If you don't, it will only come off as flat and hollow. if you do, you can save a ton of time getting likenesses for people you love correct (time that I didn't have to do it the "right" way). Also, since most of the other characters I shot ref for myself, I was already in control of how they looked; I wasn't trying to awkwardly fit a head onto a body that didn't fit the focal length, angle, pose, etc.

Tracing also isn't a slam dunk even if you have the knowledge of form and such. i decided to do this on harm mode, and change the lighting of the reference pic of her I was using. This wreaks HAVOK on the perception of forms of the face, which also impacts the likeness greatly! It was a long time before I was able to work up her face into something that resembled her.

Here you can see my progress, which after the initial paintover got away from me. It only finally came together right at the end, and I consider this a much more accurate depiction of her. Time has passed, she looks more her age, but there's still that confidence and fierceness.

From here it's all about rendering over-top, sometimes getting smooth and detailed but mostly trying to preserve a painterly feel. The whole giant animated progress gif, from thumbnail to final:

Admiral Beckett Brass to me is not just a cool character (and IMO a positive representation of an older woman in fantasy), or a simple depiction of my mom; she's a symbol of my love and admiration for a woman who deserved more. I wanted to give my mom the recognition she deserved, to have her feel like she was worth it. I do recognize that no one "needs" to be seen on a grand stage, and a quiet life as long as you're satisfied is all you need. But I want to celebrate her, and maybe promote the idea of celebrating the simpler but foundational positive qualities that often get overlooked: kindness, compassion, open-mindedness, good-natured humour, my mom epitomized all of these things. She was creative but not professionally so, and for that reason she wasn't widely known. But shouldn't the person who works the cash register and gets people to open up and smile because they feel respected, safe and included be celebrated?

After creating this piece, I let it be known to my art director that if any artist tasked with painting Brass in the future had interest in using my mom's likeness, I'd happily furnish them with all the reference they needed. This wasn't a request, no artist was obligated to include her, but Lie Setiawan did reach out to me when he was painting her marketing art. It turned out amazing, and to see both that and Beckett Brass' image in the world guide for Caverns of Ixalan, to see other artist's take on her makes her feel like less than just a fun little idea that I had and more like a real part of something bigger. Something that continues on.

So to those who have and will depict her, to those that gave me the opportunity, to those who enjoy playing with or against her and to those reading, thank you.

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