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3D Altering - A Comprehensive Guide
2017.12.22 18:54 Doctor8Alters3D Altering - A Comprehensive Guide
I have desired to write a comprehensive guide to 3D altering for a long time, and finally here it is. I aim for this to be a living guide, which I plan to keep updated with new content and images. All images are taken from my own works unless stated otherwise. Reddit is a nice medium for writing this kind of article, but for added readability I recommend installing “Reddit Enhancement Suite”. So, what is 3D altering? Quite simply, 3D altering is the art of producing a real 3D effect by cutting and layering card artwork. A quick image search will show many brilliant examples. Whilst it is difficult to say exactly when or where the concept originated, a man by the name of Seishiro Ohkubo is generally regarded as being the “grand master” of 3D Magic card alters. However, information about Ohkubo does seem difficult to come by, and it is unclear whether he is still altering. More recently, Andrew (Drew) Sitte has done much for the visibility of the craft, with many of his pieces becoming iconic in their own right. Drew authored a number of publications for the website Gathering Magic. Among these are His Top 10 tips for 3D alterers. I always cite this article as a must-read, and not just for beginners. Drew's Top 10 are: take your time, plan ahead, edging, alignment, focus, stay sharp, light up, take good photos, experiment, and take pride in your work. I will address some of these in my own words below, as well as covering many other aspects of the craft. What do I need? Other than multiple copies of a Magic card, all that you really require to create a 3D alter are a craft knife and glue. But to get the most out of your work, there is much more to consider.
Your craft knife will be your most important tool. A good-quality blade is necessary for producing a good-quality finish. Commonly used blades are X-Acto #11 or Swann-Moreton 10A’s. Cardboard is harder for a blade to cut than you might expect, and your blades will lose their sharpness quite quickly - even more so when cutting foil cards! Changing to a fresh blade frequently can help, but you will use many blades this way. More important is having the right blade for the right bit of the job. It is a good idea to have multiple blades available, on different handles where possible. I tend to work with four blade "categories" - fresh, sharp, dulled and blunt. A blade starts fresh, will stay sharp for around 20 minutes of work time before becoming dulled, and finally blunted once the tip is virtually lost. When making a lot of big cuts, such as along the edges of the art box, it pays to use a dull blade to do the bulk of the work, otherwise you will go through sharp blades very quickly. The same applies when roughly cutting out any sections that you will later pick out the detail on. You should then switch to using a sharp blade for picking out the detail, or to neaten art-box edges if necessary. Fresh blades tend to be reserved for the very fine work. Blunt blades are near-useless for cutting, but can be used in other ways as I will touch on later.
There are many types of glue available, but not all are well suited for use with Magic cards. Wet glues such as PVA will damage and warp the cardboard. I use two different glues: polystyrene/styrofoam glue, which has a ~30s cure time and most importantly can peel away cleanly from the card, and thin superglue which is better suited to firmly attaching small or delicate pieces. Just be sure to get the position right first time!
A self-healing cutting mat is the best work surface you can have, and provides the best protection for the table underneath. A good sized mat (A4) can be picked up reasonably cheaply. I also like to use a layer of thin card (e.g cereal box cardboard) between the mat and the card I am cutting. I've found this helps improve the lifetime of a blade.
Pens are most commonly used for edging; the process of colouring the white edges left by making cuts through Magic cards. I’ll show why this is so important later on. May varieties of pens are available. Beginners often turn to Sharpie pens, but use them with caution, as their ink will bleed into the artwork itself, spoiling the colour and likely ruining the piece you have just painstakingly cut out. To date, the best edging pens I know of are “artist brush pens” (by Faber-Castell). Whilst much more expensive to begin with, they can be well worth the investment. A reasonable cheaper option is a range of fineliners (by Steadler) and I still use these regularly myself.
Paints are useful for masking background artwork that might distract from the overall 3D effect. Again, I will cover this in more detail later. Paints can also be used for edging. A good range of high-quality paints will allow you to colour-match much more efficiently than with pens, although you can expect to take quite a bit more time to edge this way.
A good pair of fine tweezers is ideal for moving and manipulating small pieces. The sharper the better, although be sure not to grip card pieces too hard otherwise you will damage the artwork.
Clay-sculpting tools can help you to shape and bend individual pieces. Added depth and 3D effect can be given to pieces such as hair and clothing without the need for cutting and layering multiple pieces. Shaping a single piece can also help avoid odd breaks in artwork that you might get from using multiple pieces. They can also be used to “compress” cut edges. If you need a really sharp finish, perhaps to make pieces join more seamlessly, then running a tool along a cut edge will flatten it. Equally, you can simply use the flat of your fingernail in the same way. The Altering Process There are many tips and tricks to pick up, I will aim to discuss as many as possible here but there will always be something more to learn! If you're just starting out, it isn't necessary to consider all the points below. Start with the basics (cutting and edging) and work on improving those, then add in some of the more advanced techniques.
Start by thinking about what you want the finished alter to look like. Think about the layering, which features of the card (art) are most prominent, which you will need to make “stand out” and which should remain more subtle. Also consider the depth and perspective of the art. It’s completely possible to simply produce a series of layers where each has a feature. But if the artwork contains a very prominent, central feature with a distant backdrop, you should consider how much empty space (in terms of card layers) should be left between the two in order to provide the correct perspective. Background details, such as mountains or clouds, are normally layered closely, whereas foreground details tend to require more definition. Use all this information to gauge how many cards you will need. Its normally a good idea to have a few more cards than might be required, just in case.
Hold each card firmly to the work surface, Press firmly into the card and draw the knife blade toward you. For curved cuts especially, don’t worry about being precise first time. Make a rough guide first then use a fresh blade to neaten it up later. I usually find it a good idea to begin by roughly cutting out the main pieces you need. This helps give a better idea of which details you are aiming to pick out and how these pieces will be assembled later on. With your rough-cut frames completed, you can begin to layer them up (without gluing anything, just yet) in order to see the piece take shape, and decide how each layer should be spaced. Adding numbers to the card layers can be useful should you need to take them apart and re-assemble the stack later. Not every layer of the card will necessarily contain something. "Spacer" layers are exactly like they sound, a layer of card with the entire art box cut away, used to add depth to the alter. The spacers can be re-arranged among the artwork until you settle on a final configuration to give the right depth to each part of the background. Once you are happy that the framework is ready to take shape, make sure each piece is cut precisely as you want it. Try not to leave any "fuzzy" bits of cardboard, especially in corners and around small details. You may end up with a number of small pieces which will eventually be added to a larger piece. To keep track of these, use a small piece of tape to keep them from getting lost, or pop them in a card sleeve or box for long-term storage in case you have to come back to them later. In addition to using spacer layers, you can also use "spacer bits", small pieces of cardboard stacked together, to provide support and/or force layers to take the shape you want them to. See my simple Dratini alter, for example. The body is one single piece, but by carefully cutting where the tail goes behind the body, and using spacer bits, the coiled effect is achieved and looks smooth/natural from the front.
Edging is the practice of colouring the “white” edge left around a card piece after being cut. Good edging is essential to the finished quality of an alter. To edge a piece, use a pen to of a similar colour to the visible artwork. Run the pen along the white edge of the card and, if you look closely, you will see the ink bleed into the fibers. A small amount of bleeding can be helpful, as it helps remove any traces of white. Too much, however, will ruin the colour of the artwork itself. This is where Sharpie pens should be used with caution. Too much ink-bleed into the artwork will discolour the piece, likely rendering it useless. The darker the art, the more you can get away with small amounts of bleeding. Note that Sharpies are still very useful. They are great for quicly edging large cuts where the artwork does not matter - for example, the inside border of the art box. In this case, the bleeding doesn’t matter as it will not be seen in the final piece, and the sharpie gives a thorough coverage. For a quick comparison, take a look at my first ever piece, which had no edging, against a more recent alter where all the pieces were edged.
Bringing it together
Once you're happy with your layers, you can start gluing them together. Commonly, but not always, it is best to start with the rear-most later and work forwards. It all depends on the construction of the piece, though, and sometimes it may be necessary to assemble different sections of the card before bringing it all together later. This is where I find those blunt blades (ones no longer any good for cutting) can come in useful. Small amounts of glue can be applied very precisely, and glue can be run around large areas, such as the border of card layers, to provide thorough coverage. When stacking full layers, press each layer together firmly to help it stick as best possible. If you have used a little too much glue, you may need to wipe the excess away from around the card's border. Much more care will be needed when building up the smaller, delicate pieces. How an alter is assembled will very much depend on the alter itself and the way in which you have planned and cut the parts. My Sandslash was made by separating out the background and character completely, other pieces have been built up as I go.
You can begin painting at any stage, but I find it most useful to do as much of the assembly work as possible beforehand. This helps give a much better idea of which areas might benefit from being painted, and can also help with the colour-matching. In more advanced alters, the 3D effect can be ruined by an apparent "double-image" in the artwork, where the same artwork used in raised foreground areas is also visible in the background layers behind it. Your painting skills do not need to be fantastic in order to remove this double-image effect. Even a basic near-colour matching will help take the viewers eye away from the unwanted background detail. Often, the fact the background isn't even noticeable until you point it out! Make sure that your background painting is either the same colour, or darker, than the rest of the background you are trying to match. This will give the clear effect of a “shadow” behind your 3D piece. Using a lighter paint will just look odd. As you got this far, just go back and check out the same photo of Goblin Test Pilot I included earlier. Did you spot the painting in the background first time around? To show just how simple the background painting needs to be, here is my Zedruu alter, and here is an image of the card with Zedruu removed. Of course, the painted areas are still visible in the first case, but the key is that they do not draw the eye nearly as much as a stray pair of horns against the blue sky would.
Put this all together, hopefully you end up with a high-quality alter that you can be proud of. Depending on the complexity of the card and your own ability, you can expect the whole process to take from anywhere 3 hours, to well over 10! As you gain in experience you will be able to work more quickly, but your projects will probably also become ambitions. The important thing to remember is that the learning and progress never really ends - there will always be something that could have been done better, and it's important to focus on this for your next piece. Life Counters 3D altered art looks fantastic, but often that accounts for less than half the card. There are many ways to customise a text box, but a commonly seen addition is to create a life counter in this space, adding function to your alter. Bead-style life counters consist of 2 or more rows of beads placed across the text box. The rows are typically made from beading wire or needles, inserted into hidden slots in the card layer at either edge. Each row will typically contain 9 or 10 beads, and the alter can then be used to track your life total during a game. This Mystic Monastery counter forms the background to a Narset alter, from which Narset can be removed to act as the Commander in a game of EDH! Another variant of the life counter is the wheel, or disc, type. There are a number of ways in which a spinning wheel can be inserted, but the basic concept requires a numbered wheel to be hidden within the card, with holes in the front-most layer revealing one number from each wheel at a time. The wheels are exposed along the outside edges of the card, allowing them to be moved in order to track your life total. One of the text boxes for my Gift of Orzhova alter included such a wheel-counter. The Extra Mile From the basic concepts of 3D altering, where your projects go next is limited only by your imagination. Below I have highlighted just some of the incredible works produced by some of my favourite fellow 3D'ers. All photos are used with the artists' permission. Anastasya Uskova, Form & Function Alters: Commander Planeswalkers - Including their own loyalty counters! Sliver Queen – Question, how many copies of Sliver Queen do you think were used to create this piece? Answer at the end! Archenemy Scheme life counters - An awesome amount of detail and a pair of wheel counters to boot! Matthew Neveling The Mimeoplasm - Talk about thinking outside the box! Kaalia of the Vast - This incredible Kaalia even shows how you can incorporate non-card materials into your work. I think you'll agree, those feathers are stunning. Keithulhu Alters Pia Nalaar - Ooh, the feels! Kiran has been cruelly removed from Pia's side, but in his place is a stunning, borderless piece combining both 3D and painted elements. Infinity Elemental - To infinity and beyond, indeed. Inspired by Matthew's border breaking, Keithulhu sculpted the elemental from clay and set in brilliantly into a frame which seems to disappear into the distance. Baron Von Count - As if life counters weren't functional enough, this alter takes functionality to the next level with a slide-out dice compartment and built in DOOM counter! Regarding Tournament Legality Tournament legality is an issue that regularly crops up with painted magic alters, for which there are suitable rules and guidelines available. Normally if the name, mana cost, rules text and art are all recognisable then the card will be fine, but at the end of the day it’s always best to check with the head Judge. 3D alters, unsurprisingly, are in no way tournament legal. You may be permitted to use your 3D commander, or as a token-replacement to represent a double-faced card, but it is certainly recommended that you also own a copy of the actual regular card itself in case you are asked to present your commander or actual card Over to you Hopefully I've helped inspire you to give 3D altering a try, and I really look forward to seeing your work! I aim to follow and engage with as many other alterers as possible – especially in the relatively small 3D altering community. I’m more than happy to discuss altering and help with any queries you might have, so please drop by @Doctor8Alters on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or here on Reddit, and say hello. I also created a 3D altering facebook group for alterers to discuss their work, ask for advice and share ideas. Please do drop by and show off your work, as well as posting to /mtgaltered. Oh, and finally - Anastasya used just 3 copies of Sliver Queen to create that incredible alter! It goes to show just how much detail can be taken from just a few cards with the right planning.
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