About Signing Your Artwork (Considerations for Alter Artists)

With the world’s first collectible trading card game, Magic the Gathering, going 25+ years strong, it’s player/collector base has reached an incredibly huge number and with that has come a new world of opportunities. This article about “card alters”  is primarily intended for the niche group of artists often referred to as “alter artists.”  But for those reading who may not be familiar with these terms, alter artists are those who create custom artwork on the individual surfaces of printed cards from collectible trading card games like Magic the Gathering. Typically these cards, and thus the artwork they contain, are extremely small; roughly 2” x 3” or less. An alter artist typically defines an individual with a special skill set for painting and rendering at an exceptionally difficult scale.

Anson is an alter artist, as well as one of the original 25 Magic the Gathering artists beginning with the very first Alpha set. Anson believes that there is more than enough room in the world to accommodate anyone whom has an interest to create. But more deeply, he thrives on knowing that something he has done may have inspired someone to also create for themselves. In working with him, I have made some observations which I hope others will find helpful regarding how to treat the signing of your artwork and artist credit in general.

When creating a painting or illustration which you would like to share with others, the concept of signing that artwork is pretty straightforward. Your signature is a way for you and others to identify the particular piece you’re signing as being your creation. Often times it may also include the date or year the work was completed. But always, and utmost, your signature on your artwork is a declaration of it’s source and also who should be credited for the work.

But what happens when your artwork’s “canvas” typically isn’t a blank slate but is actually a reproduction of artwork by someone else, printed en mass? What happens when what you create largely incorporates another artist’s work? Suddenly the guidelines for appropriate artist credit become slightly more complicated. In the case of Magic the Gathering cards, the images which appear on the cards become so familiar with those who are immersed in it’s culture that it is easy to forget they represent more than just a mass produced product; that the images which appear on these cards were created by artists like yourself.

While it’s true these are mere reproductions of the artist’s original work and the ownership of that reproduction doesn’t belong to the artist, I believe that with a little awareness, we as a community of artists can improve our approach to this topic. For some, card altering doesn’t amount to more than an occasional card from their own collection and maybe one or two friends cards as a gift. But I also see a lot of hard-working, talented artists taking up card altering and making a living at it. A career as a creative is always a struggle but altering has the potential to be a viable choice, while getting your name out there as a professional artist. We value and fully support our shared creative community and this information is only intended to trigger us to be mindful of demonstrating integrity and fostering goodwill amongst each other!

Below are a few examples of types of alters and special considerations for each.


1. The Complete Paintover: These types of alters are the least ambiguous of all and we encourage more of these whenever and wherever possible! Here, you might take for example, a Llanowar Elves card and paint a completely different elf image over the entire artwork box area of the card, leaving no indication of the original art exposed. Great job! You are now the artist – replace the artist credit at the bottom of the card with your signature! You earned it and you deserve it. There is absolutely no reason to leave the original artists name listed at the bottom and in fact to do so would be a misrepresentation.


2. Border Extensions: This type of alter is fairly common and involves extending the existing artwork, which is normally confined within a designated area by a border, beyond that area to the edges of the card. Usually the original artwork is preserved and only a minimal area is transformed by the alter artist, often extrapolating what they envision the original artist would have depicted. While these types of alters can showcase the alter artists technical proficiency and use of color, they are somewhat limited in their ability to demonstrate an alter artist’s originality by the way in which they rely heavily upon the original artists work; although border extensions often yield undoubtedly striking results!

Far too often with border extension alters, the original artist’s name is painted over, completely removing any credit for their work. I don’t believe this happens maliciously, but rather springs from the very flattering assumption that anyone viewing the artwork already knows who the original artist was or what the card looked like prior to being altered. However, this isn’t necessarily the case – particularly when these are posted online and/or are for sale. And this assumption is problematic when we think about why we should be signing our artwork in the first place.

The challenge here is that border extensions are frequently requested and quite popular. I think this comes from collectors having the desire to preserve the elements which make the card easily recognizable while at the same time showing off their upgraded status. I can understand that and also the desire to give people what they want. So, I’m not sure there is a cut and dried “best practices” answer to how we should treat these. However, I would like to encourage us to consider what it means to paint over another artist’s credit while incorporating their work as our own...

3. The last type of alter, I like to think of as the Collaborative Alter; The alter artist takes in the original art and then through their own contribution brings out a certain aspect or exaggerates an element of what is already there. Or, he or she may throw an entirely new spin on the art. These can be very whimsical, reverent or gut-busting hilarious… But the common thread of each example of this type is that it is obvious the original art is being given consideration while the alter artist is also bringing something of their own into the mix.

A clear designation of artist credit can and I think should be shared in these cases. It seems appropriate to leave the original printed credit at the bottom of the card. In Anson’s case, I know he considers it a matter of respect to not alter another artist’s card without first contacting them and specifically asking for their okay. This may sound a little bit extreme and impractical but most of the original Magic artists are quite accessible and you will find really appreciate the gesture.

And if it seems like too great an inconvenience, remember, you can always skirt the issue by painting something entirely your own! “When in doubt, paint it out.” You have a unique and interesting perspective and, to me, the inherent value of art comes from tapping into that unique expression and sharing it with the world.

This is by no means and exhaustive list and is not intended to dictate how anyone should or shouldn’t do things. It is a merely a perspective that I had not yet seen expressed which could have value to some. If you have something to add to this we welcome your comments!

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