The Art of Collecting: Hearthstone Original Art

About this article: For those who may not know, Carissa is both an avid Hearthstone Collector and a former Blizzard employee whose engagement in the original fantasy art community has no doubt helped many others develop an appreciation for the art and artists who make our worlds brighter.

We were thrilled when Carissa accepted the challenge of writing a longform article about Hearthstone art, and so wanted to extend a special "thank you" for her work in creating an article that we hope will inspire others to learn more: Stay curious!

-The Brothers Holder

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When I was a teenager, I was knee-deep in videogame and art culture. My life revolved around my Playstation (to my mother’s chagrin), playing Final Fantasy and Tekken, and I was absolutely set on being a game artist and working in Japan with my art heroes when I grew up.

Then I met Warcraft.

The story, art, and gameplay captured my imagination like no other game prior, and, 20 years later, it still holds tightly onto my brain with iron claws. Delving into dungeons and dangers, defeating dragons and doomsayers, the Warcraft brand has imprinted its colossally heavy mark on the fantasy world as one of the top franchises for enterprising explorers.

One of its most compelling draws is the signature artwork that has enthralled fans for decades: the chunky, cartoony shapes and bright, saturated colors of the figures and environments (not to mention the giant shoulderpads) have become a fantasy benchmark. Nowhere does this style sing more than in Warcraft’s offshoot card game, Hearthstone, released in March, 2014, which has grown into its own monstrous, albeit slightly cheerier, beast.

Image of Rocket Boots by Steve Prescott Full Art
Rocket Boots by Steve Prescott
Doesn't get cheerier than a goblin with explosives.

In Hearthstone, the Warcraft art style has been pushed to the breaking point, evolving into its own fun, lively style. The serious battle-posturing of orcs and humans has been transformed into a dance of whimsy of all kinds of Azerothian creatures, more suited to a field built for casual card-slinging.

Card art has become a key element to Hearthstone’s success, and players often enjoy perusing pages of the art just as much as playing the game itself. That art has to come from someone somewhere… Say, how would you feel if you could hang your favorite Hearthstone card painting on your wall?

The Card Art Market

As a former Magic: The Gathering player, I’ve been aware of the art collector’s market for Magic paintings for quite awhile; Magic art has become its own currency in some circles, and, if you think some of the old cards are expensive, you should check out some of the original paintings for those cards!

Magic’s fanbase has been accruing cards and art since the mid-90s, with collecting being part of the mindset needed for playing the game since the beginning. It makes sense that the art market has been seeing an explosion lately, as Magic is more popular and accessible than ever, and even newly released paintings of some cards and characters regularly reach over $15,000 on the auction block.

So where is the Hearthstone market? Hearthstone is a successful card game in its own right, with a popular game franchise, Warcraft, backing it. Warcraft and Hearthstone both have millions of players across the globe, many of whom love the game for the art. So why don’t we ever hear about Warcraft or Hearthstone art making big bank in the collection scene?

One of the biggest reasons for the absence is that a majority of the art in Hearthstone is digital, meaning original paintings are rather scarce. While a good amount of Magic artists have chosen to complete their assignments in oils or acrylics, Hearthstone lends itself better to digital work due to its digital game format, style choices, and the choice of artists that are commissioned for the card art as a result.

Many artists consider digital art to be easier and faster to handle, especially when making necessary edits - changing colors, composition, posing, adding effects or extra elements - or for the simple reason of not having to ship the painting to the company or purchase an expensive setup to get a perfect scan or photograph of the painting. Some digital artists have never even touched traditional mediums, and see no reason to learn. So why bother bust out the brushes?

I’ve known several digital artists working on MTG that have taken the extra strides to work traditionally because it can be very lucrative. On top of the fee they receive to create the card art, they can also sell the original painting for extra moolah.

There are several Hearthstone artists that create almost exclusively traditionally, including the prolific Alex Horley, Mike Sass, and Wayne Reynolds; I’ve included a list of artists with traditional Hearthstone pieces (that I know of) and their websites at the end of the article to give you a bit of a shortcut. If you follow Magic collecting, you’ll probably recognize most of the names!

 

So How Can I Tell If It’s Traditional?

The most straightforward way to tell if a Hearthstone piece is digital or traditional is to find out who the artist is and how they paint. Artist names can be found in the card collection in-game or on the incredibly useful Hearthstone wiki. This method, unfortunately, does take a lot of research if you’re just looking for general pieces.


Museum Curator by Steve Prescott

The older Hearthstone sets, primarily the base set, have the highest number of traditional card paintings; more recent sets use probably 99% newly commissioned, digital pieces. The reason for this is that a large amount of the initial art was pulled from the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game that ran from 2006 until 2013 and used a ton of traditional art; Blizzard still occasionally pulls from the vast art collection the TCG amassed for content like their Tavern Brawls.

Some of the artists I’ve listed below, like Terese Nielsen, ONLY have work from the TCG, which was then reused in Hearthstone; while I’ve still been able to find TCG paintings on artists’ stores here and there, the reused pieces tend to disappear rather quickly if they ever surface.

If you have a keen eye and can find a high resolution image, you may be able to tell if a piece is traditional or not by studying it. Let’s look at Polymorph by Vance Kovacs and Lord Jaraxxus by Alex Horley:

YA WEE SHEEP!

Polymorph by Vance Kovacs

 




Lord Jaraxxus by Alex Horley

 

Can you tell which one is digital and which is traditional?

Some of the biggest tells you want to look for are textures, brushwork, edges of shapes, and how transparency is handled. In Polymorph, you can see evidence of the famous hard round brush from Photoshop with uniform sizing and some gnarly spacing in quite a few places:


The transparency of the lightning are just two or three strokes of a round brush at low opacities that are perfectly additive when overlapped:


And the misting around the figures is a fairly obvious over-layer of the soft round airbrush:


Looking at these images, you’re probably wondering how the artist got away with submitting such a rough piece, especially if you’re accustomed to seeing super polished, full format final art. Well, if you take this image and shrink it down to card-size, you won’t notice any of the roughness that is obvious in the high resolution version. This is a pretty standard practice for digital card artists who don’t have a physical piece to sell; there’s not really a reason to spend the time to polish something people will mostly only see as a 3”x3” or smaller image. This helps save time so they can move on to other projects, and the art still looks fantastic on the card (and we are certainly not going to question how Vance paints!).

As for Lord Jaraxxus, what are some signs that it’s a traditional acrylic painting?

Here you can easily see horizontal brush strokes of what may be a light varnish, a protective coating on the surface of the painting, in the background:


Sometimes you can see tiny dots of light here and there - these are also physical textures, tiny bumps of shiny varnish or paint that caught the light when photographed or scanned:


In general, the texturing on a traditional piece is almost always irregular and not uniform, and will often show the substrate (canvas, watercolor paper, etc.) underneath, whereas digital pieces will have an unnatural, perfect smoothness to them.

The higher the resolution of the image, the easier it is to see the physical “imperfections” (my personal favorite is finding cat hair because I can totally sympathize). Compare the transparency of Polymorph above to the organic feeling of paint being brushed over a textured substrate:


These differences become easier to discern as your eyes acquire more practice over time. The tough ones are the traditional pieces that are edited digitally at the end, which you can also see in the above image where some of the top purple loop was smoothed digitally.

There are also some brushes in Photoshop that produce quite believable realistic textures that digital artists master to imitate a more traditional feel. You ALSO have artists who can traditionally paint Hearthstone’s cartoony style so convincingly and smoothly that you’d be shocked if you discovered they didn’t paint with actual magic (looking at you, Mike Sass, you clever wizard). These can throw your senses for a loop and get pretty confusing!

Here are three high resolution images of other traditional paintings if you’d like to study them further and get a feel for what a physical paint job looks like up close:

Flamewalker by Alex Horley

Totem Golem by Steve Prescott

Emperor Thaurissan by Wayne Reynolds


If your research fails you, there is always the Facebook group for Blizzard Original Art. While the Blizzard group is nowhere as big as the Magic collector community, there are some current and ex-Blizzard employees, collectors, and, perhaps most importantly, artists that lurk here along with fans just looking to enjoy new art, and you can probably find someone to give you an answer there while also connecting with some of the awesome artists that work on Hearthstone art themselves.


So What All Can I Buy?

Let’s say you’ve discovered your favorite Hearthstone art, Maiev Shadowsong’s hero portrait by Chris Rahn, is a real painting. Crazy! Now how can you get it on your wall?

If you can’t find it on eBay or another auction site, this where being a part of the collector community becomes important. Sometimes artists will link new work for sale, or collectors will post old pieces they’re trying to clear off their walls to make space. Some collectors enjoy sharing their collections publicly, and may part with a piece if you make the right offer. Since traditional art is rather rare for Hearthstone, pieces do not come up often and may be snapped up quite quickly.

Shows where artists exhibit their work for sale in person are also another great venue for discovering original pieces. If you’ve never been to a show like IlluxCon or any of the MTG Grands Prix and you’re interested in collecting, I highly recommend you check one out sometime. Not only will you be able to chat with the artist and see some really gorgeous paintings in person, but if you buy something, it’s ready to be signed in front of you, carried in your hands, and taken home.

But let’s say Maiev’s painting comes up on the Facebook group and you saw it immediately. The seller just had a huge boulder flatten their giant inflatable Swarovski unicorn sculpture and they need funds; they’re selling the oil painting for $250,033 and refuse to go lower because precious unicorn crystals are expensive. Alas, it’s a little out of your price range. You can attempt to politely haggle with them but they just will not budge.

Hm, okay... Let’s figure out how else you can get a sassy night elf to grace your home.

  • Original painting: Yeah, the best, the big deal, the grand kahuna! Your wallet better be prepared for this one! The best places I’ve found to find these are:
  • Sketches and color roughs: Penciled or painted, some artists will sell their original sketches, black and white or colored, for a fraction of the cost of the original painting. These can be super rough or super polished, depending on the artist, and may be different from what the finished piece ended up being. These can generally be found in the same places as the original paintings, linked above.
  • Limited edition prints: Some artists do a run of limited edition prints, and will no longer sell them after they run out; most of these I’ve seen come signed by the artist. Limited editions are often still considered collector items and hold value depending on community demand. These are a fantastic way to begin your collection on a budget! Some artists sell these directly, but Blizzard itself has begun tossing their hat into the art fray more often lately with these offerings:
    • Blizzard’s new Gallery just opened this year with a new, limited print released each month
    • Cook and Becker’s Blizzard collection
    • Charity auctions run by Blizzard during BlizzCon each year
      • Auctions for 2019 have not yet been announced as of 7/22/19
      • These often run higher than original paintings, even though they are only prints, due to their extremely limited availability and other goodies included by Blizzard themselves. Sometimes, an original drawing will show up as well!
  • Open edition prints: These prints are not numbered and are the most affordable option for people looking to decorate their walls. When you buy directly from the artist, they often come signed as well. These are generally not considered collectible but are a great way to grab a piece of your favorite art AND support the artist!

Contacting an artist/seller

Some people find asking professional artists questions awkward and intimidating, but don’t worry! They are normal, awesome people and most are probably happy to make a sale. If you can’t just buy something outright from their website or online store, you can contact the artist through a quick email or contact form on their website. Asking them simply and directly is probably the best approach. Here’s an example:


Hi, [artist name]! I love your work and was wondering if you have the [original painting, sketch, prints] available of [Hearthstone card name]. :) If so, I would like to purchase one. Thank you!


I’ve seen people who are new to collecting comment on original art for sale, and one thing you want to avoid is stating outright that you think a piece is too expensive and no one in their right mind would buy it. First, it is disrespectful and very rude to the artist or collector selling.

Second, there are usually plenty of people chomping at the bit to buy original work. If a piece is out of your price range, respect that the seller has priced the work at what they feel it is worth. You may choose to make a direct offer to buy at a lower price. If they refuse your offer, politely decline the sale or ask if prints or sketches are available if desired, and thank them for their time.

Remember that collecting art is also considered an investment, and that what you’re purchasing can carry different value later in the market. Artists and collectors tend to price for sale based on the market or their own personal needs; some are willing to haggle, some are not.

As with many cases in life, keeping conversations civil and respecting that someone does not want to lower their prices for you will reflect positively on you in the community; the pool of collectors is small enough that word gets around if someone is unpleasant to deal with. In the end, we all just want to enjoy great art together.

Let the hunt begin!

I hope this introduction to collecting Hearthstone art sparks your interest in joining our little community of collectors and getting some of that rad art in your hands. Good luck on your hunt!


The Hearthstone wiki with all credited artists:
https://hearthstone.gamepedia.com/Artists

The Blizzard Original Art (& Art Appreciation) group on Facebook
Be sure to check the “Items for Sale” tab on the left once you’ve joined to see if any pieces are currently available:


Hearthstone/WoW TCG artists known to work traditionally and some of their most well-known pieces in Hearthstone:

Tom Baxa (Power Overwhelming, Explosive Shot)
Brom (Acolyte of Agony, Tirion Fordring)
Milivoj Ćeran (Savannah Highmane, Cabalist’s Tome)
Carl Critchlow (Shieldbearer)
Jesper Ejsing (Darkscale Healer, Screwjank Clunker)
Donato Giancola (Goldshire Footman)
Erik M. Gist (Guardian of Kings, Slam)
Lars Grant-West (Tundra Rhino, Ironfur Grizzly)
Lucas Graciano (Blessing of Kings, Volcanic Drake)
Alex Horley (Illidan Stormrage, King Krush)
Ralph Horsley (Fireball, Fire Elemental)
Christopher Moeller (Lightning Storm, Sneed’s Old Shredder)
Terese Nielsen (Nourish, Northshire Cleric)
Steve Prescott (Coldlight Oracle, Nat Pagle)
Chris Rahn (Maiev Shadowsong hero, Acidic Swamp Ooze)
Wayne Reynolds (Brawl, Archmage Antonidas)
Mike Sass (Angry Chicken, Mad Bomber)
Chris Seaman (Blizzard, Big Game Hunter)
Ben Thompson (Leeching Poison, Rexxar hero [digital])
Kev Walker (Stormpike Commando, Gruul)
Zoltan & Gabor (Gorehowl, Noble Sacrifice)