(repost from G+; it is a long post about no-stat-no-mechanics traditions of the magic )
In a certain world, of three established practices of magic the Grand Tradition, the Glorious Art is the oldest. For almost a thousand years since barbaric conquerors of the Jeweled Lands settled as kings and forgot their own savage ways, this magic was the dominant method of enchantment, and, for the longest time, the only way. Called 'the sorcery of kings', for most of its time it served rulers and wealthy patrons, as Grand Tradition was expensive to learn and even more expensive to practice, taking years of life and rare ingredients to learn, master and create works. It wasn't uncommon for such sorcerers to be home-grown in a noble house or under a life-long patronage of a particular sovereign.
This magic was slow, almost methodical, and created in layers – from the simple and intangible framework of first stage enchantment into a solid, mindbogglingly complicated interlock of elements, the weave so complex that every single part of it couldn't be comprehended alone. The complex nature of Glorious Art is self-sustaining, and due how it blends and flows within itself in closed loops and structures, it is almost eternal and almost impenetrable to any subtle changes.
The works of Grand Tradition take months to years to make but last for many centuries unless directly and purposefully broken by a brute overwhelming force. Even if the magic of the enchantment never fully settles, the movement of its compound elements is so slow that is is not perceivable by human eyes, although long-lived varra watch such movement within particular works of magic, and discuss the aesthetics of these motions. The process of creating the enchantments of Glorious Art (in addition to being slow, complex and expensive) is also the most dangerous of all three – even if the finished enchantment has no negative effects and presents no danger other than it is made to do, the raw ingredients of it and magic in process should be kept under strict care so they won't spontaneously and violently react to each other while still untamed.
Aside of its longevity, the benefit of Grand Tradition is how natural it appears. Artificial people, the long-established pride of this practice, look and behave almost entirely like real people, up to having real-like memories and believing themselves real people; the buildings or sites built of such enchantments are as stable and real as any built by hands of man, despite their often fantastical appearance and no less fantastical laws that govern the interiors.
The second magic, the Messenger, is nothing like the Grand Tradition.
It is flimsy, fragile, fast to work and entirely unnatural to behold. The conflicting legends of its origin tell of either cunning noblewomen of Jaharra, who were forbidden to practice Grand Art but found a way to do something else, or impoverished students of Teronna University, practicing with leftover, trashed ingredients of Glorious Tradition to save money. The initial stigma of being frivolous fancy or only for the poor, and thus neither proper, nor serious, nor worthy of respect, still very faintly lingers with the Messenger, despite how much it is widespread today, how much use it finds everywhere and how much it became appreciated through last two centuries since it was discovered.
True to its name, the main advantages of the Messenger are the quickness (most works take bare minutes to make, and even the most complex ones take a few days at most), the simplicity (middle complexity enchantments can be learnt in about a year, and, unlike in grandiose Grand Tradition, free-form nature of this magic makes even basic enchantments useful), the safety (unless the mage is extremely foolish or careless, and begs to be poisoned by their own negligence), and the compactness (as of all three practices the Messenger is still the only one that can be effectively practiced in any place without preparation as long as the mage has a bare minimum of small and portable tools).
Enchantments of the Messenger cannot ever compare to the natural stability or complexity of the Glorious Art and are highly, strikingly unnatural to behold. They are also much smaller and more personal in scale – there are no fantastical buildings, such as Floating Castle of Yr, made with the Messenger, and many argue such enchantment would entirely impossible to do while many try to prove otherwise. The Messenger works are as fragile on any prolonged run as they are striking, so these spells are mostly used for the spur-of-the-moment needs such as the daring flight of Reva Edarri from Sogna to Garnaga that first brought this magic to the public eye. The preservation of Messenger enchantments takes almost as much, if not more, of effort as Glorious Art has to take about its untamed ingredients. There are people who find such conservation desirable for posterity; in the recent years the collection of such otherwise-gone-in-moment enchantments became a sign of prestige and wealth almost as much as patronage of Grand Tradition once was.
The third practice called Shapeshifter – it is most recent innovation, barely half-century old, but it is the one that finally pushed Glorious Art into almost full obscurity. Both the Messenger and the Glorious Art coincidentally caused this discovery: the mages of the Messenger wished to improve the longevity of their works, and the mages of waning Grand Tradition felt threatened on their golden perch by the rising popularity of the Messenger and sought to work faster and with more variety of effects.
The Shapeshifter can imitate effects from both older practices almost perfectly but with underlying character of its own process and very few drawbacks; its versatility is unmatched, as it can even blend the two approaches together and create some new effects entirely on its own. It can be as fast, and light, and simple, and striking as the Messenger; it can be layered, methodical complexity of Glorious Art, while being entirely stable, all while demanding much less preparations and time to learn or to make, and being much safer, cheaper and easier to upkeep. The Messenger still has an advantage of safety and portability; the Grand Tradition still has almost negligible edge on its natural-blending qualities which Shapeshifter can almost but not quite yet fully imitate, as seen with its artificial people. Shapeshifter demands slightly more time than the Messenger for the complex enchantments but for the quick works it is often so inhumanly fast that the mastery of its basics requires the mage either to be able to work with quick precision (lest the raw magic settles in a crooked form) or to use golden dust to slow the process.
The main distinction of the Shapeshifter is its ingredients and tools. While the Messenger and the Grand Tradition share the same ingredients, albeit in a different forms, Shapeshiftering occult panoply has only appearance of the familiar things, and the first lesson the novice mage of Shapeshifter learns is how to transform, through the influence of otherworldly flux, the necessary instruments into an alien, more malleable forms. Unlike older two practices, where raw ingredients can be used through decades if cared for properly, Shapeshifter magic makes the changed materials became an inert rot if unused after a short time. What some people (mostly of hidebound, traditionalist views) also cite as a drawback is a growing tendency of last decade for Shapeshifter mages to create enchantments of decidedly incomprehensible and outworldy looks, which seemingly serve no aesthetic or practical purpose; the critics emphasize the obvious degradation of human mind Shapeshifter certainly cause. But even if such works became somewhat more widespread in recent years Shapeshifter mages seem to make them in their own spare time as a leisure, while competently producing more realistic enchantments. As such, those works are of little concern to the public eye, as Shapeshifter gained popularity that fully eclipsed Grand Tradition and is close first with the Messenger.
It is basically, a long-winded answer to the question "what if the magic behaved like an actual art process?" Namely, Grand Tradition is oils, The Messenger is watercolours and Shapeshifter is acrylics. Despite my little practical experience with paints, I found fascinating how different are processes of using each kind of paint are.
(not covered here are: airbrush paint, pencils, pastels, inks (I guess you can tentatively put them into Messenger/Shapeshifter - there are water-based, alcohol-based and acrylic-based inks, to name a few), sculptures, frescoes, mosaics, all kinds of engravings, printmaking, markers, all multiple kinds of pens, wax paints, enamels, collage and digital art, which will be utterly alien to this world ('Wait, you mean you can multiply and modify the enchantments as you wish, really quickly and create endless variations, fix all mistakes at any time, use or imitate any style and create endless of your own, use tools that also can do entirely different alien things, and the enchantment exists in fully separate layers that might or might not influence each other while staying fully independent, fully fragmented and also appearing as a finished work? And the work doesn't even exist in a real form until you tell it to? What madness is that?')
I am finding a parallel between art and magic to be an interesting one: in method both are very similar as both create almost infinite variety of effects, and there are several ways the art can be divided into 'traditions' - by medium, by scale, by art style, by the subject, just like magic tends to be divided into various schools, traditions and disciplines. Cubism is as strikingly different from other art styles as necromancy is different from all other magic traditions; a work in oils can be seen as memorization, watercolours or pencils as spontaneous. Unlike the magic, which always has immediate practical purpose (Spider Climb walls, Raise particular Dead) and, in RPGs, extremely rarely serves any impractical subjective purpose, the art by itself usually doesn't have much practical use – a picture could be used to cover a crack on the wall, for example, but any picture could be doing that, regardless of the actual art subject. The closest, I think, the art comes to the utter overwhelming practicality of magic, is illustration – i.e. non-subjective, complimentary, explanatory graphical reflection/portrayal of certain things and concepts that meant to be viewed with the same conclusions about the subjects shown. As such, practicality of an illustration almost serves as polar opposite to an actual art, where each viewer supposed to put an artwork though lenses of their own imagination, experience and perception and to come with their own interpretation of the subject.
I don't mean that acrylic works are degrading: the view I took for this certain world is from old Soviet Union-based critique of Pollock's art and of similar art forms such as Cubism which at some point were viewed as objectively bad things, and Shapeshifter is an very new tradition in a world not used to new thoughts. I thought, though, it would be also interesting to imply that in this particular setting Shapeshifter is of alien origin, especially given that acrylics are polymer emulsion paints and are entirely different in their structure from oils or watercolours.
Shapeshifter making Grand Tradition obscure is not as much about acrylics vs oils (although this too, heavy body acrylics can look remarkably like oils sometimes, while not as flammable and easier to dry) as about several articles I've read where people working in traditional portraits or landscapes techniques (i.e. what oils were doing for the long time) are heavily discouraged by both art teachers and galleries from doing so. What was once a pinnacle of portrait, a life-like replica of the actual person's face, is not often needed now as a picture when we have photography.
From what I've read somewhere, oil paint never really fully dries, even after the centuries, hence Grand Tradition magic is always a bit moving. Don't know if it is true, as I never worked with oils long enough to make a painting. But turpentine-rag-caused fires can be very real, hence the danger of Glorious Art process.
You can poison yourself with watercolours but it takes either 1) deliberate effort of eating a teaspoon of paint or persistent negligence of sucking on your brushes or 2) significant exposure to cadmium-, cobalt-, lead-based or old Victorian watercolours (where they put arsenic into everything for that brilliant green colour). The industry started to phase out cadmium from watercolours for safer paints, and lead-based watercolour are forbidden, to my knowledge, in Europe and Americas, as, obviously, arsenic.
I imagine DnD mages being mostly the Messenger mages: quick, flashy and not very subtle effects, still a marvel, always capable to work in a moment, but not the ones that last for long. Throwing a fireball is like working wet-on-wet when paint just blooms. Not fully predictable nature of watercolours also justifies semi-randomness of many DnD spells - you get the effect you want, but not precisely the effect you want. Shapeshifter can, of course, imitate the free-flow effect (and also create big permanent works, i.e. magical items, unlike the Messenger which is incapable to do so), but to my knowledge, it is not possible to carry compact dry acrylics with you, while you can carry dry half-pans of watercolours basically in your pocket, which is why the Messenger is still most portable magic. On-a-go painting is possible for acrylics and oils but requires more bulky sets, more space, more tools and more preparations.
Golden dust for slowing down Shapeshifter is a pun on Golden brand of acrylics that has many slow-dry mediums. Other brands have such mediums too, but I only have Goldens.
Water-based oils do exist, so you can say that Grand Tradition is trying to keep up and modernize itself, but still, Glorious Art in this certain world desperately needs is own Bob Ross, the Smiling Wizard.