Making sketch cards is possibly far more complicated than you might think. You might assume from looking at one that it’s a simple task of just sitting down and sketching out an image, but it’s far more than just that.
What are sketch cards?
What are sketch cards is a question I went into answering in a previous blog post (read it here). I looked at the different types of sketch cards and a bit of the history of sketch cards, but not so much on the how sketch cards are made.
Here, I look at the “how” of sketch cards in two parts. One is the logistics. This is everything that occurs right up to the point of actually drawing on the paper. Second is the actual act of making the artwork. This may seem self explanatory but I would argue that sketch cards have become their own form of art with their own challenges.
The logistics of creating sketch cards, when dealing with licensed sketch cards for trading card companies begins with finding the work. Don’t go asking me for contact information from companies and instead put your work online and google companies that make trading cards. Doing the legwork yourself will take you much farther! As for putting work online, companies do search out artists on Instagram, Twitter, websites /blogs, and Deviant Art. Getting noticed or an email replied to may take months or even years, but the biggest thing to remember is to continue doing what you’re doing. If you don’t hear back from a company after a few months there is no harm in emailing them back with samples of more recent drawings, and of course post artwork online on a regular basis of 3-7 times or more a week. If you become frustrated, seek out artists like myself who’ve worked on trading card projects to ask for feedback on your artwork and advice on what you could be doing differently.
When creating work that you want to use for submissions to companies or to get noticed online, research your audience first. Look at what licenses the companies hold and what previous artists have done. The work other artists have done is stuff that’s been approved by the publisher and license holder which gives you an idea of the quality and style a trading card company would be looking for. Second, if you want to work for Upper-Deck let’s say, then look at what properties they have and create artwork based off those properties (Marvel, James Bond, hockey, etc.). Also, make sure that the artwork you are creating is on sketch cards, as again what you want to show them needs to be similar to what they would have you create for them. It makes no sense for you to make large 11×17″ pencil drawings of the Smurfs if you want to create sketch cards of Marvel comics characters that are painted in full colour.
So a company has contacted you to create sketch cards for one of their upcoming trading card sets. That’s awesome but now what? First, you’re told what the deadline is, parameters of the project, and are asked how many drawings you’d like to contribute to the project. Answer all of those questions and the company will mail you the cards that you draw on.
Once you get the cards in hand, begin looking up reference materials to draw from. If it’s a comic book based project, then I suggest writing out a list of characters you would like to draw and then googling what they look like; you have to make sure you get the costumes right! If it’s a property based on a movie or TV show, then you’ll have to google images from that property. Star Wars is always easy because you can start right away by drawing ships and storm troopers without needing much if any reference. For portraits and scenes, that can be trickier and websites with loads of screencaps is super useful.
Positioning the art
You’ve got your reference images or list ready, the invite and contract signed, and now you’ve got the sketch cards in front of you awaiting to be painted or drawn on, but now what?
You need to think about how you’ll be drawing these cards. I recommend thinking about how best to utilize the tiny space for a drawing. When doing portraits /headshots of characters, plan where to place the head in a way that it won’t intersect with the logo on the card. Second, make sure the face is centered or near centered on the card. It looks weird when this isn’t done on a sketch card and is best to break this rule only when it adds to the piece like when drawing a villain or some other shady character as placing the head close to the edge of the card adds tension to the image.
When drawing something more complex than a portrait like a full scene or sports athlete who has a complex logo or lettering on their jersey, decide if you want to try to capture all of the detail or not. I’ll often omit some of the detail as I find it actually provides better clarity to the image. Too much detail is often lost in a small drawing like a sketch card and frequently the image just becomes muddled. This is one of the aspects of drawing on sketch cards that I find lends itself to being considered its own artform.
When drawing something more complex you also need to consider whether you want to draw it in a landscape or vertical orientation and how to rejig the scene to fit the card’s dimensions. Some artists only draw an image on a card in the same orientation as how the logo is placed on the card. Personally, I’m not bothered by this and am more concerned with how best to depict what I am drawing. Once I’ve decided on the orientation, if there’s multiple people or objects in a drawing, I’ll decide if I need to move things around to better fit the space. Sometimes I’ll also redraw an arm or the position of a head, or other objects, to best fit the card space.
Steps to drawing a sketch card
Not all artists work the same. Through experience you’ll find what works best for you but I do have a particular method of creating sketch cards that I find is efficient and allows me to produce the best art I can. Also, creating artwork for trading card companies is done so within a set timeframe, so you don’t have months or years to finish something and the quicker you finish a project the better.
I begin every drawing by pencilling it out. After pencilling out the drawing I’ll use any number of mediums that are chosen based on what I feel like using, what works best on the paper stock of the card, what works best for the type of drawing I’m doing, or what I’ve been requested to do by my art director. As for paper stock, no company nore project uses the same type of paper. Not all of the paper is great for drawing on either, so having some skill in a variety of art mediums will help you as a trading card artist!
If I’m doing comic book based artwork I often ink my drawing after pencilling them, and then go over that with Copic markers. I pencil all of my cards first (and this goes for any medium I’m using), and then ink all of them. This assembly line method is used by other artists and greatly speeds up the project. After letting the cards dry for a day or so, I go over them with Copic markers and then use either white acrylic or white pencil crayons for highlights. I’ll sometimes use pencil crayons or limited amounts of gouache if I want to render the drawing even further.
If I want a softer feel to the drawings, such as in portraits, I’ll often use Copics directly over the pencils and then pencil crayons overtop of that. The markers give the pencil crayons a base colour to work over, allowing me to focus more on smoothing out the colours and adding definition where it’s needed, like around the eyes.
Unlike inking or using markers, if I’m going to paint the cards with acrylic or gouache, I won’t spend a lot of time pencilling. Often the pencil sketch is very loose and is really just used to block out the shapes and proportions of a face. This is because the paint will fully cover the pencil lines and there’s no point in wasting time making a beautiful pencil drawing only for it to be fully obscured by the paint.
Using paint is one of the most time consuming methods of creating a sketch card. I reserve it mainly for a select handful of cards I do, if it’s an image I love like of Princess Leia (always gotta give your best to the Princess!), if I have a substantial amount of time for a project, if the cards might be reproduced (like in MLB Museum Collection), or if the paper quality is very high. Some artists will do all of their cards in paint and spend 3-4 hours per painting, but I fall somewhere in the 45 minutes to 1.5 hours per card so painting isn’t an option for every project and every card.
Finished the drawings & now what?
Once you’ve finished drawing all of your cards you sign the backs. This might seem like such a small detail but make sure your name is legible. If it isn’t legible, take the time to print your name. Collectors are constantly posting online about how they have no idea who created this or that card. It frustrates the collectors and sometimes the companies themselves. It also won’t help you getting connected to collectors who like your work and might want to commission you for more!
A final step that I highly recommend is to seal your artwork. It really only takes a minute and then you let it dry for a day, but it is absolutely worth it. Sealing your artwork with a spray will prevent your artwork from smudging during the process of it being packed in the trading card packages. It can also protect it from fading from UV light when collectors display it, and somet sprays have a matte or gloss finishes that will make the art look even better! Also, if using paint like gouache or acrylic, you absolutely have to seal it with something or it will scratch, rub off, or become sticky.
Once the cards have dried from sealing them, take a GOOD scan of your cards. Too many artists work on sets and then after the project releases they maybe have one or two photos of the artwork they did on their phones. This artwork can be used online for advertising and put in your portfolios. Use that work to get more work! Also, some companies will request you send them scans of the cards you worked on, so make sure it’s at least a high quality one you’ll want to use later on (300 DPI is usually good enough).
Once the sealer has dried, the scans have been taken, the cards are then packaged up and sent back to the publisher /company. Once there, images of the sketch cards are sent to the licence holder for their approval and then packaged in the set, being inserted into the packs whereby collectors will find them! Depending on the company, your artist proofs will either have been kept by the artist or sent to the company where depending on if they’re approved, will be sent back to the artist at the time of the product being released to the public for sale. Either way, the artist hangs on to their artist proofs until the set hits store shelves and can then try to sell them. Payment for the project also doesn’t come sometimes until the project hits shelves.
After the work is done
What do you do after you finish the project? First thing to do is advertise what you did and try to sell your artist proofs. I create digital information cards that have my artwork on them. I include my name and contact information alongside an image of the sketch card I drew in the hopes people will contact me about commissions or to purchase an artist proof. For selling artist proofs I use various Facebook pages, posting on Instagram and Twitter, and listing them on Ebay. I also use an enewsletter, which you can sign up for here on my website!
With the scans you took of the sketch cards, include them in your portfolio and email it to the companies that haven’t hired you for projects before. Also, email the company you just worked for when that project releases to thank them for bringing you on board the project and inquire about future projects. So much of it is about constant communication and polite nagging!
Let me know what you think!
Let me know if you have any questions or think I missed something on the story of how sketch cards are made for card companies. If what I wrote helps you or someone you know break into making artwork for trading card companies, and you you’ve enjoyed other posts I’ve written on my website I’d appreciate a small donation to help keep my website up and running! I’m a trading card artist myself so an extra couple of bucks would go a long ways!