Making Sketch Cards

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.

Logistics

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.

Angela Upper Deck Sketch Card

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!

topps garbage pail kids sketch cards by matt stewartWith 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!

 

Options for One-Time Support of Stewart’s Artwork

 

Ghostbusters Artbook from Printed in Blood

I’m excited to announce that an illustration I created will be included in the upcoming Ghostbusters artbook from Printed in Blood & Insight Editions! The book releases in May and I will have a limited run of official prints to offer at that time.

Order Now

Pre-order your book today! It will come out in May, but secure your copy today & when you see me at a show I’d love to sign it for you!

PRevious Publications

Last year I was published in the Stranger Things: Visions from the Upside Down artbook. This book was also published by Printed in Blood. Check out my previous post to see what I contributed to that book!

stranger things illustration created by matt stewart for the printed in blood artbook, visions from the upside down

 

***Mattstewartillustrations.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

What are Sketch Cards?

I’ve been creating sketch cards for licensed trading card companies for over four years now. I’ve been creating sketch cards for fun and commissions for much longer than that. However, even though I’ve been drawing and collecting trading cards since I was a kid in the 80s, and despite sketch cards existing since sometime in the 90s and being picked up by trading card companies in the early 2000s, I only discovered them in the late 2000s.

Many people that I’ve met online or at conventions do not know what sketch cards are. That group of people, who are the collectors of art, comic, and everything else geeky, often really like sketch cards once they find out about them. I think the appeal is found in the wide range of subject matter, the oftentimes affordability, and that their unusually small size allows people to easily build a collection of them without sacrificing a room in your house to store them in.

What are Sketch Cards?

A sketch card is a surface that measures 2.5″x3.5”* and is used to create an original, one-of-a-kind piece of art upon.

I purposefully tried to make that definition as broad as possible as really the defining features of a sketch card is its size and its originality; however, size receives an Asterix as explained later. Some artists and collectors may disagree with me, but to me these are the defining characteristic and then you can have a multitude of sub categories after that. For instance, painted or penciled or licensed or personal sketch cards.

A generic, blank sketch card.
A generic, blank sketch card.

There are no restrictions on what medium or style can be used to create a sketch card, much like how there is also no restriction on what material the sketch card is made out of. One trading card company, Upper-Deck, has recently been making some of their sketch cards on sheets of chrome and acetate! I have seen artists use paper collages, spray paint stencils, oil paints, acrylics, and simple 2b graphite pencils to create sketch cards. These aspects of sketch cards seem limitless, like any other arena within the art world!

Origin of Sketch Cards

I may not be entirely correct, but it is my understanding that sketch cards began as ACEO’s, or Artist Cards, Editions and Originals. These were traded between fellow artists and given out to non-artists as a form of exposure. There was a strong emphasis on them not being sold, but rather an exercise in free art. ACEO’s are still common, and are still commonly freely traded, but ever since their inclusion in packs of trading cards, their

 

Sketch Cards and Trading Card Companies

‘Art De Bart’ Sketch Card from Skybox drawn by matt groening
‘Art De Bart’ Sketch Card from Skybox

In 1993 the first trading card product included sketch cards. These ‘Art De Bart’ cards were rare, chase cards with only 400 produced. These cards were all drawn by the show’s creator Matt Groening, but in subsequent trading card sets a variety of artists would be used. It was a mixed bag on who the artists were too. Some were experienced published professionals and some were people working on their first paid art project. This definitely produced cards of wildly differing levels of quality, but it also allowed for collectors to obtain artwork from rising stars and for said rising star artists to obtain a modicum of experience.

The highly talented Adam Hughes drew this sketch card for the 2008 Indiana Jones trading card set.
The highly talented Adam Hughes drew this sketch card for the 2008 Indiana Jones trading card set.

Throughout the 90s and exploding in the 2000s, sketch cards began appearing in numerous non-sports trading card sets. Sets based on movies and cartoons used the sketch cards as an incentive or chase in the product. Oftentimes the sketch card would be exceedingly rare even if there were tons created. What I mean by that is that thousands of sketch cards would be created but 10 or 100 times that many boxes of cards would be produced.

The sketch cards created right up to the late 2000’s were largely simple and quick sketches done on paper trading cards. In some cases, artists were tasked to draw 1000 or more sketch cards for one project. There was no way an artist can do more than simple pencil sketches when such quantities are so high! Sometime around 2010 this all changed and sketch cards gradually became more and more detailed. Some artists were using oils, some water colours, and some markers. Bottom line though, is that sketch cards were often being done in colour and to a higher degree of detail and quality.

Incredibly detailed sketch card by Julio Nar of the green goblin
Incredibly detailed sketch card by Julio Nar.

Trading card companies in the late 2000’s also started changing sketch cards by altering their sizes and materials. Some companies introduced Box Topper Sketch Cards that were 2, 3 or 4 times the size of a normal sketch card. Booklet sketch cards were also being introduced, where multiple regular sketch cards were attached in a way that they could be folded on top of one another to fit into a pack of cards. Different materials like plastics and metals were also introduced. The moral of the story is that not only have the artists continually changed in what they were producing but the companies also changed the types of sketch cards, ultimately enlarging the original definition of what a sketch card is.

What’s in it for the Sketch Card Artist?

Fame and glory is not something a sketch card artist receives. Every so often a sketch card artist might obtain an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have had. An example is of an artist I saw online who created sketch cards for a project was then invited by the company that owns the license to the property he was working on to then illustrate a poster for that company. That is absolutely the exception. More often, sketch card artists work on these projects for a little bit of exposure with people who may commission them for more work, to say they worked on a licensed product and to build up their portfolios.

Sketch card artists are paid for their work but it isn’t exactly life changing bags of cash. Instead, a small handful of sketch cards are provided back to the artist that they can resell. These are called either Artist Returns or Artist Proofs, frequently listed as just AR or AP’s. The images the artist draws on these cards are all licensed by that franchise like Star Wars or Marvel Comics. The artists receive only a small number of AP’s in comparison to the number of cards the produced for the project; often the ratio is 1:10.

topps 2017 the last jedi captain phasma sketch card by matt stewart
Artist Return sketch card of Captain Phasma from The Last Jedi, drawn by Matt Stewart.

Some companies create their artist returns differently. Topps (one of my artist returns is pictured above), does not make their artist returns look any different from the regular sketch cards. Sometimes an artist (like myself) will write AP or Artist Return on the back of the card, but otherwise it will be indistinguishable from what one can pull from a pack of cards. Some companies, like Upper-Deck will stamp their Artist Proofs with an AP on the front (see below) and other companies like Cryptozoic have stickers for the back of the cards that say AP.

jay and silent bob artist proof sketch card from clerks
Jay and Silent Bob Artist Proof sketch card by Matt Stewart.

Sometimes particular types of cards will not be offered as a return at all. This is common with the more unusual sketch cards such as booklets.

 

Check out some of the sketch card projects I’ve worked on:

Walking Dead from Topps

Star Wars 40th Anniversary from Topps

Terminator from Unstoppable

Clerks from Upper-Deck

Garbage Pail Kids from Topps

Read About Making Sketch Cards!

I’ve written about my process on making sketch cards and how that works with licensed projects from companies like Topps. Go check out the article here!

 

Creating Digital Graphics for Websites and Social Media

Recently I wanted to create a graphic that would contain information on a single product or event. My initial idea was that the graphic would be simple and based off a paper filing system card. These cards have a small part at the top that juts upwards. This part is visible when all the cards are placed inside a container, allowing for a particular card to be found amidst the masses of other cards. The body of the cards would have text on them and sometimes a supporting image of what the card was about.

The description of a filing system card is probably well known to many who are reading this post, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are becoming increasingly uncommon in the workplace. However, just because they are becoming uncommon doesn’t mean their function has become obsolete. The problem I was tackling here was very similar to the solution that the paper filing system fulfilled, so in a very non-creative way superimposed an older idea on to a newer platform. Honestly, this is often a great way to solve many modern design problems: look to the past for a solution to today’s problems.

The Design

I began my design process like I always do -sketching on a piece of paper. Sometimes I’ll sketch a few different ideas but this time I knew exactly what I wanted, and it was based on something that already existed. Really I just wanted to draw the shape of an index /filing card and then sketch in some lines of text, a box for an image and an area for social sharing to see how these elements would look within the card outline.

Backing up a step, I suppose the start of my design process was identifying the problem and thinking about it. Sometimes I will do a little online research to see how similar problems were solved in the past. For instance I recently designed a brochure and to draw up some inspiration for that I researched brochure designs and existing brochures from big name companies. This practice of researching is no different than when I had a term paper in University. There I would research my problem, write about this previous research, and then write about my own results on this problem and the research I unearthed.

Adobe Illustrator
Skeleton design from Illustrator.

Illustrator is my friend. It is the first Adobe program I used (besides Acrobat I guess), and it is still my go to tool for creating digital designs. For this small project I used Illustrator to create a skeleton of the design. I played with the line thickness of the shapes and with the font styles. Bold Century Gothic is what I chose as I found it was easy to read, clean, and had a modern yet classic feel to it that works well in a corporate setting. This is a font a reader would take seriously! One thing I probably would change is the kerning. I think the letters are a little too tightly spaced.

I’m a big fan of drop shadows, and I used them again on this project. This effect is probably overused but I think it really adds a nice and simple effect to a design. Another design element I chose was to place the social media icons in small circles that have 1/3 of their space overlapping with the card. I wanted these to stand out while still being a part of the overall design.

Adobe Photoshop

The third and final step to this design was adding the colour /texture in Photoshop. I began by finding a good image of a wooden board that was available for free online. Some people have catalogs of images they’ve taken and use for their designs, but I do not have such a catalog. Instead I often use websites like Pexels that have free images that you can use for designs. Once I find an image I don’t just use it ‘as is’. For this project I reduced the satuaration, increased the brightness and played with the black/white levels on the image in Photoshop.

The Illustrator design was imported into Photoshop as a LINKED file. This allowed for me to make changes to the design in Illustrator and have those changes immediately appear in the Photoshop file. A marquee selection was taken of the Illustrator design within Photoshop and that shape was then cropped out from the wood image. As the Illustrator design had a white fill, I then set that layer’s property to multiply, dissolving the white into the background wood layer.

Final design.

The design was nearly complete with the wood texture incorporated into the black Illustrator design. All that was left was to give it a little more realism and increase the readability a tad. To do that I added some minor white and grey highlights to the black outline. These highlights were added to one side of the black outline to suggest a light-source to the upper right. Secondly, underneath the areas with text I added some white brush strokes set at 30%-ish opacity. This allowed the black text to be more readable on the slightly darker wood background.

Last Step

After I leave a graphic for a day or two I will come back to it and possibly tweak it here or there. I may realize I misspelled a word, didn’t make the graphic clear here or there, or God forbid accidentally have part of my design look phallic -the last part has happened to many a designer. Once I am happy with it I will alter the text and include a product image to suit it’s purpose. The image will be saved as a 500 kb ‘ish jpg or png file and used on social media. The other idea is that it will be uploaded to a website where the text will the idea is that the text will be removed in Illustrator and then coded in the website. The graphic will be inserted as a PNG file, and using the z-index and other CSS styling codes, the text and product image will be positioned within the graphic. As for the social media icons, those will be hot linked to their respective platforms. Again, this part will be coded into the website with simple HTML /CSS.

 

Thanks for reading my post! I wasn’t meaning to write something so long but it was rewarding to think back on how I created this design. I’ve recently posted about other design projects I’ve worked on too. One was about using the Sketchup program to create a 3D house and two were about using Adobe Illustrator for layouts and creating infographics. Let me know in the comments field below if there is a topic you’d like me to talk about next!

Eye Catching Infographics Created in Adobe Illustrator

I recently created an infographic for a client. The concept was that he needed to display time passing in three phases with some explanatory text next to each phase. As per my design process, I sketched out a few initial ideas on scrap paper and then began turning those doodles into digital designs through Illustrator (check out other examples of my digital designs here).

The first design I created had some icons at each stage and the three stages represented as almost a chutes and ladders game viewed at in a 1-point perspective. I still love the idea of using mile-post markers and looking at the infographic in perspective, but I just couldn’t get it to work where the information was readable. Since I’m not happy with it at all, and it has some elements that are client specific, I’ve decided to not share it here. The other two graphics I made are shown below but the text is replaced with Lorem Ipsum.

Besides jotting down initial notes and making doodles on scrap paper, I also did some cursory online research. I only had a few hours to complete a design and while my first concept with the infographic in perspective was original, I didn’t have the time to make it work. I needed to come up with a well thought out design that would immediately win the day, or at least one that would only need a minor revision here or there.

With some ideas in my head from my doodling and researching, I immediately started creating them in Illustrator. When it comes to graphics, Illustrator is my go-to tool. I love the precision, the intuitiveness of the program, the wide range of tools it offers, and I’m a little biased in that I’ve been using it for a long time now.

Second Infographic

 

The second design I had was that of a ribbon folded three times. This is similar to something else I had seen online, but I made the image more flat and went with a triadic colour scheme to make the three phases pop off one another. I used angular corners with drop shadows to emphasize the strong lines in order to add a bit of dynamism to the design. For the typography I wanted something clean and business looking. I made the date text bolder and clear white against the coloured background. The accompanying text to the right of the dates is made a little smaller and I used a light grey-tinged colour so it doesn’t compete with the date text.

Third Infographic

 

The third graphic I created is based off a more traditional timeline design. However, I tried to make it a bit more modern looking with a grey and bright yellow-green colour combination. I then added a drop shadow on the image to give it a bit of flat design feel. The typography went after the same principle I had in the second graphic but this time the block text was a lot more work. I wanted it to sit nicely within the rounded corner rectangles I had them in but use a justified paragraph alignment which meant playing with the kerning a lot to avoid rivers. The first of the three paragraphs still doesn’t quite work as well as I would like but the client was happy.

Let Me Know!

Let me know what you think of my two designs- do you have a favourite? If you’ve created an infographic yourself, pop a link to it in the comments below!