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How I Make and Trade Artist Trading Cards

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Learn how I make my own artist trading cards and how to trade them.

Learn how I make my own artist trading cards and how to trade them.

Little Art for Artist Trading Cards (ATC)

Watercolors became my go-to medium when I decided to get back into art as a hobby. Watercolors are nice because they require patience to let each section dry before starting a new one.

That's great for a multitasker like me because you can do a little at a time, work on something else, and return to it once that section is dry. You can work on one at a time or multiple paintings at once, focusing on the latest dry one, as the others are in various drying stages.

Then, I discovered artist trading cards and found them to be the perfect type of art to make with watercolors. Artist trading cards can be made of virtually any material. They're small and require a steady hand and patience. Below is my experience in making artist trading cards and a history of the art form itself.

ATC History

Artist trading cards were introduced in 1997 in an exhibit by Swiss artist M. Vanci Stirnemann. He created 1,200 small works of art on 2.5” x 3.5” cards. At the end of the exhibit, he encouraged others to make their own cards and swap with his. They did, and artists have been trading cards ever since.

True artist trading cards are swapped or given away. If they are sold, they are called Art Cards Originals and Editions, or ACOEs. Artist trading card (ATC) swaps are found online or in meetups in cities all over the world. Many store their swaps in sports card binders and many groups have specific instructions for participating in swaps, including packaging requirements, size, and theme.

What Are the Rules for Artists Trading Cards?

Cards can feature any type of image, text, or medium. As long as they fit the size requirements, they are considered an artist trading card. Websites hold contests and feature some of the best examples of the cards that they come across on their home pages.

My materials

My materials


Tips for Making Artist Trading Cards

Use any materials. Artist trading cards can be made of nearly any material. Just buy the right-sized paper or cut larger paper into the correct size, and it counts as an artist trading card.

Don't sweat the details. Because the workspace is so small, there is no agonizing over details. You're not going to spend hours on the image, so you don’t have to decide on a theme that you’re going to grow bored with or wish you had used the materials on a better idea that comes later. Once you have a stack of blank cards, it’s refreshing to know that you can put several ideas down on multiple cards in one sitting.

Do you need to buy special cards? I don’t buy artist trading card paper. Instead, I buy watercolor paper and prep the page with a layer of water which I let dry before I measure it out and cut it to the correct size. There’s usually a long strip of paper left that I like to make into a bookmark.

Preparing the paper

Preparing the paper


Getting to Work

The paper I use is white so that I can make the background any color I want. First, I paint the card in my desired background color and let it dry. If little of the background is going to show, or I just want a light layer of paint or shadow, I’ll skip this step and paint around the main subject of the card later on.

Next, I start working on the subject of my piece. Most of my cards are character-themed. So, I find a reference picture and start to sketch it out using watercolor pencils. It’s important to have sharp pencils since the area is so small. It’s also important to make sure the card is dry so that the pencils don’t start to bleed as they are applied to the paper.

Details must also be judged beforehand. At least at my skill level, details are not going to show up as well or can even ruin the piece if they are not added correctly. I tend not to draw faces on my characters and leave shadowing to a minimum. So, my cards are more minimalist, at least while I’m in the beginning stages of the art form.

Evolution of a Halloween-Themed ATC


Adding the Watercolor

Once the penciling is done, I use the smallest paint brushes I own to turn the pencil to paint, adding watercolor paints to incorporate colors that I don’t have in watercolor pencil form.

The amount of water used is the biggest challenge. It’s easy to get a lot of water on even a small brush. So, excess water needs to be wiped off on another surface (usually the piece of cardboard that I paint on) before it is applied to the paper. Otherwise, you can lose all control of where the paint goes.

Waiting Is Important

This is also where the patience of waiting for one color to dry before painting over another color right next to it comes in. When you’re on a roll, it can cause you to want to keep painting, but having the colors bleed through each other can leave a permanent flaw in what would have otherwise been a nice picture.


Once everything has dried, I fill in any details with fine line markers or pens. This is any detail, such as a piece of clothing fabric or the trunk of a tree, that is required in order to give the painting texture and depth and helps to make the image come across as clearly as possible. It can be easy to ink the entire picture, but I like to leave some edges without lines so that it still feels like a watercolor painting.

Marking the back

Marking the back

Last Step: Signing Your Artist Trading Card

Finally, I like to sign the back of my cards with my initials and number each one in the order that they are made. I thought about numbering the themed cards separately from each other so that it was clear that they were their own set, but this would have taken some cataloging and recording, which would have been too convoluted. It’s much easier to keep track of how many cards I’ve done all together than to worry about numbering each card in the set correctly.


Swapping ATCs

Because artist trading cards are not as well known outside of the ATC community, it’s fun to give away cards to those unfamiliar, hopefully inspiring them to start their own collection with this spontaneous present. I like to place mine in my Little Free Library for patrons to take and encourage them to replace the ones they take with those that they create. I also put them inside holiday and birthday cards, especially for kids.

I hope this inspires you to make your own artist trading cards and swap them with those in your area or online. It’s good practice for artists and a great way to share art in a charitable way.

Do you make artist trading cards? What materials do you use? Where do you swap them? Leave your answers in the comments below!


Strathmore Artist

ATCs for All

© 2018 Laura Smith


Ashley on June 23, 2020:

I recently started making and trading ATCs. It is so much fun not only to make but to collect. I have made about 35ish cards and have traded 15ish. A friend on Facebook introduced me and I have been hooked since. I trade on Facebook through a few groups. I hope to some day trade in person with some artists. I am a huge fan of mixed media and have been working on my skills, which improve with each card.

Leona on August 26, 2019:

I make and trade ATCs online thru 3 different Facebook groups. So fun!

I enjoy doing watercolor and also mixed media.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 21, 2018:

I didn't know artist trading cards were a thing. Learn something new every day. Love that these are small, manageable projects. Heck, I might even try it one day. Thanks for sharing and have a great weekend!