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January 06, 2024 4 min read

All images are subject to copyright protection and included with permission from the artist

Best recognized for his portrayal of the young Elvis Presley Stamp, Mark Stutzman is a versatile illustrator with widespread impact. His illustrations find a place in advertising, appearing on various products, posters, magazines, book covers, and niche markets. In the entertainment sector, he has contributed to Broadway productions like "Young Frankenstein, The Musical" and "Annie Get Your Gun".

Stutzman's artistic reach extends into iconic franchises like Batman, Jurassic Park, and Space Jam. He has also designed book covers, including collaborations with author Stephen King.

Most notably for us, he is recognized as an accomplished playing card artist, contributing uniquely to this form of art. Collaborating with David Blaine on his show posters and designing decks like Whispering Imps, The Emperor Deck, and David Blaine's Gator backs among others, Stutzman is a gem in the playing card world.

In this three-part series, we'll get to know Mark, his approach to playing card design, and then explore in detail his process. In the third part of the series, we'll look at some of Mark's early playing card sketches and get the inside scoop on decisions he and his clients made in choosing the final designs. 

Who is Mark Stutzman?

We've already established his artistic credentials, but let's dive into more of who Mark is on a personal level. Mark shared the following excerpts to help us get to know him.

In 1989, my wife Laura and I moved our studio from a cramped townhouse in the Washington, D.C. metro area to the Appalachian Mountains of western Maryland. We found an 1884 "summer cottage" fixer-upper that offered more space and an unfinished attic that would become our new studio. Adjusting to simple country life took some time, but fax machines and overnight deliveries allowed us to retain a brisk work pace long before emails and file transfers were commonplace. We were certain many other creative professionals would follow suit, but it wasn't until the 2020 pandemic that technology prompted a flurry of remote workers and home offices.  

Thankfully, Laura and my clients kept healthy creative banter part of my daily routine amidst the absence of local cultural influences. Without outside contact, the remote lifestyle could have been too isolating and creatively depleting. Instead, cravings for the immersive quiet time were balanced by occasional rejuvenating jaunts to the city. Thirty-five years later (the longest I've ever lived in one place) the studio has changed very little, outside of making room for computers that used to only be for clerical duties.  

How did you first get into designing playing cards, and what draws you to this art form?

My first deck of cards was designed for David Blaine in 2005. I illustrated each of his performance posters since he was "buried alive" in 1999.

 

Over six years we had built a rhythm and synergistic working relationship. Our eccentricities and creative interests complimented each other. He wanted to produce a signature deck of playing cards that he could use for performing magic, so he asked me if I would be interested in taking it on. He would call it Split Spades after his logo design that mirrors a lowercase d and b to make the shape of an upside-down spade. This was not my design, by the way. It already existed before David and I began working together. The simplicity of the logo evolved into many iterations over the years, but the original design would inspire this inaugural back design. 

 

I had no hesitation in accepting the project, provided David would guide me through the process. He took charge of the paper selection, printing finishes, and color choices while I concentrated solely on the back and box designs. David reminded me that magicians typically use the ever-familiar Bicycle decks to avoid the appearance of a trick deck. Since he had reached a high status among his peers and audiences, he was ready to go fully custom. And as it turned out, his custom decks have added a mystic to his style of performing magic.

Split Spades was a perfect environment to stretch my wings and venture into uncharted waters. Mostly reserved for big publishers like the U.S. Playing Card Company, novel card designs weren't as prevalent twenty years ago and years before Kickstarter, a staple platform for introducing personal projects. Much of my inspiration for this first deck was rooted in David's magical journey, with a nod to vintage deck styles and the Tally Ho decks. 

I always loved magic and decorative art. Playing cards are a perfect blend of both. A special energy and innovation emerge from naivety. Not knowing what you don't know makes you a bit more courageous to venture onto a fragile limb. I was certainly on that limb with Split Spades but loving the experience through each step. The rush of seeing them printed as a "real" and usable deck was the ultimate reward. And now, years later, my novice design has become part of many collections. Who knew?

As an illustrator, my typical assignments involve full color, and composing images that may include figures or likenesses. Playing cards is a wonderful diversion from that world and exercises different creative synapse. I crave variety in my work so that's where I find joy in making playing cards. There are myriad opportunities to build a unique-looking deck from the back design to the box, aces, jokers, and custom court cards, not to mention all the printing techniques and finishes. It can be overwhelming.

Infusing my background of figurative work with decorative design elements is invigorating. The card collector market has exploded since the Split Spades released, and custom decks abound. It's becoming increasingly difficult to stand out among the uncountable custom products available today, and the complex printing techniques and packaging features are astounding. Collectors have so much to choose from that one is never left wanting for something new and fresh. Ironically, all the new decks elevate the value and collectability of vintage and rare decks. Collectors can pick a niche and go wild, only harnessed by budgets and space. 

 

I'm sure you're intrigued to read the rest of the story about Mark's approach to design and his creative process. Beyond being a fantastic artist and contributor to the playing card community, Mark is wonderfully kind and I can't wait for him to tell the rest of his story. Stay tuned!

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