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  • February 23, 2024 5 min read

    All images are subject to copyright protection and included with permission from the artist
    This is part two of our interview with Mark Stutzman the creative genius behind David Blaine playing cards and show posters. 

    Can you describe your creative process for bringing a new deck to life and how you balance tradition with innovation in your designs?

    My process is not unlike how I create illustrations. Most decks have a concise theme, so I start by researching a topic, genre, or motif. Sometimes I'll list words that can be symbolically represented in a design. This inspires me to get the creative energy flowing in the right direction. The research also helps accumulate a "what to do" and "what not to do" collection of visual references. Then, I begin doodling various ideas that might work as narrative visuals, symbols, or design shapes that can act as connective elements. A lot of my early sketches are unrelated or stream-of-conscious thoughts that can trigger new ideas. 
    I always begin with the back design and have the tuck, aces, jokers, and courts, if needed, to echo the back. The card back is the centerpiece and should stand on its own. Tuck cases can be an extraordinary compliment, but they are not the actual product. 
    Once I have a set of initial sketches, I begin combining them and morphing them into a corner design that can be mirrored to make a two-way design. This part can be surprising since a mirror of a corner design creates a primary design rather than the other way around. I usually have an idea of how I want the back to appear in its entirety. Early on, I'll weigh whether it should be more geometric or flowing and if the interest should be centered or sprayed to the corners. Those decisions are dictated by the theme and how illustrative the overall design needs to be. 
    I like it when a back design has a balance of light and dark, so an obvious pattern or flow directs the eye over the entire back. I also like to have literal objects become abstract inside the design. Closer inspection might reveal something that looked purely ornamental at first. I saw a comment on Instagram where someone confessed, they never noticed the little girl riding the alligator in the GatorBacks design. I was overjoyed! It's wonderful when noticing a detail that can ignite a new relationship with a familiar design.  
    It's difficult to explain where ideas come from but it's generally from experimentation and freestyling the first steps. It's much easier to reign in a cryptic idea than to expand one that is too narrow and obvious. 

    How has your artistic background influenced your approach to playing card design, and are there specific movements or styles that inspire your work?

    My sources of inspiration are quite remote from my actual work. At a very young age, I was drawn to Baroque and Rococo sculptures and paintings. They are highly decorative and often narrative, using the human form as ornaments. As a youngster, anything to which I was exposed came from art books most likely from the library. My first time stepping into an art museum was at age 16, and I nearly wept. I grew up in the suburbs of small towns, and family vacations were nature-centric camping adventures in remote regions rather than at art museums in the city.
    I loved flamboyant art, so when I discovered Peter Paul Rubens, my heart exploded with excitement. His work spoke to me, unlike any other artist. Everything he did was what I aspired to. I copied many of his drawings, studies, and paintings, trying to get into his creative mindset. The spirit of that time in history is always present in my mind. "Less is bore" was my motto. As my mind expanded to allow other art genres in, I developed an appreciation for simplicity as well. The balance of the two is the sweet spot I aim for with all my work. 

    What role does storytelling play in your designs, and how do you decide on the level of complexity in your playing card artwork?

    Although I never labeled it, much of my work has a narrative of some variety. A client once told me that my work has a "sense of place" which I never had considered before. That statement made me analyze my work a bit more and found it true. I like being able to tell a story, no matter how small. Making playing card backs with a "stacked" design is what enjoy most. If I can make a design that's easy to absorb but has a hierarchy of primary elements with ones that are veiled, it makes the design more interesting. I often rework designs that are too intricate, or the hierarchy is off balance once the design is mirrored. Keeping the design weight balanced is the greatest challenge. 
    I discard far more designs than I develop. Usually, I'll try four to eight thumbnail sketches before deciding which direction to pursue. The best idea usually undergoes several alterations before becoming a final idea that's ready to ink. I have gone to the inked phase and started completely over if it's just not working. Sometimes I don't get the line weights right to match the complexity of a design the first time around. The best case scenario is to always be moving forward but sometimes I need to rethink a design before I'm content. 

    In the age of digital media, why do you think there’s still a strong appeal for physical playing cards, and how does this influence your design choices?

    I still work traditionally and ink my designs by hand before converting them to digital files. It's that tactile connection to my work that I enjoy most. Preparing the boards, transferring the art with graphite, inking, and scratching out negative spaces is all part of putting myself into the physical art. To retain the organic nature of the linework, I manipulate the vector conversions to resemble the original more closely. Each phase from sketch to printed product represents the human touch. It can be a tedious process to retain the integrity of handmade work but it's important to me. I can relate to anyone who wants physical media and the ability to handle small works of art. Card finishes pander to our sense of touch, distinguishing the feel of playing cards against each other.  
    Knowing playing cards are to be used and handled is always in the back of my mind when working on a design. So far, I've stuck with the standard framed borders and have made the decks "playable" or for play and magic. More illustrative designs are less suitable for poker night, but they can make a beautiful addition to any collection and be a showstopper for cardists. There are amazing and innovative decks on the market.
    Having grown up in a time before virtual belongings, I get the need to hold something in my hands and call it "yours." For example, when music was played with vinyl, building one's collection was important and self-defining. Album jackets were artistic and married visuals with music to describe the artists well beyond the recorded tracks. Collecting physical items is representational of your interests and your aesthetic. Even how you display playing cards allows a customized interpretation. I've seen some beautiful culminations that elevate one's most cherished decks.
    Playing cards are a reasonable investment, compact, and a unique way of being part of a niche culture. What makes me so happy is that it's another way to perpetuate working artists.  You can't and shouldn't stop progress, but I worry technology will eventually overtake handmade works and ingenuity. Kneeling to programs and digital tricks can truncate the human imagination. Free thinking and free will is at the core of creativity. 
    Join us for Part 3 (and maybe 4) with Mark, as he walks through his process. He'll also share some never-before-seen original sketches of Blaine decks. Stay tuned! 

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