The popularity of trading card games (TCG) is massive! TCGs boast over 25 million players globally, collectively playing with billions of cards.
How do you get hired to create trading card illustrations? What are some of the most popular TCGs? And how important is the art in terms of the overall game? We delve into these questions and more!
What is a trading card illustrator?
Trading card and gaming artists create artwork for trading card games (TCG) or collectible card games (CCG). These are strategic card games that combine deck-building features with aspects of trading cards that often include fantasy themes.
TCGs are not to be confused with “artist trading cards” which are not a game, rather a medium to paint or draw miniature art pieces that can be swapped or sold.
Trading card artists must match the tone and theme of the game or collection set, telling a story through composition, color, light, and shadows.
According to an interview with Mark Rosewater, head designer for the popular TCG Magic: The Gathering (MTG), a single card can have up to 40 artists working on it before it’s ready to be sold as part of a pack. MTG has distributed over 70 different packs of cards, called sets, meaning there’s a lot of work out there for the right people.
Artwork on trading card games is essential. Opinions will differ slightly from player-to-player, but here’s how Jeremy Jarvis, MTG’s art director, quantifies it:
A card is - it's just millimeters! About half of those millimeters are artwork.
Some of the components illustrations assist with when playing TCGs include:
Storytelling — when a player turns over a new card, the artwork is the first thing that greets them, building intrigue, suspense, or excitement. Sometimes the artwork is enough for players and collectors to understand their next move or what’s at stake. The artwork supports the overall theme, assists in a game’s mechanics, and enriches the current narrative by depicting its characters, actions, props, etc.
World building — the art team plays a significant role in developing the look and feel of the world(s) of a game, and this world can contribute to the journey of its characters. World building helps immerse players more deeply within the game’s story, often leading to a more enjoyable experience.
They look cool — the collector side of TCGs means that the artwork of a particular card can speak to many of its players beyond the game and is a big drawcard.
How do I become a trading card illustrator?
To become a TCG artist focus on refining your portfolio. According to CG Spectrum mentor, award-winning illustrator and TCG artist Eric Wilkerson, your portfolio needs to have a level of consistency, to demonstrate direction and focus, while also ensuring it's tailored to the right audience — in this case TCG and CCG companies.
Suppose your heart is set on working for a specific TCG, you might want to go one step further and hyper-focus your portfolio. Eric has the following advice for people creating a more specialized portfolio:
The trick is figuring out how to infuse your personality into that hyper-focused work so that you stand out from all the other dragon, robot, spaceship, sci-fi fantasy artists out there.
Here are some more handy tips to get ahead in the world of TCG illustration:
Attend conventions (it’s how Eric got his first illustration gig out of college!)
Follow the work of trading card artists for inspiration and industry insights.
Follow TCG and CCG studios via their socials and website.
You’ll often learn about a studio’s upcoming job opportunities like these and competitions like this one.
Studying at a reputable school is another great way to prepare yourself for a job as a trading card artist. CG Spectrum’s Advanced Digital Illustration Course spends four weeks covering the craft of trading card illustration. As part of the 36-week course, you’ll focus on refining your portfolio with mentors who have worked for some of the biggest TCGs. You’ll also hear from an MTG guest speaker.
Other TCG illustrators include CG Spectrum students and mentors. Jessica Geis, a graduate of the Advanced Digital Illustration Course, shares some of the art she made as part of her studies.
Trading card game art illustration by CG Spectrum alumna Jessica Geis.
This is a mock hearthstone card to go along with a recent character design. It was so much fun to try and match such an iconic style, and a huge thanks to all of my fellow students and teachers for the support!
Ready to try your hand at becoming a trading card artist?
CG Spectrum’s Digital Illustration Courses introduce students to the creative process of developing narrative art, including art for trading card games. Students are privy to mentorships from professional illustrators, guest lectures, small class sizes, personalized critiques, career tips, and industry insights - ensuring the cards are stacked in your favor for pursuing a career in trading card illustration!
Shoshanah has almost a decade of visual effects production experience, coordinating VFX teams in Australia and London. Her credits include Mad Max: Fury Road, Ant-Man, John Wick: Parabellum, Game of Thrones, and Christopher Robin. She now enjoys getting to write about the film and games industry.