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Artist Trading Card Tips And Ideas

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Getting started in artist trading cards is easy no matter what your artistic level is

Getting started in artist trading cards is easy no matter what your artistic level is

All About Artist Trading Cards

History Of Artist Trading Cards

Artist Trading Cards are miniature works of art that measure 2.5 x 3.5 inches. They are the same size as a football or Pokemon card. ATCs are part of the mail art movement that originated in 1997 by the Swiss artist M. Vanci Stirnemann.

Stirnemann made 1200 cards and ran an exhibition at his art gallery and bookshop. At the end of the exhibition, he held a trading session. This artist trading card event was open to all people and all artistic styles.

This idea was soon adopted by other artists and quickly spread to a worldwide art form. With the use of the Internet, this remains a very popular way to trade art with others from around the world.

Artist Trading Card Basics

Artist trading cards (ATCs) are miniature pieces of art that are traded around the world. Artists create, trade, and collect art at organized "swap" events, either in person or online.

Artist trading cards can be made in any medium and using any technique, whether it's painting, drawing, or collage. You are really limited only by your imagination and materials.

There is a lot of creativity involved in artist trading cards. But even more fun in trading them.

The best thing about artist trading cards is that you can use all of your left over scraps

The best thing about artist trading cards is that you can use all of your left over scraps

ATC Basics

Why Would I Want To Make ATC Cards

Accomplished artist or not, artist trading cards are a way to learn new techniques and grow. While, yes you can certainly draw, there are as many ways to create an ATC as there are folks who do them. So, The question is, why would you want to?

Here are a few thoughts on the reasons to create ATC cards

  • You can experiment with new techniques or materials on an easy-to-manage small scale.
  • They are a good excuse to try out a new style no matter what media you enjoy working with.
  • They are very economical to make as they require such small amounts of materials. Most of what you need is already in your craft space.
  • You can build up a large collection of cards in a very small space and for little cost. They are so much fun to collect and share.
  • If it all goes wrong you haven’t lost a lot of materials! Even if you make a mistake, you will have learned from the experience.
  • They are a useful way to use up tiny scraps of paper or fabric that we all have in our stash.
  • Making themed cards for organized swaps can help get past a creative block
  • You can easily carry a few cards, pens, and other tools for creating on vacation or traveling. I love to work on them while I am waiting in my doctors office.
  • ATC cards have multiple uses. The finished cards can be used as toppers on greeting cards, framed singly or in groups, used as tags, included on scrapbook pages, given as gifts, and used to create a portfolio of your skills
  • They are perfect for “one piece of artwork a day” type challenges
  • You may find it easier to sell low-priced ACEOs whilst building up your reputation when selling online
  • They are great fun to make!

Just A Few Rules For ATC

There are not very many rules when it comes to ATC cards. For the most part, it is your art, your way.

  • Size = 2.5 x 3.5 inches (64 mm × 89 mm)
  • ATCs are traded not sold
  • Signed and dated on the back
  • Neatness counts
  • Do NOT trade other artists cards

Groups and individuals could have their own set of rules. These rules could be specific to that one trade or could be a general rule. Know the rules before committing to a trade.

Pre Cut Artist Trading Cards

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Artist Trading Card Base

To the purists of ATC, size does matter. Each of your cards must be carefully cut. Make sure that the edges are clean and net. The corners should be carefully mitered. Always double-check the size of your card base as you are cutting them. Some folks like to round their corners and that is ok.

Make 10 ATC Cards From One Piece Of Paper

You can actually get 10 ATC card bases from one piece of 8.5" by 11" piece of cardstock.

But the cardstock will need to be mounted on a piece of cardboard. Cardstock by itself, even if it is 110 lbs is not considered heavy enough to trade or stand up over the long haul.

  1. First, cut three strips from the paper lengthwise. One strip will be 3-1/2 inches wide, and the other two will be 2-1/2 inches wide. (Remember, the dimensions of ATCs are 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inches)
  2. Next, cut four 2-1/2 inch pieces from your 3-1/2 inch strip. Cut three 3-1/2 inch pieces from each 2-1/2 inch strip. You’ll have just a tiny piece of waste at the end of each strip.
  3. Using a paper trimmer instead of scissors makes cutting ATCs a much easier and cleaner process

I like to make several pages at one sitting so that I have bases ready to go anytime inspiration hits me.

Playing Cards

Lots of people like to use playing cards for their backing. But in actuality, they are generally not what is considered the standard size for true artist trading cards. If you are planning to use playing cards, you may want to sand the cards down before you use them. That way, when you glue things on, they will actually stick instead of sliding off.

Water Color Paper

If you’re going to use watercolor paints for your cards, you’ll want to use paper that can hold up to the water. Standard watercolor paper can be cut down to the size of an artist's trading card.

Recycling Other Paper

Another thing to consider is the packaging that your craft supplies. They are often very pretty and useable.

You can also use any cardboard box that you may collect from your kitchen.

Cutting Your Bases With Electronic Cutting Machines

Another way to get your card shape is to use an electronic cutting machine. This saves a lot of time and effort, Size a square to the ATC size (2.5 by 3.5 inches). Duplicate the shape to the number you want and cut them out. Speeds up the process.

Corner Round Punch

You Start With The Backgrounds

Every ATC starts with the background of the card. It is the surface on which you build your layers. You want to make sure that your base is sturdy enough to hold the media you are using. If you are using a lot of mixed media on your card or you need to cover up some print, it's time to break out the Gesso and give your card a good coating or two. Allow the gesso to dry between coats

Using Paper Backgrounds

Your background can be as simple as using paper scraps that you have in your stash. All you have to do is to cut them to the size of the standard artist trading card which is 2.5 by 3.5inches

I tend to stay away from all solid colors. They just don't have that interest or pop that I am looking for. Use one paper and then add more paper to it. Cut strips and add vertical strips. Or rip a contrasting paper and add that to it.

Another source for an interesting background is the inside of security envelopes. These envelopes have interesting patterns. When you get them in the mail, cut them down and save them for future use. Great way to recycle and they are free.

Distress Ink Backgrounds

Distress inks create the perfect blending material for your backgrounds. They blend seamlessly to create interesting tones and colors. You can spritz them with water to create patterns.

Distress Crayons

These crayons are unlike anything you have seen before. They go on your paper creamy. You can blend them with your fingers. The colors are delightful in this range. You can purchase them singly or in packs of 6. There are also metallic crayons. Add water to them to create a different effect


Create an overall effect with stencils. Place your stencil over the card apply dye ink, or distress inks over the stencil to create a background on your ATC cards.

You can also use embossing paste over a stencil to create a raised effect.

You will want to use smaller effect stencils since these cards are so tiny.

You can also add bits of stenciled images to other backgrounds in a darker color

Water Coloring

Watercolors create soft tones to your background. Make sure to use watercolor paper to get the best results. You can use blended colors or just one color. It is your choice.

Colored Pencils

Colored pencils are another choice in backgrounds on ATC cards. There are so many things you can use them for. Try blending colors together or making strips.


Decoupage decorative paper napkins onto a 12" by 12" piece of paper. Cut into the standard size for artist trading cards, You will get a lot from one sheet.

Acrylic Paint

Feel free to paint any forms or shapes on your cards. Cover the entire card with color

Doodled/ Zentangle Background Card

This is an easy way to get a background. You do not need any art experience at all. Just doodle the card with a fine-lined black marker. Color the sections with colored markers and you have a piece of art.

You can also use zentangle forms to create your background. These are shapes that are created in forms to complement each other.

Embossing Paste And Stencils

Apply embossing paste over stencils to create an interesting texture on part or all of your ATC card

Create foil relief ATC cards that have dimension and color without drawing

Create foil relief ATC cards that have dimension and color without drawing

More Background Ideas

Using Glue On Your ATC Cards

Neatness really does count. It is important that if you are using glue, that you make sure to wipe any excess glue off your project. Make sure that all glued items are securely on the card.

You want to make sure that all edges will go cleanly into a pocket and not pull apart.

Glue sticks are not recommended for this kind of artwork. They generally do not hold up on the long haul of time.

Make sure that any glue (paint or medium too) is totally dry before placing it in a sleeve for mailing. Packaging and mailing are generally not climate controlled. Sticky items will not get through the mailing process well.

Add A Focal Image

The focal image is the image that draws the eye to the card. It is what the viewer should see first when they see your art card. In most collaged cards, it is a person or a thing. There should only be one image on the card.

  • It can be a stamped image of any subject.
  • It can be a picture that you have cut out of a magazine
  • You can use clip art or images from the internet
  • You can use images you create from your cutting machine program. Use a plain drawing and color the drawing with whatever medium you want to use.
  • It can be recycled images from greeting cards

More Focal Image Ideas And Tips

Embellishing The ATC

The biggest thing to remember is that any embellishments should be smaller than the focal image. You want to keep the image as your focal point.

Embellishments To Add Dimension

There are many things that can be used for embellishments. Think about pieces of lace or other material. Cheesecloth is fun to work with. Dryer sheets are one of my personal favorites to add dimension to your cards

Use sequins. Add them for texture. you can gesso over them to omit color.

More Embellishment Ideas

  • Stickers and rub ons are a fun way to get images and designs to your card,
  • Add a gem or two for a special statement on your card.
  • Adding a single word either stamped or added on is always a welcome addition. Try to relate your word to the theme of the card. Tim Holtz sells word pads that come in black and white that are perfect for these cards.
  • Add small chipboard pieces as a focal point. A fun way to add interest to these pieces is to paint them with metallic paint. Use a glue gun to glue these pieces so they stay on.
  • If you are using things like brads or eyelets, make sure that they work correctly.

Adding Metallic Wax

Finishing Your ATC Card

If you are using any media, paint, or ink, it is likely that some may get on the back of your card. Adding another piece of card in the same size is a nice way to finish your card off so that you can add information to a clean back. You can attach the back card with glue or a thin double-sided tape.

Another reason to add a second layer to your cards is that it will add strength and weight to your card to make it easier to mail!

Make sure to keep your ATC clean. It is one thing to have a distressed or grunge look. That is acceptable. But cards with soil or dirt on them are not appreciated in a trade.

What Goes On The Back Of An ATC

Name of artist – either the real name or the name they use for all their artwork
Date – when the ATC was created

  • Title – most people title the card like they would a bigger piece of artwork
  • Contact details – many artists include their email or website details
  • Series – if the card is part of a series, a one-of,f or part of an edition. The term series is used to describe a set of different cards based on a particular theme, or with a unifying factor. Some artists like to create a design that covers several cards, typically three to five. The complete design can be seen only when all the cards are placed together.
  • Notes – you can also include notes about construction or techniques used, some organized swaps require participants to note the name of the swap on the back too

Most times people just write these out, but you can get stamps that have these formats.

Printable Templates For ATC Backs

Altered Playing Card ATC

  • playing cards are a different surface to work on
  • they are nice and thick, some are even heavier than cardstock
  • cards are coated
  • the back is already decorated
  • if you’re creating an atc (artist trading card) or aceos (art cards, editions & originals), they are the perfect size at 2.5″ x 3.5″
  • you can buy a really good quality deck of cards for $5 or so and you have 52 cards to alter into your next project

The thing to note is when you work with an altered playing card, it just needs a bit of extra prep work with gesso, since the cards are coated. A tip: gesso a bunch of cards at once to save time.

Using Old Book Pages In ATC Cards

Do you have an old book that is no longer important to you? There are many ways to use pages from these books to help you make your ATC art. The pages are usually quite thin, so before you get started, you may want to strengthen the paper with a coat of gesso. Or you can glue the page to a piece of cardstock to make it stiffer. Make sure to spread any glue evenly with a brayer or a foam brush. If the cardstock is thick enough, you have made a base with a background already in place. Remember your card should be 2.5 by 3.5 inches.

Sources For Old Books

  • Your home
  • Have family members save them
  • A local thrift shop
  • A dollar store
  • A yard sale
  • An estate sale

Now that you have your pages, it is time to use them in a number of ways to get the most from this paper.

As A Background

  1. Use it as a background. Decoupage the paper onto your base.
  2. You can ink them using distress inks
  3. Use distress crayons to add colors
  4. Use sprays to add colors
  5. Use dark distress ink all around the edge of the card to give more dimension.

As Embellishments

  1. Create a tiny rolled flower
  2. Use a craft punch to create a flower or butterfly
  3. Create a circle to get your card with the stiffer paper. Edge the circle with some distress ink. Use foam dots and place the circle over them to create dimension to your card. If you do not have foam dots, use a tiny piece of cardboard glued onto the card. Then place the circle on top of that.
  4. Place your focal image on top of the circle

Different Types Of Trades (Swaps)

Swap (Trade) Guidelines

The fun part of creating artist trading cards is trading them. You never know what kind of artwork you will receive. It is so much fun when you get that envelope full of goodies

Personal Trades

They are usually of equal quantities from both people making the trade. These numbers will sometimes be written as 1:1 or 3:3. This means you send 1 card, and you receive 1 card (1:1). Or 3 cards for 3 cards (3:3).

In many cases you post your cards in a gallery and state that they are available for trade. It is better to have a variety of cards to trade. So create your stash of trading cards before you get involved in these types of trades.

Often you will see numbers in these galleries. These are the offerings in a number of cards to be traded. These numbers will sometimes be written as 1:1 or 3:3. This means you send 1 card, and you receive 1 card (1:1). Or, 3 cards for 3 cards (3:3).

Blind Trade

This means you don’t know what piece of artwork you’re going to receive, and they don’t know what you are going to be sending to them. Be sure to send quality work if you’re doing a blind trade. Don’t use this as a way to get rid of the cards you don’t want anymore.

Themed Group Swaps

Themed swaps have a particular theme to follow. It could be a subject, a holiday or a technique or media.

Take time to go and join swap groups like atcforall. You will get lots of ideas to help you create your own artwork

All cards are sent to the person who is leading the group-swap. There will be a deadline set for when you need to ship the cards out in the mail.

The swap leader then mixes up all of the cards and sends them out to each person you sent cards in. You’ll receive several cards, each from a different artist. But of the same theme that was set for the swap.

Often, you will need to send in stamps and self-addressed envelopes with these swaps. And sometimes an extra card for the leader of the group-swap. Even if the extra card Is not required, I always send an extra. Running a group-swap is a lot of work.

PIF Trades

These are usually started in their own threads of posts. The way it works is that someone requests a card to be drawn for them. Someone responds by saying they will draw them the card they asked for.

The person who responded then requests a card to be made for them. Someone else comes along later and commits to making that card, and requests their card.

This continues for all of eternity. The person you send your artwork to isn’t who you receive artwork from. And is basically a form of blind trade because you never know what your card looks like until you get it in the mail.

Storage Sleeves For ATC

ATC Inspiration

How To Share Your ATC

  • Find artists or groups in your area that trade cards. The idea is to trade in person.
  • Attend gatherings of artists in your area, and remind them to bring ATCs to share.
  • Carry them with you as you would business cards so that if you find an occasion to trade or give away a card, they are with you.
  • Spread the word. If your local artist community is unfamiliar with artist trading cards, you might wish to give away a few cards or offer them with a request for one in return before you get much back.
  • Organize a gathering to swap ATCs. Let people know what ATCs are about, and get together to try trading some.
  • Look on-line. There are online groups that will match you up with others the world over who can mail cards in exchange for yours.

Layered ATC Cards

Lovely layered ATC cards. Learn this delightful technique

Lovely layered ATC cards. Learn this delightful technique

Storing Your ATC

More ATC Ideas

An DIY Artist Trading Card Holder

Create a personalized storage folder for your ATC cards

Create a personalized storage folder for your ATC cards

More ATC Storage Ideas

Digital Trading Card Ideas

  • Creating Hybrid ATC Cards Using Digital Kits |
    Scrap Girls ATC swaps provide an awesome opportunity to share these little gems with creative women from around the world. Whether you are a digital "person" or a hybrid "person" perhaps this project will inspire you to join in an upcoming swap.

© 2021 Linda F Correa

Weigh In About ATC Cards-Share your ideas, thoughts and tips

Linda F Correa (author) from Spring Hill Florida on August 05, 2021:

THat is why I love creating these little gems. Because I get to use all my leftovers. I hope that you enjoy the process. Thanks for the comment

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 05, 2021:

I have been meaning to create and trade some of these cards but haven't gotten around to it. I have an artist friend who wanted me to trade with him but I didn't have any created. I need to get on it. It sounds like a great way to use my scrap paper as well.



Linda F Correa (author) from Spring Hill Florida on August 05, 2021:

Sharing is the best part of creating these cards ! Have fun with this idea! Thanks for the comment!

Linda F Correa (author) from Spring Hill Florida on August 04, 2021:

They are really a lot of fun to create. There are so many techniques and ideas to pursue with these. I love doing trades, You get so many ideas when you see what others are doing. You can collect them or use them on junk journals and scrapbook pages ! Thanks for the comment

Athena Barroga Perez on August 04, 2021:

Oh wow! I have an artist pen pal that will surely love to do something like this. Maybe we should trade some homemade cards to each other too.

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