I am rather a fan of ATCs – Artist Trading Cards. They are fun, economical, friendly and exciting.
So what are Artist Trading Cards all about then?
The artist trading card is said to have been born in 1997 in Switzerland when M. Vänçi Stirnemann of Zurich hosted the first swap at “INK. art & text”. Since then this small art form has grown very large in popularity and many artists and crafters are embracing the concept.
What are Artist Trading Cards?
Each ATC should be exactly 3.5 inches tall and 2.5 inches wide. This is the same size as a standard trading card such as a baseball card and many playing cards. Lots of collectable and gaming cards such as Pokémon cards are this size too.
Most are rectangular but some artists do experiment with arched tops, folding flaps and pockets etc.
The ATC is supposed to be a trading card and so should have a little thickness to it. Even the fabric ones are not too flimsy.
Some artists like to include things that fold or swing out of the card. These can include little flaps and doors, “waterfall card” effects, limbs on paper doll cards and fabric, ribbon and thread “tails”.
A general rule of thumb is that the finished card must be able to slip into a clear plastic card protector (exactly the same ones that are used by baseball and other trading card collectors). A lot of ATC creators and collectors store all their cards in these little sleeves for protection.
Obviously if you make the cards to keep for yourself then you can break those rules as much as you wish!
Generally an ATC should never be sold, only traded or given away. In practice many artists have embraced the small format as being ideal for affordable examples of their work. When sold the piece is called an ACEO, not an ATC (but they are otherwise the same thing). ACEO stands for “Art Cards, Editions and Originals“.
Collecting ACEOs is becoming very popular with art lovers on a budget or with little space to display larger pieces of art.
There are three types of ATC card:
- One-off – an individual one off card
- Series – a few cards that are on one theme, usually numbered – 1 of 3, 1/3 or similar
- Edition – two or more cards that were created to look the same
What is an ATC made of?
The ATC can be created in any medium and with any techniques that the artist wishes to use. Organized swaps may specify certain mediums to be used.
ATCs are regularly made using the following techniques and mediums:
- paintings – watercolour, acrylics, gauche and sometimes oil paints (the long drying times make oil less popular for this format)
- drawing – in pencils, pen and ink, marker pens, pastels, charcoal etc
- art styles – Zentangle®, stamped and coloured etc
- fabric – mini quilts, patchwork, embroidery, cross stitch, appliqué etc
- collage and mixed media – well, pretty much anything you can imagine really
- printing, such as with gel plates or lino blocks
- rubber-stamped images, often coloured with alcohol markers or brush markers
- calligraphy and other types of word-art are becoming very popular lately
- paper crafting techniques – die cuts, embossing, decoupage, iris folding, paper weaving etc
Plus countless combinations of different techniques and materials. One of the great things about ATCs is that anything goes!
What’s on the back of an ATC?
On the back of the ATC it is “traditional” to include certain details. Most people like to have a reminder of when and from where the card came. An organized swap may require additional information to be included.
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-off or part of an edition
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
Many people just write the details on the back of each card by hand. You may prefer to buy a rubber stamp or pre-printed backing papers with the information on for you to fill in, a larger craft shop will probably have them, or you can easily get them online. I made myself a custom backing for my own ATCs.
How do you trade ATCs?
Some people trade ATCs at craft clubs or shows. Trading cards in person is easy.
Some craft supply stores also have ATC swapping schemes. Usually you leave your cards at the store then pick up the swapped ones later on, or leave a stamped addressed envelope, so the store can mail you the return cards.
Trading online is very popular. There are many websites and forums with ATC swapping going on. I like atcsforall.com which is a very friendly site for artists and crafters of all abilities and experience levels.
When trading online, there is usually a trade host who coordinates the proceedings. Entrants submit the required number of cards (usually 3 though lately I have seen more variety) and the host then sends them back the same numbers of cards from other members of the trade. There are various ways to choose who gets which cards in return, and details will be on the site used, or the details of the trade. Usually the traders supply stamped addressed envelopes, address labels or sometimes a small fee to cover return postage. The host is not paid for their work, but it is traditional for traders to include an extra ATC or some small crafting supplies as a present for the host. Full details of these things will be on the website, or you can ask in advance.
Some websites also have one-on-one swaps where you can display your creations in a gallery and other members can request a swap for a particular one they like.
Swapping artist trading cards is a friendly business and a great way to make new friends and own examples of beautiful artwork.
Why would I want to make Artist Trading Cards?
Artist trading cards have become a very popular art format for many reasons. Obviously, one is the social aspect. It is great fun to create art to swap with others. And great fun to collect the cards you get in return. Here are some of the other reasons that you may want to try ATC creation:
- they are a great way to help establish your name and reputation as an artist, as each card can have your website or contact details on the back
- you can experiment in new techniques or materials on an easy-to-manage small scale
- they are a good excuse to try out a new style
- they are very economical to make as they require such small amounts of materials
- you can build up large collections of cards in a very small space and for little cost
- if it all goes wrong, you haven’t lost a lot of materials!
- they are a useful way to use up tiny scraps of paper or fabric
- 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 holiday or when travelling
- 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!
Have you tried making ATCs? Who do you swap them with? What is your favourite technique?
I regularly post tutorials of the ATCs that I make. Click here to see the Tin Teddy Artist Trading Card Tutorials.
Here is a link to my Pinterest board of Artist Trading Cards – lots of inspiration.
This article was first published on 11 September 2013. Updated on 23 October 2020, 27 March 2023 and 11 April 2023.
Here are links to some books and supplies to help you make artist trading cards, on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. If you use these links to buy, Amazon will pay me a small commission for having sent a customer to them. This will not cost you any extra. Thank you.