Behind the Scenes of Popinjay: John's Newest Deck of Cards, Coming Soon


When John gets an idea in his head, it takes calamity, crisis, or a natural disaster to divert him from making that idea a visual reality. Such was the case with Popinjay. John first got the creative spark for our newest pack of cards from the owner of a backyard birds supply shop (think: bird seed, feeders, the like) on the East Coast. The owner had seen John's other cards and reached out to ask if he'd ever thought about producing a bird pack. John hadn't, but within hours, the suggestion had metastasized into a catalog of images fluttering about his brain. Think about all the colors, all the details. Blue Jays, Owls, waterfowl, oh my!

But John is not just an artist. He is also, through Artiphany, a businessman, with a business team, and so while he dreamed up the series that would become Popinjay, his team set to work on figuring out how to make the cards a reality. There was a printer to contact - namely, the United States Playing Card Company, the best in the game - and a timeline to establish. The cards had to be ready for the holidays; marketing had to be devised; software had to be fiddled with; regulations had to be met. 

It had been several years since the last time John had made a pack of cards. In many ways, it was much easier this time around. He had four packs worth of experience to ease the journey from diamonds, clubs, spades, and aces floating on an empty card to the stories he'd need to make Popinjay worth his customers' time (and money). Technically speaking, his path was clearer too. "It's less difficult because now I have better command of the tools that I need to use, like Photoshop and Illustrator," he says.

Process sketches from Popinjay. 

"Since doing my first deck of cards, which is maybe even fifteen years ago, and drawing three hours a day for fifteen years, you can get better at it...that's for sure." Plus, he added, it's quite different composing a deck of cards from the comfort of a California cabin, like the one he borrowed during the final throes of Popinjay, than doing so sweating in a cheap hotel room a block from the factory in China where he produced his first round of Pack of Dogs. 

Still, the pack did present some challenges. "It's easy to give a human expression to a dog or a cat," he explains. "but birds don't lend themselves to that kind of subtly. Because of the way their faces, their heads are designed. The eyes are placed on the side, not front-facing like humans', like dogs' and cats', are." This required a bit more creativity with the setting and with the actions given to each bird. Luckily, John felt inspired by this new aspect to the characters, rather than discouraged by it, and developed his stories incorporating and building off of what makes birds so unique from the other creatures he's depicted thus far. 

A watercolor of one of the swans that populate the pack's spades. 

Creating a pack of cards when you're John Littleboy isn't just about fulfilling the requirements of sequence (Ace to King). It's about creating characters and, from these characters, creating stories. So from those fever dreams born out of a conversation with a stranger thousands of miles away came a suite of hungry baby birds, opening their mouths to the tune of nine, ruby red diamonds. There was a family of owls, settling in one by one for a good, day's sleep. There was an operatic mama bird, a primping Stellar's Jay, a scarved swallow, skating upon a frozen-over bird bath. And throughout...color. So much color. "Oranges, and blues, and pale greens, and dusty browns," John says. 

The greatest drama of the Popinjay process, however, came all the way at the end. Many weeks had past since the idea had first logged in his brain but it wasn't until mid-August when John realized that he only had one and half weeks to finish the deck before the deadline for printing closed and, therefore, before Artiphany's plans for a new pack for the holidays were forced to shutter. So, he took to the hills, quite literally, and locked himself away in a friend's quiet home, under the trees. To work, and work, and work. Just a few hours before his final cutoff, John sent in the designs. It had been a mad dash, but still, no detail had been spared. Collectively, the team at Artiphany breathed a sigh of relief. 



Hummingbird drafts. 

And now? And now we wait. Soon, friends, soon our beautiful new pack will be on our shelves. And until then...enjoy the lovely fall weather, B.A.s! 

With love & dog bones, 

Sam